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.”
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.