If you have ever looked at a contract’s New York choice-of-law provision or a status conference stipulation and thought to yourself, “Who wrote this darned thing?” then now is your chance to weigh in. The Commercial Division Advisory Council has recommended two new forms—a model choice-of-law provision and a model status conference stipulation and order form—and the Office of Court Administration is soliciting public comments. Comments should be emailed to rulecomments@nycourts.gov by August 25, 2017.

Standard New York Choice-of-Law Provision

The proposed sample choice-of-law provision, which would be appended to the Rules of the Commercial Division, is as follows:

THIS AGREEMENT AND ITS ENFORCEMENT, AND ANY CONTROVERSY ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THE MAKING OR PERFORMANCE OF THIS AGREEMENT, SHALL BE GOVERNED BY AND CONSTRUED IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE LAW OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, WITHOUT REGARD TO NEW YORK’S PRINCIPLES OF CONFLICTS OF LAW.

The gentle reader must forgive the ALL-CAPS format of the original proposed text (presumably this provision was intended to be read loudly in a New York accent). This proposed uniform provision is intended to (1) assist drafters who wish to choose New York law to govern disputes; (2) reduce litigation over choice-of-law issues; and (3) showcase New York’s “predictable and sensible commercial law” and thereby increase commercial litigation in New York courts. Whether increased commercial litigation in New York’s courts is a desirable goal may be open to debate, but few would object that litigation over sloppily-drafted choice-of-law provisions should be eradicated to the extent possible.

Model Status Conference Stipulation and Order

The Advisory Council has also recommended the adoption of a revised model status conference stipulation and order for use in the Commercial Division. This revised form, which can be viewed here, was designed to incorporate changes in Commercial Division rules and practice since the form was last revised in October 2015. The proposed form has a new section on expert discovery, contains reminders on the finality of discovery deadlines and the availability of alternative dispute resolution, and allows for greater specificity regarding discovery topics. As a model form it is not mandatory, but insofar as it is used as a guide by judges it provides a comprehensive overview of the discovery topics that a court would need to address.

ay a stranger to an arbitration agreement compel arbitration against its signatories? According to the Second Department in Degraw Construction Group v McGowan Builders, Inc., 2017 NY Slip Op 05580 (2nd Dept July 12, 2017), the answer is “sometimes”: a plaintiff cannot avoid arbitration with a company by substituting the company’s employees as defendants.

Our dispute began in the fair County of Queens, renowned for its spicy food and injury-prone athletes, when Degraw Construction Group, Inc. (“Degraw”) agreed to perform construction work for McGowan Builders, Inc. (“McGowan”). McGowan apparently did not pay what Degraw felt was owed, because Degraw brought suit in Supreme Court, Queens County, notwithstanding that the contract, signed by Degraw and McGowan, contained an arbitration clause covering “all disputes arising thereunder.” Degraw also brought causes of action for conversion, unfair competition, and tortious interference against McGowan and several of McGowan’s employees and officers (the “Individual Defendants”). The Supreme Court (Dufficy, J.) granted McGowan’s motion to compel arbitration. However, the Individual Defendants’ corresponding motion was denied because they were not parties to the Contract and therefore had no right to enforce its arbitration provisions.

The Second Department reversed, holding that the individual defendants, although not signatories to the agreement, had the right to enforce it. The Second Department noted first that because “a corporation can only act through its officers and employees […], any breach of the agreement would necessarily have to occur as a result of some action or inaction attributable to an officer or employee of [McGowan].”

This principle girded the Court of Appeals’ 1996 decision in Hirschfeld Prods. v. Mirvish, (cited in the Second Department’s Degraw decision), in which the president and chairman of a theatrical production company were sued in their individual capacities for their unprofitable 1993 production of Hair at the Old Vic Theatre in London (the Spectator’s review: “this was once a great and classic theatre, and what it is doing housing a shoddy, roadshow-like revival of breathtaking inadequacy remains something of a mystery”). As in Degraw, the officers were not signatories to the company’s arbitration agreement. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal granted their motion to compel arbitration, noting that “a rule allowing corporate officers and employees to enforce arbitration agreements entered into by their corporation is necessary not only to prevent circumvention of arbitration agreements but also to effectuate the intent of the signatory parties to protect individuals acting on behalf of the principal in furtherance of the agreement.”

