Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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The case revolves around a dispute between a real estate salesperson, James Kennedy II, and a real estate broker, Weichert Co. Kennedy worked for Weichert from 2012 to 2018 under two written agreements that identified him as an independent contractor. After his affiliation with Weichert ended, Kennedy filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Weichert violated the Wage Payment Law (WPL) by misclassifying him and other real estate salespersons as independent contractors and unlawfully deducting fees and expenses from their commissions.The trial court denied Weichert's motion to dismiss Kennedy's complaint, ruling that the question of Kennedy's status was not determined by the parties' agreement, but by the legal standard that generally governs employee classification issues under the WPL, known as the "ABC" test. The Appellate Division affirmed this decision, but noted that the 2018 amendments to the New Jersey Real Estate License Act, or the Brokers Act, authorized real estate brokers and salespersons to enter into independent contractor relationships. However, it held that these amendments applied prospectively and thus governed only a brief portion of Kennedy's claim.The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the lower courts' decisions. It held that the parties' agreement to enter into an independent contractor business affiliation is enforceable under N.J.S.A. 45:15-3.2, and Kennedy, as an independent contractor, was not subject to the WPL pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:11-4.1(b). Therefore, the trial court erred when it denied Weichert’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The case was remanded for the dismissal of Kennedy’s complaint. View "Kennedy v. Weichert Co." on Justia Law

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A group of neurosurgeons and their practice group, Comprehensive Neurosurgical, P.C., sued The Valley Hospital after the hospital granted another group of neurosurgeons exclusive privileges in areas where the plaintiffs had previously held privileges. The plaintiffs claimed that the hospital did not deal with them fairly or act in good faith when it granted these exclusive privileges. The plaintiffs had joined the hospital's medical staff in 2003 and had helped grow the hospital's neurosurgical programs and facilities. They primarily derived their practice from treating "unassigned" ER patients and also received "specialized privileges" to use certain equipment. In 2015, the hospital granted a different group of neurosurgeons exclusive rights to use this equipment and to treat "unassigned" ER patients, thereby revoking the plaintiffs' privileges in those areas.The plaintiffs filed a complaint against the hospital. Following summary judgment motions, two claims reached the jury: a breach of contract claim and a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim. The jury found no cause of action on the breach of contract claim but awarded damages based on the breach of implied covenant claim. The hospital appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed both the denial of summary judgment and the jury’s verdict. The hospital then petitioned for certification.The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the plaintiffs’ good faith and fair dealing claim properly survived summary judgment, but the jury was not correctly charged or asked to rule on that claim. The court found that the trial judge failed to instruct the jury that the only underlying contract to which the implied covenant could attach had to be one beyond the rights afforded by the Bylaws. The court also found that the improper admission into evidence of privileged emails and the improper remarks by plaintiffs’ attorney had the capacity to lead the jury to reach a verdict it would not have otherwise reached and thus deprived the hospital of a fair trial. The court reversed the verdict on the implied covenant claim, vacated it, and remanded the matter for further proceedings. View "Comprehensive Neurosurgical, P.C. v. The Valley Hospital" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether claims brought under the Insurance Fraud Protection Act (IFPA) and the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) by plaintiffs Liberty Insurance Corp. and LM Insurance Corp. (Liberty) against defendants Techdan, LLC (Techdan), Exterior Erecting Services, Inc. (Exterior), Daniel Fisher, Robert Dunlap, and Carol Junz were subject to the apportionment procedure of the Comparative Negligence Act (CNA). Liberty issued workers’ compensation policies to Techdan from 2004 to 2007. It alleged defendants misrepresented the relationship between Techdan and Exterior and the ownership structure of the two entities and provided fraudulent payroll records to reduce the premiums for workers’ compensation insurance. Techdan was indicted for second-degree theft by deception, and Dunlap entered a guilty plea to that charge on Techdan’s behalf. The court granted partial summary judgment as to Liberty’s IFPA claim for insurance fraud against Techdan, Exterior, Dunlap, and Fisher; partial summary judgment as to Liberty’s workers’ compensation fraud claim against all defendants; and partial summary judgment as to Liberty’s breach of contract claim against Techdan and Exterior. The court denied summary judgment as to Liberty’s remaining claims. The jury found Techdan liable for $454,660 in compensatory damages and found Exterior liable for $227,330 in compensatory damages, but awarded no compensatory damages against Dunlap, Fisher, or Junz. It awarded punitive damages in the amount of $200,000 against Dunlap, $10,000 against Fisher, and $45,000 against Junz, but awarded no punitive damages against Techdan or Exterior. The trial court determined all defendants should be jointly and severally liable for the $756,990 awarded as compensatory damages. The Appellate Division held the trial court erred when it imposed joint and several liability on defendants rather than directing the jury to allocate percentages of fault to defendants in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.2(a)(2). The Division concluded the trial court’s cumulative errors warranted a new trial, and it remanded for further proceedings. The Supreme Court concurred with the appellate court: the trial court should have charged the jury to allocate percentages of fault and should have molded the judgment based on the jury’s findings; the trial court’s failure to apply the CNA warranted a new trial on remand. The Court did not disturb the first jury’s findings on the issues of liability under the IFPA, the WCA, or Liberty’s common-law claims, or its determination of total compensatory damages. The Court found no plain error in the trial court’s failure to give the jury an ultimate outcome charge. View "Liberty Insurance Corp. v. Techdan, LLC" on Justia Law

