Please note that, in light of Governor Murphy's recent "stay at home" order in New Jersey due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McLaughlin & Nardi, LLC's attorneys and staff are working remotely at this time. However, we are still ready, willing, and able to address all of your individual and business legal needs. Please contact us by phone at (973) 890-0004 or email at info@esqnj.com. We are committed to providing the same high level of legal services that our clients have come to expect over the years. Thank you.

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The Appellate Division of the Superior Court recently issued an opinion illustrating several important points regarding construction liens under the New Jersey Construction Lien Law and collection of payment under the New Jersey Prompt Payment Act.

Background

In that case, Prime Time Construction, LLC vs. Vimco, Incorporated, , Prime Time Construction, LLC was the general contractor on three construction projects inconstruction-machine-3412240__340-300x202 Paterson.  The properties were owned by three limited liability companies which were related to Prime Time.  Prime Time executed written subcontracts with Build Logistics, Inc. (“BL”) to do the masonry and excavation work on the projects.  BL executed a written contract with Vimco to provide materials for two of the projects.  Vimco provided the materials directly to BL; it had no contract with Prime Time or the owners.  Prime Time paid BL the full amount under the contract for all the work it performed and materials it provided.  However, BL abandoned the project and failed to pay Vimco.

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In the recent case of Arku-Nyadia v. Legal Sea Foods, LLC, in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, the federal trial court covering the entire State of New Jersey, Judge Susan Wigenton examined the standards governing motions for summary judgement in lawsuits alleging violation of the Newjustice-2060093_960_720-300x200 Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  In a summary judgment motion, a judge is asked to dismiss a party’s lawsuit because the moving party argues that even if the court took all the evidence in the best light favorable to the other party, it doesn’t create a question of fact for a jury and the moving party should prevail as a matter of law.

Background: The Arku-Nyadia v. Legal Sea Foods, LLC Case

Suzy Arku-Nyadia was a Black woman who was born in Ghana and immigrated to the United States in 1999, to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  She worked for Legal Sea Foods, LLC (“LSF”) for fifteen years at multiple locations, beginning in Virginia in 2002 before transferring to Short Hills, New Jersey in 2004, and thereafter working in both New Jersey and New York.  Her final position was at LSF’s Paramus location.

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Following a $2 trillion plus stimulus bill passed in the Spring of 2020, the Congress has finally been able to come to terms on another economic stimulus and relief bill, and the president has finally signed it into law.  The bill is over nearly 5,600 pages long and has a whole host of miscellaneous provisions included therein.

However, for small businesses several issues were of particular concern.  First, there have been a host of issues, questions, and need for clarification on the small-business-300x215previously created Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”).  Back in the Spring of 2020, that program was created to provide money to small businesses to help them pay their payroll while suffering from financial issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread shut-downs and stay-at-home orders. The new stimulus bill clarifies that expenses paid with these funds may still be used in tax deductions and the amount of the PPP loan would not be considered in calculating the company’s gross income.

PPP funds were generally supposed to be used for (and would only be forgiven for) use in covering payroll, mortgage interest, rent, and utility payments.  The new bill should be expanding forgivable expenses to operational expenditures for software or computing services for business operations, property damage due to public disturbances that were not covered by insurance or other compensation, payments to suppliers where the supplies were essential to the operations, made pursuant to a contract prior to the covered period, or for perishable goods, or worker-protection costs required to comply with requirements of state or local governments, the CDC, OSHA, or the Department of Health and Human Services.

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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) on March 18, 2020.  This law includes two Acts providing for paid leave to be enforced by the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour  Division.  They provide great protections for New Jersey employees which should help the economic recovery.

These 2 Acts are the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act.  While the provisions were initially only supposed to apply from the effective photo__1894482_mclaughlin_nardi_4712date of April 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020, they may be extended.  Much depends on the current standoff between Congress and President Trump.

The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act applies to all employers with less than 500 employees.  No prior employment or employment history with the employer is required for employees to be covered. The Act generally provides for 80 hours (or 2 weeks) of paid sick leave to qualifying employees.