The Second Department also cited Highland HC, LLC v. Scott, in which the plaintiff sued an architectural and construction company, as well as individual officers of the defendant company, due to alleged “design flaws” and “substandard work.” The contract contained an arbitration provision, but was unsigned by the company’s officers or employees in their individual capacities. Despite this, the Second Department (citing Hirschfeld) compelled arbitration, affirming the rule that non-signatories to arbitration agreements “are entitled to enforce the arbitration clause to the extent that their alleged misconduct relates to their behavior as agents of the [signatory company].”

An important takeaway from these decisions is the close relation between the individual defendants’ alleged conduct and their employers’ performance under the contracts. In Hirschfeld, the individual defendants, as president and chairman, controlled and supervised the company’s role in the production. And in Highland, the individual defendants were charged with completing the architectural and construction work on the company’s behalf.   Thus, a key element of the rule affording non-signatory agents the benefit of arbitration agreements signed by their principals is that the non-signatory’s conduct must relate to the performance of its principal’s contractual obligations.

In light of the general policy favoring arbitration, the holding in Degraw should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, potential litigants should be aware that a clause providing that “all disputes” arising out of an agreement shall be resolved by arbitration cannot be circumvented simply by naming a counter-party’s employees as individual defendants.

* A special thanks to Farrell Fritz Summer Law Clerk Kyle Gruder for his research and drafting assistance with this post. Kyle is a student at Hofstra University School of Law and anticipates receiving his J.D. in 2018.

 

 

The doctrine of equitable recoupment, which is codified in CPLR 203(d) permits a defendant to assert an otherwise untimely defense or counterclaim. The Appellate Division, First Department recently applied the doctrine in California Capital Equity, LLC v. IJKG, LLC, and highlighted a few caveats that a litigator should bear in mind when relying upon the doctrine.   Importantly, one must keep in mind that the doctrine of equitable recoupment is to be used as a shield, not a sword.

Plaintiff California Capital Equity, LLC (“CalCap”) commenced an action against defendants IJKG, LLC (“IJKG”) and Vivek Garipalli (“Garipalli”)¹ (collectively, “Defendants”) asserting claims of breach of contract, fraud, and breaches of fiduciary duty arising out of, among other things, Defendants’ failure to make interest payments to CalCap pursuant to a Note Agreement.   In response, IJKG asserted counterclaims for tortious interference with contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unjust enrichment.

CalCap moved to dismiss IJKG’s counterclaims for tortious interference with contract and unjust enrichment on the ground that these counterclaims were barred by New York’s three-year statute of limitations.   Justice Ramos of the New York County Commercial Division denied CalCap’s motion, finding that the doctrine of equitable recoupment permitted IJKG to assert its otherwise time-barred counterclaims.

The First Department affirmed Justice Ramos’ ruling. The Court explained that the doctrine of equitable recoupment, which is codified in CPLR 203(d), permits a defendant to seek equitable recoupment in an otherwise untimely defense or counterclaim.   However, there are two main caveats with respect to the doctrine: (1) the defense or counterclaim must arise from the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences as alleged in the complaint; and (2) the doctrine may only be asserted to offset any damage award or deficiency judgment that a plaintiff may obtain in its favor against a defendant.   In other words, the doctrine of equitable recoupment may only be used defensively as a shield for recoupment purposes, and not as a sword for a defendant to obtain affirmative relief on an otherwise stale counterclaim.

Applying these principles, the First Department concluded that IJKG’s tortious interference of with contract counterclaim, if proved, could be used defensively for recoupment purposes, but that IJKG could not obtain any relief from the counterclaims, such as disgorgement. Accordingly, the Court permitted IJKG to assert its counterclaim for tortious interference with contract solely to offset any damage award or deficiency that CalCap may obtain in its favor.

¹  Although Garipalli was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, all claims against him have been dismissed.

As any seasoned commercial litigator knows, courts are generally loathe to overturn the independent decisions of arbitrators.

New York County Commercial Division Justice Charles E. Ramos recently examined the standard for doing so in Daesang Corp. v NutraSweet Co., a dispute arising from Daesang Corporation’s attempted $79,250,000 sale of its aspartame business to iconic sweetener brand NutraSweet.

