Boy invites Girl on a date for Valentine’s Day. They agree to meet at a restaurant near Boy’s home (rude, but ok). Girl wakes up on Valentine’s Day and cancels the date once she realizes she has to travel a longer distance than she expected. Boy is left wondering what happened because they had agreed on the restaurant in advance. Girl spends Valentine’s Day with her girlfriends. While breaking the location of a date leads to little (if any) repercussions for Girl in this situation, the same cannot be said for parties to a commercial contract.

Recently, Suffolk County Commercial Division Justice Emerson weighed in on the proper procedure for making a motion to dismiss based on a forum-selection clause as well as what type of harm a party needed to show in order to invalidate such a clause.

It is important to remember that a court cannot be divested of its subject matter jurisdiction by a contract and so a forum-selection clause does not affect the jurisdiction of Court. See Lischinskaya v. Carnival Corp.The proper procedure for dismissing an action based on a forum-selection clause is CPLR 3211(a)(1) using the contractual forum-selection clause as documentary evidence for a proper basis for dismissal. In this case, the Court sua sponte converted the motion from a CPLR 3211(a)(2) motion to a CPLR 3211(a)(1) motion. However, you might not be so lucky next time.

In Somerset Fine Home Building, Inc. v. Simplex Industries, Inc., Plaintiff, a home builder, contracted with Defendant for the purchase of a modular home. The sales agreement provided that any disputes arising thereunder would be determined by the law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and that the exclusive forum for any action to enforce the agreement would be the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff commenced an action for, inter alia, breach of contract and the failure to deliver conforming merchantable goods in New York Supreme Court, Suffolk County. Defendant moved to dismiss this action based on the forum-selection clause arguing that the parties agreed to litigate their dispute in Pennsylvania.

In opposition, Plaintiff gave a laundry list of weak arguments as to why the forum-selection clause should be dismissed.

Plaintiff first argued that the agreement is unconscionable. However, a determination of unconscionability generally requires some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties, together with contract terms that are unreasonably favorable to the other party. See Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank. Here, the forum-selection cause was not hidden or tucked away within a complex document of inordinate length, it appeared in the same size print as the rest of the agreement, each page was initialed by the plaintiff’s principal and there was no allegations that Defendant used high-pressure tactics to get it to sign the agreement. See Brower v. Gateway 2000.

Plaintiff next argued that it was in a weaker bargaining position than the Defendant and that it had no choice other than to agree to the forum-selection clause as it was. However, the record showed that the parties acknowledged in the agreement that they had the opportunity to confer with their separate counsel in the negotiation, drafting and execution of the agreement. Id.

As a last ditch effort, Plaintiff argued that it would incur financial distress in travelling to Pennsylvania from Suffolk County, NY to pursue this action against Defendant. However, the Court noted that the Plaintiff did not support its argument with evidence showing that the cost of commencing an action in Pennsylvania would be so financially prohibitive that it would be deprived of its day in court. See Horton v. Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc. Plaintiff also did not show any evidence that Pennsylvania would treat it unfairly and deny it a chance to gain a remedy. Id.

Ultimately, these arguments were not good enough to prevent the dismissal of the action. The Court found that Plaintiff was unable to make a “strong showing” that “enforcement would be unreasonable and unjust, that enforcement would contravene public policy, or that the forum-selection clause is invalid because of fraud or overreaching such that a trial in the contractual forum would be so gravely difficult and inconvenient that the challenging party would, for all practical purposes, be deprived of his or her day in court.” See D.O.T. Tiedown & Lifting Equip. v. Wright; Koko Contr. v. Continental Envtl. Asbestos Removal Corp.; Bell Constructors v. Evergreen Caissons.

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Most litigators are familiar with the requirement that a summary motion be supported with “evidentiary proof in admissible form” establishing the merits of a cause of action or defense.  Nevertheless, many practitioners make the common mistake of submitting evidence in support of a summary judgment motion that would not be admissible at trial, resulting in swift denial of the motion.  In fact, the Appellate Division, Second Department recently reversed a decision by the Nassau County Commercial Division (Bucaria, J.), which granted summary judgment to the moving party, even though the evidence submitted in support of the motion was not in admissible form.

