Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Jenny Craig, Inc. hired Marilyn Flanzman to work as a weight maintenance counselor in 1991. In May 2011, Flanzman signed a document entitled “Arbitration Agreement” in connection with her employment. In February 2017, when the dispute that led to this appeal arose, Flanzman was eighty-two years old. Flanzman’s managers informed her that her hours would be reduced from thirty-five to nineteen hours per week. In April 2017, Flanzman’s managers further reduced her hours to approximately thirteen hours per week. In June 2017, they reduced her hours to three hours per week, at which point she left her employment. Flanzman brought suit, asserting claims for age discrimination, constructive discharge, discriminatory discharge, and harassment. Relying on the Agreement, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and to compel arbitration. Defendants contended that California law governed the Agreement and that the Agreement was enforceable. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss and ordered the parties to arbitrate Flanzman’s claims. It held that California law governed the arbitration and that the proper forum was assumed to be California. Finding no reversible error, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2005, U.S. Home Corporation entered into a contract to purchase two contiguous tracts of land, one of which was owned by West Pleasant-CPGT, Inc. Under the contract, West Pleasant and the other landowner were to gain certain approvals permitting development of the properties. Pursuant to the contract, U.S. Home paid advances to the landowners totaling over $1.5 million. As security for the advances, West Pleasant executed a mortgage and note on its property; the other landowner did not. When a contract dispute arose in 2006, U.S. Home sought to terminate the contract and get a return of its total advance. U.S. Home prevailed in arbitration and was awarded a judgment in the full amount of the advance, plus interest. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment in 2009. When the judgment was not satisfied, U.S. Home commenced foreclosure actions against the properties. The foreclosure proceedings were stayed when West Pleasant and the other property owner filed for bankruptcy. In West Pleasant’s bankruptcy action, U.S. Home moved to dismiss and for relief from the automatic stay. West Pleasant and U.S. Home executed a Consent Order, in which West Pleasant dismissed its bankruptcy proceeding, waived a fair market valuation and its right to object to a sheriff’s sale of its property, and released U.S. Home from any claims in law or equity. U.S. Home never proceeded with any deficiency action against either landowner. Nonetheless, the landowners commenced the affirmative litigation that gave rise to this appeal, seeking a declaration that the arbitration award was fully satisfied, as well as compensation “in the amount of the excess fair market value of the properties obtained by defendant[] U.S. Home over the amount of its outstanding judgment.” The second property owner then assigned its rights to West Pleasant. After trial, the court valued the second property as worth almost $2.4 million and West Pleasant’s property as worth almost $2 million. The court ordered U.S. Home to pay the fair market value of the West Pleasant property, plus interest, and extinguished the arbitration award on the second property. On appeal, the Appellate Division determined that West Pleasant had waived its right to a fair market valuation on its property but that it was owed a fair market value credit for the second property. The Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for recalculation of damages. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding use of fair market value credit by this debtor to obtain a money judgment against a creditor, in the absence of a deficiency claim threatened or pursued or any objection being raised at the time of the sheriff’s sales, was "inconsistent with sound foreclosure processes and, moreover, inequitable in the circumstances presented." The judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "West Pleasant-CPGT, Inc. v. U.S. Home Corporation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Henry Sanchez filed a class action seeking relief based on the Retail Installment Sales Act, N.J.S.A. 17:16C-1 to -61 (RISA). He contended the “initiation fee” charged in defendant Fitness Factory’s gym membership contract, among other provisions, violated RISA. The trial court dismissed Sanchez’s complaint, finding that RISA did not apply to the contract because it was a contract for services. The Appellate Division affirmed. While acknowledging that RISA applied to some services contracts, the Appellate Division found that RISA applied only to contracts that contained a financing arrangement. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined that by its own terms, RISA applied to services contracts. Further, in the statute as written, there was no requirement that a contract include a financing arrangement to be covered by RISA. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Sanchez v. Fitness Factory Edgewater, LLC" on Justia Law

