Articles Posted in Contracts

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.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

Readers may remember Tareq and Michaele Salahi from the national attention they gained in November 2009 when they crashed a White House state dinner in honor of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or from their run on the reality show “The Real Housewives of D.C.” The Salahis are no stranger to litigation, having gone through a messy divorce in 2012. Most recently, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard Mr. Salahi’s appeal from a decision of the Circuit Court of Warren County regarding claims against the couple’s former agent, DD Entertainment, LLC.

According to Mr. Salahi, he and his then wife had a verbal agreement to appear on reality T.V. shows, talk programs and other media outlets to promote their entertainment partnership, “The Salahis,” and they were to use the profits from the partnership for their mutual benefit. DD Entertainment acted as the Salahis’ agent and procured additional projects for them. Mr. Salahi alleged that DD Entertainment was aware of the couple’s business partnership and used improper means to interfere with the partnership by encouraging Mrs. Salahi to leave the enterprise and become the adulterous mistress of Journey guitarist Neal Schon in violation of Virginia’s adultery statute, Virginia Code § 18.2-365.
Continue reading

They can be. The Uniform Commercial Code provides that a contract for the sale of goods may be made in any manner sufficient to show agreement, and that “an order or other offer to buy goods for prompt or current shipment shall be construed as inviting acceptance either by a prompt promise to ship or by the prompt or current shipment of conforming or non-conforming goods.” In MidAtlantic International Inc. v. AGC Flat Glass North America Inc., a federal court in Norfolk examined whether purchase orders reflected an enforceable contract between the parties and concluded that they did.

MidAtlantic supplied Spanish dolomite to AGC under a contractual relationship that their predecessors began in the late 1990s. At the end of each calendar year, AGC sent MidAtlantic a purchase order providing a rough estimate of its needs for the coming year. AGC supplemented the annual purchase order with monthly orders that were more exact. Each purchase order set forth requirements and conditions for the delivery of the product and contained the price and quantity of the product, details regarding how the agreement could be cancelled, shipment requirements and other details necessary for both sides to understand how the transactions were to occur. The quantity of dolomite was occasionally altered via email and phone between the parties. Additionally, the purchase orders provided requirements for the chemical composition and physical properties of the product. For example, the maximum allowable levels of iron, silicon dioxide and acid insoluble particles were specified, and no acid insoluble particle was to be coarser than 30 mesh.
Continue reading

A court will not substitute a judicial resolution for a contractually agreed-upon remedy when two sophisticated parties negotiate a contract at arm’s length. In Dominion Transmission, Inc. v. Precision Pipeline, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed a complaint where the two corporations had agreed to submit any disputes to mediation before commencing litigation and failed to do that. The basis for the dismissal, however, relied on the court’s inherent authority to control its docket, not on any lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Utility company Dominion Transmission contracted with Precision Pipeline to construct a portion of the Appalachian Gateway pipelines. The parties’ contract provided that the parties would abide by a multi-tiered, progressive alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) process before commencing litigation. In the event of a dispute, (1) the aggrieved party was to notify the other party of the dispute; if the parties could not resolve the dispute, they were required to (2) meet and discuss the issue among the project managers; then (3) proceed to a meeting of senior officers; and finally (4) proceed to mediation governed by the American Arbitration Association standards.

After Precision completed the pipelines, the parties met to close out the contract but could not reach agreement. Precision presented change order requests and filed mechanics’ liens and foreclosure actions. The parties communicated for several months, Dominion invoked its audit rights, and the parties disagreed over the amount, format and content of Precision’s required production of information. Both parties referred to the ADR provision of the contract in their communications, and counsel for the parties met at least once, but neither party initiated a meeting of senior executives or submitted the dispute to formal mediation as steps (3) and (4) of the contractual ADR provision required. Instead, Dominion filed suit in the United Pipeline.jpgStates Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Precision moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the court lacked power to hear the case because a contractual condition precedent (submission to mediation) was not met.

Contact Us
Virginia: (703) 722-0588
Washington, D.C.: (202) 449-8555
Contact Information