Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Appellant appealed the order denying his motion to vacate the judgment entered against him for $251,200.13 after he failed to pay $30,000 as required pursuant to a stipulation for entry of judgment. Appellant contends the trial court erred because the judgment is an unenforceable penalty and is therefore void.   The Second Appellate disagreed with Appellant and affirmed the order denying the motion to vacate the $251,200.13 judgment. Here, the $251,200.13 damage provision in the stipulation for entry of judgment is not arbitrarily drawn from thin air. It is the actual and stipulated amount of damages. This is not a penalty or a liquidated damage provision. The court explained it cannot delete the terms of the stipulated judgment calling for monthly payments and it cannot add a provision to the terms of the stipulated judgment allowing a seven-year moratorium on monthly payments. Money has value over time. Appellant has had the use of the money for seven years. Respondent has been deprived of the use of the money for seven years. Respondent’s “more than reasonable” settlement terms should not be used against it to show “liquidated damages” or a “penalty.” View "Creditors Adjustment Bureau v. Imani" on Justia Law

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Shao Yan Chen, Han Lin Liu, Zhi Hua Mo, Yuk Yee Cheng, Hui Zhen Hu, Ruizhao Wu, and Qi Di Wu (collectively, tenants) had a dispute with Valstock Ventures, LLC and 371 Broadway Street, LLC (together, Valstock) over which of two documents was the operative lease governing the tenants’ tenancies in two of Valstock’s apartment buildings. The tenants filed suit against Valstock seeking a declaratory judgment on this question, alleging a civil conspiracy, and stating claims for violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Unfair Competition Law (UCL), and section 37.10B of the San Francisco Rent Ordinance. The trial court awarded the tenants approximately $1.1 million in attorney’s fees under Civil Code section 1717 after granting their motion for summary adjudication of the sole cause of action on the contract in this case, before trial or disposition of the remaining non-contract causes of action. The defendants appealed, arguing the award of attorney’s fees was premature because the litigation as a whole had not yet ended. To this the Court of Appeal agreed and therefore reversed. View "Chen v. Valstock Ventures, LLC" on Justia Law

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Luis Munoz and LR Munoz Real Estate Holdings, LLC (together, Munoz) bought a hotel from a company owned and managed by Rajesh Patel and his son, Shivam. Before escrow closed, the parties negotiated a leaseback arrangement requiring Munoz to lease the hotel back to the Patels’ company after the sale. Escrow closed and the parties thereafter executed the previously-negotiated lease. However, Munoz contended the Patels secretly swapped out the agreed-upon lease for a lease substantially more beneficial to the Patels and worse for Munoz, and then tricked him into signing it. Munoz filed suit against the Patels, an alleged alter ego entity of the Patels called Inn Lending, LLC, and other defendants involved in the sale, asserting causes of action for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, promissory fraud, and elder financial abuse, among other causes of action. Rajesh and Inn Lending demurred to the operative second amended complaint, the trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. In a prior opinion, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and determined, among other things, that Munoz alleged a viable fraud cause of action based on a theory of fraud in the execution. The California Supreme Court granted review and remanded the case back to the appellate court, ordering a rehearing of the parties arguments for fraud. After reconsideration, the Court of Appeal concluded operative complaint alleged facts sufficient to state a viable cause of action for fraud in the execution against Rajesh, but not against Inn Lending. Additionally, the Court concluded the complaint plead facts sufficient to state an elder financial abuse cause of action against both Rajesh and Inn Lending. The Court concluded Munoz failed to establish that the trial court erred in dismissing his breach of contract and bad faith causes of action. In light of these determinations, the appeals court reversed the trial court judgment and remand the matter with instructions that the trial court vacate its order sustaining the demurrer to the entire complaint, and enter a new order. View "Munoz v. Patel" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether a cross-complaint filed by Connor Callanan against Charles Menken, Steven Menken, and Grizzly Designs, LLC, dba Brotherly Love (collectively “the Menkens”) was a SLAPP suit subject to a special motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 (known as the anti-SLAPP statute). The Menkens were “engaged in the research and development of various cannabis based products intended for marketing in the burgeoning cannabis market space.” Marino and Callanan owned and operated a business called UHSE Media LLC that provided media, marketing, and consulting services to the cannabis industry. In May 2019, the Menkens entered into an “oral agreement” with Marino and Callanan for such consulting services and agreed to pay them $30,000 each. The Menkens claimed that Marino and Callanan were independent contractors rather than employees. Marino and Callanan were “permitted” to live at the Menkens’ “business location” “as they deemed necessary” in order to do their consulting work, but they “were at all times free to come and go as they determined necessary and for their own purposes.” They began living and working at the Menkens’ business location in late May 2019. The Menkens contended “the substantial majority” of the work Marino and Callanan did on the farm was related to their independent media and consulting business, but that by November 2019, Marino and Callanan were failing to perform media and consulting services and were instead spending most of their time harvesting and processing cannabis. Marino and Callanan also began demanding sums of money “they believed they were entitled to under California’s wage and hour laws.” At this point, the parties’ relationship “became openly hostile” and Marino and Callanan (allegedly) set fire to a building that was used as an office and sleeping quarters, causing over $100,000 in damages. The Menkens contended Callanan’s cross-complaint was a SLAPP suit because it was filed in retaliation for a cross-complaint they filed against Callanan, and they filed a motion under section 425.16 seeking to strike it. The trial court granted the motion, and Callanan appealed. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded Callanan’s cross-complaint was not a SLAPP suit because none of his claims arose from the filing of the Menkens’ cross-complaint. View "Callanan v. Grizzly Designs, LLC" on Justia Law

