CPLR 3211(a)(1) allows a defendant to seek dismissal of a complaint when the defense is “founded upon documentary evidence.” “Documentary evidence”, however, is not defined by the CPLR – leaving many practitioners in the dark as to what qualifies as a sufficient “document” under this paragraph.  Indeed, in a recent blog, we highlighted a case involving whether a termination letter sent by the lawyer was sufficient.

By its plain meaning, “documentary evidence” seems to suggest that any type of evidence that has been reduced to writing could qualify. In reality, however, “documentary evidence” only encompasses certain types of documents, making CPLR 3211(a)(1) a narrow, and sometimes risky, ground upon which to seek dismissal.

That begs the question – what qualifies as documentary evidence under CPLR 3211(a)(1)? New York courts have held that judicial records and documents such as notes, mortgages, and deeds rise to the level of “documentary.” But what about contracts? In Hoeg Corp. v Peebles Corp., the Second Department recently affirmed that contracts can indeed attain the rank of “documentary evidence” under certain circumstances.

In Hoeg, plaintiff and defendant entered into a joint venture and memorialized the terms of their relationship in a written retainer agreement. Specifically, the retainer agreement provided, among other things, that plaintiff would act as a consultant in order to facilitate defendant’s acquisition and development of real property in New York City. The retainer agreement also set forth varying commission structures for work performed by plaintiff in facilitating the defendant’s acquisition of such properties. Notwithstanding the written retainer agreement, plaintiff alleged that it had entered into a prior oral agreement with defendant whereby the parties agreed that plaintiff would retain 25% of the equity in the joint venture.

The plaintiff ultimately commenced an action against the defendant for breach of the oral agreement, alleging that the defendant had failed to honor the terms of the oral agreement after the defendant had sold development rights to a parcel of property in a multimillion dollar deal. The Kings County Supreme Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, but the Second Department reversed, finding that the written retainer agreement qualified as documentary evidence under CPLR 3211(a)(1).

In reaching its conclusion, the Court examined the parties’ written retainer agreement and found that the agreement was “comprehensive in its scope and coverage” that constituted a complete written instrument. Accordingly, the Court held that the parol evidence rule bars any evidence concerning the alleged prior oral agreement. For this reason, the Court ruled that the parties’ contract “conclusively disposed of the plaintiff’s claim alleging breach of the purported oral joint venture agreement.”

This does not necessarily mean that every contract will qualify as documentary evidence under CPLR 3211(a)(1). A document will be considered “documentary evidence” within the meaning of CPLR 3211(a)(1) if it “utterly refutes the plaintiff’s allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law” (see, e.g., Eisner v Cusumano Corp.) .  In addition, the documentary evidence must be “unambiguous, authentic, and essentially undeniable” (id.).  

The careful practitioner should be aware of the limited utility of CPLR 3211(a)(1) and be armed with the right evidence before relying solely on the “documentary evidence” ground. Otherwise, it might be wise for a practitioner to invoke CPLR 3211(a)(7) as a ground for dismissal as well.