A general release: the end of a litigation or relinquishment of a right? Every attorney and litigant often breathes a sigh of relief when a litigation comes to a conclusion. But is that always the case? Not when the release covers more than may have been intended.

In a recent decision by Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley, the Court held that a general form release, which settled a dispute involving one piece of artwork within an allegedly stolen collection of several other pieces of artwork, barred Plaintiff from bringing a subsequent action to recover any other pieces within the collection.

In Frenk v. Solomon, Paul Westheim (“Westheim”), a famous Jewish art critic who specialized in German expressionist art, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and entrusted his art collection with an art dealer in Berlin, Ms. Weidler (“Weidler”). Westheim later married Ms. Westheim-Frenk. After World War II, Weidler claimed that the art collection was destroyed in the war, but Plaintiff (Westheim-Frenk’s daughter) alleged that Weidler stole Westheim’s art collection and sold it in separate pieces.

In 1973, late Westheim’s wife (“Westheim-Frenk”) commenced an action against Weidler, because Weidler sold a paining from Westheim’s art collection (the “First Action”). That matter settled before discovery and was “discontinued ‘with prejudice.’” Westheim-Frenk, represented by New York counsel, executed a blanket release (the “Release”), discharging Weidler, her “heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns” from all claims that Westheim-Frenk “ever had, now have, or which [Ms. Wetheim-Frenk] or [her] heirs, executors, or administrators, hereafter can, shall or may have.” In consideration for the Release, Plaintiff’s mother received $7,500.00, which is equivalent to about $40,000.00 today.

In or about January of 2013, Plaintiff initiated the instant action against the executors of Weidler’s estate and her heirs, seeking to recover the valuable artwork from Westheim’s art collection, as well as damages and a judgment declaring that she was entitled to the artwork.

Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment alleging that the Release and stipulation discontinuing the First Action barred Plaintiff’s claim under the doctrine of res judicata; and nothing in the broad Release was “intended to be narrowly applied to any one painting, but rather, to the entire collection.” The terms of the broad Release bar Plaintiff from bringing an action against Weidler, or her “heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns.” Because the defendants demonstrated the prima facie defense of release, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to evidence material issues of fact to defeat summary judgement. See Aoki v. Aoki.

In seeking to limit the broad Release, Plaintiff argues that the subject of the First Action was the artwork, entitled Portrait of Dr. Robert Freund, and, thus, that the Release applied only to that piece. Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that Westheim-Frenk was fraudulently induced by Weidler to execute the Release and, thus, the defendants should be estopped from using the Release. However, the defendants objected to Plaintiff’s use of parol evidence. Justice Masley held that because the Release contained a standardized form, the court “must be flexible in the application of the parol evidence rule.”

Plaintiff also attempted to identify a transaction between Ms. Weidler and Westheim-Frenk in support of her claim that the Release only pertained to the single painting. Plaintiff argued that in 1976, when Weidler attempted to sell another piece from Westheim’s collection, Weidler entered into an agreement to split the sale amount of the artwork—a deal which would clearly not make sense if the Release pertained to all the artwork in Westheim’s collection. On the other hand, the defendants identify a letter from Westheim-Frenk stating that she understood that nothing could be done regarding all future artwork that may turn up. Next, Plaintiff argued that it is inconceivable that the low settlement amount from the First Action ($7,500.00) would have covered all the other valuable artwork. Justice Masley, however, rejected these conclusory arguments, holding that Plaintiff’s “evidence of conduct and intent is inconclusive” in light of the clear and unambiguous language of the Release.

In that regard, the First Department has held that “to hold a release forever hostage to legal afterthoughts basically vitiates the nature of the release.” See Aoki v. Aoki. Although Plaintiff argued that the Release should be set aside because Weidler used fraud to obtain same, Justice Masley held that in order to set aside the Release on the ground of fraud, Plaintiff had to establish that the fraud was separate from the subject of the Release, in addition to all the basic elements of fraud. Plaintiff, however, failed to identify any of Weidler’s misrepresentations at the time the Release was executed. In fact, there was no support for a claim that Westheim-Frenk was defrauded when she signed the release. Interestingly, Justice Masley held that plaintiff’s mother “failed to condition the Release on the truth of the information . . . i.e. that there were no other artworks from Westheim’s collection.” The Court finally also determined that Weidler did not waive the Release and Plaintiff did not present any evidence demonstrating that Weidler “intentionally relinquish[ed] a known right.”

