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Court Finds City Not Liable For Plaintiff’s Injury Suffered From Stepping Into Pothole

Plaintiff Giani Petty broke her ankle when she stepped into a pothole on a residential street in Newark.  The plaintiff sued the City of Newark for her injuries suffered as a result of the fall. The issue in Petty v. City of Newark, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3122 (App. Div. Dec. 20, 2021) was whether the City was immune under the allocation of resources defense found in the Tort Claims Act.

In defending the case, the City relied upon the immunity found in N.J.S.A. 59:2-3(d) “which affords discretion to municipalities to allocate limited resources – in this instance, the resources available to identify and repair potholes.”  The trial court found that this immunity did apply and further it found that the plaintiff “did not demonstrate that the City’s failure to repair the pothole she stepped in was palpably unreasonable.”

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court that “the City’s decision to repair potholes within limits of its budgetary allocation for street maintenance was not palpably unreasonable.”  The City was able to present evidence that the Mayor and council approved an annual budget that allocated resources for street maintenance.  Additionally, the discovery included the deposition of the Supervisor of street repairs who explained the process by which the City identified potholes and prioritized repair efforts using available resources.  The City’s asphalt crew and Supervisor exercised their discretion by submitting daily pothole repair reports that detailed their plan each day to identify and fix potholes.

The Appellate Division noted that the Tort Claims Act provides immunity to a public entity which “is not liable for the exercise of discretion when, in the face of competing demands, it determines whether and how to utilize or apply existing resources, including those allocated for equipment, facilities and personnel unless a Court concludes that the determination of the public entity was palpably unreasonable.”

Here, the Court noted that the City did exercise its discretion in choosing which potholes to fix on a given day from “the large universe of potholes” that form on its streets.  The Appellate Division noted that there was nothing in the record which supported the plaintiff’s argument that the City’s exercise of discretion was palpably unreasonable for failing to fix this particular pothole that the plaintiff stepped in.

As an example, the record did not show that the City received complaints regarding that specific pothole.  The Appellate Division noted that the City’s efforts to “prioritize the remediation of potholes” was not perfect but it was not so “palpably unreasonable” as to defeat its entitlement to tort claims immunity under N.J.S.A. 59:2-3(d).   Thus, the Appellate Division agreed that the City enjoyed immunity under this statutory provision and affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint.

 


Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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5 New Year’s Resolutions For Your Workplace In 2022

With 2022 around the corner, employers are presented with a wonderful opportunity to review internal policies/procedures and hopefully help avoid future workplace legal problems.  Here are five suggested New Year’s Workplace Resolutions for 2022.

  1. When was the last time your employee handbook was reviewed and updated? Policies and procedures need to be revised periodically to keep current with ongoing changes in the law, especially in a place like New Jersey, where it is frequently the case that new laws and decisions impose new legal requirements. Therefore, 2022 presents a great opportunity for employers to review handbook polices and bring them up to speed with any recent legal changes that impact your workplace, or to reflect changes in your workplace because of adjusting to doing business in a pandemic, i.e. work from home policies. Alternatively, if you do not have one yet, the upcoming new year provides a wonderful chance for your workplace to reap the benefit of having all relevant workplace policies stored in one collective document. Relatedly, when was the last time you conducted anti-harassment training for your workforce? While the pandemic has made this harder to do, virtual trainings are a great way to continue to meet all mandated employee training requirements.
  2. When was the last time your job descriptions were reviewed and updated? Job descriptions are very important, especially in gauging compliance with mandated accommodation requirements for persons with disabilities under both federal and state discrimination laws.  Ask yourself: do your job descriptions accurately reflect what an employee actually does in his/her job today?  Because courts often rely on how an employer defines the essential job functions of an employment position in assessing disability discrimination and failure to accommodate issues, it is important that employers maintain updated job descriptions so there will be a point of reference if any issues arise as to what the essential functions of a job position are for accommodation purposes. Moreover, just like employee handbooks, if you do not have job descriptions today, the beginning of the upcoming year is a good time to commence preparing them.
  3. Are your employee leave policies up to date? It is important under both federal and state leave laws that leave policies are accurate and current. One of the most effective ways of meeting this requirement is having updated leave policies in an employee handbook, so use the beginning of next year to check that such policies are accurate and up to date.
  4. When was the last time you conducted an audit of your payroll practices? One of the chief concerns to examine here is ensuring that all your employees are properly classified as exempt versus non-exempt employees for purposes of their proper compensation under federal and state wage and hour laws. It is always a good idea for an employer to do a quick review of employment classifications each year in case changes need to be made based upon any modifications in employee job responsibilities.
  5. Are you properly performing background checks on current and prospective employees? Remember, there are strict requirements concerning how such background checks are conducted under not only the Fair Credit Reporting Act but also under relevant federal employment discrimination laws such as Title VII. Several years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a detailed compliance guidance on how the results of a background check can be utilized in assessing a person’s suitability for employment, and New Jersey also passed its own restrictions, i.e. Ban the Box rules, so it is important that all background check policies meet these requirements.
  6. And here is a bonus suggestion for you. Mandatory COVID vaccination requirements are still in flux. The OSHA rule for companies with 100 employees is no longer stayed, and the agency has advised that it will start investigating employers for compliance on January 10, 2022. (Public federal contractor and health care mandates are still subject to court orders barring enforcement of such standards to some degree.)  This means that employers need to start taking steps to meet the requirements of the OSHA mandate-by either collecting proof of employee vaccinations or ensuring weekly testing for employees. Remember also that disability and possible religious exemptions are potentially available to vaccination requirements and employers need to understand how to address such issues.

