Work Continues, At Home And In The Community

As we in New Jersey enter our eighth week of stay-at-home orders, we hope this finds you and your loved-ones healthy. We continue to work from home, conducting appearances via video-conference with those courts equipped to do so. As always, we can be reached 24/7 by email or by phone (press 2 for John, press 3 for Peter).

While we are able to continue working, not all have been so blessed. Food pantries nation-wide have seen an increase in clientele since the emergence of COVID-19. Northwest New Jersey is no exception. John’s grandson, Josh, has been volunteering at the Sparta Ecumenical Food Pantry for 18 months and has noted a marked increase of first-time clients. He has heard many stories of neighbors finding themselves newly out of work and in need of assistance to feed their families. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy highlighted this need and Josh’s work during a recent press conference.

Click on the photo to watch Gov. Murphy’s shout-out

We also invite you to watch Josh’s video, which he created to demonstrate the amazing work being done at the food pantry, as well as the urgent need. We’re proud of you, Josh!

Thank you to all who have volunteered your talents to help your neighbors during this time! Thank you to the front-line workers who protect and serve! Thank you to the supply chain workers who keep our country moving!

We Are Here For You

As we continue to work from home, we hope that all of you are doing well, and staying safe, healthy, and self-distanced (a reflexive verb that has entered the lexicon perhaps for as far as we can imagine).  For everyone, our work and world exist on email, phone, Skype, Zoom, and the like.  A Zoom birthday party held this week brought family together from North Carolina and New Jersey, with surprising success.  With courts largely closed for now, we anticipate in-person status conferences and motions moving from the courtroom, past the telephone, and on to Zoom and other videoconference platforms.  Depositions can work well via videoconference in many cases. Mediations, and even arbitrations, are transitioning to video, at least for the foreseeable future, in appropriate cases.  But trials, especially in personal injury cases, are another subject.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys will still want their juries in live courtroom settings . . . until the trial delays bring financial woes to their firms and their clients.  As we prepare for those trials, whenever they resume, we will keep you advised of courts’ changing rules and schedules, and of legal developments of interest.  Stay safe and healthy.

As always, we can be reached 24/7. Our phones will route your calls to John (press 2) or Peter (press 3) at any time, with immediate connection to our cell phones.

Our Courts Are Closed But We Will Be Working

The courts in New York and New Jersey have closed for hearings, conferences, and jury trials.  Our friends in Pennsylvania report many similar closings.  We even had a Philadelphia mediation postponed. Meetings of 50 or more are prohibited in New York and New Jersey, restaurants and bars are closed, and other non-essential businesses are encouraged to follow suit.  We will continue to work in the office unless ordered to stay home. We are fully able to work remotely without interruption.  Court filings in most of our courts are done electronically, and we receive orders and notifications from the courts in the same manner.  We will receive our emails, of course.  If we are out, or at night, our phones will route your calls to John (Press 2) or Peter (Press 3) at any time, with immediate connection to our cell phones.

We hope this will not last long.  Most important, we hope you all remain safe and healthy.

Federal Court Approves Transportation ADR Council’s Fairness and Procedures

The Transportation Lawyers Association has established and maintains the Transportation ADR Council, which provides arbitration and mediation services for parties involved in transportation-related disputes. The arbitrators and mediators on the Council are all members of the TLA, must have ten years or more legal experience in the transportation field, and must have extensive training in alternate dispute resolution procedures, including arbitration and mediation.

The U.S. District Court in Nashville, Tennessee, recently ruled that the Transportation ADR Council, or TAC, provides fairness consistent with due process, has procedural rules that guard against bias, and requires each arbitrator to “faithfully hear and examine the matter in controversy and make a just award.” In Byars v. Dart Transit Co., plaintiff brought an employment claim against Dart Transit. On Dart’s motion to compel arbitration before the TAC as prescribed in the parties’ agreement, Judge Waverly Crenshaw, Jr., analyzed the structure and procedural safeguards provided by the TAC’s arbitration rules, and ruled in favor of arbitration.

Plaintiff raised concern because all of the TAC arbitrators are transportation lawyers representing businesses in the transportation industry. That is of course a very wide realm. The Arbitration Rules prohibit any person who has a financial or personal interest in the outcome from serving as an arbitrator, and also give the parties the opportunity to question the arbitrators’ impartiality. Quoting the Sixth Circuit, Judge Ryan held that even if all TAC arbitrators had backgrounds in transportation employer defense work, “a party cannot avoid arbitration simply by alleging that the arbitration panel will be biased.”

