Justia Business Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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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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East Bay Drywall, LLC was a drywall installation business that hired on a per-job basis. Once a builder accepts East Bay’s bid for a particular project, East Bay contacts workers -- whom it alleged to be subcontractors -- to see who is available. Workers are free to accept or decline East Bay’s offer of employment, and some workers have left mid-installation if they found a better job. In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether those workers were properly classified as employees or independent contractors under the Unemployment Compensation Law, which set forth a test -- commonly referred to as the “ABC test” -- to determine whether an individual serves as an employee. On June 30, 2013, East Bay, a business registered as an employer up to that point, ceased reporting wages to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Consequently, an auditor for the Department conducted a status audit that reviewed the workers East Bay hired between 2013 and 2016 to determine whether they were independent contractors, as defined by the ABC test. The auditor ultimately found that approximately half of the alleged subcontractors working for East Bay between 2013 and 2016 -- four individuals and twelve business entities -- should have been classified as employees. The Department informed East Bay that it owed $42,120.79 in unpaid unemployment and temporary disability contributions. The Supreme Court was satisfied that all sixteen workers in question were properly classified as employees, but it remanded the case back to the Department for calculation of the appropriate back-owed contributions. View "East Bay Drywall, LLC v. Department of Labor and Workforce Development " on Justia Law

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In 2013, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s holding that Koger Distributed Solutions, Inc. (KDS) and Koger Professional Services, Inc. (KPS) had value as independent entities rather than being solely dependent on their parent company, Koger Inc. (Koger). The Court also held that Robert Sipko’s relinquishment of his 50 percent interests in KDS and KPS in 2006 was void for lack of consideration. The matter was remanded the trial court to determine what, if any, remedy was appropriate to compensate Robert for his interests in KDS and KPS -- companies that were rendered valueless by the time the matter reached the Supreme Court. In 2016, the trial court held that the appropriate remedy was a buyout of Robert’s interests in the companies given the court’s finding that George and Rastislav Sipko deliberately stripped the companies of value for the specific purpose of putting the money beyond Robert’s reach. The trial court accepted Robert’s expert’s valuation of the companies and found that KDS and KPS, at the time Robert filed the complaint in 2007, were worth approximately $1.5 million and $34.9 million, respectively. Accordingly, Robert’s 50 percent ownership in both companies totaled over $18 million, plus interest. On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed that a buyout was the appropriate remedy given the record. The court, however, remanded the matter for the trial court to determine whether a marketability discount should be applied. In light of all the defendants’ conduct regarding KDS and KPS to strip Robert of his rightful interests, “equity cannot abide imposing a marketability discount to the benefit of defendants.” The trial court’s acceptance of Robert’s expert’s valuation of the company fell within its broad discretion and was fully supported by the record. Defendants were given the opportunity to present an expert valuation of the companies on remand but made the strategic decision not to do so. Therefore, the Supreme Court declined to provide defendants with “another bite of this thoroughly chewed apple,” and reinstated the judgment of the trial court. View "Sipko v. Koger, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Aleice Jeter filed a negligence claim against Sam’s Club after sustaining injuries when she slipped on one or more grapes. Plaintiff stated that she fell while walking away from the checkout area, “halfway past” the fruit and vegetable aisle. Sam’s Club asserted several defenses, including lack of actual or constructive notice of the hazardous condition -- loose grapes on the floor. The trial court, after acknowledging that no party had moved for summary judgment, sua sponte conducted an N.J.R.E. 104(a) hearing to determine whether the "mode of operation" rule applied and, if not, whether plaintiff could provide some evidence of actual or constructive notice. The court agreed with Sam’s Club that the mode of operation rule did not apply, then proceeded to analyze the case under traditional negligence principles that require actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition -- grapes on the floor. Finding that there was no evidence as to “how long this particular grape [was] on the floor,” the court held that plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proving actual or constructive notice and dismissed the case with prejudice. Finding no reversible error in the trial