Browsewrap Agreement Held Unenforceable – Website Designers Take Note!

browsewrap agreementIn Nghiem v Dick’s Sporting Goods, Inc., No. 16-00097 (C.D. Cal. July 5, 2016), the Central District of California held browsewrap terms to be unenforceable because the hyperlink to the terms was “sandwiched” between two links near the bottom of the third column of links in a website footer.  Website developers – and their lawyers – should take note of this case, part of an emerging trend of judicial scrutiny over how browsewrap terms are presented. Courts have, in many instances, refused to enforce browsewraps due to a finding of a lack of user notice and assent. In this case, the most recent example of a court’s specific analysis of website design, a court suggests that what has become a fairly standard approach to browsewrap presentment fails to achieve the intended purpose.

In Nghiem, the plaintiff brought claims under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) seeking statutory damages and an order certifying a class action.  The defendant Dick’s Sporting Goods (DSG) moved to compel arbitration based upon the DSG’s website terms of use.  The court denied the defendant’s motion, ruling that the plaintiff had no knowledge of the website terms and was not bound by the arbitration clause contained in DSG’s browewrap agreement.

The terms of use on DSG’s website were not presented in the typical clickthrough arrangement, where users are expressly presented with and required to assent to the terms before completing a purchase or registration.  Rather, DSG’s terms were presented as a browsewrap agreement, where a website’s terms and conditions are posted on the website via a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen and users are presumed to manifest assent to the terms by use of the website.

The district court noted that browsewrap agreements are enforced with “reluctance,” and only when a consumer has “actual or constructive knowledge of a website’s terms and conditions.”  Interestingly, DSG argued that because the plaintiff was an attorney whose former firm handled TCPA cases (including litigation against DSG), he should be charged with knowledge of the terms and arbitration clause.  The court rejected the argument that the plaintiff should be deemed to have actual knowledge of its terms based upon his vocation:

“[A]ctual knowledge is not something to be ‘safely assumed,’ as Defendants would have it, based on a plaintiff’s occupation. Instead, Defendants were required to put forth ‘evidence’ that Plaintiff had ‘actual knowledge of the agreement’ at issue. Defendants’ speculation regarding whether Nghiem reviewed, at some point in the past, DSG’s website Terms of Use is insufficient to meet this standard.” [citations omitted].

The court performed a detailed review of the website design to determine whether the plaintiff gained constructive knowledge of the website terms based upon, among other considerations, the placement of the link to the terms.  The court noted that DSG’s terms appeared at the bottom in the website footer of the home page (and on the page about its mobile alerts), and within a grouping of 27 other hyperlinks arranged in four columns that covered a variety of diverse topics (e.g., careers, gift cards, find a store, etc.).  The court noted that the hyperlink to the terms was “sandwiched between ‘Only at DICK’s’ and ‘California Disclosures’, near the bottom of the third column of links.”  As such, the court ruled that the placement was not conspicuous enough alone to put consumers on inquiry notice of the terms.

The ruling was not necessarily surprising in light of other recent decisions examining browsewrap agreements. For example, a recent California appellate court decision affirmed a ruling denying a motion to compel arbitration based upon website terms that were only viewable at the bottom of each page via a capitalized and underlined hyperlink (“TERMS OF USE”).  The hyperlink was displayed in a light green typeface on the site’s lime green background, and was among 14 other hyperlinks of the same color, font and size. (See Long v. Provide Commerce, Inc., 200 Cal. Rptr. 3d 117 (Cal. App. 2016)). The appellate court followed well-known precedent in reaching its holding.  See e.g., Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1178-79 (9th Cir. 2014) (“[W]here a website makes its terms of use available via a conspicuous hyperlink on every page of the website but otherwise provides no notice to users nor prompts them to take any affirmative action to demonstrate assent, even close proximity of the hyperlink to relevant buttons users must click on—without more—is insufficient to give rise to constructive notice”); Specht v. Netscape Communications Corp., 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002) (declining to enforce an arbitration provision contained in a software licensing browsewrap agreement where the hyperlink to the agreement appeared on “a submerged screen” below the “Download” button that the plaintiffs clicked to initiate the download).