Accordingly, because the Release was clear and unambiguous, the Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action.

Takeaway: Be especially precautious when drafting a release for a client, making sure not to waive any of their rights. Here, Justice Masley recognized that Plaintiff’s mother was represented by counsel when entering into the general release. This could potentially open you to a malpractice lawsuit.

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Generally speaking, most people want to avoid becoming entangled in litigation.  But what happens when an action is pending and, although your client is not a party, his or her interests may be adversely affected?  Move to intervene.

Intervention is a procedure whereby an outsider can become a party to a pending action on its own initiative.  Intervention is sometimes available as of right (see CPLR 1012), sometimes only in the court’s discretion (see CPLR 1013), but it must be brought by motion in all instances, accompanied by a proposed pleading setting forth the claim or defense for which intervention is sought (see CPLR 1014).

The Appellate Division, Second Department recently reiterated the principles governing motions for leave to intervene in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. v Christ the King Regional High Sch, 2018 NY Slip Op 06131.  In that case, the plaintiff agreed to convey title to a parcel of property to the defendant on the condition that the premises would not be used for any purpose other than for the operation of a Catholic high school.  But in 2002, the defendant leased a portion of the premises to a non-party (“Non-Party 1”), which, in 2013, sublet a portion of the premises to another non-party (“Non-Party 2”), who used the leased portion to operate a charter middle school.

The plaintiff sued the defendant seeking, among other things, an injunction prohibiting the defendant from using any portion of the property as a charter school.  After the plaintiff was awarded partial summary judgment, both non-parties (the “Non-Parties”) moved to intervene as defendants in the action.  The Commercial Division in Queens County (Hon. Marguerite A. Grays) denied the Non-Parties’ motions.

The Appellate Division, Second Department reversed, reasoning that the Non-Parties each “have a real and substantial interest in the outcome of the litigation and that, although their respective interests are aligned with those of [the defendant] and with each other, [the defendant] cannot fully represent those interests.”  The Court noted that although neither of the Non-Parties would be bound by a judgment in the action, if the plaintiff prevailed, the defendant would be forced to break its lease with Non-Party 1, which in turn would be forced to break its sublease with Non-Party 2.  The Court concluded that the Non-Parties should have been allowed to intervene under these circumstances.

So, if your client has a dog in someone else’s fight and wants to intervene, under which CPLR provision should you move? CPLR 1012 specifies three narrow grounds for intervention as a matter of right: (1)  where a statute expressly confers such right; (2) where the person seeking to intervene “is or may be bound by the judgment” and where representation of the person’s interest “is or may be inadequate”; and (3) when an action concerns property in which a nonparty has an interest and the nonparty may be adversely affected by the judgment.  By contrast, CPLR 1013 allows for intervention in the court’s discretion (i.e., permissive intervention), thereby providing an additional or alternative ground for intervention based simply on a showing that the intervenor’s claim or defense shares a common question of law or fact with a claim or defense in the pending action.

But, whether intervention is sought as a matter of right under CPLR 1012, or as a matter of discretion under CPLR 1013 is of “little practical significance” because intervention will be permitted where, as in the case above, the intervenor has “a real and substantial interest in the outcome of the proceedings.”

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Over the past year or so, we have made a point of highlighting in the “Check the Rules” series on this blog periodic updates to the individual practice rules of certain Commercial Division Justices, including Justice Eileen Bransten in New York County (twice, in fact), Justices Marguerite A. Grays and Leonard Livote in Queens County, and Justice Sylvia G. Ash in Kings County.

Continuing with this theme of local-rule vigilance, Commercial Division practitioners should take note some recent changes to the individual practice rules of Manhattan Commercial Division Justice O. Peter Sherwood.

Justice Sherwood’s Practices for Part 49, which were revised as of this month, provide some notable additions (and omissions) from his prior rules, which dated back to May 2014 before most of the Commercial Division Advisory Council’s new-rule proposals and amendments were adopted and implemented.

