Lawsuits by homeowners against their own insurance companies for failing to pay on damage claims that homeowners believe and argue are covered by their policies of insurance are quite common in Florida.  Frequently these involve claims for water-related damages—a typical example being a slow leak from piping in a kitchen or bathroom sink that is unknown to the homeowner but that occurs over an extended period of time and that ultimately causes damage to adjoining cabinets or perhaps even flooring.  As a plumber who came to inspect such damage in my own house once remarked, when I asked him what all this meant, “Water has to go somewhere.”

A homeowner’s insurance policy is, in its most basic form, a contract of insurance.  Each party to any contract has certain rights, duties and obligations under the contract.   If a party breaches his or her contractual obligations, the other party may have a claim for damages.  Under these circumstances, while other claims may exist, the homeowner’s primary claim against her own insurance carrier, resulting from the carrier’s refusal or failure to pay for damages that the homeowner maintains are covered by her insurance policy, is a claim for breach of contract.

From a homeowner’s perspective, one of the advantages that perhaps minimizes the risk of a lawsuit against her own insurance company is the one-way attorney’s fee provision set forth in Florida Statutes Sec. 627.428.  Subsection (1) of this statute provides:

Upon the rendition of a judgment or decree by any of the courts of this state against an insurer and in favor of any named or omnibus insured or the named beneficiary under a policy or contract executed by the insurer, the trial court or, in the event of an appeal in which the insured or beneficiary prevails, the appellate court shall adjudge or decree against the insurer and in favor of the insured or beneficiary a reasonable sum as fees or compensation for the insured’s or beneficiary’s attorney prosecuting the suit in which the recovery is had.

Thus, if a homeowner sues her insurance company for failing to pay for a loss that the homeowner feels is covered by her policy and wins that lawsuit, she will be awarded her reasonable attorney’s fees.  If, however, the homeowner loses that lawsuit, she will not be required to pay the company’s attorney’s fees.  That is why Florida Statutes Sec. 627.428 is a one-way attorney’s fee statute.

If attorney’s fees are awarded, those fees become part of the actual judgment under subsection (3) of Florida Statutes Sec. 627.428.   In addition, if an appeal is filed and the homeowner prevails in that appeal, the attorney’s fees associated with the appeal are recoverable.

Developers often employ the “time of application” rule (“TOA Rule”) to avoid having to comply with certain legal requirements enacted after an application has been submitted to a local planning or zoning board.  More specifically, the TOA Rule provides that “notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, those development regulations which are in effect on the date of submission of an application for development shall govern the review of that application….”  See N.J.S.A. 40:55D-10.5 (emphasis added).  Notwithstanding this statutory provision, developers must still comply with any new laws that specifically relate to health and public safety.

The TOA Rule replaced the “time of decision” rule, which allowed municipalities to apply new or amended ordinances to pending development applications.  As a result, applicants were often compelled to incur significant costs and delays associated with altering their applications in an effort to meet the new legal requirements.  The TOA Rule only applies, however, once a development application has been “submitted” to a municipality.  Until that time, a developer remains responsible for complying with all legal requirements regardless of when they took effect.

While the term “submission” is not expressly defined under the statute, the New Jersey Supreme Court squarely addressed the issue in Dunbar Homes, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of Franklin Township, 233 N.J. 546 (2018).  In Dunbar Homes, the developer filed an application to construct 55 garden apartments on a site where garden apartments were considered a permitted conditional use.  The next day, the Township enacted an ordinance that prohibited garden apartments in the zone where the site was located. The zoning official subsequently determined that the developer had not submitted all documents required by the zoning board’s development application checklist.  The developer was then notified that the TOA Rule was inapplicable and that it would need to file a new application with the zoning board seeking a “use” variance pursuant to the more stringent standards implicated by N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(1).

