Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Consolidated appeals arose from two actions based on real estate development disputes. Plaintiffs sued their former legal counsel, two real estate developers, and executives employed by the developers, alleging that defendants’ tortious conduct deprived them of the opportunity to construct an affordable housing complex on a property in Monroe Township, New Jersey; a second development was planned for Egg Harbor. Plaintiffs had formed NJ 322, LLC with a developer to build a market-rate rental and commercial development on the property. Plaintiffs contended that defendants arranged to have the property rezoned so that only affordable housing could be built on it, at which time the developer withdrew and Plaintiff had no alternative but to sell the property. Plaintiffs’ damages expert prepared a report that included his opinion on “the profits that would likely have been earned by [p]laintiffs in the event that their development goals and objectives in connection with the development of the Project had not been frustrated” by defendants’ alleged conduct. The expert presented lost profits damages models for the development: the profit plaintiffs would have achieved if the development had proceeded as originally planned, and the profit had plaintiffs been the ones to construct the affordable housing project that was actually built. Based on the new business rule, the trial court granted defendants’ motion to bar testimony by plaintiffs’ expert in both cases. The Appellate Division affirmed in both cases. The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected a per se ban on claims by new businesses for lost profits damages, and it declined to follow Weiss v. Revenue Building & Loan Association, 116 N.J.L. 208 (E. & A. 1936) to the extent that it barred any claim by a new business for such damages. "Claims for lost profits damages are governed by the standard of reasonable certainty and require a fact-sensitive analysis. Because it is substantially more difficult for a new business to establish lost profits damages with reasonable certainty, a trial court should carefully scrutinize a new business’s claim that a defendant’s tortious conduct or breach of contract prevented it from profiting from an enterprise in which it has no experience and should bar that claim unless it can be proven with reasonable certainty." The Court remanded these cases so that the trial court could decide defendants’ motions in accordance with the proper standard. View "Schwartz v. Menas, Esq." 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 2006, plaintiff Brenda Gilbert divorced her husband, Monroe Gilbert, who acquired sole possession of the family’s vehicle, which was still registered in plaintiff’s name. In April 2014, Monroe informed plaintiff that he had to report to the Woodland Park Municipal Court (WPMC) regarding many outstanding traffic tickets; the court summonses were issued in plaintiff’s name. On April 15, 2014, plaintiff met Monroe and his attorney, defendant Kenyatta Stewart, at WPMC. The matter was adjourned, and plaintiff, defendant, and Monroe discussed the best way to resolve the outstanding summonses. Plaintiff did not retain defendant as her attorney or request that he represent her; nor did defendant bill plaintiff or enter into a fee agreement with her. Nevertheless, he indicated to plaintiff that the optimal resolution would be for her to plead guilty to the charges because Monroe was at greater risk of license suspension due to his poor driving record. Plaintiff worked in the Passaic probation department since 1994. The parties disputed the extent to which defendant advised plaintiff of certain risks associated with the plea agreement. It was undisputed that defendant failed to advise plaintiff of the impact that a guilty plea might have on her public employment. In July 2014, plaintiff, through different counsel, challenged her conviction; ultimately the disposition against her was vacated, her fines were repaid to her, and the charges against plaintiff were dismissed. Plaintiff ultimately filed a complaint against defendant, alleging he breached a duty of care by “engaging in a clear conflict of interest” and urging her to enter into “unwarranted guilty pleas.” Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s harm because any discipline from her employer resulted from her failure to notify, not her conviction. Judgment was entered in defendant's favor. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding a jury should have decided whether defendant’s legal advice was a substantial factor in plaintiff's demotion and suspension. View "Gilbert v. Stewart" 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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The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) found by clear and convincing evidence that respondent Carlia Brady, formerly a Judge of the Superior Court, violated Canon 1, Rule 1.1; Canon 2, Rules 2.1 and 2.3(A); and Canon 5, Rule 5.1(A) of the Code of Judicial Conduct (Code). The ACJC unanimously recommended the sanction of removal from judicial office. On June 11, 2013, officers of the Woodbridge Township Police Department (WTPD) arrested respondent at her home in Woodbridge. She was charged in a complaint warrant with hindering the apprehension of another, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3, by “knowingly harboring Jason Prontnicki, a known fugitive,” in her residence. Respondent was indicted on three charges: second-degree official misconduct; third-degree hindering apprehension or prosecution; and third-degree hindering apprehension. The trial court granted respondent’s motion to dismiss the official misconduct charge but denied her motion to dismiss the hindering apprehension or prosecution charges. The State appealed the dismissal of the official misconduct charge, and respondent appealed the denial of her motion to dismiss the other charges. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s determinations and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. The State later moved to dismiss with prejudice the remaining two counts of the indictment. The trial court granted that motion, thus concluding the criminal proceedings against respondent. On March 6, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated respondent to her duties as a Superior Court judge. Several months later, the ACJC issued its complaint. After review, the New Jersey Supreme Court modified the sanction of removal recommended by the ACJC and imposed a three-month suspension on respondent. "We view that sanction to be commensurate with the conduct proven by clear and convincing evidence and to further our disciplinary system’s purpose of preserving public confidence in the judiciary." View "In the Matter of Carlia M. Brady" on Justia Law

