Hotel Titan Escapes Multi-Million Dollar Fla. Judgment Where No Joint Venture in Breach of Contract Case

In today’s featured case, the plaintiff construction firm contracted with a vacation resort operator in the Bahamas partly owned by a Marriott hotel subsidiary. When the resort  breached the contract, the plaintiff sued and won a $7.5M default judgment in a Bahamas court. When that judgment proved uncollectable, the plaintiff sued to enforce the judgment in Florida state court against Marriott – arguing it was responsible for the judgment since it was part of a joint venture that owned the resort company.  The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and against Marriott who then appealed.

Reversing the judgment, the Florida appeals court first noted that under Florida law, a joint venture is an association of persons or legal entities to carry out a single enterprise for profit.

In addition to proving the single enterprise for profit, the joint venture plaintiff must demonstrate (i) a community of interest in the performance of the common purpose, (ii) joint control or right to control the venture; (iii) a joint proprietary interest in the subject matter of the venture; (4) the right to share in the profits; and (5) a duty to share in any losses that may be sustained.

All elements must be established. If only one is absent, there’s no joint venture – even if the parties intended to form a joint venture from the outset.

The formation of a corporation almost always signals there is no joint venture. This is because joint ventures generally follow partnership law which follows a different set of rules than do corporations. So, by definition, corporate shareholders cannot be joint venturers by definition.

Otherwise, a plaintiff could “have it both ways” and claim that a given business entity was both a corporation and a joint venture. This would defeat the liability-limiting function of the corporate form.

A hallmark of joint control in a joint venture context is mutual agency: the ability of one joint venturer to bind another concerning the venture’s subject matter.  The reverse is also true: where one party cannot bind the other, there is no joint venture.

Here, none of the alleged joint venturers had legal authority to bind the others within the scope of the joint venture. The plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of joint control over either the subject of the venture or the other venturers’ conduct.

There was also no proof that one joint venture participant could bind the others. Since Marriott was only a minority shareholder in the resort enterprise, the court found it didn’t exercise enough control over the defaulted resort to subject it (Marriott) to liability for the resort’s breach of contract.

The court also ruled in Marriott’s favor on the plaintiff’s fraudulent inducement claim premised on Marriott’s failure to disclose the resort’s precarious economic status in order to  entice the plaintiff to contract with the resort.

Under Florida law, a fraud in the inducement claim predicated on a failure to disclose material information requires a plaintiff to prove a defendant had a duty to disclose information. A duty to disclose can be found (1) where there is a fiduciary duty among parties; or (2) where a party partially discloses certain facts such that he should have to divulge the rest of the related facts known to it.

Here, neither situation applied. Marriott owed no fiduciary duty to the plaintiff and didn’t transmit incomplete information to the plaintiff that could saddle the hotel chain with a duty to disclose.

Take-aways:

A big economic victory for Marriott. Clearly the plaintiff was trying to fasten liability to a deep-pocketed defendant several layers removed from the breaching party. The case shows how strictly some courts will scrutinize a joint venture claim. If there is no joint control or mutual agency, there is no joint venture. Period.

The case also solidifies business tort axiom that a fraudulent inducement by silence claim will only prevail if there is a duty to disclose – which almost always requires the finding of a fiduciary relationship. In situations like here, where there is a high-dollar contract between sophisticated commercial entities, it will usually be impossible to prove a fiduciary relationship.

Source: Marriott International, Inc. v. American Bridge Bahamas, Ltd., 2015 WL 8936529

 

Joint Ventures, Close Corporations and Summary Judgment Motion Practice – IL Northern District Case Snapshot

The featured case is Apex Medical Research v. Arif (http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv02458/308072/52/0.pdf?ts=1447939471)

A medical clinical trials firm sued a doctor and his company for breach of contract and some tort claims when the firm learned the doctor was soliciting firm clients in violation of a noncompete signed by him.

In partially granting and denying a flurry of summary judgment motions, the Illinois Northern District highlights the importance of Local Rule 56 statements and responses in summary judgment practice. Substantively, the court provides detailed discussion of the key factors governing whether a business arrangement is a joint venture and what obligations flow from such a finding.

The clinical trials agreement contemplated that plaintiff would locate medical trial opportunities and then provide them to the doctor defendant.  The doctor would then conduct the trials in exchange for a percentage of the revenue generated by them.  The plaintiff sued when the parties’ relationship soured.

Procedurally, the court emphasized the key rules governing Local Rule 56 (“LR 56”) statements and responses in summary judgment practice:

LR 56 is designed to aid the trial court in determining whether a trial is necessary; Its purpose is to identify relevant admissible evidence supporting the material facts.  LR 56 is not a vehicle for factual or legal arguments;

– LR 56 requires the moving party to provide a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue;

– The non-moving party must then file a response to each numbered paragraph of the movant’s statement of facts and if it disagrees with any statement of fact, the non-movant must make specific reference to the affidavits and case record that supports the denial;

– A failure to cite to the record in support of a factual denial may be disregarded by the court;

– The non-movant may also submit its own statement of additional facts that require denial of the summary judgment motion;

– Where a non-movant makes evasive denials or claims insufficient knowledge to answer a moving party’s factual statement, the court will deem the fact admitted.

(**2-3)

The court focused its substantive legal analysis on whether the individual defendant owed fiduciary duties to the plaintiff.  Under Illinois law, a joint venturer owes fiduciary duties of loyalty and good faith to his other joint venturer.  So too does a shareholder in a close corporation (a corporation where stock is held in the hands of only a few people or family members) – but only if that shareholder is able to influence corporate policy and management.

The hallmarks of an Illinois joint venture are: (1) an express or implied association of two or more persons to carry out a single enterprise for profit; (2) a manifested intent by the parties to be joint venturers; (3) a community of interest (i.e. joint contribution of property, money, effort, skill or knowledge); and (4) a measure of joint control and management of the enterprise.  (*16).

The most important joint venture element is the joint control (item (4)) aspect.  Here, there were provisions of the parties’ written contract that reflected equal control and management of the clinical trials arrangement but other contract terms reflected the opposite – that the plaintiff could supervise the doctor defendant.  These conflicts in the evidence showed there was a genuine factual dispute on whether the parties jointly controlled and managed the trial venture.

The evidence was also murky as to whether the doctor defendant had enough control over the corporate plaintiff to subject the doctor to fiduciary obligations as a close corporation shareholder.  The conflicting evidence led the court to deny summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**16-17).

Afterwords:

Procedurally, the case presents a thorough summary of the key rules governing summary judgment practice in Illinois Federal courts.  The party opposing summary judgment must explicitly cite to the case record for its denial of a given stated fact to be recognized by the court.

The case also provides useful substantive law discussion of the key factors governing the existence of a joint venture and whether a close corporation’s shareholder owes fiduciary duties to the other stockholders of that corporation.