Attorneys’ Fees Awarded Based on Void Contract

Recently, in California-American Water Company v. Marina Coast Water District, a California court of appeal found prevailing parties could recover attorneys’ fees based on a void contract under Code of Civil Procedure section 1717 (“section 1717”). The non-prevailing party challenged the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees, posing the question, “How can an attorney fees provision in a contract govern the parties’ fees obligations when the contract itself is deemed to have been void from its inception?”

In Santisas v. Goodin (1998) 17 Cal.4th 599, the California Supreme Court held that “when a party litigant prevails in an action on a contract by establishing that the contract is invalid, inapplicable, unenforceable, or nonexistent, section 1717 permits that party’s recovery of attorney fees whenever the opposing parties would have been entitled to attorney fees under the contract had they prevailed.” (Santisas, supra, 17 Cal.4th at p. 611.)

The appellant in California-American argued that the trial court’s attorney fees award contravened section 1717’s limitation that fees be awarded only in an “action on a contract.” In California-American, no contract-based claims were at issue. The only issue litigated was the effect of a board member’s conflict of interest on the validity of certain contracts. In other words, the action was one to declare certain contracts void. The losing party argued that such a claim is not an “action on a contract.” However, the appellate court in California-American found “a party’s entitlement to attorney fees under section 1717 turns on the fact that the litigation was about the existence and enforceability of the contract, not on the presence of particular contractual claims . . .” The court noted that a California appellate court had previously found a suit brought by litigants seeking to have a contract declared void is an “action on a contract” for the purposes of section 1717. (Eden Township Healthcare Dist. v. Eden Medical Center (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 418, 426.) Since an action to declare a contract void is an “action on a contract” for purposes of section 1717, attorneys’ fees can be awarded based on an attorney fees provision of a void contract.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

What Happens At the End of an LLC’s Term?

In its operating agreement, a Limited Liability Company, or LLC, may specify a termination date or other event that will result in the dissolution of the LLC. On the termination date or occurrence of another specified event, the LLC is “dissolved” (Corporations Code section 17707.01(e)), with only limited powers to “wind up” its affairs (Corporations Code section 17707.04).

Generally, after the dissolution has occurred, a certificate of dissolution must be filed with the California Secretary of State. Corporations Code section 17707.08(a). Upon the completion the winding up of the LLC’s affairs, a certificate of cancellation of the articles of organization must be filed with the California Secretary of State. Corporations Code section 17707.08(b). When the certificate of cancellation is filed, “a limited liability company shall be cancelled and its powers, rights and privileges shall cease.” Corporations Code section 17707.08(c).

Even after the filing of a certificate of cancellation, the LLC continues to exist for the purpose of prosecuting and defending actions by or against it in order to collect and discharge obligations, disposing of and conveying its property, and collecting and dividing its assets. Corporations Code section 17707.06(a). However, “A limited liability company shall not continue business except so far as necessary for its winding up.” Corporations Code section 17707.06(a).

Even after a certificate of dissolution has been filed, the LLC can be revived under limited circumstances enumerated in Corporations Code Section 17707.09, by the filing of a “certificate of continuation,” which has the effect of nullifying the certificate of dissolution.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

U.S. Supreme Court Declines To Rule On Large Fees For Homebuilders

Recently, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in 616 Croft Ave., LLC v. City of West Hollywood (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 621, in which the issue for review was whether the City of West Hollywood’s in-lieu housing fee was an exaction. While the Supreme Court did not rule for or against the homebuilder claiming city fees were invalid, the decision not to hear the case affirms precedent. Just five months earlier, the Supreme Court issued a takings decision, authored by Justice Kennedy, in Murr v. Wisconsin (2017) 137 S. Ct. 1933. This most recent Supreme Court ruling is the latest in a line of cases that deprive property owners of power over their properties. The Court in Murr held the two parcels along the St. Croix River, combined under common ownership in 1995, were required to be evaluated as a single parcel in determining whether the regulations constituted a regulatory taking. Ultimately, the Court found the regulations, which did not allow petitioners to sell one parcel as part of an improvement plan for the lots, did not constitute a compensable regulatory taking.

