Trial Perspectives

Referral Sources can be a Protected Legitimate Business Interest

Posted by David Adelstein on September 16, 2017
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In a big case for employers that rely on referrals for the viability of their business, the Florida Supreme Court held that referral sources may be a protected legitimate business interest under Florida Statute s. 542.335 based on the context and proof.  Hence, referral sources can be protected under a non-compete / non-solicitation agreement that prohibits the employee, upon leaving, from soliciting referrals for a period of time.   White v. Mederi Caretenders Visiting Services of Southeast Florida, LLC, 42 Fla. L. Weekly S803a (Fla. 2017) (holding that referral sources for a home health care company may be a protected legitimate business interest depending on the context and proof).

This is a big win for employers that have employees sign non-compete and non-solicitation agreements as a condition of employment to safeguard referral lists and sources.   Notably, the term “referral sources” is not specifically called out in Florida Statute s. 542.335, which is a statute that deals with valid restraints on trade (or restrictive covenants in employment agreements such as non-compete or non-solicitation-type agreements). However, the Florida Supreme Court confirmed that the specific legitimate business interests called out in the statute are non-exhaustive meaning other interests, such as referral sources, can constitute a legitimate business interest of an employer.   The context and proof is important, however, with respect to any business interest to establish it is actually a legitimate business interest that should be protected in a restrictive covenant (such as a non-compete or non-solicitation-type agreement).

In language that I find to be extremely germane, the Florida Supreme Court stated:

However, the statute ameliorates any concern regarding overly restrictive covenants. Section 542.335 commands courts to modify, or blue pencil, a non-competition agreement that is “overbroad, overlong, or otherwise not reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate business interest,” instructing courts to “grant only the relief reasonably necessary to protect such interest.” Thus, section 542.335’s phrasing of the business interests that may be protected in broad terms and its restricting courts from applying certain rules of contract construction, the statute grants trial courts fairly wide discretion to fashion the appropriate context-dependent remedy

White, supra, (internal citations omitted).

This language is germane because it reaffirms a trial court’s wide discretion to modify or blue-pencil (red-line) a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement that may be overly broad to protect only those business interests the court deems legitimate. Thus, the trial court does not have to deem the agreement unenforceable, but can modify the terms of the restrictive covenant language and fashion the appropriate remedy to protect the true, legitimate business interests of an employer.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Collateral Source Rule – Prohibiting an Injured Plaintiff from having Its Cake and Eating It too

Posted by David Adelstein on August 27, 2017
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The collateral source rule is the source of unnecessary confusion. This rule is aimed at preventing an injured-plaintiff from having its cake and eating it too – from receiving a windfall from the defendant-tortfeasor based on compensation the plaintiff received from collateral sources.

The collateral source rule allows an injured plaintiff to present all of its damages to the trier of fact (jury) irrespective of payment the injured party received from a collateral source (e.g., insurance, social security, etc.).  Evidence of payments the injured plaintiff received from a collateral source is inadmissible at trial due to the confusion that could result from the introduction of such evidence. However, the court must later reduce the amount of awarded damages by the amount the injured plaintiff received from collateral sources. The point is to prevent the injured-plaintiff from receiving a windfall.

The collateral source rule is embodied in Florida Statute s. 768.76.  Check out this link for this statute in detail, a relevant portion which is identified below.  “This section abrogated the common law rule prohibiting reduction of damages from collateral source payments in an effort to ‘reduce insurance costs and prevent plaintiffs from receiving windfalls.’” Rasinski v. McCoy, 42 Fla.L.Weekly D1711a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017) citing Joerg v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 176 So. 3d 1247, 1249 (Fla. 2015).

 

Florida Statute s. 768.76

(1) In any action to which this part applies in which liability is admitted or is determined by the trier of fact and in which damages are awarded to compensate the claimant for losses sustained, the court shall reduce the amount of such award by the total of all amounts which have been paid for the benefit of the claimant, or which are otherwise available to the claimant, from all collateral sources; however, there shall be no reduction for collateral sources for which a subrogation or reimbursement right exists. Such reduction shall be offset to the extent of any amount which has been paid, contributed, or forfeited by, or on behalf of, the claimant or members of the claimant’s immediate family to secure her or his right to any collateral source benefit which the claimant is receiving as a result of her or his injury.