The zoning board sided with the zoning official and the developer appealed to the Law Division.  The Law Division judge disagreed and concluded that the application was deemed “submitted” because it provided the board with “sufficient information to begin its review” and, therefore, the TOA Rule applied.  The Township appealed and the Appellate Division reversed that decision after finding that the relevant statute defining the term “application for development” included all documents prescribed by the board’s checklist for development.  Applying this bright-line rule, the Appellate Division concluded that the failure to submit even one of the items on the board’s checklist precluded application of the TOA rule.  The Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the Appellate Division, noting that N.J.S.A. 40:55D-3 expressly defined an “application for development” to include:  “the application form and all accompanying documents required by ordinance.”  Because it was undisputed that the developer failed to submit all required documentation and neither sought nor obtained a waiver regarding any requirements, the Court found that the application was never submitted and the TOA Rule did not apply.

Accordingly, developers must be certain to submit all documents identified in the municipal development application checklist or seek and obtain a waiver.  Only by vigorously complying with the requirements of the municipal checklist can a developer expect to avail itself of the protections afforded by the TOA Rule.

In today’s tax dollar hungry environment, municipalities are consistently searching for ways to increase their ratable base and in this regard are viewing tax exemption claims even more critically.  Real property tax exemptions are a creature of statute and run against the Constitutional mandate that all property is to be taxed uniformly, with all property owners required to shoulder their fair share of the local property tax burden.  As such, these exemptions are to be strictly construed and it is the burden of the applicant to prove entitlement to the exemption.  Abunda Life Church of Body, Mind & Spirit v. Asbury Park City, 18 N.J. Tax 483, 485 (1999) and Teaneck v. Lutheran Bible Inst., 20 N.J. 86, 90 (1955).

In a recently decided case, the New Jersey Tax Court held that although the municipality may have been correct in rejecting an exemption on the grounds that the property did not constitute a religious parsonage, it erred in denying the exemption as the property was deemed to be essential to the religious use and actually used in conjunction with the religious operations.  Mikvah Association v. Township of Teaneck, Docket Nos 015784-2014; 012594-2105; 010909-2016; and 012807-2017.

The relevant exemption statute, N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6, provides an exemption for:

[A]ll buildings actually used in the work of associations and corporations organized exclusively for religious purposes, including religious worship, or charitable purposes, provided that if any portion of a building used for that purpose is leased to a profit-making organization or is otherwise used for purposes which are not themselves exempt from taxation, that portion shall be subject to  taxation and the remaining portion shall be exempt from taxation … the buildings, not exceeding two, actually occupied as a parsonage by the officiating clergymen of any religious corporation of this State, together with the accessory buildings located on the same premises; the land whereon any of the buildings hereinbefore mentioned are erected, and which may be necessary for the fair enjoyment thereof, and which is devoted to the purposes above mentioned and to no other purpose and does not exceed five acres in extent ….

In Mikvah, the Tax Court rejected the availability of an exemption under the “parsonage” provision holding that the resident of the home, who was responsible for supervising the mikvah, did not qualify as an “officiating clergyperson.”  There the court found that the resident in question did not perform the expected duties of an officiating clergyperson in the context of the Jewish faith in that she did not perform such critical “officiating” tasks as teaching, leading, participating in religious services, providing sermons, or officiating at Congregation weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.  See City of Long Branch v. Ohel Yaacob Congregation, 20 N.J. Tax 511, 519 (2003).

Even though the court precluded exemption under the parsonage provision, it nonetheless found exemption of the residential structure to be appropriate in this instance because the resident of the property, which is located on the same street as the recognized exempt facility where religious bathing rituals are performed, was deemed to be the Ritual Director, responsible for maintenance and operation of the mikvah, and on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Because the religious organization property owner required the resident of the property to be physically proximate to the mikvah and readily accessible to ritual participants, the court found her to be a necessity for the proper and efficient operation of the mikvah and not simply residing in the residence as a matter of convenience for the resident.   Consequently, the Tax Court concluded that the residential property in which the Ritual Director resided with her family, was “actually used” in the operation of the mikvah and qualified for exemption pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6

Florida has implemented a rather simple statutory scheme to address claims that a real property owner believes she may have against a contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional for construction defects on her property—whether those defects involve construction, repairs, remodeling or alterations to the property.  The law, Florida Statutes Sections 558.001-005, attempts to strike a balance between protecting the rights of property owners and reducing the litigation associated with such claims.