Declining to hear a case like 616 Croft Ave., for now, continues the trend. The California Appellate Court in 616 Croft Ave. found a half a million dollar in-lieu fee imposed by the City of West Hollywood, to permit the homebuilder to build a condominium, was not an exaction or a taking. The Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case last year. For now, the Court is leaving open to interpretation the constitutionality of large fees upon homebuilders. With rumors of Justice Kennedy retiring soon and New Justices entering the Bench, perhaps a changed Supreme Court may tackle the constitutionality of fees upon homebuilders in coming years.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your property law concerns.

California Court Eases Employee’s Burden in Proving Employer’s Wage Statement Violations

In 2004, the State legislature enacted the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”), which authorizes California employees to sue their employers for Labor Code violations and collect civil penalties that would otherwise be collectible only by California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency. PAGA suits are known as “representative actions,” in which an employee sues “on behalf of himself or herself and other current or former employees.” Civil penalties recovered in a PAGA action are distributed 75% to the State of California and 25% to the employees.

Recently, a California appellate court, in Eduardo Lopez v. Friant & Associates, LLC, held that an employee can sue his or her employer under PAGA for failure to provide accurate wage statements without showing that the employer’s conduct was “knowing and intentional.” The ruling is significant because employees can also sue their employer for wage statement violations without using the PAGA statute. But when they do, they must show that the employer’s violation was “knowing and intentional” in order to win their case. Thus, the Lopez decision is likely to significantly impact how suits for wage claim violations will be filed in the future. After Lopez, it is unclear why employees would bring lawsuits for “knowing and intentional” wage statement violations when they can bring PAGA claims without proving the wage statement violations were knowing and intentional.

In the Lopez case, the plaintiff, Mr. Lopez, filed an action seeking recovery of civil penalties under PAGA for his employer’s failure to include the last four digits of its employees’ social security numbers or employee identification numbers on their itemized wage statements. The trial court found that the employer had been unaware that this required information was missing and therefore ruled in favor of the employer. The trial court reasoned that Lopez could not prevail because the employer’s omission was not “knowing or intentional” within the meaning of Labor Code section 226, which specifies what information must be included in employee wage statements.

The appellate court reversed the judgment. The Lopez court reasoned a PAGA claim is not subject to Section 226’s “knowing and intentional” requirement, and that the “knowing and intentional” requirement applies only to non-PAGA lawsuits.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of employment services to employers and employees. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your employment law concerns.

Riverisland, Parol Evidence, and the Fraud Exception

We recently wrote about contract integration clauses, which will usually state that the contract is “completely integrated,” and the parol evidence rule, which works to keep out prior or contemporaneous statements or writings that would modify the contract.  In this post we discuss Riverisland Cold Storage, Inc. v. Fresno–Madera Production Credit Assn., 55 Cal. 4th 1169 (2013).   In short, Riverisland states that the parol evidence rule is not a bar to evidence that goes to show fraud in connection with the contract, and the court may look to, for example, prior statements and emails, to determined what agreement was made by the parties.

In Riverisland, the plaintiffs restructured and reaffirmed a debt owed to the Fresno-Madera Production Credit Association (“Credit Association”).  The restructuring agreement provided that the Credit Association would take no enforcement action for three months if the plaintiffs made specified payments and pledged eight (8) parcels of land as additional collateral.

Later, the plaintiffs fell behind on payments and the Credit Association instituted foreclosure proceedings. Eventually, the plaintiffs repaid the loan and the Credit Association dismissed its foreclosure proceedings.

However, the plaintiffs filed an action seeking damages for fraud and negligent misrepresentation, and included causes of action for rescission and reformation of the restructuring agreement. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the Credit Association’s vice president told them two weeks before the agreement was signed that the Credit Association would extend the loan for two years in exchange for two “ranch properties” as the additional real-property collateral, but the written contract actually allowed for only an additional three months of forbearance and identified eight (8) parcels as additional collateral.

The plaintiffs did not read the agreement, but simply signed it at the locations tabbed for signature. The Credit Association moved for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiffs could not prove their claims because the parol evidence rule barred evidence of any representations contradicting the terms of the written agreement.

At the time that the plaintiffs brought their complaint, California had operated under the longstanding rule set forth in Bank of America etc. Assn. v. Pendergrass, 4 Cal. 2d 258 (1935), which prohibited the use of parol evidence in cases where fraud is alleged in connection with a purportedly “integrated” contractual agreement.