In sum, the upcoming new year provides a wonderful opportunity for employers to proactively evaluate internal policies and procedures to make 2022 a legally problem free year in your workplace.

A Happy and Healthy New Year to All and please continue to stay safe!!

 


Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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Amended NJLAD Offers Greater Protections to Older Workers

On October 5, 2021, Governor Phil Murphy signed a new law that greatly expands the protections afforded to older workers under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) These Amendments took effect immediately, meaning older workers are now already afforded these enhanced protections against workplace discrimination. As a result, employers today must promptly reevaluate both their hiring practices and any policies requiring that older workers retire when they reach a prescribed age.

The scope of the recent amendments is broad, and change the protections already afforded to older employees under the NJLAD in the following significant ways:

  • Repeals Section 11 of the NJLAD which allowed employers to refuse to accept for employment or to promote individuals over 70 years old. The elimination of this provision broadens employment opportunities for older individuals over 70 years of age, and as a practical matter, means that age can no longer be used as a factor in the hiring or promotion process.
  • Amends Section 5 of the NJLAD that limited the remedies applicable when an employee claimed that he/she was unlawfully forced to retire. Before this law, those employees were required to file a complaint with the Attorney General and relief was limited to reinstatement with back pay and interest. The revised provision now makes available all of the remedies provided by “any applicable law,” subjecting employers who engage in such age discrimination to greater risk of legal exposure through these enhanced remedies.
  • Eliminates the statutory provision that permitted government employers to force mandatory retirement at a certain age if the employer could show “that the retirement age bears a manifest relationship to the employment in question.” Now, government employers must continue to provide employment opportunities to older workers as long as the employees can perform their official duties and responsibilities.
  • Repeals Section 4 of the NJLAD which previously stated that “an employee who has attained 70 years of age who is serving under a contract of tenure or similar arrangement providing for tenure at a public or private institution of higher education may, at the option of the institution, be required to retire.” Under this amendment, mandatory retirement policies based on age at higher education institutions are now no longer permitted.

One question that was prominent upon the passage of these amendments   was how this new law would apply to well established mandatory retirement requirements that applied to certain categories of public employees. Significantly, the new law does not change the mandatory requirement age of 70 for State court judges at any level or for police and fire departments.

In light of these recent changes, employers should review all relevant employment policies to ensure that those policies remain consistent with these new legal requirements and do not run afoul of the added protections for older employees under the newly revised NJLAD.

 


Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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United States Supreme Court Reaffirms the Defense of Qualified Immunity as Applied in Constitutional Excessive Force Cases

The United States Supreme Court has taken two opportunities to reaffirm the use of the defense of qualified immunity as applied to police officers who have been sued for civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On October 18, 2021, the Court rendered decisions in City of Tahlequah v. Bond, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 5310 (U.S. Oct. 18, 2021) and Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 5311 (U.S. Oct. 18, 2021) in which both claimants alleged that responding officers violated their respective constitutional rights by using excessive force. The issue in both cases was whether the rights that the claimants alleged to have been violated by the officers were “clearly established” such that the officers were given fair notice that their conduct was in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The Supreme Court’s analysis in these recent decisions centered on the doctrine of qualified immunity and the doctrine’s protection of officers from civil liability so long as the officers’ conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” The Court explained that the doctrine of qualified immunity will be applicable to “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” The Court also reiterated that lower courts must not “define clearly established law at too high a level of generality.” A general rule or a rule of law suggested by then-existing precedent will not be sufficiently “clearly established.” Rather, the Supreme Court reasoned that “rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is ‘clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.’” While a jurisdiction’s precedent need not be directly on point with the facts of a given situation, the statutory or constitutional question must be beyond debate. As the Court noted, these principals are particularly critical in Fourth Amendment excessive force situations and the Court will decline to follow a jurisdiction’s precedent that does not meet this “clearly established” criteria.

In Tahlequah v. Bond, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 5310 (U.S. Oct. 18, 2021), Officers Josh Girdner, Chase Reed and Brandon Vick responded to a call from a woman claiming that her ex-husband, Dominic Rollice, entered her home’s garage and would not leave. The officers met Rollice at the side door of the garage and spoke to him from a distance. Rollice appeared nervous and when Officer Girdner took a step toward Rollice, Rollice turned and walked toward the back of the garage where his tools had been stored. Officers followed from six feet away, ordering Rollice to stop as he proceeded to pick up a hammer. Rollice held the hammer as if he were going to swing it and the officers drew their guns ordering Rollice to drop the hammer. When Rollice raised the hammer over his head and took a stance as if he were about to throw the hammer or charge the officers, Officer Girdner and Officer Vick fired their weapons and killed Rollice. The incident was captured on body camera footage.