Be Prepared, Be Authorized. Justice Sherwood opens his practice rules with an express and emphatic reminder to attorneys practicing in his Part of the requirements under Rule 1 of the Commercial Division Rules that “counsel . . . must be fully familiar with the case . . . and fully authorized to enter into agreements, both substantive and procedural, on behalf of their clients.” In other words, appearing in Part 49 is no “cattle-call.” Attorneys should have factual command of their cases, as well as the requisite authority to bind their clients.

Separate and Describe Your Exhibits. Justice Sherwood now requires attorneys practicing in his Part who wish to annex exhibits to their correspondence or motion papers to separately e-file their exhibits and designate them with a “descriptive title.” In other words, a simple designation of “Exhibit A” won’t cut it. Attorneys must provide a description (e.g. “Operating Agreement, dated as of September 20, 2018”) so that adversaries and court personnel viewing the docket or other notice of filing can immediately understand what has been filed.

Get Advance Permission to Adjourn Appearances. Justice Sherwood now requires that requests for adjournment be submitted a full two business days in advance of the scheduled appearance. Justice Sherwood conferences his cases on Tuesdays, so that means attorneys must get their requests for adjournment in by no later than Thursday of the prior week.

Check Your E-Mail. Justice Sherwood’s new rules provide that the court may choose to communicate with counsel via e-mail “regarding scheduling matters or to make certain inquiries.” Note, however, that this line of communication only goes one way. It does not mean that attorneys practicing in Part 49 may “initiate communication with the court via email” or “use e-mail to make arguments.”

Complete Party Discovery Before Bothering Non-Parties. Justice Sherwood “strongly encourages” attorneys practicing in his Part to “attempt to confine their requests to parties to the action and resort to third-party disclosure only when it reasonably appears that the information being sought is otherwise unavailable.” Justice Sherwood also requires that all non-party subpoenas be “simultaneously served” on all parties, and that all documents and information produced in response be exchanged among all parties within five days of receipt.

Follow Instructions When Seeking to File Under Seal. Justice Sherwood’s updated practice rules provide specific instructions concerning the filing of documents under seal:

  • Applications to file under seal must be made by Order to Show Cause, which must be preceded by a meet-and-confer regarding the documents proposed for seal.
  • Motions will be considered in light of the limitations imposed under applicable case law, and the movant must propose redactions “as opposed to wholesale sealing.”
  • Any document proposed for seal must be filed in its original, un-redacted form as an exhibit, with the proposed redacted version filed “as a subset of that exhibit.”
  • All motions must be accompanied by a joint index of the documents proposed for seal, including the basis for sealing and any objection thereto.

Finally, as for notable omissions, Justice Sherwood appears to have dispensed with his former requirement – which, as far as I’m aware, was entirely unique to his Part – that  motion submissions also be provided to the court “in .rtf format on a computer disk.”

**Nota Bene** – Attention Kings County Commercial Division practitioners: How much is your case worth? The general practice rules for the Kings County Commercial Division also were updated this month to double the monetary threshold from $75,000 to $150,000.

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Your client wants to recover damages for breach of contract and demands that you assert as many causes of action as possible.  In addition to the breach cause of action, you consider a declaratory judgment claim, right?  Wrong!   The Second Department has held time and time again that “[a] cause of action for a declaratory judgment is unnecessary and inappropriate when the plaintiff has an adequate, alternative remedy in another form of action, such as breach of contract” (see BGW v. Mount Kisco; Stuckey v Lutheran Care Found. Network, Inc.; and Alizio v Feldman).

Recently, the Second Department in Tiffany Tower Condominium, LLC, et al. v Insurance Company of the Greater New York reaffirmed this principle. There, Tiffany Tower Condominium, LLC (“Tiffany Tower”) sustained damage to its condominium during Superstorm Sandy. Insurance Company of the Greater New York (the “insurer”) paid Tiffany Tower’s original claim for the damage sustained to the condominium under Tiffany Tower’s insurance policy but when Tiffany Tower submitted a supplemental claim for the additional losses sustained to the condominium as a result of the storm, the insurer denied coverage. As a result, Tiffany Tower initiated a lawsuit seeking, among other things, to recover damages for breach of contract and for a judgment declaring that coverage for the supplemental claim was improperly denied.  The insurer moved to dismiss Tiffany Tower’s second, third, and fourth causes of action for breach of breach of contract, judgment declaring that coverage was improperly denied, and violation of General Business Law § 349, respectively. Justice Ash denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss these causes of action and the insurer appealed.

