Articles Posted in Litigation

During or after a divorce, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant had terminated a joint annuity account and withdrawn the money, leaving him with a $37,000 tax liability.

The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the case, claiming that when the plaintiff agreed to enter into joint annuity contract, he “necessarily assumed the risk of pecuniary injury.”

The Second Department rejected that argument, finding that the assumption of risk argument was limited to claims involving “athletic or recreational activities.”

Following our last article about “use” and its relationship with the trademark application process, another case we came across further illustrates this concept, albeit in a more limited manner.

Weld-Tech and Aquasol Corp. both sell a plumbing apparatus called “EZ-Purge.” After Aquasol filed for and received trademark registration for the EZ-PURGE mark, Weld-Tech sued claiming that it was the first to use that mark, although without trademark protection, and that Aquasol’s use infringed on Weld-Tech’s common-law trademark, obtained through Weld-Tech’s use. Weld-Tech argued that even if Aquasol had obtained a trademark registration, Weld-Tech’s prior use entitled it to some protection so long as the mark was eligible for registration.

The timing was as follows: Weld-Tech began marketing its product in late 2003 or early 2004 and made its first sale in late 2004. It filed a patent application in March 2004. On April 30, 2004, Aquasol filed a trademark application, based on Aquasol’s intent to use the mark in commerce. The question before the court was which party had priority over the mark, Weld-Tech’s common-law use or Aquasol’s intent to use application.

NBTY, Inc. is a manufacturer and seller of vitamins and nutritional products. Piping Rock Health Products, LLC is a competitor run by NBTY’s former CEO. Between the end of 2014 and the middle of 2015, a number of high-level NBTY employees resigned and went to work at Piping Rock. In 2011, while already employed, these individuals signed stock-option/trade secret agreements with Alphabet Holding Company, Inc., NBTY’s parent. Under these agreements, the individuals were (i) able to purchase a number of shares of the common stock of Alphabet, vesting over a period of time, and (ii) learn NBTY’s trade secrets. These agreements also contained restrictive covenants prohibiting the individuals from competing with NBTY for a one-year period following the end of their employment with NBTY and from revealing any of NBTY’s business secrets. After they resigned and went to Piping Rock, NBTY sued to enforce these individuals’ non-compete agreements.

Judge Emerson, sitting in the Commercial Division of Suffolk County, refused to enforce the non-compete provision. The court considered Delaware law (as provided for in the parties’ agreements but noted that it largely tracked New York law), and found that the non-compete restrictions were not supported by valid consideration. This meant that these individuals received no additional benefit for agreeing not to compete and the agreements were therefore not enforceable against them. NBTY argued that the options and access to NBTY’s trade secret were sufficient consideration. The court disagreed and stated that there was no evidence that these individuals did not have access to these secrets before they signed, and the options expired, unexercised, 90 days after they left NBTY. Thus, the court held that because the individuals had a choice between their continued employment with NBTY and exercising their benefits, or foregoing those benefits and competing, which they did, resulted in the individuals receiving no benefit in exchange for the non-compete agreements. The court noted further that while Delaware law allows consideration to be in the form of continued employment, the language of the agreements with NBTY specifically provided that NBTY made no promise of continued employment.

Finally, the court also invalidated the non-compete agreements, finding that they were overbroad in restraining competition in North America, Europe and China.

In 2005, a property owner borrowed $452,000 with which to buy a residential property. After the borrower’s default, that lender assigned the loan to HSBC. HSBC commenced a foreclosure action which was dismissed in 2007 for failure to serve the borrower. HSBC waited until 2009 to file a second foreclosure action. That action was conditionally dismissed in 2012 because HSBC had not shown proof that a Notice of Default had been served upon the borrower, as required by the loan documents. The conditional dismissal allowed HSBC 60 days within which to provide the required proof, or the case would be dismissed automatically. In 2013, noting that no such proof had been filed with the court, the second foreclosure lawsuit was formally dismissed. In 2014, the borrower sold the property to plaintiff, Ellery Beaver, LLC. Fourteen months after the case was dismissed, HSBC sought its restoration against the borrower. The court denied HSBC’s request.

