Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pease v. Wachovia SBA Lending, Inc. (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: October 21, 2010
Opinion by Judge J. Harrell

Held: In vacating the Circuit Court’s decision, the Court of Appeals held that the Maryland Credit Agreement Act (Courts & Judicial Proceedings 5-408(b)) does not bar the Circuit Court from considering negligence, fraud and breach of a fiduciary duty so long as the claims are not attempting to enforce either an oral credit agreement or oral modification of an existing loan agreement.

Facts: The Appellants sold a plumbing business in Virginia, relocated to Maryland, purchased a home and entered the market to purchase another plumbing business. After identifying a potential target, the Appellants elected to finance the acquisition using a SBA loan provided by the Appellee. With the goal of protecting their house from any possible foreclosure arising from the commercial loan, the Appellants also created two legal entities, one to own their house and the other to own their business.

Upon alleged advice from Appellee’s agent, the Appellants also reduced the equity in their house to an amount less than twenty-percent by encumbering their home with a home equity line of credit with the Appellee. The Appellants also learned on or around closing that the target business had weaker financials than originally contended, and alleged that the Appellee withheld certain negative financial information from them until after settlement.

Settlement of the purchase took place in August 2005, and the Appellants signed the loan agreement, including a confessed judgment clause and a guarantee secured by their house. In November of 2007, Appellants defaulted on the commercial loan, and Appellee accelerated the loan and instituted proceedings. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City entered and indexed confessed judgments against both of the Appellants’ business entities in January of 2008.

The Appellants filed a motion to open, modify, or vacate the confessed judgments in April of 2008, asserting allegations of negligence, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty. Appellants asserted that Appellee and its agent verbally misrepresented that this “artificial loan” would safeguard their home from foreclosure if they defaulted under the SBA loan, and that these statements were made to induce them into executing the SBA loan. Appellee argued Appellants’ defenses were barred by the Maryland Credit Agreement Act.

At the hearing, the Appellants argued that if the confessed judgment were vacated, they would seek to void the SBA loan and pursue the tort claims using the same facts. The hearing judge denied the Appellants’ motion on the basis that the Maryland Credit Agreement Statute barred their claims. Appellants appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari before the intermediate appellate court could decide the appeal.

Analysis: The Court after reviewing that Legislative History held that the Maryland Credit Agreement Act is intended to act as a statute of frauds for loan agreements, and accordingly, the Act would bar any of the Appellants’ counterclaims attempting to enforce either an oral credit agreement or a verbal modification of an existing loan agreement.

Applying the Courts holding to the Appellants’ counterclaims of negligence, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty, the Court held that such claims were not attempting to enforce a verbal agreement to borrow or to modify an existing agreement, but did constitute an attempt to obtain a set-off against any recovery by the Appellee.

Applying the Courts holding to the Appellants’ attempt to void the loan agreements based on the same facts used in the tort claims, the Court found that this maneuver is the type that the Maryland Credit Agreement Act was intended to prevent. The Court found that the parol evidence in the current case, while not an attempt to enforce an oral credit agreement, was an attempt to enforce a verbal modification to an existing credit agreement by not enforcing the guaranty.

The Court of Appeals vacated the judgment of the Circuit Court and remanded to the court for consideration not inconsistent with the Court’s decision.

The full opinion is available in pdf.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Clipper Mill Federal, LLC v. The Cincinnati Insurance Co. (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed: October 20, 2010
Opinion by Judge J. Frederick Motz

Held: When alleged property damage arising from an insured's failure to perform under a contract is limited to the property to be provided under the contract, there is no "occurrence" subject to coverage under a commercial general liability policy.

A "pollution exclusion" written to encompass more than environmental pollution will be enforced according to its plain terms.

Where a court cannot rule out the "potentiality of coverage" for even a single claim, the insurance carrier has a duty to defend all claims.

Facts: Tenants sued their landlord for defects in the HVAC system on a leased premises. The tenants alleged that the system failed to balance temperature, conducted sound between rooms, and exposed them to toxic and dangerous airborne pollutants. The tenants alleged six counts: 1) breach of warranty of quiet enjoyment, 2) negligence, 3) negligent misrepresentation, 4) strict liability, 5) nuisances, and 6) loss of consortium.

The landlord tendered the defense to its insurance carrier. The insurance carrier denied coverage, and the landlord sued seeking a declaration that the insurance carrier had a duty to defend the underlying litigation.

Analysis: Under Maryland law, the obligation of an insurance carrier to defend its insured is determined by the allegations in the tort actions. If the plaintiffs in the tort suits allege a claim covered by the policy, the insurer has a duty to defend. The duty to defend arises whenever there is a "potentiality that the claim could be covered by the policy." If there is a possibility, even a remote one, that the claims could be covered, there is a duty to defend. Any doubt as to whether there is a potentiality of coverage is ordinarily resolved in favor of the insured.

