One of the delightful aspects of practicing law in Virginia is that we still get to use antiquated legal terms that most states stopped using a century or so ago. Where a lawyer might file a motion to dismiss in some states, here we file a “demurrer” or a “plea in bar.” Rather than move for a directed verdict or judgment as a matter of law at the close of the plaintiff’s evidence at trial, we make a “motion to strike.” Until relatively recently, we weren’t even initiating lawsuits with complaints; we were filing “motions for judgment” instead. In today’s blog post, I’m going to tell you about a fun little motion we call a “motion craving oyer.”

A motion craving oyer sounds a lot more exotic than it is. To “crave oyer” is simply to demand production of a written instrument when a plaintiff files a lawsuit based on that instrument but fails to attach a copy to the complaint. It can be useful when a defendant may have defenses to a lawsuit that aren’t apparent without examining the instrument in question. If oyer is granted, the instrument becomes part of the complaint and a defendant can proceed to file other responsive pleadings that may be appropriate.

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Express contracts are easy enough to understand. An express contract is a legally enforceable agreement formed by an exchange of promises, the terms of which are declared, either orally or in writing, at the time the agreement is formed. A mutual meeting of the minds is required, and the agreement must be supported by consideration. If I promise to pay you $10 to wash my car, and you accept my offer and proceed to wash my car, we’ve formed a contract and I am legally obligated to fork over that $10. But what if you just decided on your own to wash my car without discussing it with me first? Or maybe I ask you to wash my car and you accept, but we never discuss price? In situations like these, I may still be required to pay you a fair price for the service you provided, even though we never actually formed a contract. The legal concepts involved are known as unjust enrichment and quantum meruit. Let’s review what these related-but-distinct terms mean.

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Virginia recognizes claims for both tortious interference with existing contracts and tortious interference with prospective, anticipated contracts, known as business expectancies. If your business is counting on winning a major contract but then the work suddenly goes to a competitor instead, it may be natural to wonder whether the competitor won the business fairly or through unfair competition or other improper methods. The success of a tortious interference claim based on some unrealized economic benefit anticipated in the future depends heavily on the certainty with which that benefit was expected. There is no claim for tortiously interfering with one’s dreams and aspirations.

The first element of a tortious interference claim is showing “the existence of a business relationship or expectancy, with a probability of future economic benefit to plaintiff.” (See Am. Chiropractic v. Trigon Healthcare, 367 F.3d 212, 228 (4th Cir. 2004)). A mere possibility of future economic benefit is insufficient. A recent case out of the Norfolk Division of the Eastern District of Virginia provides a good example.

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Noncompete agreements are typically found in employment agreements between employers and their employees. But that’s not the only place these clauses are found. Sometimes you’ll have two sophisticated companies of roughly equal bargaining power who, for whatever reason, wish to enter into a binding agreement placing restrictions on the one of the entity’s ability to compete with the other. Perhaps one company has acquired or merged with another and needs to ensure that the target company’s former officers and directors don’t immediately form a competing business and take their old clients with them. Or perhaps, as was the case recently in the dispute between wood-flooring contractors Lumber Liquidators and Cabinets To Go, two businesses with overlapping ownership simply seek to reach an agreement to reduce competition and minimize the sharing of confidential information. The important thing to note is that most of the reasons Virginia courts disfavor noncompete agreements have to do with fairness to the employee and do not apply when the two contracting parties are both businesses. Therefore, courts are much more likely to enforce noncompete agreements found in a business-to-business context than in an employment setting.

The basic facts of Lumber Liquidators v. Cabinets To Go are as follows. About 10 years ago, hardwood flooring retailer Lumber Liquidators learned that its Chairman and largest shareholder, Thomas D. Sullivan, was also involved in the ownership and operation of Cabinets To Go, which sold kitchen and bath fixtures and building supplies. Concerned that Sullivan might divert business opportunities or confidential business information over to Cabinets To Go, Lumber Liquidators entered into a number of agreements with Cabinets To Go. Among the agreements formed between the companies was a pair of “reciprocal restrictive covenants” in which Cabinets To Go agreed not to engage in the sale of hardwood flooring anywhere in the world during the term of the agreement and a period of two years thereafter. Lumber Liquidators similarly agreed not to sell kitchen cabinets.