In its recent decision, the Second Department held that the Supreme Court erred and should have dismissed Tiffany Tower’s cause of action for a declaratory judgment. The Court held that where plaintiff has an “an adequate, alternative remedy in another form of action,” i.e., the breach of contract claim, the declaratory judgment cause of action is thus “unnecessary and inappropriate.”

Interestingly, the First and Fourth Departments have also dismissed declaratory judgment causes of action where plaintiff had an “adequate, alternative remedy in another form of action, such as breach of contract.”  (see Main Evaluations, Inc. v. State; Apple Records, Inc. v. Capital Records, Inc.) The Third Department, however, has had no similar holdings.

I made two observations coming out of Grand Central Station during my morning commute last week. First, the city really stinks after a string of oppressively hot and humid summer days. Second, there appears to be a temporary taxi stand, perhaps occasioned by the ongoing construction of the new One Vanderbilt building, just outside the south entrance of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street under the Park Avenue Viaduct.

This latter observation was rather rudely forced upon me when the precarious position of one such cab nearly caused me to traverse its front-end Bo and Luke Duke style. The site of the mangled NYC taxi medallion fastened to the cab’s dented hood was a striking metaphor for the current state of the taxi industry given the increasing popularity of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

The plight of the cabbie was on display in a recent decision from the Honorable O. Peter Sherwood of the Manhattan Commercial Division in a case called Capital One Equip. v Deus, in which the cabbie-defendants, after defaulting on a promissory note representing more than $400,000 borrowed to purchase a taxi medallion, attempted to rest on the traditional contractual defense of impracticability or impossibility of performance in a summary proceeding under CPLR 3213.

The essence of Defendants’ claim was that “due to the economic change in the medallion and taxi industry of New York by ride sharing applications like Uber and Lyft, there is an impossible hurdle for the defendants to overcome, making the repayment of the loan impossible.”

Readers may recall from their law-school hornbook days that the impossibility defense contemplates truly unexpected circumstances. As the plaintiff-lender in the Deus case put it, “the impossibility defense . . . only excuses a party’s contractual performance where there has been destruction or obstruction by God, a superior force, or by law.”

The cabbies, however, likened their situation to the kind of critical condition contemplated by the traditional defense, describing the industry as being “on life support with little to no chance for a reversal of its current dire situation.”

“At the heart of the problems facing the NYC Taxi industry,” cried the cabbies, “is the emergence of companies such as Uber and Lyft which are exempt from the regulatory framework burdening the medallion owners.” As a result, “ridership in New York City yellow taxi cabs has dropped almost 30%” and “NYC taxi medallions, which were selling for in excess of $1,000,000 as recently as 2013, have plummeted in market value” – all of which has led to a “collapse of unprecedented proportions.”

A creative argument to be sure, but the court wasn’t buying it. Citing New York case law going back to the late 1960’s, the court ultimately held for the plaintiff-lender, finding that “performance of a contract is not excused where impossibility or difficulty of performance is occasioned only by financial difficulty or economic hardship. Economic hardship alone cannot excuse performance; the impossibility must be produced by an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against in the contract.”

Coming on the heels of several driver suicides in recent months, the Deus decision is just more bad news for the NYC taxi industry. While market forces created by the advent of ride-sharing services may not be “superior” enough to satisfy the impossibility defense, one thing’s for sure: it’s a difficult time to be a taxi driver in New York City.

**UPDATE**  Perhaps the cabbies are seeing a little light after all. Around the time this post was published last week, news broke that the New York City Council had tugged the reigns of the Uber/Lyft ride-sharing industry by passing minimum-wage requirements for drivers, as well as a one-year freeze on the licensing of participating vehicles in the city. The first-of-their-kind bills, particularly the cap on e-hail cars, was driven in large part by increased problems related to city-street congestion. Today, Mayor de Blasio signed the bills into law.