The court ruled the parties’ agreement to arbitrate in Minnesota is enforceable under the Minnesota Uniform Arbitration Act, even though the Federal Arbitration Act may be inapplicable under the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in New Prime v. Oliveira. That case held that the FAA does not apply to disputes involving transportation workers’ contracts.

John Lane is a member of the TLA and currently serves as co-chair of the Transportation ADR Council, with Daniel Fulkerson, Esq., of Houston. Like most TAC arbitrators, John is also a commercial arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association.

“Removal to Federal Court Changes the Field of Play, but not the Game Being Played.”

James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse
Philadelphia, PA

With those words the Third Circuit rules that removal to federal court does not cure jurisdictional defects or waive any other defenses available in state court. Danziger & DeLlamo, LLP v. Morgan Verkamp, LLP, (January 15, 2020) is a battle between two law firms over a purported referral fee worth millions of dollars. Morgan Verkamp, an Ohio firm, succeeded in a qui tam action in Pennsylvania federal court. Danziger, a Texas law firm, says it referred the case to Morgan, for an orally agreed referral fee made by telephone between Texas and Ohio.

In a qui tam action a party, called a relator, pursues a claim on behalf of a government, which is deemed the real party in interest. If the government succeeds, the relator receives a share of the award. In this case, Morgan brought the case under the federal False Claims Act, and the U.S. government received a settlement for hundreds of millions of dollars; Morgan received several million dollars in attorneys’ fees. Danziger wants a share of those fees.

The two firms spent a year and a half conducting discovery in a procedure permitted by Pennsylvania state court rules before the filing of a complaint. When Danziger finally filed its complaint, Morgan Verkamp promptly removed the lawsuit to federal court and moved to dismiss, arguing that it was immune from personal jurisdiction in Pennsylvania. The district court agreed and dismissed the complaint. Danziger appealed, arguing that Morgan consented to personal jurisdiction by removing the case to federal court.

The Third Circuit disagreed:

We now adopt this rule.  On removal, a defendant brings its defenses with it to federal court. * * * Removal does not cure jurisdictional defects, so defendants can still challenge jurisdiction after removal.

The Third Circuit, which includes New Jersey, now joins the First, Second, and Eighth Circuits. “[T]he federal court takes up where the state court left off.” Nationwide Eng’g & Control Sys., Inc. v. Thomas (8th Cir. 1988). The governing case in the Second Circuit, which includes New York, is Cantor Fitzgerald, L.P. v. Peaslee (2nd Cir. 1996) (“Removal does not waive any Rule 12(b) defenses.”). Cantor continues to be cited by the New York federal courts.

We routinely remove cases to federal court in New York and New Jersey, with the confidence that our clients’ defenses to personal jurisdiction will remain intact in the federal forum.

What are Plaintiffs Doing to Skirt the Graves Amendment?

The Graves Amendment, passed in 2005 and codified at 49 U.S.C. § 30106, bars an action for vicarious liability under state law against commercial lessors of motor vehicles involved in motor vehicle accidents, provided that the lessor is free from negligence or criminal wrongdoing. Courts across the country have used the Amendment to protect lessors of tractors, trailers, and intermodal chassis. New York courts have been leaders in protecting rights under the Graves Amendment, especially against New York’s infamous vicarious liability statute, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388. So, what are the plaintiffs’ lawyers doing to avoid the Graves Amendment?

A double-truck head-on collision, and a downtown New York terrorist attack, illustrate the cleverness of the plaintiffs’ bar. The former is seen in the Illinois federal court case of Favorite v. Sakovsky (August 16, 2019). The terrorist attack is at the center of Grandelli v. City of New York, in Manhattan state court (September 24, 2019). In each horrible case the plaintiffs’ attorneys attempt to increase the pool of financially viable defendants, and to avoid the Graves Amendment.

In Favorite, widow Stephanie Favorite sued the Sakovski estate, BB Wolf, Inc., and Compass Truck Rental and Leasing, the company that leased the Sakovski truck to BB Wolf. She alleged that Compass negligently entrusted the truck to BB Wolf, and should have known that BB Wolf might employ an incompetent driver. Specious as the allegation was, the court denied Compass’s Graves Amendment motion to dismiss because there had been no discovery as yet. A full fact development might support Compass, but the bare complaint did state a cause of action for negligent entrustment.

