Articles Posted in Contract/Corporate

Plaintiff borrowed more than a million dollars from defendant, in addition to using his funds, to form an LLC with which to buy a property. The LLC was in defendant’s name, however, pending plaintiff’s ability to obtain credit to hold the property on his own. When the time came for defendant to transfer the LLC and property to plaintiff, he refused, denying that there was any agreement between them. Defendant tried to explain away the loan proceeds and other indicia of plaintiff’s ownership and control. The lower court found that defendant’s notes that the funds he provided to plaintiff were loans led to the imposition of a constructive trust.

The Second Department affirmed. After finding that the arrangement was not defeated by the statute of frauds, because the parties’ conduct would be “extraordinary” absent their unwritten agreement, it refused to find that plaintiff’s conduct in seeking to avoid his creditors—which led to the arrangement in the first place—could be seen as unclean hands to defeat his claims. Because defendant assisted plaintiff and was not harmed by whatever conduct was alleged to be plaintiff’s unclean hands, the relief to defendant would be denied because: “‘relief is denied under the ‘clean hands’ doctrine, ‘not as a protection to defendant, but as a disability to the plaintiff’ and as a matter of public policy in order to protect the integrity of the court.’” In other words, generally speaking, the clean hands doctrine is a defect in a plaintiff’s claim; it is not a defense for the defendant.

Last, the court found the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the parties. While ordinary business relationships, including that of lender-borrower, do not usually rise to a fiduciary relationship, the details of the general relationship in this case satisfied the court that the parties had a “confidential or fiduciary” relationship.

An LLC member promised to accept “any terms” for the sale of the parties’ entity if another member would pay certain of his personal debts. That member would later renege and agree to a different deal from a second buyer. When that member also refused the terms of the LLC sale to the second party, the other members removed the refusing member and moved toward consummating the sale. When litigation was commenced among the members, that second buyer backed out. The LLC and the remaining members sued the excluded member for, among other things, breach of contract.

Addressing the breach claim in connection with the first potential buyer, while agreeing with the principle that to enforce a contract the terms of the agreement must have been sufficiently clear and capable of being agreed to, the Second Department held that an enforceable agreement can be found even if not all of the terms are “‘absolutely certain [ ]’” so long that the parties intended to agree to an agreement that left a term undefined. The court stated “[c]ontrary to the defendant’s assertion, an agreement to accept a reasonable offer is not necessarily unenforceable; instead, ‘a party may agree to be bound to a contract even where a material term is left open’ provided there is ‘sufficient evidence that both parties intended that arrangement.’”

Additionally, the term “reasonable offer” can be sufficiently definite and not unreasonably vague. “Here, since the agreement involved offers by third parties, leaving open what constituted a ‘reasonable offer’ was not inappropriate. There were objective criteria, such as whether an offer comported with the company’s value as established by an analysis of its financial records, which could be used to determine whether a given offer was ‘reasonable.’”

Plaintiff was induced to leave his current employment and start working at defendant’s agency. As part of the parties’ agreement, plaintiff was promised six months’ severance if terminated without cause. Plaintiff signed the agreement but, despite receiving an email from a board member welcoming him aboard, defendant did not sign the agreement. Plaintiff was terminated without cause but defendant refused to pay his severance.

The First Department reversed the lower court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s case, finding that although defendant did not sign the employment agreement, there was no question that plaintiff began working for defendant and performed as expected. Once fired, he was due the promised severance. The contract made no provision that required a signature for it to be binding, so that defendant’s failure to sign the fully-integrated agreement was no bar to its enforcement.

 

Lord v. Marilyn Model Management, Inc.

While short on facts, a recent decision out of the Southern District rejected the defendants’ claim that their inability to pay on a consent judgment was due to COVID-19. The defendants did not deny liability, only that their payment should be excused because the virus and the circumstances rendered them unable to pay.

Magistrate Judge Stewart D. Aaron rejected that argument. Asserting the impossibility defense, held the Judge, is only available when performance is rendered “‘objectively impossible’” by an unforeseen event that could not be anticipated. The “‘means of performance’” must have been destroyed; financial or economic difficulties would not suffice even if those hardships resulted in an objective inability to pay.

With this, while the defendants’ “financial difficulties arising out of COVID-19 and the PAUSE Executive Order” may have adversely affected their ability to pay, their obligation to do so cannot be excused.

