Articles Posted in Contract/Corporate

In an interesting recent case, the First Department affirmed the viability of a broker’s claim for a commission despite the fact that there were questions as to the broker’s actual role in procuring a buyer.

After Waterbridge Capital, LLC sold a property, it refused to pay its broker, Eastern Consolidated Properties, Inc., claiming that another broker was also seeking a commission payment. Waterbridge asked Eastern to accept a lower amount, which Eastern agreed to do. In the end, Waterbridge refused to pay anything and Eastern sued. Waterbridge argued that Eastern was not entitled to any commission because it was not the broker that sold the property. In viewing the parties’ agreement as a settlement agreement and not a brokerage agreement, the court rejected Waterbridge’s claim finding that once the parties settled, Eastern was entitled to payment regardless of its work as a broker. Specifically, the court held that “[c]ontrary to defendants’ arguments, plaintiff is not required to plead or prove that it was a ‘procuring cause’ of the purchase in order to recover on this agreement, which was in the nature of a settlement agreement. Plaintiff’s relinquishment of its claim for a full commission provides adequate consideration for the agreement, even if its claim was doubtful or would ultimately prove to be unenforceable” (citations omitted).

Plaintiffs own a number of commercial properties in Brooklyn. In connection with that ownership, plaintiffs retained defendant broker to arrange for insurance coverage for the buildings.

At the time of issuance, in 2002, the policies did not cover flood-related damage. In 2007, defendant offered plaintiffs flood coverage. Plaintiffs agreed and believed that the buildings were covered for flood damage. However, plaintiffs were never informed that the policies excluded coverage for properties within specified flood zones. The buildings at issue were in flood zones so that they were in fact not covered for flood. The policies were renewed annually.

In 2011, before Hurricane Sandy hit the New York area, plaintiffs requested that defendant affirm to them in writing that the buildings were covered for flood damage. Defendant did so, writing that the buildings had $1 million of flood coverage. Only after Hurricane Sandy damaged plaintiffs’ buildings did plaintiffs learn that the buildings had no flood coverage. Plaintiffs sued for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and misrepresentation.

While some businesses believe that all of their business information can be deemed a “trade secret,” the Second Department recently reaffirmed that not to be the case.

In an action by a lighting company seeking to prevent an ex-employee from working for a competitor, the company’s claim that the employee was misappropriating trade secrets was dismissed. In discussing that claim, the Court noted that for a secret to be such, it must be maintained as a secret. This means that where information is “readily ascertainable outside the employer’s business as prospective users or consumers of the employer’s services of products, trade secret protection will not attach and courts will not enjoin the employee from soliciting his employer’s customers.” Because the lighting company’s alleged secrets were “customer lists, prices, and profit margins,” which were described as “distinctive” by the company, the company’s failure to maintain that information as secret within the company defeated its claim.

This is not to say that customer lists, for example, cannot be confidential and enforced as a secret. However, to accomplish that designation, there must be a demonstration of how the information is maintained. Therefore, where a business seeks to keep its information secret, it must take specific steps to treat that information as secret, including by documenting how and for whom the information is available.

In affirming the dismissal of an insurance company’s breach of contract claim which alleged that the insured’s failure to cooperate and obtain consent to settle breached the policy, the First Department held that despite reservation of rights language, an insurance company’s unreasonable delay in dealing with the insured’s claims and trying to disavow coverage amounted to a denial of liability, relieving the insured from its obligation to seek the carrier’s consent before settling.

J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., v. Vigilant Insurance Co.

Some time ago, as part of a discussion about equitable rescission based on fraud, we noted that recovery based on a fraud claim where damages were not specifically alleged and sufficiently supported was the subject of a split between the First and Second Departments.  The Second Department had held that even if just nominal damages are generally alleged, the complaint would survive dismissal. The First Department disagreed and held that a claim of specific damages was required. Recently, the Court of Appeals addressed the split and sided with the First Department.

