Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ceccone v. Carroll Home Servs. (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: July 28, 2017

Opinion by: Judge Robert N. McDonald

Holding: Under Maryland law, contractual provisions which purport to shorten the statutorily-prescribed period of time within which a civil action must be brought are enforceable only if (1) there is no statute to the contrary; (2) the provision is not the product of fraud, duress, misrepresentation, or the like; and (3) the provision is reasonable in light of all the circumstances.

Facts: Homeowners brought suit against a provider of maintenance services in connection with damages allegedly arising from improper maintenance of their home furnace.  The Defendant moved to dismiss the action based on a provision of a maintenance agreement entered into by the homeowners which provided that all claims of the homeowners against the Defendant, whether in contract or tort, were subject to a one-year limitations period.  The action, having been brought more than one year after the homeowners were on notice of a potential claim against the Defendant, was dismissed.    

Analysis:  The Court of Appeals reviewed the factors to consider in determining whether the contractual provision in question was reasonable.  The Court of Appeals provided that the circuit court should consider the totality of the circumstances, including, for example, the length of the shortened limitations period, its relation to the statutory period, the relative bargaining power of the parties, the subject matter of the contract, whether the shortened limitations period applies only to claims brought by one of the parties or runs in both directions, and other facets of the limitations provision—e.g., it appears to apply equally to claims of negligence and intentional torts.  Here, the Court of Appeals noted circumstances to suggest that the Defendant had greater bargaining power.

The Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal and remanded the matter to the Circuit Court to consider whether there was any misrepresentation or fraud which undermines the validity of the shortened limitations period provided in the maintenance agreement and to determine expressly whether the shortened limitations period is reasonable.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Open Text Communication v. Steven Grimes (D. Md. 2017)

Opinion by Judge Richard Bennett

Holding: A contracting party may unilaterally waive a provision of a contract that was placed in the contract for its’ own benefit.

Facts: Plaintiff brought suit against its former employee and his new employer Defendant for violations of the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act, the Maryland Uniform Trade Secrets Act and several common law causes of action. It was alleged that before Grimes departed from his high level executive position at Plaintiff, he stole confidential and proprietary customer data from an internal database and used that data in his new position at the Defendant’s company in order to solicit Plaintiff’s clients. The Defendants were also alleged to have stolen employee’s from Plaintiff. This violated various “non-compete” clauses in the employment contracts for all of the former Plaintiff employees involved in the exodus. Defendant is a direct competitor of Plaintiff.

The Defendant’s argued in a Motion to Dismiss that Plaintiff was bound to a forum selection clause which was listed in the “Employee Confidentiality, Non-Solicitation, and Invention Assignment Agreement, that each employee involved in this matter signed. Plaintiff, is a Canadian company, had delineated in its’ contracts that disputes between the company and employee’s and former employee’s would be handled in Canadian courts. The causes of action alleged in the Plaintiffs complaint however, took place in Maryland. The Defendant employee, the alleged mastermind of the plot, worked out of his home in Clarksville, Maryland. The agreement primarily was put in place to prevent employee’s from sharing confidential company information. The Defendant employee signed the agreement which stated specifically that he would “keep confidential and hold in secrecy” all of Plaintiffs confidential information for a period of three years following the end of his employment. He was also prohibited from publishing or sharing the information, and soliciting employee’s to leave Plaintiff for a period of six months following his termination.

Analysis:

The basis of the Motion to Dismiss was focused on an improper forum argument formum non conveniens and referenced the forum selection clause listed below;

“This  agreement  and  all  the  rights  and  obligations  arising  herefrom  shall  be  interpreted  and  applied  in  accordance  with  the  laws  of  the  Province  of  Ontario and in the courts of the Province of Ontario there shall be exclusive jurisdiction  to  determine  all  disputes  relating  to  this  Agreement  and  all  the  rights  and  obligations  created  thereby.  I  hereby  irrevocably  attorn to  the  jurisdiction of the courts of the Province of Ontario.”

On this aspect of the matter, the Court found that the Defendant had failed to prove that a Canadian court would reach a different result than it would adjudicating the case on the facts. The Defendant argued that the since the clause only benefited the Plaintiff, the Plaintiff should be bound to it and not allowed to continue with the case in Maryland. The Court did not agree.