The plaintiff in GMP Fur Trade Fin., LLC v Brenner, 2019 NY Slip Op 00858 (2d Dept Feb. 6, 2019) commenced an action against defendant Dean Brenner (“Brenner”) and others seeking to recover damages for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, conversion and fraud.  The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability as against Brenner, alleging that he had misappropriated funds and goods in connection with his servicing of four finance agreements plaintiff had entered into with certain non-parties.  Justice Bucaria granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability on the breach of fiduciary duty claim.  The plaintiff thereafter moved for summary judgment on the issue of damages.  Again, Justice Bucaria granted the plaintiff’s motion and entered judgment against Brenner in the amount of $1,755,630.79.  Brenner appealed.

The Second Department reversed, finding that the evidence upon which plaintiff primarily relied was not in “admissible form.”  The Court stated:

“Here, in moving for summary judgment on the issue of liability insofar as asserted against Brenner, the plaintiff relied primarily on an affidavit of its managing member, in which the managing member stated that he was told by certain nonparties that Brenner had misappropriated funds and goods.  This hearsay evidence was insufficient to satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of establishing its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on the breach of fiduciary duty cause of action insofar as asserted against Brenner.”

The Court also concluded that the plaintiff could not cure this defect by submitting unauthenticated, and therefore inadmissible, bank records for the first time on reply.   It is abundantly clear, then, from the Second Department’s decision in GMP Fur Trade that inadmissible hearsay does not have any probative value when submitted in support of a motion for summary judgment, and should not be considered.

However, the rigidity of this rule should be contrasted with the principle that, under certain circumstances, a party opposing summary judgment may rely on evidence that is not in admissible form, but only if the opposing party provides a reasonable excuse for its failure to submit evidence in admissible form (see e.g. Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557 [1980] [“The rule with respect to defeating a motion for summary judgment, however, is more flexible, for the opposing party, as contrasted with the movant, may be permitted to demonstrate an acceptable excuse for his failure to meet the strict requirement of tender in admissible form”]).  Indeed, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may rely on hearsay, as long as it is not the only piece of evidence relied on by that party (Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. v Credit Suisse, 89 AD3d 561 [1st Dept 2011]).

Takeaway:  The Second Department’s point was made clear in GMP Fur Trade, but it is worth repeating: counsel for the moving party should review each piece of evidence submitted in support of its summary judgment motion and ensure that it is admissible.  Indeed, affidavits must be signed and properly notarized, deposition transcripts must be certified by a court reporter and signed by the deponent, a proper foundation must be laid for each record relied upon in the motion, especially business and medical records, and importantly, hearsay statements must be qualified for the court’s consideration under one of the many hearsay exceptions.  By contrast, the “admissible form” requirement is more flexible with respect to an opposing party’s evidence, allowing an opposing party to rely on hearsay (as long as it is not the only piece of evidence relied upon by the opposing party), or other inadmissible evidence (if the opposing party offers a reasonable excuse for its failure to submit evidence in admissible form).

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As readers of this blog have come to appreciate, we here at New York Commercial DCheck the Rulesivision Practice tend to report on — among other things Commercial Division — the procedural particularities of litigating commercial matters before the various judges that have been assigned to the Commercial Division over the years.  Such particularities may arise from, say, a new or amended Commercial Division Rule, or from a new or amended Individual Practice or Part Rule.

For example, we repeatedly have reported on the particularities of the individual-practice rules of Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten, who, along with her colleague Justice Charles E. Ramos (also no stranger to this blog), will be retiring this month and will be succeeded next year by incoming Justices Joel M. Cohen and Andrew S. Borrok.  In case you missed it, the New York Law Journal announced the appointments of Justices Cohen and Borrok to the Commercial Division just before Thanksgiving.

Speaking of procedural particularities and new Commercial Division judges, perhaps most particular of all are the Practices for Part 54 overseen by New York County’s most recent addition to the Commercial Division, Justice Jennifer G. Schecter, who was appointed in April 2018 and took over the docket of recently-retired Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich.

Justice Schecter’s Part Rules are numerous and specific — 58 if you’re counting (not including subparts) — and cover everything from file to trial.  Her rules seemingly anticipate anything that can arise during the course of a complex commercial litigation in a way that only someone who spent more than a decade as Principal Law Secretary to former Chief Judge Judith Kaye of the New York Court of Appeals and the aforementioned Justice Bransten can appreciate.

