Articles Posted in Contract

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In an action for “specific performance” a party to a contract seeks the court order the other party to perform as required by the contract. One requirement for such an order is that the remedy at law is inadequate – that is, the plaintiff cannot be adequately compensated by the payment of money. In the case of contracts for the sale of real property it is presumed that property is unique and breach cannot be adequately compensated for with money. (Civil Code section 3387.) The problem Sacramento real estate attorneys usually see is a dispute as to the buyer’s performance – did the buyer perform every trivial step such that the seller was forced to convey the property. In a recent decision a buyer of a commercial property spent over $600,000 on the purchase and seeking entitlements, but did not take the last required step of paying $3 million dollars within 30 days of getting permits, and he lost the property.

Sacramento-specific-performance-attorneyIn Tierney v Javaid, Tierney wanted to buy a gas station property at 376 Castro Street in San Francisco, and build condominiums. The parties entered a contract in 2004. The entitlement process was complicated and ended up taking Tierney eight years—until 2012—to secure the conditional use permit authorizing him to demolish the gas station and construct the residential units. At that point, however, the owner refused to sell, and the lawsuit followed.

The Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA)

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The award of attorney fees in California lawsuits is governed by the “American Rule,” in which ordinarily each party pays their own fees. However, parties may enter a contract that has an attorney fee provision which allocates attorney fees, usually to the prevailing party in a lawsuit. A recent Northern California decision involved such provisions in a complicated real estate transaction. The Seller & Buyer of property (Sundower Towers in Reno) also entered a “repurchase agreement,” which required the Seller to later buy the property back. Later, they entered a third agreement – an option, in which the Buyer granted the Seller the right to buy the property back. A lawsuit followed based on the Repurchase Agreement, but the court found this agreement unenforceable because it created an illegal subdivision. However, the defendant raised the Option agreement as an affirmative defense and sought attorney fees under the Option. In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Court found that raising the affirmative defense did not trigger the option attorney fees provision, but it still found a way to award attorney fees.

Sacramento-option-attorney-2In Mountain Aire Enterprises, LLC v. Sundowner Towers, LLC, the option agreement contained the following attorney fees provision:

“Litigation Costs. If any legal action or any other proceeding, including arbitration or an action for declaratory relief[,] is brought for the enforcement of this Agreement or because of an alleged dispute, breach, default, or misrepresentation in connection with any provision of this Agreement, the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees, expert fees and other costs incurred in that action or proceeding, in addition to any other relief to which the prevailing party may be entitled.” (Italics added.)

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California recognizes a cause of action against noncontracting parties who interfere with the performance of a contract. If you and I have a contract, and John Doe (not part of our contract) tells you that I’m a bum and will never be able to perform the contract, and convinces you to terminate or breach our contract, Joe Doe may be liable. Sacramento attorneys see this issue arise where it comes down to whether there was merely competition – aggressive, but not wrongful, tortuous conduct. The elements of a cause of action for intentional interference with contractual relations are “(1) the existence of a valid contract between the plaintiff and a third party; (2) the defendant’s knowledge of that contract; (3) the defendant’s intentional acts designed to induce a breach or disruption of the contractual relationship; (4) actual breach or disruption of the contractual relationship; and (5) resulting damage.” In a recent decision the court found that the stranger to the contract could have a financial interest in it but still be stranger enough to be liable for intentional interference.

Sacramento-intentional-interference-attorneyIn Wayne Redfearn v. Trader Joe’s Company, Redfearn owned a food brokerage business. It represented manufacturers of food products to place their goods in Trader Joe’s. When a Trader Joe’s rep met with one of Redfearn’s clients, and falsely accused Redfearn of spreading Rumors that paying bribes to Trader Joe’s employees was the only way to get their product in the stores, and that the client must terminate its relationship with Redfearn or Trader Joe’s would replace them with a different supplier. The clients split with Redfearn, and this interference lawsuit followed.

