Never Give Up? Never Surrender? Probably Bad Advice In The Business Court

Section 6-21.5 of the North Carolina General Statutes is the closest thing the State has to "loser pays." It allows for the award of attorneys' fees to a prevailing party "if the court finds that there was a complete absence of a justiciable issue of either law or fact raised by the losing party in any pleading."

The plaintiff in Jacobson v. Walsh, 2014 NCBC 2, decided by Judge Murphy this week, didn't ever give up on his claims for breach of fiduciary duty and fraudulent concealment (which depended on there being a fiduciary duty) even though he had virtually conceded those claims at his deposition. As a result, the Judge awarded fees in an amount to be determined to one of the Defendants.

Why?  The Plaintiff based his fiduciary duty claim against one of the Defendants on his "past investment experiences" with that Defendant (Walsh), as he had alleged in the Complaint.  But at his deposition, the Plaintiff said that he had no prior dealings at all with Defendant Walsh, and that his contrary allegation in the Complaint was "an oversight."  He even conceded at his deposition that there was no fiduciary relationship between him and Walsh.

Notwithstanding those concessions, the Plaintiff did not dismiss his fiduciary duty claim. Judge Murphy concluded that "the losing party persisted in litigating the case after a point where he should reasonably become aware that the pleading he filed no longer contained a justiciable issue." Op. ¶94 (quoting Sunamerica Fin. Corp. v. Bonham, 328 N.C. 254, 258, 400 S.E.2d 435, 438 (1991)).

So how much will Walsh recover in attorneys' fees?  That remains to be determined.  Walsh was directed to submit an accounting of the the fees "reasonably incurred in defending against" the fiduciary duty and fraudulent concealment claims.  Op. ¶97.  Since there were multiple claims in the Complaint which were dismissed in the Order, the fees attributable to the fiduciary duty claim and the fraudulent concealment claim will be only a portion of the fees charged by Walsh's lawyers.

If you are wondering, this isn't the first time that the Business Court has socked an unduly persistent plaintiff with attorneys' fees per Section 6-21.5.  Judge Gale did that in an Order in McKinnon v. CV Industries, Inc., which I wrote about in June 2012.

Parol Evidence Rule Barred Defendants' Interpretation Of Earn-Out Provision

Premier, Inc. v. Peterson, 2012 NCBC 59, decided last Friday by Judge Murphy, turned on a strict application of the parol evidence rule.

At issue was whether the defendants were entitled to a substantial earn-out payment under a Stock Purchase Agreement.  The Plaintiff had purchased the Defendants' software business of selling a Web-based surveillance and analytic services to healthcare providers.

Interpretation of the Contract

The Stock Purchase Agreement called for the earnout payment to be made on a series of five year anniversaries of the acquisition date.  The calculation was to be based on the number of hospitals at which a "Product Implementation" of the software products purchased by the Plaintiff had occurred.

The SPA contained a definition of "Product Implementation," and Judge Murphy not surprisingly held that "[b]ecause the goal of construing a contract is to arrive at the intent of the parties when he contract was executed, where a contract defines a term, 'that definition is to be used.'"  Op. 31(quoting Woods v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 295 N.C. 500, 505-06, 246 S.E.2d 773, 777 (1978)).

The definition called for the hospital in question to have subscribed to or licensed the product and to have implemented it as well.  A representative of the sellers said that notwithstanding the definition, the parties had agreed during  the negotiations that a "Product Implementation" would include instances where the product was merely provided to the hospital, even without a subscription or license.

Judge Murphy rejected this argument, holding:

 this agreement, at best, adds to the unambiguous terms of the contract requiring a
subscription or license. As such, the parol evidence rule bars consideration of this
proffered agreement, and the Court must enforce the language as written. In doing
so, the Court concludes that Plaintiff’s interpretation construes all the terms
harmoniously, giving effect to the entire provision. Therefore, the Court concludes
that the language is unambiguous, and that Plaintiff has presented a reasonable
interpretation of “Product Implementation.”

 Op. 35.

Attorneys' Fees?

Maybe you are thinking that the Defendants' argument was so beyond the pale of the parol evidence rule that the Plaintiff should have been awarded attorneys' fees.  And the Stock Purchase Agreement called for fees to be awarded to the "prevailing party."

So were fees awarded to the Plaintiff?  No, because of the NC Supreme Court's decision in Stilwell Enter. v. Interstate Equip Co., 300 N.C. 286, 266 S.E.2d 812 (1980), in which it held that:

[e]ven in the face of a carefully drafted contractual provision indemnifying a party for such attorneys' fees as may be necessitated by a successful action on the contract itself, our courts have consistently refused to sustain such an award absent statutory authority therefor.

Id. at 289, 266 S.E.2d 815-16 (emphasis added).

Statutory authority?  Wait a minute.  What about N.C. Gen. Stat. sec. 6-21.6(c), which says that:

If a business contract governed by the laws of this State contains a reciprocal attorneys' fees provision, the court or arbitrator in any suit, action, proceeding, or arbitration involving the business contract may award reasonable attorneys' fees in accordance with the terms of the business contract.

No to attorneys' fees, said Judge Murphy, notwithstanding Section 6-21.6.  That statute applies only to business contracts entered into on or after that statute's effective date, which was October 1, 2011.  This Stock Purchase Agreement was entered into five years before that effective date, in 2006.  Op. ¶46 & n.2.

 

 

 

The Court Of Appeals Clarifies What It Means To Be A "Prevailing Party" Entitled To Attorneys' Fees

The  NC Court of Appeals ruled today on what it means to be a "prevailing party" under N.C. Gen. Stat. §6-21.5 so as to be entitled to recover attorneys' fees. There was no North Carolina precedent -- until now -- on this issue.

The effect of the ruling may be that fees under the statute, which are allowed to a prevailing party "if the court finds that there was a complete absence of a justiciable issue of either law or fact raised by the losing party in any pleading," will be awarded on an issue by issue basis.

In the case decided by the Court of Appeals, Persis Nova Construction, Inc. v. Edwards, the trial court had dismissed the claims of the plaintiff as well as the counterclaims of the defendant on motions for summary judgment.  When the defendant moved for an award of statutory fees, the Court denied the motion, reasoning that the dismissal of the claims of both parties meant that  there was no "prevailing party."

The Court of Appeals reversed. It held that a party doesn't have to be the outright and unquestioned winner of the lawsuit in order to be entitled to fees.  The Court focused on the statute's reference to the "losing party in any pleading," and reasoned that fees should be allowed to "a party who prevails on a claim or issue in an action."  It is not necessary for the party requesting fees to prevail in the entire action.

The Court noted that the purpose of the statute is to "discourage frivolous legal action," and said that this purpose "would be circumvented by limiting the statute's application to the party who prevails" in the lawsuit as  a whole.

The conclusion of the Court's opinion was as follows:

the trial court properly found that Plaintiff did not prevail on the claims set forth in its complaint and that Defendants did not prevail on the counterclaim set forth in their answer.  As a corollary, however, Defendants prevailed on Plaintiff's claims, and Plaintiff prevailed on Defendants' counterclaim.  Accordingly, the trial court erroneously concluded that Defendants were not prevailing parties in this action.

This means that fee petitions under the statute may start getting presented on an issue by issue basis. It means also that a plaintiff could prevail on virtually all of its claims, but still get socked for fees on the claims on which it was not successful, if that particular claim lacked a justiciable issue. 

When the dust clears after litigation is over, it is sometimes hard to tell the score and who really won.  The Persis Nova case may make it even harder.