These recent cases should prompt companies to reexamine electronic contracting practices to ensure that consumers are offered notice sufficient to understand that use of a website will constitute agreement to the terms. One solution is the use of clickthrough agreements, which are generally upheld based upon now fairly-standard procedures for gaining notice and assent during user registration or purchase confirmation.  Ultimately, however, in designing a site, companies must balance concerns for user flow with the protections that come with an enforceable terms of use (though, it should be noted that in May 2016 the CFPB proposed a rule that would prohibit mandatory arbitration clauses that prevent class actions).

© 2016 Proskauer Rose LLP.

Contract Corner: Key Considerations in Understanding and Negotiating IT Agreements

When entering into IT agreements with vendors, it is important to understand the type of agreement being negotiated, the services being provided, and who will be using the services within your organization. The category of “IT agreements” generally includes cloud application agreements, service agreements, installed applications, and online presence management. When negotiating IT agreements, the legal team should work closely with the business and IT teams to ensure that the correct level of importance is placed on the agreement and that provisions are added or revised in a way that clarifies the parties’ responsibilities in connection with the services being provided and also addresses the potential unwinding of the relationship. To provide maximum clarity and flexibility in connection with purchased IT services, consider the following key provisions when negotiating IT agreements:

  • Performance Standards (or “teeth”)

    Performance standards are critically important, but it is difficult to know where standards should be set and what services are most critical without consulting with your IT group. The IT group can help determine how critical the services are and build appropriate performance standards around the applicable services. Types of performance standards include quality assurance, service levels and credits (which often include measurement and monitoring and notice of performance issues), and customer satisfaction surveys.

  • Term

    Consider the benefits versus the risks of including a long multiyear initial term and automatic renewal terms. Vendors love a long term and often offer pricing concessions to lock in long terms, but a long term can significantly increase risk to the customer if the relationship goes south. Some companies prefer automatic renewal because there is less paperwork, but others view automatic renewal as another milestone that needs to be managed and a potential risk if the relationship with the vendor is strained.

  • Termination and Termination Assistance

    Consider including a termination for convenience clause. Termination for convenience provides an easier mechanism for unwinding a deal when a vendor is not knocking it out of the park, especially if the vendor’s obligations are not clear. Customers should also strongly consider negotiating for termination assistance services to further mitigate the risks associated with unwinding an unsatisfactory deal. If the IT services include storage or processing of customer data, termination assistance provisions should include return and migration of customer data and require the current vendor to cooperate with the new vendor. Specific disengagement plans can be negotiated up front if necessary.

  • Data Protection

    Language should be added to protect all data provided in connection with the use of the services. This language can include security obligations (remember, this is not insurance), obligations to mitigate or cover the costs associated with data breaches, a duty to notify, and rights to audit and review security representations.

  • Proprietary Rights

    If proprietary rights are important to the agreement—for instance, if a vendor is developing new technology or using important customer technology—make sure that the contractual language around proprietary rights clearly states who owns the core technology and any improvements, interfacing elements, and data.

  • Cyber-Liability Insurance

    Add provisions that require the vendor to maintain adequate cyber-liability insurance, especially if the vendor is storing or processing customer data.

  • Representations and Warranties

    Consider adding situational representations and warranties (e.g., PCI compliance or EU Data Privacy compliance) applicable to particular services being provided, in addition to standard representations and warranties for IT agreements, such as conformance with specifications. For each representation and warranty, consider the remedy that should apply in the event that it is breached.

  • Indemnification

    The vendor should agree, at minimum, to indemnify the customer for third-party claims related to the services being provided.

  • Limitation of Liability

    If the vendor negotiates for a limitation of liability provision, make sure appropriate exclusions for confidentiality, data breach, and indemnification are negotiated. It is also important for these exclusions to be carved out of standard limitations on indirect, special, and consequential damages, because many of the losses associated with confidentiality, data breaches, and indemnification claims might otherwise be barred by such provisions.

Copyright © 2015 by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. All Rights Reserved.

Meeting of the Minds at the Inbox: Some Pitfalls of Contracting via Email

This issue comes up regularly when informality creeps into negotiations conducted electronically, bringing up the age-old problem that has likely been argued before judges for centuries: one party thinks “we have a deal,” the other thinks “we’re still negotiating.”  While email can be useful in many contract negotiations, care should be taken to avoid having to run to court to ask a judge to interpret an agreement or enforce a so-called “done deal.”

