Articles Posted in Business

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There is a difference between an “Agreement to Agree” and an Agreement to Negotiate the Terms of an Agreement. An agreement to agree is not an enforceable contract, and thus there is no duty to negotiate. In the case of the agreement to negotiate, failure to reach the ultimate agreement alone is not a breach of the agreement to negotiate. Only if the failure is due to one party’s failure to negotiate in good faith is there a breach. That is because California law imposes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in contracts. Parties entering preliminary agreements in expectation of further negotiations and a formal contract should be very careful how they describe that initial agreement. For example, a Letter of Intent regarding purchase of real property may be interpreted as containing a duty to negotiate in good faith, unless the Letter expressly disclaims such as agreement. The Agreement should also include waivers of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and damages, and state that it does not create an obligation to negotiate. A party considering a Letter of Intent in a large real estate transaction may want to consult with an experienced real estate attorney to be sure the Letter describes what their actual intent is.

sacramento-letter-of-intent-attorneyIn one case a letter to the plaintiff from the defendant began: “ It is a pleasure to draft the outline of our future agreement ….” After outlining the terms of the agreement, the letter concluded: “If this is a general understanding of the agreement, I ask that you sign a copy of this letter, so that I might forward it to Corporate Counsel for the drafting of a contract. When we have a draft, we will discuss it and hopefully shall have a completed contract and operating unit in the very near future.” (Beck v. Am Health) The court concluded that it was an agreement to agree, because the language of the letter showed an intention that no binding contract would exist until there was a formal contract.

When parties begin the negotiation process with no obligation to do so, they do not have a duty to negotiate in good faith. It is only if the parties are contractually compelled to negotiate doe the covenant to negotiate in good faith become implied.

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In the ordinary real estate or business sale escrow, the escrow officer owes duties to the parties to only the parties to the escrow, and not to third parties. There are a few exceptions, such as when the parties real estate sale escrow instructions require following a third party’s instructions, such as lender’s instructions for closing a loan. But it is generally difficult to prove that an escrow holder owes a duty to a third party, the breach of which would result in a finding of negligence. Such was the case in a recent decision which resulted from a misguided and tangled effort to avoid the “no assignment” clause in a commercial lease; parties concerned with suck lease provisions should consult with a real estate attorney.

Sacramento-escrow-liability-attorneyIn Alereza v. Chicago Title, the plaintiff Bobby wanted to buy a gas station which was on leased property, which would require assignment of the lease to the buyer. Escrow #1 was opened, but the landlord required a personal guaranty to allow assignment and the plaintiff did not want to do that. The plaintiff formed an LLC and assigned the purchase contract to the LLC, but the landlord still wanted a personal guaranty. Escrow #1 was cancelled.

The parties had a new idea – plaintiff would buy the interest in the seller’s LLC, thus the tenant would not change, and there would be no assignment. They opened escrow #2. The landlord found out, and said he would consider it a breach of the lease. Escrow #2 closed, and the plaintiff was not a party to the escrow. The escrow officer obtained an insurance certificate for the purchased business, but incorrectly got it in the name of the plaintiff’s LLC (created for escrow #1), not the Seller’s LLC. The parties were not speaking at the time, and nobody knew what was happening. The insurer sent a notice of cancellation of the original policy, and the landlord demanded a personal guaranty. It was not given, and there was an eviction action. The plaintiff gave the personal guaranty, and sued the escrow company for negligence. The court found that, as the individual plaintiff Bobby was not a party to the escrow, there was no liability.

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When someone who owes a debt transfers property out of their name in order to prevent the creditor from collecting against that property, the transfer may be set aside under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. A classic move seen by business and real estate attorneys is the transfer of real estate to someone who disappears and cannot be served with a summons and complaint. This does not necessarily end the story, as the fraud is so obvious that the courts will not aid them in their fraud. In a recent decision involving an obviously fraudulent conveyance, the new owner of the property had been in prison and was subsequently deported to Mexico. That was not enough to keep the creditor from undoing the transaction.

Sacramento fraudulent transfer attorneyIn Diana Buchanan v. Ramon Soto, Maria Soto bought a business from Buchanan for over $300 thousand but did not pay for it. The plaintiff was in the process of obtaining a judgment against Maria, when Maria transferred her real estate in Vista, CA to her husband Ramon as his separate property. Plaintiff sued Maria & Ramon to undo the fraudulent conveyance. Of course, Ramon could not be found, because he was deported due to criminal activity, and was somewhere in Mexico. The plaintiff asked Maria where, but Maria did not know where other than rural Mexicali.

The court allowed plaintiff to serve Ramon by publication. A trial was held, and the plaintiff won. Ramon tried to set aside the judgment due to lack of service, but failed. They appealed, claiming that the California court lacked personal jurisdiction because Ramon had not been properly served.

