Articles Posted in Contracts

In Virginia, independent contractors can be held to noncompete agreements to the same extent as regular employees. But beware. A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge decided last month that all bets are off if the “independent contractor” should really have been classified as an employee. Although the Virginia Supreme Court has not yet spoken on the subject, Judge John M. Tran crafted a lengthy, well-reasoned opinion in Reading and Language Learning Center v. Sturgill holding that misclassifying employees as independent contractors violates Virginia public policy and is grounds for voiding the contract–including its noncompete and nonsolicitation provisions–even if the misclassification is unintentional. In other words, reasoned Judge Tran, independent contractors will only be bound by noncompete agreements if they have been properly classified as independent contractors.

Reading and Language Learning Center (“RLLC”) is a speech therapy practice that provides services to people with speech, language, or reading disorders. In 2014, Charlotte Sturgill was a recent graduate of a master’s program in speech-language pathology. To obtain her license and certification, Sturgill was required to complete a supervised clinical fellowship, which she arranged to do with RLLC. RLLC hired her with an agreement titled “Agreement between Private Practitioner and Independent Practitioner” which classified Sturgill as an independent contractor and contained the following non-compete clause:

RLLC and the Consultant agree not to employ any contracted employee or contract with any current client of the Other for a period of two (2) years after the expiration of the contract between RLLC and the Consultant.

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A “teaming agreement” is an agreement between two or more contractors to “team up” by combining their resources to bid on a major government contract, thereby increasing the likelihood of securing the work. Often, they will be drafted to require that the prime contractor use the subcontractor specified in the teaming agreement if the bid is accepted, but this is not always the case. Teaming agreements can be very appealing to smaller subcontractors, or subcontractors who don’t qualify to bid on a particular government contract, because they allow opportunities to work in tandem with larger or more qualified firms to gain access to lucrative government-contract work they would otherwise be excluded from. But are such agreements enforceable? Not always.

A “letter of intent,” like a teaming agreement, is a document signed by the parties that contemplates the formation of a formal contract to be executed at some point in the future. Virginia courts treat such agreements as “agreements to agree,” which basically means that the parties are agreeing to attempt in good faith to negotiate the terms of a formal agreement with respect to a particular subject matter. Letters of intent are typically short and devoid of material terms that would be necessary to make the agreement binding in court. There’s nothing preventing two parties from entering into an actual contract, intending to be bound, and calling it a “letter of intent,” but absent evidence of such an intention to be bound, such agreements will not be enforceable.

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A common strategy for plaintiffs wishing to avoid federal court is to ensure at least one of the defendants is non-diverse. In theory at least, this would preclude the defendants from removing a case based on state-law claims from Virginia circuit court to federal court. In a ruling issued earlier this month, Judge Kiser of the Western District of Virginia clarified that this strategy will not always be effective: if the joinder of the non-diverse defendant is found to be fraudulent, the citizenship of that party will be disregarded for the purpose of analyzing whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists.

Federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction primarily in two situations: where a federal question is raised, and where “complete diversity” exists. Complete diversity refers to a situation where no plaintiff resides in the same state as any defendant, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. (See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)). If any defendant resides in the same state as any plaintiff, complete diversity is lacking and the court would lack jurisdiction to decide the case. So if Company A wants to sue Company B for breach of contract (a claim that does not involve a federal question) in state court, but the two companies are citizens of different states and the amount in dispute exceeds $75,000, Company A might be tempted to add a second defendant (such as an employee of Company B) who resides in the same state as Company A, simply for the purpose of destroying any basis for federal-court jurisdiction.
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Last month, I wrote about blue-penciling of non-competition and non-solicitation agreements and about the fact that if you are dealing with an unenforceable noncompete in Virginia, the entire clause will likely be stricken rather than amended. If you are a Virginia employer seeking to ensure your employees are actually bound by their agreements not to complete with your business post-employment, one thing you may be able to do is specify in the agreement that it will be governed by the law of a different state (i.e., one whose laws permit blue-penciling or which are otherwise considered more favorable to employers). This approach, however, will only be viable if your company (or the employee) has some significant connection with the selected state, as it is considered a violation of due process rights to surprise employees with arbitrary choice-of-law provisions. There is an easier way to ensure the noncompete provisions have teeth: make the obligations severable.

