Articles Posted in Litigation

Although not a new issue, we discuss it because it comes up from time to time. What obligation does a lender have to verify documents used by a corporate entity to establish that the individual borrowing the money has the corporate authority to do so? In short, very little (assuming there are no red-flags). A mortgagee has no responsibility— no “duty of care”—to verify that a mortgagor’s alleged principal, with authority to borrow, is so authorized. The lender is permitted to accept whatever documents it requires to allow an individual to borrow for and bind an entity without looking beyond those documents.

In one case, defendant LLC borrowed money and purchased a property. Later, a second loan was taken by that same party. After the borrower’s default, the “real” LLC sued claiming that the individual who had represented himself to be the LLC’s sole member, with authority to borrow for the entity, was not the sole member and had no authority to do so, so that the loans were therefore void.

The court disagreed. Once the individual provided documents to support his authority to borrow on behalf of the entity, the lender had no obligation to “ascertain the validity of the documentation presented by the individual who claims to have authority to act on behalf of a borrower corporation or entity.” As such, the loans and mortgages were valid.

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.

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.

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.

In refusing to dismiss a complaint alleging breach of an operating agreement which gave the defendants “‘sole and absolute discretion’” to “select the company’s investments,” Judge Jennifer Schecter of New York County’s Commercial Division held that no matter the language of an agreement—which should be enforced according to its terms—“the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing can never be waived.” Here, defendants’ conduct in diverting a company opportunity for an investment in a fund where they held an undisclosed interest gave rise to plaintiff’s fiduciary duty claim.

Shatz v. Chertok

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.

In refusing to dismiss a case where anticipatory repudiation of an employment agreement was claimed, the court held that for the purposes of a pre-answer motion to dismiss, plaintiff’s claim that he sent three emails to defendant about unpaid commissions which were ignored sufficed to properly allege that claim—“the Defendants’ failure to state its intent to perform under the Employment Agreement and Commission Agreement when such agreements required payment by a date certain is sufficient to state a cause of action for anticipatory repudiation.”

Cooperstein v. Securewatch24, LLC

Landlord sued the guarantor of a lease when the tenant failed to pay. The guarantor argued that it should not be liable for the full amount of the rent as called for in the lease because the landlord and tenant had negotiated a temporary discount without informing or consulting the guarantor. The court did not agree.

While the court agreed with the notion that an agreement cannot be modified without the consent of a surety, and that a new agreement relieves the guarantor from liability, “‘[t]he test is whether there is a new contract which will be enforced by the courts.’ However, “‘[i]ndulgence or leniency in enforcing a debt when due is not an alteration of the contract … .’” With that, the court held that “[t]he subsequent agreement between the tenant and the landlord reducing the tenant’s rent obligations did not discharge defendant’s obligations under the guaranty as it merely constituted leniency on the part of the landlord and did not create a new contract between the parties.”

SpringPRINCE, LLC v. Elie Tahari, Ltd.

Over a robust dissent, the Court of Appeals, in a long decision discussing the policy considerations in enforcing contracts as written, affirmed the Second Department’s decision, also over a passionate dissent, affirming a trial court’s decision dismissing a commercial tenant’s declaratory judgment action and with it, the tenant’s Yellowstone injunction.

“In New York, agreements negotiated at arm’s length sophisticated, counseled parties are generally enforced according to the plain language pursuant to our strong public policy favoring freedom of contract.” So begins the Court of Appeal’s decision in 159 MP Corp. v. Redbridge Bedford, LLC.  That case involved a dispute between a commercial landlord and tenant where the parties’ lease provided for the tenant’s waiver of its “right to bring a declaratory judgment action with respect to any provision” of that lease.

In response to the landlord’s demand to cure certain defaults, the tenant commenced an action seeking a declaratory judgment of its rights under the lease, and sought a Yellowstone injunction. The landlord sought dismissal of the declaratory judgment action, and the Yellowstone, based on the waiver contained in the lease. The tenant claimed that the waiver was mistakenly included for this purpose, intended only for summary proceedings. (It seems that it was not until the parties were before the Second Department that the tenant raised the argument that enforcing the lease as written should be void as against public policy.)

Typically, properly executed arbitration agreements, even as boilerplate in a form agreement, are strictly enforced. That said, there is an interesting 2017 First Department case that allows a party to avoid arbitration due to the cost of doing so.

In this case, as part of his employment, an employee agreed to arbitrate any disputes with his employer before the AAA in Florida. Doing so would require the employee to pay half of the arbitration costs, including the fees charged by the arbitrators, and administrative costs. The claims of the employee were as part of a class, where claims of late payment of wages were made, and recovery would include an award of statutory attorneys’ fees. In response to the employer’s motion to compel arbitration, the employee argued that “he had not agreed to arbitrate Labor Law claims, that any such agreement would be against public policy, and that, based on his limited financial means, as detailed in a supporting affidavit, the fee splitting and venue provisions of the agreement render arbitration financially prohibitive.”

The First Department reaffirmed New York’s strong public policy of favoring arbitrations (where agreed to) and that courts interfere as little as possible in that process and resulting award. “As a general matter, therefore, a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate statutory wage claims is not unenforceable as against public policy.” That said, the court recognized the competing public policy argument that the employee could not afford to travel to Florida and participate in the AAA proceeding and that forcing him to do so would “preclude him from pursuing his claims.” The court referred the matter back to the trial court for an accounting of the employee’s income “and assets,” and the cost to participate in the arbitration. The court did not acquit the employee from the arbitration, only directed the trial court to determine if arbitrating in New York at the employer’s expense would obviate the employee’s concerns. The court also allowed the trial court to consider how the attorneys’ fees provision would impact the employee’s ability to participate in the arbitration. The court did not directly address the issue of whether the employee’s inability to pay the AAA expenses would free him from arbitration completely.

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