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As we have explained here before, the New Jersey Civil Service appeal process gives civil service employees a meaningful avenue for appealing discipline imposed by their government employers.  However, a recent appellate opinion is a good reminder that this meaningful avenue for appeal is a two-way street.police-1714956__340-300x200

The New Jersey Civil Service Appeal Process

When a governmental employer wants to discipline employees with civil service protections, it must first give them a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (a “PNDA”) listing the charges and specifications against them.  Employee then have the right to elect to have a hearing, and whether they do nor not, when final discipline is imposed, the employer must then give the employee a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action (an “FNDA”).  For major discipline (a fine or suspension of more than five days, or termination), the employee has 20 days to file an appeal.

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It is interesting that the trend in New Jersey employment law is to enforce arbitration agreements in employment contracts, while at the same time finding them unenforceable in consumer and commercial contracts.  However, the law is the same: whatever the area, arbitration agreements are interpreted and enforced – or not enforceable – under New Jersey contract law.  It’s therefore worth looking at two recent opinions in these areas to see what can be learned.

The Knight Case:  Consumer Contracts and Consumer Fraud

In the first, a published opinion in case of Knight v. Vivint Solar Developer, LLC, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey stuck down an arbitration agreement which the defendants tried to enforce in a consumer fraud lawsuit over the sale of solar panels.  After Knight sued, Vivint filed a motion to courthouse-1223280__340-300x200dismiss her complaint and enforce an arbitration agreement which required the parties to arbitrate their disputes.

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Construction Arbitration

Complex New Jersey construction law cases can be extremely expensive to litigate in court because of the amount of documents involved, the number of witnesses, and the need for experts.  Therefore, many construction contracts contain arbitration provisions.  The view is that arbitration can save money in the 352099_construction_3-002-300x225litigation process, but still provide an enforceable dispute resolution process.

However, it would not be accurate to call construction arbitration “cheap” or “inexpensive.”  Essentially, arbitration is a private litigation process with limited discovery and appeal rights.   By limiting discovery, particularly depositions, a significant source of expense is eliminated, and by limiting appeal rights, arbitration can provide more finality.  However, there is still discovery.   Documents are generally exchanged before the hearing, so there is still expense, but costs are saved because arbitration rarely involves depositions.  Likewise, while experts are not normally deposed, they are still required and must prepare pre-hearing reports about their expected testimony.  All of this entails significant expense.  In addition, while there are minimal filing fees and the services of courts are generally free, the use of an arbitration forum in construction law disputes entails significant fees, and in addition the parties have to pay the arbitrator for all his or her time.

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Except in the case of spouses, civil union partners and domestic partners, when a New Jersey resident dies owning a jointly held asset, whether it is real estate, stocks, bank accounts, etc.,  the entire value of the asset will be taxed as if it belonged to the decedent.  If the surviving joint tenant can prove that a portion of it actually belongs to the surviving joint tenant and not the decedent, the New Jersey Division of Taxation may grant an exemption from taxation for that portion of1387291_decorative_house_in_sunlight-thumb-170x127-52807 the value of the asset.  This makes selecting an estate administration and tax planning attorney extremely important.

In order to prove that a portion of the asset actually belonged to the surviving joint tenant, you must be able to show the surviving joint tenant’s financial contribution to the asset or that the surviving joint tenant inherited their portion of the asset from another.  Depending upon the relationship between the decedent and the surviving joint tenant, the asset will be subject to inheritance tax at a rate between 11 percent and 16 percent.   Class A Beneficiaries (which include spouses, civil union partners, registered domestic partners, parents, grandparents, and children) do not pay any tax on inheritances.  Class C Beneficiaries (which include siblings of the decedent and spouses/civil union partners of a child of the decedent)  receive $25,000 free from inheritance tax, are taxed at a rate of 11 percent on the next $1,075,000 of inherited assets and the rate increases as the amount inherited increases – up to 16 percent.  While bequests to charities are not taxed, inheritances received by all other non-charitable beneficiaries not included in Class A or C are Class D beneficiaries and their inheritances are taxed at a rate of 16 percent for the first $700,000 and 17 percent for the remaining balance of the inheritance.