 

The Appellate Division, in a short but direct ruling, reminds the bench and bar that courts cannot simply “search the record” and grant summary judgment on claims or defenses that are not the subject of the motion.  It did so this time in the context of an LLC judicial dissolution action pending in the Commercial Division of Nassau Supreme in Philogene v. Duckett.  This follows another recent decision by the same court two weeks earlier in  Singletary v. Alhalai Rest., Inc., a personal injury action.

The procedural setting in Philogene is somewhat unusual.  Plaintiff and defendant are 50/50 members of Verity Associates, LLC (“Verity”), which publishes cookbooks and recipes, such as America’s Most Wanted Recipes and Tried and True Recipe Secrets, through the internet.  Plaintiff commenced the action in his “individual” capacity, as well as “suing in the right” of Verity.  In his complaint, he asserted various claims, including breaches of fiduciary duty and contract, where he sought injunctive relief, damages and an accounting.  In turn, defendant counterclaimed for judicial dissolution and moved for summary judgment on that claim.  The motion court denied defendant’s motion for dissolution since it found that the stated purpose of the entity was being met and that it was financially feasible to continue Verity.  The court then “searched the record” concluding that “no further adjustment in their interests is necessary” and dismissed the complaint.

So what is the reach of a court’s authority to “search the record” and grant reverse summary judgment?

We’re all familiar with CPLR 3212(b) which empowers a court to “search the record” and award judgment to the non-movant.  In fact, if a court searches the record and concludes the non-movant should win, then the court has both the “power” and “responsibility” to render judgment accordingly, see Merritt Vineyards, Inc. v. Windy Heights Vineyard, Inc.  This authority, however, is not boundless.  The leading case from the Court of Appeals on the scope of this power is Dunham v. Hilco Constr. Co., where Chief Judge Kaye observed that, “[a]part from considerations of simple fairness, allowing a summary judgment motion by any party to bring up for review every claim and defense asserted by every other party would be tantamount to shifting the well-accepted burden of proof on summary judgment motions.”  Some courts have expressed  frustration with this limitation (e.g.,  “Although the Court would like nothing better than to put this case out of its misery, given Dunham . . . the Court will decline defendant’s invitation to search the record.”)  But by now, the law is clear that CPLR 3212(b) permits “searching the record” in the context of summary judgment is only appropriate on issues or claims raised by the motion, and nothing more.

Notwithstanding the narrow authority courts have to “search the record” in the context of a dispositive motion, this should not be confused with a court’s authority to decide non-dispositive motions (such as discovery related) on grounds other than those advanced by the parties in the motion papers, see, e.g., Tirado v. Miller (granting discovery related motion on grounds not argued by the parties).  For a good discussion of this distinction, the First Department’s ruling in Rosenblatt v. St. George Health and Racquetball Assocs., LLC is instructive.

 

In May 2013, professional golfer Vijay Singh (“Singh”) brought suit against PGA Tour, an organizer of the leading men’s professional golf tours and events in North America, in Vijay Singh v. PGA Tour, Inc. PGA Tour enacted an Anti-Doping Program, which prohibits golfers from using certain substances. The list of prohibited substances was adopted from the list maintained by the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”). A few years after the Anti-Doping Program was enacted, Singh began using a performance-enhancing substance, deer antler spray, for his knee and back problems.

Although Singh tested negative for any banned substance, PGA Tour, which sent the spray for testing, determined that the spray contained prohibited substances. As a result, PGA Tour concluded that Singh violated the Anti-Doping Program and, as a result, suspended him from activities related to PGA Tour’s organization. PGA Tour subsequently dropped its disciplinary action and revoked Singh’s suspension after WADA announced that deer antler spray is not a prohibited substance.

Singh sued PGA Tour in the New York County Commercial Division for, among other things, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and conversion. Nearly three years later, Singh moved for partial summary judgment on his breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing cause of action. PGA Tour moved for summary judgment on the causes of action for conversion and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

In May 2017, Justice Eileen Bransten granted in part and denied in part PGA Tour’s motion for summary judgment. She dismissed Singh’s claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and denied in part Singh’s motion for partial summary judgment on that claim. The Court determined there were issues of fact regarding whether PGA Tour breached the implied covenant of good faith by failing to consult with the WADA, upon which PGA Tour clearly relied in issuing its list of prohibited substances, prior to suspending Singh. The Court also concluded there were issues of fact pertaining to what, if any, damage Singh suffered as a result of his suspension and PGA Tour’s making public statements regarding his use of the substance. Justice Bransten also dismissed Plaintiff’s cause of action for conversion on the basis that PGA Tour demonstrated compliance with the Anti-Doping Program, thus establishing that PGA Tour was entitled to escrow Plaintiff’s funds from the date of Singh’s alleged violation to the end of his suspension.