 The Court notes that regardless of whether the Defendant agreed to “irrevocably attorn to the jurisdiction  of  the  courts  of  the  Province  of  Ontario, that alone, “did  not  foreclose Plaintiffs ability to  file  suit  in  Defendant Employee home  state.  The Court then provided that “[I]t  is  well  settled  that  a  contracting  party  may unilaterally waive a provision of the contract...which has been placed in the contract for that party’s  benefit.” 132 S.W.3d 302, 307 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004); JetBlue Airways Corp. v. Stephenson, 88 A.D.3d 567, 574, 931 N.Y.S.2d 284, 289 (2011).

The Court went on to draw a distinction referencing the nature of the agreement that was the subject of the lawsuit versus that of an agreement drafted to obligate “each party” to a particular jurisdiction. The wrongful acts were alleged to occur in Maryland, so the filing of lawsuit where the defendant resided was deemed to be the proper forum.  The Motion to Dismiss based on forum non conveniens was denied.

The Motion also argued that eight of the ten counts alleged in the complaint were outside of the scope of the Clause because the usage of the Plaintiffs files was not related to the Defendants employment.

The Court decided that: “In sum, while all ten counts in the Complaint shall survive Defendants’ Motion based on Plaintiffs waiver of the forum selection clause in the Agreement, this Court notes that even if the forum selection clause were not waived, eight of the ten counts would still proceed to discovery.”

The opinion is available in PDF.  


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Schneider Electric Buildings Critical Systems v. Western Surety (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: July 28, 2017

Opinion by: Judge Adkins

Holding:

A surety company that guarantees performance of a construction subcontract with a performance bond is not bound by the subcontract’s mandatory arbitration clause when the subcontract is incorporated by reference into the bond and the clause refers only to the subcontract’s parties and the bond allows for dispute resolution in court.

Facts:

In May 2009, Plaintiff, a construction contractor, signed a Master Subcontract Agreement (“MSA”) with NCS, an electrical subcontractor, to cover future projects.  The MSA included a mandatory arbitration clause (the “Clause”).  In October 2009, Plaintiff was hired by another construction contractor to help build a medical research facility.  Plaintiff in turn hired NCS to help with the project.  Plaintiff and NCS signed a subcontract (“NCS Subcontract”) that incorporated the MSA by reference.  The NCS Subcontract required NCS to furnish a performance bond (“Bond”), which it obtained from Defendant.  The Bond made NCS and Defendant jointly and severally liable to Plaintiff for performance of the NCS Subcontract.

During construction, a dispute arose, NCS abandoned the site and Plaintiff terminated the contract.  In February 2014, Plaintiff filed a demand for arbitration with NCS.  In April 2014, Plaintiff amended the demand to include Defendant.  Defendant filed a petition in Howard County Circuit Court in which it requested a declaratory judgment that it was not bound by the Clause.

The case was transferred to a more proper venue, Harford County Circuit Court, which granted partial summary judgment for Defendant.  That court explained that the Bond is only insuring that Defendant is liable for any construction that has not been performed, and found no evidence of an intention that Defendant should be bound to dispute resolution provisions of the MSA.  

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed, holding that “the ‘joint and several’ obligation clause in the (Bond) does not evince (Defendant’s) assent to be bound by the (Clause) in the incorporated-by-reference chain of documents.”  Schneider Elec. Bldgs. Critical Sys., v. Western Sur. Co., 231 Md. App. 27, 46 (2016).  The Court of Appeals granted Plaintiff’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

Analysis:

The Court of Appeals applied Maryland contract law to determine if Defendant is bound by the Clause.  Precedent in Maryland requires courts to look at the intention of the parties as expressed in the language of the contracts.  The Court of Appeals explained in Hartford Accident & Indem. Co. v. Scarlett Harbor Assocs., 346 Md. 122, 127 (1997) that “arbitration is a process whereby parties voluntarily agree to substitute a private tribunal for the public tribunal otherwise available to them” and an arbitration clause “cannot impose obligations on persons who are not a party to it and do not agree to its terms.” 