In Riverisland the Supreme Court concluded that the limitations Pendergrass placed on the fraud exception to the parol evidence rule were not supported by the language of the statute establishing that exception (CCP § 1856(f)(g)) or consistent with prior case law. (55 Cal.4th at 1182)  Further, it held that “Pendergrass failed to account for the fundamental principle that fraud undermines the essential validity of the parties’ agreement. When fraud is proven, it cannot be maintained that the parties freely entered into an agreement reflecting a meeting of the minds. . . . Parol evidence is always admissible to prove fraud, and it was never intended that the parol evidence rule should be used as a shield to prevent the proof of fraud.” (Id. at 1180–1182)

How will this affect contract related litigation in California?   Riverisland leans against a court granting dispositive motions, like demurrers, motions for summary judgment, and motions for judgment on the pleadings, where the plaintiff alleges or can show that there is parol evidence supporting their claims, even if the contract is “fully integrated” and/or has an integration clause.

What is the Parol Evidence Rule?

A key part of understanding why an integration clause is important is understanding what the parol evidence rule is.

What is the Parol Evidence Rule?

Generally speaking, the parol evidence rule bars (or keeps out) extrinsic evidence of a prior or contemporaneous agreement.  In English, this means that once parties to a contract sign and agree to the terms of the contract, the parol evidence rule will keep the parties to the agreement from trying to submit prior oral or written statements to modify or contradict terms or clauses in the contract.

Take the example we posted in our previous blog post on integration clauses.  In that example, Party B agreed to buy “industry standard gears” for a specified sum, but in Party B’s conversations with Party A, they discussed “type-1” gears.  Thus, when Party A delivers “type 3” gears, Party B will go to court and attempt to submit parol evidence that the agreement was for 100 “type-1” gears.

As we noted in prior posts, the parol evidence rule is codified in California Code of Civil Procedure section 1856, which states that the “[t]erms set forth in a writing intended by the parties as a final expression of their agreement with respect to the terms included therein may not be contradicted by evidence of a prior agreement or of a contemporaneous oral agreement.”   Likewise,  California Civil Code section 1625 states that “[t]he execution of a contract in writing, whether the law requires it to be written or not, supersedes all the negotiations or stipulations concerning its matter which preceded or accompanied the execution of the instrument.”

As we explained in our prior blog post, most contracts have an integration clause, which will be used  to determine whether the contract is “a final expression” of the parties’ agreement.  Assuming that is the case, a party will have to show that an exception to the parol evidence rule applies.

What are the Exceptions to the Parol Evidence Rule?

Generally, the parol evidence rule will not allow a party to a written agreement to submit prior inconsistent statements (written or oral), although there are exceptions.  The following general circumstances are exceptions to the parol evidence rule:

  • Incomplete writings
  • Collateral or independent agreements
  • Subsequent agreements
  • Ambiguity or uncertainty in instrument
  • Illegality or bad faith
  • Fraud
  • Mistake
  • Lack of consideration

If one of these exceptions applies a party may then be able to submit evidence that was prior to or contemporaneous with the written contract in order to explain or contradict the terms of the deal.

What is an Integration Clause in a contract?

An integration clause (also known as a merger clause or an entire agreement clause) is found in most contracts and simply provides that the agreement or contract between the parties is the final and complete understanding between the parties, and supersedes all prior negotiations, agreements, or understandings on the subject.

The typical integration clause will say something like this: This Agreement is the entire agreement between the parties in connection with the subject matter of this Agreement, and supersedes all prior and contemporaneous discussions and understandings.1

Integration clauses are key when there is a dispute between two or more contracting parties and one party wants to use prior or contemporaneous discussions to contradict or explain terms within a contract.

By way of example, suppose that Party A negotiates to sell Party B 100 “type-1” gears for a specified sum.  The parties sign a contract which states that Party A agrees to sell Party B 100 “industry standard gears” for a specified sum, but with no reference to “type 1” in the description.  Party A delivers 100 “type-3” gears (considered “industry standard”) and demands payment. Party B refuses to pay.  Party B wants to use communications between the parties before the contract was signed to show that Party A was to deliver 100 “type-1” gears.  Party A, on the other hand, claims that the gears delivered are “industry standard” and the contract contains an integration clause that excludes prior or contemporaneous agreements.

