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In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee concluded that an option agreement for the purchase of 12 acres of land in the Wedgewood-Houston area of Nashville (“Property”) was nothing more than an unenforceable “agreement to agree” since the parties did not agree to a price for the Property, but only agreed to negotiate about price after the optionee exercised its option. (As a matter of full disclosure, Pepper Law represented the prevailing party, the defendant, Freeman Investment, LLC (“Freeman”)).

The plaintiff in the case, LVH, LLC (“LVH”), and Freeman signed an Option Agreement. The Option Agreement gave LVH a period of time to conduct due diligence to determine if the Property was suitable for development. The Option Agreement contained some language, which, standing alone and without reference to any of the other language in it, could be used to calculate a definite purchase price. The most critical paragraph in the Option Agreement with respect to the issues in the case was paragraph 2 which provided:

  1. Option Price. To be mutually agreed upon by Buyer and Seller within thirty (30) days following the expiration of the Option Period, at a price of $20,000 per residential unit (upon project completion) that can reasonably be developed on the property ….

Another paragraph provided that the earnest money paid by LVH “shall either be refunded to [LVH] in the event [LVH] terminates this agreement or [LVH] and [Freeman] cannot agree to an Option Price or partnership terms.”

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A couple of Tennessee cases lay out pretty well the kinds of damages a tenant of commercial space may be able to recover in the event the tenant’s landlord breaches the lease agreement by not making repairs or evicts the tenant without grounds.  Keep in mind that an eviction can be constructive. A constructive eviction occurs when the premises become untenantable.  With some frequency, commercial buildings become untenantable because landlords neglect to make repairs or make inadequate repairs.  (A tenant of a commercial building should be very careful about concluding, at least without the input of experienced legal counsel, that a failure of its landlord to make a repair rises to the level of a constructive eviction which would permit it to terminate the lease lawfully.)

In the recent case of Pryority Partnership v. AMT Properties, LLC (Tenn. Ct. App. 2020), the landlord of a commercial building failed to repair a leaky roof on the warehouse it rented to the plaintiff tenant. The tenant was very patient and gave the landlord several months to make the repairs, which repairs the landlord promised from the beginning of the lease it would make.  While the tenant was waiting on the landlord to make the repairs, it could not install several machines that weighed several tons each.

After waiting several months for the repairs to be made to no avail, the tenant terminated the lease. The trial court, which was affirmed in all respects by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, found that the tenant had been constructively evicted and that the defendant landlord had breached the lease by not repairing the leaking roof.

The trial court awarded the tenant almost $200,000 in damages. Those damages consisted of rent paid by the tenant to the defendant landlord, expenses the tenant incurred to renovate the building, as well as expenses it incurred in relocating to another building.  The court of appeals affirmed this award. The court of appeals noted that a tenant may recover all damages it sustains because of its landlord’s breach which the tenant can prove with reasonable accuracy. Although the tenant in the Pryority case did not request lost profits, the court of appeals pointed out that it could have and that lost profits may be recovered by a tenant in a breach of commercial lease case.

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A Tennessee case, Smith v. Hi-Speed, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. 2016), which involved a commercial lease, sets forth a very useful analysis of the parol evidence rule and the statute of frauds. The facts and legal arguments, as well as the analysis of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, align in a way that make the opinion in the case one that can be helpful to practitioners and litigants in many real estate cases where the parol evidence rule and the statute of frauds are in play.

Here are the salient facts:

  • Mother owned two commercial buildings, one in Tennessee and one in Arkansas
  • Mother’s son (“Son”) owned an interest in Hi-Speed (the opinion does not discuss whether Son owned all or some of Hi-Speed)
  • Mother agreed to spend significant money to build out the Arkansas building for Hi-Speed
  • Mother and Hi-Speed entered into a written lease agreement for the Arkansas building (the “Lease”)
  • The Lease provided that it was for 20 years with base rent of $14,000 per month
  • The Lease also provided that Hi-Speed would pay additional rent of $4,000 per month so long as the Mothers’ Tennessee building was pledged as collateral for the loan Mother obtained to build out the Arkansas building
  • Hi-Speed made the $4,000 additional monthly rent payments while the Tennessee building was pledged as collateral which was through 2008
  • Even after 2008, Hi-Speed continued to make the additional rent payments to Mother, and in even greater amounts than $4,000 per month
  • In 2009, Mother’s son died
  • In 2011, new management at Hi-Speed notified Mother that the additional rent payments each month would cease

Mother filed suit against Hi-Speed. She claimed that the Lease did not contain the entire agreement of the parties and that they also verbally agreed that the additional rent payments would continue as long as Mother was obligated on the loan she obtained to build out the Arkansas building.  (The term of Mother’s obligation on the loan went well beyond the time period that Mother’s Tennessee building secured the loan). The trial court held that the parol evidence rule barred Mother from offering evidence of the verbal agreement.