The Court of Appeals interpreted the Bond by “constru(ing) (the Bond, NCS Subcontract, and MSA) as a whole…not (by) read(ing) each clause or provision (of each contract) separately.”  Owens-Illinois v. Cook, 386 Md. 468, 497 (2005).

Here, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower courts because the Clause refers to the “parties” to the NCS Subcontract (which are Plaintiff and NCS) and the Bond permits court actions to resolve disputes between NCS and Defendant.  Since Defendant was not a “party” to the NCS Subcontract, the Clause does not apply to Defendant.  The Court of Appeals found support in its holding in Liberty Mutual Insurance v. Mandaree Public School District #36, 503 F.3d 709 (8th Cir. 2007), whose facts are similar to this case.

The full opinion is available PDF.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Hanover Investments, Inc. v. Volkman (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: July 31, 2017

Opinion: Judge McDonald

Holding: A declaratory judgment action should be stayed or dismissed while a separate action is pending in another state that involves the same parties and that raises essentially the same issues presented in the declaratory judgment action in Maryland. The fact that the Maryland court had previously dismissed an earlier related action did not create “unusual and compelling circumstances” that would justify an exception to the principle that a court should not entertain a declaratory judgment action when there is a pending lawsuit in another state involving the same issues.

Facts: Volkman was subject to two agreements with Hanover, a Maryland corporation [or related companies], an employment agreement dated January 1, 1993, and a separate shareholder agreement entered into in 2007. The genesis of the lawsuit was Ms. Volkman’s termination in 2010. The legal proceedings related to the matter can be divided into four actions: (i) an employment agreement action; (ii) an arbitration proceeding; (iii) a shareholders' agreement action; and (iv) a declaratory judgment action (which is the subject of this opinion).

The employment agreement action - More than two years after her termination, on April 17, 2012, Volkman filed a lawsuit based on the employment agreement. On March 22, 2013, after the court dismissed several of her tort claims, Volkman voluntarily dismissed the employment agreement action with prejudice by stipulation of counsel pursuant to Maryland Rule 2- 506(a).

The arbitration proceeding - On October 10, 2012, while the employment agreement action was pending, Hanover invoked the arbitration provision in the shareholders’ agreement to determine what it was required to pay Volkman when it redeemed her stock. On August 1, 2014, Hanover successfully obtained a default judgment in Montgomery County Circut Court confirming the award. Ms. Volkman did not appeal that judgment.

The shareholders' agreement action - On December 17, 2012, Volkman served Hanover with a complaint that she filed in a state trial court in Minnesota which named Hanover as the lone defendant, alleging that it had violated its contract with her and sought  specific performance – the return of her Hanover stock – a remedy explicitly provided for in the shareholders’ agreement. Hanover moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting that the Minnesota court lacked
in personam jurisdiction of Hanover, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court decision. Contemporaneously with its defense in the shareholders' agreement action, Hanover filed a declaratory judgment action in Maryland (discussed below) involving the same issues and Hanover prevailed in the Circuit Court with Volkman appealing that decision. As a result, on January 19, 2015, the Minnesota trial court dismissed Volkman's shareholders’ agreement action, but explicitly reserved
jurisdiction to reopen the case depending on the resolution of the Maryland appeal.

The declaratory judgment action - On June 26, 2013 – two months after the Minnesota trial court denied Hanover’s motion to dismiss, and while that decision was on appeal – Hanover filed a declaratory judgment action against Volkman in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County.  Volkman noted the pendency of the shareholders’ agreement action in Minnesota and asked the Circuit Court to either decline jurisdiction or stay the proceedings in the declaratory judgment action pending a final judgment in the shareholders' agreement action. The Circuit Court declined to do so, citing Marriott Corp. v. Village Realty & Inv. Corp., 58 Md. App. 145 (1984), for the proposition that a declaratory judgment action could be filed “defensively” even if there was similar litigation “pending or impending” in another court and rendered a decision in favor of Hanover. Volkman appealed to the Court of Special Appeals arguing that the Circuit Court should not have heard the case while the shareholders’ agreement action involving the same issues was pending and the Court of Special Appeals held that the Circuit Court erred in issuing a declaratory judgment while the shareholders’ agreement action was pending. 225 Md. App. 602 (2015). Hanover petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of certiorari, which it granted.