(2) For purposes of this section:

(a) “Collateral sources” means any payments made to the claimant, or made on the claimant’s behalf, by or pursuant to:

1. The United States Social Security Act,except Title XVIII and Title XIX; any federal, state, or local income disability act; or any other public programs providing medical expenses, disability payments, or other similar benefits, except those prohibited by federal law and those expressly excluded by law as collateral sources.

2. Any health, sickness, or income disability insurance; automobile accident insurance that provides health benefits or income disability coverage; and any other similar insurance benefits, except life insurance benefits available to the claimant, whether purchased by her or him or provided by others.

3. Any contract or agreement of any group, organization, partnership, or corporation to provide, pay for, or reimburse the costs of hospital, medical, dental, or other health care services.

4. Any contractual or voluntary wage continuation plan provided by employers or by any other system intended to provide wages during a period of disability.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Caveat Emptor = Buyer Beware = Watch Out!

Posted by David Adelstein on August 18, 2017
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Caveat Emptor.  Buyer Beware!!!! This is a doctrine that applies to commercial property transactions. Watch out and do your due diligence when entering into a commercial real estate transaction. If you do not, the doctrine of caveat emptor will apply which puts the onus on you, the buyer, to discover material facts relating to the property.

In Transcapital Bank v. Shadowbrook at Vero, LLC, 42 Fla.L.Weekly D1657b (Fla. 4th DCA 2017), a bulk buyer purchased 123 out of 164 condominium units for approximately $11 Million.   The buyer, thereafter, sued the seller / lender for fraud, among other counts, claiming it was misled about the value of the property and, particularly, each of the condominium units.

Post-trial, the seller / lender appealed claiming the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict at trial. The appellate court agreed that the trial court erred. Why?

The doctrine of caveat emptor applied to this commercial transaction where the buyer purchased 123 condominium units. “This doctrine places the duty to examine and judge the value and condition of the [commercial] property solely on the buyer and protects the seller from liability for any defects.” Transcapital Bank, supra, quoting Turnberry Court Corp. v. Bellini, 962 So.2d 1006, 1007 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).

There are three exceptions to the applicability of caveat emptor: 1) where the buyer has been prevented from making an independent inquiry regarding the property due to a trick from the buyer; 2) where the buyer does not have equal opportunity to become apprised of a material fact; and 3) where the seller discloses some facts but not the whole truth regarding those facts. Transcapital Bank, supra citing Turnberry Court Corp. v. Bellini, 962 So.2d 1006, 1007 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).   None of the exceptions, however, applied to this transaction. “Even if any of the defendants [seller / lender] had misrepresented the property’s appraised value, such a misrepresentation would not be actionable under the doctrine of caveat emptor in the absence of evidence that the defendants resorted ‘to some fraudulent means in preventing a prospective purchaser from making an examination of the property under consideration.’Transcapital Bank, supra, citing Farnham v. Blount, 11 So.2d 785, 790 (Fla. 1942).

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Florida Statutory Cause of Action for Misleading Advertisement

Posted by David Adelstein on August 06, 2017
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Have you been duped into procuring something through misleading advertising? There is a Florida Statute that provides a civil cause of action for misleading advertising. Florida Statute s. 817.41 provides a statutory cause of action for misleading advertising that gives the prevailing party a basis to recover their attorney’s fees in addition to a potential claim for punitive damages.  This is probably a less known statutory cause of action, but it is a particularized statutory fraud claim that is available.

Additionally, the statute maintains that, “There shall be a rebuttable presumption that the person named in or obtaining the benefits of any misleading advertisement or any such sale [i.e, party making misleading advertisement] is responsible for such misleading advertisement or unlawful sale.”  Florida Statute s. 817.41(4).  This is favorable language for a party asserting a claim.

