New Jersey’s Appellate Division has once again served a stark reminder to prospective construction lien claimants regarding who may validly sign a construction lien claim.  The consequences of failing to properly execute a construction lien claim are dire – not only because the lien claim is subject to discharge, but along with that discharge may come an order requiring the payment of the attorneys’ fees and costs of the party making application for such discharge.

In Diamond Beach, LLC v. March Associates, Inc., Docket No. A-1704-17T1 (N.J. App. Div. December 24, 2018) (approved for publication), the court determined that the 2011 revisions to the Construction Lien Law did not serve to clarify or limit the then-existing construction lien signatory requirements, and therefore the 2011 revisions did not apply retroactively to lien claims filed prior to 2011.  Before the 2011 revisions, Lien Law Section 6 explicitly required that a lien be executed by a corporation’s “duly authorized officer.”  The 2011 revisions to Section 6 removed the “duly authorized officer” language, and instead stated that the lien claim form, provided in Section 8, “be signed, acknowledged and verified by oath of the claimant[.]”  The form in Section 8, however, requires that an “officer/member” sign the form, and the suggested notary form provides that the notary be satisfied that the signatory is the “Secretary (or other officer/manager/agent) of the Corporation (partnership or limited liability company)” with “authority to act on behalf of the Corporation (partnership or limited liability company) and who, by virtue of its Bylaws, or Resolution of its Board of Directors (or partnership or operating agreement) executed the [lien claim] on its behalf.”

The trial court in Diamond Beach had ordered that the subject lien claim be discharged because it had been signed by the subcontractor lien claimant’s Accounting & Information Systems Manager, and there was insufficient evidence to support the claimant’s contention that that manager had been expressly authorized to execute lien claims by the claimant’s Board of Directors.  Thus, the court found, under the pre-2011 Lien Law, that the lien claim had not been executed by a “duly authorized officer” of the lien claimant.  The trial court further awarded attorneys’ fees to the project owner, which had sought the discharge of the lien.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s determinations, including the award of fees, reading broadly Lien Law Section 15’s language regarding the circumstances under which lien rights are forfeited and an affected party is entitled to a fee award for obtaining such a determination.

Even under the post-2011 Lien Law, the court signaled that the results would have been the same for essentially the same reasons.  In last year’s published decision, NRG REMA LLC v. Creative Environmental Solutions Corp., 454 N.J. Super. 578 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 234 N.J. 577 (2018), the court conducted much the same analysis under the current law, and held a lien claim unenforceable that had been signed by the claimant’s “financial director” without any written evidence presented that such “financial director” was a corporate officer or designated by the Board of Directors to execute such documents on behalf of the claimant.  In doing so, the court noted that the Lien Law’s “procedural requirements were intended to be stringently applied.”

The critical lesson from the foregoing cases is that any business entity, however formed, that seeks to file a New Jersey construction lien claim, must ensure that the person signing that lien claim, is authorized to do so by the governing documents of that business entity – or by a written resolution or authorization duly executed by the appropriate board, officer, member or partner of that business entity – as that entity’s business form dictates.  The failure to have a properly-authorized individual execute the lien claim will, if challenged, prove fatal to the lien claim and extremely costly to the lien claimant.

 

A New Jersey appellate court ruled in Lopez v. Palin Enterprises, Associated, No. A-0886-17T4 (N.J. App. Div. December 5, 2018) that a tenant’s insurance policy was not the primary coverage for an injury to its employee which occurred within its leased premises.

The defendant in the case, Palin Enterprises, Associated (“Palin”) owned a commercial building and leased a portion of it to Agile Trade-Show Furnishings, Inc. (“Agile”).  Agile employed the plaintiff, Teodoro Lopez (“Lopez”).  Lopez was injured using a freight elevator located within the leased premises and sued Palin for damages.  Palin tendered the defense to Agile’s insurance company, Wausau Insurance (“Wausau”), arguing that the Wausau policy was the primary insurance coverage for Lopez’s claim.  Palin was named as an additional insured under the Wausau policy.  The Wausau policy provided “[t]his insurance shall be excess over any other insurance available to the additional insured whether such insurance is on an excess, contingent or primary basis, unless you are obligated under a written agreement to provide liability insurance for that additional insured on any other basis. In that event, this policy will apply solely on the basis required by such written agreement.”

The lease between Palin and Agile required Agile to procure “a comprehensive policy of liability insurance protecting [Palin] . . . against any liability whatsoever, occasioned by any occurrence on or about the Demised Premises.”  The lease did not require such policy to be the primary liability coverage for such occurrences.   The Court found that Wausau was not required to defend the Lopez lawsuit as its coverage is not to all claims, only as to all liability.  The Court ruled that due to the failure of the lease to specify that Agile’s liability insurance policy must be primary, per the terms of the Wausau policy it provides excess coverage and Palin’s liability insurance policy provides the primary coverage.

This case underscores the necessity of carefully drafting indemnity and insurance provisions in contracts to properly allocate risks between the parties thereto, specify the types of insurance each party must carry to cover such risks, and designate the insurance which is primary or excess.

 

 

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