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Parties such as corporate directors, partners and managers of LLC’s owe each other a fiduciary duty, which is a duty of loyalty and a duty of care. These are legal duties to act solely in another party’s interests, and not profit from their relationship with their principals unless they have the principals’ express informed consent. Violating this duty can result in liability. But, even if you do not owe someone a fiduciary duty, you can be found liable for aiding and abetting someone else in breaching such a duty, something to be aware of in any any transaction.. Under California Law, liability may be imposed on one who aids and abets the commission of an intentional tort if the person-

(a) knows the other’s conduct constitutes a breach of duty and gives substantial assistance or encouragement to the other to so act, or

(b) gives substantial assistance to the other in accomplishing a tortious result and the person’s own conduct, separately considered, constitutes a breach of duty to the third person.

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When the same debt is secured by liens on both real property and personal property, the lender has options as to how they are allowed to enforce their security interest. They can enforce against the real property under real property law, against personal property under the Commercial Code, or both. There are specifics under both areas of law which must be observed, or the lender may lose their security, and a party in this situation may want to consult with a business and real estate attorney. Otherwise, they may run into the problem faced by a lender recently when they failed to adequately describe the personal property in the deed of trust. The Court of Appeals found that the deed of trust did not successfully describe personal property as additional security, and thus any further recourse for the lender would be contrary to the purpose of the antideficiency laws.

mixed collateral attorney sm.jpgIn Thoryk v. San Diego Gas and Electric Company, the owner of an avocado ranch in San Diego County wanted to subdivide it into two-acre homesites. The owner borrowed $1 and ½ million from Highland for this purpose. There was a wildfire which did extensive damage to the property, and the project stopped. Highland foreclosed and obtained title to the property. The owner believed that San Diego Gas and Electric was at fault and sued for damages. Highland joined the suit, claiming that its deed of trust was secured by more than just the property, and extended to any of the owner’s recovery of damages caused to the property; i.e. it was also secured by personal property. Highland argued that it was entitled to a judicially imposed lien under the terms of its deed of trust and related note.

The owner argued that he was protected by the antideficiency laws, which prohibits collecting money from the owner after a trustee’s sale. However, where there are liens established upon both personal and real property in the subject transaction, a foreclosing lienholder using the power of sale may continue to pursue remedies against the former property owner/borrower. The creditor is not seeking a personal judgment for the unpaid balance of a loan, but instead seeks to enforce additional security secondarily liable for the principal loan.

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Individuals create LLCs, same with corporations, for ownership and investment purposes primarily to enjoy limited liability. If you invest $10 in an LLC and someone gets a huge judgment against the LLC, the most you could lose is your investment -the $10. The judgment creditor would not be able to come after you personally to collect the balance of their judgment. However, not all LLCs or corporations have assets from which a judgment may be collected. Sacramento area business and real estate attorneys are occasionally asked by clients withe judgments what can be done to go after the members, managers, directors or shareholders. As one group of LLC members recently discovered, if the LLC’s distributions to them leaves the LLC penniless and essentially dissolved, the creditor may collect from the members.

Yolo LLC attorney.jpgIn CB RICHARD ELLIS, INC. v. TERRA NOSTRA CONSULTANTS, the real estate broker was seeking their commission on sale of 38 acres in Murrieta for $11.8 million. While the broker had the property listed, the buyer made an offer. Before closing, either the listing ended or the LLC which owned the property fired the broker, it was not clear. The sale closed. A few days after the cash went from escrow to the seller LLC’s bank account, it all left the account and was distributed to the members. The broker arbitrated its dispute with the LLC (because there was an arbitration provision in the listing agreement) and obtained a judgment against the LLC. But, of course, the LLC had no money.

The broker than filed suit against the members. Its argument was in the Corporations code, which provides for liability in the event the entity has been dissolved. Applicable was the old Section 17350 (which was replaced by the equivalent section 17707.07) provides:

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Judicial reference, unlike arbitration, works within the court system. A lawsuit is filed, and the judge appoints a referee to assist in the case, or decide it on their own. Parties can agree, in their contracts, that disputes are to be determined by a general judicial reference. This means the entire dispute is to be resolved by a referee. An advantage of judicial reference over other forms of dispute resolution (read ‘binding arbitration’) is that a referee’s decision is treated like a judge’s decision for purposes of appeal. On the other hand, an arbitrator’s decision cannot be appealed for errors of fact or law, as I have railed about several times in this blog. But as some parties found out in a 2011 decision, a judicial reference provision is not a guaranty that the dispute will be decided by a referee, and parties interested in reference should consult with a Sacramento business and real estate attorney as to what is possible. In this case the California Supreme Court concluded that a judge could decline to appoint a referee if there is a possibility of conflicting rulings on a common issue of law or fact.

Sacramento judicial reference attorney.jpgIn Tarrant Bell Property, LLC v. The Superior Court, 120 residents of a mobile home park in Alameda County sued the park owners complaining that they had not maintained the common areas of the park and subjected residents to substandard living conditions. Of those residents, 100 residents’ leases had a provision that provided that disputes were to be resolved, first, by arbitration, or should the arbitration provision be found to be unenforceable, by general judicial reference. Key here is that the remaining 20 residents, 17% of the total, had leases that did not require arbitration and reference.