court's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "Jeter v. Sam's Club" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Graphnet, Inc. and defendant Retarus, Inc. were considered industry competitors -- they each provided, among other things, cloud-based facsimile services. In 2014, Retarus published a brochure containing allegedly defamatory statements about Graphnet. Graphnet representatives received a copy of the brochure at a May 2016 event. In August 2016, Graphnet filed a complaint against Retarus. Throughout discovery, Graphnet failed to produce requested documents and took no depositions. Based on Graphnet’s failure to present supporting evidence, the trial court dismissed all claims except for the defamation and slander claims. The trial court and the parties agreed that the court would charge the jury pursuant to Model Civil Jury Charge 8.46, “Defamation Damages (Private or Public),” which instructed a jury on the elements of defamation. The trial court’s instructions tracked the model charge closely, including Section D, which is devoted to “Nominal Damages for Slander Per Se or Libel.” In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether a new trial on all damages was required when the jury was improperly instructed on nominal damages and a plaintiff opposes remittitur. Graphnet argued the trial court erred as a matter of law by ordering remittitur without Graphnet’s consent. The Appellate Division affirmed in part, reversed in part, recognizing the jury’s $800,000 nominal damages award was “shockingly excessive and cannot stand” but concluded that the trial court improperly awarded Graphnet $500 in nominal damages in violation of the doctrine of remittitur. The appellate court remanded for a new trial on nominal damages only. As the Appellate Division found, the Supreme Court found remittitur was improper without Graphnet’s consent. But this matter required a new trial on all damages in which the jury was properly instructed on actual and nominal damages. The Supreme Court also referred Model Civil Jury Charge 8.46D to the Committee on Model Civil Jury Charges to be amended. View "Graphnet, Inc. v. Retarus, Inc." on Justia Law

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Dr. Dominick Lembo employed Arlene Marchese in his dental practice as his office manager, and Karen Wright, a dental hygienist. Sometime before December 2011, Marchese and Wright unlawfully took possession of numerous checks totaling several hundred thousand dollars, forged Lembo’s indorsement on the checks, and deposited the proceeds from the forged checks into their personal accounts at TD Bank. In February 2015, Lembo filed a complaint against TD Bank, alleging that “TD Bank knew or should have known that Marchese and/or Wright were not permitted to negotiate checks made payable to [Lembo].” The complaint also alleged that by permitting them to negotiate checks with forged indorsements, TD Bank “aided and abetted Marchese and Wright in their fraudulent scheme and conduct.” The complaint did not assert that Lembo had a banking relationship with TD Bank. And Lembo did not file an action for conversion under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) within the three-year limitations period. Had Lembo done so, TD Bank would have been strictly liable for depositing or cashing those checks, subject to the defenses in N.J.S.A. 12A:3-405 or N.J.S.A. 12A:3-406. The trial court granted the Bank's motion to dismiss, finding that the UCC governed Lembo's remedies against the Bank, and “common law negligence is not such a remedy” in the absence of a “special relationship” between Lembo and the bank. The court also rejected Lembo’s argument that the Uniform Fiduciaries Law (UFL) provided an affirmative cause of action against the bank. The Appellate Division reversed, reading into the complaint the basis for an affirmative UFL claim, and remanded to allow Lembo to amend the complaint to assert such a claim. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the Appellate Division misconstrued the purpose of the UFL, finding the Legislature enacted the UFL not to create an affirmative cause of action against a bank but to provide a defense when the bank is sued for failing to take notice of and action on the breach of a fiduciary’s obligation. "The UFL confers a limited immunity on a bank, unless the bank acts in bad faith or has actual knowledge of a fiduciary breach." The Supreme Court found no affirmative cause of action arose under the statute; whether a UFL claim was adequately pled was therefore moot. Recognizing the predominant role the UCC plays in assigning liability for the handling of checks, the Supreme Court also found Lembo had no “special relationship” with the bank to sustain the common law causes of action. View "Lembo v. Marchese" on Justia Law