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A complaint issued by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) alleged four counts of misconduct against a superior court judge, Respondent John Russo, Jr. The charges and findings related to four discrete instances of misconduct. Count I, the most serious matter, concerns Respondent’s conduct at a hearing on an application for a final restraining order. The misconduct charged related to his questioning of an alleged victim of domestic violence who testified that she had been sexually assaulted, as well as his comments to staff members in open court after the hearing. Count II addressed a personal guardianship matter in which Respondent allegedly asked a Judiciary employee to contact her counterpart in another vicinage and request that a hearing be rescheduled to accommodate Respondent. Count III asserted Respondent created the appearance of a conflict of interest when he presided over a matter in the Family Division in which he knew both parties since high school. Count IV related to Respondent’s ex parte communication with an unrepresented litigant. After it conducted a hearing, the ACJC found clear and convincing evidence to support all the charges. A panel of three Judges designated by the Supreme Court then conducted a separate, additional hearing and concluded that the evidence supported a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Respondent violated the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules cited in all four counts. The panel recommended that Respondent be removed from office. Based on its review of the extensive record, the New Jersey Supreme Court found beyond a reasonable doubt that there was cause for Respondent’s removal, and ordered such removal. View "In the Matter of John F. Russo, Jr." on Justia Law

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This case arose from the representation of plaintiff Antonio Nieves by a state public defender, Peter Adolf, Esq. After his conviction, Nieves was granted post-conviction relief based on the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. DNA evidence later confirmed that Nieves was not the perpetrator, and the underlying indictment against him was dismissed. Nieves subsequently recovered damages from the State for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned. He then filed the present legal malpractice action seeking damages against the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) and Adolf. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA) barred the damages sought because Nieves failed to vault N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d)’s verbal threshold. The motion court concluded that the TCA and its verbal threshold were inapplicable. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that “public defenders are public employees that come within the TCA’s immunities and defenses” and that Nieves’s claim fell squarely within the TCA. The Appellate Division also held that plaintiff’s claim for loss of liberty damages fell within the TCA’s limitation on recovery for pain and suffering in N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), which Nieves failed to satisfy. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the TCA applied to Nieves’s legal malpractice action, and his claim for loss of liberty damages failed to vault the verbal threshold for a pain and suffering damages claim under the strictures of N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d). Defendants were entitled to summary judgment. View "Nieves v. Office of the Public Defender" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Evangelos Dimitrakopoulos retained the law firm of Borrus, Goldin, Foley, Vignuolo, Hyman and Stahl, P.C. ("Borrus firm"), for help with a business dispute with Steven Eleftheriou. Represented by the Borrus firm, Dimitrakopoulos and his wife filed a complaint against Eleftheriou and his wife. For undisclosed reasons, the Borrus firm filed a motion to withdraw as counsel shortly after it was retained. Days later, the Borrus firm filed a complaint against Dimitrakopoulos, alleging that its former client owed it $93,811.95 in fees for legal services and that payment had been demanded and not made. Dimitrakopoulos, acting pro se, filed an answer to the collection complaint but filed no counterclaim or third-party claim. In a proceeding before an arbitrator six months after the collection action was filed, the Dimitrakopouloses and the Eleftherious settled their dispute. In light of the settlement, the arbitrator did not issue an award. Months later, the court in the collection matter granted the Borrus firm’s unopposed motion for a final judgment by default in the amount of $121,947.99 for legal services, interest, attorneys’ fees, and court costs. Dimitrakopoulos did not appeal. A total of sixteen months elapsed between the filing of the Borrus firm’s collection action and the entry of the default judgment in that action. After the resolution of the business dispute between the Dimitrakopouloses and the Eleftherious, the collection action remained pending for an additional ten months. On September 10, 2015, approximately three years after the entry of judgment in the collection action, the Dimitrakopouloses sued the Borrus firm and the principal attorneys who worked on their matter for legal malpractice. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint based on the "entire controversy" doctrine and the doctrine of waiver. The Dimitrakopouloses argued that the damages claimed in the malpractice action were known to them as of September 6, 2011, the day that they settled their dispute with the Eleftherious. The trial court concluded that the Dimitrakopouloses could have asserted their malpractice claim in the collection matter. An Appellate Division panel affirmed that judgment and stated that under Olds v. Donnelly, 150 N.J. 424 (1997), legal malpractice claims were exempt from the entire controversy doctrine to the extent that they need not be asserted in the underlying action. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the collection action at issue in this matter was not an “underlying action” as that term was used in Olds, and that the entire controversy doctrine could bar the claim. The record of this appeal, however, was inadequate for an application of the equitable rules that governed here. The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Dimitrakopoulos v. Borrus, Goldin, Foley, Vignuolo, Hyman and Stahl, P.C." 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

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In 1983, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed a final consent judgment for a settlement agreement between the New Jersey State Bar Association and the New Jersey Association of Realtor Boards. The terms of the settlement provided that real estate brokers and salespersons may prepare contracts to sell or lease real property, so long as a standard form is used that includes a three-day period for attorney review. Plaintiffs Michael Conley, Jr., and Katie M. Maurer (Buyers) made an offer to purchase a condominium from defendant Mona Guerrero (Seller), and, a few days later, Seller signed and executed the contract. Before the three-day attorney-review period expired, Seller s attorney sent Buyers attorney and their realtor notice of disapproval by e-mail and fax, rather than by the methods approved under the 1983 holding and prescribed in the parties' contract (certified mail, telegram, or personal service). Buyers sued for specific performance, claiming the contract was enforceable because Seller s notification of disapproval was sent improperly. At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the attorney-review provision of a standard form real estate contract had to be strictly enforced, thereby nullifying Seller's notice of disapproval and requiring enforcement of the real estate contract. The Court concluded that, because Buyers received actual notice of disapproval within the three-day attorney-review period by a method of communication commonly used in the industry, the notice of disapproval was valid. The Court also exercised its constitutional authority over the practice of law and found that an attorney's notice of disapproval of a real estate contract could be transmitted by fax, e-mail, personal delivery, or overnight mail with proof of delivery. Notice by overnight mail will be effective upon mailing. The attorney-review period within which this notice must be sent remained three business days. View "Conley v. Guerrero" on Justia Law