With limited exceptions, under the federal electronic signature law, 15 U.S.C. § 7001, and, as adopted by the vast majority of states, the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), most signatures, contracts and other record relating to any transaction may not be denied legal effect solely because they arein electronic form.  Still, a signed email message does not necessarily evidence intent to electronically sign the document attached to the email. Whether a party has electronically signed an attached document depends on the circumstances, including whether the attached document was intended to be a draft or final version.

There have been a number of recent cases on this issue,  but the bottom-line, practical takeaways are as follows:

  • Consider an express statement in the agreement that performance is not a means of acceptance and that the agreement must be signed by both parties to be effective.

  • If you do not believe the agreement is final and accepted, do not begin to perform under the agreement unless there is an express written (email is ok) agreement by the parties that performance has begun but the contract is still being negotiated.

  • When exchanging emails relating to an agreement, be prudent when using certain loaded terms such as “offer,” “accept,” “amendment,” “promise,” or “signed” or  phrases of assent (e.g., “I’m ok with that”, “Agreed”) without limitations or a clear explanation of intent.

  • Terms of proposed agreements communicated via email should explicitly state that they are subject to any relevant conditions, as well as to the further review and comment of the sender’s clients and/or colleagues. To avoid ambiguity, to the extent finalizing an agreement is subject to a contingency (e.g., upper management or outside approval, or a separate side document signed by both parties), be clear about that in any email exchange that contains near-final versions of the agreement.

  • Parties wishing to close the deal with an attachment should mutually confirm their intent and verify assent when the terms of a final agreement come together.

  • While it is good practice to include standard email disclaimers that say that the terms of an email are not an offer capable of acceptance and do not evidence an intention to enter into any contract, do not rely on this disclaimer to prevent an email exchange – which otherwise has all the indicia of a final agreement – from being considered binding.

  • Exercise extreme caution when using text messaging for contract negotiations – the increased informality, as well as the inability to attach a final document to a text, is likely to lead to disputes down the road.

While courts have clearly become more comfortable with today’s more informal, electronic methods of contracting, judges still examine the parties’ communications closely to see if an enforceable agreement has been reached.

Now, for those who are really interested in this subject and want more, here comes the case discussion….

Last month, a Washington D.C. district court jury found in favor of MSNBC host Ed Schultz in a lawsuit filed by a former business partner who had claimed that the parties had formed a partnership to develop a television show and share in the profits based, in part, upon a series of emails that purported to form a binding agreement.  See Queen v. Schultz, 2014 WL 1328338 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 4, 2014), on remand, No. 11-00871 (D. D.C. Jury Verdict May 18, 2015).  And, earlier last month, a New York appellate court ruled that emails between a decedent and a co-owner of real property did not evince an intent of the co-owner to transfer the parcel to the decedent’s sole ownership because, even though the parties discussed the future intention to do so, the material term of consideration for such a transfer was fatally absent.  See Matter of Wyman, 2015 NY Slip Op 03908 (N.Y. App. Div., 3rd Dept. May 7, 2015).  Another recent example includes Tindall Corp. v. Mondelēz Int’l, Inc., No. 14-05196 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 3, 2015), where a court, on a motion to dismiss, had to decide whether a series of ambiguous emails that contained detailed proposals and were a follow-up to multiple communications and meetings over the course of a year created a binding contract or rather, whether this was an example of fizzled negotiations, indefinite promises and unreasonable reliance.  The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the parties anticipated execution of a memorialized contract in the future and that it “strains belief that these two companies would contract in such a cavalier manner,” particularly since the speed of the project may have required that formalities be overlooked.

Enforceability of Electronic Signatures

A Minnesota appellate court decision from last year highlights that, unless circumstances indicate otherwise, parties cannot assume that an agreement attached to an email memorializing discussions is final, absent a signature by both parties.  See SN4, LLC v. Anchor Bank, fsb, 848 N.W.2d 559 (Minn. App. 2014) (unpublished). The court found although the bank representatives intended to electronically sign their e-mail messages, the evidence was insufficient to establish that they intended to electronically sign the attached agreement or that the attached document was intended to be a final version (“Can you confirm that the agreements with [the bank] are satisfactory[?] If so, can you have your client sign and I will have my client sign.”).