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Guerline Felix’s vehicle collided with Brian Richards’ vehicle in New Jersey. Richards was insured under a New Jersey automobile insurance policy issued by AAA Mid-Atlantic Insurance Company (AAA). The policy provided bodily injury (BI) liability coverage, as well as uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. Felix was insured by the Government Employee Insurance Company (GEICO) under a policy written in Florida. That policy provided up to $10,000 in property liability and personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, but it did not provide any BI liability. Felix sued Richards for personal injuries, and, in a separate action, Richards sued Felix and AAA for personal injuries. AAA then filed a third-party complaint against GEICO, claiming that GEICO’s policy was automatically deemed to include $15,000/$30,000 in BI coverage and that payment would eliminate the claim for UM/UIM coverage by AAA. The motion court determined that the New Jersey "deemer" statute applied to GEICO’s policy, rejecting the argument that the statute created a carve-out for BI coverage based upon the basic policy, as well as GEICO’s constitutional challenge. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the petition for certification filed by GEICO. The Supreme Court concluded after review that the deemer statute did not incorporate by reference the basic policy’s BI level for insurers, like GEICO, to which the second sentence of N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4 applied. From the perspective of the insurers’ obligation, the required compulsory insurance liability limits remained $15,000/$30,000. As to the equal protection claim, New Jersey insureds were the ones who had a choice to purchase less than the presumptive minimum BI amount. The obligation of in-state insurers to offer and provide that minimum was the same as the obligation imposed under the deemer statute’s second sentence on authorized insurers writing an out-of-state policy. "The equal protection claim therefore falls flat," and the Appellate Division's judgment was affirmed. View "Felix v. Richards" on Justia Law

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In April 2007, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada received an application for a $5 million insurance policy on the life of Nancy Bergman. The application listed a trust as the sole owner and beneficiary of the policy. Bergman’s grandson signed as trustee; the other members of the trust were all investors, and all strangers to Bergman. The investors paid most if not all of the policy’s premiums. Sun Life issued the policy. About five weeks after the policy was issued, the grandson resigned as trustee and appointed the investors as successor co-trustees. The trust agreement was amended so that most of the policy’s benefits would go to the investors, who were also empowered to sell the policy. More than two years later, the trust sold the policy and the investors received nearly all of the proceeds from the sale. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. eventually obtained the policy in a bankruptcy settlement and continued to pay the premiums. After Bergman passed away in 2014, Wells Fargo sought to collect the policy’s death benefit. Sun Life investigated the claim, uncovered discrepancies, and declined to pay. Instead, Sun Life sought a declaratory judgment that the policy was void ab initio, or from the beginning. Wells Fargo counterclaimed for breach of contract and sought the policy’s $5 million face value; if the court voided the policy, Wells Fargo sought a refund of the premiums it paid. The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey partially granted Sun Life’s motion for summary judgment, finding New Jersey law applied and concluded “that this was a STOLI [(stranger-originated life insurance)] transaction lacking insurable interest in violation of [the State’s] public policy. . . . As such, it should be declared void ab initio.” The court also granted Wells Fargo’s motion to recover its premium payments, reasoning that “Wells Fargo is not to blame for the fraud here” and that “[a]llowing Sun Life to retain the premiums would be a windfall to the company.” Both parties appealed. Finding no dispositive New Jersey case law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified two questions of law to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding the Sun Life policy. In response to the certified questions, the Supreme Court found that STOLI policies were against public policy and void ab initio. The Court also noted that a party may be entitled to a refund of premium payments depending on the circumstances. “Among other relevant factors, courts should consider a later purchaser’s participation in and knowledge of the original illicit scheme.” View "Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A." on Justia Law

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At issue were claims of fraudulent sales practices by two car dealerships that allegedly induced consumers to enter into agreements for the purchase of cars. The question presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review was whether plaintiffs could avoid being compelled to arbitrate those claims. Plaintiffs challenged the formation and validity of their sales agreements on the bases that the dealerships’ fraudulent practices and misrepresentations induced them to sign the transactional documents and that the agreements were invalid due to violations of statutory consumer fraud requirements. As part of the overall set of documents, plaintiffs signed arbitration agreements. Those agreements contained straightforward and conspicuous language that broadly delegated arbitrability issues. Each trial court determined the arbitration agreements to be enforceable and entered orders compelling plaintiffs to litigate their various claims challenging the overall validity of the sales contracts in the arbitral forum. The Appellate Division reversed those orders. The Supreme Court reversed: “the trial courts’ resolution of these matters was correct and consistent with clear rulings from the United States Supreme Court that bind state and federal courts on how challenges such as plaintiffs’ should proceed. Those rulings do not permit threshold issues about overall contract validity to be resolved by the courts when the arbitration agreement itself is not specifically challenged. Here, plaintiffs attack the sales contracts in their entirety, not the language or clarity of the agreements to arbitrate or the broad delegation clauses contained in those signed arbitration agreements.” View "Goffe v. Foulke Management Corp." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, plaintiffs, an individual and his limited liability towing company, entered into a contract for the purchase of a customized medium-duty 4x4 truck with autoloader tow unit. Ultimately, the truck did not perform as expected and plaintiffs filed suit. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether determine whether New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA or the Act) covered the transaction as a sale of “merchandise.” The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that the trial court took too narrow an approach in assessing what constituted "merchandise" under the remedial CFA. The customized tow truck and rig fit within the CFA’s expansive definition of “merchandise” and, therefore, plaintiff’s CFA claim should not have foundered based on an application of that term. Furthermore, the Court agreed with the appellate panel’s remand to the trial court for a determination of whether defendants’ other bases for seeking summary judgment were meritorious. View "All The Way Towing, LLC v. Bucks County International, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Amanda Kernahan purchased a “home service agreement” from defendants Home Warranty Administrator of Florida, Inc., and Choice Home Warranty. When she became dissatisfied, she filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking statutory and common law relief. Plaintiff claimed that the agreement misrepresented its length of coverage and that the deceptively labelled “MEDIATION” section of the agreement failed to inform her that she was waiving her right to a jury trial and would be deterred from seeking the additional remedies of treble damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint with prejudice in favor of arbitration, citing the "mediation" provision. The trial court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss, concluding that the arbitration provision was unenforceable. The court found the provision both ambiguous and noncompliant with Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430 (2014), “in either its form or its function.” The court subsequently denied defendants’ motion for reconsideration, rejecting defendants’ argument that language stating that all claims will be resolved “exclusively” by arbitration would or should have adequately informed plaintiff that she is waiving her right to proceed in court, as opposed to use of other available dispute resolution processes. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the complaint, and the New Jersey Supreme Court also affirmed. View "Kernahan v. Home Warranty Administrator of Florida, Inc." on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from plaintiff Lucia Serico’s motion for attorney’s fees and other litigation expenses pursuant to Rule 4:58 after a jury trial on medical malpractice claims against Robert Rothberg, M.D. At issue was whether Serico could collect attorney’s fees from Rothberg despite entering into a “high-low agreement” that limited the amount she could recover at trial to $1,000,000. Based on the expressed intent of the parties and the context of the agreement, the New Jersey Supreme Court found the agreement set $1,000,000 as the maximum recovery. Therefore, Serico could not seek additional litigation expenses allowed by Rule 4:58. View "Serico v. Rothberg" on Justia Law

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Third-party defendant Dr. George Likakis was charged with aggravated arson and insurance fraud after a fire destroyed a building he owned (the Property). Plaintiff RSI Bank held a first-priority mortgage on the Property, and defendant/third-party plaintiff The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company (Providence) issued a commercial liability policy that covered the Property. Following the fire, Likakis and RSI Bank submitted insurance claims. Providence denied both sets of claims. Providence’s denial of coverage prompted the filing of two actions in the Law Division: (1) filed by Likakis against Providence; and (2) an action gave rise to this appeal: RSI Bank’s claims against Providence for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, violations of the Consumer Fraud Act, and bad faith. Providence filed a third-party complaint against Likakis, alleging claims for indemnification. Both civil lawsuits were pending when criminal proceedings commenced against Likakis. Likakis was indicted; Providence did not object to Likakis’ admission to the PTI program, provided he paid restitution, committed to protect/compensate Providence from all claims that might be brought by RSI, and dismissal of Likakis’ suit against Providence. With Likakis’s consent - but no assessment of his ability to pay - the court also imposed the three conditions that Providence had requested. During his PTI term, Likakis paid Providence the specific restitution amount and dismissed with prejudice his lawsuit. Likakis did not make any payment related to the separate indemnification provision. With the prosecutor’s consent, the PTI court terminated Likakis’s PTI supervision and dismissed his indictment. RSI Bank and Providence settled their coverage dispute. Providence agreed to pay RSI Bank to settle all of the bank’s claims based on the insurance policy and moved for summary judgment against Likakis based on the provision of the PTI agreement. The court held that the indemnification provision of the PTI agreement was enforceable against Likakis and ordered Likakis to pay Providence the portion of the settlement funds Providence attributed to fire damage, less the amount Likakis had paid during his PTI supervisory period. Likakis appealed, and an Appellate Division panel affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding an open-ended agreement to indemnify the victim of the participant’s alleged offense for unspecified future losses was not an appropriate condition of PTI. Moreover, a restitution condition of PTI was inadmissible as evidence in a subsequent civil proceeding against the PTI participant. The indemnification provision of the PTI agreement at issue should have played no role in this civil litigation. View "RSI Bank v. The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company" on Justia Law