Florida Statute s. 817.40(5) defines misleading advertising as follows:

(5) The phrase “misleading advertising” includes any statements made, or disseminated, in oral, written, electronic, or printed form or otherwise, to or before the public, or any portion thereof, which are known, or through the exercise of reasonable care or investigation could or might have been ascertained, to be untrue or misleading, and which are or were so made or disseminated with the intent or purpose, either directly or indirectly, of selling or disposing of real or personal property, services of any nature whatever, professional or otherwise, or to induce the public to enter into any obligation relating to such property or services.

Importantly, the misleading advertising MUST be made “with the intent or purpose, either directly or indirectly, of selling or disposing of real or personal property, services of any nature whatever, professional or otherwise, or to induce the public to enter into any obligation relating to such property or services.” Fla.Stat. s. 817.40(5); Samuels v. King Motor Co. of Fort Lauderdale, 782 So.2d 489, 496 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001). Since a civil cause of action for misleading advertising is a specialized type of fraud claim, the person asserting the claim MUST allege and support other elements of fraudulent inducement. See Third Party Verification, Inc. v. Signaturelink, Inc., 492 F.Supp.2d 1314, 1322 (M.D.Fla. 2007) (explaining that party asserting misleading advertising claim must also allege: “(a) the representor made a misrepresentation of a material fact; (b) the representor knew or should have known of the falsity of the statement; (c) the representor intended that the representation would induce another to rely and act on it; and (d) the plaintiff suffered injury in justifiable reliance on the representation.”).  

Conversely, if the misleading advertising claim is made by a competitor, then reliance element–that the party asserting the claim relied on the misrepresentation–does not have to be alleged and proven. See id.

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Properly Pleading the Affirmative Defense of the Nonperformance or Nonoccurrence of Conditions Precedent

Posted by David Adelstein on July 22, 2017
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The nonperformance of conditions precedent must be pled with particularity. Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.120(c) provides:

Conditions Precedent. In pleading the performance or occurrence of conditions precedent, it is sufficient to aver generally that all conditions precedent have been performed or occurred. A denial of performance or occurrence shall be made specifically and with particularity.

It is common for a plaintiff to generally plead in its complaint, “All conditions precedent have been performed or have occurred.”   A defendant may want to assert an affirmative defense attacking or denying this allegation relating to the plaintiff’s failure to satisfy certain conditions precedent.   In doing so, a defendant must identify the nonperformance or nonoccurrence of conditions precedent with specificity. Any generality in this regard could end up hurting the defendant, especially if the defendant has a legitimate defense based on the plaintiff failing to comply with conditions precedent.  Hence, make sure to consider applicable conditions precedent and identify those with particularity that deny the plaintiff’s allegation that all conditions precedent have been performed or have occurred.

In a construction dispute, a contractor argued that the subcontractor failed to comply with conditions precedent. However, the contractor’s affirmative defense was general in nature – no particularity.   This may have been a legitimate defense supported by facts since the contractor argued the subcontractor’s failure to comply with conditions precedent to payment meant that the contractor was not obligated to pay the subcontractor. But, based on the generality of the contractor’s affirmative defense, the appellate court held that the contractor failed to property preserve the defense in its affirmative defenses:

In its amended answer, DFI [contractor] asserted, as an affirmative defense, that HRI [subcontractor] “has failed to allege, nor can it establish that it had meet [sic] each and every condition precedent to recovering payment in this cause pursuant to its Complaint.” Contrary to the requirements in Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.120(c), DFI did not specify which conditions precedents HRI did not comply with or how HRI failed to comply with them. Consequently, DFI’s answer to the complaint failed to preserve its right to demand proof that HRI complied with the conditions precedent to progress payments and final payment. See Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.120(c); Deutsche Bank Nat’l Tr. Co. v. Quinion, 198 So. 3d 701, 703-04 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016) (“[T]o construct a proper denial under the rule, a defendant must, at a minimum, identify both the nature of the condition precedent and the nature of the alleged noncompliance or nonoccurrence.”); Bank of Am., Nat’l Ass’n v. Asbury, 165 So. 3d 808, 810-11 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015); Cooke v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 652 So. 2d 1154, 1156 (Fla. 2d DCA 1995); Paulk v. Peyton, 648 So. 2d 772, 774 (Fla. 1st DCA 1994).

