‘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)

 

Bagel Shop Successor Tenant Hit For Rent Damages and Attorneys’ Fees in Commercial Lease Case – IL First Dist.

6945015869_a7cf0dd963_bThe First District affirmed a money judgment of about $150,000 (including $70,000 in attorneys’ fees) in a commercial lease dispute  in Alecta v. BAB Operations, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 132916-U.  An unpublished opinion, it’s useful for its vivid illustration of the importance of lease drafting clarity and an assigning tenant documenting its intent to not be responsible for post-assignment rent payments.

For over 15 years, the plaintiff landlord leased the property to various bagel shops.  The master lease was assigned six times over that time span. When the sixth assignee defaulted, the plaintiff sued multiple defendants including the third lease assignee – the defendant who ultimately got hit with the money judgment. (The other defendants either settled out or were defaulted.)

On appeal, the defendant (the third lease assignee) argued it was immunized from lease liability after it assigned the lease to a successor (the fourth assignee) several years earlier and that the trial court shouldn’t have awarded the landlord’s attorneys’ fees.

Affirming the money judgment, the First District provides a useful primer on contract interpretation rules applied in the commercial lease context.

– A court interprets a contract by looking to its plain language to discern the intent of the contracting parties;

– The court considers the contract in its totality and tries to harmonize each part of the contract;

– If the contract is unambiguous, the court interprets it without considering any outside evidence as to what the contract is supposed to mean;

– if the contract is ambiguous – meaning it’s susceptible to more than one meaning, the court can consider external evidence to try to resolve the ambiguity;

– a contract can be modified but the changes must materially alter the parties’ rights and duties before the change is regarded as a new contract or agreement;

– A contract can be assigned.  An assignment operates to transfer to the assignee all of the assignor’s right, title or interest in the thing assigned, and the assignee then stands in the shoes of the assignor;

– A lease is a type of contract that is governed by general contract law and can be assigned;

– It (a lease) creates privity of contract (which obligates a tenant to pay rent) and privity of estate (right to possession, basically) between the lessor and the lessee;

– Where a lease is assigned, but not assumed, there is privity of estate between the landlord and the assignee but not privity of contract.  This means the assignee can avoid further lease liability by vacating the premises or assigning to someone else;

– By contrast, where a lease is assumed (“assumption of the lease”), the party assuming the lease remains responsible to the landlord through the life of the lease even after the assuming party decamps the premises or assigns the lease;

¶¶ 40-61.

Here, the court found the assignment from the defendant to the fourth assignee ambiguous.  The assignment’s text was conflicting because at one point it said the defendant was released from further lease obligations while another section provided the assignor/defendant’s liability to the landlord remained intact.  Because the assignment language clashed on the defendant’s future (after the assignment) lease liability, the court heard trial testimony as to what the parties intended when they drafted the assignment and ultimately found for the landlord.

Afterwords:

This case serves as a good reminder of how a court interprets a written contract and handles textual ambiguity.  Any contractual ambiguity will be determined against the drafter of the contract.  Since the defendant is the one who drafted the assignment here, the court sided against it and found it liable for the lease breaches of the later assignees.

The case is also useful for its discussion of lease assignments versus lease assumptions and the different liability rules that flow from that dichotomy.  If the parties intent is to relieve an assignor from further liability, they should take pains to document that intent.

 

 

 

 

Integration Clause Bars Trader’s Commission Claims Against Financial Firm

Integration clauses – also called “merger” clauses – are staples of commercial contracts in diffuse business settings.  The Northern District of Illinois recently found that an integration clause in a compensation agreement defeated a futures trader’s claims for unpaid commissions in Colagrossi v. UBS Securities, LLC, 2014 WL 2515131 (N.D.Ill. 2014).
The plaintiff alleged that in 2005, he and his then employer entered into an oral agreement for commission payments earned on foreign futures transactions.  When that employer was absorbed by another entity in 2006, the plaintiff signed a written employment agreement with the new company –  one that contained an integration clause.  The agreement was silent on the oral futures deal that plaintiff cut with his ex-employer. Plaintiff’s successor employer then folded into a third entity.  Plaintiff signed a second employment agreement in 2007 with the new (“third”) employer.  That agreement also contained an integration clause and made no mention of the 2005 oral commission arrangement.
After he was fired, the plaintiff sued his new employer for unpaid commissions and bonuses totaling about $2M in total.  He filed counts for breach of oral contract and a claim under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  The defendant moved for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims.
 Ruling: Motion granted.  Summary judgment for defendant.  Plaintiff’s claims dismissed.
 Q: Why?
 A:  Both written employment agreements (the one he signed in 2005 with defendant’s predecessor and the one he signed with defendant in 2006) contained integration clauses that provided that the agreement stated the entire terms of the parties’ agreement and superseded all prior verbal agreements or representations touching on the plaintiff’s employment. 
    
In Illinois, where contracting parties include a contractual integration clause (i.e., a clause stating that the written agreement is complete and final and reflects the entire understanding of the parties), they are manifesting their intent to protect themselves against after-the-fact changes to the contract.  The purpose of an integration clause is to establish that negotiations leading up to a written contract are not the agreement and to also guard against a party to the agreement trying to alter the contract’s meaning by trying to explain his state of mind when the contract was signed.
 Here, both written employment agreements contained an integration clause that stated the parties’ entire agreement was reduced to writing and that also precluded plaintiff’s attempt to rely on oral promises that pre-dated the contracts’ execution.  The clauses broadly applied to bar reliance on oral agreements relating to the “subject matter” of the contracts.  Since plaintiff’s oral contract claim for commissions  went to the heart of the employment agreements’ purpose, the oral agreement was defeated by each contract’s integration clause. (*4-5).
The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s claim for bonus payments that was premised on the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (the Wage Act).  The Wage Act applies broadly to wages, salaries, commissions and bonuses; so long as they are based on an employment agreement (written or oral).  820 ILCS 115/2 (http://paulporvaznik.com/the-illinois-wage-payment-and-collection-act-some-basics/697).  Here, the plaintiff’s Wage Act claim was not only defeated by the two integration clauses (one in each employment contract) but also because an employer’s past practice of paying bonuses isn’t enough to make out a viable Wage Act count. (*6-7); Carroll v. Merrill Lynch, 2011 WL 1838563 *17 (N.D.Ill. May 13, 2011) (granting summary judgment to employer on employee’s Wage Act claim because “past practice itself is not enough to support a wage claim”); Stark v. PPM America, Inc., 354 F.3d 666, 672 (7th Cir.2004)(same).
Take-aways: Integration clauses will be enforced as written.  If they are broad and clearly-worded, the clauses will defeat a party’s attempt to modify the plain text of a contract.  The case is also noteworthy for its discussion of the Wage Act.  While the Wage Act’s scope is broad, this case clearly illustrates that a claim based on the Act must allege more than an employer’s past practice or course of conduct in making bonus payments.  Instead, there must be an express agreement – written or oral – to support an employee’s claim under the Act.