Justia Arbitration & Mediation Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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In 2011, the Borough of Carteret and the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, Local 67 (FMBA) executed a collectively negotiated agreement (CNA) governing the terms and conditions of employment for the Borough’s firefighters. As of 2013, the Borough employed four captains and generally staffed each shift with one captain, who was charged with managing subordinate firefighters also on duty. Under the CNA, if no captains were scheduled to work a particular shift, the senior firefighter on duty would assume the captain’s responsibilities and be compensated at the captain’s rate of pay. Almost two years after the CNA went into effect, the Borough created a new position -- fire lieutenant -- falling between captain and firefighter in the chain of command. After the creation of the lieutenant position, if no captains were scheduled for a given shift, the lieutenant on duty would assume the captain’s responsibilities. In those instances, however, the Borough paid lieutenants their regular salary, not the higher rate an acting captain would have been paid. In 2017, the FMBA filed a grievance alleging that the Borough’s failure to pay lieutenants at the rate of an acting captain when a lieutenant assumed a captain’s responsibilities violated the terms of the CNA. An arbitrator sided with the FMBA. The Chancery Division upheld the award, but the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the difference between the Civil Service Commission’s job descriptions for firefighters and fire lieutenants created uncertainty as to Section 5 of the CNA's application to lieutenants. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the arbitrator’s award was supported by a reasonably debatable interpretation of the disputed provision, and therefore, the award should have been upheld on appeal. View "Borough of Carteret v. Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, Local 67" 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

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Pfizer’s Human Resources Department sent an e-mail to Pfizer employees at their corporate e-mail addresses announcing Pfizer’s five-page Mutual Arbitration and Class Waiver Agreement (Agreement) and included a link to that document. The e-mail also included a included a link to a document that listed “Frequently Asked Questions,” including “Do I have to agree to this?” to which the response indicated, “The Arbitration Agreement is a condition of continued employment with the Company. If you begin or continue working for the Company sixty (60) days after receipt of this Agreement, it will be a contractual agreement that binds both you and the Company.” The “FAQs” document also encouraged any employee who had “legal questions” about the Agreement “to speak to [his or her] own attorney.” Pfize terminated Amy Skuse's employment in August 2017, and Skuse filed a complaint alleging that Pfizer and the individual defendants violated the Law Against Discrimination by terminating her employment because of her religious objection to being vaccinated for yellow fever. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and to compel arbitration. Skuse opposed the motion, contending that she was not bound by Pfizer’s Agreement, arguing that she was asked only to acknowledge the Agreement, not to assent to it, and that she never agreed to arbitrate her claims. The trial court dismissed Skuse’s complaint and directed her to proceed to arbitration in accordance with the Agreement. The Appellate Division reversed, identifying three aspects of Pfizer’s communications to Skuse as grounds for its decision: Pfizer’s use of e-mails to disseminate the Agreement to employees already inundated with e-mails; its use of a “training module” or a training “activity” to explain the Agreement; and its instruction that Skuse click her computer screen to “acknowledge” her obligation to assent to the Agreement in the event that she remained employed for sixty days, not to “agree” to the Agreement. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the Agreement was valid and binding, and held the trial court was correct in enforcing it. View "Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc." on Justia Law

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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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When a toxic disaster hits, claimants could seek relief in the form of assistance from the New Jersey Spill Fund by following promulgated claims procedures. In order to resolve disputes over denied Fund monies quickly and fairly, the Fund uses arbitrators and flexible procedures to allow claimants the opportunity to demonstrate that the denial constituted arbitrary and capricious action. Petitioner, US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund, submitted a claim for Spill Fund monies for its multi-lot property located in Bayonne that was affected by storm floodwaters, which allegedly carried petroleum-based toxins. Neighboring properties also affected by the storm’s toxin-laden floodwaters were afforded Spill Fund relief. Following some back and forth with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), petitioner’s claim was denied. After petitioner filed an appeal, two years elapsed between the request for arbitration and the commencement of the