Articles Posted in Business Litigation

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A recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in a fraudulent transfer case provides an excellent summary and roadmap of what it takes to prove a fraudulent transfer under Tennessee law. The Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, which has been adopted in Tennessee, can be a bit much to get one’s head around, at least without a good bit of review and study.  The recent opinion is useful because the facts of it are tailor-made to demonstrate how the provisions of the Act are applied and the result.

Here are the key facts of the case:

  • Father owned an LLC, the business of which was installing drywall
  • Father owed a Drywall Supplier about $350,000
  • In October of 2007, Father signed a note to the Drywall Supplier for the amount he owed
  • In March of 2009, Father sold the LLC to his Son for $12,000
  • Drywall Supplier filed a lawsuit to set aside the transfer of the LLC to Son, alleging it was a fraudulent transfer

In its fraudulent transfer case, Drywall Supplier alleged that the transfer of the LLC to Son was a fraudulent transfer under the actual fraud statute and, also, under the constructive fraud statute, both of which are part of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. The trial court found that the transfer was not fraudulent under either provision of the Act. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in all respects.

Under the actual fraud statute, a plaintiff must prove that the transfer was made “with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud” a creditor. Since proving fraudulent intent almost always requires circumstantial evidence, the statute lists eleven (11) factors that are to be considered in determining whether there was intent to defraud.  If a plaintiff is able to prove the existence of one or more of those factors (often called “badges of fraud”), a presumption of fraud arises.  Once that presumption has arisen, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that there was no fraudulent intent.

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In many Tennessee cases involving written contracts, the contracts will contain provisions whereby the parties agreed that the substantive law of a state other than Tennessee would apply in any litigation between them. (In the absence of such a provision, Tennessee follows the rule of lex loci contractus whereby it is presumed that the law of the state where the contract was signed applies).  Since there is substantial similarity between the laws of the States, especially the common law of breach of contract, which State’s law applies may not make a big difference in most cases. It can, however, make a big difference in some cases.

Where the parties have agreed that the law of a particular state will govern any litigation, a Tennessee court will enforce that agreement unless the jurisdiction whose law is chosen does not bear a material connection to the transaction or unless the law of the jurisdiction chosen is contrary to the fundamental policies of Tennessee. This blog focuses on the issue of when a Tennessee court might not enforce a choice of law provision because the law of the state chosen by the parties does not bear a material connection to the transaction.

There is scant published Tennessee case law that addresses this issue. In a 1931 opinion, Manufacturers Finance Co. v. B. L. Johnson & Co., 15 Tenn. App. 236, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee refused to apply the law of Delaware, which the parties had agreed would govern any dispute between them. In that case, the plaintiff was a finance company organized under Delaware law, but which had a principal place of business in Maryland.  The defendant was a Tennessee corporation with a principal place of business in Knoxville.  No part of the disputed transaction touched Delaware.  The court held that it would not apply Delaware law under those circumstances.

In a 2012 breach of contract case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals enforced a contractual provision whereby the law of Kentucky was to govern any litigation between the parties. In that case, the prospective buyer claimed that it was entitled to a refund of an earnest money deposit it had made to purchase land located in Kentucky from the seller. In that case, the buyer was from Tennessee, but the sellers were from Kentucky and the land being sold was in Kentucky.  Under those facts, the court held that there was a material connection between Kentucky and the transaction being litigated.

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In 1977, the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act was enacted. In 2011, the legislature of Tennessee modified it significantly. Here are some basic points to remember with respect to potential Tennessee Consumer Protection Act lawsuits:

  1. Since 2011, a party cannot bring a private cause of action for acts and practices which fall under the catch-all provision of T.C.A. §47-18-104(27).  The TCPA contains a laundry list of fairly specific acts or practices which are per se unfair and deceptive.  It also contains a catch-all subdivision which declares that “any other act or practice which is deceptive” is actionable.  In many cases, in my experience, it is difficult to shoe horn the conduct at issue into one of the defined unfair acts and practices.  In such cases, the catch-all provision may be the only avenue for a client to achieve the relief provided by the TCPA.  In 2011, however, the TCPA was revised to prohibit a private cause of action under the catch-all provision.  There are still other provisions for which a private cause of action is available, which are somewhat broad and which may fit a client’s case, particularly, T.C.A. §47-18-104(5)(7) and (19).
  2. The statute of limitations for lawsuits under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act is one year. The one year period begins running from “a person’s discovery of the unlawful act or practice.”  Beware that a defendant can argue that the statute began running when a person had constructive knowledge of the act or practice. A plaintiff has constructive knowledge when the plaintiff is aware of facts which would put a reasonable person on notice that the plaintiff has suffered an injury because of the wrongful conduct and knows the identity of the entity or person who engaged in that conduct.  When a plaintiff had constructive knowledge is a question of fact to be decided by the jury, if a jury has been demanded.  There is an absolute outer limit, or statute of repose, for the filing of TCPA claims of 5 years after the date of the transaction which is the basis of the lawsuit.
  3. To recover under the Tennessee Consumer Act, a plaintiff has to show more than just an unfair or deceptive act or practice: A plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an ascertainable loss as the result of the act or practice. In other words, consistent with the common law tort claims for fraud and negligent misrepresentation, a plaintiff in a consumer protection lawsuit must show that the conduct at issue caused him or her damages.  The question of whether or not there has been an ascertainable loss, and the amount thereof, is a question of fact for the jury where a jury has been demanded.
  4. The Tennessee Consumer Protection Act can no longer be used as a cause of action against an insurance company.  In 2011, T.C.A. §56-8-113 became effective and it prohibits the use of the TCPA against insurance companies.
  5. A plaintiff cannot recover both treble damages under the TCPA and punitive damages for a common law claim which relates to the same conduct. Plaintiffs typically combine a TCPA cause of action with a common law cause of action like fraud.  Punitive damages are not available under the TCPA, but a court may treble the amount of any damages awarded by the jury under the TCPA.  If a plaintiff recovers punitive damages under a common law claim and treble damages under the TCPA, the plaintiff must then elect which award to take (which is a no brainer decision).
  6. The TCPA cannot be used against someone who has been engaged in the isolated sale of real estate. If you buy a home or other real estate from someone who you believe made a misrepresentation or who failed to disclose a material defect, and that person is not in the real estate business and does not frequently sell real estate, you may have common law causes of action and other statutory causes of action against that person, but it is unlikely you have a viable TCPA claim against them.  (The same cannot be said for real estate agents and agencies.)
  7. The TCPA applies to acts or practices in connection with the marketing or sale of securities.
  8. Under the TCPA, a court may award a successful plaintiff attorney’s fees.  

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The Tennessee Statute of Frauds requires several types of contracts to be memorialized in a writing (or combination of writings) and signed in order to be enforceable. The three most important types of contracts covered by the Statute of Frauds, at least from a commercial standpoint, are contracts for the sale of land and leases longer than one year; agreements to pay the debts of another; and contracts that cannot possibly be performed within one year.

If a contract is covered by the Statute, does a modification of that contract also have to meet the requirements of the Statute? There is Tennessee case law to support that argument.  The case of Davidson v. Wilson is such a case, and one that demonstrates the ability of the Statute of Frauds to cause what many would describe as an inequitable result in a breach of contract case.

Here are the key facts of that case:

  • Buyer and Seller entered into a written contract providing that Seller would sell a specific 50 acre tract to Buyers for $124,750
  • The closing date for the sale in the written contract was December 5, 2005
  • On the closing date of December 5, the Seller sent, by U.S. mail, a warranty deed to the Buyers
  • The warranty deed recited that the tract was 50 acres “more or less”
  • The warranty deed also provided that the legal description of the tract was provided “without the benefit of a survey”
  • Buyers were concerned, as they should have been, about the deed
  • According to Buyers, after they received the deed, they had numerous conversations with the Seller which resulted in an oral modification of the terms of the written contract
  • According to Buyers, the oral modification was an agreement to extend the closing date until the Buyers had obtained a survey
  • The Seller denied that any such agreement modifying the written contract had been reached
  • The facts of the case strongly compelled the conclusion reached by the trial court: That the Seller’s version of events was not credible and that he had taken the position that the Buyers had breached by not closing on time only after he was able to obtain a contract for a significantly higher price for the tract from a third party

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee reversed the trial court. It did not challenge the trial court’s findings about the respective testimony of the litigants. It held that, since the alleged oral agreement changed the “essential terms” of the contract, it had to be in a writing which complied with the Statute of Frauds.

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In a recent breach of contract case involving a former employee who was promised 2.5% of the stock of the company which had employed him for twenty-six years, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee made some significant new law on the six year statute of limitations applicable to breach of contract actions.

