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Defendant owned a property that was long alleged to house individuals selling counterfeit goods. Watchmaker Omega bought two counterfeit watches from a retailer at the same location and commenced a lawsuit against the property owner for contributory trademark infringement. Surviving a motion to dismiss by the property owner, the case went to trial. The judge instructed the jury that the property owner’s contributory infringement could be found if the jury found that the property owner allowed those selling the counterfeit goods to continue doing so once it knew what was being sold. Knowing, included “willful blindness,”meaning ignoring the obvious. The jury awarded Omega $1.1 million.

On appeal, the property owner argued that Omega never proved that it leased space to a specific infringer, which it claimed was required. The Second Circuit disagreed. It held that willful blindness, ignoring what it knew or should have known, suffices for “contribution,” because when it had reason to suspect what was being sold looking away would not shield the contributor from liability even if the specific infringer was not specifically identified. While the owner had no obligation to look for the wrongful conduct, but once it was made aware of it, it could not ignore that conduct.

Omega SA, Swatch, SA v. 375 Canal, LLC

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.

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.

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.

Early in 2019, we discussed the binding effect and enforcement of an unsigned agreement. This case again addresses this idea, although in a different setting, but also stands for the proposition that because the agreement did not “positively state that the parties could assent only by signing,” the unsigned (but agreed to) agreement in these circumstances would stand.

Here, a real estate broker in the midst of a two-year employment agreement reached an agreement with his employer to leave. The parties’ termination agreement was not signed by either party. Despite their agreement in principle, the employer refused to pay the employee certain commissions to which he claimed to be entitled post-departure. The court determined that the employer’s failure to pay breached the signed employment agreement and the unsigned termination agreement, both of which addressed the post-termination commission payments.

That the termination agreement was not signed did not sway the court. Initially, while the employment agreement specified that absent the parties’ execution it would not be effective, the termination agreement included no such provision. The court found this to be noteworthy as it demonstrated the employer’s understanding of this concept. The failure to include this same language in the termination agreement, as noted above, precluded the employer’s claims that it was not enforceable. Finally, the email chain between the parties evidenced their intention to be bound, even absent the signatures.

Although this took place in a setting of a personal injury action, the court’s decision with these facts is broad enough to include other settings.

In this case, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident and accepted a settlement from the driver’s insurance company for a nominal sum. In connection with that payment, she executed a release of all claims against the driver. Three days later, she underwent further x-rays and learned that she had a fractured fibula. The plaintiff thereafter sued the driver prompting the insurance company to seek dismissal based on her release. The plaintiff opposed arguing that her release was the product of a mistake, and was unfair and fraudulently obtained. The lower court granted the insurance company’s motion and dismissed the case.

Upon appeal, however, the Third Department reversed. After recognizing the well-settled rules governing a release, including that it may be set aside if it was the product of fraud or mutual mistake, the court distinguished between unknown injuries and “‘mistakes as to the consequences of known injuries.” The first element can be the basis for a mistake which could invalidate a release, while the latter could not. In this case, where the plaintiff claimed to have not known of her broken leg, she should be permitted to pursue her case. The court noted that when the plaintiff presented at the hospital she was told that her leg was not broken despite the fact that plaintiff, while on pain medication, complained of leg pain, including to the insurance adjuster. The adjuster told her that it was probably a bruise and talked her into settling.

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).

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.

While we don’t have a criminal practice, this recently decided case is interesting in how science can change, impacting prior court decisions.  This same concept was found regarding fire science, in prior posts found here and here.

From the New York State Bar Association:

The Fourth Department affirmed the grant of defendant’s motion to vacate her conviction based on newly discovered evidence. Defendant, a daycare provider, was convicted in the death of a toddler. Medical testimony at trial attributed the death to shaken baby syndrome. In the motion to vacate her conviction, defendant argued that advances in medicine and science have called into question the prior opinions about shaken baby syndrome, and indicate a short-distance fall can mimic shaken baby symptom.

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