To be sure, there is much to consider in Justice Schecter’s rules, but here are 10 or so important reminders for practitioners litigating in her Part:

Rule 21 Don’t ask your assistant or paralegal to call the court to confirm scheduling, etc.  “The court will only take calls from the parties’ attorneys of record.”

Rule 27 — Don’t dump documents on your adversary after hours.  “[W]hen a discovery deadline is set forth in a court order, that deadline is 5:00 pm, New York time.”

Rule 31 — Don’t withhold documents on the basis of privilege without serving a privilege log along with your production.  “Failure to serve a privilege log with the party’s production will, absent good cause, be deemed a waiver of the party’s objection on the ground of privilege.”

Rule 33 — Don’t send a colleague to a status conference without full knowledge of the case.  “Attorneys appearing for conferences must be fully familiar with the case [and] should be prepared to discuss the merits of their case at all conferences.”

Rule 34 — Bring everything with you to compliance conferences if you want the court to rule on a discovery dispute.  “Any party that wants to resolve a dispute about the sufficiency of a discovery response during a conference shall bring whatever will be needed to obtain a ruling, including copies of the disputed demands and responses.”

Rule 39 — Adhere to new Commercial Division Rule 17 concerning word limits and swear to it.  “Every brief, memorandum, affirmation, and affidavit shall include . . . a certification by the counsel who has filed the document describing the number of words in the document.”

Rules 40-41 — Don’t file an attorney “brief-irmation” or a party “brief-adavit” in support of a motion.  “Argument must be confined to the brief,” which “must accompany every motion.”

Rules 45 and 52 — Include complete copies of all contracts filed as exhibits to your motion papers.  “Excerpts of contracts may not be filed.”

Rule 54 — Agree with your adversary on a joint Rule 19-a statement of material facts or don’t bother.  “If the parties cannot agree on a joint statement, a Rule 19-a statement of facts is not permitted.”

Rule 55 — Obtain and file your oral-argument transcripts if you want a decision on your motion.  “Motions will not be marked fully submitted and the court will not issue a decision until the transcript is e-filed and the Part Clerk receives a hard copy of the transcript with the e-filing confirmation receipt.”

Be sure to check in early next year for future posts on the individual practices of incoming Manhattan Commercial Division Justices Cohen and Borrok.  In the meantime, a happy holiday season to all our readers!

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Perhaps it’s because I’ll be speaking on the topic later this week, or perhaps it’s because of a recent post on another one of our blogs, but shareholder rights of inspection have been on the mind of late.Shareholder inspection rights

While researching 2018 New York cases addressing inspection rights, particularly in the Commercial Division, I came across a Second Department decision from over the summer, which modified a post-trial judgment from Queens County Commercial Division Justice Marguerite A. Grays by ruling in favor of the individual defendant on his counterclaim for an accounting and directing the corporate plaintiff to permit an inspection of its books and records.

In World Ambulette Transp., Inc. v Lee, a corporate ambulance service sought to recover damages from a former driver/dispatcher who was terminated after allegedly charging the company’s debit card for various personal expenses. The defendant counterclaimed for breach of contract and an accounting, claiming not only that he was wrongfully discharged as an employee, but that he was denied certain rights as a minority owner under a shareholder’s agreement, including the right to continued employment, salary, dividends, and other company profits.

At trial, the parties offered conflicting testimony concerning the business arrangement between them, with the defendant claiming that he was a full-blown 49% owner in the company, and the plaintiff claiming that he was merely an employee entitled to 49% of the company’s profits.  Confident in its founder’s testimony in this regard, the plaintiff moved under CPLR 4401 for judgment during trial effectively to dismiss the defendant’s counterclaims, including his claim for an accounting — which, by its very nature, was contingent on the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the parties.  After all, if the defendant never was a shareholder and the requisite fiduciary relationship wasn’t there in the first place, how could he maintain a claim for an accounting against the plaintiff?

The trial court concurred, crediting the founder’s testimony and other “extrinsic evidence” relating to “the parties’ intent,” and found that the parties had “entered into nothing more than a profit sharing agreement,” which warranted dismissal of the defendant’s counterclaims.

The Second Department disagreed, in part anyway, finding that there was nothing ambiguous about an agreement, which on its face was denominated a “shareholder’s agreement,” and which contained a “Warranties” section designating a specific 51/49 percentage ownership of “Class A shares” among the parties.  There simply was no need to consider any extrinsic evidence concerning the parties’ intent when that intent was expressed unambiguously within the four corners of the agreement itself.