A California decision brings up similar contracting issues. In JBB Investment Partners, Ltd. v. Fair, 182 Cal. Rptr. 974 (Cal. App. 2014), the appellate court reversed a trial court’s finding that a party that entered his name at the end of an email agreeing to settlement terms electronic “signed” off on the deal under California law. The facts in JBB Investmentoffered a close case – with the defendant sending multiple emails and text messages with replies such as “We clearly have an agreement” and that he “agree[d] with [plaintiff’s counsel’s] terms” yet, the court found it wasn’t clear as to whether that agreement was merely a rough proposal or an enforceable final settlement.  It was clear that the emailed offer was conditioned on a formal writing (“[t]he Settlement paperwork would be drafted . . .”).

Performance as Acceptance

Another pitfall of contracting via email occurs when parties begin performance prior to executing the governing agreement – under the assumption that a formal deal “will get done.”  If the draft agreement contains terms that are unfavorable to a party and that party performs, but the agreement is never executed, that party may have to live with those unfavorable terms. In DC Media Capital, LLC v. Imagine Fulfillment Services, LLC, 2013 WL 46652 (Cal. App. Aug. 30, 2013) (unpublished), a California appellate court held that a contract electronically sent by a customer to a vendor and not signed by either party was nevertheless enforceable where there was performance by the offeree.  The court held that the defendant’s performance was acceptance of the contract, particularly because the agreement did not specifically preclude acceptance by performance and expressly require a signature to be effective.

Contract Corner: Cybersecurity (Part 3)

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Over the last two weeks, we discussed contract provisions designed to address the implementation of preventive security measures, as well as responding to security incidents. Our third and final blog post in this series focuses on contractual provisions that address the allocation of liability for breaches that result in security incidents.

Because of the potential for large-scale damages from a security incident, customers and service providers are generally very focused on the allocation of liability in indemnification and liability provisions. Below we list some key issues to consider when drafting these contract provisions.

  • Rather than relying on general negligence or contract breach standards, consider adding security incidents resulting from a contractual breach as separate grounds for indemnification coverage.

  • Determine whether indemnification is limited to third-party claims or includes other direct and/or indirect damages and liabilities caused by a security incident.

  • Coordinate indemnification defense with incident response provisions and consider the effect on the customer’s client relationships where the vendor assumes such defense.

  • Assess whether all potential damages from a security incident are covered by the damages provisions, including any damages that may be considered indirect or consequential.

  • To determine the allocation of liability, consider the contract value, industry norms, type of data at issue, potential business exposure, cost of preventative measures, and cause of the security incident.

  • Consider calling out specific damages related to a security breach that are not subject to any cap or exclusion to provide clarity and protection—such damages can include the costs of reconstructing data, notifying clients, and providing them with identity protection services.

With cyber attacks growing in number and sophistication on a daily basis and the increased amount and value of data that is at risk to such attacks, cybersecurity concerns are top of mind for senior management.

This post is part of our recurring “Contract Corner” series, which provides analysis of specific contract terms and clauses that may raise particular issues or problems. Check out our prior Contract Corner posts for more on contracts, and be on the lookout for future posts in the series.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.

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Recent Changes to the Law of Private Construction Contracts – Your Government is Here to Help You Again – Massachusetts

As part of the end-of-session rush at the Massachusetts General Court this summer, significant changes were made to Massachusetts law governing private construction contracts at the urging of general contractor and subcontractor industry groups. Members of the development and lending community were largely taken unaware as the bill moved forward, and unsuccessfully attempted in the later stages of the process to modify or defeat the legislation. Consequently, developers, lenders, contractors, sub-contractors, design professionals and attorneys need to be aware of substantial changes (and many unanswered questions) created by the new statute in the areas of withholding and release of retainage, defining substantial completion, and preparation of punchlists.

Key highlights of Chapter 276 of the Acts of 2014, to be codified at M.G.L. c. 149, sec. 29F:

  • Applicability: All contracts on projects on which the prime contract (a) is entered into after November 6, 2014, and (b) has a contract price of $3 million or more, except projects of 1 to 4 dwelling units.

