September Page I
Summaries of recently released decisions to be included in the next issue of the Digest (uncorrected)
Death Threats Not Protected Under First Amendment/Hearsay May Be Basis of Administrative Determination
In affirming the arbitrator’s recommendation a teacher should be terminated for making death threats against an arbitrator in a prior disciplinary proceeding, the First Department noted that hearsay can be the basis for an administrative determination and explained the threats were not protected by the First Amendment:
We reject petitioner's allegations that the instant disciplinary proceeding and the ultimate discipline imposed against him violated the right to free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Supreme Court properly deferred to the arbitrator's finding that petitioner's statements are exempt from First Amendment protection because they constitute "true threats." We note that petitioner's former attorney only disclosed the threats because he believed that petitioner's increasingly erratic behavior rendered him genuinely dangerous. Under the circumstances, it cannot be argued that petitioner's speech implicates matters of public concern … . Nor can it be disputed that petitioner's death threats disrupted the initial arbitration proceeding… . Matter of Smith v New York City Dept. of Educ., 2013 NY Slip Op 05765, 1st Dept 9-3-13
Temporary Maintenance Award Not Waived by Prenuptial Agreement Waiving Only the Final Award of Alimony or Maintenance
The First Department held that Supreme Court properly awarded temporary maintenance to the wife (defendant) even though the wife waived alimony and maintenance in the prenuptial agreement:
We reject plaintiff's argument that defendant waived temporary maintenance in the parties' prenuptial agreement. Notwithstanding that defendant waived any claim to a final award of alimony or maintenance in the prenuptial agreement, the court was entitled, in its discretion, to award pendente lite relief in the absence of an express agreement to exclude an award of temporary maintenance… . Lennox v Weberman, 2013 NY Slip Op 05766, 1st Dept 9-3-13
A Contract Between a Hospital and a Security Company Was Not Invalidated by the Failure to Spell Out the Duties of the Security Personnel---Missing Element Filled in by Conduct
Interplay of Contract and Tort Liability to Third Parties Discussed
The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Renwick, determined a security company (Burns), which had contracted to provide security at a psychiatric hospital (RUMC), was not liable, under contract or tort, to the family of a patient who escaped from the facility, engaged in a gun battle with police, and was killed. The opinion includes good discussions of contract liability to third parties versus tort liability to third parties. and the potential availability of contribution among joint tortfeasors that may apply even where no contractual or tort duty exists. The First Department determined the contractual exclusion of liability to third parties was valid, the security company owed no duty to the plaintiff in tort, and contribution did not apply. The central point of the opinion was that a security contract can be enforceable even if the precise duties of the security personnel are not spelled out in the contract. The missing element was not deemed essential and could be filled in by conduct:
…[C]ourts have consistently held that "where [as here] it is clear from the language of an agreement that the parties intended to be bound and there exists an objective method for supplying a missing term, the court should endeavor to hold the parties to their bargain"… . Under such circumstances, "[s]triking down a contract as indefinite and in essence meaningless is at best a last resort" …
In this case, there is a clear method for supplying the missing term, the parties' course of conduct; all other terms were adopted directly from the written agreement. Thus, the only thing that was absent in this contract was a writing evincing the particulars of a non essential provision, which was later filled in by the parties' mutual consent and course of conduct. Aiello v Burns Intl. Sec. Servs. Corp., 2013 NY Slip Op 05767, 1st Dept 9-3-13
Certificates of Bond Insurance Are Insurance Policies to Be Interpreted Under Insurance and Contract Law---Restructuring in Bankruptcy and Reduction of Value of the Bonds Did Not Affect the Insurer’s Obligation to Cover the Bond Payments
In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Gische, the First Department determined the defendant, which issued certificates of bond insurance (CBI’s) insuring bonds against nonpayment, was obligated to cover payment on the bonds even after a bankruptcy restructuring in which the bonds were revalued:
Defendant acknowledges that it would have been contractually obligated to pay for any loss suffered by plaintiffs under the original bonds when they matured, in the event of the issuer's bankruptcy, but it claims that as a result of the Restructuring Plan that was adopted, the original bonds were cancelled, completely relieving it of any obligation to pay under the CBIs. The court rejects this position because it is inconsistent with the terms of the policies and contrary to law.
The CBIs are financial guaranty insurance policies, which defendant is specially licensed to sell throughout the United States, including New York. …The policies are primarily governed by Article 69 of the Insurance Law. While they have some unique characteristics, they are generally subject to the same laws and principles underlying insurance policies in general (see Insurance Law § 6908). Thus, CBIs are policies of insurance that should be analyzed in accordance with general principles of contract interpretation and insurance law … .
Insurance policies are to be afforded their plain and ordinary meaning and interpreted in accordance with the reasonable expectations of the insured party… . Exclusions from policy obligations must be in clear and unmistakable language …, and if the terms of a policy are ambiguous, any ambiguity must be construed in favor of the insured and against the insurer … . ...
The plain meaning of the contractual language contained in the CBI requires defendant to absolutely and unconditionally guarantee payment on the individual bonds in the event of the issuer's nonpayment. Issuer insolvency is clearly a covered risk, as is bankruptcy, which is a societal hallmark of insolvency. These are the very risks for which defendant received payment of premiums. The CBIs were noncancellable, with a narrow exception not applicable here, and did not provide for any exclusion in the event of bankruptcy. … The restructuring occurred only after the default under the trust agreement had occurred. Confirmation of the restructuring plan made it a certainty that the issuer would not make any future payments to plaintiffs on the original bonds at their respective maturity dates. It is the restructuring of the bonds and their reissuance in a lower principal amount with a longer payment period that concretely represents that plaintiffs have sustained a loss. Neither the restructuring plan, nor the issuer's discharge of debt in the bankruptcy proceeding, changed the obligations under the parties' contracts of insurance. Oppenheimeer AMT-Free Municipals v ACA Fin. Guar. Corp., 2013 NY Slip Op 05768, 1st Dept 9-3-13