Justia Consumer Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Plaintiff Regina Little asserted claims on her own behalf and on behalf of other New Jersey owners and lessees of 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 Kia Sephia vehicles distributed by defendant Kia Motors America, Inc., alleging that those vehicles had a defective brake system. The central question in this appeal was whether the trial court properly permitted plaintiff’s theory of damages based on the cost of brake repairs to be asserted classwide, supported only by aggregate proofs. The jury determined that defendant had breached its express and implied warranties and that the class had sustained damages. The jury found that the class members had suffered $0 in damages due to diminution in value but that each class member had sustained $750 in damages “[f]or repair expenses reasonably incurred as a result of the defendant’s breach of warranty.” The trial court granted defendant’s motion to decertify the class as to the quantum of damages each individual owner suffered. The parties cross-appealed. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s post-trial determinations, reinstated the jury’s award for out-of-pocket repair costs based on plaintiff’s aggregate proofs, and remanded for an award of attorneys’ fees. The appellate court held that, notwithstanding the jury’s rejection of plaintiff’s diminution-in-value theory, the trial court should have ordered a new trial on both theories of damages, which it found were not “fairly separable from each another.” Although aggregate proof of damages can be appropriate in some settings, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered such proof improper as presented in this case. The trial court erred when it initially allowed plaintiff to prove class-members’ out-of-pocket costs for brake repairs based on an estimate untethered to the experience of plaintiff’s class. The trial court properly ordered individualized proof of damages on plaintiff’s brake-repair claim based on the actual costs incurred by the class members. Thus, the trial court’s grant of defendant’s motions for a new trial and for partial decertification of the class were a proper exercise of its discretion. View "Little v. Kia Motors America, Inc." 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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Plaintiff Henry Sanchez filed a class action seeking relief based on the Retail Installment Sales Act, N.J.S.A. 17:16C-1 to -61 (RISA). He contended the “initiation fee” charged in defendant Fitness Factory’s gym membership contract, among other provisions, violated RISA. The trial court dismissed Sanchez’s complaint, finding that RISA did not apply to the contract because it was a contract for services. The Appellate Division affirmed. While acknowledging that RISA applied to some services contracts, the Appellate Division found that RISA applied only to contracts that contained a financing arrangement. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined that by its own terms, RISA applied to services contracts. Further, in the statute as written, there was no requirement that a contract include a financing arrangement to be covered by RISA. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Sanchez v. Fitness Factory Edgewater, LLC" on Justia Law

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This appeal concerned consolidated putative class actions brought by plaintiffs whose vehicles were towed at the direction of local police and without plaintiffs’ consent. Each plaintiff was charged for the non-consensual tow by a privately owned towing company that had a contract with the respective local government to perform that towing service. Plaintiffs brought suit challenging those charges in three class actions with common legal claims. Plaintiffs alleged that the fees imposed by the private companies violated the New Jersey Predatory Towing Prevention Act (Towing Act), the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), and the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). One class action was dismissed on summary judgment and the other was allowed to proceed only as an individual case. Plaintiffs appealed. The Appellate Division reversed in a consolidated opinion. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined 2018 legislation amending the Towing Act did not have retroactive effect, and agreed with the Appellate Division’s construction of the pre-2018 Act. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision as to exhaustion of administrative remedies, derivative immunity, and the remand as to the Towing Act and CFA claims, all substantially for the same reasons. Separately, the Supreme Court addressed whether plaintiffs could pursue claims under the TCCWNA and found they were unable to state a claim under that statute. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division on that issue but affirmed as to all others. View "Pisack v. BC Towing, Inc." 