January, 2011

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Lessons to be Learned – Recent MDOT Denial of DBE/MBE Application

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

A local business owner came to me recently in order to appeal MDOT’s denial of an application for Maryland DBE/MBE certification. Since I had never before read an MDOT denial opinion, there were several interesting issues raised by MDOT that I thought were worth discussing.

1. Ownership – The owners of the business are a husband and wife, and the wife applied as the majority owner of the business for MBE Certification. MDOT focused in part in denying the application on the fact that when the woman owner invested capital in the business at the outset, that her investment came from a credit card jointly held with her husband, and that the credit card balance was eventually paid in full from a jointly held checking account owned by her and her husband. Careful legal drafting of the Articles of Incorporation, and legal advice with regard to who funds the business and how it was funded, would have gone a long way at the outset in potentially avoiding MDOT’s rejection of this application.

2. Control – With regard to control, MDOT focused on two issues: i) the woman owner unquestionably has to be able to prove that she exercises control over the day-to-day operation and management of the company, and has an overall understanding, competence and experience in the business; and ii) the corporate documents, including the Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Shareholder Agreement or Operating Agreement cannot in any way restrict or limit the woman owner’s ability from making the business decisions of the company without the cooperation of the non-disadvantaged owner. In this instance, the company’s Bylaws gave the non-minority owner the same voting rights as the disadvantaged owner, so that she was effectively precluded from making business decisions unilaterally. Properly drafted Bylaws may have avoided this problem.

Reading the opinion as a whole, MDOT focused on several issues which, while separately may not have added up to much, when combined, raised enough questions in MDOT’s mind so as to justify the denial of the business’s DBE/MBE application. The good news is that many of these issues can be avoided with careful legal drafting at the outset.

The Importance of an Attorneys Fees Clause

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

I was recently asked to litigate a breach of contract claim on behalf of a party who was wronged by the breach of another party to a contract. The kind of contract is immaterial for the purpose of this article. It could have been an independent contractor agreement, or employment agreement, or an asset purchase, stock purchase, non-compete, or non-solicitation agreement, or any one of a dozen other types of contracts. Regardless, as I have said previously in these posts, there are certain contractual provisions that should be found in just about every contract. What may be possibly be the single most important provision, from my perspective, happened to have been omitted from this particular contract, that is, a provision addressing the potential recovery of attorney’s fees resulting from litigation.

I say that this may be the single most important provision in a contract not in a substantive sense, as the material terms of the contract must of course be included with specificity. The services to be performed or the products to be sold are obviously vital, since without which there may be no meeting of the minds and thus no contract in the first place. And there are other material provisions related to the deal itself that must be included as well, ie the duration of the agreement, compensation, termination, etc.

But aside from the substantive points of the deal, there is not a more important procedural, boilerplate, provision than a provision addressing attorney’s fees. Why? Because in many cases, the lack of such a provision makes litigating over a contract a financially untenable idea. A party to a contract may have the facts and the law on its side. The case may essentially be a slam dunk, if such things exist. However, if at the end of the day, the damages available to the winning party only barely exceed the amount the party paid to its attorney’s to prosecute the case, then regardless of how great a case it is, the filing of a lawsuit or arbitration makes little sense from a bottom line perspective. None of us, clients or attorneys, litigate in order to achieve moral victories. If maintaining a lawsuit does not make sense from a financial point of view, then regardless of right and wrong and getting even, I always advise my clients to consider the case strictly from a business perspective, leaving aside emotion.

That is why it is such a huge benefit when a contract at issue contains a prevailing party clause with regard to attorney’s fees. This magic language allows a wronged party to sue with the understanding that if the facts and the law support her case, then she will be made whole in regard to not only the actual damages she sustained as a result of the breach of contract, but in addition, all costs, expenses and attorney’s fees she expended in litigating the matter. Please then, I ask you to review EVERY agreement your business has signed, as well as every agreement you sign from here on out, and prior to execution, include a provision similar to the following:

“In the event of litigation [or arbitration] for any matter arising out of or related to this Agreement, the party prevailing in any such action shall be entitled to recover from the losing party its reasonable attorney’s fees and all other legal costs and expenses, including filing fees, expended in the matter.”

The importance of this provision cannot be overstated, since attorney’s fees on even a fairly “routine” matter can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and for more complex cases against defendants with deep pockets, it would not be a surprise to see attorneys’ fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mere Projections Cannot Constitute Fraud

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

In Flynn v. Everything Yogurt, et al., 1993 U.S. Dist. Lexis 15722 (D. Md. 1993), the Maryland Federal District Court granted a motion to dismiss a fraud claim for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The Court held that ““Projections of future earnings are statements of opinion rather than statements of material fact. Projections cannot constitute fraud because they are not susceptible to exact knowledge at the time they are made. Layton v. Aamco Transmissions, Inc., 717 F. Supp. at 371 (D. Md. 1989); See also, Johnson v. Maryland Trust Co., 176 Md 557, 565, 6 A.2d 383 (1939) (statement referring to value of securities representing collateral for the payment of trust notes was a matter of expectation or opinion). Thus, the Defendants’ projections can not constitute statements of material fact under § 14-227(a)(1)(ii).”

The Maryland Federal District Court also held in Payne v. McDonald’s Corporation, 957 F.Supp. 749 (D. Md. 1997) that claims of fraud against McDonald’s must be dismissed: “McDonald’s projections concerning the future building costs of the Broadway restaurant and concerning the impact of new restaurants on future sales of the Broadway facility are just as much predictions of ‘future events’ as are projections of future profits. Accordingly, this Court concludes that it was unreasonable for plaintiff Payne to rely on any of McDonald’s predictive statements as a basis for the assertion of fraud-based claims in this case.”

In addition to the McDonald’s case cited above, see Miller v. Fairchild Industries, Inc., Finch v. Hughes Aircraft Co., and Hardee’s v. Hardee’s Food System, Inc., all of which stand for the proposition that predictions or statements which are merely promissory in nature and expressions as to what will happen in the future are not actionable as fraud.

New York Franchise Act Inapplicable Where Franchisee Resides Outside New York

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

In the recent case of JM Vidal, Inc. v. Texdis USA, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93564 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), the New York District Court held that the New York Franchise Sales Act is inapplicable to the sale of franchises by a franchisor based in New York where the franchisee resides outside of New York and the franchised business is based outside of New York. In Vidal, a franchisee located in Washington State brought an action against a franchisor that was incorporated in Delaware and maintained its principal place of business in New York.

The franchisee alleged that the franchisor violated the New York Act by: (i) selling a franchise before it registered the UFOC; (ii) failing to timely deliver the UFOC at or before the initial meeting; and (iii) misrepresenting the estimated future earnings of the franchised unit, among other claims.

The Court dismissed the franchisee’s New York Act claim by holding that the New York Act is inapplicable and unavailable in an action by an out of state franchisee in a claim against a New York-based franchisor. The Court determined that the principal place of business of the franchisee is the essential element in the analysis – so that if the franchisee is not based in New York, then the New York Act is not applicable.

In making this determination, the Court relied on previous New York decisions, including Century Pac, Inc. v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 2004 U.S. Dist. Lexis 6904 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 21, 2004) and Mon-Shore Mgmt., Inc. v. Family Media, Inc., 584 F. Supp. 186 (S.D.N.Y. 1984). Vidal stated that “only the franchisee’s domicile matters for the purposes of determining whether the statute applies.”

This case should be reviewed carefully by Maryland franchisors and franchisees, and their lawyers, since the specific jurisdictional language of the New York Franchise Act that was at issue in this case is nearly identical to that contained in the Maryland Franchise Act.