After citing section 624 of the Business Corporation Law (“Books and records; right of inspection”) and stating that “a shareholder has both statutory and common-law rights to inspect the books and records of a corporation if inspection is sought in good faith and for a valid purpose,” the Second Department ruled that the defendant was entitled to an accounting and that he should be permitted to examine the plaintiff’s books but otherwise affirmed the trial court’s findings with respect to the defendant’s unauthorized debit-card charges card and the propriety of his termination.

Pyrrhic victory, you say?  Maybe not.  Sure, the defendant in World Ambulette may not have a right to continued employment, or to a director’s meeting on notice prior to termination, or to any salary, dividends, or future profits from the company in which he is a 49% shareholder, but he still has his rights of inspection.  And given the recent expansion of those rights in New York case law (see, e.g., Retirement Plan for Gen. Empls. of City of N. Miami Beach v McGraw Hill Cos., Inc., 120 AD3d 1052 [1st Dept 2014]) — including the right to “investigate alleged misconduct by management and obtaining information that may aid legitimate litigation . . . even if the inspection ultimately establishes that the board engaged in no wrongdoing” — the defendant may eventually have his day in court after all.

** Nota Bene ** — As noted above, the topic of shareholder inspection rights (among others) will be the subject of a panel discussion at the Westchester County Bar Association this coming Thursday, November 1, 2018, at 6 p.m. at the WCBA Headquarters, 4 Westchester Park Drive, Suite 155, in White Plains.  The 1.5 credit CLE program will address the utility of the books-and-records proceeding in disputes among business owners in partnerships, corporations, and LLCs, and the ways in which such disputes might be avoided by having proper formation documents prepared and in place from the beginning.  The three-person panel will be addressing these topics from the perspective of a litigator, a forensic accountant, and a corporate attorney.  Registration and networking at 5:30 p.m.  Hope to see you there!

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A general release: the end of a litigation or relinquishment of a right? Every attorney and litigant often breathes a sigh of relief when a litigation comes to a conclusion. But is that always the case? Not when the release covers more than may have been intended.

In a recent decision by Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley, the Court held that a general form release, which settled a dispute involving one piece of artwork within an allegedly stolen collection of several other pieces of artwork, barred Plaintiff from bringing a subsequent action to recover any other pieces within the collection.

In Frenk v. Solomon, Paul Westheim (“Westheim”), a famous Jewish art critic who specialized in German expressionist art, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and entrusted his art collection with an art dealer in Berlin, Ms. Weidler (“Weidler”). Westheim later married Ms. Westheim-Frenk. After World War II, Weidler claimed that the art collection was destroyed in the war, but Plaintiff (Westheim-Frenk’s daughter) alleged that Weidler stole Westheim’s art collection and sold it in separate pieces.

In 1973, late Westheim’s wife (“Westheim-Frenk”) commenced an action against Weidler, because Weidler sold a paining from Westheim’s art collection (the “First Action”). That matter settled before discovery and was “discontinued ‘with prejudice.’” Westheim-Frenk, represented by New York counsel, executed a blanket release (the “Release”), discharging Weidler, her “heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns” from all claims that Westheim-Frenk “ever had, now have, or which [Ms. Wetheim-Frenk] or [her] heirs, executors, or administrators, hereafter can, shall or may have.” In consideration for the Release, Plaintiff’s mother received $7,500.00, which is equivalent to about $40,000.00 today.

In or about January of 2013, Plaintiff initiated the instant action against the executors of Weidler’s estate and her heirs, seeking to recover the valuable artwork from Westheim’s art collection, as well as damages and a judgment declaring that she was entitled to the artwork.

Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment alleging that the Release and stipulation discontinuing the First Action barred Plaintiff’s claim under the doctrine of res judicata; and nothing in the broad Release was “intended to be narrowly applied to any one painting, but rather, to the entire collection.” The terms of the broad Release bar Plaintiff from bringing an action against Weidler, or her “heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns.” Because the defendants demonstrated the prima facie defense of release, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to evidence material issues of fact to defeat summary judgement. See Aoki v. Aoki.

