Articles Posted in Contracts

If you sue someone for fraud, you can win punitive damages in addition to regular compensatory damages. If you’re suing only for breach of contract, punitive damages are a no-go. As punitive damages can add up to $350,000 to the value of the plaintiff’s claim, plaintiffs naturally try to add fraud claims to their breach-of-contract lawsuits whenever possible. The “source of duty” rule, however, limits the circumstances under which plaintiffs can pursue such a strategy. The rule provides that tort claims (like fraud) can only be pursued if the source of the duty allegedly breached is the common law and not a contract entered into between the parties. The Virginia Supreme Court has clarified in recent years that if a fraudulent misrepresentation is made within a contract, the plaintiff is limited to contract remedies, but if a misrepresentation is made for the purpose of inducing another party to enter into a contract, a separate fraud claim can be pursued.

If a fraudulent misrepresentation is made before a contract even comes into existence, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re dealing with a separate fraud claim and won’t be limited to contract remedies. After a contract is formed, however, it can be tricky to determine the source of the duty violated. One reason for this is that courts have applied the source-of-duty rule to exclude fraud claims when they are based on misrepresentations that are closely related to promises made within the contract, even if the misrepresentations are not made expressly therein. (See Tingler v. Graystone Homes, Inc., 834 S.E.2d 244, 257–58 (Va. 2019) (noting that “a putative tort can become so inextricably entwined with contractual breaches that only contractual remedies are available)). If a fraudulent act “arises out of” a contractual relationship and the damages caused by the fraud also arise out of that relationship, that can be enough for application of the source-of-duty rule.

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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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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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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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You can’t interfere with your own contract. A contract is a bargained-for exchange that may entitle you to certain benefits, like money, products, or services. If you do not realize the benefit of your bargain because the other party does not honor the agreement, you may be entitled to sue for breach of contract. What you probably cannot do, if all we’re talking about is disappointed economic expectations resulting from the failure of one party to fulfill his end of the bargain, is sue for tortious interference with contract. From the moment tortious interference became recognized as a cause of action in Virginia in 1985, the claim has been available only against strangers to the contract at issue. In other words, if the person causing the interference is a party to the contract, the appropriate claim for the plaintiff to bring is for breach of contract and not tortious interference.

Under Virginia law, a claim for tortious interference consists of the following four elements:

  1. the existence of a valid contractual relationship or business expectancy;
  2. knowledge of the relationship or expectancy on the part of the interferor;
  3. intentional interference inducing or causing a breach or termination of the relationship or expectancy; and
  4. resultant damage to the party whose relationship or expectancy has been disrupted.

(See Schaecher v. Bouffault, 290 Va. 83 (2015)). In the 1985 case of Chaves v. Johnson, the Virginia Supreme Court explained that these elements can only be asserted against someone outside the contractual relationship:

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When you enter into a contract with a business, it’s not uncommon for the contract to contain a clause requiring you to be responsible for reimbursing the business for the legal fees it incurs should it need to bring a lawsuit against you for amounts you owe under the contract. Typically, such attorneys’ fees clauses are buried in lengthy form contracts presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis by large companies to their consumers, who can choose between signing the contract and receiving niceties like cable TV and Internet service, or refusing to sign and being denied those things.

This strikes a lot of people as unfair. If contracts are supposed to be bargained-for agreements, why should consumers be required to sign whatever pre-printed, boilerplate legaleze is foisted upon them by large corporations in order to receive necessary services? Are there any limits to what companies can force their customers to “agree” to? Contracts requiring the “little guy” to pay the attorneys’ fees incurred by the much larger party are particularly concerning considering the high cost of legal services; consumers usually struggle to afford their own attorneys–requiring them to also pay the other side’s legal team often makes litigation a financially ruinous proposition.

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Zealous lawyers seeking to maximize their clients’ monetary recovery in court will often sue for as many different claims as their highly trained legal minds can conjure up. And they will usually try to come up with at least one viable tort claim (such as fraud or business conspiracy) to pursue in addition to any breach-of-contract claims, because tort claims often allow the recovery of punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. But there are important differences between the law of contracts and the law of torts. The law of torts is designed to protect broad societal interests such as safety of persons and property. Contract law, on the other hand, is concerned with the protection of bargained-for expectations. Therefore, several rules have developed to prevent turning every breach-of-contract claim into a tort action.

The economic loss rule, for example, holds that where a contracting party’s loss is limited to disappointed economic expectations, his remedy is limited to one for breach of contract. A similar rule is known as the “source of duty” rule. It looks to the source of the duty alleged to have been violated. Before a court will allow a contracting party to recover on a tort theory, it must be satisfied that the duty tortiously or negligently breached is a common law duty, and not one existing solely by virtue of a contract between the parties. If the source of the duty allegedly violated is a contract, then the plaintiff should be limited to remedies available in breach-of-contract actions.

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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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