Many people list another person as a joint owner on an account or an asset because they believe it simplifies the estate administration and probate of the estate.  But, it actually can result in a significant tax burden which might not have been due or would have been significantly lower if assets were not jointly held.  Moreover, in New Jersey probate and estate administration are not difficult or expensive so it is not usually necessary to attempt to avoid it.

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The State and Federal Constitutions require that when the government takes action against someone that person must receive due process.  For Civil Service employees, that process is the disciplinary appeals process.  Therefore, in the case of In re Smith, Irvington Township, Department of Public Safety, the Appellate Division ruled that an administrative law judge and the Civil Service Commission could not rely on fact findings in a related but separate criminal trial.  This is an copimportant New Jersey employment law decision, because to meet the constitutional requirements of due process and fundamental fairness, the New Jersey Civil Service disciplinary appeals process must give a meaningful hearing to effected civil service employees.

Monique Smith was a career officer with the Irvington Police Department.  On the day that she was promoted to captain, her boyfriend broke up with her by email.  Captain Smith went to his apartment after the ceremony, and followed him when she saw him leaving in his car.  Smith admitted driving over a center island during her drive.  Smith was charged with eight traffic violations for this drive, including leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving.  The Department suspended Smith because of the charges.  Based on this incident, Smith was also criminally charged with second degree aggravated assault, fourth degree unlawful possession of a weapon, third degree possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes, and fourth degree criminal mischief.  The aggravated assault was dismissed by the State, and the criminal mischief charge was amended to a disorderly persons offense (a misdemeanor). A jury found Captain Smith not guilty of all the charges.  The trial judge also heard the traffic offenses and found Smith guilty of reckless driving.

Prior to the decision, administrative disciplinary charges were filed against Smith for conduct unbecoming a public employee and five other violations stemming from the same conduct.  A departmental disciplinary hearing was held and a six month working day suspension without pay was imposed.  Smith appealed to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.  The Commission referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (the “OAL”) as a contested case.  An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a two day hearing.  The ALJ issued a recommended decision that the charges be upheld but that the penalty be reduced to a ninety day suspension.  The ALJ also recommended that Irvington pay half of Smith’s attorneys fees as she was the prevailing party.  However, the ALJ based her findings not on the evidence produced at the hearing, but rather wholly on the evidence and findings of fact from the criminal trial.  Despite Smith’s exceptions, the Commission adopted the ALJ’s recommended decision, except that the ninety days would be ninety working days and it rejected the award of attorneys fees.

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The recent trend has been for courts to find arbitration agreements enforceable under both Federal and New Jersey employment law.  However, prior to enforcing an arbitration agreement, courts must  find that there was actually agreement.  This simple concept was emphasized again by the Appellate Division of Contract-pen-thumb-300x225-80678-300x225the Superior Court of New Jersey in the case of Christina Imperato v. Medwell, LLC.

In that case, Christina Imperato was hired by Medwell, a chiropractic office.  She had a limited education and no prior medical or office experience.  When she was hired, Dr. Ali Mazandarani sat with her and had her sign some pre-employment forms.  They were not explained; Mazandarani sat with her, handed her the forms, and pointed to where she should sign.  She was not given the opportunity to read these or take them home.  The documents included a five page agreement which required that employment disputes be resolved by arbitration rather than court.

Imperato sued Medwell in the Superior Court of New Jersey for sexual harassment in violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.  Medwell’s attorneys filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit and order the case to arbitration.  The trial judge allowed discovery, including depositions, on the limited question of whether Imperato signed the arbitration agreement, and if so whether she signed it voluntarily and knowingly.  The judge then held a hearing with live testimony on that single issue.

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