In seeking to limit the broad Release, Plaintiff argues that the subject of the First Action was the artwork, entitled Portrait of Dr. Robert Freund, and, thus, that the Release applied only to that piece. Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that Westheim-Frenk was fraudulently induced by Weidler to execute the Release and, thus, the defendants should be estopped from using the Release. However, the defendants objected to Plaintiff’s use of parol evidence. Justice Masley held that because the Release contained a standardized form, the court “must be flexible in the application of the parol evidence rule.”

Plaintiff also attempted to identify a transaction between Ms. Weidler and Westheim-Frenk in support of her claim that the Release only pertained to the single painting. Plaintiff argued that in 1976, when Weidler attempted to sell another piece from Westheim’s collection, Weidler entered into an agreement to split the sale amount of the artwork—a deal which would clearly not make sense if the Release pertained to all the artwork in Westheim’s collection. On the other hand, the defendants identify a letter from Westheim-Frenk stating that she understood that nothing could be done regarding all future artwork that may turn up. Next, Plaintiff argued that it is inconceivable that the low settlement amount from the First Action ($7,500.00) would have covered all the other valuable artwork. Justice Masley, however, rejected these conclusory arguments, holding that Plaintiff’s “evidence of conduct and intent is inconclusive” in light of the clear and unambiguous language of the Release.

In that regard, the First Department has held that “to hold a release forever hostage to legal afterthoughts basically vitiates the nature of the release.” See Aoki v. Aoki. Although Plaintiff argued that the Release should be set aside because Weidler used fraud to obtain same, Justice Masley held that in order to set aside the Release on the ground of fraud, Plaintiff had to establish that the fraud was separate from the subject of the Release, in addition to all the basic elements of fraud. Plaintiff, however, failed to identify any of Weidler’s misrepresentations at the time the Release was executed. In fact, there was no support for a claim that Westheim-Frenk was defrauded when she signed the release. Interestingly, Justice Masley held that plaintiff’s mother “failed to condition the Release on the truth of the information . . . i.e. that there were no other artworks from Westheim’s collection.” The Court finally also determined that Weidler did not waive the Release and Plaintiff did not present any evidence demonstrating that Weidler “intentionally relinquish[ed] a known right.”

Accordingly, because the Release was clear and unambiguous, the Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action.

Takeaway: Be especially precautious when drafting a release for a client, making sure not to waive any of their rights. Here, Justice Masley recognized that Plaintiff’s mother was represented by counsel when entering into the general release. This could potentially open you to a malpractice lawsuit.

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Generally speaking, most people want to avoid becoming entangled in litigation.  But what happens when an action is pending and, although your client is not a party, his or her interests may be adversely affected?  Move to intervene.

Intervention is a procedure whereby an outsider can become a party to a pending action on its own initiative.  Intervention is sometimes available as of right (see CPLR 1012), sometimes only in the court’s discretion (see CPLR 1013), but it must be brought by motion in all instances, accompanied by a proposed pleading setting forth the claim or defense for which intervention is sought (see CPLR 1014).

The Appellate Division, Second Department recently reiterated the principles governing motions for leave to intervene in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. v Christ the King Regional High Sch, 2018 NY Slip Op 06131.  In that case, the plaintiff agreed to convey title to a parcel of property to the defendant on the condition that the premises would not be used for any purpose other than for the operation of a Catholic high school.  But in 2002, the defendant leased a portion of the premises to a non-party (“Non-Party 1”), which, in 2013, sublet a portion of the premises to another non-party (“Non-Party 2”), who used the leased portion to operate a charter middle school.

The plaintiff sued the defendant seeking, among other things, an injunction prohibiting the defendant from using any portion of the property as a charter school.  After the plaintiff was awarded partial summary judgment, both non-parties (the “Non-Parties”) moved to intervene as defendants in the action.  The Commercial Division in Queens County (Hon. Marguerite A. Grays) denied the Non-Parties’ motions.

The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed, reasoning that the Non-Parties each “have a real and substantial interest in the outcome of the litigation and that, although their respective interests are aligned with those of [the defendant] and with each other, [the defendant] cannot fully represent those interests.”  The Court noted that although neither of the Non-Parties would be bound by a judgment in the action, if the plaintiff prevailed, the defendant would be forced to break its lease with Non-Party 1, which in turn would be forced to break its sublease with Non-Party 2.  The Court concluded that the Non-Parties should have been allowed to intervene under these circumstances.