Recently, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed Justice Bransten’s decision. PGA Tour’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Singh’s cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was denied. The Court held that the determination as to whether PGA Tour exercised discretion “arbitrarily, irrationally or in bad faith by failing to confer with or defer to” the WADA prior to suspending Singh and making public statements regarding his use of the deer antler spray is an issue of fact for the jury to determine. The First Department relied on Dalton v. Educational Testing Serv., which held that “[w]here a contract contemplates the exercise of discretion, this pledge includes a promise not to act arbitrarily or irrationally.” Indeed, the Court went on to determine that within the obligation to exercise good faith are “promises which a reasonable person in the position of the promisee would be justified in understanding were included.” In that regard, the Court held that issues of fact exist on whether the public statements made by PGA Tour representatives implicating Singh’s substance use were a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and whether and what damage Singh suffered as a result thereof. The Court also affirmed the earlier decision dismissing the claim to the extent it relied on Singh’s allegation that he was treated differently than other similarly situated professional golfers.

 

On June 5, 2018, in RKA Film Financing, LLC v. Kavanaugh et al., the First Department unanimously affirmed the Supreme Court, New York County’s decision absolving the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, of fraud claims brought by RKA Film Financing LLC (“RKA”), a media financing company.

By way of background, in 2014, RKA, a media financing company, lent money to Relativity, a global media company. RKA alleged that it was misled into believing that it was investing in a low-risk lending facility and that the funds would be used for print and advertising expenses related to the release of motion picture films by special purpose entities (“SPE”). Specifically, RKA alleged that certain representatives of Relativity caused certain SPEs to enter into a print and advertising funding agreement with RKA (“Funding Agreement”). RKA alleged that the Funding Agreement contained misrepresentations, including that the funds would be used for print and advertising expenses for specific movies, to induce RKA to invest large sums of money. However, unbeknownst to RKA, Relativity used the funds to pay for general corporate expenses.

Mnuchin joined Relativity’s board as a non-executive director and chairman in October of 2014 after his private investment firm invested $104 million in Relativity. Mnuchin also served as the CEO and Chairman of OneWest, a commercial lender that lent millions to Relativity. RKA alleged that by way of Mnuchin’s position at OneWest, he was privy to the “inner-workings” of Relativity’s finances.

On April 10, 2015, in response to RKA’s request, members of Relativity informed RKA that only “$1.7 million had actually been spent” on print and advertising. On April 13, 2015, Relativity admitted that it misappropriated RKA’s funds.

Mnuchin, who did not participate in the execution or performance of the Funding Agreement, resigned from the Relativity board on May 29, 2015. Thereafter, on May 30, 2015, after Relativity defaulted on a loan from OneWest, Mnuchin began seizing $50 million from Relativity’s account to recoup OneWest’s loan.

RKA commenced suit against several defendants, including Mnuchin, alleging that they misled RKA into lending Relativity millions of dollars for print and advertising of major movie releases. Mnuchin moved to dismiss. The Supreme Court, New York County dismissed RKA’s claims against Mnuchin.

The Court held that RKA failed to establish its claim for fraud because “absent substantive allegations that Mnuchin was responsible for, aware of, or participated in the purported fraud surrounding the Funding Agreement, liability cannot attach.” Specifically, a plaintiff seeking to recover for fraud must “set forth specific and detailed factual allegations that the defendant personally participated in, or had knowledge of any alleged fraud.” To allege a cause of action for fraud, a plaintiff must also establish causation, showing that “defendant’s misrepresentations were the direct and proximate cause of the claimed losses.” Accordingly, Justice Charles E. Ramos concluded that despite allegations that Mnuchin had inside access to the way in which Relativity used the funds, that was insufficient to establish fraud absent evidence of representations made by Mnuchin.