In Connaughton v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., Connaughton, a chef hired by Chipotle, alleged that he was fraudulently induced into selling his business idea to Chipotle. Specifically, Connaughton claimed that he was hired by Chipotle to develop an idea for a ramen noodle restaurant chain. He was promised a salary plus future equity. After investing substantial efforts over 18 months in publicly building the concept, Connaughton learned that Chipotle had a relationship with another chef who previously worked on the same concept and with whom Chipotle had signed a non-disclosure agreement. The relationship with the other chef had terminated before Connaughton joined Chipotle. It seemed that all of management except Connaughton were aware of this and that once the new chain opened, that chef would sue Connaughton and Chipotle. Chipotle ignored Connaughton’s concerns and demanded that he continue his work. When he refused he was fired.

Connaughton’s theory for recovery, as succinctly explained by the Court of Appeals, is critical to the case’s outcome in the First Department and in the Court of Appeals. Connaughton alleged that:

Leisure Time Travel, Inc., specializes in “producing holiday tours and vacations that comport with Jewish law and tradition.” Villa Roma claims to be the last resort in the Catskills region.

In 2001, the parties entered into a contract whereby Villa Roma would be rented for five Passover holidays, from 2002 through 2006. In 2005, the parties extended the contract for five years, through 2011.

The agreement called for Leisure Time to take over the hotel approximately one week before Passover. The day before Passover in 2006, a fire destroyed the hotel. The hotel refused to return Leisure Time’s $220,000 down payment. When Villa Roma reopened in late 2008, Leisure Time contacted Villa Roma to book the hotel for the 2009-2011 Passover holidays. Villa Roma refused to allow Leisure Time to book the hotel claiming that the fire rendered the parties’ contract impossible to perform thus terminating it. Leisure Time sued claiming that it was entitled to the return of its deposit paid in 2006 and to use the hotel under the terms of the parties’ agreement.

A buyer of real property that sued the seller before the parties’ closing date seeking to cancel the contract, but without a valid reason, was deemed to have breached that contract.

The buyer entered into a contract to buy two parcels of land in Staten Island. The contract was to close 30 days after the seller obtained certain regulatory approvals, but not later than 18 months from the contract date. If the approvals could not be obtained either party could terminate the contract or seek to renegotiate the purchase price, without obligation to close.

Because the approvals were delayed, the seller opted to terminate the contract and return the downpayment unless the buyer agreed to modify the contract. The contract was modified to extend the deadline to close, increase the price, and have the buyer reimburse the seller for certain costs incurred in doing the work that would release the regulatory approvals. The parties also agreed that the buyer would not sue the seller if the approvals could not be timely delivered. Believing that the approvals were forthcoming, the parties extended the closing deadline. Before that newly extended closing deadline, the buyer sued the seller seeking to cancel, or rescind, the contract. The seller counterclaimed claiming that the buyer’s lawsuit, by which it announced that it would not close and sought to cancel the contract, was itself a default entitling the seller to keep the buyer’s substantial downpayment. After the buyer’s lawsuit for rescission was dismissed, the seller pursued its counterclaim for the downpayment.

Plaintiff as tenant entered into a five year commercial lease, commencing March 1, 2006. The lease provided that the space would be used as an office for a recruiting firm and nothing else, and would not be used in a manner that would violate the certificate of occupancy (the “CO”), which would result in the tenant’s breach of the lease. In December 2007, the tenant learned that the CO required that the building be used only as residential space. The tenant asked the landlord to correct this, but the landlord refused. The tenant vacated on May 8, 2009. Thereafter, the tenant sued claiming that the lease was invalid and illegal. The landlord claimed that it was an innocent mistake and counterclaimed for breach of contract, claiming that the lease provided that it was the tenant’s obligation to provide for all permits and licenses in connection with the leased space and that the landlord did not make representations as to the legality of the space.

In reversing the lower court, the First Department held that the landlord could not hide behind that lease provision while also representing that commercial use was permitted in the building, specifically as an office. Allowing the landlord’s argument would mean that the tenant was in breach of the lease on the day it moved in. Even if the landlord’s mistake was innocent, the tenant did not get what it bargained for, and may thus be entitled to rescind the lease. The court clearly saw the landlord as the offending party and seemed skeptical of its arguments in refusing to correct or update the CO, to the extent that was even possible.

Notably, the court did not address the tenant’s ability to check public records for the building’s permitted use, which would have informed the tenant of the building’s limited use. It seems that the court was not going to allow the landlord to hide its conduct behind the lease terms, no matter what.

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.

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

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