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M & L Financial, Inc. (M&L) took 45 vivid yellow diamonds worth $4 million to Sotheby’s for auction on consignment. M&L told Sotheby’s it was the exclusive owner of the diamonds, but Sotheby’s later released them to a stranger without telling M&L. The diamonds vanished. M&L sued Sotheby’s, which escaped on demurrer.   The Second Appellate District reversed the breach of contract ruling and affirmed the tort ruling, and remanded. The court explained that there was no agreement yet that Sotheby’s definitely would auction the diamonds for M&L, but a potential auction was the point of Sotheby’s involvement. Sotheby’s breached this agreement by giving the diamonds to a stranger without M&L’s permission. This breach cost M&L the value of the lost diamonds.   The court further wrote that as for M&L’s negligence claim, however, the trial court’s ruling was right. The court explained that the economic loss rule governs. “In general, there is no recovery in tort for negligently inflicted ‘purely economic losses,’ meaning financial harm unaccompanied by physical or property damage.” (Sheen v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. (2022) 12 Cal.5th 905, 922 (Sheen).) By deferring to the contract between parties, the economic loss rule prevents the law of contract and the law of tort from dissolving one into the other. M&L offers no good reason for departing from the fundamental economic loss rule, which bars its tort claim. View "M & L Financial v. Sotheby's" on Justia Law

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This was the second time plaintiff-appellant Petrolink, Inc. returned to the Court of Appeal in its suit against Lantel Enterprises. Petrolink filed an action against defendant Lantel Enterprises (Lantel), seeking specific performance of a lease agreement that gave Petrolink the option to purchase a commercial property owned by Lantel at fair market value; Lantel cross-complained against Petrolink, contending that Petrolink was refusing to purchase the property for its fair market value. The parties disagreed as to the valuation of the property and were effectively seeking a judicial determination as to the fair market value of the property so that they could complete the transaction. After years of litigation in the trial court, an appeal, a partial reversal of the judgment, remand, and further litigation, the trial court ultimately concluded that the fair market value of the property was $889,854. The court then calculated a net purchase price of $948,404 by subtracting from the fair market value a credit to Petrolink for the rents that it had paid from the date the purchase should have been completed, and adding a credit to Lantel for the loss of use of the sale proceeds. In its amended judgment, the court ordered the parties to complete the transaction; Petrolink was to deposit $948,404 in escrow and Lantel was to deliver title to the property “by grant deed free and clear of all encumbrances.” Petrolink appealed the amended judgment, arguing that it was entitled to certain additional financial reductions and offsets to the purchase price. The Court of Appeal rejected Petrolink’s contentions and affirmed the amended judgment in Petrolink II. Eleven days after Petrolink II was issued, and four days after Petrolink deposited the purchase funds in escrow, the State of California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) filed an eminent domain action pertaining to the property. The filing of the Caltrans action prevented Lantel from being able to convey unencumbered title, as required by the amended judgment. Petrolink then refused to close escrow. Lantel moved to compel performance under the trial court's order, despite the encumbrance on title resulting from the Caltrans eminent domain action. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Petrolink to accept title encumbered by the Caltrans eminent domain action. "[T]he trial court weighed the equities and concluded that it would be more equitable for Petrolink to bear any burden of the encumbrance created by the filing of the Caltrans action." View "Petrolink, Inc. v. Lantel Enterprises" on Justia Law