Officers Girdner and Vick, among others, were sued by Rollice’s estate pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an alleged violation of Rollice’s Fourth Amendment rights. The officers filed a motion for summary judgment on the merits of the case, arguing the defense of qualified immunity, which motion the District Court granted by finding that the use of force was reasonable and even if it was not, qualified immunity was applicable.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision. The Tenth Circuit reasoned that its precedent allows an officer to be held liable for a shooting that is objectively reasonable if the officer’s reckless or deliberate conduct created a situation requiring the deadly force. With this situation, the Appeals Court believed that the officers stepping toward Rollice and essentially cornering him in the garage recklessly necessitated the use of deadly force. Further, the Tenth Circuit, relying on Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F. 3d 837 (10th Cir. 1997), found that the officers’ conduct in this case was clearly established as unlawful. In Allen, officers responded to a potential suicide call by rushing toward a parked car, screaming at the suspect and attempting to physically wrestle a gun from his hands.

Upon appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit’s decision. The Court did not believe it needed to decide whether the Fourth Amendment was violated or whether the officers recklessly created a situation requiring deadly force. Instead, the Court held that the officers did not violate any clearly established law in the jurisdiction which would put them on notice that their conduct was unlawful. The Court distinguished this case from the facts in Allen in that the officers here engaged in a conversation with Rollice, stayed six feet away from him the entire time and did not yell at him until he picked up the hammer. Based upon these facts, the Court reasoned that Allen did not “clearly establish” the officers’ conduct as reckless or excessive. After dismissing the remainder of the cases relied on by the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court held that a reasonable officer could miss the connection between the Allen case and the present case, which led it to reverse the Tenth Circuit. The Supreme Court stressed the importance of jurisdictions defining clearly established law with specificity so that an officer applying the legal doctrine to a factual situation will have sufficient guidance.

Similarly, in Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 5311 (U.S. Oct. 18, 2021, Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas, among other officers, was called to the scene of an incident where a woman and her children were barricaded in a room in fear of claimant, Ramon Cortesluna. The police dispatcher informed Officer Rivas-Villegas that Cortesluna was believed to be using a chainsaw. Officers knocked on the door, announced their presence and demanded Cortesluna to come to the door. Officers demanded that Cortesluna drop his weapon, and he complied by dropping the weapon and following commands to raise his hands and walk toward the officers. One of the officers identified a knife protruding from Cortesluna’s front left pocket, and the officers again demanded that Cortesluna keep his hands raised. When Cortesluna dropped his hands, he was shot twice with a beanbag shotgun and complied with an order to get on the ground. Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas then straddled Cortesluna, placing his right foot next to Cortesluna’s right side and placing his left knee on Cortesluna’s back for “no more than eight seconds.”

Cortesluna later filed suit against Officer Rivas-Villegas pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming Officer Rivas-Villegas’ actions constituted excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted Officer Rivas-Villegas’ motion for summary judgment, based on the doctrine of qualified immunity, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit held that Officer Rivas-Villegas was not entitled to qualified immunity because Ninth Circuit precedent “put him on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force.” This holding was only supported by LaLonde v. County of Riverside, 204 F. 3d 947 (9th Cir. 2020) in which police pushed their way into a man’s home following a noise complaint, wrestled him to the ground, pepper sprayed him and dug a knee into his back causing permanent damage. The Ninth Circuit panel reasoned that since both respondent in LaLonde and Cortesluna were lying face down on the ground and not attempting to resist arrest, the officer’s knee in the backs of both men constituted excessive force.

This decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the Ninth Circuit decision. The Court ruled that even if Ninth Circuit precedent clearly established law concerning excessive force in violation 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the LaLonde decision did not give Officer Rivas-Villegas reasonable notice that his conduct constituted excessive force, making qualified immunity for Officer Rivas-Villegas proper. The Court explained that “qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” A right is “clearly established” where it is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.

The Court reasoned that a jurisdiction need not have a case directly on point with the facts of any given situation for a right to be “clearly established,” but the statutory or constitutional question must be beyond debate. Specifically, in cases of alleged Fourth Amendment violations, excessive force will be evaluated by considering the facts and circumstances of the case, the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers and others and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to flee.

Against this background, the Supreme Court reasoned that Cortesluna was required to, and ultimately did not, point to a controlling case in the jurisdiction which would put Officer Rivas-Villegas on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force. The Court stated that the facts of LaLonde were materially distinguishable from the present case in that the LaLonde decision was based on a noise complaint where the suspect was unarmed and generally not considered dangerous or resisting at the time of his apprehension. A knee was deliberately dug into his back despite a lack of resistance and the absence of a weapon. Cortesluna, on the other hand, was a suspect in a potential domestic violence incident in which he was reported to be using a chainsaw and was found armed with a knife. Officer Rivas-Villegas placed his knee on Cortesluna’s back for no more than eight seconds. Thus, in the absence of any similar case that would put Officer Rivas-Villegas on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force, qualified immunity was proper.

 


Patrick J. Graham, Esq. focuses his practice in litigation through the federal and state courts of New Jersey, with a concentration on creditor’s rights, business collection, tort defense, premises liability and products liability defense, Tort Claims Act defense, construction, estates, employment and professional malpractice. Prior to joining Capehart, Patrick was a Judicial Law Clerk to the Honorable Jean S. Chetney, J.S.C., New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division-Civil Part, Salem. He also served as a Judicial Extern for the Honorable Michael J. Haas, J.A.D., New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, Westmont.