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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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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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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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified two questions of New Jersey law to the New Jersey Supreme Court arising from two putative class actions brought under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). Plaintiffs David and Katina Spade claimed that on or about April 25, 2013, they purchased furniture from a retail store owned and operated by defendant Select Comfort Corporation. They alleged that Select Comfort’s sales contract included the language prohibited by N.J.A.C. 13:45A-5.3(c). The Spades also alleged the sales contract that Select Comfort provided to them did not include language mandated by N.J.A.C. 13:45A-5.2(a) and N.J.A.C. 13:45A-5.3(a). The Third Circuit asked: (1) whether a violation of the Furniture Delivery Regulations alone constituted a violation of a clearly established right or responsibility of the seller under the TCCWNA and thus provided a basis for relief under the TCCWNA; and (2) whether a consumer who receives a contract that does not comply with the Furniture Delivery Regulations, but has not suffered any adverse consequences from the noncompliance, an “aggrieved consumer” under the TCCWNA? The New Jersey Supreme Court answered the first certified question in the affirmative and the second certified question in the negative. View "Spade v. Select Comfort Corp." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Lamar Williams worked and owned a car in Alaska. In February 2010, he arranged through his employer to have the car shipped to New Jersey by defendant American Auto Logistics. After the car arrived, Williams visited the American Auto Logistics facility in New Jersey to pick it up. Williams inspected the car, found no apparent damage, and drove away. On leaving the facility, however, he heard swishing noises in the back of the car. He found water in the trunk and returned to the facility, where defendant's employees removed the accumulated water and offered a small amount of money for water damage. Williams rejected the offer. Williams sought out a mechanic who estimated the repairs would cost more than $10,000. He called American Auto Logistics and offered to settle for less than that amount, but the company rejected the offer and refused to pay anything for the damage. American Auto Logistics followed up by sending Williams a letter that disclaimed any responsibility and claimed the car was not damaged during shipping. Williams was twice denied his right to a jury trial by a trial court in the Special Civil Part. On both occasions, the trial court relied on Rule 4:25-7, prescribing certain pre-trial procedures, and sanctioned Williams for failure to comply by denying his right to a jury. In this appeal, the issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether a litigant could lose his constitutionally protected right to a jury trial as a sanction for failure to comply with procedural rules. The case also presented a question about the court rules applicable to the Superior Court's Law Division, Special Civil Part. The Court held trial courts could not deprive civil litigants of their constitutionally protected right to a jury trial as a sanction for failure to comply with a procedural rule. The Court further instructed that Rule 4:25-7 did not apply to proceedings in the Special Civil Part. View "Williams v. American Auto Logistics" on Justia Law

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In May 2013, plaintiffs Annemarie Morgan and Tiffany Dever filed suit against defendants Sanford Brown Institute, its parent company, Career Education Corporation, and Sanford Brown's chief executive officer, admission and financial aid officers, and clinical director. Sanford Brown was a private, for-profit educational institution with a campus in Trevose, Pennsylvania, that offered medical-related training programs. In the complaint, plaintiffs claimed that defendants misrepresented the value of the school's ultrasound technician program and the quality of its instructors, instructed students on outdated equipment and with inadequate teaching materials, provided insufficient career-service counseling, and conveyed inaccurate information about Sanford Brown's accreditation status. The complaint further alleged that Sanford Brown employed high-pressure and deceptive business tactics that resulted in plaintiffs financing their education with high-interest loans, passing up the study of ultrasound at a reputable college, and losing career advancement opportunities. The Sanford Brown enrollment agreement included payment terms for tuition and fees, disclaimers, and an arbitration provision. Without answering the complaint, defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss plaintiffs' claims. The Appellate Division found the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed an arbitrator would determine issues of arbitrability and that plaintiffs failed to specifically attack the delegation clause. The panel therefore determined that arbitrability [was] for the arbitrator to decide. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the Appellate Division and trial court did not have the benefit of "Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp.," (219 N.J. 430, 436 (2014), cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2804, 192 L. Ed.2d 847 (2015)) at the time they rendered their decisions. The New Jersey Court held in "Atalese" that an arbitration provision in a consumer contract that fails to explain in some minimal way that arbitration is a substitute for a consumer s right to pursue relief in a court of law was unenforceable. This case was therefore remanded for further proceedings in light of Atalese. View "Morgan v. Sanford Brown Institute" on Justia Law