Analysis: Pertinent to this case, a court should not entertain a declaratory judgment action when there is already a pending action “involving the same parties and in which the identical issues that are involved in the declaratory action may be adjudicated.” Sprenger v. Public Service Comm’n, 400 Md. 1, at 27-28 (2007). The court reasoned that in this case, the shareholders’ agreement action qualifies as an earlier-filed, pending action that would, under customary analysis, operate as a bar to the later-filed declaratory judgment action. The court further reasoned that the two actions involve essentially the same parties and both actions concern the identical issue – the propriety of Hanover’s redemption of Volkman’s Hanover stock under the shareholders’ agreement.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Court of Special Appeals' decision.

The full opinion is available in pdf.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Curtis Cox v. SNAP, Inc. (4th Circuit)


Filed: June 13, 2017

Opinion by: Diana Gribbon Motz, Circuit Judge

Holding:

            When reviewing a contract providing for a non-qualified stock option to purchase shares of common stock, Defendant corporation's argument that the contract only promised to issue options in the future was without merit because the prevention doctrine provides, "if a promisor prevents or hinders fulfillment of a condition to his performance, the condition may be waived or excused." Consequently, the fourth circuit court of appeals affirmed the district court, holding Defendant corporation liable for breach of contract, awarding Plaintiff damages in the amount of $637,867.42.

Facts:

             “In 2006, SNAP, a Virginia corporation, sought to expand its business in the field of federal procurement by contracting with Curtis Cox, a Maryland resident and the president of C2 Technologies, an established government contracting firm. On January 12, 2006, the parties executed a memorandum of understanding in which Cox agreed ‘to promote and market [SNAP] in exchange for obtaining an equity stake’ in the company.” There was no dispute that the memorandum constituted a binding contract.

            Under the terms of the contract, Cox and C2 Technologies agreed to provide various forms of assistance to SNAP, including using their best efforts to help SNAP obtain specific contracts, to consider SNAP for any potential leads, and to provide SNAP with approximately $240,000 worth of marketing support and assistance.

            “In return, the contract provides that ‘on January 12, 2006,’ the same day the parties executed the contract, SNAP ‘will issue a non-qualified stock option to Mr. Cox granting him the right to purchase 308 shares, representing five (5%) percent of the total authorized shares of stock of [SNAP].’ The contract announces SNAP’s intention to execute a stock split, under which Cox’s options at any time after January 1, 2008 and gives Cox the right to require SNAP to repurchase his options – a “put option” – any time after January 1, 2011. The repurchase price is payable to Cox ‘over a five-year period with interest at the then current prime rate.’”

            “Cox attempted to exercise his put option on March 18, 2011 in a letter to SNAP President Navneet Gupta. The parties discussed but never came to a resolution regarding Cox’s request. On October 6, 2015, Cox sent Gupta a second letter demanding that SNAP pay him the full value of his options. On October 9, 2015, Gupta replied that ‘[SNAP] owed you nothing.’”

            “A month later, in November 2015, Cox filed suit for breach of contract against SNAP in Virginia state court. SNAP removed the case to the district court for the Eastern District of Virginia. After removal, Cox filed an amended complaint alleging breach of contract for failure to repurchase, breach of contract for failure to issue his options, and quantum meruit.”

            In August 2016, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted Plaintiff summary judgment, reasoning, “the plain language of the contract showed that SNAP issued the stock options to Cox and that the contract did not require any further steps as a condition precedent before those options issued. In the alternative, the court held that the language at issue was patently ambiguous and must therefore be construed against SNAP. Applying the contract’s formula for calculating the value of Cox’s options and interest owed, the court awarded cox a total of $637,867.42.” Defendant appealed.
           