The analysis depends on the allegations of the underlying complaint. If these are ambiguous, the insured may rely on extrinsic evidence. The insurance carrier, however, may not use such evidence to contest coverage if the allegations sufficiently establish a potentiality of coverage. If any claim is potentially covered under the policy, the insurer is obligated to defend all claims. The insurance carrier argued it had no duty to defend on several grounds.

No "Occurrence":
First, there was no "occurrence" subject to coverage. Rather, the alleged damages were caused by the landlord's failure to fulfill its contractual obligations under the lease. Because the plaintiffs' alleged damages involved only the use of the property that the landlord was obligated to provide, the court concluded that the damage was not the result of an "occurrence," as defined by the policy and Maryland law, and thus was not covered.

Pollution Exclusion:
Second, the insurance carrier argued the pollution exclusion barred coverage for damage caused by the alleged "airborne pollutants." The landlord countered that the pollution exclusion applied only to environmental pollution. The exclusion provided:
"Pollutant” means any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals, petroleum, petroleum products and petroleum byproducts, and waste. Waste includes materials to be recycled, reconditioned or reclaimed. “Pollutants” include but are not limited to substances which are generally recognized in industry or government to be harmful or toxic to persons, property or the environment regardless of whether the injury or damage is caused directly or indirectly by the “pollutants” . . .
The court noted that the Maryland Court of Appeals concluded that pollution exclusion in a commercial general liability policy did "not apply beyond traditional environmental pollution situations." Clendenin Bros., Inc. v. United State Fire Insurance Co. The court further noted, however, that an insurance policy is a contract and is to be read as any other contract. Thus, although the Maryland courts previously determined the meaning of a pollution exclusion, the parties to subsequent insurance contracts remain free to change the scope of the exclusion by altering the language of the contract. The policy in the present case contained an important distinction from that involved in Clendenin Bros. Specifically, it tracked the traditional language but added "‘Pollutants’ include but are not limited to substances which are generally recognized in industry or government to be harmful or toxic to persons, property or the environment. . . .”

The addition of this sentence expanded the definition of pollutant beyond environmental pollutants to include irritants and contaminants that harm persons but not the environment. Accordingly, the pollution exclusion applied to bar coverage for the alleged claim.

Bodily Injury Claims & the Pollution Exclusion:
Finally, the insurance carrier admitted that the bodily injury claims alleged harm to something other than the insured's work product but argued that they too were precluded by the pollution exclusion. The court concluded, however, that the claims were covered by an exception to the pollution exclusion for bodily injuries caused by the inadequate ventilation of "vapors." The basis: though the complaint did not allege facts placing the airborne particles within the definition of "vapors," it did not foreclose the possibility either. Accordingly, the court could not rule out the possibility that the exception applies, and a potentiality of coverage existed.

On that basis, the court held that the insurance carrier had a duty to defend all claims.

The full opinion is available in pdf.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dean v. Beckley (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed: October 1, 2010.
Opinion by Judge Catherine C. Blake.

Held: Allegations that Defendant failed to disclose to purchaser of an RV before selling a warranty that RV manufacturer had declared bankruptcy when questions were raised regarding the nature of the warranty is sufficient to deny a motion to dismiss a claim alleging fraud in the inducement.

Facts: Plaintiff made a down payment to purchase a new RV from a dealer. Before closing on the sale, the manufacturer of the RV filed for bankruptcy. Eight days later, Plaintiff and employees of the dealer discussed a limited warranty while conducting a walk-through of the RV. None of the employees informed the Plaintiff of the bankruptcy. Plaintiff purchased a seven-year warranty on the RV. Plaintiff soon discovered numerous problems with the RV allegedly covered by the warranty. In subsequent conversations, the dealer allegedly agreed to accept return of the RV and refund Plaintiff's money. Ultimately, the dealer refused both the return and the refund.

Plaintiff sued the dealer and the individual employee that discussed the warranty with the Plaintiff, alleging fraud in the inducement among other things. Defendants moved to dismiss.

Analysis: Under Maryland law, corporate officers are personally liable for the torts they personally commit. Plaintiff's allegations that the individual employee personally explained in detail the nature of the warranties they would receive, while knowing the manufacturer had filed bankruptcy, coupled with the allegation that the bankruptcy was a material fact within the "unique possession" of the Defendants is sufficient to permit the fraud claim to proceed against the individual.

The Court found allegations of false representations regarding (i) the quality of the RV itself and (ii) the acceptance of the RV's return and subsequent refund of Plaintiffs money to be insufficient as the representations concerning the quality of the RV were puffery and the alleged promise to accept a return was promissory in nature. However, Plaintiff made sufficient allegations regarding failure to disclose and fraudulent concealment of the manufacturer's financial troubles to deny the motion to dismiss.

"Generally, the failure to disclose does not amount to a false representation unless there is a separate duty to disclose." In transactions conducted at arm's length, such as here, a duty may arise if the fact is material, the concealer has superior knowledge and knows the other is acting on the assumption the fact does not exist. Here, Plaintiff alleged the specific inquiries regarding the warranty gave Defendants knowledge that Plaintiffs assumed the manufacturer would be able to honor the warranty."

The full opinion is available in pdf.