The case is Powers v. A & W Supply, Inc., and here are the important facts:

  • In 1988, Mr. Powers became employed by A & W
  • In 1993, Mr. Powers and A & W signed an agreement whereby A & W promised Mr. Powers 2.5 % of the total number of issued and outstanding shares of A & W if he remained employed and in good standing with A & W until December 31, 2001
  • The agreement provided that A & W would execute and deliver the promised shares to Mr. Powers when they vested
  • Mr. Powers was still employed and in good standing with A & W as of December 31, 2001
  • No shares were issued to Mr. Powers on December 31, 2001, or ever
  • Mr. Powers was terminated from employment in October 2014
  • After being terminated, Mr. Powers asked about his shares and was told by A & W that it had never made him a shareholder and that the statute of limitations had expired on any breach of contract claim he had against A & W

The breach of contract statute of limitations which was applicable to Mr. Power’s claim was the six year statute. Under Tennessee law, the six year period begins to run when a party’s cause of action accrues.  A & W’s position was that Mr. Powers cause of action accrued on December 31, 2001, the date when his shares vested and on which he was supposed to receive the shares.  If A & W’s position was correct, then the six year statute did bar Mr. Power’s breach of contract claim.

The trial court held that Mr. Power’s breach of contract claim was not barred and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals reasoned that a principle of equity was applicable:  “Equity regards that as done which in good conscience ought to be done.”  A corollary of this equitable maxim is: “No one can take advantage of his own wrong.”  The Court of Appeals, to reach the result which it reached, also recognized that Tennessee law does not require someone to have actual shares in order to have ownership in a corporation, and that a transfer of stock does not have to be memorialized in writing.

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For a former employee or contractor who has signed a non-competition agreement, the threshold question is quite often this: Is the non-compete agreement enforceable or not?

How Tennessee courts treat non-compete agreements varies by court and by the unique facts of each case. In my experience, there is quite a bit of subjectivity involved when a court undertakes to determine if a non-competition agreement is enforceable and, if so, to what extent.

Despite the reality that each non-compete case turns on its own facts and on the particular court making the ruling, there are some guidelines that any court must apply when ruling on a non-compete agreement. For employers and employees who want to understand those guidelines, a very good case to read is Vantage Technology, LLC v. Cross, a 1999 decision of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee.

Here is a summary of the facts of the case:

  • Cross (“Employee”) went to work for Vantage (“Employer”) in 1994
  • Employer was in the business of providing equipment and support to doctors who performed cataract surgeries in rural hospitals
  • Employee’s title was “technician” and his duties included transporting materials and instruments to doctors performing cataract surgeries and assisting them during surgery
  • An important part of Employee’s job was building relationships with doctors and learning about their surgical preferences
  • Employer also provided machines to doctors who performed cataract surgeries in rural hospitals, which machines were crucial for the surgeries
  • Employer provided Employee about 241 hours of training during his first month of employment
  • By the time Employee resigned, about two years after he started, he had built a strong relationship with a doctor who performed a substantial number of surgeries with the help of Employer
  • Employee resigned and immediately formed a business relationship with that physician whereby they started a company which competed with Employer
  • Employer filed suit against the Employee alleging that he had breached the non-compete agreement

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It happens with some frequency in Tennessee that a check is written and notated “paid in full” or “payment in full.” Sometimes, if a check is not written “paid in full,” the business which owes the debt may send an accompanying letter stating that the payment is for the full amount of the account or debt.  Sometimes, when the debtor is very prudent, it so notates the check and also sends such a letter with the check.

Under Tennessee common law, as well as under a Tennessee statute, T.C.A. §47-3-311, if a person or business owed money (a creditor), cashes a check marked “paid in full” or with similar language, or cashes a check sent with a letter stating that the payment is in full satisfaction of the debt, that creditor may well be barred from collecting any additional money.

In Tennessee breach of contract cases, a party who proves an accord and satisfaction is relieved of further liability to the creditor. To prove successfully an accord and satisfaction, the debtor must prove that the amount it owed the creditor was disputed; it sent a check conspicuously marked “paid in full,” or with other language establishing that the payment was in full satisfaction of the debt, or sent the check with a letter indicating that the payment was in full satisfaction of the alleged debt; and, that the creditor cashed the check.