Daesang commenced the breach of contract action when NutraSweet attempted to exercise its right to rescind the purchase transaction based upon the filing of a suit against the parties by a class of aspartame purchasers for alleged violations of federal antitrust laws. The parties stipulated to the jurisdiction of the International Chamber of Commerce (“ICC”), which ultimately issued a written award dismissing all of NutraSweet’s counterclaims and defenses and awarded Daesang damages of over $100 million. Daesang then commenced the instant proceeding to confirm the ICC’s award, which NutraSweet moved to vacate.

Acknowledging the “presumption in favor of upholding arbitration awards,” Justice Ramos further observed that such deference is not limitless.   The Court explained that an arbitration award may be vacated only if it a) violates a ground set forth in Section 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act; or b) was rendered in “manifest disregard” of the law.

Justice Ramos determined this to be the rare case, finding two exceptional aspects of the ICC’s award to Daesang warranting vacatur. First, the Court held that with respect to NutraSweet’s defense and counterclaim for equitable rescission based on fraud in the inducement, the ICC disregarded, and in fact ignored the “well-established principle that a fraud claim can be based on a breach of contractual warranties where the misrepresentations are of present facts.”

Second, the Court found that the ICC’s outright refusal to consider NutraSweet’s breach of contract counterclaim, which the ICC concluded NutraSweet waived during its closing argument, went “beyond a mere error in law or facts, and amount[ed] to an egregious dereliction of duty.” The Court explained that, beyond the fact that NutraSweet submitted witness statements, live and expert testimony, and took cross-examination on the counterclaim, the portion of the transcript that the ICC based its decision on failed entirely to address the breach of contract counterclaim.

While the Commercial Division’s decision was a sweet success for NutraSweet, this case should serve as a stark reminder to commercial litigators that a successful motion to vacate an arbitration award requires a finding of truly egregious errors and/or “manifest disregard” for well-established law.

 

Several weeks ago, we reported on some recent updates to Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Bransten’s individual practice rules. New York commercial litigators should take note of some recent changes in the Queens County Commercial Division as well.

According to an official announcement from the Queens County Commercial Division, as of April 3, 2017, all Commercial Division motions made before Justices Marguerite A. Grays or Leonard Livote must be made returnable directly before either judge in their respective Commercial Division Parts and on their respective motion days (as opposed to the Queens County’s Centralized Motion Part or “CMP”), with the corresponding Notices of Motion or Proposed Orders to Show Cause bearing the words “COMMERCIAL DIVISION” in boldfaced type.

Justice Grays’s individual practice rules and Justice Livote’s individual practice rules, particularly with respect to Commercial Division motions made before them (again, as opposed to the CMP), are virtually identical. Some specifics worth noting:

• Both judges designate Tuesdays as their motion day, first call at 10:00 a.m.;

• Both judges emphasize the above-referenced “COMMERCIAL DIVISION” marking requirement, cautioning that non-compliance “may result in the motion being calendared in the CMP”;

• Both judges require that all moving papers be filed in hard copy in the Motion Support Office “at least five business days prior to the scheduled return date.” All answering papers, cross-motions, and replies, on the other hand, “will be accepted only on the return date in the Part”;

• Both judges require in-person appearances by counsel or pro se litigants on the return date of all disclosure motions and Orders to Show Cause, cautioning that such “papers will not be accepted from a calendar service”; and

• Both judges require that all applications for adjournment be made in person on the return date. Again, “calendar service or non-attorneys will not be permitted to make applications for adjournments.”

These are welcome distinctions for litigants interested in prosecuting and/or defending their commercial cases expeditiously. Before April 3, 2017, a commercial litigator wishing to make a motion in the Queens County Commercial Division was left to navigate the many and specific procedures of the CMP where motions are seemingly ever subject to the prospect of being “administratively rescheduled,” “marked off,” outright “discarded,” or otherwise delayed because of some other emboldened, highlighted, and/or underscored procedural particularity.