Thereafter, Ellery Beaver, LLC sought a court order discharging HSBC’s mortgage claiming that the statute of limitations for a foreclosure action to be commenced had expired and the property should not be encumbered by an unenforceable lien. HSBC argued in opposition that because the first lawsuit was dismissed for failure to serve the borrower the time period to sue could not have commenced when that first lawsuit was filed. The Court disagreed, finding that the date of service was not relevant to the statute of limitations consideration. What mattered was the date when HSBC accelerated the loan, which could not have been later than when HSBC commenced the first foreclosure action, in 2005. Thus, the six year limitation period expired in 2012, six years from 2005, and HSBC’s loan would be discharged and the mortgage canceled.

Ellery Beaver, LLC v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A.

Gerald L. Cohen, D.D.S sought to force Cablevision to disclose the identity of an individual who posted negative comments to Yelp.com. Cohen intended to use that information to commence a lawsuit for defamation against the poster. Previously, Yelp.com had been compelled to provide to Cohen the IP address of the poster, which lead Cohen to discover that Cablevision had set up the account at that IP address. With that information in hand, Cohen asked the Court to force Cablevision to disclose that person’s identity. The Court found that Cohen had demonstrated an injury and meritorious claim and was entitled to this information notwithstanding the ordinary expectation of a poster’s privacy. The Court would not allow unchecked speech, finding that the “use of electronic speech requires a balancing of the two interests, namely free expression versus the right to respond to such expression. Free speech in the electronic age is not unfettered.”

A buyer entered into to a contract to purchase a penthouse co-op apartment for $27.5 million. Part of the unit being purchased included a terrace, which was to be for the buyer’s exclusive use. Between contract and closing, this exclusive use was questioned as the board intended to convert the roof to a common area and provide access to the roof through the penthouse terrace. Obviously, the buyer would not agree to that invasion of privacy necessary for roof access. The board provided conflicting authorizations and plan drawings, and had to be compelled to provide the co-op plans. The buyer informed the seller that it was canceling the contract and demanded the return of its down payment. The board then withdrew its demand for terrace access but refused to provide an unqualified statement that the roof was not common area, that no access would be provided for the terrace or that the board would not in the future raise this issue. Nonetheless, the seller refused to return the downpayment, claiming that the buyer was getting the co-op as described in the contract. The buyer disagreed and refused to close. Litigation followed over the $2.7 million downpayment. The trial court decided that the buyer’s failure to appear at the closing and see what plan was delivered was a breach, and refused to direct the return of the downpayment.

The appellate court disagreed, and found that the seller’s inability to provide an unqualified promise by the board not to convert the roof to a common area and allow the buyer private and exclusive use of the terrace supported a finding that the seller was unable to deliver the apartment as promised. The Court seemed unimpressed by the board’s qualified promise not to interfere, given the board’s prior conduct, and the buyer’s need to interact with the board on some regular basis. The appellate court was concerned that a fight would erupt in the future and the Buyer should not be compelled to buy a “problem” property. All of this, supported the buyer’s right to rescind the purchase contract.

Pastor v. DeGaetano, First Dept. 2015

Landlord and Tenant entered into a long-term commercial lease. After the Tenant vacated, Landlord terminated the lease, and sued to recover legal possession of the space and for rents that were then past due and owing. Landlord won that lawsuit. Thereafter, the Landlord commenced a second action seeking the amount that the Landlord would have collected assuming the completion of the full lease term.

The Court of Appeals confirmed the Landlord’s attempt to recover that rent, but held that the Landlord could not recover more than the value of the lease. Because the lease allowed the Landlord to hold possession of the space and accelerate and collect the not discounted rent that would otherwise become due over the term of the lease, the Court determined that a hearing had to be held to decide if that amount, given that the Landlord had relet the space, was disproportionate to the Landlord’s actual loss, even though the Landlord had possession but no duty to mitigate.

172 Van Duzer Realty Corp v. Globe Alumni Student Assistance Association, Inc.

As we discussed on this blog some time ago, an artist’s freedom of expression may trump an individual’s right to privacy. This issue has again reached the courts and this principle has been reaffirmed.

