breach of contract

Trial Court’s Responsibility is NOT to Rewrite a Contract

Posted by David Adelstein on November 25, 2016
Appeal / Comments Off on Trial Court’s Responsibility is NOT to Rewrite a Contract

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Many business disputes involve the interpretation and the application of a contract. This is because business transactions typically involve a contractual relationship governing the rights, liabilities, risks, and recourse relating to the transaction.   When there is a dispute regarding the transaction, this gives rise to a breach of contract claim.  

It is important to understand that a trial court’s responsibility is NOT to rewrite the terms of a contract so that the risks are allocated differently.  As explained:

[C]ourts are ‘powerless to rewrite [a] contract to make it more reasonable or advantageous to one of the parties…or to substitute [their] judgments for that of the parties to the contract in order to relieve one of the parties from the apparent hardships of an improvident bargain.  

Underwater Engineering Services, Inc. v. Utility Board of the City of Key West, 194 So.3d 437, 444 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) quoting Fernandez v. Homestar at Miller Cove, Inc., 935 So.2d 547, 551 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).

For this reason, a trial court’s interpretation of a contract is reviewed on appeal with a de novo standard of appellate review – the appellate court will refer to the record in the trial court anew (de novo) without giving deference to the trial court’s findings.

For example, in Underwater Engineering Services (a case I discussed here), the trial court found that a contractor defectively constructed a portion of its work and awarded damages to the owner for replacing the defective work. On appeal, however, the appellate court looked at the underlying contract between the owner and the contractor that required the owner to give the contractor notice before replacing defective work. (The trial court’s final judgment did not reference this contractual provision or provide any application of the provision). The trial court’s record established that such notice was never given to the contractor so the contractor was never in a position to replace the defective work. Based on this contractual provision–remember, courts are not there to rewrite parties’ contracts–the appellate court reversed the trial court’s findings / judgment in favor of the owner because the owner never provided the contractor the required notice per the unambiguous language in the contract.

 

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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What Constitutes an Enforceable Contract?

Posted by David Adelstein on November 17, 2016
Appeal / Comments Off on What Constitutes an Enforceable Contract?

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An enforceable or valid contract requires an offer, acceptance of that offer, consideration, and sufficient specification of material terms. Jericho All-Weather Opportunity Fund, LP v. Pier Seventeen Marina, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D2565a (Fla. 4th DCA 2016). Whether a contract actually constitutes an enforceable contract is subject to a de novo standard of appellate review; this is the same appellate standard of review pertaining to an appeal of a trial court’s interpretation of a contract. See id.

The case in Jericho All-Weather Opportunity Fund exemplifies a party suing on the wrong contract and, thus, an appellate court reversing a judgment in favor of a plaintiff and remanding for the trial court to enter judgment in favor of the defendants. As you can imagine, this is a harsh outcome in an appeal – winning a trial only for the appellate court to reverse and mandate judgment for the party that lost during the trial.

In this case, the plaintiff (borrower) was seeking a construction loan. It entered into a second loan commitment with the defendant (lender) whereby the defendant agreed to loan the plaintiff money for the refinancing of property and constructing the project. The court explained that a loan commitment is “a lender’s binding promise to a borrower to lend a specified amount of money at a certain interest rate, usually within a specified period and for a specific purpose (such as buying real estate).” Jericho All-Weather Opportunity Fund, supra, quoting Armstrong Bus. Servs., Inc. v. AmSouth Bank, 817 So.2d 665, 673-74 (Ala. 2001).

The plaintiff and defendant then entered into a construction loan. The loan agreement was contingent on the actual closing of the loan—the closing of the loan was the consideration for the loan agreement. The loan agreement did not require the defendant to fund the loan as the agreement was predicated on the funding having occurred. However, the loan never closed and the plaintiff sued the defendant for breach of the loan agreement. The plaintiff prevailed at trial. The defendant appealed arguing that the loan agreement was not an enforceable contract as it never became a valid contract because the funding never occurred. The appellate court agreed stating that the plaintiff should have sued for breach of the second loan commitment and not the loan agreement. (Notably, the plaintiff had strategic reasons for not suing on the second loan commitment since it precluded the plaintiff from pursuing certain damages based on a waiver of consequential damages provision.  Unfortunately, by not suing under the second loan commitment, the plaintiff did not sue on an enforceable contract.)

 

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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Prevailing Party for Purposes of Attorney’s Fees in Breach of Contract Claims

Posted by David Adelstein on November 03, 2016
Trial Perspectives / Comments Off on Prevailing Party for Purposes of Attorney’s Fees in Breach of Contract Claims

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To be entitled to attorney’s fees, there needs to be a contractual or statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees (absent serving a proposal for settlement). There is oftentimes the misconception in breach of contract cases that the party that recovers a positive net judgment will automatically recover their attorney’s fees. While, certainly, sometimes this is the case, this is NOT what you should be banking on. The law has tried to progress to a point where it does not want certain cases to be driven solely by the prospect of recovering attorney’s fees just because you won $1.  

The Florida Supreme Court in Moritz v. Hoyt Enterprises, Inc., 604 So.2d 807 (Fla. 1992) held that in a breach of contract action the significant issues test applied to determine the prevailing party for purposes of awarding attorney’s fees.  A party prevails on the significant issues if the party prevails on any significant issue in the case that achieved a benefit sought by the parties in the action.

A year later, the Florida Supreme Court in Prosperi v. Code, Inc., 626 So.2d 1360 (Fla. 1993) addressed this significant issues test in the context of a construction lien action where the contractor received a net judgment in its favor but did not prevail on its construction lien (that provided a statutory basis for fees).  In this case, the owner prevailed on the contractor’s lien claim but the contactor prevailed in a breach of contract action and, therefore, recovered a net judgment in its favor.  For purposes of the case, a net judgment was “when the claimant fails to foreclose a mechanic’s lien but obtains a judgment for the underlying claim which exceeds any claim of the owner.”   Prosperi, 626 at n.1.   Here, the Court explained that recovering a net judgment is a significant factor to determine the prevailing party for purposes for purposes of attorney’s fees, but was NOT the only consideration. The equities of the case must be considered at the trial court’s discretion to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues to be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.

Years later, this issue was brought up again to the Florida Supreme Court in Trytek v. Gale Industries, Inc., 3 So.3d 1194 (Fla. 2009), as to whether the significant issues test applied when a contractor obtained a net judgment against an owner on its lien even though the lien amount was reduced by the owner’s claim for repair costs.  In finding that the significant issues test applied, the court further explained that the trial court has discretion to examine all factors including issues litigated, claim amount, amount recovered, and counterclaims, and can determine that neither party was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees

As you can see, the trend to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a breach of contract action is to apply the significant issues test. Because the trial court has the discretion to examine the equities to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues in a given case, there is not any objective or bright-line rule to refer to in order to determine whether your situation will deem you the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.   This component makes it challenging to predict how a trial judge or arbitrator may rule and whether a party will be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees. Recovering a net judgment is still an important factor, but it will not be the sole deciding factor because the prospect of a party recovering $1 and being deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees may prevent that party from becoming reasonable with their settlement terms.

 

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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