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Neither Wawa, Nor The State Held Liable For Accidents That Occurred Due To Drivers Making An Illegal Left Turn Into A Wawa Driveway

In a published decision, the Appellate Division considered appeals from two cases involving motor vehicle accidents that occurred about one year apart at about the same location under similar circumstances.  In both cases, a driver traveling westbound on Route 322 in Folsom, New Jersey made an illegal left turn in the direction of one of two driveway entrances to a Wawa and struck a motorcycle traveling eastbound on the highway.  The issue in Buddy v. Knapp, 2021 N.J. Super. LEXIS 111 (App. Div. Aug. 17, 2021) was whether Wawa, as the operator of the convenience store in which the motor vehicles were attempting to turn, and the State of New Jersey, which owned the highway and the land on which the driveway entrances were situated could be found negligent for these two motor vehicle accidents.

In the first accident, the motorcycle driver was killed and his wife, a passenger, was seriously injured.  In the second accident, the motorcycle driver was seriously injured.  In both cases, the injured parties and the Estate of the decedent sued the Wawa, as the owner of the store, and the State of New Jersey, as the owner of the highway and land on which the store’s driveway entrances were situated.

Wawa owned and operated the convenience store on Route 322, also known as the Black Horse Pike, in Folsom at the intersection of Cains Mill Road.  That intersection was controlled by a traffic light.  At the location of the store, Route 322 is a four lane State highway, with two eastbound and two westbound lanes which are separated by two sets of solid double yellow lines.

The store was located on the eastbound side of the highway and was east of the intersection.  The store had two driveway entrances into its lot on the eastbound side of the highway.  It was illegal for the westbound vehicles to make a left turn and cross the double yellow lines and the eastbound lanes to access Wawa’s driveways.

On the other side of the highway, a vehicle traveling westbound would encounter the entrance to a jug handle.  That jug handle would allow vehicles to access the Cains Mill Road intersection with Route 322 and, when the light permitted, to cross Route 322, turn eastbound on the highway, where a few car lengths from the intersection, the driver could access the Wawa driveway entrances.  At the time of the collision, there was a sign on the westbound side of Route 322, east of the Wawa and near the entrance to the jug handle stating, “ALL TURNS FROM RIGHT LANE.”  This sign was intended to prevent left turns across the highway at and before the intersection with Cains Mill Road.

The Wawa driveway entrances were constructed years ago and were in the State’s right of way.  They were considered to have been constructed in accordance with DOT regulations.  Wawa was not authorized to modify the driveway entrances or place any signage regulating traffic unless it had permission from the State.

In both of these cases, a motor vehicle driver attempted to make an illegal left turn from the westbound lanes of the highway into one of the Wawa driveway entrances.  In both occasions, as they were crossing the eastbound lanes, they crashed into a motorcycle, traveling eastbound, causing the collision and the resulting fatality and/or injuries of the motorcycle occupants.

The plaintiffs sued both Wawa and the State as defendants. The claim against Wawa was that it was negligent in creating unsafe driveway entrances to its parking lot and in failing to maintain the premises in the safe condition for its invitees.  Further, the plaintiffs claimed that Wawa knew or should have known that its driveway entrances attracted illegal left turns from Route 322 and it should have redesigned its parking lot entrances to discourage left turns, notify the State of the dangerous conditions and/or warned its customers of the dangers of making an illegal left turn from the westbound lanes of the highway.

As for the State, the plaintiffs allege that it was negligent in creating an unsafe condition by failing to properly maintain the roadway in a safe condition and “to exercise proper control, supervision, maintenance, repair, and general safe keeping of the roadway, despite the fact that it knew or should have known that a dangerous condition existed in the roadway and in its right-of-way.”

At the trial court level, the court granted summary judgment to both defendants.  It rejected plaintiffs’ argument that Wawa violated a duty of care to plaintiffs.  It found that the acts of the drivers of the motor vehicles, which were the causes of the accidents, and the collisions, happened in the eastbound lanes of Route 322 and not on Wawa’s property.  It noted the longstanding precedent “that a commercial landowner has no duty to regulate or control the conditions of property it does not own.”  Thus, the court found that Wawa did not owe a duty to plaintiffs related to the accidents.

Further, the court noted that, in limited circumstances, a commercial landowner’s duty to protect its invitees could extend beyond its premises for activities for which it directly benefits.  It was reasonable to conclude that Wawa could have received an economic benefit for drivers accessing its parking lot by making an illegal left turn from the highway, but the court concluded “that westbound drivers were provided a safe path to enter the parking lot through the jug handle, relieving Wawa of any duty to take steps to prevent illegal left turns into its driveway entrances.”  Further, the court found that even if the driveway entrances were dangerous conditions of State property, Wawa had no legal duty to report these conditions to governmental entities who would have the authority to remedy them.

