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After decades of using the courts to run his cottage industry – filing special civil suits to collect on dishonored checks he buys at deep discount – the tables have turned on Robert Triffin. More and more, companies and banks are paying lawyers to defend against Triffin’s claims rather than send him a check to settle or let the case default. As Triffin loses more cases, he appeals. But now the Appellate Division is hammering Triffin, not only ruling against him but also approving some decisions for publication, thus cutting off more of his many narrowly crafted, arcane arguments under the Uniform Commercial Code. Four decisions issued since mid-May are approved for publication, with one actually including a concurring opinion. “These appellate decisions are hot . . . and Special Civil judges are getting more backbone with this guy, and they’re getting the tools they need from the appellate courts,” says a source in the state’s judicial system who does not wish to be identified. The Appellate Division has issued 16 decisions on Triffin appeals so far this year, 12 of them decided since June 1. One panel dumped five losses on Triffin in a single day, June 29, then issued a sixth the following day. Triffin, who is losing not only on the merits but in a few instances on technical grounds of standing and procedure, has lost 14 of the 16 appellate rulings this year, the last one issued last Monday [ see chart]. In one of those cases, Triffin v. Commerce Bank, the three-judge panel upheld frivolous litigation fees against him for $5,723. The special civil judge awarded counsel fees to the bank’s lawyers, concluding not only that the clear unambiguous language of a contract involving the bank barred Triffin’s claim but also that the case law on point was a 1999 appellate ruling titled Triffin v. First Union Bank, N.A., 319 N.J. Super. 72. The per curium opinion called this “a fact which plaintiff was obviously aware of when he commenced this frivolous suit.” From 1997 through 2003, Triffin, a law school graduate who argues all his trial and appellate cases pro se, had a dozen of his cases decided in the Appellate Court, four of which he won and some of which are published opinions. For those keeping score, he’s won six and lost 24 appeals in total. Win or lose, his cases have been shaping the area of UCC law governing holders in due course of negotiable instruments. Triffin travels the state paying check-cashers for bad checks, most of which are counterfeit, stolen, altered or forged, based on court records. He then presents the checks, with an assignment agreement between him and the check-cashing company, demanding payment and threatening litigation. He has filed some 4,000 suits, including about 500 annually over the past two years, and he has won roughly 1,000 judgments since 1991, court documents show. “Triffin is shaping the law across the country,” says Kathryn Bergstrom, a partner with 135-lawyer Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett of Minneapolis, who flew in and successfully defeated Triffin’s attempt to collect on 17 stolen money orders from Travelers Express Co. Bergstrom says judges in other states look to New Jersey’s case law “because there aren’t that many reported cases on these issues.” She adds that a Minnesota law professor told her that the Triffin cases are followed because they are based on the UCC, which every state employs. Defense lawyers in New Jersey say they are hopeful that as more avenues to sue are shut off to Triffin, more special civil judges will slap him with frivolous litigation fees. ADP Fights Back Triffin, 54, who lives in Drexel Hill, Pa., had been operating in relative obscurity for many years, filing his cases in Pennsylvania as well as New Jersey. But over the last few years he has concentrated on New Jersey, going after bigger claims and deeper pockets. But when he sued Roseland-based Automatic Data Processing, the world’s largest payroll processor, the company fought back with countercharges of fraud and racketeering. Last April, a civil jury in Essex County found Triffin liable to ADP for $182,000, finding that Triffin defrauded ADP because his assignments were cut and pasted together without the check-casher ever signing the 12-page document. ADP attorney Dennis Kearney, a partner with Florham Park’s Pitney Hardin, characterized Triffin’s operation as a shakedown, telling jurors he wanted to “expose Triffin to the light of day” to put him out of business. Triffin was not held liable for racketeering. Triffin, who to date has not appealed the ADP verdict, did not return a call seeking comment. The adjudication of fraud was not Triffin’s first. In the late 1980s a Pennsylvania court concluded he defrauded a bank out of almost $100,000 in a check-kiting scheme in 1985. That ruling, along with other rebukes for ethical breaches and a lack of respect for the judicial process, led to Triffin being denied admission to the Pa. bar in 1990. Triffin was also denied entry to the New Jersey bar by the state Supreme Court in 1993 after the character committee found him unfit. A Limit to Deep Pockets A review of the recent appeals court rulings suggests that more deep pockets companies aren’t taking Triffin’s attacks lying down. Besides Travelers Express, other defendants fighting back are Kelly Services, J.P. Morgan Chase, American Airlines, COMPUSA, Prudential Property and Casualty, Commerce Bank, Mellon Bank and the Showboat casino/hotel. Triffin also finds himself facing more big firms with their client’s OK to use whatever resources are needed to combat his claims. Among his adversaries, at least at the appeals stage this year, are Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti; Connell Foley; Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey; Budd Larner and multistate firm Dilworth Paxson. The appellate opinions also indicate that judges are holding Triffin’s feet to the fire on court rules and procedure, even though he is pro se. Triffin lost his case against Mellon Bank on standing, as the appeals panel said he improperly relied on federal banking regulations instead of state regulations. He lost his claim against J.P. Morgan Chase on forum non conveniens grounds with the Court noting that he was from Pennsylvania, the J.P. Morgan subsidiary bank was in New Hampshire and the check cashing company was in New York. In his suit against COMPUSA the court dismissed his claim on procedural grounds because he appealed his loss of the initial dismissal motion to the Appellate Division instead of moving to vacate the judgment before the special civil judge. (The COMPUSA panel said he would have lost on the merits anyway.) “The Appellate Division is trying to address him,” says Lani D’Agostino, a Budd Larner associate who successfully defended two related cases on behalf of Pomerantz Staffing Services. One key point she won is that the UCC requires that the drawer company have the intent to pay on the check, which it obviously doesn’t have if the check is counterfeit, stolen from its stock or forged. D’Agostino also says that Triffin filed his two claims against her client in two different counties in order to stay under the special civil claim limit. Triffin tries to avoid Superior Court, court records show. But Triffin is relentless. He’s already filed for reconsideration in the pair of Pomerantz cases. In addition, he’s brought two new claims in New Jersey against Travelers Express, even though the company is now armed with an appellate decision saying it is not liable for a stolen money order because the person signing the instrument never purchased it. Travelers’ lawyer, Bergstrom, says they have asked Triffin to withdraw those suits based upon the recent appellate case. She and D’Agostino, like others, say their clients decided to fight rather than pay. “He hit Pomerantz for five years,” says D’Agostino, adding, “He’d call them up and say, ‘Hey, I got this stop payment’ check, and ask for payment.” Bergstrom says that Triffin “sends out letters, sometimes signed by others or by a ‘director of administration’ saying that if you want to avoid court to call our pre-litigation department.” Triffin testified in April that he operates alone out of his garage, with his wife handling his books. Pitney Hardin’s Kearney, who represented ADP last April and has been getting calls for months from lawyers facing Triffin claims, says, “I think the Appellate Division judges are giving the Law Division and Special Civil judges the tools to shoot his operation down.”

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