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Courts do Not Favor the Technical (Oops!) Wins

Posted by David Adelstein on July 09, 2017
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Many rules of civil procedure are liberally construed to prevent the  “oops!” or “gotcha!” tactic if a rule is not perfectly complied with. Courts are hesitant to allow another party to prevail merely because its opposition committed a technical or procedural error. Technical wins are generally not favored, as long as there is a reasonable / excusable basis to justify why the technical error occurred.   Courts want parties to prevail on the merits of their dispute and not on who wins a procedural error.

An example of this general philosophy is the case of Well Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Shelton, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1526a (Fla. 5th DCA 2017), where the lender in a mortgage foreclosure action received requests for admissions, a common discovery tool to get a party to admit or deny certain facts. Those admissions of fact help narrow issues for purposes of trial because they narrow the facts in dispute since they serve as stipulated facts.  Based on these admissions, a party can move for summary judgment based on the lack of any genuine material fact in dispute.

The lender’s counsel, due to a calendaring error, failed to respond to the request for admissions for well over a year. During this time, discovery continued. The lender’s counsel realized the error (over a year later) and filed a motion in the court for the court’s permission to file a late response based on excusable neglect (the calendaring error). The lender also claimed that many of the requests in the requests for admissions would have been denied by evidence already in the record and filed with the lender’s verified complaint. After the lender filed this motion, the debtor moved for summary judgment arguing that the lender’s failure to timely respond to the request for admissions should be deemed an admission as to all of its requests. The court agreed and granted summary judgment (based on the technical error of not timely responding to the request for admissions). A technical win!

On appeal, the Fifth District reversed stating that Florida favors disputes to be decided on the merits rather than technical rules. In this case, the court found that even though the lender failed to respond to the request for admissions for well over a year, (1) discovery continued in the case, (2) there was evidence in the record contradicting some or all of the requests, (3) the debtor did not move for summary judgment until after the lender filed a motion for permission to file a late response, and (4) the debtor could not prove how it was prejudiced by the late admissions. Wells Fargo Bank supra (“In sum, the trial court erred in entering summary judgment based on the technical admissions because there was record evidence contradicting the admissions. In addition, the Sheltons failed to make a sufficient showing of how granting relief from the admissions would have caused prejudice.”) 

By no means am I in favor of committing or excusing technical errors, and by no means am I in favor of technical victories.  Waiting well over a year to try to respond to requests for admissions is ridiculous. (Also, the opposing party should have inquired as to the status of the admissions versus waiting over a year to try to obtain a technical victory.)  A calendaring error makes sense in this case because there really was no upside for the lender to not timely respond to these admissions – they were probably all easy denials. There was no strategic value to delay. But, over a year is a LONG time. And, the court provides no substantive discussion as to when a party is prejudiced by a technical error versus when a party is not. For instance, what if the debtor had moved for summary judgment before the lender realized it neglected to respond to the admissions? What if the parties were on a trial docket? What if the denials to the admissions were not so readily apparent from the record evidence? And, what if the debtor’s counsel tried to get the lender’s counsel to respond to the admissions months earlier?

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Civil Conspiracy – Not Just a Claim in the Criminal Context

Posted by David Adelstein on July 01, 2017
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We think of the word “conspiracy” in the criminal context. A criminal conspiracy. Sounds bad. Real bad. But, there is a cause of action in the civil context called “civil conspiracy.” Granted, this is a fact-based claim that is challenging to prove at trial, but nevertheless, such a claim exists if you can prove that co-conspirators conspired to commit an intentional tort or an intentional wrong.  