So, if your client has a dog in someone else’s fight and wants to intervene, under which CPLR provision should you move? CPLR 1012 specifies three narrow grounds for intervention as a matter of right: (1)  where a statute expressly confers such right; (2) where the person seeking to intervene “is or may be bound by the judgment” and where representation of the person’s interest “is or may be inadequate”; and (3) when an action concerns property in which a nonparty has an interest and the nonparty may be adversely affected by the judgment.  By contrast, CPLR 1013 allows for intervention in the court’s discretion (i.e., permissive intervention), thereby providing an additional or alternative ground for intervention based simply on a showing that the intervenor’s claim or defense shares a common question of law or fact with a claim or defense in the pending action.

But, whether intervention is sought as a matter of right under CPLR 1012, or as a matter of discretion under CPLR 1013 is of “little practical significance” because intervention will be permitted where, as in the case above, the intervenor has “a real and substantial interest in the outcome of the proceedings.”

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Over the past year or so, we have made a point of highlighting in the “Check the Rules” series on this blog periodic updates to the individual practice rules of certain Commercial Division Justices, including Justice Eileen Bransten in New York County (twice, in fact), Justices Marguerite A. Grays and Leonard Livote in Queens County, and Justice Sylvia G. Ash in Kings County.

Continuing with this theme of local-rule vigilance, Commercial Division practitioners should take note some recent changes to the individual practice rules of Manhattan Commercial Division Justice O. Peter Sherwood.

Justice Sherwood’s Practices for Part 49, which were revised as of this month, provide some notable additions (and omissions) from his prior rules, which dated back to May 2014 before most of the Commercial Division Advisory Council’s new-rule proposals and amendments were adopted and implemented.

Be Prepared, Be Authorized. Justice Sherwood opens his practice rules with an express and emphatic reminder to attorneys practicing in his Part of the requirements under Rule 1 of the Commercial Division Rules that “counsel . . . must be fully familiar with the case . . . and fully authorized to enter into agreements, both substantive and procedural, on behalf of their clients.” In other words, appearing in Part 49 is no “cattle-call.” Attorneys should have factual command of their cases, as well as the requisite authority to bind their clients.

Separate and Describe Your Exhibits. Justice Sherwood now requires attorneys practicing in his Part who wish to annex exhibits to their correspondence or motion papers to separately e-file their exhibits and designate them with a “descriptive title.” In other words, a simple designation of “Exhibit A” won’t cut it. Attorneys must provide a description (e.g. “Operating Agreement, dated as of September 20, 2018”) so that adversaries and court personnel viewing the docket or other notice of filing can immediately understand what has been filed.

Get Advance Permission to Adjourn Appearances. Justice Sherwood now requires that requests for adjournment be submitted a full two business days in advance of the scheduled appearance. Justice Sherwood conferences his cases on Tuesdays, so that means attorneys must get their requests for adjournment in by no later than Thursday of the prior week.

Check Your E-Mail. Justice Sherwood’s new rules provide that the court may choose to communicate with counsel via e-mail “regarding scheduling matters or to make certain inquiries.” Note, however, that this line of communication only goes one way. It does not mean that attorneys practicing in Part 49 may “initiate communication with the court via email” or “use e-mail to make arguments.”

Complete Party Discovery Before Bothering Non-Parties. Justice Sherwood “strongly encourages” attorneys practicing in his Part to “attempt to confine their requests to parties to the action and resort to third-party disclosure only when it reasonably appears that the information being sought is otherwise unavailable.” Justice Sherwood also requires that all non-party subpoenas be “simultaneously served” on all parties, and that all documents and information produced in response be exchanged among all parties within five days of receipt.

Follow Instructions When Seeking to File Under Seal. Justice Sherwood’s updated practice rules provide specific instructions concerning the filing of documents under seal:

  • Applications to file under seal must be made by Order to Show Cause, which must be preceded by a meet-and-confer regarding the documents proposed for seal.
  • Motions will be considered in light of the limitations imposed under applicable case law, and the movant must propose redactions “as opposed to wholesale sealing.”
  • Any document proposed for seal must be filed in its original, un-redacted form as an exhibit, with the proposed redacted version filed “as a subset of that exhibit.”
  • All motions must be accompanied by a joint index of the documents proposed for seal, including the basis for sealing and any objection thereto.