In Grandelli, Sayfullo Saipov rented a pick-up truck from Home Depot and drove it into a crowd of pedestrians and bicyclists in lower Manhattan, killing eight people. The estate of one victim brought suit against the City and several agencies, and also against Home Depot, alleging that the truck’s lessor negligently entrusted the truck to Saipov, in spite of certain “red flags” from law enforcement publications to be on the lookout for customers who might use a truck to commit terrorist attacks. Home Depot made a Graves Amendment motion to dismiss before conducting any discovery. The court in New York County denied the motion without prejudice, on the incomplete record before it. The court held that the complaint sufficiently stated a case for negligent entrustment, which circumvents the Graves Amendment.

Only one appellate court has considered whether a negligent entrustment claim is barred by the Graves Amendment. In Carton v. GMAC (2010), the Eighth Circuit ruled that vicarious liability claims are barred, but a claim of negligent entrustment, not just negligent maintenance of a leased vehicle, can create an exception to the Graves Amendment. But in this case, the court held plaintiff’s allegations failed to rise to the level of negligent entrustment.

For now, equipment lessors will continue to face negligent entrustment claims, likely unprotected by the Graves Amendment. Lessors should be prepared to present proof of careful practices and procedures to thwart claims of negligent entrustment.

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: Independent Contractor v. Employee

NJ: Proposed Legislation

NJ State House

It was all but certain to pass. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was waiting to sign it. Television ads proclaimed its virtues. But the State’s anti-independent contractor bill (similar to California’s AB5) was pulled from the last legislative session. Groups representing independent contractors in myriad occupations made forceful and practical arguments against the bill. Included were freelance writers, musicians, doctors, various independent teachers, truckers, graphic designers, bakers, and others. Many legitimate independent contractor businesspeople prefer the freedom of owning and operating their own businesses. They do not want to be artificially classified as employees, a move they say would harm their businesses. The legislation was re-introduced on January 14th, and referred to the Labor Committees of both the Senate and Assembly. We are watching developments in both New Jersey and New York, which is also considering similar legislation.

CA: Preliminary Injunction Granted

Much to the relief of many, on January 16th, Judge Benitez granted a preliminary injunction to the California Trucking Association, temporarily stopping the enforcement of AB5 upon motor carriers. In his decision, Judge Benitez writes, “…there is little question that the State of California has encroached on Congress’ territory by eliminating motor carriers’ choice to use independent contractor drivers, a choice at the very heart of interstate trucking. In so doing, California disregards Congress’ intent to deregulate interstate trucking, instead adopting a law that produces the patchwork of state regulations Congress sought to prevent. With AB-5, California runs off the road and into the preemption ditch of the FAAAA.”

CA Federal Court Restrains Enforcement of “ABC Test” for Motor Carriers

Edward J. Schwartz United States Courthouse

A federal district court in southern California issued a temporary restraining order on New Year’s Eve barring the enforcement of the state’s Assembly Bill 5, set to go into effect on New Year’s Day. AB 5 adopted the “ABC test” to determine if a particular worker is an independent contractor or an employee. The test hits particularly hard on the motor carrier industry, because many trucking companies use legitimate independent contractors – owner-operators – as part of their business model. The court’s decision was compelled largely because under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”), states are not to enact or enforce their own laws related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier regarding transportation of property. The TRO applies only to the motor carrier industry.

The ABC test presumes that a worker is an employee, not an independent contractor. The hiring party can rebut that presumption only if it can establish each of three factors:

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John Lane Reflects Upon a Great TIDA Annual Seminar Amid a Gathering of National Heroes

photo by Louise Lane

I recently attended the 27th Annual Seminar of the Trucking Industry Defense Association, in Tampa, Florida, gathering with wonderful friends from across the county. As a bonus, we shared our hotel with some of the most inspiring Americans – recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor at their annual meeting.

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Of Course Unreimbursed Medical Expenses are Recoverable…Aren’t They?

Traditionally, New Jersey’s no-fault statute was interpreted to allow a plaintiff in a personal injury suit to recover unreimbursed medical expenses that exceeded his PIP coverage.  This was not an issue when all policies carried a required $250,000 in PIP coverage.  Over the years, however, the state legislature tweaked the PIP requirements, allowing insureds to purchase automobile liability policies with lower PIP limits to combat the rising cost of policy premiums.  Today, insureds can designate their health insurer as their primary PIP carrier, or purchase auto policies with PIP coverage as low as $15,000.  The courts, however, continued to view any medical expenses exceeding an insured’s PIP coverage recoverable, except where those expenses were paid by a private health insurer.            

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