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The Lawletter Blog

FIRST AMENDMENT/PUBLIC HEALTH: Freedom of Religion During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted by Steven G. Friedman on Fri, Jun 19, 2020 @ 11:06 AM

Steve Friedman, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many aspects of our lives have been severely altered and restricted in the name of public health. The extent of the states' police power is currently being tested amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and one such legal battleground involves the freedom of religious practice.

     As long ago noted by the Supreme Court, "[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community . . . to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death."  Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166‑67 (1944).  As illustrated below, even the fundamental right to gather in worship can be somewhat restricted by the government (i.e., prohibiting in-person services), but even such restrictions have limits (i.e., cannot ban drive-in services).

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Topics: First Amendment, COVID-19, public health, freedom of religion, state police power

PROPERTY: Landlord Tenant/Constructive Eviction and Breach of Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

Posted by D. Bradley Pettit on Wed, Jun 17, 2020 @ 12:06 PM

Brad Pettit, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

   An unreported mid-level appellate decision by a Pennsylvania Superior Court illustrates that courts take a dim view to a residential landlord's attempt to defend against breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment and constructive conviction claims against him or her by a tenant by asserting that the parties' dispute stemmed from a good-faith mistake or misunderstanding. In Grodin v. Farr, No. 45 WDA 2019, 2020 WL 919200 (Pa. Super. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (nonprecedential decision), the court rejected a landlord's claim that he did not breach the covenant of quiet enjoyment or constructively evict his tenants by changing the locks on their unit because he mistakenly assumed that the tenants had received a key to the back door from the previous tenants and could still gain access to the leased premises.

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Topics: landlord-tenant, breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment, good-faith mistake, constructive eviction

CONTRACTS: Virginia Unconscionability Decision Shows That Extreme Facts May Indeed Make Bad Law

Posted by Paul A. Ferrer on Wed, Jun 17, 2020 @ 11:06 AM

Paul Ferrer, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     The Virginia Supreme Court's recent decision in Flint Hill School v. McIntosh, No. 181678, 2020 WL 33258 (Va. Jan. 2, 2020), seems to provide some support for the old adage that "bad facts make bad law." In that case, the McIntoshes enrolled their minor child in Flint Hill School, a private school in Fairfax County, Virginia. The McIntoshes signed an enrollment contract in which they agreed to pay "all attorneys' fees and costs" incurred by the school "in any action arising out of or relating to this Enrollment Contract." Significantly, the provision did not require that the school be the prevailing party in order to recover its attorneys' fees. As the Virginia Supreme Court pointed out, the practical effect of such a provision, if applied as written, is essentially to foreclose all litigation on the contract.

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Topics: contracts, contract of adhesion, meaningful alternatives, common law of unconscionability, procedural unconscionability

CONTRACTS:  Contract Excuses and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted by Anne B. Hemenway on Wed, Jun 17, 2020 @ 11:06 AM

Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden and worldwide shuttering of large and small businesses may be felt for a long time.  One of the resulting issues is the applicability of a force majeure clause, or common-law impossibility, frustration of purpose, or commercial impracticability excuses for contract performance and obligations. Force majeure clauses come into effect when events occurring beyond the control of the parties prevent performance of contract obligations. Some contracts include specific force majeure events that will excuse performance at this time, such as a pandemic (the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020) or when governmental or administrative action is taken that disrupts or precludes performance under a contract.

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Topics: contracts, COVID-19, force majeure clause, frustration of purpose, excuse for performance

FAMILY LAW: Custody, Visitation, and COVID-19

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Fri, May 8, 2020 @ 09:05 AM

The Lawletter Vol 45 No 3

Brett Turner—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is affecting the lives of all Americans in many ways. One of those many ways is the exchange of children under custody and visitation orders.

            This is a very uncertain area of the law, with essentially no court decisions yet available, but several basic points can be noted. First, the mere existence of the crisis, if neither the children nor any parent has actually been exposed to COVID-19, is probably not alone a sufficient basis for noncompliance with any custody or visitation order. Indeed, emergency orders issued by the governor in at least three states—Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio—expressly list travel required by a custody or visitation order as essential for purposes of travel restrictions. These provisions would seem to suggest a policy that mere fear of COVID-19, without any specific evidence of a risk of exposure to the virus, is not alone a sufficient basis to modify an order or excuse noncompliance.

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Topics: Brett R. Turner, custody, COVID-19, mere fear not sufficient for noncompliance, visitation

EMPLOYMENT: Recent Legislation Provides Coronavirus Relief for the American Workforce

Posted by Nadine Roddy on Wed, May 6, 2020 @ 12:05 PM

The Lawletter Vol 45 No 3

Nadine Roddy—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            On March 18, 2020, the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 ("Families First Act"), Pub. L. No. 116-127, was signed into law. The measure is the second in a series of recent legislative attempts to ameliorate the adverse health and economic effects of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in the United States.  The Act applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees, and its major provisions require (1) paid sick leave, and (2) paid FMLA leave for child care during the pandemic. The Act's leave provisions are effective April 2, 2020 through December 31, 2020.