How would a court decide whether the pre-contract communications about “type-1” gears can be used?  Determining whether the written contract was meant to be the exclusive embodiment of the parties’ agreement is known as determining whether the contract is “fully integrated.”  Thus, the existence of an integration clause is a key factor because an integration clause is typically conclusive as to the issue of integration.  The court will therefore look at the contract to determine whether the parties intended the written agreement to be a final and complete expression of their understanding. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1856, subd. (d).)

California has codified (i.e., set out by statute) many rules of contract interpretation; these rules apply to all contracts, absent exceptional circumstances.  Civil Code § 1635.  The basic goal of contract interpretation is to give effect to the parties’ mutual intent that existed at the time of contracting. Civil Code § 1636. When an agreement is set forth in a final written contract, the parties’ intent is determined from the writing alone, if possible. Civil Code § 1639.  “The words of a contract are to be understood in their ordinary and popular sense” (Civil Code § 1644), and  the terms of a final, integrated contract “may not be contradicted by evidence of any prior agreement or of a contemporaneous oral agreement” (CCP § 1856).

Nevertheless, in our example above, Party B may still be able to submit evidence that the agreement was for 100 “type-1” gears.   This is because a written contract “may be explained or supplemented by evidence of consistent additional terms unless the writing is intended also as a complete and exclusive statement of the terms of the agreement.” Code Civ. Proc., § 1856, subd. (b).  Also, technical words are to be interpreted as usually understood by persons in the profession or business to which they relate, unless clearly used in a different sense. Civil Code § 1645; Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1856 (“The terms set forth in a writing described in subdivision (a) may be explained or supplemented by course of dealing or usage of trade or by course of performance.”).

Thus, the dispute between the parties in our example above will center on the court’s determination as to whether the prior and contemporaneous statements are admissible as consistent additional terms and/or to explain what “industry standard” means in this context.

Grey v. Am. Mgmt. Servs., 204 Cal. App. 4th 803, 805 (2012).

Ninth Circuit: Section 16600 Applies to Settlements

Section 16600 of the California Business and Professions Code prohibits contracts from restraining individuals “from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind.”  While the reach of Section 16600 is broad (recently reaching as far as the  Delaware Court of Chancery), it has traditionally been applied only to employment contracts or agreements that contain non-competition or non-compete clauses where the former employee is prevented from working with a competitor.

But what about a settlement agreement that prohibits employment with a former employer, i.e., an agreement that a former employee can only work for competitors?  Last week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed that very issue in Golden v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group, No. 12-16514, 2015 WL 1543049 (Apr. 8, 2015).

In that case, Donald Golden (“Golden”), an emergency room doctor, sued his former employer, California Emergency Physicians Medical Group (“CEP”), and others alleging various causes of action including racial discrimination.  In open court CEP agreed to pay a “substantial monetary amount” to Golden, and Golden agreed to withdraw his claims against CEP and “waive any and all rights to employment with CEP or at any facility that CEP may own” now and in the future.  (Notably, CEP is a consortium of more than 1,000 physicians and staffs and manages emergency rooms and inpatient centers throughout California.) 

Golden later refused to sign the settlement agreement.  The district court ultimately granted a motion by Golden’s former counsel to intervene and ordered that the settlement agreement be enforced. Golden appealed to the 9th Circuit on the single issue that the settlement agreement was void under Section 16600.

After addressing the issue of ripeness, the majority began by noting that the California Supreme Court had not ruled on whether Section 16600 applies outside of “typical so-called ‘non-compete covenants,’” and specifically “whether a contract can impermissibly restrain professional practice, within the meaning of the statute, if it does not prevent a former employee from seeking work with a competitor and if it does not penalize him should he do so.”