The Third District Court of Appeal in MP, LLC v. Sterling Holding, LLC, 2017 WL 2794218 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017) recently explained a claim for civil conspiracy:

The elements of a claim for civil conspiracy are: “(a) an agreement between two or more parties, (b) to do an unlawful act or to do a lawful act by unlawful means, (c) the doing of some overt act in pursuance of the conspiracy, and (d) damage to plaintiff as a result of the acts done under the conspiracy.” Raimi v. Furlong, 702 So. 2d 1273, 1284 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997). There is no requirement that each co-conspirator commit acts in furtherance of the conspiracy; it is sufficient if each conspirator knows of the scheme and assists in some way. Charles v. Fla. Foreclosure Placement Ctr., LLC, 988 So. 2d 1157, 1160 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008).

The gist of a civil action for conspiracy is not the conspiracy itself, but the civil wrong which is done pursuant to the conspiracy and which results in damage to the plaintiff.Blatt v. Green, Rose, Kahn & Piotrkowski, 456 So.2d 949, 951 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984); see also Phelan v. Lawhon, 2017 WL 1177595 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017) (civil conspiracy claim must show independent wrong that would be an actionable wrong if it was committed by one person); Morris USA Inc. v. Boatright, 2017 WL 1356285 (civil conspiracy claim holds co-conspirators liable for “harm caused by other members of a conspiracy to commit an intentional tort.”); Walters v. Blankenship, 931 So.2d 137, 140 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006) (action for civil conspiracy generally requires underlying wrong or tort).

As mentioned, a civil conspiracy claim requires an agreement between two or more parties – co-conspirators. Generally, a company cannot conspire with its officers, employees, and agents. Mancinelli v. Davis, 2017 WL 1278074, *2 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017). The only exception to this would be if an agent has a personal stake in the underlying activities that is distinct from the company’s interest that results in more than an incidental benefit to the agent. Id.

Proving a conspiracy is always challenging so parties need to engage in legwork figuring out what elements they can prove on the front end and what specific discovery they need to focus on in order to connect the dots and prove a civil conspiracy. However, asserting this claim just to assert it is a mistake (in my opinion) without having an understanding as to what you think you can prove.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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Seller’s Remorse can have Consequences, Particularly when the Seller Acts in Bad Faith

Posted by David Adelstein on June 18, 2017
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Seller’s Remorse? We all have experienced buyer’s remorse in some fashion, but what about seller’s remorse? Perhaps talked about less than buyer’s remorse, but sellers can have regrets too.   This, however, does not mean that a seller’s remorse can go consequence-free, particularly when the seller backs out of a deal or sabotages the deal because of seller’s remorse.  For instance, what if a seller of real property signs a deal to sell her property and then realizes she could have gotten some more money for the same property? Can she simply back out of the deal or proactively prevent certain conditions from occurring that are required to consummate the transaction? Is this type of bad faith accepted?

Head v. Sorensen, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1380 (Fla. 2d DCA 2017) is a case that touches on seller’s remorse in the context of a seller of a condominium unit backing out of a signed deal and undertaking efforts to prevent conditions from occurring required to consummate the transaction.   The seller and buyer signed a purchase and sale contract for $405,000 with closing to occur 2 months later. A day or so later, the seller received a call from another owner in the condominium that told her that her sale price was too low and she could have gotten more money.  Based on this call, the seller signed a cancellation of contract and sent it to the buyer. The buyer refused to sign the cancellation and indicated his intent to close on the unit.

The purchase and sale contract provided that the sale was conditioned on the condominium association’s approval. This is not an uncommon rider to a purchase and sale contract. The buyer filed his application with the association for the requisite approval. However, the seller, because she wanted the deal to die, contacted the association and told them that she did not want to go through with the transaction and there were legal issues that that might prevent closing from taking place (although she never explained what those legal issues were). She also told the association to investigate the buyer’s ability to pay costs associated with the condominium. The association then rejected the contract based on the purported low sales price prompting the buyer to sue claiming, among other counts, breach of contract and specific performance.