As for the State, the trial court concluded that the State was “absolutely immune from liability pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:2-4, for its alleged failure to enforce its regulations, and N.J.S.A. 59:2-5 for permitting decisions concerning the driveway entrances, and N.J.S.A. 59:2-6 for its failure to inspect the driveway entrances.”  The court found that the placement of the driveways did not constitute a dangerous condition because if drivers exercise due care, the subject accidents would not be reasonably foreseeable.  The court noted that Route 322 was divided by a double solid yellow line prohibiting left hand turns into the subject driveways.  Further, the court found that illegally crossing the highway to make the left hand turn was not exercising due care.

This appeal ensued.  First, the Appellate Division addressed the claim against Wawa.  The court agreed that Wawa did not owe a duty to plaintiffs because their injuries did not occur on Wawa’s premises.  The drivers of the motor vehicles that collided with plaintiff’s motorcycles were in the eastbound lanes of Route 322.  Although they were headed in the direction of an entrance to the Wawa parking lot, they initiated their illegal left turns on State property and caused injuries to plaintiffs before reaching Wawa’s property.

With respect to the argument that a premises owner may owe a duty of care for an injury off premises, if the source of the injury was a dangerous condition on the premises, the Court also rejected that argument.  The Appellate Division found that Wawa did not have a duty of care to prevent the illegal acts of the two motor vehicle drivers on State property.  It neither owned nor had control over the eastbound lanes of Route 322, where the other drivers attempted to execute their illegal turns and collided with the plaintiffs’ motorcycles.  Further, the Appellate Division noted that the driveway entrances, which plaintiffs allege to be a dangerous condition, were not on Wawa’s premises.  Rather, they were situated in the State’s right-of-way and were subject to its sole control.

The Appellate Division also rejected the argument that Wawa had a duty to change its parking lot design or report to the State the need to alter or close the driveway entrances.  That would “amount to an expansion of a duty to all commercial landowners along a State highway to prevent motor vehicle violations by potential customers and ameliorate the effects of those violations.”

Further, the Appellate Division rejected the argument that Wawa breached its duty to warm its customers of the dangers of making an illegal left turn from the westbound lanes of the highway.  The Court noted that it was not clear how such a warning would be delivered to drivers who had not yet reached the store.  Further, the Appellate Division declined “to impose on commercial property owners the obligation to warn business patrons of the obvious danger posed by driving over two sets of solid yellow lines to cross the two lanes of opposing traffic on a highway with a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit.”

Next, the Appellate Division turned towards the plaintiffs’ claim against the State of New Jersey. It considered the statutory immunities in the Tort Claims Act that were addressed by the trial court.  First, there was N.J.S.A. 59:2-4 in which “a public entity is not liable for any injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt a law or by failing to enforce any law.”  The plaintiffs had alleged that it was the State’s alleged inaction in enforcing its regulations related to access violations from public roadways by failing to close the Wawa driveway entrances or otherwise preventing motorists from making illegal left turns to access the parking lot which caused the accident.  The plaintiffs’ claim related to the State’s alleged omissions, rather than an affirmative act.  Thus, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that enforcement immunity under N.J.S.A. 59:2-4 applied.  Thus, the State cannot be held liable for damages for its alleged failure to apply existing or past regulatory requirements to Wawa’s driveway entrances.

The Appellate Division also agreed that the State was not subject to liability for this alleged dangerous condition because a dangerous condition is defined as “a condition of property that causes a substantial risk of injury when such property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.”  Here, the trial court had concluded that the absence of due care by the two motor vehicle drivers when using the driveway entrances was determinative of whether the dangerous condition exception applies.  As the Supreme Court pointed out in the prior decision of Garrison v. Township of Middletown, if a public entity’s property is dangerous only when used without due care, the property is not in a “dangerous condition.”  Whether a member of the public acted with due care on public property would depend upon whether the property was used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

The Appellate Division supported the trial court’s conclusion that the driveway entrances did not post a substantial risk of injury when used with due care in a matter in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.  The driveway entrances were not intended to be used for illegal left turns by westbound drivers on Route 322.  The Court pointed out that “[b]reaking the law by crossing two sets of yellow lines to cross two lanes of opposing highway traffic to access the driveway entrances is not the exercise of due care.”  The Appellate Division noted this risk of danger created by such a highly dangerous maneuver was “objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with the intended use of the driveway entrances, which are designed to permit eastbound motorists to enter the Wawa parking lot.”

Hence, the Appellate Division affirmed these summary judgment orders granted by the trial court to the State and to Wawa.  The Appellate Division recognized the “tragic nature” of these accidents caused by “law-breaking drivers,” but it noted that it could “discern no legal basis to impose liability on the defendants.”

 


Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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Biden’s Vaccination Mandate

In my practice, I am already receiving multiple questions about President Biden’s September 9, 2021 directive requiring that companies with 100 or more employees mandate vaccinations for all work staff or alternatively conduct weekly COVID-19 testing.  Many of my employer clients want to know more about these requirements, in particular, whether they should already be mandating vaccinations or conducting employee testing pursuant to the President’s directive. The answer that I have given to my clients so far is no, nothing is yet required, because we still have no idea what the exact details of those vaccination/testing requirements will be.

Biden’s directive will not become effective until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), through its emergency rulemaking authority, issues an actual rule(s) that outlines the scope of the expected federal mandate and provides greater details on what will be required of employers with regards to both vaccinations and testing. Already, there have been murmurs of possible legal challenges to whatever rule is issued.