The majority found that the breadth of the statute meant that Section 16600 was not so limited and that the district court improperly determined that the settlement agreement need not comply with Section 16600.  As the court noted, Section 16600 prohibits “every contract” (not specifically excepted by another statute) that “restrain[s]” someone “from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business.”  Therefore, Section 16600 applies to all such restrictions “no matter [their] form or scope.”  The case was reversed and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Notably, former 9th Circuit chief justice Alex Kozinski filed  a dissenting opinion accusing the majority of ruling on the case despite the fact that, according to him, “the settlement agreement does not limit Dr. Golden’s ability to practice his profession at this time—except to the extent that he can’t work for CEP.”  In his opinion, the majority misconstrued Section 16600 and allowed it to preserve “an unfettered right to employment in all future circumstances, no matter how remote or contingent.”  Judge Kozinski would have dismissed the case for lack of standing until Golden had actually been fired or denied a position due to the settlement agreement. 

Enforcing Restrictive Land Covenants

Land Covenant AttorneysRestrictive covenants are contract clauses that  limit a contracting party’s future conduct. A restrictive land covenant prevents certain use of the land. In this article, we will discuss restrictive land covenants, and how to enforce them in California.

In general, restrictive land covenants serve the purpose of enforcing neighborhood presentation standards. These are your restrictive easements, Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (“CC&Rs”), and other Home Owner’s Association rules. They can range from mandating where a home owner puts his trash cans to the permissible colors of a home’s façade. Such covenants are typically written into a deed, or at least referenced in the deed and recorded. Nahrstedt v. Lakeside Village, 8 Cal.4th 361 (1994). Restrictive land covenants are usually created by developers of a planned community, and enforced by community representatives or land owners.

Restrictive covenants “run with the land.” This means that they are tied to the property (land), and not to a  specific owner(s). In other words, the limitations of a restrictive land covenant are legally binding for anybody who subsequently buys the property.

A restrictive land covenant is enforceable as long it was recorded, it is being enforced in a fair and non-discriminatory manner, and there is still an individual or group benefiting from it. It can be enforced by any individual land owner who benefits from the restriction, or the collective homeowner’s association if there is one.  (Cal. Civ. Code §5975).

For the most part, homeowner’s associations are the principal enforcers of restrictive land covenants. California’s Civil Code authorizes these types of associations to initiate legal action, defend, settle, or intervene in litigation, arbitration, mediation, or administrative proceedings on behalf of the association membership (Cal. Civ. Code §5980). An association can take action to enforce CC&Rs, resolve issues concerning damage to common areas, and similar land-use matters.

Steps for enforcing a restrictive land covenant will vary based on the planned community. For example, one particular homeowner’s association may have outlined provisions for commencement of an enforcement action. In the absence of a homeowner’s association, the land owner seeking to enforce a restrictive land covenant can sue. A plaintiff in an action seeking to enforce CC&Rs can petition the court for an injunction against the defendant, which would require the defendant to stop non-compliance and seek money damages.

If you have any questions about restrictive covenants, consult with an experienced attorney. Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you.

LLC Creation Checklist for California

CaliforniaPreviously on the blog, we provided some general information about the formation requirements for various business entities. One of the most commonly utilized entities in California is the limited liability company (LLC). Generally speaking, the steps for forming an LLC in California include the following:

  • Pick a Name for the LLC. Selection of the name is limited by the California Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLCA). See California Corporations Code Section 17701.08. The name must contain the words “limited liability company,” or some permitted abbreviation of those words, i.e., “LLC” or “L.L.C.”

  • File Articles of Organization (Secretary of State Form LLC-1) with the California Secretary of State’s office and pay the associated filing fee. The type of management that is desired, i.e., manager-managed by one or more managers or member managed, is indicated by checking a box on the Articles of Organization, and should be carefully considered.

  • Designate an Agent for service of process. The agent shall be an individual that is a resident of the State of California, such as the company’s lawyer if a resident, or a corporate agent that complies under California law (Corporations Code Sections 17701.13(c), 1505) and whose capacity to act as an agent has not been terminated.

  • File a Statement of Information (Secretary of State Form LLC-12) with the California Secretary of State’s office within 90 days after filing the original Articles of Organization (biennially after that) and pay the associated filing fee.

Although some states have publication requirements for a newly formed LLC, California does not. California also does not legally require a newly formed LLC to prepare and file an LLC Operating Agreement. However, it is highly advisable to have an LLC Operating Agreement prepared (and negotiated if there is more than one member) before making any filings with the Secretary of State.

If you have any questions about forming a limited liability company, consult with an experienced attorney. Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses.  Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law needs.