Finally, as for notable omissions, Justice Sherwood appears to have dispensed with his former requirement – which, as far as I’m aware, was entirely unique to his Part – that  motion submissions also be provided to the court “in .rtf format on a computer disk.”

**Nota Bene** – Attention Kings County Commercial Division practitioners: How much is your case worth? The general practice rules for the Kings County Commercial Division also were updated this month to double the monetary threshold from $75,000 to $150,000.

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Your client wants to recover damages for breach of contract and demands that you assert as many causes of action as possible.  In addition to the breach cause of action, you consider a declaratory judgment claim, right?  Wrong!   The Second Department has held time and time again that “[a] cause of action for a declaratory judgment is unnecessary and inappropriate when the plaintiff has an adequate, alternative remedy in another form of action, such as breach of contract” (see BGW v. Mount Kisco; Stuckey v Lutheran Care Found. Network, Inc.; and Alizio v Feldman).

Recently, the Second Department in Tiffany Tower Condominium, LLC, et al. v Insurance Company of the Greater New York reaffirmed this principle. There, Tiffany Tower Condominium, LLC (“Tiffany Tower”) sustained damage to its condominium during Superstorm Sandy. Insurance Company of the Greater New York (the “insurer”) paid Tiffany Tower’s original claim for the damage sustained to the condominium under Tiffany Tower’s insurance policy but when Tiffany Tower submitted a supplemental claim for the additional losses sustained to the condominium as a result of the storm, the insurer denied coverage. As a result, Tiffany Tower initiated a lawsuit seeking, among other things, to recover damages for breach of contract and for a judgment declaring that coverage for the supplemental claim was improperly denied.  The insurer moved to dismiss Tiffany Tower’s second, third, and fourth causes of action for breach of breach of contract, judgment declaring that coverage was improperly denied, and violation of General Business Law § 349, respectively. Justice Ash denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss these causes of action and the insurer appealed.

In its recent decision, the Second Department held that the Supreme Court erred and should have dismissed Tiffany Tower’s cause of action for a declaratory judgment. The Court held that where plaintiff has an “an adequate, alternative remedy in another form of action,” i.e., the breach of contract claim, the declaratory judgment cause of action is thus “unnecessary and inappropriate.”

Interestingly, the First and Fourth Departments have also dismissed declaratory judgment causes of action where plaintiff had an “adequate, alternative remedy in another form of action, such as breach of contract.”  (see Main Evaluations, Inc. v. State; Apple Records, Inc. v. Capital Records, Inc.) The Third Department, however, has had no similar holdings.

I made two observations coming out of Grand Central Station during my morning commute last week. First, the city really stinks after a string of oppressively hot and humid summer days. Second, there appears to be a temporary taxi stand, perhaps occasioned by the ongoing construction of the new One Vanderbilt building, just outside the south entrance of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street under the Park Avenue Viaduct.

This latter observation was rather rudely forced upon me when the precarious position of one such cab nearly caused me to traverse its front-end Bo and Luke Duke style. The site of the mangled NYC taxi medallion fastened to the cab’s dented hood was a striking metaphor for the current state of the taxi industry given the increasing popularity of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

The plight of the cabbie was on display in a recent decision from the Honorable O. Peter Sherwood of the Manhattan Commercial Division in a case called Capital One Equip. v Deus, in which the cabbie-defendants, after defaulting on a promissory note representing more than $400,000 borrowed to purchase a taxi medallion, attempted to rest on the traditional contractual defense of impracticability or impossibility of performance in a summary proceeding under CPLR 3213.

The essence of Defendants’ claim was that “due to the economic change in the medallion and taxi industry of New York by ride sharing applications like Uber and Lyft, there is an impossible hurdle for the defendants to overcome, making the repayment of the loan impossible.”

Readers may recall from their law-school hornbook days that the impossibility defense contemplates truly unexpected circumstances. As the plaintiff-lender in the Deus case put it, “the impossibility defense . . . only excuses a party’s contractual performance where there has been destruction or obstruction by God, a superior force, or by law.”

The cabbies, however, likened their situation to the kind of critical condition contemplated by the traditional defense, describing the industry as being “on life support with little to no chance for a reversal of its current dire situation.”