Through its emergency rulemaking powers, OSHA may issue rules and regulations to eradicate workplace safety risks.  The expectation is that OSHA will ultimately ground its rulemaking here on this issue on the claim that unvaccinated workers pose safety risks to others around them in the workplace. As followers of this blog know, vaccination mandates by employers have long been recognized as a legally valid exercise of employer authority, subject of course to possible health and religious related exemptions. We expect that similar exception requirements will be recognized under whatever emergency rule OSHA issues. We also expect that more details will be supplied about the scope of any required testing requirements once we have OSHA’s rule. While the legality of vaccination mandates by employers is well settled, legal experts differ as to whether OSHA, through its emergency powers, has the legal authority to impose vaccination mandates on employees through their employers. This difference of opinion has generated much of the discussions about the possibility of legal challenges to stop the enforcement of any vaccination rule issued by OSHA.

So, my best advice at this time is to stay tuned. Once we get the final emergency rule(s) from OSHA, there will be greater clarity on both the exact requirements the federal agency is imposing, as well as when employers will be expected to comply, assuming, of course, that no anticipated legal challenges succeed in disrupting or delaying implementation and enforcement.

 


Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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Plaintiff’s Failure To Serve Public Entity At Correct Place Of Business With Timely Notice Of Tort Claim Bars Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Claim

The plaintiff Lyndsey Patton was walking in or near the intersection of Union Avenue and West Side Avenue in Jersey City when she was struck by a vehicle owned by defendant Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority (“JCMUA”).  The accident occurred on June 30, 2019.  On or about September 10, 2019, the plaintiff’s attorney sent a notice of tort claim addressed to JCMUA, but sent it to City Hall on Grove Street instead of JCMUA’s place of business on Route 440 in Jersey City.  Plaintiff later successfully obtained leave from the trial court to file a late notice of claim on JMCUA, which determination was appealed.  The issue on appeal in Patton v. Wiley, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1400 (App. Div. July 7, 2021) was whether the plaintiff had demonstrated the “extraordinary circumstances” under the Tort Claims Act to allow a late filing of a notice of claim.

Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:8-8, a party pursuing a cause of action against a public entity under the Tort Claims Act must file a notice of claim within ninety days of accrual of the claim or else be forever barred from recovering from the public entity.  However, a court may exercise the discretion permitted by N.J.S.A. 59:8-9 to allow a late filing “provided that the public entity or a public employee has not been substantially prejudiced” by the delay and also provided that the plaintiff presents “sufficient reasons constituting extraordinary circumstances” for the failure to comply with this statutory requirement.

The question faced by the Appellate Division was whether the plaintiff had met the extraordinary circumstances standard to justify the late filing of the notice of tort claim.  There was no question that plaintiff failed to file a notice of tort claim on JCMUA within the ninety days.  The plaintiff delivered a notice of claim within the required time but to the wrong address.

The Appellate Division noted that there was no mystery as early as the date of the accident that the vehicle was owned by JCMUA and driven by one of its employees and also there was no mystery about the location of JCMUA’s place of business which was included in the police report and was also otherwise readily available through a simple internet search.  The Court held that the plaintiff’s failure to serve the notice of claim on JCMUA at the right location “was a product of attorney neglect or inadvertence” which did not meet the extraordinary circumstances threshold as required by the statute to allow the filing of a late notice of tort claim.

The plaintiff argued that there was little doubt that JCMUA was aware of the event because, in early September 2019, within ninety days of the action’s accrual, plaintiff’s counsel communicated with Qual-Lynx, the administrator who adjusts claims made against JCMUA. The plaintiff’s counsel also advised and served Qual-Lynx with a claim for no fault benefits because plaintiff did not own an automobile and was not otherwise covered by auto insurance.

The Court noted that this submission to Qual-Lynx, however, made no mention of a personal injury claim to be asserted against JCMUA or its employee, and it cannot seriously be argued that a notice or communications with a public entity’s adjuster or insurer about a related claim constitutes the notice required by N.J.S.A. 59:8-8.”  (emphasis added). Moreover, the Appellate Division noted that the Qual-Lynx representative certified in the opposition to plaintiff’s motion for leave to file a late notice of claim “that he told plaintiff’s attorney during their September 6, 2019 telephone call that plaintiff needed to serve a notice of tort claim directly on JCMUA.”  As of that date, there was still time left to serve a notice of tort claim on JCUMA within the ninety day time period.

While plaintiff thereafter did forward a notice of tort claim, it was sent to City Hall, not JCMUA’s place of business on Route 440.  The Appellate Division noted that this was not a situation where the claimant or her representatives might have been confused about the identity of the public entity that caused the injury.  She knew at the scene of the accident that the driver worked for the JCMUA and, further, in corresponding with Qual-Lynx within the ninety day time period, the plaintiff’s then attorney referred to Qual-Lynx’s insured as “Jersey City MUA.”

The Appellate Division noted that JCMUA was “aware of and had already conducted an investigation into the accident but, in light of the absence of a timely notice of claim, JCMUA had no reason to know plaintiff intended to make a personal injury claim against it.”  Based upon these facts and circumstances, the Court found that the plaintiff’s failure to serve the notice of tort claim was the product of attorney inadvertence.  Counsel was or should have been aware of the identity of the public entity that was involved in the accident, as well as the correct address for the JCMUA.