Licensor sued a licensee for breaching an agreement to pay certain fees. In responding, the licensee counterclaimed for breach of the parties’ agreement. In doing so, it lumped together multiple allegations of breach into one cause of action but without detailing the specific contract provisions that the licensor violated.

The court granted the licensor’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, with leave to amend, as the counterclaims failed to specify the provisions breached or the dates that they were breached. Those dates were of particular note, as the claims raised addressed issues that may have been barred by the statute of limitations.  Instead of using the licensee’s affidavit to supplement the counterclaims, the court deemed it the “better practice” to replead.

Icon DE Holdings, LLC v. Mondani Handbags & Accessories, Inc.

A buyer signed a contract and paid a downpayment as part of the purchase of real property. The buyer did not show at a time of the essence closing, leading the seller to declare its default and intention to retain the downpayment as damages.

Some eight months later, the buyer sued seeking specific performance. The seller counterclaimed for declaratory relief that it was entitled to retain the downpayment. The trial court denied the seller’s summary judgment motion seeking dismissal of the complaint and relief on its counterclaim.

The Second Department reversed finding that the buyer’s counsel’s email to seller’s counsel offering to extend the closing date for additional consideration, which was ignored by the seller’s counsel, did not void the time of the essence declaration or avoid buyer’s default. The counterclaim was remanded for judgment.

Many contracts are being pulled out for review to ascertain how COVID-19 affects them.  I have received some preliminary inquiries and briefly address the topic here.

Contractual force majeure, or “acts of Gd,” provisions found in a contract are a specific variation of a party’s inability to perform due to performance having been rendered impossible. Because establishing a claim of impossibility sufficient to release a party from its contractual obligations is difficult, establishing force majeure claims are challenging as well.

In one Court of Appeals case, where a property owner’s literal inability to procure sufficient insurance ended in the landlord declaring a default, the court upheld the default, explaining:

Owner of a property entered into a contract for its sale. At the time of the contract, Owner, a corporation, was dissolved by proclamation. The contract had a one-year closing date, time being of the essence, but if there was no closing, Buyer’s downpayment would be returned upon its termination of the contract. If the buyer defaulted, however, it would forfeit its downpayment.

Upon receiving the title report, Buyer learned that Seller had been dissolved, which was marked as an exception on that report. To remedy the issue, language was inserted into the deed “indicating that the transfer was being done to wind up [Seller’s] business.” Upon vacating the residential tenants and putting the commercial tenants on notice that they would have to do the same, Seller notified Buyer that it was ready to close.

Buyer’s new counsel then notified Seller’s that because Seller was not in good standing, and without authority as an entity to enter into the contract, Seller was in default. Buyer demanded the return of its downpayment. Seller’s attorney responded by demanding to close and that if Buyer did not, it would be held in default.

A property owner challenged a lien because the contractor did not apportion the work over two properties, thus exaggerating the lien amount and subjecting it to cancellation.

The First Department refused to cancel the lien, finding that the Lien Law did not require that multiple liens be filed for work under one contract. The court also decided that the claims of exaggeration was not “conclusively established,” without which dismissal could not be granted.

J.T. Magen & Co. v. Nissan N. Am., Inc.

Specifically in connection with real estate contracts, where issues come up during the due diligence period, parties often demand relief of their own imagination, which courts refuse to enforce.

In a case decided in the Commercial Division of Kings County, involving a buyer’s demand not found in the contract, the court reaffirmed the principle that relief outside the contract would not be considered and would be deemed a default. There, the seller held some 71% of the property, with the remaining interest held by the seller’s brothers. When it turned out that certain estate proceedings required to clear title would be costly, the seller notified the buyer that those proceedings exceeded what was required of him to provide clean title under the parties’ contract, but also asked that the purchase price be raised to comply with the estate proceedings. The buyer sued claiming that this notification breached the contract. Both parties moved for summary judgment.

In dismissing the buyer’s claims and his case, the court found that the buyer had two options once he learned of the costs to be incurred by the seller—either take the property as is or cancel the contract and receive the return of his downpayment. The buyer did neither. Because the buyer had no other option in connection with the seller’s notice his lawsuit was itself a breach of the contract allowing the seller to deem the buyer to be in breach, entitling him to judgment dismissing the lawsuit.

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