The plaintiffs asked the judge to order arbitration or reference, the park owners opposed either. The trail court judge refused to order arbitration or reference. The opinion does not describe why the court denied arbitration, but focuses instead on denial of reference.

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I have written in the past about Sham Guaranties – this is a guaranty of a loan where the guarantor has such a close identity with the borrower that they are in effect providing a guaranty of their own loan. Such a sham guaranty is not enforceable. A typical scenario would be with a limited partnership. The general partner is fully liable for the debts of the limited partnership. If all the principals of the general partner sign the guaranty, the question arises of whether anything has been added by the guaranty. This is a sham especially when the lender takes a role in encouraging the formation of the entity, and only investigates the financial wherewithal of the individual guarantors. Business and real estate attorneys for lenders usually pay special attention to make sure they really will have an effective guaranty. In a recent decision. the guarantors were unhappy to learn that they were liable on the guaranty – there was too much separation between themselves and the borrowers, which they did on purpose so that they would not occur direct liability on the loan.

Sacramento real estate loan sham guaranty attorney.jpg In California Bank & Trust v. Lawlor, the bank loaned millions to Heritage Partners, secured by numerous real estate projects. Smith and Lawlor owned and controlled Covenant Management, which owned and controlled Heritage Capital, which was the general partner of the Heritage partnerships. They really tried to isolate themselves from the borrower to avoid personal liability. The lender required Smith and Lawlor to sign continuing guaranties. The borrower went into default, the lender foreclosed, and had a deficiency of $15 million dollars. California Bank and Trust brought this action to collect on the loan guaranties. Smith and Lawlor argued that the guaranties were sham guaranties and therefore they were actually the primary obligors on the loans, not true guarantors. As primary obligors, Smith and Lawlor claimed that they were entitled to the protection of California’s antideficiency statutes. This should prohibit the lender from obtaining a judgment against them for the difference between the value of the security and the outstanding loan balances.

The antideficiency statutes strictly limit the right to recover deficiency judgments for the amount the debt exceeds the value of the security. The antideficiency laws promote several public policy objectives:

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Parties can provide in their contracts that any dispute be resolved by “general reference.” A general reference directs a referee to try all issues in the action. The hearing is conducted under the rules of evidence applicable to judicial proceedings. In a general reference, the referee prepares a statement of decision that stands as the decision of the court and is reviewable as if the court had rendered it. This results in a trial by a referee and not by a court or jury. “Judicial reference,” on the other hand, differs in that in that it involves sending a pending trial court action to a referee for hearing, determination and a report back to the court. The BIG DIFFERENCE between reference and arbitration is that a judgment obtained by reference can be appealed, but an arbitrator’s may not be appealed, regardless of how flawed it is. Sacramento real estate and business attorneys know that all the CAR forms have arbitration provisions, which are usually initialed by the parties without truly understanding them. I have railed before about how arbitrators are not held accountable for erroneous rulings.

The general referee’s statement of decision “stands as the decision of the court,” and once the statement of decision is final and filed by the referee, judgment must be entered thereon “in the same manner as if the action had been tried by the court.” After judgment is entered, the losing party may make post-trial motions for a new trial, and/or to vacate the judgment. The judgment entered on the general referee’s statement of decision may be appealed like any other judgment.

SACRAMENTO CONTRACT DISPUTE ATTORNEY.jpgIn a recent decision the court enforced a general reference provision that did not include an explicit waiver of a jury trial. In O’Donoghue v. Superior Court (Performing Arts LLC), a developer obtained a $20 million dollar construction loan for condos at 973 Market Street in San Francisco. Several individuals signed personal guarantees for the loan; the guaranty instrument had a general reference provision. Default occurred, a lawsuit filed, and the court enforced the reference, appointing a referee. The reference provision did not include a jury waiver; the guarantors appealed.

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I recently described a decision that overruled the rule that a borrower may not make a claim for fraud based on the other party misrepresenting what the contract will say (The Pendergrass Rule). In the past borrowers who claimed that their mortgage broker or lender made promises about their loan that were not true. Where these promises are in direct conflict with the terms of the written agreement, the parole evidence rule as described in Pendergrass prohibited allowing evidence of these statements in court. The California Supreme Court decision in Riverisland concluded that evidence of the false promises may be admitted as evidence of fraud. Another decision went a little farther in clarifying the new rule, finding that even sophisticated parties who engaged in extensive negotiations were not subject to the Pendergrass rule, and evidence of fraudulent statements could be admitted.

sacramento real estate contract fraud attorney.jpgIn Julius Castle Restaurant Inc. V. Payne, the parties entered a lease agreement, as well as purchase of the fixtures, of a restaurant in San Francisco. The lease agreement stated:

“Tenant acknowledges that as of the date of this Lease, Tenant has inspected the Premises and all improvements on the Premises and that the Premises and improvements are in good order, repair, and condition… This instrument constitutes the sole agreement between Landlord and Tenant respecting the Premises, the leasing of the Premises to Tenant, and the specified lease term, and correctly sets forth the obligations of Landlord and Tenant. Any agreement or representations respecting the Premises or their leasing by Landlord to Tenant not expressly set forth in this instrument are void.”