Finally, the Appellate Division found that “[w]hile it may be viewed as a displeasing result because it seems JCMUA was aware of the accident and aware Qual-Lynx had been in communication with plaintiff about her no fault benefits claim, there is no question the Legislature intended – when it amended N.J.S.A. 59:8-9 – to require a showing of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to set a high bar for relief.”

The Appellate Division noted that the Supreme Court had clearly established that attorney negligence or inadvertence did not constitute “extraordinary” within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 59:8-9.  Hence, the Court found that it was “constrained” to conclude the judge mistakenly exercised his discretion in allowing plaintiff to file a late notice of tort claim.  Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling in permitting the late notice of tort claim to be filed against the JCMUA.  Thus, the end result was that the claim against the JCMUA for this accident was barred.

 


Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.

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The Legality of COVID-19 Employee Vaccinations Mandates

With the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine recently receiving full Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) approval, the question on many employer’s minds is whether legally employers can now mandate employee vaccinations for COVID-19 as a condition of employment.  Even before this recent approval of the Pfizer Vaccine, many employers had already decided to require vaccinations (or alternatively frequent employee COVID-19 testing) even when vaccinations were only approved for emergency use. The emergency use status of the available vaccines made some employers think twice about issuing such a mandate, but with the approval of the Pfizer Vaccine for full use, this likely will now be a game changer and more employers will seek to issue such mandates. In just the last few days, we have already seen some high profile companies implementing mandatory vaccination programs, i.e. Disney, as well as state and local governments, including here in New Jersey.

As I indicated in earlier articles presented here in this blog, vaccine mandates have long been viewed as legal, provided employers made possible exceptions for employees with disabilities that precluded vaccination or for those with religious objections to such vaccinations. COVID-19 vaccination mandates have also recently withstood legal challenges as well in the last few months even with the vaccines having only emergency use approval.  Thus, so long as employers provide the type of exemptions noted above, an employer today may implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination program for employees.

If you plan to implement such a mandatory vaccination program, here are some important considerations that should be followed.

First, you should clearly advise employees of the nature of the program and outline the specific consequences that could follow for those who refuse to meet those requirements. The policy should also include language that indicates that exceptions from the requirement will be considered for the foregoing health and religious reasons. Importantly, you need to train your employees on how to handle such exemption requests, and what is legally (or not legally) allowed to be sought during the necessary interactive process while considering the exemption request. Beware in particular of religion-based exemption requests.  For example, there are various restrictions on when you as an employer should ask for information verifying the bona-fide nature of the posited religious belief.  Also, be aware that thanks to the internet today, employees for a fee can actually obtain certifications from various “ministry” religious organization websites that are supplying documentary support for vaccination exception requests (and even mask exemptions on religion grounds). I have seen some of those certifications already used with several of my clients to support a religious exemption to COVID-19 safety protocols, so make sure you proceed with caution anytime you are presented with a religious-based COVID-19 vaccination exemption request. Finally, whether you grant or deny a requested exemption, document the process and the reasons why the particular decision was made.

As more and more employers decide to implement vaccine mandates, we expect to see additional legal challenges filed. We will continue to keep you updated on all possible developments affecting this issue.

 


Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.

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Highlights of New Jersey Rules and Regulations Relating to Adult-Use Cannabis

By:  Sheila M. Mints, Esq. and Alana M. Hans-Cohen, Esq.

 

Yesterday, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission issued long-awaited initial regulations on legalization of adult use cannabis in New Jersey.  Here are some of the highlights of the application process:

  1. The application will be printed in the NJ Register, which is published twice a month, and layout timelines for the application process and all details regarding the application. No date was provided for publication.
  1. There will be a rolling application process for “Priority Applicants.” This means anytime a priority applicant submits their application, they will immediately jump to the front of the line for review.
  2.   Priority Applicants are:
    1. Social Equity Businesses, owned by people who have lived in economically disadvantaged areas of the state or who have past convictions for cannabis offenses;
    2. Diversely Owned Businesses, which are minority-owned, woman-owned, or disabled veteran-owned and certified as such
    3. Impact Zone Businesses, which are located in an Impact Zone, owned by people from Impact Zones, or employ residents of Impact Zones. Impact zones are municipalities with a large population, high unemployment rate, or high numbers of crime or arrests for marijuana.
  3. Priority Applicants will be prioritized in the licensure process so that their applications are reviewed before other applicants –regardless of when they apply. 
  4. Microbusinesses, which are limited to 10 employees and 2,500 square feet, will also be prioritized and, if successful, allowed to apply to expand their business in accordance with consumer demand.
  5. There are no caps on the number of licenses to be awarded EXCEPT that a 37 Cultivator License cap will be in place for the first twenty four (24) months.  This cap does not apply to microbusiness cultivators.
  6. Municipalities can impose caps on the number of cannabis business allowed.
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New Jersey Supreme Court Holds that Multiple Documents Cannot be Used to Establish Compliance with the Notice Requirements of the Tort Claims Act

By: Sean P. Dugan, Law Clerk

On June 13, 2017, Plaintiff H.C. Equities served the County of Union and Union County Improvement Authority a “Notice of Tort Claim” for “damages arising from tortious interference with contract … conspiracy, defamation and trade libel.” The claim arose out of a contract dispute where the County of Union stopped making rental payments on the lease with H.C. Equities due to alleged neglect of the property after an electrical fire. The lease was not paid from July 26, 2012 to April 1, 2018, totaling $14,846,790.16 in withheld rent. The issue decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court in H.C. Equities, LP v. County of Union, 2021 N.J. LEXIS 735 (July 19, 2021) was whether H.C. Equities properly complied with the New Jersey Tort Claims Act’s notice of claim provisions in attempting to assert tort claims against these public entities.