Analysis:

(1)  Liability and breach of contract

The court held Defendant liable because as the contract conveyed the stock options to Plaintiff, and Defendant breached the contract by refusing to repurchase them when Plaintiff exercised his put option. Defendant argued that the contract did not actually convey stock options to Plaintiff, rather, the contract merely promised to issue stock options in the future, and therefore the issuance of stock options was a condition precedent to Defendant’s obligation to repurchase them.

The court found this defense without merit, calling the defense a “self-defeating position.” The court explains, “even if issuing the stock options was a condition precedent to [Defendant]’s obligation to repurchase, [Defendant] has excused that condition by breaching its promise to issue the options, and so the prevention doctrine dooms its case. Under the prevention doctrine, ‘if a promisor prevents or hinders fulfillment of a condition to his performance, the condition may be waived or excused…For the prevention doctrine to apply, [Plaintiff] need only show that [Defendant] materially contributed to the non-occurrence of the condition.”

The court further bolsters its analysis with Supreme Court of Virginia case law (Parish v. Wightman), which held, “where a contract is performable on the occurrence of a future event there is an implied agreement that the promisor will place no obstacle in the way of the happening of such even, particularly where it is dependent in whole or in part on his own act; and, where he prevents the fulfillment of a condition precedent or its performance by the adverse party, he cannot rely on such condition to defeat his liability.” The court further noted the failure to act can be considered, “contributing to the non-occurrence of the condition.”

Here, “[Defendant] controlled whether the stock options issued, and, even under its own interpretation, it had a contractual obligation to issue those options. By refusing to do so, [Defendant] plainly forfeited its right to rely on their issuance as an unfulfilled condition precedent to its obligation to repurchase [Plaintiff’s] options.”

Finally, the court referred to the Restatement, which reiterates that “when a condition in a contract fails to occur solely because a party breached one of its other obligations in the very same contract, there is no doubt that the party caused the non-occurrence for the purposes of the prevention doctrine.”

Holding that Defendant cannot avoid liability, the court affirmed the district court, explaining, “there is no doubt that [Defendant] had an obligation to bring about the condition it now tries to hide behind.”

(2)  Calculating Damages

Finding that the district court’s natural reading of the contractual language was appropriate, the court affirmed the district court’s holding, awarding Plaintiff a total of $637,867.42. The contract stipulated a formula for calculating the repurchase price of Plaintiff’s options:

“The price shall be determined based on the excess of the then fair market value of [SNAP], with such value determined based on .8 times [SNAP’s] annual sales during the most recently preceding twelve-month period, over the initial strike price…For purposes of determining the strike price of the options issued pursuant to paragraph 1, the value of [SNAP] will be based on a valuation of .8 times [SNAP’s] sales in calendar year 2005. This amount is estimated to be approximately $12,000,000.” [Amount payable] over a five-year period with interest at the then current prime rate [3.25%].
           
            The parties agreed that the value of Plaintiff’s options may be expressed as: ((80% of Defendant’s 2010 sales) – (80% of Defendant’s 2005 sales)) x 0.05. The district court found Defendant’s 2010 sales were $18,365,265 and that its 2005 sales were $4,938,584. Applying the above formula, the court found that Plaintiff’s options were worth $537,067.25. Defendant concedes that the district court used the proper formula to calculate damages, but it contends that the district court erred when it found that Defendant’s 2005 sales were $4,938,584. Specifically, Defendant relies on its contractual language, contending that its actual sales are immaterial because the contract stipulates that the 2005 sales were an estimated $12,000,000. The court disagreed.

The court found Defendant’s argument without merit, and instead held, “the contract provides that the value of [Plaintiff’s] options depends on the growth in [Defendant’s] value from 2005 to the time that [Plaintiff] finally exercises his put option. Under these circumstances, it stands to reason that the parties would have established a rough benchmark against which they could track the value of [Plaintiff’s] options.”