Virginia law will permit you to include a “severability clause” when drafting a noncompete agreement, permitting the court to analyze and enforce the various noncompete and non-solicitation provisions separately. The benefit to employers is that if the court finds one of the sections overly broad and therefore unenforceable, the court can “sever” the unenforceable provision and enforce the other sections, provided they don’t suffer from the same enforceability issues. For this to work, the parties need to reach an agreement (preferably expressed explicitly in the contract itself) to the effect that any restrictive covenant found by a court to be unenforceable can be severed from the agreement, leaving the remainder of the provisions intact. Such a clause might look something like this:

Severability. If any clause, provision, covenant or condition of this Agreement, or the application thereof to any person, place or circumstance, shall be held to be invalid, unenforceable, or void, the remainder of this Agreement shall remain in full force and effect.

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In Virginia, covenants not to compete (a.k.a. non-competition agreements or simply “noncompetes”) are considered restraints on trade and are therefore disfavored in the law. Unlike California, which prohibits them outright, Virginia will enforce such agreements if (and only if) they (1) satisfy the general principles of contract formation and enforceability, and (2) are no broader than necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests. In examining breadth and overall reasonableness, Virginia courts will look primarily to provisions regarding the duration of the restriction, the geographic scope, and the activities that the agreement purports to restrict. What happens, you might ask, if a noncompete is found to be just a tad broader than it needs to be to protect the employer’s interests? Will it still be enforced to the “fullest extent of the law,” disregarding whatever phrase rendered the agreement overly broad? While that might seem the most fair outcome to many employers, if the agreement is governed by Virginia law, the noncompete will be stricken in its entirety and the employee will be free to compete as if the agreement never existed.

In some states, courts will modify any noncompete deemed unreasonable and enforce it to a degree deemed reasonable. For example, if a noncompete prohibits competitive activity for a 5-year period when the business really can’t justify imposing such a restriction beyond one year, the noncompete will be enforced but only for one year rather than the five stated in the agreement. This practice has become known as blue-penciling. Other states allow blue-penciling only if the restrictive covenant as a whole does not reveal any deliberate intent by the employer to place unreasonable and oppressive restraints on the employee. Virginia, however, does not allow blue-penciling at all. As a general rule, unreasonable covenants not to compete will be declared void and unenforceable, and courts will not modify them by re-writing contracts previously agreed to by the parties.
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Liquidated damages are damages the amount of which has been agreed upon in advance by the contracting parties. When a contract contains a liquidated-damages provision, the amount of damages in the event of a breach is either specified, or a precise method for determining the sum of damages is laid out. This is often done in situations where the parties agree that the harm likely to be caused by a breach would be difficult or impossible to measure with any precision, so they agree on a figure in advance and dispense with the time and effort that would otherwise be involved in proving compensatory damages at trial. Another benefit often cited is the ability to control exposure to risk that normally is inherent in business litigation.

Fairfax Circuit Court judge Charles J. Maxfield was recently presented with the interesting question of whether to enforce an optional liquidated damages clause, an issue not yet decided by the Virginia Supreme Court. Sagatov Builders LLC v. Hunt involved a sale of real estate. The seller alleged the buyer was supposed to pay a $50,000 deposit but didn’t. The parties’ contract contained the following provision:

If the Purchaser is in default, the Seller shall have all legal and equitable remedies, retaining the Deposit until such time as those damages are ascertained, or the Seller may elect to terminate the contract and declare the Deposit forfeited as liquidated damages and not as a penalty …. If the Seller does not elect to accept the Deposit as liquidated damages, the Deposit may not be the limit of the Purchaser’s liability in the event of a default.

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A plaintiff filing a lawsuit usually wants to demand as much money as possible, both for the intimidation value and because in Virginia state court, you cannot recover damages in an amount greater than what you asked for in the complaint, even if the jury awards it. Plaintiffs are thus often tempted to include demands for punitive damages, which can add as much as $350,000 to a recovery. (Punitives are capped at $350,000 in Virginia). Punitive damages, however, are not available in contract disputes. This creates a situation where the plaintiff’s attorney often tries to craft the complaint in such a way as to make it appear that the defendant not only breached a contract but committed one or more related torts as well, such as fraud, tortious interference with contract, or business conspiracy. Enter the “economic loss rule.”