“At the heart of the problems facing the NYC Taxi industry,” cried the cabbies, “is the emergence of companies such as Uber and Lyft which are exempt from the regulatory framework burdening the medallion owners.” As a result, “ridership in New York City yellow taxi cabs has dropped almost 30%” and “NYC taxi medallions, which were selling for in excess of $1,000,000 as recently as 2013, have plummeted in market value” – all of which has led to a “collapse of unprecedented proportions.”

A creative argument to be sure, but the court wasn’t buying it. Citing New York case law going back to the late 1960’s, the court ultimately held for the plaintiff-lender, finding that “performance of a contract is not excused where impossibility or difficulty of performance is occasioned only by financial difficulty or economic hardship. Economic hardship alone cannot excuse performance; the impossibility must be produced by an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against in the contract.”

Coming on the heels of several driver suicides in recent months, the Deus decision is just more bad news for the NYC taxi industry. While market forces created by the advent of ride-sharing services may not be “superior” enough to satisfy the impossibility defense, one thing’s for sure: it’s a difficult time to be a taxi driver in New York City.

**UPDATE**  Perhaps the cabbies are seeing a little light after all. Around the time this post was published last week, news broke that the New York City Council had tugged the reigns of the Uber/Lyft ride-sharing industry by passing minimum-wage requirements for drivers, as well as a one-year freeze on the licensing of participating vehicles in the city. The first-of-their-kind bills, particularly the cap on e-hail cars, was driven in large part by increased problems related to city-street congestion. Today, Mayor de Blasio signed the bills into law.

 

The Appellate Division, in a short but direct ruling, reminds the bench and bar that courts cannot simply “search the record” and grant summary judgment on claims or defenses that are not the subject of the motion.  It did so this time in the context of an LLC judicial dissolution action pending in the Commercial Division of Nassau Supreme in Philogene v. Duckett.  This follows another recent decision by the same court two weeks earlier in  Singletary v. Alhalai Rest., Inc., a personal injury action.

The procedural setting in Philogene is somewhat unusual.  Plaintiff and defendant are 50/50 members of Verity Associates, LLC (“Verity”), which publishes cookbooks and recipes, such as America’s Most Wanted Recipes and Tried and True Recipe Secrets, through the internet.  Plaintiff commenced the action in his “individual” capacity, as well as “suing in the right” of Verity.  In his complaint, he asserted various claims, including breaches of fiduciary duty and contract, where he sought injunctive relief, damages and an accounting.  In turn, defendant counterclaimed for judicial dissolution and moved for summary judgment on that claim.  The motion court denied defendant’s motion for dissolution since it found that the stated purpose of the entity was being met and that it was financially feasible to continue Verity.  The court then “searched the record” concluding that “no further adjustment in their interests is necessary” and dismissed the complaint.

So what is the reach of a court’s authority to “search the record” and grant reverse summary judgment?

We’re all familiar with CPLR 3212(b) which empowers a court to “search the record” and award judgment to the non-movant.  In fact, if a court searches the record and concludes the non-movant should win, then the court has both the “power” and “responsibility” to render judgment accordingly, see Merritt Vineyards, Inc. v. Windy Heights Vineyard, Inc.  This authority, however, is not boundless.  The leading case from the Court of Appeals on the scope of this power is Dunham v. Hilco Constr. Co., where Chief Judge Kaye observed that, “[a]part from considerations of simple fairness, allowing a summary judgment motion by any party to bring up for review every claim and defense asserted by every other party would be tantamount to shifting the well-accepted burden of proof on summary judgment motions.”  Some courts have expressed  frustration with this limitation (e.g.,  “Although the Court would like nothing better than to put this case out of its misery, given Dunham . . . the Court will decline defendant’s invitation to search the record.”)  But by now, the law is clear that CPLR 3212(b) permits “searching the record” in the context of summary judgment is only appropriate on issues or claims raised by the motion, and nothing more.

Notwithstanding the narrow authority courts have to “search the record” in the context of a dispositive motion, this should not be confused with a court’s authority to decide non-dispositive motions (such as discovery related) on grounds other than those advanced by the parties in the motion papers, see, e.g., Tirado v. Miller (granting discovery related motion on grounds not argued by the parties).  For a good discussion of this distinction, the First Department’s ruling in Rosenblatt v. St. George Health and Racquetball Assocs., LLC is instructive.