The seller argued that the condition to closing—the association’s approval—did not occur so the buyer could not close on the unit.   The seller also creatively argued that the contract terminated by its own terms because there was a title defect (the association’s lack of approval) that rendered the title to the unit unmarketable and this defect was not cured.   The title commitment / defect provision is standard in real estate contracts that allows the buyer to notify the seller prior to closing of any title defects; the seller then has time to cure the title defects. If the seller cannot cure the defects after reasonable diligent effort, the contract terminates.

While the contract and closing was conditioned on the association’s approval, the problem was that the seller proactively assisted the association’s rejection of the buyer and deal, or proactively ensured that the condition would not occur. Naturally, the buyer’s title commitment reflected the association’s approval as a closing condition. The seller certainly didn’t go out of her way to ensure the association would approve the sale, which a seller would typically do when they have a buyer in place and a relatively short closing time. Had the seller sold the sale to the association, or not actively hindered the association from approving the buyer and transaction, the association probably would have approved the deal and any title defect would be removed.

Surprisingly, based on these facts, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the seller. On appeal, the Second District reversed stating:

When there are questions of fact as to whether one party to a contract has acted in bad faith by helping to procure an event that would cause the contract to terminate, summary judgment in favor of that party is improper….Here, such questions do exist. Therefore, Sorensen [seller] was not entitled to summary judgment in her favor on the issue of whether the contract terminated under the condominium rider, and the trial court erred by entering final summary judgment….

***

To limit the buyer to just the return of his deposit creates an incentive for the seller to dishonor the contract: “This seems to us to come perilously close to arguing that the sellers, after entering into a solemn agreement, could glibly dishonor it and restrict the buyer to regaining what was in practical effect already his, inasmuch as the transaction was not consummated and the sellers were therefore not entitled to the money.”… Creating an incentive for a seller to breach the contract is anathema to the law.

Head, supra, (internal citations omitted).

Seller’s remorse has consequences, particularly when the seller proactively ensures conditions associated with the deal do not occur.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Cause of Action for Tortious Interference with a Business Relationship

Posted by David Adelstein on June 11, 2017
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Business relationships are important.  It is all about relationships in all walks of life!  What if someone interferes with your business relationship?  What if that interference is intentional or unjustifiable?

There is a cause of action known as tortious interference with a business relationship. Monco Enterprises, Inc. v. Ziebart Corp., 673 So.2d 491 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996) (“Tort liability for interference with prospective contractual relationships is generally recognized.”)

A plaintiff asserting this cause of action must PROVE the following elements:

(1) The existence of a business relationship;

(2) The defendant had knowledge of the business relationship;

(3) The defendant intentionally and unjustifiably interfered with the business relationship; and

(4) The plaintiff has been damaged as the result of the intentional and unjustifiable interference.

Southeastern Integrated Medical, P.L. v. North Florida Women’s Physicians, P.A., 50 So.3d 21, 23 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010); Harllee v. Professional Service Industries, Inc., 619 So.2d 298, 299-300 (Fla. 3d DCA 1992).

An action for tortious interference with a prospective business relationship requires a business relationship evidenced by an actual and identifiable understanding or agreement which in all probability would have been completed if the defendant had not interfered.” ISS Cleaning Services Group, Inc. v. Cosby, 745 So.2d 460, 462 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999).  

The claim requires a tortious interference with present or prospective customers or relationships and not the community at large; for this reason, the claim requires an “actual and identifiable understanding or agreement which in all probability would have been completed if the defendant had not interfered. Ethan Allen, Inc. v. Georgetown Manor, Inc., 647 So.2d 812, 814 (Fla. 1994); see also Ferguson Transp., Inc. v. North American Van Lines, Inc., 687 So.2d 821 (Fla. 1996) (plaintiff must prove business relationship with identifiable customers to support claim for tortious interference with a business relationship).

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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Restrictive Language in Employment Agreement

Posted by David Adelstein on June 04, 2017
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Woo-hoo! I got a real good J-O-B! Great pay. Great benefits. Great location. Doing what I want to be doing with my skillset. My new employer wants me to sign an employment agreement, but I have signed such agreements in the past, so this is no big deal. Or, is it a big deal?