CPLR 3211(a)(1) provides for the dismissal of a claim so long as the defense is based upon “documentary evidence”.  We’ve seen this used successfully in mortgage note cases, (e.g., Bronxville Knolls, Inc. v. Webster Town Center Partnership, [1st Dep’t 1995]), as well as lease litigation (e.g., 150 Broadway N.Y. Assocs., L.P. v. Bodner, [1st Dep’t 2004]), but how about in a legal malpractice case?  Does a termination letter from lawyer to client operate to successfully cut off malpractice claims as a matter of law?

shutterstock_420696979This defense was argued in Prott v. Lewin & Baglio, LLP, where the Second Department upheld the denial of a motion to dismiss based upon documentary evidence.  There, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant law firm was retained, but failed to timely commence an action later held barred by the statute of limitations.  The defendant law firm raised as a defense, that it had terminated the relationship earlier.  The documentary evidence proffered was the law firm’s termination letter in September 2012 — prior to the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations set to expire December 2012.  The trial court and Appellate Division held, however, that the letter failed to “utterly refute” plaintiff’s claim, which is a necessary finding to mount a successful 3211(a)(1) defense.

When terminating or declining a client relationship, be mindful that some courts have held that where the expiration of the limitations period is clear, the date should have been specified to the client in the letter, see, e.g., Burke v. Landau, Miller & Moran, where the First Department held that a question of fact existed when the non-engagement letter did not specify the date in the letter.

The Second Department recently handed down a harsh reminder of the importance of obtaining an executed broker’s agreement.  Oral agreements for broker fees are apt to run afoul of the statute of frauds, and personal jurisdiction cannot be conferred by the mere insertion of a forum selection clause in the brokered sale agreement.

In Ausch v Sutton, the plaintiff alleged he was owed a broker’s fee pursuant to an oral agreement with the defendants for arranging the sale of the first defendant’s (Defendant 1) interest in a company to Defendant 2. Defendant 3 co-owned the company with Defendant 1 and resided outside New York. Aside from the purchase agreement, which contained a forum selection clause designating New York for the resolution of any disputes arising from the purchase agreement, Defendant 3 had no contacts with New York.

Defendant 3’s motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(8) was denied by the Kings County Supreme Court (Knipel, J.) on the ground that the forum selection clause in the purchase agreement conferred jurisdiction over all disputes arising from the purchase agreement, which included alleged oral agreements for related broker fees. But the Appellate Division reversed, citing Magdalena v Lins,  which held that a forum selection clause among defendants was insufficient to confer personal jurisdiction in a suit brought by the plaintiff, where the plaintiff was neither a party to the agreement containing the forum selection clause nor a third party beneficiary. In essence, the Appellate Division distinguished between the purchase agreement and the alleged oral agreement for a broker’s commission–the forum selection clause in the former was insufficient to confer personal jurisdiction with respect to the latter.

If the lack of personal jurisdiction over Defendant 3 were not enough, then the statute of frauds ultimately would have proved fatal to the plaintiff’s causes of action against all three defendants. General Obligations Law § 5-701[a][10] states that an agreement to pay a commission for arranging a sale transaction is void unless in writing. As held by the Court of Appeals, a claim for unjust enrichment or quasi-contract in connection with a brokered transaction cannot be used to get around the statute of frauds (see Snyder v Bronfman).

The bottom line for brokers of sale transactions is that they cannot rely on protections contained within the sale documents unless they are parties to those documents. To ensure that the dispute will be heard in New York and not dismissed out of hand under the statute of frauds, a broker would be well advised to obtain a signed agreement declaring the terms of her commission before engaging in any work to consummate a potential business opportunity.

If you commence an action by way of summons with notice, you must bear in mind the strict time limitations imposed by CPLR 3012(b). When the other party timely serves a written demand for a complaint, you have exactly twenty (20) days from service of the demand to serve the complaint. This is a strict, statutory deadline that should be calendared immediately upon receipt of the demand. If a litigant fails to serve a complaint within the twenty-day period, the action could be dismissed. Statutory Deadlines

This is precisely what occurred in Javoroski v. SelectQuote Ins. Service, Inc., et al., 2017 N.Y. Slip Op 50465(U)(Sup Ct, Albany County Feb. 21, 2017). Ms. Javoroski commenced an action against SelectQuote and other defendants by serving a summons with notice. The summons with notice indicated that Ms. Javoroski would be alleging, among other things, breach of contract as a result of defendants’ alleged failure to pay life insurance proceeds following the death of plaintiff’s husband. Shortly after plaintiff served the summons with notice, defendants SelectQuote and Charan Singh (“Singh”) filed a notice of appearance and demanded service of the complaint. When plaintiff did not serve the complaint within the twenty-day deadline imposed by CPLR 3012(b), Defendants moved to dismiss the action. Ms. Javoroski cross-moved for an extension of time to complete service, claiming that she had both a reasonable excuse for the delay and a meritorious claim.