TJ’s argued that it was not a stranger to Redfearn’s contracts with its clients – performance of those contracts required TJ’s to buy products from these suppliers. TJ’s relied on a Supreme Court decision that the duty not to interfere falls only on interlopers who have “no legitimate in the scope or course of the contract’s performance.” In that case the issue was whether a party could be liable for conspiring with another to interfere in its own contract. (Applied Equipment)

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People buy real estate in California through nominal or “straw” buyers for many reasons. Sometimes to hide assets, or to launder money. Maybe it’s for legitimate reasons. Nonetheless, California real estate attorneys usually encounter these situations where the agreement between the parties is oral, and there is no documentation. But a recent decision out of Malibu concerned a written agreement between the parties. That was not enough, and the plaintiff sought to rescind the contract. In a rescission of a real estate contract the party who was harmed is required to offer to return everything of value they received under the agreement. A party seeking rescission wants to undo the transaction in its entirety, restoring both parties to the status quo ante. If successful they are entitled to restitution, i.e., to recovery of the consideration that he or she gave and any other compensation necessary to make him or her whole. A claim for damages is not inconsistent with rescission – the aggrieved party shall be awarded complete relief, including restitution of benefits, if any, conferred by him as a result of the transaction and any consequential damages to which he is entitled. In this decision, the plaintiff was not entitled to rescission, but still received damages.

sacramento-real-estate-rescission-attorneyIn Li Guan v. Yongmei Hu, Hu was aromatically involved with Chen. Chen got his buddy, plaintiff Guan, to loan $2.55 million to Hu so that she could buy a house in Malibu. Hu was entitled to receive a percentage of the property’s fair market value. Specifically, Hu would “get 20%” if the house was “sold from January 1, 2012,” and her percentage would increase by 20 percent each year the house was not sold until January 1, 2016. Thereafter, Hu would receive “100%” of the house “as a gift from Mr. Guan.”

In July 2012, Chen emailed Hu telling her that “ ‘it is over! Don’t you re[a]lize it with normal sense?! S[ell] the house as instructed by [Guan] so that you could stil[l] be benefited from the deal.’ ”

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In my prior post, I discussed a decision concerning a settlement that had had a large penalty for failing to make payments. The court found that it was an unenforceable illegal penalty, and not a legitimate liquidated damages provision. Liquidated damages are damages whose amount the parties agree during the formation of a contract (a settlement agreement is a contract) for the injured party to collect as compensation upon a breach. Sacramento business and real estate attorneys commonly see clients whom, in entering a settlement, want rigid penalties for failure to perform. In a recent decision the parties wisely tried, in a settlement agreement, to establish how their damages provision represented less than the total possible damages amount, and that the provision was to encourage the defendant to make the settlement payments. At the trial level, the defendant did not argue that an unenforceable penalty was involved, and the court ruled against him. On appeal, he tried to claim it was unenforceable. The appellate court, after a review of the law of unlawful penalty provisions, but did not decide whether this case involved a penalty – the defendant waived the argument by not making it in the trial court.

Sacramento-liqudated-damages-attorneyAisha A. Krechuniak v. Zia Jamal Noorzoy involved a brother and sister. The Sister owned property in Pebble Beach and entered a contract with her Brother for the Brother to develop it. He obtained money from investors, and she took out loans to fund the development. The Brother did not use any of the money for development or to pay the mortgages on the property. There was a default and foreclosure.

Sister sued, and at Mediation they entered a settlement that provided for Brother to pay $600,000 in installment payments (relevant settlement language at the end of this post). They also agreed that a stipulated judgment against the Brother in the amount of $850,000 would be executed and held unless and until there is a default in payment.

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Liquidated damages provisions in California Business and Real Estate contracts are an attempt to establish ahead of time what the damages for breach would be. Rather than have to prove to a judge what the damages are, the parties agree to what they would be. There are specific statutory restrictions for residential real estate contracts, but other agreements are governed by a more general rule that any penalty must bear a proportional relationship to the damages the might actually result from a breach. In addition, they must be reasonable under the circumstances that existed at the time the contract was entered. Any provision by which money or property is forfeited without regard to the actual damages would be an unenforceable penalty. Sacramento real estate and business attorneys see the issue pop up often in settlement agreements that require future performance – the plaintiff wants leverage to force the defendant to perform. In one decision it was clear that the plaintiff went too far, and the court found the leverage to be an unenforceable penalty provision.

Settlement-attorneyIn Greentree Financial Group, Inc. v. Execute Sports, Inc., Greentree Financial had a contract to provide financial advisory services to Execute Sports. Greentree sued because Execute failed to pay $45,000 in fees. Execute claimed prior breach of the contract by Greentree. On the day of trial they filed a notice of settlement.