Similarly, Justice Ramos held that RKA’s negligent misrepresentation claim fails because of an absence of a privity-like relationship between Mnuchin and RKA. To plead a claim for negligent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must show: “(1) the existence of a special or privity-like relationship imposing a duty on the defendant to impart correct information to the plaintiff; (2) that the information was incorrect; and (3) reasonable reliance on such information.” In that regard, the Court also held that RKA failed to allege a relationship between RKA and Mnuchin or that Mnuchin owes a fiduciary duty to RKA.

Finally, Justice Ramos dismissed RKA’s fraudulent inducement claim because it was impossible for Mnuchin to have fraudulently induced RKA to enter into the Funding Agreement, as he had not joined Relativity’s board until months after RKA and Relativity entered into their agreement. To prevail on a fraudulent inducement claim, a plaintiff must establish: 1) a misrepresentation of material fact, 2) known to be false, 3) made with the intention of inducing reliance, 4) that is justifiably relied upon, and 5) results in damages. In light of that, Justice Ramos further held that the Complaint was silent as to any allegations that Mnuchin was involved in the execution of the Funding Agreement or made any representations to RKA.

The First Department came to the same conclusions as the lower court.

First, the Court held that the allegations that the board of directors of Relativity was involved in the financial transactions and the daily operations of the company are not enough to conclude that Mnuchin personally participated in, or had knowledge of, the fraud as a result of his position on Relativity’s board.

Second, the Court determined that the fact that Mnuchin became aware of the fact that RKA’s funds were used for working capital and not solely for print and advertising expenses was insufficient to establish that he was aware that misrepresentations were made by the other defendants or that the other defendants were part of the fraud scheme.

The First Department also affirmed the Supreme Court’s holding that RKA’s negligent misrepresentation claim against Mnuchin was insufficient, because RKA failed to allege any direct contact between Mnuchin and RKA, giving rise to the requisite special relationship.

 

In sum, mere knowledge or awareness of a company’s finances, without more information, is insufficient to establish that a company’s board member is liable for a fraud committed by the company.

The New York Commercial Division was founded in 1993 “to test whether it would be possible, by concentrating on commercial litigation, to improve the efficiency with which such matters were addressed by the court and, at the same time, to enhance the quality of judicial treatment of those cases.” Among other things, its continual adoption of innovative new rules and amendments to existing rules has elevated the Commercial Division to being one of the world’s most efficient venues for the resolution of commercial disputes.

In our last installment of this blog’s Check the Rules series, we looked at the Commercial Division Advisory Council’s proposed amendment to Commercial Division Rule 17 concerning length of papers, along with some recent support from Commercial Division judges, including Justice Saliann Scarpulla of the Manhattan Commercial Division, whose decisions have taken lawyers to task for being long-winded.

It turns out that Justice Scarpulla also is an advocate of the efficiency associated with pretrial evidentiary hearings and immediate trials on material issues of fact under CPLR §§ 2218, 3211 (c), and 3212 (c), which, according to the Advisory Council in a recent new-rule proposal, are “significantly underutilized” and provide “yet another tool to help efficiently dispose of commercial disputes.”

Under the Advisory Council’s proposed new Rule 9-a, which essentially reinforces a court’s existing authority under the aforementioned CPLR provisions to direct evidentiary hearings, “parties are encouraged to demonstrate on a motion to the court when a pre-trial evidentiary hearing or immediate trial may be effective in resolving a factual issue sufficient to effect the disposition of a material fact of the case.” The proposed rule sets forth specific examples of such motions, including dispositive motions to dismiss and for summary judgment; preliminary-injunction motions; spoliation of evidence motions; jurisdictional motions; statute of limitations motions; and class action certification motions.

The idea behind proposed new Rule 9-a is to “expedite and streamline . . . questions of improper notice or other jurisdictional defects or dispositive defenses,” so as to avoid the kind of “litigation [that] continues for years through extensive discovery and other proceedings until trial where the fact issue is finally adjudicated and the case is resolved in a way that it might have been years ago.” In short, the proposed rule “is designed to reduce the waste of time and money which such situations create.”

As noted above, based on a couple recent decisions, it would appear that Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla is on board with proposed Rule 9-a.

