“How to Tighten Contracts & Minimize the Expense of Litigation” by Ryan C.C. Duckett

Simple Contract Drafting and Negotiation Tips

From the inception of creating a contract to the closing prior to execution, word accuracy and term clarity helps shield contracts from that not so slim chance that, my contract won’t be litigated.  Do not be so quick to “Frankenstein” a contract with a myriad of cut and pastes. A little precaution can save your client a great deal of fortune.

Introduction of Contracts: The introductory clause of a contract is as critical as the body because it identifies the parties of an agreement. What seems so simple is easy to overlook. For instance, in a 2015 celebrity case dismissed on 9/11, and affirmed in 2016 by the California Court of Appeal, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian filed suit against Chad Hurley and AVOS Systems, Inc. for broadcasting confidential video of Kanye’s marriage proposal to Kim in violation of a confidentiality provision precluding publishing any video of Kanye’s proposal before it was published by Kim’s reality TV show Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The case was decided on whether Hurley’s tweet with a link to video of the proposal was a breach of the agreement by AVOS. Although Hurley was CEO of AVOS, he never signed the agreement on behalf of AVOS – according to him – and, whether someone is acting on behalf of a company is a question of facts, which means, it’s for a jury to decide[1]. Hurley was found liable but his company AVOS got off scot-free. Seriously? How could it be more obvious what was intended by Kanye and Kim? Simple…A quick definition defining all parties at the onset of the contract removes any question of fact, making it clear who the agreement binds.

Terms of Contracts: The terms of a contract should be as black and white as the paper it’s on. Many common words such as “material”, “full disclosure” or “efforts,” originally thought of as pinpointing the intentions, recently are vastly becoming more diluted from overuse, leaving too much room for interpretation. For example, what is material to one may not be so material to another, especially in contracts when interests are adverse and what one cares about, the other does not. Unfortunately, parties wait until the heat of litigation until clarifying what was originally intended.

By way of another example: Q. How are best efforts different from reasonable efforts?When parties enter into an exclusive distribution agreement, they like to set the tone for the distributor about the “efforts” the distributor must apply. Although California courts have yet to divulge into intricacies behind levels of effort, New York courts have and find it “murky.” Under the Uniform Commercial Code § 2-306(2), the producer may want to remain silent on the degree of effort to be expended by the distributor because it requires “best efforts…unless otherwise agreed.” In an original case defining best efforts, Falstaff Brewing Co. bought Ballantine brewing labels, trademarks, and everything else but the beer, with a promise to use “best efforts” to distribute it. Well, along came Guinness beer with an unprecedented low price. Falstaff intuitively succumbed to distributing the lower priced beer. Falstaff, however, was held in breach for failing to continue selling Ballantine, even though Falstaff was forced to incur an economic loss by doing so.[2]

Where parties have contracted to use a lesser degree of efforts, such as ”reasonable efforts” or “commercially reasonable efforts,” the courts held that such efforts are “interchangeable” with “best efforts.”[3]  Bottom line being to expressly articulate criteria intended to qualify as meeting your client’s “justifiable expectations,”[4]instead of leaving it to a precarious chance by courts’ “case by case” rulings.

Dispute Resolution of Contracts:  At the negotiation stage, many parties try to rush through the dispute resolution terms in the face of a breach, hoping this will never be the case. Coincidentally, this is the best and only time to negotiate such difficult terms. In a February 18, 2016 case initiated by Allstate Insurance for an insured’s alleged breach, the Defendants successfully dismissed the action immediately when the trial court ruled that a pre-litigation demand letter adequately satisfied the terms to enter into “good-faith negotiations” before filing a lawsuit.[5] Literally, “good faith negotiations before filing a lawsuit” really means an agreement to try to agree, but requires no back and forth process. If you want more good faith interaction before someone races to file a lawsuit, the contract should explicitly state each step a party must take.

Although, only a few primary examples are discussed, there are frequent circumstances that ultimately lead to litigation resulting from contracts using common pitfalls. Taking the time to contact an attorney like those at Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, LLP, may be the solution to tighten a contract enough to minimize the potential expense of litigation.

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151215-Stubbs-116-retouched_600x400For any further information on tips or avoiding litigation, contact Ryan C. C. Duckett at rduckett@stubbsalderton.comor 818-444-4546. Ryan Duckett is an attorney of Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, LLP. Ryan’s practice focuses primarily on employment, commercial, intellectual property and entertainment litigation. He has successfully litigated cases for both plaintiffs and defendants with trials and appellate experience that has secured over millions of dollars in jury verdicts for his clients, to arguing California jury instructions that were created by the case he second chaired.  He manages and handles all aspects of civil actions from pre-litigation matters to law & motion to trials, post-trials & appeals.

 

[1] Pacific Concrete Products Corp. v. Dimmick (1955) 136 Cal.App.2d 834, 838.

[2] Bloor v. Falstaff Brewing Co. (1979) 601 F.2d 609, 609-613.

[3] Samson Lift Tech., LLC v. Jerr-Dan Co. (Sup. Ct. 2014)

[4] E. Allan Farnsworth, Contracts § 7.17 (3d Ed. 2004)

[5] Allstate Ins. Co. v. Berg (Cal.1st.Dist., Div. 4, Feb. 2016 – affirmed)

The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are not intended to be used as a substitute for specific legal advice or opinions.

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