First, Plaintiff’s counsel argued that his delay in serving the complaint was due to his need to “conduct further research to ascertain the identity of the correct defendant or defendants.” According to Plaintiff, there were multiple entities that included “SelectQuote” in their names and Singh was affiliated with all of them.

Next, Plaintiff’s counsel explained that, upon receiving Defendants’ notice of appearance in the mail, he undertook additional research in order to ascertain whether the appearing SelectQuote was in fact the entity that sold the life insurance policy to Plaintiff’s late husband. Notably, Plaintiff’s attorney admitted that the 20-day notice deadline was never calendared as a result of a “law office failure.”

Defendants pointed out that Plaintiff’s delay in serving the complaint was anything but short. In fact, Plaintiff served her complaint 79 days after Defendants’ demand, 118 days after service of the summons with notice, and two full weeks after Defendants served their motion to dismiss.

Defendants further argued that the excuse for the delay proffered by Plaintiff’s attorney was unreasonable because the notice of appearance identified the correct defendant and hence, there was no need for additional research.

Defendants also pointed out that the complaint pled identical, repetitive allegations against all five SelectQuote entities and hence, it was not necessary for Plaintiff to identify the correct corporate name in order to prepare the complaint.

The Court agreed with Defendants, finding that Plaintiff’s purported excuses were unreasonable under the circumstances. Importantly, the Court noted that “[e]ven if plaintiff’s attorney had a legitimate need to research the name of the correct corporate entity, it did not absolve plaintiff of the obligation to serve a duly demanded complaint within the time allowed by statute.”

Additionally, the Court noted that the complaint Plaintiff finally served “was not limited to allegations against the ‘correct’ SelectQuote defendant” and hence, Plaintiff had all of the necessary information at the time the summons was served to assert the general allegations that were ultimately put into her complaint.

Finally, the Court found that Plaintiff’s affidavit of merit fell “well short” of establishing her prima facie case, and dismissed the action.

Moral of the story? Calendar your deadlines – especially the statutory ones.

New Rules Shutterstock_317335106One aspect of the Commercial Division that makes it a highly desirable forum for litigators and litigants alike is its focus on the efficient administration of justice. The Commercial Division Advisory Council (the “Advisory Council”), established by New York’s Chief Judge to make recommendations to improve and enhance the Commercial Division, recently proposed three amendments to the Rules of the Commercial Division that would each further this objective.

Standard Alternative Forum Selection Clauses

In light of concerns that were raised after the Chief Administrative Judge issued an Administrative Order, dated March 6, 2017, adopting the Advisory Committee’s September 2016 proposal to add a sample forum selection clause designating the Commercial Division as the chosen forum, the Advisory Committee recently issued a revised proposal. The concerns centered on the potential for the original sample forum selection clause to limit commercial litigants’ access to the New York federal courts. The new proposal addresses this by including two sample forum selection clauses: one designates the Commercial Division exclusively as the chosen forum, while the other provides that the parties agree to submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of either the Commercial Division or the New York federal courts.

 Further Support For Commercial Division Justices to Impose Sanctions

Referencing the finding of the Chief Judge’s Task Force on Commercial Litigation in the 21st Century that sanctions are often underutilized in Commercial Division Cases, the Advisory Council proposed an amendment to the Commercial Division Rules intended to provide additional support for Commercial Division judges to impose sanctions. The proposed amendment, which identifies “the need to conserve client resources, to promote efficient resolution of matters, and to increase respect for the integrity of the judicial process” expressly authorizes Commercial Division judges to “impose sanctions . . . against parties (or counsel) who fail to comply with case management deadlines and other discovery orders.”

Attorney Certifications Regarding ADR

Finally, the Advisory Council has also proposed a new rule aimed at increasing ADR utilization in the Commercial Division. The proposed rule would require attorneys to certify at the preliminary conference, and at each compliance or status conference, that they have discussed ADR options with their client(s) and to state whether their client(s) is willing pursue mediation during the litigation.  If the parties are both willing to mediate their dispute, they would be required to jointly propose a date by which they will select a mediator, but does not require that they set a deadline for the mediation to begin.