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

 

The Landlord’s Duty to Mitigate Damages

 

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When a commercial tenant defaults under a multi-year lease, say by abandoning the premises with several years left on the lease, the law requires the landlord to mitigate its damages.  So, if retail tenant skips out on a 10-year lease after year 2,  the landlord cannot sit idly by for 8 years and then recover 8 years’ worth of rent damages from the tenant.  Instead, the landlord must make measurable efforts to try to relet the property and reduce its monetary loss.

Section 9-213.1 of the Illinois eviction statute codifies the landlord’s duty to mitigate: “a landlord or his or her agent shall take reasonable measures to mitigate the damages recoverable against a defaulting lessee.” 735 ILCS 5/9-213.1.

Whether a landlord has met its duty to mitigate damages is a fact question for the judge or jury.  If a landlord tries to relet commercial property at a higher rate than was being paid by the breaching tenant, it might raise a red flag and result in a failure to mitigate.

What steps should a landlord take then when a tenant to breaches a multi-year lease?  There is no litmus test but Illinois state and Federal courts do provide some guidance.

One Illinois court found that the landlord mitigated its damages when it (1) engaged a building manager to market the site; (2) erected signage on the premises; (3) placed calls to real estate brokers and developers; (4) ran newspaper ads; and (5) offered trial witness testimony that placing advertisements and erecting signs constitute reasonable steps toward reletting the premises. MXL Industries, Inc. v. Mulder, 252 Ill.App.3d 18 (2d Dist. 1993).  (Note: now, in the computer age, a landlord should also list the property on Costar, Loopnet or similar sites.)

By contrast, the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court found a failure to mitigate where the suing landlord (1) waited five months to hire a broker to relet the property; (2) refused to improve the property; (3) attempted to re-rent the premises at a higher rental rate (than the defaulting tenant paid); and (4) didn’t rent the site for 2.5 years after the tenant abandoned. Kallman v. Radioshack Corp., 315 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2003).

A landlord should also be careful not to impose too harsh lease terms when dealing with a new tenant.  In Danada Square, LLC v. KFC National Management Co., 392 Ill.App.3d 598 (2d Dist. 2009), the court found that the landlord failed to mitigate when it offered a lease to the tenant with a 60-day “kick-out clause” – the landlord can terminate lease for any reason upon 60 days’ notice.

The take-away from all this is the landlord should promptly take steps to market a property once a tenant breaches a lease.  The landlord should also document its reletting efforts so it can prove in court that it mitigated its damages.