In January of this year, before Rule 9-a had even been proposed, Justice Scarpulla granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on a claim for breach of contract in a case called Seiko Iron Works, Inc. v Triton Bldrs. Inc. But because she was unable to “determine the total amount of damages to which [plaintiff w]as entitled based on the papers submitted,” Justice Scarpulla exercised her discretion under CPLR 3212 (c) to direct an evidentiary hearing on the material damages issues raised by the plaintiff’s dispositive motion.

Earlier this month, Justice Scarpulla expressly cited proposed Rule 9-a in a footnote to her post-hearing decision in Overtime Partners, Inc. v 320 W. 31st Assoc., LLC, a commercial landlord-tenant action seeking injunctive relief concerning the acceptance of a proposed sublessee under a master lease. After the tenant commenced the action by order to show cause, Justice Scarpulla “ordered a factual hearing to determine whether [the landlord] unreasonably withheld and delayed consent” to the proposed sublease. Citing CPLR 3212 (c) and footnoting proposed Rule 9-a, Justice Scarpulla expressly referenced her discretion thereunder to “order an immediate trial of an issue of fact raised by a motion when appropriate for the expeditious disposition of the controversy.”

Thus, it seems proposed Rule 9-a already is alive and well in the Manhattan Commercial Division, at least in spirit.  Look for its formal adoption in the near future.

As with all new-rule or rule-change proposals, anyone interested in commenting on proposed new Rule 9-a may do so by sending or emailing their comments to John W. McConnell, Esq. (rulecomments@nycourts.gov), Counsel, Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10004.

In commercial litigation, it is not at all unusual for courts to be called upon to determine whether an unsigned agreement is binding.  The federal courts have a long line of cases dealing with this very issue, and perhaps the seminal one in this area is the Second Circuit’s decision in Winston v Mediafare Enter. Corp., a case considering whether an unsigned settlement agreement was enforceable.  The court there identified several factors to be considered in determining whether an agreement — in that case, a settlement — is binding:  “(1) whether there has been an express reservation of the right not to be bound in the absence of a writing; (2) whether there has been partial performance of the contract; (3) whether all of the terms of the alleged contract have been agreed upon; and (4) whether the agreement at issue is the type of contract that is usually committed to writing.”

New York courts take a similar approach.  They have long recognized that a binding agreement may be found, even though a contract was not signed, so long as it is not proscribed by New York’s statute of frauds, NY Gen. Obligs. L. 5-701.  In  Brown Bros. Elec. Contrs. v Beam Constr. Corp., for example, the Court of Appeals held that “[i]n determining whether the parties entered into a contractual agreement and what were its terms, it is necessary to look . . . to the objective manifestations of the intent of the parties as gathered by their expressed words and deeds.” See also Flores v. The Lower East Side Service Center, Inc.  Not exactly a recipe suitable for summary judgment.

Recently, in 223 Sam, LLC v. 223 15th Street, LLC, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the trial court’s order denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss breach of contract claim.  The case arose out of plaintiff’s claim for breach of contract based upon an unexecuted amendment to an operating agreement.  The amendment added plaintiff as a 50% member of defendants, and also acknowledged plaintiff as a co-manager.  The damages sought reflect the management fees allegedly earned.

Defendants argument, made in the context of a motion for summary judgment was simple:  the amendment was never executed by the parties, and therefore is not binding.

In rejecting defendants’ argument, the court first noted that New York has long recognized the rule that parties will not be bound if  they state their intent not to be bound unless and until the agreement is signed by all.  However, if the parties reach agreement on “all the substantial terms” and nothing material is left for the future, then even if the parties intended to reduce the agreement but did not, this may nevertheless create a binding agreement between them.  Express reservation is the key.  The ultimate question of whether the parties intended to be bound is a question of fact.

In denying defendants’ motion, the court referred to emails exchanged between the parties which simply “failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the parties had agreed upon the major terms of the agreement and whether the parties began to perform . . . .”

The hard lesson:  be careful in exchanging drafts, revisions and amendments (1) without expressly reserving the right not to be bound unless and until signed by all, and (2) partially performing before the agreement is signed.  Otherwise, once all material terms are agreed upon, you may indeed have a binding agreement.