Designed to maintain the distinctions between contract claims and tort claims, the economic loss rule provides that where the plaintiff is a party to a contract and has suffered only disappointed economic expectations, such as damages for inadequate value, the cost to repair a defective product, or lost profits (as opposed to damage to persons or property), his remedy sounds in contract and not tort. In other words, if the plaintiff did not receive the benefit that he bargained for, his losses will be deemed merely economic and he will not be permitted to recover on a tort theory. An exception would apply if the contract itself was fraudulently induced.
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One of your top executives puts in his notice that he is leaving to join your fiercest competitor. Fortunately, he signed a noncompete that restricts him from doing just that. Your lawyer sends him a letter reminding him of his contractual obligations to your company, of course, but also recommends that you put the new employer on notice of the noncompete and threaten a tortious interference action against the company should it proceed to hire your employee. After all, he advises, the company has deeper pockets than the executive, and if the competitor hires him with knowledge of his contractual obligations to his existing employer, they are automatically on the hook for tortious interference. Right? Wrong, says the Fourth Circuit.

Similar facts were presented in Discovery Communications, LLC v. Computer Sciences Corporation. Discovery had an employment agreement with its chief accounting officer, Thomas Colan, which required Colan to remain with Discovery for a specific term. Discovery alleged that Colan breached his agreement by quitting his job prior to the expiration of the term to go work for CSC. Discovery alleged that it put CSC on notice of the employment agreement after CSC offered Colan employment but before the effective date of Colan’s resignation. Discovery argued that CSC tortiously interfered with the contract by hiring Colan after being put on notice of the employment agreement. The district court held that was not enough, and the Fourth Circuit agreed, affirming the dismissal of the case.
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Virginia’s long-arm statute extends personal jurisdiction to the fullest extent permitted by due process. A Virginia court may exercise specific jurisdiction over a defendant when the defendant has sufficient minimum contracts with Virginia such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. To establish “minimum contacts,” a plaintiff must show that the defendant purposefully directed activities at Virginia residents and that the litigation results from alleged injuries arising out of those activities. A court may exercise general jurisdiction over a defendant whose activities in Virginia have been continuous and systematic. A court with general jurisdiction over a defendant may adjudicate claims entirely distinct from the defendant’s in-state activities. To survive a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(2), a plaintiff must demonstrate personal jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. In Hunt v. Calhoun County Bank, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia analyzed whether it could exercise personal jurisdiction over non-residents in a contract dispute.

James L. Bennett (“Bennett”) is the president and a board member of Calhoun County Bank (the “Bank”), a West Virginia corporation. In June 2007, William H.G. Hunt, Sr. (“Hunt”), a Virginia resident, entered a contract with the Bank in which the Bank agreed to sell Hunt royalty interests for $40,000. Hunt sued the Bank and Bennett for breach of contract and fraud alleging that he transferred $40,000 to an agent of the Bank but that the Bank refused to transfer the royalty interests. He asserts that he suffered over $180,000 in damages as a result of the Bank’s breach and he seeks specific performance or compensatory damages. Hunt also alleges that Bennett fraudulently misrepresented his intention to transfer the royalty interests. The Bank and Bennett moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and also for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
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Last September, I noted the case of Dunlap v. Cottman Transmissions Systems, LLC, in which the Fourth Circuit certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court seeking clarification with respect to Virginia’s business conspiracy statute and the applicable statute of limitations for tortious interference claims. The Virginia Supreme Court has now answered those questions, holding that causes of action for tortious interference with contract and tortious interference business expectancy qualify as the requisite “unlawful act” to proceed on a business conspiracy claim under Va. Code §§ 18.2-499 and -500 because both claims are predicated on an independent common law duty arising outside of contract. The court also held that claims for tortious interference are governed by § 8.01-243(B)’s five-year statute of limitations because such claims involve injury to property rights.

James Dunlap sued Cottman Transmission Systems, LLC, and Todd Leff for tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with business expectancy, and business conspiracy in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-499 and § 18.2-500. The claims arose from Dunlap’s franchise agreements with AAMCO Transmissions, Inc. When a new owner of AAMCO (who already owned a controlling interest in Cottman) sought to convert Cottman Franchises into AAMCO franchises, Dunlap’s franchises were closed, and Dunlap claimed that the closings were due to a conspiracy between Cottman and others.
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