In a nutshell, before a property owner files a lawsuit in court or a demand for arbitration, to the extent arbitration is required, she must first, at least 60 days (120 days if the action involves an association that represents more than 20 parcels) prior to filing that lawsuit or demand for arbitration, serve a written notice of her claim on the contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional whom she claims is responsible for the defects.  Defects encompass a number of different deficiencies arising from defective materials, components and products; violations of applicable codes; failure of a design professional to comply with applicable standards; or a failure to build or remodel property consistent with accepted trade standards.

The 60-day pre-suit notice must describe in detail each and every construction defect that the owner believes exists, as well as all known damages resulting from the defects and the location of each defect.  Within 30 days of service of the owner’s notice of claim, the contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional to whom the notice is directed is entitled to inspect the property in order to assess each defect.  If the contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional determines that destructive testing is necessary to determine the nature of the alleged defects and what caused those defects, there are certain other notice rights and obligations associated with that destructive testing, including the right of the owner to object under Florida Statutes Sec. 558.004.

Within 45 days after service of the property owner’s notice of claim, the contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional served with that notice is required to serve a written response which must provide for one of the following:

  • an offer to remedy the defect, at no cost to the owner, with a detailed description of the necessary repairs and the timetable for completion;
  • an offer to settle the claim by a payment of money;
  • a hybrid, for lack of a better term, offer to settle the claim by a combination of repairs and a monetary payment, with, again a description of the required repairs and the timetable to complete those repairs;
  • a statement that the claim is disputed and that there will be no attempt to remedy the alleged defect or settle the claim;
  • a statement that any monetary payment will be determined by the contractor’s, subcontractor’s, supplier’s or design professional’s insurance company within 30 days after the insurance company is notified of the claim. This statement may include an offer under paragraph c.) contingent upon the owner accepting the carrier’s determination whether to make an additional payment of money.

An owner who receives a settlement offer must serve a written notice of acceptance or rejection within 45 days after receiving that offer.  If the contractor, subcontractor, supplier of design professional either disputes the owner’s notice of claim or does not respond to it, the owner can, without any further notice, file a lawsuit or demand for arbitration, where applicable.

If a contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional is sued for alleged construction defects without the owner first providing any pre-suit notice, that contractor, subcontractor, supplier or design professional should immediately move to stay the lawsuit under Florida Statutes Sec. 558.003

The Opportunity Zone program enacted as part of the 2017 federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is designed to spark long-term capital investment into low-income and urban communities. The 169 Opportunity Zones (or tracts) designated in New Jersey by Governor Murphy are a complete game changer and contain attractive investment incentives for developers and investors.

Via the Opportunity Zone program, developers and investors can tap into and reinvest their unrealized capital gains without paying capital gains for a period of time, if at all. For example, capital gains invested or reinvested in an Opportunity Fund will receive a step up in basis of 10 percent if held for at least five years and by an additional 5 percent if held for at least 7 years, excluding up to 15 percent of the original gain from taxation.

An even greater savings is realized if the investment in the Opportunity Fund is held for at least 10 years. The gain accrued while invested is permanently excluded from taxable income of capital gains upon the sale or exchange of the investment.

With these tax incentives in place, Senator Corey Booker (NJ) believes the barriers between communities and the capital needed to generate economic growth and opportunity will be broken down.

The Opportunity Zones were designated based on key economic indicators in certain neighborhoods and communities such as income, unemployment rate and property values but also consideration was given to accessibility to mass transit and the value of existing investments. The 169 tracts were approved by the US Department of the Treasury on April 9, 2018. You can view the interactive map of designated Opportunity Zones for New Jersey by clicking here.