arbitration proceeding. The results of the arbitration ended in favor of the Spill Fund, and payment remained denied. The New Jersey Supreme Court expressed "concerns" about the arbitration. "Although we are mindful of the deferential standard of review, flaws in the substantive reasoning of the arbitration decision as well as procedural fairness considerations undermine confidence in the outcome of this arbitration enough to persuade us, in the interest of fairness, to require that a new arbitration be conducted. Accordingly, we reverse and remand this claim for a new proceeding." View "US Masters Residential Property (USA) Fund v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection" 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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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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In November 2008, following the collapse of the housing market, the New Jersey Supreme Court implemented a statewide Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program to address the economic crisis that left many facing the loss of their homes. After defaulting on her home loan with plaintiff GMAC Mortgage, LLC, defendant TamiLynn Willoughby entered into the Foreclosure Mediation Program. The mediation process led to an agreement between GMAC and Willoughby that gave Willoughby a path to save her home through a permanent modification of the loan. The agreement, executed in 2010, set forth the required down payment and monthly payments, the unpaid principal balance, the amount in arrears, and the length and interest rate of the loan. Willoughby complied with that agreement, paying the down payment and each monthly installment for one year. Then, GMAC began sending Willoughby proposals differing from the 2010 agreement, which GMAC claimed was provisional. Willoughby moved to enforce the 2010 settlement agreement, but instead the chancery court ordered additional mediation sessions. Willoughby never accepted in writing any of GMAC s proposals to modify the original agreement. Protracted litigation ensued. Willoughby's efforts to enforce the 2010 settlement agreement proved fruitless, and GMAC s foreclosure action ended with a Sheriff's sale of Willoughby's home. Willoughby was denied relief by the chancery court, which held that the 2010 mediation agreement was provisional and not enforceable as a final settlement agreement. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, concluding Willoughby and GMAC entered into an enforceable settlement agreement through the Foreclosure Mediation Program. The case was remanded to the chancery court to consider an appropriate remedy. View "GMAC Mortgage, LLC v. TamiLynn Willoughby" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Emelia Jackson and Tahisha Roach purchased used cars from BM Motoring, LLC, and Federal Auto Brokers, Inc., doing business as BM Motor Cars (collectively, BM). As part of the transaction, each plaintiff signed an identical DRA, which required resolution of disputes through an arbitration in accordance with the rules of the AAA before a retired judge or an attorney. Two months later, Jackson filed a demand for arbitration against BM with the AAA, asserting a claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) for treble damages and other relief based on overcharges and misrepresentations by BM. Despite repeated requests by the AAA, BM did not advance the filing fees that the DRA obligated it to pay, or otherwise respond to the claim. The AAA dismissed Jackson’s arbitration claim for non-payment of fees. Six months after her vehicle purchase, Roach filed a complaint in the Superior Court against BM, and similarly, received no response from BM in response to the arbitration demand. Plaintiffs then filed this action against defendants, who moved to dismiss the complaint in favor of arbitration. Defendants contended that they did not contemplate using the AAA as the forum for arbitration, and consistently had not arbitrated customer disputes before the AAA, because of the excessive filing and administrative fees that the AAA charged. In opposition to the motion, plaintiffs asserted that defendants materially breached the DRA by failing to advance filing and arbitration fees, and waived their right to arbitration. Defendants contended that they neither breached the DRA nor waived arbitration because the AAA was not the appropriate arbitral forum. The trial court found that the parties intended to resolve disputes by arbitration. The court ordered the parties to attempt to reinstate plaintiffs’ claims with the AAA; if the AAA refused to administer the claim, plaintiffs could reinstate their complaint. The AAA reinstated the arbitration, and the court dismissed plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice. The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, finding that there was a sufficient factual dispute as to the proper forum for arbitration that defendants conduct did not constitute a material breach of the DRA, nor did they voluntarily and intentionally waive their right to enforce the DRA. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, finding defendants’ non-payment of filing and arbitration fees amounted to a material breach of the DRA. Defendants were therefore precluded from enforcing the arbitration provision, and the case proceeded in the courts. View "Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC" on Justia Law