Justia Real Estate & Property Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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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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Plaintiff Ann Samolyk sustained neurological and cognitive injuries when she entered a lagoon in Forked River to rescue her neighbors’ dog, which had fallen or jumped into the water. Samolyk’s husband filed a civil action against defendants, alleging they were liable under the rescue doctrine by negligently allowing their dog to fall or jump into the water, prompting Samolyk to attempt to save the dog. Neither the Law Division nor the Appellate Division found the doctrine applicable. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review reduced to whether the common law rescue doctrine could be expanded to permit plaintiffs to recover damages for injuries sustained as a proximate result of attempting to rescue defendants’ dog. After reviewing the "noble principles that infuse the public policy underpinning this cause of action," the Supreme Court declined to consider property, in whatever form, to be equally entitled to the unique value and protection bestowed on a human life. The Court nevertheless expanded the rescue doctrine to include acts that appear to be intended to protect property but were in fact reasonable measures ultimately intended to protect a human life. Judgment was affirmed. View "Samolyk v. Berthe" 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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In January 2015, plaintiff Angel Pareja was walking to work when he slipped on ice, fell, and broke his hip. The sidewalk area on which he fell was on property owned and managed by defendant Princeton International Properties, Inc. (Princeton International). The night before, a wintry mix of light rain, freezing rain, and sleet began to fall. Around the time of his fall, light rain and pockets of freezing rain were falling. Pareja’s expert opined that Princeton International could have successfully reduced the hazardous icy condition by pre-treating the sidewalk. The trial court granted summary judgment to Princeton International. The Appellate Division reversed, holding Princeton International had a duty of reasonable care to maintain the sidewalk even when precipitation was falling. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court, finding that Princeton International owed Pareja a duty only in unusual circumstances, none of which were present here. Princeton International took no action to increase Pareja’s risk, and the record showed that the ice on the sidewalk was not a pre-existing condition. View "Pareja v. Princeton International Properties" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs fell into arrears on the taxes on their home in the Borough of Rutherford, New Jersey. After the date of redemption but before entry of final judgment, plaintiff John Winberry called the Tax Collector to determine the total amount needed to redeem the certificate. According to Winberry’s deposition testimony, the Tax Collector told him that she “[didn’t] have the time” to give him either the total amount or the per diem interest rate. The day after plaintiffs attempted to redeem the certificate, the court entered the final foreclosure judgment. After costly legal proceedings, plaintiffs succeeded in having the foreclosure judgment overturned and reclaimed their property. When deposed, the Tax Collector acknowledged the right to redemption at any time before entry of a final foreclosure judgment, and that her computer software could calculate arrearages “within a matter of minutes.” She testified that her policy as Tax Collector required the property owner put the redemption request in writing. and that her policy was to contact the certificate holder to get the correct amount owed. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Borough's Tax Collector was entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiffs' suit to recover costs, and if not, whether the Borough could be liable for her actions. Plaintiffs alleged: (1) the Tax Collector violated their clearly established constitutional and statutory right to redeem the tax sale certificate on their home before entry of a final foreclosure judgment; and (2) that the Borough was liable for the Tax Collector’s violation of their right because the Tax Collector was the Borough’s final policymaker in the area of tax sale certificate redemptions. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision to deny the Tax Collector qualified immunity. Based on the summary judgment record, the Tax Collector’s refusal to provide the redemption amount to plaintiffs because the request was not in writing or timely made was not objectively reasonable. The Court disagreed, however, that plaintiffs did not establish the basis for municipal liability: if the Tax Collector was the final policymaker on matters related to the redemption of tax sale certificates in the Borough, the Borough was liable if the Tax Collector violated the constitutional or statutory rights of plaintiffs. View "Winberry Realty Partnership v. Borough of Rutherford" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff H.C. Equities, L.P. asserted contract claims against its commercial tenant, the County of Union, after the County began to withhold rent payments in response to a dispute about the condition of the leased commercial buildings. During negotiations to settle the contract matter, the County directed its co-defendant, the Union County Improvement Authority (Authority), to assess the County’s real estate needs. H.C. Equities obtained a copy of a consultant’s report prepared as part of that assessment and objected to statements in the report about the condition of the buildings that it had leased to the County. H.C. Equities filed suit against the County and the Authority, asserting conspiracy claims against both defendants and trade libel and defamation claims against the Authority. Plaintiff did not apply for permission to file a late tort claims notice until more than eight months after the expiration of the one-year period allowed under N.J.S.A. 59:8-9 for the filing of such motions. The trial court held that H.C. Equities had failed to file the notices of claim that the Tort Claims Act required and dismissed its tort claims. H.C. Equities appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court. Relying on a combination of excerpts from three letters written by H.C. Equities’ counsel, the Appellate Division found that H.C. Equities substantially complied with the Act’s notice of claim provisions. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed that a finding of substantial compliance with the Tort Claims Act could be premised on comments made by plaintiff’s counsel in three different letters sent to lawyers representing the defendant public entities. The Supreme Court did not find that H.C. Equities’ letters, individually or collectively, communicated the core information that a claimant had to provide to a public entity in advance of filing a tort claim. The Appellate Division’s determination was reversed, and the matter remanded to the trial court. View "H.C. Equities, LP v. County of Union" 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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Defendant Javier Torres signed a promissory note (Note) secured by a residential mortgage (Mortgage). Torres defaulted on the Note. CitiMortgage, Inc., discovered that it had lost the original Note but had retained a digital copy setting forth its terms. CitiMortgage assigned the Mortgage and its interest in the Note to plaintiff Investors Bank (Investors). In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether Investors could enforce the Note. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court: Investors Bank could enforce the note. Relying on two statutes addressing assignments, N.J.S.A. 2A:25-1 and N.J.S.A. 46:9-9, as well as common-law assignment principles, the Court held Investors had the right as an assignee of the Mortgage and transferee of the Note to enforce the Note. The Court construed N.J.S.A. 12A:3-309 to address the rights of CitiMortgage as the possessor of a note or other instrument at the time that the instrument was lost, but not to supplant New Jersey assignment statutes and common law in the setting of this appeal or to preclude an assignee in Investors’ position from asserting its rights according to the Note’s terms. Read together, "N.J.S.A. 12A:3-309, N.J.S.A. 2A:25-1, and N.J.S.A. 46:9-9 clearly authorized the assignment and entitled Investors to enforce its assigned Mortgage and transferred Note." View "Investors Bank v. Torres" on Justia Law

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In 2010, a nine-month-old infant, J.H., suffered permanent scarring when he was burned by an uncovered, free-standing cast iron loop radiator in an apartment owned and managed by defendants R&M Tagliareni, LLC, and Robert & Maria Tagliareni, II, LLC. J.H.’s father placed J.H. in a twin bed to sleep with his ten-year-old stepsister. The bed did not have rails and was adjacent to a steam-heated radiator that did not have a cover. The next morning, J.H. was discovered lying on the floor with his head pressed against the hot radiator. As a result of the seriousness of J.H.’s injuries, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office launched a child abuse investigation. Detectives spoke with the building’s superintendent, who explained that while the individual apartments were not equipped with thermostat controls, the radiators in each room of the apartments could be shut off by the tenants through valves located at the base of each radiator unit. J.H. and his guardian ad litem filed suit, alleging defendants’ negligence was the cause of J.H.’s injuries. The New Jersey Supreme Court was unpersuaded that N.J.A.C. 5:10-14.3(d) imposed any regulatory duty on landlords to cover in-unit radiators with insulating material or a cover. The Court also found the tenants in this case maintained exclusive control over the heat emanating from the radiator, therefore, the Court declined to impose on landlords a new common law duty to cover all in-unit radiators. View "J.H. v. RM Tagliareni" 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