PAROL EVIDENCE RULE ANALYSIS

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In early 2019, the Supreme Court of Tennessee issued an opinion that, without exaggeration, can be said to be one of the most important Tennessee cases, if not the most important Tennessee case, to contemporary commercial litigation lawyers on the subjects of contract interpretation and the parol evidence rule. The opinion was in the case of Individual Healthcare Specialists, Inc. v. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Inc.

In the case, the Court undertook the arduous task of analyzing, discussing and reconciling over a hundred years of Tennessee case law on the subjects at issue, much of which case law is inconsistent on critical points.  While the opinion, to a large extent, struck a middle ground which still leaves open the ability of parties with contravening positions to pull something from it which supports the position of each, it provides much more clarity than the case law that came before it.  It also anchored Tennessee law in a place that is closer to the middle, and not at the extreme, of the two theories of contract interpretation with which it dealt — the contextual approach and the textual approach.

As explained in the Individual Healthcare Specialists case, under the contextual approach to contract interpretation, a court may look beyond the four corners of the written contract to determine the parties’ intent, even when the language in the parties’ contract is unambiguous. The Court juxtaposed that approach to contract interpretation applying the textual approach which prohibits a court from considering evidence other than the parties’ written agreement in many circumstances and certainly in a circumstance where the parties’ writing is unambiguous.

All of the facts and rulings related to the subjects of this post, contract interpretation and the parol evidence rule, do not have to be discussed to understand the outcome and implications of the Individual Healthcare Specialists case. In the case, the plaintiff, an insurance agency which sold BlueCross BlueShield (“BCBS”) policies for a commission, sued BCBS alleging that it had been underpaid. The language of the main agreement between the Plaintiff and BCBS, which was entered into in 1999, unambiguously permitted BCBS the right to change, unilaterally, the commission rates to be paid to the Plaintiff.

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Under the Tennessee Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“TUTSA”), a party alleging a violation of that Act must first prove that the information at issue is a trade secret. To prove that information is a trade secret under TUTSA, a plaintiff must prove, among other things, that the information is not “readily ascertainable by proper means by other persons [besides the defendant].” Sometimes, courts describe this as an obligation of the plaintiff to prove that the information is not “publicly available.” (This requirement is closely related to the requirement that a plaintiff must prove that it took reasonable efforts under the circumstances to maintain the secrecy of the information.)

Anecdotally, plaintiffs frequently file lawsuits alleging that their trade secrets were misappropriated, but courts determine that what the plaintiffs claimed were trade secrets were not because, either the information was publicly available or the plaintiff, itself, disclosed the information to the defendant or others without requiring that the defendant or others maintain the confidentiality of the information and not use it.

Here are summaries of a few select cases where courts have decided that information does not qualify as a trade secret because it was available through other means.

  1. Care Services Mgmt., LLC v. Premier Mobile Dentistry of Va. (M.D. Tenn. 2020): The plaintiff provided to healthcare providers assistance with payment of claims and reimbursement. The defendant had been employed by plaintiff as a bill collector and later as a supervisor of bill collectors. The plaintiff claimed that forms, or templates, for documents that related to providing and receiving dental treatment were trade secrets which the defendant had misappropriated. Those documents included transmittal letters, emails, spreadsheets, invoices, dental progress notes, memos and the like. The court disagreed finding that the documents were regularly shared with patients, nursing homes, state agencies and others.
  2. Wright Medical Tech., Inc. v. Grisoni (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001):  In this case, the defendant was a highly educated and experienced chemical engineer who, while employed by the plaintiff, had worked on developing a calcium sulfate bone void filler medical product. After his employment was terminated, he began working on a similar product. In finding that the defendant former employee had not violated TUTSA, the court relied on the fact that the former employee was able to point it to public sources which contained information about calcium sulfate bone void fillers and that the plaintiff, his former employer, had published brochures and user guides describing the product it was developing.
  3. Ecimos, LLC v. Carrier Corp. (6th Cir. 2020):  In this case, the court stated that, in determining whether information is a trade secret, the “most important” factor “is whether the information has been publicly disclosed or is easily acquired or duplicated by others.” The court ruled in this case that the plaintiff’s assembled hardware did not constitute a trade secret because the plaintiff had put the product on the market and sold it to third parties.