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The owners of Hotel Erwin and Larry’s (a restaurant adjacent to the hotel) in Venice Beach—Marina Pacific Hotel & Suites, LLC; Venice Windward, LLC; Larry’s Venice, L.P.; and Erwin H. Sokol, as trustee of the Frances Sokol Trust (collectively insureds)—sued Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company alleging the COVID-19 virus was present on and had physically transformed, portions of the insured properties—“direct physical loss or damage” within the meaning of Fireman’s Fund’s first party commercial property insurance policy—but Fireman’s Fund refused to pay policy benefits for covered losses incurred as a result. The trial court sustained Fireman’s Fund’s demurrer to the insureds’ first amended complaint without leave to amend and dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the COVID-19 virus cannot cause direct physical loss or damage to property for purposes of insurance coverage.   The Second Appellate District reversed the trial court’s judgment sustaining Defendant’s demurrer to the insureds’ first amended complaint without leave to amend and dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the COVID-19 virus cannot cause direct physical loss or damage to property for purposes of insurance coverage. The court held it was an error at the nascent phase of the case. The court explained that because the insureds adequately alleged losses covered by Fireman’s Fund’s policy, they are entitled to an opportunity to present their case, at trial or in opposition to a motion for summary judgment. The judgment of dismissal based on the trial court’s disbelief of those allegations, whether ultimately reasonable or not, must be reversed. View "Marina Pacific Hotel and Suites, LLC v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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The co-tenancy provision in the parties’ lease required a shopping center to have either: (1) three anchor tenants; or (2) 60 percent of the space leased, and, if it did not, Tenant-respondent JoAnn Stores, LLC was permitted to pay “Substitute Rent.” In 2018, Jo-Ann informed JJD it intended to start paying Substitute Rent effective July 1, 2018, because the co-tenancy provision was not met after two anchor tenants closed. Landlord-appellant JJD-HOV Elk Grove, LLC (JJD) responded that the co-tenancy provision was an unenforceable penalty under the holding in Grand Prospect Partners, L.P. v. Ross Dress for Less, Inc., 232 Cal.App.4th 1332 (2015). Jo-Ann contended Grand Prospect was distinguishable and the co-tenancy provision was enforceable. JJD and Jo-Ann filed competing complaints for declaratory relief and cross-motions for summary judgment. The trial court found the co-tenancy provision was enforceable, and thus granted Jo- Ann’s motion, denied JJD’s, and entered judgment accordingly. JJD appealed. The Court of Appeal declined to follow the rule announced in Grand Prospect here, and instead held that this case was governed by the general rule that courts enforce contracts as written. The Court therefore agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the co-tenancy provision at issue in this case was enforceable, and affirmed the judgment. View "JJD-HOV Elk Grove, LLC v. Jo-Ann Stores" on Justia Law

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The University of California Retirement Plan (UCRP) is a defined benefit plan. In 1999, the University’s President addressed the recruitment and retention impacts of federal tax law: for employees hired after a certain date, a “maximum compensation amount that can be used for retirement calculations”—then, $160,000—such that employees earning more than the maximum “cannot receive benefits based on the full compensation that UCRP would otherwise use for benefit calculations.” The President recommended that the University take advantage of recent amendments to the Internal Revenue Code making it possible for public institutions to “mitigate” the limitations. The Regents adopted the 1999 Resolution, establishing restoration plans. The President’s Office drafted a Plan amendment, Appendix E, to implement the Resolution. Appendix E provided for Regents’ unlimited right to amend or terminate Appendix E,. In 2007, following a moratorium, the IRS approved Appendix E. The University did not implement Appendix E.Retired employees sued on behalf of themselves and similarly situated Plan members who retired between January 1, 2000, and March 29, 2012, alleging impairment of contract, promissory estoppel, equitable estoppel, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and breach of the covenant of good faith. The court of appeal affirmed the rejection of those claims. The 1999 Resolution expressly contemplated further review and action before any employee benefit was provided, and did not clearly evince an intent to create contractual rights. View "Broome v. Regents of the University of California" on Justia Law

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Russo contracted to build four airport firefighting trucks for the city. The contract provided that Russo would pay the city’s attorney fees in the event of litigation involving the trucks. Under a performance bond, Specialty agreed to be liable to the city for any losses if Russo failed to perform the contract. The city accepted and paid for two trucks, but subsequently terminated the contract and refused to pay for the remaining two trucks before they were delivered. Alleging problems with the first two trucks and Russo’s failure to timely deliver the other two, the city made a claim under the performance bond, then sued Russo for breach of contract and sought enforcement of the performance bond against Russo and Specialty, demanding the return of the payments it had made for the first two trucks. Russo sued the city for breach of contract. The city won judgments on all claims; a jury awarded the city $1. B.The court of appeal affirmed the denial of Specialty’s application for attorney fees, rejecting Specialty’s argument that, despite losing on contract liability, it is entitled to fees as the prevailing party because the jury awarded the city only nominal damages rather than the $3.4 million that the city sought. The trial court had discretion to find that neither party prevailed. View "City of Los Angeles Department of Airports v. U.S. Specialty Ins. Co." on Justia Law