  • Withholding of Retainage:  Caps retainage to be withheld from progress payments at 5% (long-standing practice has been to retain 10% of each progress payment, with reduced (or no) withholding of further retainage after the project achieves some level (typically 50%) of completion).

  • New Definition of “substantial completion”: “The stage in the progress of the project when the work… is sufficiently complete in accordance with the contract for construction so that the project owner may occupy or utilize the work for its intended use…”  Parties may divide a project into phases and apply the statutory scheme applicable to “substantial completion” separately to each designated project phase.

Process for determining substantial completion:

  • Within 14 days after achieving substantial completion, the prime contractor submits a notice of substantial completion to the owner (form provided in the statute) with contractor’s determination of the date of substantial completion.

  • Within 14 days after receiving this notice, the owner must accept or reject it and return it to the contractor.  If the owner does neither, the notice is deemed accepted and the date of substantial completion determined by the contractor is binding.

  • If the owner rejects the notice, it must notify the prime contractor within this 14-day period, including the “factual and contractual basis for the rejection”, which must be certified as made in good faith.  The dispute is then governed by the contractual dispute resolution provisions, which the contractor must commence within 7 days of its receipt of the owner’s rejection notice.

Punchlist:

  • Within 14 days after the date of substantial completion is established (either through the notice process described above or the applicable dispute resolution proceeding), the owner must submit to the prime contractor a list (certified as made in good faith) of (a) all defective or incomplete work and (b) all outstanding deliverables required under the prime contract.

  • Within 7 days after the prime contractor’s receipt of that list, it must submit a similar list (certified as made in good faith) of all defective or incomplete work and outstanding required deliverables to each sub from whom it is withholding retainage.

Release of Retainage:

  • Applications for release of retainage can be submitted starting 60 days after the date of substantial completion (unless the contract provides for earlier submission), and each application must be accompanied by a list (certified as made in good faith) identifying the defective or incomplete work and deliverables on that party’s punchlist which have been completed, repaired and delivered.

  • Contract must permit applications for release of retainage at least monthly.

  • Retainage (other than that withheld in accordance with the new statute) must be released within 30 days of submission of the application for release, with an additional 7 days added for each tier of subcontractor.

Withholding Release of Retainage:

  • Only the following amounts can be withheld from retainage in response to an application for its release:

    • For incomplete, incorrect or missing deliverables, either (a) the value of the deliverables as mutually agreed to by the contracting parties, or (b) if no value has been agreed to, the reasonable value of the deliverables (not to exceed 2.5% of the total adjusted contract price of the party seeking release of retainage);

    • 150% of the reasonable cost to complete or correct incomplete or defective work; and

    • Reasonable value of any claims, costs, expenses and, where permitted under the contract of the party seeking release of retainage, attorneys’ fees.

  • No retainage can be withheld unless the withholding party provides to the party seeking the retainage, before the date payment is due, a notice (certified as made in good faith) (i) identifying the defective or incomplete work and the incomplete, incorrect or missing deliverables, (ii) the “factual and contractual basis” for any claims, and (iii) the value attributable to each item of incomplete or defective work, deliverable, and claim.

  • Multiple sequential applications for release of retainage are permitted as work is completed or corrected/deliverables are delivered/claims are resolved.

  • Unless the owner has declared the prime contractor in default under its contract, the owner cannot withhold retainage owed by the contractor to a subcontractor except for withholding based on a default by that sub.

  • Rejection of an application for release of retainage is subject to contractual dispute resolution procedures.  Contract provisions requiring a party to wait more than 30 days after rejection of an application for release of retainage before being permitted to commence dispute resolution procedures are void and unenforceable.

Additional Provisions:

  • All communications provided for in the new statute may be made electronically.

  • Section 29F(l) provides that any provision in a contract “which purports to waive, limit or subvert this section or redefine or expand the conditions for achievement of substantial completion for payment of retainage, shall be void and unenforceable.”