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In Tennessee, it is not highly unusual for a buyer to discover, after buying a piece of property, that it contains less acreage than was represented in the deed.  For example, a buyer’s deed might state the property contains 22 acres “more or less” or 22 acres “approximately” after giving a legal description of the land in question.  After buying the property, our hypothetical buyer might have a survey done which reveals that the property described consisted of only 18 acres.

Under Tennessee law, what are the chances that our hypothetical buyer can recover part of the purchase price or rescind the contract altogether and recover the entire purchase price? In most cases, based on my experience and familiarity with Tennessee real estate cases, the answer is that the chances are not very good. This is certainly not to say that a buyer cannot be successful in receiving a partial refund or rescission. As well, that pessimistic opinion applies only to real estate transactions in which the sales of property were “in gross” and not by the acre.

In its simplest terms, a sale in gross occurs when the purchase price is not determined by an amount per acre, but by a lump sum for land, the location and boundaries of which are described. In my experience, sales in gross account for most all real estate transactions.

Where a sale is in gross, a seller is not liable for any deficiency in the quantity of land unless the buyer can show facts establishing that the seller acted fraudulently or that the seller made such a substantial mistake that fraud should be inferred.  The rationale for this rule is that, where the seller has described the boundaries of the property, the buyer is free to have his or her own survey done to verify the accuracy of the seller’s representations as to the acreage contained within those boundaries.

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What damages can a plaintiff recover under Tennessee law for construction defects? The answer is that a plaintiff can recover either the amount it will take to remedy or repair the defects or the difference in value between the structure had the work been done correctly and its value considering the defective work. The later method of damages is sometimes referred to as “diminution in value” or “diminution” damages.

Construction defect cases almost always are breach of contract cases where a project owner or homeowner has sued a contractor with which it had a written or verbal contract. Thus, although there are some unique considerations in construction defect cases, basic principles of Tennessee contract law apply to them. The purpose of breach of contract damages is, first and foremost, to attempt to put the plaintiff, as near as possible, in the same position in which he or she would have been had the defendant not breached.  The plaintiff should not receive a windfall nor should the plaintiff receive less than what it will take to be made whole.

A plaintiff in a breach of contract case with a contractor must be mindful that, under Tennessee law, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving damages. Practically speaking, lawyers representing plaintiffs in construction defect cases must be strategic and proactive from the very beginning of the case about the proof needed to ensure that their client receives a recovery.  More than a few construction defects cases have foundered at the damages stage after a plaintiff has proven liability.

Who determines, in a construction defect case, which of the above two methods of calculating damages applies? In Tennessee, the judge does. How does the judge decide which method to apply? Probably, the seminal and most informative Tennessee case addressing that question is GSB Contractors, Inc. v. Hess (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005).

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A member of a Tennessee Limited Liability Company (“LLC”) may, at some point, lose his or her membership interest, either voluntarily or involuntarily.  An Operating Agreement of an LLC may have provisions which address the conditions under which a member’s interest may be terminated. If the LLC does not have an Operating Agreement, or the Operating Agreement which it does have does not contain provisions dealing with the termination of a member’s interest, then, the provisions of Tennessee Revised Limited Liability Company (the “Act”) will apply by default. (The Act’s provisions always apply, by default, where an LLC does not have an Operating Agreement). Frequently, Operating Agreements contain provisions related to the voluntary and involuntary termination of a member’s interest in the LLC.

Under the Act, an LLC member may voluntarily terminate his or her interest in the LLC. (If the member does so in contravention of the terms of the LLC’s Operating Agreement, the member may be held liable for any damages caused by such voluntary termination).  As well, under the Act, a member’s interest may be terminated involuntarily by a Tennessee court under certain circumstances set forth in the Act at T.C.A § 48-249-503.

What does a member of an LLC receive under Tennessee law when his or her membership interest has been terminated, whether voluntarily or involuntarily?  If the Operating Agreement provides how the valuation and payment is to be made, then its terms will control. If the Operating Agreement does not provide for how a terminated member’s interest is to be valued, then the provisions of the Act, specifically T.C.A §48-249-505, will apply.

