Articles Posted in Contract/Corporate

Private lender, in a series of loans, loaned an entity-borrower more than $6 million. The entity was comprised of a father, Michael Miller, and his son, Brandon Miller. While Michael borrowed the money, Michael had his secretary forge Brandon’s signature, which she then notarized. Michael died before the loans were repaid. Upon default, the lender sued the entity and Brandon.

Brandon argued, among other things, that he never signed the loan documents and his signatures were forged. Michael, claimed Brandon, was the responsible party. The court rejected that argument and held that the lender “had no obligation to perform due diligence so as to protect Brandon from the possibility that his father, Michael, and his assistant, Ms. Frangipane, were forging his name to certain loan documents and notarizing his signature and could rely on the facially valid documents, which were notarized and confirmed as validly executed by opinions of Defendants’ counsel.”

While the decision is intuitively logical, imagine the impact on business transactions had the court agreed with Brandon and required a lender to undertake due diligence for a notarized signature. The impact would be severe—every transaction would require insurance. Part of a court’s job is to create consistent and reliable outcomes among a discrete set of recurring circumstances so that businesses can rely on traditional practices.

Plaintiff, who lives in China, went into contract to purchase a new condominium and associated parking space in New York. The contract contained no financing contingency. Plaintiff made the required deposit but did not provide funds to close. After the contract was signed, China implemented restrictions on money flows out of China for real estate purchases abroad. Unable to locate alternative funding, plaintiff could not fund the closing. Plaintiff canceled the contract and demanded a return of the $162,000 downpayment, suing when the funds were not returned. In response, defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action.

Plaintiff argued that its inability to close due to China’s laws made performance under the contract impossible. Defendant denied that and claimed that the terms of the contract permitted it to keep the downpayment. The court agreed with defendant, finding that plaintiff’s inability to close was not excused as impossible. Impossibility only applied where the subject matter of the contract was destroyed or performance became objectively impossible. More, under the terms of the contract, plaintiff waived any financing contingencies, without exception. Under the terms of the contract, therefore, the downpayment need not be returned.

Wang v. 44th Drive Owner LLC

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:

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