For an example of a breach of contract case where an accord and satisfaction defense was successful, take a look at Pendergrass v. Ingram (Tenn. Ct. App. 2016).  Here are the basic facts of that case:

  • Plaintiffs agreed to do certain grading and other work on Defendant’s property
  • The parties orally agreed that Plaintiffs would be paid $2,500
  • Plaintiffs were paid $1,000 up front
  • After the Plaintiffs began working, the Plaintiffs performed additional work beyond the work to which the parties had agreed
  • The parties never discussed what Plaintiffs would be paid for the additional work
  • After the work was finished, the Plaintiffs sent Defendant a bill for $9,073
  • Defendant let the Plaintiffs know that he did not believe he owed more than $1,500
  • The Defendant then sent Plaintiffs a check for $1,500 with the notation “pd. in full”
  • The Plaintiffs marked through the “pd. in full” notation on the check and cashed it

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For salesmen and manufacturers representatives who are owed commissions, a recent decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in a breach of contract case for commissions owed is not encouraging. The analysis and application of Tennessee breach of contract law to the facts of the case by the majority of the three judge panel was D to D-  work (to the losing plaintiff, I am sure it was F work) .  The dissenting judge’s opinion, which was justifiably quite sharp, is the only bright spot for those seeking unpaid commissions (and for lawyers who like to see the law applied correctly).

In the case, Maverick Group Marketing, Inc. v. Worx Environmental Products, Ltd., the plaintiff sales company worked for years on behalf of the defendant to have Wal-Mart buy the defendant’s product.  Then, the defendant terminated its contract with plaintiff.  The defendant then received its first order from Wal-Mart three weeks after terminating its contract with the plaintiff.

Before terminating the plaintiff’s contract, the defendant had supplied Wal-Mart a supplier agreement, Wal-Mart had tested the product, and Wal-Mart and the defendant had agreed on the price for the product. The only thing that had not happened was that Wal-Mart had not placed an order.

The contract between the plaintiff and the defendant provided that, if the agreement between them was terminated, then the plaintiff would still receive commissions on “orders solicited prior to the effective date of termination.” The two judge majority reasoned that, because Wal-Mart had not placed an order, no orders had been solicited and, therefore, the plaintiff was not entitled to any sales commissions.

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In Tennessee, quite a few corporations and LLCs are owned equally by two parties. Frequently, the relationship between the owners sours, or worse.  At some point, a “business divorce” may become necessary. If you want to keep the business, but need your co-owner out of the business, how do you proceed?

The first thing you should do is to check the by-laws (for corporations) or operating agreement (for LLCs), if they exist, which they may not. If there was good pre-formation planning, you may be fortunate enough to have an agreement already in place about how one owner may buy out the other.  Some by-laws and operating agreements contain provisions which allow one owner to make an offer to the other owner for his or her membership interests or shares. Those provisions then require the owner to whom the offer is made either to accept the offer or to buy out the owner who made the offer for the same amount that was offered to him or her.  If the other owner may also want to keep the business, considerable caution and thought need to go into an offer since the non-offering owner may decide to buy out the offering owner if he or she determines that the price offered makes it attractive to keep the business.

If the by-laws or operating agreement do not provide for a process whereby one owner can force an end to the joint ownership, you should consider approaching the other owner to try and reach an agreement about a price the other owner is willing to take for his or her interest in the corporation or LLC. If you reach a suitable agreement, be sure to memorialize it in a document.  It is highly advisable that you have an experienced Tennessee business divorce lawyer ensure that the agreement covers you.

If no agreement can be reached, you may have to dissolve the LLC or corporation. In my experience, it will probably not come to a dissolution because, in most cases, a co-owner would be foolish to force a dissolution as opposed to taking a buy-out.  In a dissolution, the going concern value of the company will be lost which means that your co-owner is likely to receive substantially less in a dissolution than he or she would receive pursuant to an offer made on the fair value of his or her interest in the business as a going concern.  If you are forced to dissolve the company, you will most likely be able to buy assets of the company, and you can start a new competing business just as soon as the dissolution process begins, if not before.

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Many Tennessee businesses have commercial general liability policies, and many other types of policies and endorsements, which contain exclusions for any loss resulting from dishonest or criminal acts. These exclusions will most likely apply to employees, partners and directors of the business.

Sometimes, in insurance policy litigation, there is no way to defeat a policy exclusion for dishonest or criminal acts. For example, if the insurance company can prove that the loss resulted solely and exclusively as a result of the theft or other illegal conduct by an employee of the insured business, the insurance company will not have to pay the claim. Where, however, the loss could have resulted from both the dishonest or criminal act of an employee and some other concurrent cause, the insurance company may not be able to rely successfully on the exclusion.

While no published Tennessee opinion addresses a fact situation where there was a dishonest or criminal acts exclusion in an insurance policy along with concurrent causation (causation of a loss resulting from an employee’s dishonest or criminal conduct and some other cause), the opinion of the Supreme Court of Tennessee in Allstate Insurance Company v. Watts, 811 S.W.2d 883 (1991) would apply directly to such a case.

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