Defendant Arne Svenson surreptitiously photographed the residents of a neighboring building through its glass facade. After a year of this conduct, Svenson exhibited these photos in a gallery, including photos of private scenes, bragging that the subjects did not know they were being photographed. Plaintiffs objected, especially because some of the children that were photographed were identifiable. Svenson agreed to remove one of the photos, but not all of them. As time went on and these photos became public knowledge, plaintiffs sued Svenson, alleging invasion of privacy, among other claims. Svenson defended himself by claiming that the photographs were protected by the First Amendment. The lower court agreed, finding that the photographs were not just a business but a form of art. The family appealed.

The First Department traced the statutory background to the right to privacy law. The court noted that the broad language of the statute prohibited the use of one’s ‘”name, portrait, picture or voice'” in advertising or trade. The Court explained that the term “advertising or trade” was drafted specifically to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment, which protects news or issues impacting the public. Those exceptions, wrote the court, are also extended to items protected under the First Amendment, including artistic expression. The only practical limitations are found where a photo that was not newsworthy was sold under the guise of something newsworthy or of importance to the public, or where the relationship between the expression and the subject of the image bore no reasonable connection.

Goli Realty Corp., commenced an action for the recovery of brokerage commissions. Goli sued Halperin claiming to have brought a buyer that was ready, willing and able to purchase certain real property that Halperin and his entity, SPJ LLC, were looking to sell. Goli prepared marketing packages for Hess Oil, Walgreens, and others, detailing the property’s attributes. Hess and Walgreens responded with interest, and Goli showed the property to Hess. Hess had Goli send Halperin a proposal which provided for the minimum rent required by Halperin. Goli sent its commission agreement to Haleprin with Hess’s proposal. Thereafter, Halperin contacted Hess directly. Shortly thereafter, Halperin informed Goli that he was not interested in a gas station as a tenant and claimed that Goli had promised to provide an agreement with Walgreens. A few days later, Goli presented Halperin with a proposal from Walgreens, also with the minimum rent. Goli claimed that Halperin agreed to proceed with negotiations with both prospective tenants and to consider how to buy an adjacent property. Despite what Goli had been told, it learned that Halperin had signed a lease with Hess. Goli sued for its brokerage commissions.

Reviewing how the Court discussed the facts and party testimony makes clear that it found Haleprin’s testimony to not be credible. At one point, the Court states that outright. Among other things, the Court seemed troubled by Halperin’s inability to explain why SPJ did not agree to a lease with Walgreens, as brokered by Goli, if Halperin would not accept a gas station tenant, especially as it ultimately signed with Hess.

At the end, the Court was able to find that an enforceable brokerage agreement existed despite the absence of a formal writing. There was no question that Goji was asked to find a tenant and did so, securing two acceptable tenants. Thus, Goji was entitled to the value of its services, which were the same as the commission that he demanded in his proposed brokerage agreement (even though the Court noted that those commission may have been a bit higher than market rates). The Court did not allow that amount to be awarded against the individual Halperin defendants, however, because Goji had done the work for SPJ, LLC.

Steve Hong is the sole shareholder of Koryeo International Corp. Hong sued his mother, Kyung Ja Hong for looting Koryeo before she transferred the corporation to him.

Hong worked for the corporation after law school. His parents promised to transfer the corporation to him in exchange for his agreement to work for a minimal salary. After the death of Hong’s father, Mrs. Hong assumed sole ownership and control of corporation. In 2012, Mrs. Hong transferred ownership and control of the corporation to Hong. Upon that transfer, Hong learned that the corporation’s bank account held some $50,000, despite revenue in the millions of dollars. Hong and the Corporation sued his mother, claiming that she looted the corporation prior to its transfer, leaving him with a virtually worthless entity. Mrs. Hong sought dismissal of the claims.

Initially, the court found that because Mrs. Hong was the sole shareholder when she allegedly looted the corporation, the corporation could not be a plaintiff against her. The Court would not find anything wrongful in the corporation’s actions, or claims of a wrong, when those actions were sanctioned by its sole shareholder. The Court then held that the vague promise to Hong, made 20 years before the transfer, was too indefinite to create a true contract. Moreover, found the court, Hong received exactly what he was promised–the corporation–and even if looted, that was all he was promised.

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