H.C. Equities had filed a previous lawsuit in 2013, but had it dismissed without prejudice due to settlement negotiations. In October 2015, the Authority hired a real estate consultant, Colliers International, which produced an initial report on January 20, 2017. Colliers identified “substantial disadvantages” in the building in the report and recommended that the County leave the building. H.C. Equities obtained a copy of the report, which prompted the company to send the County and Authority a letter on February 22, 2017. The letter stated that H.C. Equities believed the report was written in bad faith and wanted it to be withdrawn from consideration.

H.C. Equities sent a second letter to both the County and the Authority on March 8, 2017, in which H.C. Equities’ counsel wrote that his client would reinstate its multimillion dollar claims against the County and the Authority if the report was not withdrawn. On March 9, 2017, another law firm sent a letter to County Counsel stating that H.C. Equities would be filing a civil action “in connection with the settlement agreement or its attempted frustration.” Nothing indicated that this letter was ever sent to the Authority.

H.C. Equities filed this action against the County on April 13, 2018, claiming, “Breach of lease … breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, conspiracy and promissory estoppel.” As for the Authority, it asserted claims for trade libel, defamation, and conspiracy.

The Authority moved to have all claims asserted against it dismissed because H.C. Equities failed to provide a timely notice of tort claims. On October 30, 2018, H.C. Equities cross-moved “for retroactive extensions of time for filing of its Notice under the Tort Claims Act.” The motion contended that H.C. Equities’ cause of action did not accrue when it obtained the Colliers report because the County and the Authority committed a continuing tort. The County also moved to dismiss H.C. Equities’ conspiracy and promissory estoppel claims and H.C. Equities cross-moved for an extension of time to file a late notice of tort claim.

The Tort Claims Act requires the notice of a tort claim include, “(a)the name and post office address of the claimant … (c) the date, place or and other circumstances of the occurrence or transaction which gave rise to the claim asserted; (d) A general description of the injury, damage or loss incurred … (e) the name or names of the public entity, employee or employees causing the injury, damage or loss, if known; and (f) the amount claimed …” The Act also requires the filing of a notice claim to be filed within 90 days after the accrual of the cause of action. However, the Act allows a claimant who missed the deadline to file a late notice within one year after the accrual of the claim, if the public entity would not be substantially prejudiced.

At the trial court level, the court held that H.C. Equities’ claims accrued no later than March 8, 2017. Under the Torts Claims Act, H.C. Equities was required to serve its tort claims notice no later than June 6, 2017, so its June 13, 2017 torts claims notice was filed too late. The March 8, 2017 accrual date also meant that H.C. Equities’ time for a motion for leave to file a late notice of claim expired on March 8, 2018. But H.C. Equities’ cross-motion was filed far later on April 18, 2019.

The trial court granted the Authority’s motion to dismiss based upon H.C. Equities’ failure to timely comply with the notice provisions of the Tort Claims Act. It also dismissed the conspiracy and promissory estoppel claims against the County, leaving the remaining breach of lease, breach of frustration of the settlement agreement, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claims against the County.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s determination, ruling that the three separate letters jointly established compliance with the notice requirements. The Appellate Division reasoned that because the letters were written by H.C. Equities’ counsel to lawyers representing the County and the Authority, the letters met the requirement that the claimant identify itself and the public entities being sued. The Appellate Division also decided that the letters gave sufficient notice because the letter sent on February 22, 2017 stated that the action involved millions of dollars.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the Appellate Division’s decision, remanding the case back to the to trial court, upholding the dismissal of the tort claims, leaving just the contract claims against the County. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s assessment that the claims accrued no later than March 8, 2017, and thus also agreed the notice and the motion for leave to file for late notice were both late. The Court also looked at the substantial compliance doctrine, which serves to ensure that legitimate claims due to technical defects are not barred, and determined that the letters collectively did not establish substantial compliance.

First, the Supreme Court noted that the Tort Claims Act consistently uses the singular, so, “a ruling that multiple documents can collectively constitute effective notice of a tort claim,” invites confusion.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the Authority was prejudiced because the letters did not alert them to the trade libel, defamation and conspiracy claims that H.C. Equities asserted in the action and the Authority was not sent a copy of the last letter, which was the only letter which stated H.C. Equities’ intention to file a new action. It also ruled that the letters did not give the Authority proper notice because the February 22, 2017 and March 9, 2017 letters did not properly give notice that H.C Equities intended to file a tort claim, and the February 22, 2017 letter did not describe the “injury damage or loss that H.C. Equities allegedly incurred.”

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