The Stipulation for Settlement provides that Execute would pay Greentree a total of $20,000, in two installments. If Execute defaulted on either one of its installment payments, Greentree would be entitled to “immediately have Judgment entered against [Execute] for all amounts prayed as set forth in [Greentree]’s Complaint in the above-entitled action, including interest, attorney fees and costs, less any amounts already paid by [Execute]”

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In California real estate sales, a typical claim by disgruntled buyers is that the seller failed to disclose some problem with the property that the seller was aware of. The buyer’s cry is that, if the facts had been disclosed, they would have not bought the property, or would have paid less for it. Claims for fraud, intentional or negligent representation, and breach of contract arise. Sometimes it is clear that the seller knew about the problems. Often, however, there is no direct evidence of such knowledge, and Sacramento real estate attorneys are faced with the challenge of creating an inference that the seller must have known, or should have known about the issue. Complications arise when the defects are such that they are only obvious to an engineer – the buyer hopes to impute the specialist knowledge to the owner. In a recent decision from a sale in Healdsburg, the buyers were disappointed when the court ruled that the seller’s experts did not act as agents of the seller and thus their knowledge was not imputed to the seller, and besides, that they should have discovered the problem was not enough.

failure-to-disclose-lawyerIn RSB Vinyards LLC v. Orsi, the defendants hired an architect to design a remodel of a home and applied for a commercial use permit, which was issued for use as a winery and tasting room. Once the use permit issued, the defendants submitted the architect’s plans to the County of Sonoma, which approved the plans. Defendants, none of whom is a construction professional or possesses such skills, relied on their architect and county officials to ensure the plans conformed to applicable building codes, and they had no reason to believe the plans were non-conforming. The construction work was performed by a licensed contractor, in consultation with a structural engineering firm.

failure-to-disclose-attorneyThe defendants decided they did not want to be in the winery business and listed the property. The marketing materials stated that the property had a “vineyard-vested winery permit” and an “active tasting room” and attached a table describing the various permits issued for the property.

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In a sales transaction, there is often included a guaranty, where one party guarantees to pay the debt of another. More accurately, a guarantor is “one who promises to answer for the debt, default, or miscarriage of another, or hypothecates property as security therefor.” (Civil.C. 2787). Thus if you buy a business or real estate, and the seller is concerned that you might not be able to pay for it, the seller may want someone with a stronger balance sheet to guaranty the debt. When a dispute arises, Sacramento business and real estate attorneys question what exactly was guaranteed, and if the guarantor was exonerated. Exoneration can occur if the creditor or seller does something that changes the terms of the deal without the guarantor’s approval. Both issues arose in a recent decision concerning the sale of a motorcycle dealership.

Sacramento-real-esate-loan-guaranty-attorneyIn G&W Warren’s Inc. v. Judson V. Dabney II, the Warrens sold their dealership to Dabney. The paperwork starts with a master “Asset Purchase Agreement.” This incorporated by reference …

– (1) a promissory note in the amount of $1,016,000 signed by Dabney as Maker;

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The Statute of Frauds requires certain agreements to be in writing. The reason is that these agreements are too important to allow oral agreements, as they are susceptible to fraud. It is codified in Civil Code section 1624, and also applies to agreements for real estate commissions, about which the Supreme Court has said that a “broker’s real estate commissions agreement is invalid unless the agreement `or some note or memorandum thereof, is in writing and subscribed by the party to be charged or by the party’s agent.'” But what happens when not everyone who should sign does? Parties may need to consult with a Sacramento real estate attorney, because a dispute may result that the contract is not valid. I have never seen a matter where a real estate broker did not require ALL the parties on title to sign a listing agreement, but that was the case in a February decision regarding a listing agreement signed in 2013 – they waited four years to get a result, which is why, in my experience, everybody must sign. In this case, in a decision that combined the statute of frauds, the equal dignities rule, and the parole evidence rule, the broker lucked out…

Sacramento-Statute-of-frauds-attorneyIn Bernice Jacobs v. John Locatelli as Trustee, Jacobs was the broker looking to sell vacant land in Marin for over $2 million dollars. The broker Jacobs signed, as did Locatelli. However, there were blank signature lines for five other people, five other owners.

Right above Locatelli’s signature line is the notation “Owner: John B. Locatelli, Trustee of the John B. Locatelli Trust,” with his title listed as “Trustee.” As mentioned above, while there were signature lines for the remaining owners, they were left blank. However, at the very top of the agreement, “Owner” is defined (with emphasis added) as “John B. Locatelli, Trustee of the John B. Locatelli Trust, et al.” “Et al.” clearly means, in this context, “and others.”

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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.