There are many professions that want certain employees to sign an employment agreement that includes a restrictive covenant, i.e., anti-compete or anti-solicitation language. The employer does not want to train the employee, give the employee access to its trade secret information, customer lists, internal marketing material, pricing lists, or other business data only for the employee to leave and use that acquired information to start-up his/her own business or work for a competitor. From a common sense standpoint, this makes sense. No one wants to invest in an employee that leaves and takes what he/she learned to a rival company or to start a competitor.

All too often, the employee does not really understand the implications of the restrictive covenant language he/she is signing. The mindset is if I don’t sign the employment agreement I will not be hired and the money or opportunity or location is way too good to pass up. All of this may be 100% true.  But, this does not mean you should not truly appreciate the implications of such language or try to negotiate the language to more favorable terms (if possible).  The fact that you are in a position asked to sign an employment agreement means you have had other jobs in the past or are viewing this job as a stepping stone opportunity. You know there is a lot that could happen: you don’t like the job, the job isn’t what you thought it was, a better opportunity surfaces, you want to make a job change, you want to start your own business, etc. Life happens which is why the job you are in today may not be the job you are in a few years down the road.

In a recent case example, Collier HMA Physician Management, LLC v. Menichello, 42 Fla. L. Weekdly D1228b (Fla. 2d DCA 2017), a doctor signed an employment agreement with a physician group that operates hospitals that provided during the course of the agreement and for a 12-month period after the agreement is terminated or expired, the doctor agrees not to work for specifically named physician groups or hospitals identified in the agreement (that were within the same geographical area). (Yes, medicine is a business too!).  

The doctor became dissatisfied with his job and went to work at a hospital included in the restrictive covenant language.   His prior employer moved to enforce the restrictive covenant language by filing a lawsuit for injunctive relief – to prohibit the doctor from working for the hospital identified in the restrictive covenant language in the employment agreement.

As often is the case, and many times justifiably so, the doctor challenged the enforceability of the restrictive covenant language. Restrictive covenants in employment agreements in Florida are governed under Florida Statute s. 542.335 to ensure that the language is reasonable in time, area, and business, and they don’t operate to unreasonably restrain competition or trade. (Check out this statute here.)  

At first blush, the restrictive covenant at-issue does not appear to be unreasonable. It was for a period of 12-months, was limited to a geographic area, and made specific reference to those hospitals or physician groups the employee could not work for during this restrictive period.

The doctor, however, argued that the agreement should not be deemed enforceable because of a change in the corporate structure of the employer, particularly due to a parent company merger.

The doctor made this argument because s. 542.335(1)(f) provides:

The court shall not refuse enforcement of a restrictive covenant on the ground that the person seeking enforcement is a third-party beneficiary of such contract or is an assignee or successor to a party to such contract, provided:

1. In the case of a third-party beneficiary, the restrictive covenant expressly identified the person as a third-party beneficiary of the contract and expressly stated that the restrictive covenant was intended for the benefit of such person.

2. In the case of an assignee or successor, the restrictive covenant expressly authorized enforcement by a party’s assignee or successor.

The doctor claimed that the restrictive covenant could not be enforceable because the corporate change in ownership meant that the agreement was being enforced by a successor entity and the employment agreement states that no third-party beneficiaries could enforce the agreement. The appellate court shot down this argument because the entity enforcing the agreement was the doctor’s former employer (the physician group). The corporate change (merger) regarding the parent company did not impact the validity of the restrictive covenant. The parent company was not enforcing the employment agreement, nor could it.  And, the name of the employer did not change—the parent company’s merger did not result in a new successor entity being formed for the employer.

From an employee’s perspective, there are many reasons and circumstances to challenge the enforceability of restrictive covenant language in an employment agreement.  This does not mean, however, that you should ignore any risk associated with this language when signing the employment agreement.

From an employer’s perspective, there are many reasons and circumstances to enforce the restrictive covenant language in an employment agreement.  This does not mean, however, that you should ignore any restrictive language that may be unreasonable or contrary to Florida Statute s. 542.335.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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