Are Breach of Contract Disputes Governed by Terms of Contract Alone?

You might think so, but generally whether the terms alone govern a dispute depends on the language in the contract.  When a contractual relationship breaks down, parties that previously agreed to terms of a contract suddenly no longer agree on the meaning of key terms. Many times parties to a contract have evidence that supports one meaning versus another.  The question becomes whether any of the evidence is relevant or if the court will simply interpret the terms as written.

I have posted before on the implications of the parol evidence rule in Connecticut.  A recent Appellate Court case serves to highlight some important aspects of the rule.  The case is Sullo Investments LLC v Marci Moreau and will be released for official publication on July 1, 2014.  In Sullo, the defendant signed a guaranty agreement for a commercial note.  The defendant lost at trial.  On appeal, the defendant claimed that the trial court erred because the court went beyond the four corners of the guaranty agreement and considered extrinsic evidence in violation of the parole evidence rule.

The Appellate Court disagreed and pointed out that the parole evidence rule is only implicated where the evidence serves to contradict or vary terms that are actually in the contract.  The rule:

“does not of itself, therefore, forbid the presentation of parol evidence, that is, evidence outside the four corners of the contract concerning matters governed by an integrated contract, but forbids on the use of such evidence to vary or contradict the terms of such a contract.”

The rule of evidence that applies to bar the evidence is relevance.   If the court cannot use the evidence to alter the terms of a complete and clear contract, then the evidence becomes irrelevant.  However, the evidence may be relevant for another purpose or the rule may not apply to the terms of the contract.  For example, extrinsic evidence may be admissible:

  • To explain an ambiguity in the contract
  • To prove a collateral agreement that does not vary the terms of the written
  • To add missing terms to a contract that does not state it is complete
  • To show mistake or fraud

These are all examples where the evidence would not alter the terms of a complete, written contract in clear terms.  As such, to determine whether evidence outside the contract is relevant, you have to consider the nature of the evidence, its purpose, and whether it contradicts the clear terms of a complete contract.  The parol evidence rule also highlights the need to draft clear contracts with clauses that make it clear the contract alone will govern the dispute.  Otherwise, the court will permit each party to introduce evidence outside the four corners of the contract.  This could include conversations, emails, and other documents.

Parol Evidence Rule Can Sting In Court

 Parties to contracts frequently argue over contract terms and the intent behind certain provisions ofbee-sting a contract.  However, if the matter goes to court, these arguments can become meaningless if the contract is clear because of the parol evidence rule.  A recent appellate court case, Connecticut Bank and Trust Co. v. Munsill-Borden Mansion, LLC, serves to highlight how the rule could impact the evidence in a breach of contract case at trial in Connecticut.

In the CT Bank and Trust case, the parties were arguing over whether an individual had personally guaranteed a promissory note.  The individual’s attorney wanted to ask a witness questions concerning the intent behind signing the note.  However, the trial judge sustained objections to all of the questions that strayed from the actual note. The reason cited was the parol evidence rule.

In summary, the parol evidence rule prohibits the use of extrinsic evidence (off the contract) to vary or contradict the terms of an integrated (complete) contract.  There are exceptions.  Exceptions include evidence to explain ambiguity, prove a collateral oral agreement that does not vary the contract, add a missing term that does not set forth the complete agreement, or to show mistake or fraud. 

In this case, application of the rule barred all of the questions that were not related to the note itself.  Therefore, any arguments over terms or intent were irrelevant.  Simply put, the parties were confined to the contract itself.

The take away here is to make sure any specific terms you want in a contract are reduced to writing in the contract, and not in a separate document or conversation.  For example, emails or verbal agreements that alter the terms of a clear and integrated contract may become irrelevant and unenforceable in court. 

Are Settlement Agreements Enforceable In Connecticut

The short answer is that it depends.  Settlement agreements are generally enforceable if the terms of the agreement are clear and authorized by the litigants or parties to the litigation.  In Gengaro v. City of New Haven (to be officially released December 29th), the Appellate Court had another opportunity to comment on the long standing law in Connecticut that "a compromise agreement . . . if free from fraud, mistake or undue influence . . . is conclusive between the parties." 

In Gengaro, a trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City concerning employment claims because Gengaro had signed a confidential settlement agreement prior to the lawsuit.  Gengaro claimed he was forced to so sign the agreement because of threats of losing his job.  He claimed undue influence to attempt to invalidate the settlement agreement.   Gengaro claimed that he had serious financial and medical problems.  Coupled with the threat  of job loss, he claimed that he had no reasonable alternative but to agree to the settlement.  

The trial court granted summary judgment finding insufficient issues of fact concerning undue influence.  Essentially, the court concluded that the threat of losing his job was not sufficient for the exercise of undue influence.  The Appellate Court agreed.  For a good analysis of what employers should to to avoid these type of claims check of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog post on the case.

To establish undue influence in Connecticut, four elements must be established:

  • a person is who is subject to influence
  • an opportunity to exert undue influence
  • a disposition to exert undue influence; and
  • a result indicating undue influence

Relevant factors in the inquiry include age, physical and mental condition, whether the person had disinterested or legal advice, the consideration of value of the contracted for exchange, and active solicitations and persuasions by the other party.

In summary, undue influence is the exercise of control by one person over another in an attempt to destroy the person’s free agency and "constrain him to do something other than he would do under normal control…"  Undue influence, if demonstrated, may invalidate a contract because the free assent of one party to the contract is lacking.

Settlements agreements are enforceable in court if the terms are clear and authorized by the parties.  Attempting to invalidate the agreement by showing undue influence, fraud, or mistake are difficult claims to make.  The take away here is to carefully review your settlement agreements with counsel because once you sign an agreement, it is likely to be enforced absent special factors.

 

 

Getting A Contract In Writing Does Not Always Satisfy The Statute Of Frauds

One of the first things lawyers check for when contesting an oral contract is the statute of frauds.  The statute of frauds comes from an English rule dating back to the 1600’s.  At its most basic level, the statute of frauds requires certain types of contracts to be in writing or else they are not enforceable in court actions.  However, sometimes, even when a contract is in writing, it still will not satisfy the statute of frauds.

That is what happened in SS-II, LLC v. Bridge Street Associates, an advanced opinion released today by the Connecticut Supreme Court.  The dispute involved an option to purchase property pursuant to a commercial lease that was in writing.  The tenant wanted to exercise the option and the seller did not want to close on the sale. 

When the tenant brought a lawsuit for specific performance trying to force the sale, the owner raised the Connecticut Statute of Frauds as a defense and won in court.  In Connecticut, the agreements that must be in writing under the statute of frauds include the following:

  • any agreement by any executor promising to answer damages out of his own property
  • any promise to answer for the debt, default or miscarriage of another
  • any agreement made upon consideration of marriage
  • any agreement for the sale of real property or any interest in or concerning real property
  • any agreement that is not to be performed within one year 
  • any agreement for a loan in an amount which exceeds fifty thousand dollars.

Not only do these agreements have to be in writing, but they also have to contain the contract’s essential terms.  In a contract to sell land, the terms must describe a certain price, the parties to the contract, and the land.  In the SS-II case, the contract did not comply with the statute of frauds because the purchase price was not certain and was subject to some conditions.  Although there are counter defenses to the statute of frauds, such as partial performance, the court deemed that they did not apply. 

The takeaway from this case is to be cautious with oral contacts and do not assume a writing alone will make the agreement enforceable.  A contract has to be in writing, signed, and have the proper terms in it or else you may not have an enforceable agreement if the statute of frauds applies.