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Once upon a time, courts would routinely dismiss non-compete lawsuits brought by businesses against their former employees if the agreements at issue appeared to impose an unreasonable burden on the employee’s ability to earn a living. The rules of the game changed a bit back in 2013 when the Virginia Supreme Court decided Assurance Data v. Malyevac, where it held that in most cases, even if the agreement appears overly broad on its face, the employer should be given an opportunity to prove that for its particular business model, it has a legitimate business interest in restricting a particular employee’s ability to compete with it for the length of time and in the geographic area specified in the agreement. Proving reasonableness is often easier said than done.

For a noncompete to be enforceable in Virginia, it has to be worded so that its restrictions (a) are no greater than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, (b) are not unduly harsh or oppressive in limiting the employee’s ability to earn a living, and (c) are reasonable considering sound public policy. It’s up to the employer to produce evidence sufficient to demonstrate each of these elements. As reasoned by the Assurance Data court, “restraints on competition are neither enforceable nor unenforceable in a factual vacuum.” A recent decision out of Fairfax County Circuit Court demonstrates how this can play out in the real world.

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Many lawyers pursuing business litigation on behalf of their clients will file a whole panoply of claims rather than content themselves with a single count for breach of contract. As the law generally permits a wider range of remedies (and higher damages awards) for tort claims like fraud and tortious interference, plaintiffs seeking to enforce contract rights in court will often sue for various tort claims in addition to breach of contract. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Courts are guided by various principles to help them weed out contract-based claims disguised as tort claims. One such principle is known as the “source of duty” rule.

When a plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated some duty owed to him, the court will examine the source of the duty allegedly violated. If the source of the duty is a contract entered into by the parties, as opposed to common law or some provision of the Virginia or United States Code, the court will treat the claim as one for breach of contract and limit remedies accordingly. Of course, there are circumstances in which a defendant can both breach a contract and commit a tort by violating a common-law duty. It is up to the court, however, to dismiss any tort claims based on the alleged violation of a duty that exists solely by virtue of a contractual agreement. (See Preferred Sys. Sols., Inc. v. GP Consulting, LLC, 284 Va. 382, 408 (2012)).

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A couple of years ago, comedian Kevin Hart teamed up with a Virginia mobile-game developer called Stand Up Digital, Inc., to develop and release a video game called “Gold Ambush” that would feature Hart and his family members as playable characters. Hart licensed his likeness to Stand Up and was granted a 20% stake in the company as well as a seat on the board of directors in exchange. The game was launched in September 2017 but did not perform as well as the developer had hoped and is no longer available for download. Stand Up attributes the poor performance of the game to Hart’s decision to issue an emotional apology on Instagram–just days prior to the game’s launch–following rumors of infidelity. In the recording , Hart apologized to his wife and kids for having done “something wrong” and said that he would not permit “another person to have financial gain off his mistakes.” The video has been viewed several million times.

Stand Up sued Hart for breach of fiduciary duty (amid other claims), arguing that Hart’s failure to warn it of his plans to “go public” about the alleged affair before posting his Instagram apology damaged the success of Gold Ambush. The court allowed the case to proceed through the discovery phase but ultimately entered summary judgment in Hart’s favor on the fiduciary-duty claim, finding that there was no evidence he breached such a duty.

