As-Is Language In Sales Literature Defeats Fraud Claim Involving ’67 Corvette (Updated April 2017)

In late March 2017, a Federal court in Illinois granted summary judgment for a luxury car auctioneer in a disgruntled buyer’s lawsuit premised on a claimed fake Corvette.

The Corvette aficionado plaintiff in Pardo v. Mecum Auction, Inc., 2017 WL 1217198 alleged the auction company misrepresented that a cobbled-together 1964 Corvette was a new 1967 Corvette – the vehicle plaintiff thought he was buying.  Plaintiff’s suit sounded in common law fraud and breach of contract.  The Court previously dismissed the fraud suit and later granted summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.

The Court dismissed the fraud suit based on “non-reliance” and “as-is” language in the contract.  Since reliance is a required fraud element, the non-reliance clause preemptively gutted the plaintiff’s fraud count.

Denying the plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court noted that an Illinois fraud claimant cannot allege he relied on a false statement when the same writing provides he’s buying something in as-is condition.  The non-reliance/as-is disclaimer also neutralizes a fraud claim based on oral statements and defeats breach of express and implied warranty claims aimed at misstatements concerning a product.

By attaching the contract which contained the non-reliance language, the plaintiff couldn’t prove his reliance as a matter of law.

The Court found for the defendant on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.  The plaintiff’s operative Second Amended Complaint alleged the auction company breached a title processing section of the contract: that it failed to timely deliver title to the vehicle to the plaintiff.

The Court sided with the auction company based on basic contract interpretation rules.  All the contract required was that the defendant “process” the title within 14 business days of the sale.  It didn’t saddle the defendant with an obligation to deliver the title to a specific person.  Since the evidence in the record revealed that the defendant did process and transfer the title to a third party within the 14-day time frame, plaintiff could not prove that defendant breached the sales contract.

The plaintiff also couldn’t prove damages – another indispensable breach of contract element.  That is, even if the auction company failed to process the title, the plaintiff didn’t show that it suffered any damages.  The crux of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was that it was sold a car that differed from what was advertised.  Whether the defendant complied with the 14-day title processing requirement had nothing to do with plaintiff’s alleged damages.

Since the plaintiff could not offer evidence to support its breach and damages components of its breach of contract action, the Court granted summary judgment for the defendant.

Lastly, the Court rejected plaintiff’s rescission remedy argument – that the contract should be rescinded for defendant’s fraud and failure to perform.

The Court’s ruling that the defendant performed in accordance with the title processing language defeated plaintiff’s nonperformance argument.  In addition, the Court prior dismissal of the plaintiff’s fraud claim based on the contractual non-reliance language knocked out the rescission-based-on-fraud argument.

 

Afterwords:

Non-reliance or “as is” contract text will make it hard if not impossible to allege fraud in connection with the sale of personal property;

A breach of contract carries the burden of proof on both breach and damages elements.  The failure to prove either one is fatal to a breach of contract claim.

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have premised its breach of contract claim on the defendant’s failure to deliver a car different from what was promoted. This arguably would have given the plaintiff a “hook” to keep its breach of contract suit alive and survive summary judgment.

 

‘Integration’ Versus ‘Non-Reliance’ Clause: A ‘Distinction Without a Difference?’ (Hardly)

Two staples of sophisticated commercial contracts are integration (aka “merger” or “entire agreement”) clauses and non-reliance (aka “no-reliance” or “anti-reliance”) clauses. While sometimes used interchangeably in casual conversation, and while having some functional similarities, there are important differences between the two clauses.

An integration clause prevents parties from asserting or challenging a contract based on statements or agreements reached during the negotiation stage that were never reduced to writing.

A typical integration clause reads:

This Agreement , encompasses the entire agreement of the parties, and supersedes all previous understandings and agreements between the parties, whether oral or written. The parties hereby acknowledge and represent that they have not relied on any representation, assertion, guarantee, or other assurance, except those set out in this Agreement, made by or on behalf of any other party prior to the execution of this Agreement. 

Integration clauses protect against attempts to alter a contract based on oral statements or earlier drafts that supposedly change the final contract product’s substance.  In litigation, integration/merger clauses streamline issues for trial and avoid distracting courts with arguments over ancillary verbal statements or earlier contract drafts.here integration clauses predominate in contract disputes,

Where integration clauses predominate in contract disputes, non-reliance clauses typically govern in the tort setting.  In fact, an important distinction between integration and non-reliance clauses lies in the fact that an integration clause does not bar a fraud (a quintessential tort) claim when the alleged fraud is based on statements not contained in the contract (i.e,. extra-contractual statements). *1, 2

A typical non-reliance clause reads:

Seller shall not be deemed to make to Buyer any representation or warranty other than as expressly made in this agreement and Seller makes no representation or warranty to Buyer with respect to any projections, estimates or budgets delivered to or made available to Buyer or its counsel, accountants or advisors of future revenues, expenses or expenditures or future financial results of operations of Seller.  The parties to the contract warrant they are not relying on any oral or written representations not specifically incorporated into the contract.”  