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The issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court in this appeal was whether a high-end restaurant operated by a for-profit entity, but housed in a building on the Kean University campus, qualified for a local property tax exemption. Gourmet Dining, LLC, owned and operated a fine dining restaurant named Ursino in a Kean University building. In October 2011, the Kean University Foundation, Inc., and Gourmet Dining entered into a Management Subcontract Agreement (MSA), which conferred on Gourmet Dining the exclusive right to operate, manage, and control Ursino. Gourmet Dining agreed to pay the Foundation an annual “management fee” and a percentage of Ursino’s gross revenue. The Tax Court granted summary judgment in favor of Union Township. Concluding that Gourmet Dining had not established that the subject property is used for a public purpose pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.3, or that its actual use of the property was for “colleges, schools, academies or seminaries” as required by N.J.S.A 54:4-3.6, the court held that Gourmet Dining was not entitled to tax exemption under either provision. The Appellate Division reversed, relying on a holistic view: the restaurant is located on-campus; University students and their parents regularly dined there; Gourmet Dining’s annual management fees were used for scholarships; many of the restaurant’s employees are students; and the restaurant used produce grown on theUniversity grounds and provides the University with compostable waste. The Supreme Court reversed, holding the arrangement by which Gourmet Dining operates Ursino was taxable as a lease or lease-like interest. The public-benefit-oriented exemption provisions in issue were not intended to exempt the for-profit operator of a high-end, regionally renowned restaurant situated on a college campus, when the overriding purpose of the endeavor was focused on profitmaking. "Gourmet Dining, as the exclusive operator and manager of this restaurant establishment, must bear its fair share of the local real property tax burden." View "Gourmet Dining, LLC v. Union Township" 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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This appeal involved questions about the insurance coverage available to defendant Honeywell International, Inc. (Honeywell) for thousands of bodily-injury claims premised on exposure to brake and clutch pads (friction products) containing asbestos. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification to address two issues: (1) whether the law of New Jersey or Michigan (the headquarters location of Honeywell’s predecessor when the disputed excess insurance policies were issued) should control in the allocation of insurance liability among insurers for nationwide products-liability claims; and (2) whether it was error not to require the policyholder, Honeywell, to contribute in the allocation of insurance liability based on the time after which the relevant coverage became unavailable in the marketplace (that is, since 1987). The Supreme Court determined New Jersey law on the allocation of liability among insurers applied in this matter, and the Court set forth the pertinent choice-of-law principles to resolve this dispute over insurance coverage for numerous products-liability claims. Concerning the second question, on these facts, the Court also affirmed the determination to follow the unavailability exception to the continuous-trigger method of allocation set forth in Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 437 (1994). View "Continental Insurance Company v. Honeywell International, Inc." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether an attorney’s pledge of anticipated attorney’s fees could be considered an account receivable and secured under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), and whether the lender here complied with the requirements of the UCC to perfect its security interest. Plaintiff John Giovanni Granata retained Diane Acciavatti to bring a legal malpractice complaint against defendants Edward Broderick Jr., and Broderick, Newmark, & Grather. Acciavatti accepted a $10,000 retainer and agreed to a contingent fee arrangement. After a jury trial, Granata was awarded a judgment of $1,597,193, and the trial judge granted Acciavatti’s motions for fees, costs, and pre-judgment interest. Defendants appealed, and Granata cross-appealed. Acciavatti had an oral agreement with Granata to represent him at $350 per hour and told him she would seek counsel fees from defendants after the appeal. While the appeal was pending, Acciavatti withdrew from the practice of law. Dominic Caruso was appointed attorney-trustee for Acciavatti’s practice, and the firm of Roper & Twardowsky, LLC (the Roper firm), filed a substitution of counsel form for Acciavatti. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial. Following a two-day mediation, the case settled for $840,000. Three of Acciavatti’s creditors then claimed liens upon any legal fees owed to her from the case. The appellate panel considered whether Acciavatti possessed an interest in her anticipated legal fees and whether one of her creditor's UCC filing granted it a perfected interest in those fees. The panel reasoned that, “[i]f both questions [we]re answered in the affirmative, [the creditor], as a perfected secured creditor, would enjoy priority over [the other creditors], who are subsequent lien creditors seeking to levy on the same collateral.” The panel expressed agreement with cited decisions and held “that, under certain circumstances, an attorney’s pledge of anticipated counsel fees can be considered an account receivable and secured under Article 9.” The panel observed that “[the appealing creditor] met the requirements of N.J.S.A. 12A:9-203 for its security interest to attach to Acciavatti’s counsel fees." Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Granata v.Broderick" on Justia Law