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As a general rule, legal rights may be waived by contractual agreement. The protection afforded by statutes of limitations may be waived like other rights, but only in very narrow circumstances, due to a Virginia law that few know about. The General Assembly decided to make it a bit more difficult to waive a statute of limitations than some other rights, and enacted Virginia Code § 8.01-232, which states in pertinent part as follows:

Whenever the failure to enforce a promise, written or unwritten, not to plead the statute of limitations would operate as a fraud on the promisee, the promisor shall be estopped to plead the statute. In all other cases, an unwritten promise not to plead the statute shall be void, and a written promise not to plead such statute shall be valid when (i) it is made to avoid or defer litigation pending settlement of any case, (ii) it is not made contemporaneously with any other contract, and (iii) it is made for an additional term not longer than the applicable limitations period.

Now that’s a pile of nearly incomprehensible legalese. One of the purposes of this blog, however, is to help people understand stuff like this, so let me try to decode it for you.

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A conspiracy to harm another’s business may be actionable under Virginia’s business-conspiracy statute, which provides for a cause of action where two or more people “combine, associate, agree, mutually undertake or concert together for the purpose of…willfully and maliciously injuring another in his reputation, trade, business or profession by any means whatever.” (See Va. Code §§ 18.2-499, 18.2-500). To prevail in a lawsuit for business conspiracy in Virginia, a plaintiff must prove (1) a combination of two or more people or entities for the purpose of willfully and maliciously injuring the plaintiff in his business; and (2) damage that resulted from the combination. A combination exists where there is concerted action designed to “effect a preconceived plan and unity of design and purpose.” (Schlegel v. Bank of America, 505 F. Supp. 2d 321, 326 (W.D. Va. 2007)). When the people being sued for conspiracy work for the same company, a question arises as to whether the first element–the requirement of “two of more people”–can be satisfied. The intra-corporate immunity doctrine holds that employees working for the same company are generally immune from conspiracy claims when acting on behalf of their employer. This is because a corporation acts through its employees, so the the employees’ actions are really the corporation’s actions and a corporation cannot conspire with itself. In other words, a business-conspiracy claim requires concerted action of at least two legally distinct persons or entities. A corporation can’t conspire with its employees, and its employees can’t conspire with each other if they are acting within the scope of their employment. As with most areas of the law, however, there are exceptions.

Some courts recognize an exception to the intracorporate immunity doctrine where the employee has an “independent personal stake” in achieving the goals of the conspiracy. Although the Virginia Supreme Court has not recognized any such exception, federal courts sitting in Virginia and applying Virginia law have applied it on several occasions. (See, for example, Greenville Publishing Company v. Daily Reflector, Inc., 496 F.2d 391 (4th Cir. 1974) (observing that an exception to the intracorporate immunity doctrine “may be justified when the officer has an independent personal stake in achieving the corporation’s illegal objective.”); Cvent, Inc. v. Eventbrite, Inc., 739 F. Supp. 2d 927 (E.D. Va. 2010)). Even if you’re in a court that does recognize a personal-stake exception, it will apply only to those cases in which the conspirator gained an independent personal benefit from the conspiracy. This benefit must be separate and distinct from the corporate benefit enjoyed by the employer.

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Virginia does recognize a legal cause of action for improper interference with an anticipated business contract. The tort is known as “tortious interference with business expectancy,” “tortious interference with future economic benefit,” “tortious interference with prospective economic advantage,” or some variant of that phrase. It’s what you sue for when your business is about to close on a big deal but then the whole thing is called off as the result of some form of meddling by a third party. You’re not suing for breach of contract at this point because there is no contract. Instead, you’re suing for the loss of an anticipated future economic benefit. For the claim to be valid, however, there must be reason to believe that you would have closed on the deal were in not for the defendant’s unlawful conduct. There is no claim for interference with a contract you merely hoped to enter into, or for interference with a mere possibility of some economic benefit.

Tortious interference with business expectancy requires proof of the following elements: (1) the existence of a business relationship or expectancy, with a probability (not just possibility) of future economic benefit to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the relationship or expectancy; (3) a reasonable certainty that absent defendant’s intentional misconduct, plaintiff would have continued in the relationship or realized the expectancy; and (4) damages to the plaintiff.

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