No-reliance language precludes a party from claiming he/she was duped into signing a contract by another party’s fraudulent misrepresentation.  Unlike an integration clause, a non-reliance clause can defeat a fraud claim since “reliance” is one of the elements a fraud plaintiff must show: that he relied on a defendant’s misstatement to the plaintiff’s detriment.  To allege fraud after you sign a non-reliance clause is a contradiction in terms.

Afterwords:

Lawyers and non-lawyers alike should be leery of integration clauses and non-reliance clauses in commercial contracts.  The former prevents a party from relying on agreements reached during negotiations that aren’t reduced to writing while the latter (non-reliance clauses) will defeat one side’s effort to assert fraud against the other.

An integration clause will not, however, prevent a plaintiff from suing for fraud.  If a plaintiff can prove he was fraudulently induced into signing a contract, an integration clause will not automatically defeat such a claim.

Sources:

  1. Vigortone Ag Prods. v. AG Prods, 316 F.3d 641 (7th Cir. 2002).
  2. W.W. Vincent & Co. v. First Colony Life Ins. Co., 351 Ill.App.3d 752 (1st Dist. 2004)

 

Denial of Motion to Disqualify Counsel Doesn’t Bar Later Legal Malpractice Suit- No Issue Preclusion (IL ND)

Eckert v. Levin, et al., 2015 WL 859530 (N.D.Ill. 2015), a case I featured earlier this week, gives some useful guidance on when collateral estoppel or “issue preclusion” bars a second lawsuit between two parties after a judgment entered against one of them in an earlier case.

The case’s tortured history included the plaintiff getting hit with a $1 million dollar judgment in 2012 as part of  a state court lawsuit after he breached a 2010 written settlement agreement orchestrated by the defendants – the lawyers who represented plaintiff’s opponent in the state court case.

In the state court case, the plaintiff moved to disqualify the lawyer defendant and later, to vacate the $1 million judgment.  Both motions were denied.

In the 2014 Federal suit, the defendants (the individual lawyer and his Firm) moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim.  They argued that the state court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to disqualify defendants as counsel was a tacit ruling that the defendants didn’t commit malpractice.  Defendants contended that the plaintiff was collaterally estopped from bringing a legal malpractice claim in the 2014 Federal case since he lost his earlier state court motion to disqualify defendants as counsel for the plaintiff’s opponent.

The court disagreed and denied the motion to dismiss.  It held that issue preclusion didn’t apply since a motion to disqualify involves different issues than a legal malpractice claim.

Issue Preclusion, Legal Malpractice, and Motions to Disqualify

Issue preclusion applies if (1) the issues decided in the before and after cases are identical; (2) there was a final judgment on the merits in the first case; (3) the party against whom estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the first case; prior and (4) a decision on the issue must have been necessary for the judgment in the first case.

Collateral estoppel also requires the person to be bound must have actually litigated the issue in the first suit.  Like res judicata, the rationale for the issue preclusion rule is to bring lawsuits to an end at some point and avoid relitigation of the same issues ad nauseum.

In Illinois, to prevail on a legal malpractice suit, a plaintiff must show: (1) an attorney-client relationship giving rise to a duty on the attorney’s part; (2) a negligent act or omission by the attorney amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) proximate cause establishing that but for the attorney’s negligence, the plaintiff would have prevailed in the underlying action; and (4) actual damages.

A motion to disqualify counsel has different elements than a malpractice claim.  A disqualification motions require a two-step analysis: the court must consider (1) whether an ethical violation has occurred, and (2) if disqualification is the appropriate remedy.  The main rules of professional conduct that usually underlie motions to disqualify are Rules 1.7, 1.9 (conflict of interests to current and former clients) and 3.7 (lawyer-as-witness rule).

The court held that since the elements of a legal malpractice claim and a motion to disqualify don’t overlap, plaintiff’s legal malpractice wasn’t barred by the earlier motion to disqualify denial.

Non-Reliance Clause in Settlement Agreement

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the 2010 settlement agreement’s non-reliance clause (which provided that plaintiff wasn’t relying on any representations in connection with signing the agreement) defeated the legal malpractice case.  The reason was mainly chronological: the plaintiff’s central legal malpractice allegations stemmed from the attorney defendant’s conduct that occurred after the 2010 settlement agreement.  As a result, the non-reliance clause couldn’t apply to events occurring after the agreement was signed.

Afterwords:

– Issue preclusion doesn’t apply where two claims have different pleading and proof elements;

– a motion to disqualify an attorney for unethical conduct differs from the key allegations needed to sustain a legal malpractice suit;

– a non-reliance clause in a settlement agreement won’t apply to conduct occurring after the agreement is signed.