Under §505, a member is entitled to be paid “fair value” for his or her membership interest. That term, as explained by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in a recent decision, is not the same as “market value.”  In Raley v. Brinkman (Tenn. Ct. App. 2020), two members, Raley and Brinkman, owned 50% of the membership interests of the LLC at issue. Among several rulings arising from the dispute between the two, the trial court ruled that Raley’s interest should be involuntarily terminated because of his conduct.

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Tennessee recognizes a breach of contract cause of action for the breach of a contract as to how, and to whom, assets will be distributed at the death of the promisor. Most often, these claims arise where spouses have made mutual wills, but where the last deceased spouse has breached this contract by changing the terms of his or her will after his or her spouse predeceased.  While breach of contract cases related to wills most often arise in the context of mutual spousal wills, they can also arise in other contexts. For example, in Owens v. Church (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984), a breach of contract claim was successfully prosecuted by a niece and nephew whom were promised their aunt’s estate if they took care of her.

In whatever context a breach of contract case to make a will arises, to be enforceable, such a contract must meet the requirements of T.C.A. §32-3-107.  That statute is, essentially, statute of frauds for contracts to make wills.  Under the statute, a contract to make a will must be established in one of these three ways to be valid: (1) It must be contained in a will and it must include all material provisions of the contract; (2) the will must contain an express reference to the contract and an express reference to the agreement outside of the will which contains the terms of the contract; or (3) there must be a writing signed by the decedent evidencing the contract.  Notably, the last prong of the statute allows for the contract to be created wholly outside of the will and without the will making any mention of the contract.

What statute of limitations apply to a cause of action for breach of a contract to make a will? Three different statutes of limitations may apply. Which one applies will depend upon the way the breach of contract is being challenged. The Supreme Court of Tennessee has recognized that a breach of contract to make a will claim may be presented in three different ways.  First, it may be brought as a will contest. If so, the two- year statute of limitations for will contests will apply. (That statute begins running on the date of the entry of the order admitting the will to probate proceedings). Second, it may be brought as a claim against the estate of the deceased.  The outside limit for filing a claim against an estate is twelve months from the deceased’s death. Third, the cause of action may be brought as a claim for specific performance. In that event, the six-year statute of limitations applicable to breach of contract actions applies.

Claims for breach of a contract to make a will and bequeath assets to the persons or entities agreed almost always arise after the death of the person who is alleged to have breached the promise. However, they can be brought before that time, if the breach is discovered. For example, in the Owens v. Church case, the niece and nephew who agreed to take care of their aunt for life in exchange for her bequeathing all of her assets to them learned, while she was still alive, that she had changed her will and, then, brought suit against her while she was still alive.  Not only was this allowable, but also, the court constructed a remedy for them even before their aunt died.

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In evaluating the potential for personal liability of members or managers of limited liability companies under Tennessee law, it is first helpful to determine into which of two broad categories the conduct at issue falls. The first category is conduct of a member or manager that has harmed members of the LLC or the LLC, but not third parties. The second category is conduct of a member or manager that has harmed a third party who is not a member of the LLC.

  1. Conduct Affecting the LLC or LLC Members

If the manager’s or member’s conduct affected members of the LLC or the LLC, the liability of that manager or member will be determined by §48-249-403 of the Tennessee Revised Limited Liability Company Act (the “Act”) (this assumes the LLC in question was formed after January 1, 2006 and is, thus, governed by that Act). §48-249-403 limits the liability of managers and members by expressly limiting their duties to the LLC and to other members to the duties of care and loyalty.

  1. Duty of Care

The duty of care set forth in §48-249-403 incorporates the “Business Judgment Rule.” The Business Judgment Rule allows managers and members of LLCs to make decisions about the operation of the business without having to face liability if the decisions turn out to be bad.   That Rule, as reflected in §48-249-403, provides that managers and members are not liable for their conduct in operating the business except where it amounts to “grossly negligent or reckless conduct, intentional misconduct or knowing violation of law.” If a manager or member makes a risky investment that turns out poorly, but had some possibility of an upside, he or she will probably not be liable. On the other hand, if he or she wired all of the LLCs’ funds to an alleged Nigerian prince or paid a bribe to a government official, he or she will probably face liability.

  1. Duty of Loyalty

Broadly speaking, the duty of loyalty prohibits a member or manager from competing with the LLC or usurping an opportunity of the LLC. It also prohibits a manager or member from using LLC assets for his or her own benefit and from otherwise misappropriating LLC funds or assets. Continue reading →

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