The new statute creates major areas of uncertainty for all parties on private construction projects, including:

  • How far an owner can go in adding requirements for deliverables, issuance of permanent C of Os, completion of commissioning, etc. as conditions to achieving “substantial completion”, in light of the new statutory definition of that term and the limitations imposed by Section 29F(l);

  • How an owner can mobilize its design professionals, its lender’s construction inspector, and its own construction team to respond to the prime contractor’s notice of substantial completion in the detailed manner required by the statute within the very short (but required) 14-day period;

  • How disputes over whether substantial completion has been achieved can be resolved through contractual dispute resolution procedures without jeopardizing project delivery deadlines;

  • What constitutes the “factual and contractual basis” required for various actions by the owner; and

  • How lenders will respond to the mandatory reduction in retainage to 5% (some are already saying that they will require an additional 5% in equity from the owner to make up the 10% retainage traditionally withheld by owners).

Although the consequences (intended or otherwise) of this new statute for the real estate lending, development and construction industries in Massachusetts remain to be seen over the coming months and years, they are likely to include:

  • Owners requiring retainage to be withheld on components of the contract price that previously may not have been subject to retainage (e.g., contractor’s fee, general conditions); exercising much greater control over a contractor’s use of contingency funds; requiring bonds from prime contractors and subs more regularly; and policing variations from the project schedule and/or the contract documents more strictly earlier in the project; and

  • Owners being much more selective in the choice of prime contractors and subs, tending towards repeat relationships, leading to greater consolidation within the industry and raising the barriers to entry by new companies.

There is already discussion underway about efforts to amend, limit or repeal this statute, so this will be something to watch for in 2015.

© 2014 SHERIN AND LODGEN LLP
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Sender Beware: How Your Emails or Letters may be Ruled a Binding Contract

Heyl Royster Law firm

Often when we think of a contract, we think of the multi-page document that is plagued with legal jargon and minuscule print, followed by signature lines, and then sometimes followed by even more documents nicknamed “schedules” or “annexes” that in some way modify or supplement everything in the previous pages. But courts do not necessarily require contracts to take on this formal appearance in order to be enforceable.

In order to create a binding contract, courts require the following four elements: (1) an offer, (2) acceptance of that offer, (3) consideration (meaning payment or other benefit to one party or a detriment to another party), and (4) definite certain terms. If there is no formal, written contract, then courts will require a fifth element: demonstration of an intent by the parties to be bound by a contract. This fifth element is an objective standard, so it has nothing to do with what you actually intended, and everything to do with the language actually used by the parties and how a reasonable person (really, a judge) would interpret it. See Alyasmen Group, LLC v. MS Rialto Raintree Village IL, LLC, 2011 IL App (1st) 102875-U. As a result, courts in Illinois and other states have on more than one occasion found all of these required elements to be present in emails or letters sent by unsuspecting business people.

In one somewhat surprising case, business partners exchanged emails about how to close a joint real estate business venture and distribute earnings from completed real estate transactions. Less than one month after the partners reached an agreement by email as to how earnings would be distributed, the partners signed a written contract with terms different than what was agreed to in the emails. One of those business partners later sued to enforce the agreement set forth in the emails. Upon review of the case, the court determined that the business partners expressed the intent to be bound by the emails where one of them stated in his email, “this is final and agreed to,” and even offered to print out and sign a copy of the emails. Furthermore, the terms of the agreement were sufficiently definite and consideration existed such that the judge ruled the emails could constitute a binding contract aside from the actual signed, written contract. Bryant v. Way, C.A. No. 11C-01-164 RRC, 2011 WL 2163606 (Del. Sup. Ct. May 25, 2011).

Courts seem most eager to rule emails are binding contracts when the emails relate to the settlement of an ongoing dispute. An employer was able to enforce an agreement reached through email with an employee regarding settlement of that employees’ employment discrimination claim in Todd v. Kohl’s Department Store, No. 08-CV-3827, 2010 WL 3720265 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 15, 2010). Similarly, in Protherapy Associates, LLC v. AFS of Bastian, Inc., No. 6:10CV0017, 2010 WL 2696638 (W.D. Va. July 7, 2010), a judge ruled an email setting forth payment terms in settlement of a dispute between a provider of physical therapy services and nursing homes was enforceable against the nursing homes.

