At the New York City Bar Association the evening of February 25th, five recently retired justices of the Commercial Division—Hon. Eileen Bransten, Hon. Shirley W. Kornreich, Hon. Charles E. Ramos, Hon. Melvin L. Schweitzer, and moderator Hon. Carolyn E. Demarest—convened for a panel entitled “The Commercial Division: Past, Present and Future.” Here is a summary of some of the topics discussed by the panel:

History of the Commercial Division. Before the Commercial Division, commercial cases were heard in New York County’s Special Term, Part 1, a forum marked by chaos and disengaged justices. In Special Term, Part 1, there was no continuity and no monitoring of discovery. Opinions were generally drafted by the law department. Several of the panelists remarked that when they were in private practice, they had no faith that their clients would be treated fairly in Special Term, Part 1.

When it was first created, no judges were interested in sitting in the Commercial Division, as it had no rules and had not yet proved successful. Nowadays, by contrast, many view the Commercial Division as a stepping-off point to the Appellate Division. At a recent luncheon with judges from the Southern District, the federal judges complained that the Commercial Division was “taking all the good cases.”

Development of the Commercial Division Rules. The Rules began from discussions among judges about how to resolve certain common problems. The judges had similar, but not identical, part rules. Justice Ramos credited Robert L. Haig (who was in attendance, author of the exhaustive treatise on commercial litigation in New York courts) with creating uniform rules and then forming an advisory council. Justice Bransten emphasized that each new Rule is carefully considered and debated before it is enacted, going through multiple rounds of input from the advisory council, the chief counsel of court administration, board of judges, and public comment.

Effectiveness of the Rules. The panel generally agreed that the Rules have been effective because they allow individualism and flexibility to each part. For example, Justice Kornreich noted that the flexibility afforded by the Rules allowed her to make her procedures conform to the expectations of practitioners accustomed to the federal courts. The justices also discussed variations in their part rules concerning affidavits for direct examination and resolution of discovery disputes.

Common Mistakes Made by Practitioners. Throughout the evening, as well as in response to a specific question from the audience, the panelists shared the following tidbits of advice for attorneys in the Commercial Division:

  • Motions to dismiss should be utilized as much as possible, to clean the pleadings (and the scope of discovery) of non-meritorious claims, as well as to give the judge a “feel” for the case.
  • Unsolicited letters to the court should be avoided—if in doubt about whether a letter should be sent to chambers, ask the clerk in advance.
  • Preliminary conferences are an important opportunity to address the merits and educate the judge about the case, as well as to give the judge a sense of the potential usefulness of ADR.
  • Take care to read the Commercial Division Rules and Part Rules carefully. Justice Bransten believed that there should be stricter enforcement of the Rules.
  • Be aware of differences between federal and state procedural law, and do not confuse the two.
  • Take the court seriously—do not send in per-diem attorneys unfamiliar with the case.

Is the Commercial Division Elitist? The panel addressed this question last, and generally agreed that the Commercial Division was not elitist, although Justice Ramos conceded that it might appear so from the outside. Justice Schweitzer felt strongly that as the business center of the United States, if not the world, New York should devote extra resources to its commercial litigation courts to the extent necessary. Other benefits from the Commercial Division that justified its extra costs included:

  • The Commercial Division has made other Parts more efficient by not having to oversee trials of these matters;
  • High value cases attract higher-quality litigants who operate more efficiently and require less of the court’s time and resources;
  • The Commercial Division serves as a laboratory for creative solutions to issues affecting other courts; and
  • The Commercial Division does not really require so much extra resources—simply one extra clerk per Part.

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In a recent decision handed down just a couple of days ago, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed Justice Kornreich’s denial of singer and songwriter Kesha Sebert’s (“Kesha”) motion for leave to file second amended counterclaims, meaning Kesha will not be released from her recording contracts with producer Lukasz Gottwald, also known as Dr. Luke (“Gottwald”), and his former label, Kemosabe Records.

In October 2014, Gottwald sued Kesha in the New York County Commercial Division for, among other things, defamation and breach of contract after the singer accused Gottwald of various forms of abuse.  Kesha asserted several counterclaims.  Nearly three years later, Kesha moved for leave to assert second amended counterclaims seeking, among other things, a declaration terminating the agreements on the grounds of impossibility and impracticability of performance, and on the ground that the agreements violate California Labor Code § 2855, a seven-year rule limiting personal service contracts.

In March 2017, Justice Kornreich of the New York County Commercial Division denied Kesha’s motion for leave to amend, finding that Gottwald’s alleged behavior was foreseeable at the time Kesha entered into the recording agreements. As Justice Kornreich noted “[t]he defense of impossibility or impracticability of performance is applied narrowly and excuses contractual performance only when the destruction of the subject matter of the contract or the means of performance makes performance objectively impossible due to an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against in the contract.” Kesha appealed.

The Appellate Division, First Apartment affirmed Justice Kornreich’s decision, holding that Kesha’s counterclaim for a declaration terminating the agreements on the ground of impossibility and impracticability of performance was “speculative” and “contradicted by her own allegations that she had continued performing under the recording agreements.”

The First Department also rejected Kesha’s proposed declaratory judgment counterclaim based on California Labor Code § 2855 because it is barred by the choice of law provisions contained in the recording agreements. Based on the foregoing, the Court agreed with Justice Kornreich, finding Kesha’s proposed amendments were “palpably insufficient and devoid of merit.”

Finally, the First Department upheld Justice Kornreich’s decision compelling Kesha to produce documents held by her public relations firm and former attorney, holding that these communications “do not reflect a discussion of legal strategy relevant to the pending litigation but, rather, a discussion of public relations strategy, and are not protected under the attorney-client privilege.”