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The issue this appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on an exclusionary clause in a commercial general liability insurance policy issued by Admiral Insurance Company (Admiral) to Richfield Window Coverings, LLC (Richfield). Richfield sold window coverage products, including blinds, to national retailers like Home Depot and provided retailers with machines to cut the blinds to meet the specifications of the retailers’ customers. Colleen Lorito, an employee of a Home Depot located in Nassau County, was injured while operating the blind cutting machine. She and her husband filed a civil action against Richfield, asserting claims for product liability, breach of warranty, and loss of spousal services. Admiral denied any obligation to defend or indemnify, asserting the claims were not covered under the policy based on the Designated New York Counties Exclusion of the insurance policy. Richfield filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to compel Admiral to defend it in the Lorito case and, if necessary, indemnify it against any monetary damages awarded to the plaintiffs. The Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of Admiral. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that “Richfield’s limited activities and operations have no causal relationship to the causes of action or allegations.” The Supreme Court found that the policy’s broad and unambiguous language made clear that a causal relationship was not required in order for the exclusionary clause to apply; rather, any claim “in any way connected with” the insured’s operations or activities in a county identified in the exclusionary clause was not covered under the policy. Richfield’s operations in an excluded county were alleged to be connected with the injuries for which recovery was sought, so the exclusion applied. Admiral had no duty to defend a claim that it is not contractually obligated to indemnify. View "Norman International, Inc. v. Admiral Insurance Company " on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Crystal Point Condominium Association, Inc. obtained default judgments against two entities for construction defect claims. Kinsale Insurance Company was alleged to have insured those entities, under the Direct Action Statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-2. The relevant policies both contained an arbitration agreement providing in part that “[a]ll disputes over coverage or any rights afforded under this Policy . . . shall be submitted to binding Arbitration.” Crystal Point filed a declaratory judgment action against Kinsale, alleging that it was entitled to recover the amounts owed by the entities under the insurance policies issued by Kinsale. Kinsale asserted that Crystal Point’s claims were subject to binding arbitration in accordance with the insurance policies. Kinsale argued that the Direct Action Statute did not apply because Crystal Point had not demonstrated that neither entity was insolvent or bankrupt. In the alternative, Kinsale contended that even if the statute were to apply, it would not preclude enforcement of the arbitration provisions in the policies. The trial court granted Kinsale’s motion to compel arbitration, viewing the Direct Action Statute to be inapplicable because there was no evidence in the record that either insured was insolvent or bankrupt. An appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment, finding the evidence that the writs of execution were unsatisfied met the Direct Action Statute’s requirement that the claimant present proof of the insured’s insolvency or bankruptcy and determining that the Direct Action Statute authorized Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale. The appellate court concluded the arbitration clause in Kinsale’s insurance policies did not warrant the arbitration of Crystal Point’s claims, so it reinstated the complaint and remanded for further proceedings. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined Crystal Point could assert direct claims against Kinsale pursuant to the Direct Action Statute in the setting of this case. Based on the plain language of N.J.S.A. 17:28-2, however, Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale were derivative claims, and were thus subject to the terms of the insurance policies at issue, including the provision in each policy mandating binding arbitration of disputes between Kinsale and its insureds. Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale were therefore subject to arbitration. View "Crystal Point Condominium Association, Inc. v. Kinsale Insurance Company " on Justia Law

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Defendant Mengxi Liu, the successful bidder in a real estate auction conducted by defendant Max Spann Real Estate and Auction Co. (Max Spann), asserted as a defense to the seller’s breach of contract action that the contract she signed to purchase the property was void and unenforceable. In her appeal of the trial court’s judgment finding her in breach of her contract, Liu argued that the agreement was unenforceable because a licensed real estate salesperson employed by Max Spann wrote her name and address as the buyer and purchase price information on blank spaces in a template sales contract following the auction. Liu contended that this activity constituted the unauthorized practice of law because the contract did not provide for the three-day attorney review period as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that a residential real estate sale by absolute auction was distinct from a traditional real estate transaction in which a buyer and seller negotiate the contract price and other terms and memorialize their agreement in a contract. In an absolute auction or an auction without reserve, the owner unconditionally offers the property for sale and the highest bid creates a final and enforceable contract at the auction’s conclusion, subject to applicable contract defenses. “Were we to impose the three-day attorney review prescribed in [the controlling case law] on residential real estate sales conducted by absolute auction, we would fundamentally interfere with the method by which buyers and sellers choose to conduct such sales.” The Court found no unauthorized practice of law in this case and held that the contract signed by Liu was valid and enforceable. View "Sullivan v. Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kathleen Moynihan and defendant Edward Lynch were involved in a long-term “marital-style relationship.” Anticipating the potential dissolution of that relationship, they signed and notarized a written agreement, without the assistance of counsel, that finalized the financial obligations each owed to the other. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was the validity of that palimony agreement. In 2015, the parties parted ways, and Lynch refused to abide by their written agreement. Moynihan filed a complaint seeking enforcement of the written agreement and an alleged oral palimony agreement that she claimed the parties had entered before the Legislature in 2010 amended N.J.S.A. 25:1-5 to include subparagraph (h), which mandated that palimony agreements be reduced to writing and “made with the independent advice of counsel.” She challenged N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h) on constitutional grounds and urged enforcement as a typical contract; alternatively, she sought enforcement of the agreement on equitable grounds. Lynch denied the existence of an oral palimony agreement and asserted that the written agreement was unenforceable because the parties did not receive the independent advice of counsel before entering it. The Supreme Court concluded the palimony agreement, as written and signed, without the attorney review requirement, was enforceable. That portion of N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h), which imposed an attorney-review requirement to enforce a palimony agreement, contravenes Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Court concluded the parties did not enter an oral palimony agreement. View "Moynihan v. Lynch" on Justia Law

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In September 2016, defendant Trend Motors, Ltd. (Trend), provided defendant Mary Aquilar with a loaner vehicle for her personal use while her vehicle was being serviced. Aquilar’s negligent operation of the loaner vehicle caused it to strike plaintiff Tyrone Huggins’s car. Huggins sustained serious injuries as a result. GEICO insured Aquilar through an automobile policy. Trend held a garage policy with Federal Insurance Company (Federal) that insured Trend’s vehicles for up to $1,000,000 in liability coverage. The definition of an “insured” in the Federal policy purported to extend liability coverage to Trend’s customers using Trend’s vehicles only if the customer lacked the minimum insurance required by law. Huggins filed a complaint seeking compensation for the injuries and loss of income he suffered as a result of the accident. Federal disclaimed liability, arguing that Aquilar did not fit the policy’s definition of an insured because she held $15,000 in bodily injury coverage through GEICO. The trial court held that the Federal policy’s definition of an insured constituted an illegal escape clause and held Federal to the full policy limit of $1,000,000 in liability coverage. The Appellate Division declined to review the trial court’s ruling. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the trial court’s ruling that the provision in the garage policy at issue constituted an illegal escape clause which could not be used to evade the minimum liability requirements for dealership vehicles set by the Chief Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC). The Court ordered the reformation of Federal’s policy to the $100,000/$250,000 dealer-licensure minimum liability coverage required by N.J.A.C. 13:21-15.2(l). View "Huggins v. Aquilar" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jed Goldfarb claimed defendant David Solimine reneged on a promise of employment after Goldfarb quit his job to accept the promised position managing the sizeable investment portfolio of defendant’s family. The key issue in this appeal involved whether plaintiff could bring a promissory estoppel claim because he relied on defendant’s promise in quitting his prior employment even though, under New Jersey’s Uniform Securities Law of 1997 (Securities Law or the Act), he could not bring a suit on the employment agreement itself. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the Securities Law did not bar plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim for reliance damages. The Court affirmed the liability judgment on that claim and the remanded for a new damages trial in which plaintiff would have the opportunity to prove reliance damages. The Court found he was not entitled to benefit-of-the-bargain damages. To the extent that the Appellate Division relied on an alternative basis for its liability holding -- that a later-adopted federal law “family office” exception had been incorporated into the Securities Law -- the Court rejected that reasoning and voided that portion of the appellate court’s analysis. View "Goldfarb v. Solimine" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement plaintiff Brian Delaney signed when he engaged the representation of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. was enforceable in light of the fiduciary responsibility that lawyers owe their clients and the professional obligations imposed on attorneys by the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs). In 2015, Delaney, a sophisticated businessman, retained Sills to represent him in a lawsuit. He met with a Sills attorney who presented him with a four-page retainer agreement. It was understood that Trent Dickey was slated to be the attorney primarily responsible for representing Delaney reviewed and signed the retainer agreement in the presence of the Sills attorney without asking any questions. After the representation was terminated, a fee dispute arose and, in August 2016, Sills invoked the JAMS arbitration provision in the retainer agreement. While the arbitration was ongoing, Delaney filed a legal malpractice action against Dickey and the Sills firm. The complaint alleged that Dickey and Sills negligently represented him. The complaint also alleged that the mandatory arbitration provision in the retainer agreement violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and wrongly deprived him of his constitutional right to have a jury decide his legal malpractice action. The trial court held that the retainer agreement’s arbitration provision was valid and enforceable. Additionally, the court determined that Delaney waived his right to trial by jury by agreeing to the unambiguously stated arbitration provision. The Appellate Division disagreed, stressing that Sills should have provided the thirty-three pages of JAMS arbitration rules incorporated into the agreement, that Sills did not explain the costs associated with arbitration, and that the retainer included a fee-shifting provision not permissible under New Jersey law. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that, for an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement to be enforceable, an attorney must generally explain to a client the benefits and disadvantages of arbitrating a prospective dispute between the attorney and client. "Delaney must be allowed to proceed with his malpractice action in the Law Division. We affirm and modify the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand to the Law Division" for further proceedings. View "Delaney v. Dickey" on Justia Law