The court provided three reasons why Defendant’s logic was flawed. First, “the ordinary meaning of ‘estimate’ connotes a ‘rough or approximate calculation,’ not a fixed assumption. Common sense recommends we adhere to this meaning, since the parties estimated that the amount described is ‘approximately’ $12,000,000.” Second, the court argued, “it is not clear whether ‘this amount’ refers to [Defendant’s] 2005 sales or an estimate of the initial strike price, that is, 80% of [Defendant’s] sales. This unresolved ambiguity suggested that the parties did not mean for the estimate to serve as a stipulation.” Finally, the court argued, “[Defendant’s] reading would leave the parties and the court no way to establish a concrete strike price, and therefore no way to determine the value of [Plaintiff’s] options…for the purposes of establishing a strike price, it would be exceedingly strange for the parties to stipulate to an indeterminate figure."

In conclusion, the court found that “sales in calendar year 2005” referred to Defendant’s actual sales in 2005, and affirmed the district court’s award to Plaintiff of $637,867.42.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Greenspring Quarry Assoc., Inc. v. Beazer Homes Corp. (U.S.D.C.)

Filed:  June 26, 2017

Opinion by:  James K. Bredar

Holding:  Where (1) a principal exerts control over a corporation’s board via a majority acting within the principal’s scope of employment, (2) the board takes actions in breach of contract and in contravention of principal’s express statements, and (3) sufficient privity exists to survive a challenge based on economic loss doctrine, well-pleaded allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation against the principal are sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Facts:  Plaintiffs (“Owners”) are members of master and subordinate property owners’ associations in a mixed residential and commercial development.  Defendant (“Developer”) is the developer of the relevant properties.

Development began in 2005, and Developer incorporated master and subordinate owners’ associations one year later.  Soon thereafter, Developer caused its employees to occupy the initial positions on both associations’ boards.  Developer filed on behalf of each association similar covenants under which a management company would maintain common areas, with Developer to pay costs until such time as it transferred title to the common area property to the associations.  Developer began billing Owners in 2008 but did not transfer title to the common areas until December 2015.

Owners, as members of the master and subordinate associations, brought separate but practically identical actions alleging breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and fraudulent misrepresentation.  Developer removed both actions under diversity jurisdiction and moved to dismiss the tort claims for failure to state a claim.  Removal was granted, and both actions were joined for convenience and efficiency.

Analysis:  Developer first argued that Owners’ allegations sounded only in contract.  The court began by noting that under the doctrine of respondeat superior, because Developer’s employees joined the boards under its direction and in furtherance of its objectives, Developer would be vicariously liable for any tortious acts committed by the board.  By extension, because board members of Maryland non-stock corporations owe the same fiduciary obligations as any other Maryland corporation, breach of duty accompanying a contractual obligation would be sufficient to support a tort claim.  So finding, the court permitted Owners’ tort claims.

Developer next argued that the economic loss doctrine barred any tort claims, such that its alleged negligence causing purely economic harms ought not create tort liability in the absence of privity, actual physical injury, or risk thereof.  However, noting that Maryland has traditionally permitted tort actions for purely economic losses in the context of fraud, and finding more than sufficient allegation of privity between the parties via the intimate nexus between Owners and the associations, and Developer’s control of the boards, the court deemed risk of tort liability reasonably foreseeable.

Third, Developer argued that Owners’ reliance on Developer’s allegedly negligent or fraudulent statements was unreasonable.  Avoiding the factual question of whether reliance was reasonable, the court evaluated the board’s alleged conduct under the adverse domination doctrine, where knowledge or actions of an agent whose interests are adverse to the principal cannot be imputed to the principal.  Because corporate entities act through agents who wouldn’t rationally be expected to communicate their own wrongdoing to the principal, equitable considerations lean in favor of the corporation and create a rebuttable presumption.  Here, a cause of action against the board (and vicariously, Developer) would not accrue if a disinterested majority board could be proven.  In the court’s view, Developer had not alleged sufficient facts to show that the boards contained a disinterested majority during the time period at issue.

Lastly, Developer argued that Owners’ claims failed to meet FRCP Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirements that time, place, and contents of allegedly fraudulent statements and the person making such statements be pled with sufficiency.  Finding the complaint to contain sufficiently complete allegations (an accounting of dated bills approved by the boards while under Developer’s control, with identities of the board members responsible), the court found Owners to have met their Rule 9(b) burden.

Accordingly, the court found Owners to have survived Developer’s motions to dismiss.

The full opinion is available in PDF.