Emails are not the only correspondence exposed to potentially being ruled an enforceable contract. Letters of intent generally are used to express the intent of two parties to enter into a written agreement in the future, but these too could be construed as an enforceable contract. The Illinois Supreme Court found that one letter of intent between a general contractor and subcontractor was ambiguous as to whether the parties intended it to be a binding contract and as a result ruled that the trial court must hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the letter of intent would in fact be binding. Quake Const., Inc. v. American Airlines, Inc., 141 Ill. 2d 281 (1990). Regardless of the outcome, the parties most certainly incurred legal fees and expenses for a court to rule on whether a letter was an enforceable contract.

So how can you prevent your emails and letters from becoming your next contractual obligation? If you are negotiating or making an offer to someone via email, include a disclaimer in your email that makes it clear the negotiations or offer are contingent on the parties signing a written contract. Don’t bury this disclaimer at the bottom of the email in fine print; intentionally include it in the body of the email so there is no denying your intent. If you are negotiating by a letter of intent or sending some other correspondence such as an offer of employment, use language to make it clear that the letter is not intended to create a binding contract. And as always, if there is any uncertainty, have an attorney do a quick review of before you sign or hit send – your legal fees will be far less for a precursory review than later if you are sued for breach of contract.

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Chicken Restaurant Case Serves Up A Bucket of Sound Contract Principles for Commercial Leases

vonBriesen

 

In Tufail v. Midwest Hospitality LLC, 2013 WI 62, the Wisconsin Supreme Courthighlighted the importance of including precise language in commercial leases, especially if the lease includes an integration clause. The court confirmed that when dealing with a fully integrated lease, it is guided by the terms of the lease as written rather than by extrinsic evidence or unwritten understandings between the parties. While this may seem obvious, this case serves as a good reminder for those who negotiate commercial leases to always include all specific business and legal terms.

Tufail (“Landlord”) and Midwest Hospitality LLC (“Tenant”) entered into a lease for commercial property that was then being used by Landlord as a “New York Chicken” restaurant. Tenant leased this property with the intent of operating a “Church’s Chicken” restaurant. However, during build-out, Tenant discovered that a special use permit would be required to operate its fast food restaurant with a drive-through. While Tenant was able to obtain the permit it needed, the permit was conditioned upon the restaurant being closed by 9 p.m. (as opposed to the 4 a.m. close time allowed for the prior restaurant).

Tenant terminated the Lease and notified Landlord that it would stop paying rent due to the adverse effect the earlier closing time would have on its profitability. Tenant argued that the permit requirement was contrary to Landlord’s representation that Tenant would not be prevented from using the premises for the permitted uses set forth in the lease. The lease contained the following use clause: “[t]enant may use and occupy the Premises for any lawful purposes, including, but not limited to, the retail sales, consumption, and delivery of food and beverages which shall include, but not be limited to, Chicken products, Fish products, bread products, salads, sandwiches, dessert items, promotional items, and any other items sold by any Church’s Chicken store.”

After reviewing the lease’s integration clause and finding it to be complete, the court rejected Tenant’s argument that the general reference to “Church’s Chicken” in the use clause required that a fast food restaurant with a drive-through be allowed because the understanding between the parties was that Church’s Chicken restaurants were in fact drive-through fast food restaurants. The court concluded that the lease did not include a false representation and also limited its review to the specific language used in the use and representation clauses of the lease due to its conclusion that the lease was fully integrated.

The court also concluded that the terms of the representation clause as written required simply that Tenant not be prevented from using the property for the purposes set forth in the use clause. The court stated that there was nothing that prevented Tenant from specifically addressing hours of operation, the requirement that a drive-through be allowed, or other specific requirements it considered to be vital to the successful operation of its restaurant in the lease. However, the court was bound to interpret only the contract to which the parties actually agreed, and these requirements were not included therein.

While this is a misrepresentation case on its face, the case ultimately turned on basic contract principles and is an important reminder of the effects of integration clauses. Not only can these “boilerplate” clauses intensify the scrutiny of the specific language chosen by the parties, but, as shown in this case, they can be used to support the theory that even the smallest of deal points should have been included in the agreement if they were important to the parties. This case demonstrates that it is extremely important to include precise, unambiguous language in leases and to double check that even the seemingly minor deal points are included in the lease if they are necessary to make the deal viable.

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