            A third piece of legislation, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 ("CARES Act"), Pub. L. No. 116-136, was signed on March 27, 2020. A massive relief package, it provides for increased public health spending, cash relief for individual citizens earning under $75,000 a year ($150,00 a year for married couples), enhanced unemployment benefits, a lending program for small businesses, and targeted relief for certain heavily impacted industries.

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Topics: Nadine Roddy, COVID-19, Families First Act, CARES Act, child care leave, employer tax credits, paid sick leave

CIVIL PROCEDURE: Effect of COVID-19 Pandemic on Discovery Deadlines

Posted by Paul A. Ferrer on Wed, May 6, 2020 @ 11:05 AM

The Lawletter Vol 45 No 3

Paul Ferrer—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     Based on the exceptional circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, many state and federal courts have entered general orders altering deadlines for a wide variety of matters, including deadlines for filing appeals, the most notable example being the U.S. Supreme Court's extending the period to seek review of a lower court decision by writ of certiorari from 90 to 150 days. Counsel should be aware, however, that in the absence of an order of general applicability, deadlines will not be extended without a specific order from the court in a particular case. To the contrary, judges are loath to allow "all litigation to grind to a halt in many cases," as "allowing that to happen will only exacerbate, in many cases, the detrimental effects of this crisis." Horning v. Resolve Marine Group, No. 19-60899-CIV, 2020 WL 1540326, at *1 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020) (Scola, J.).

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Topics: Paul A. Ferrer, discovery deadlines, specific order requirement, extension of time, COVID-19

TRUSTS: Release of Trustee from Liability for Retaining an Investment

Posted by D. Bradley Pettit on Fri, Mar 27, 2020 @ 11:03 AM

The Lawletter Vol 45 No 2

Brad Pettit—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     It is not uncommon for trustees of trusts to encounter beneficiaries that pressure them into retaining a particular asset or investment even though the retention thereof might pose an unreasonable risk with respect to the performance of the overall portfolio and subject the trustee to potential liability to the beneficiaries for breach of the fiduciary duty to diversify the trust's investments. P.G. Guthrie, Annotation, Duty of Trustee to Diversify Investments, and Liability for Failure to Do So, 24 A.L.R.3d 730 (1969). In such a situation, the trust instrument itself may contain a provision that expressly or impliedly relieves the trustee from liability for retaining certain assets that might pose a risk to the performance of the overall trust portfolio.

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Topics: trusts, written consent, D. Bradley Pettit, liability for retaining investment, trustee liability

PROPERTY: Court Requires Cemetery to Remove a Decedent Mistakenly Buried in Plaintiff's Gravesite

Posted by Alistair D. Edwards on Fri, Mar 27, 2020 @ 11:03 AM

The Lawletter Vol 45 No 2

Alistair Edwards—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     It is not uncommon for an individual to purchase a specific cemetery gravesite or gravesites many years in advance with the plan for family members to all be buried in the same area. That was the exact plan of the plaintiff, Kathy Salyer. In 1982, after the death of her first husband, Salyer purchased four contiguous gravesites in the cemetery comprising lot 14. Later that year, Salyer purchased an additional gravesite (Gravesite 15) contiguous to lot 14. Salyer possessed a Certificate of Ownership for each purchase. Salyer intended to bury her mother in Gravesite 15 and to have herself buried in the empty site between her first and second husbands. Despite Salyer's plan, she discovered in 2014 that a stranger, Mr. Johnson, had been buried in Gravesite 15. The cemetery acknowledged that it had made a mistake and had sold Gravesite 15 twice, first to Salyer and then to Mr. Johnson's family. Salyer's purchase of Gravesite 15 had not been entered in the cemetery's records, causing the cemetery's sale agent to sell the site twice.

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Topics: property law, Alistair D. Edwards, gravesites, real estate transaction, Indiana law

EMPLOYMENT: Virginia Values Act—Employment & Public Accommodation Discrimination Against LGBT

Posted by April Wimberley on Fri, Mar 27, 2020 @ 11:03 AM

The Lawletter Vol 45 No 2

April Wimberley—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     Virginia is poised to become the first Southern state to prohibit discrimination based on a person's "sexual orientation" or "gender identity." The Virginia Values Act ("VVA") was passed by the General Assembly on February 26, 2020 and is expected to be signed by Governor Ralph Northam. The bill will have a significant impact on the law governing discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing, banking, and education, and it creates a new cause of action for unlawful discrimination in public accommodations.

     The VVA will amend several existing statutes to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Topics: unlawful employment discrimination, April Wimberley, Virginia Values Act, public accommodation discrimination, LGBT

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