The Utah Supreme Court Again Requires Reasonable Conduct Under the Circumstances

Mountain biking in St. George, Utah

The Utah Supreme Court ruled against a debtor who asserted a novel defense to repayment of a $250,000 loan in default. The case is Crapo v. Zions Bank. The debtor claimed that once the bank sent him a Form 1099-C discharging his debt, the bank could no longer attempt to collect the bad debt from him. Failure to act reasonably by the debtor, however, ultimately barred the debtor’s defense. And, while the debtor’s defense appeared a bit stronger on its face than it actually was, you can see in details are below it appeared he was gaming the system by not getting more information before purportedly relying on the bank’s conduct. Continue reading “The Utah Supreme Court Again Requires Reasonable Conduct Under the Circumstances”

Basic Contract Terms in Utah

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The Utah Court of Appeals recently provided a quick and dirty summary of basic contract terms in Lebrecht v. Deep Blue Pools, 2016 UT App 110. The case also provides a primer for creating an enforceable settlement agreement without an attorney. Let’s take a look. Continue reading “Basic Contract Terms in Utah”

How to Use a Liquidated Damages Clause in Utah Contracts

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Not your car. Not my car. Note the little sticker on the front bumper: don’t touch.

What happens when you suffer harm from a breach of contract that you cannot prove or would have a very difficult time proving? Such as for a delay? Often your damages will go unreimbursed.

One typical situation is for delay in contract performance– “Time Is Money,” right? The proof of damages under this axiom is often nearly impossible or at least impractical. For example, if a construction delay causes you to open your new business four weeks later than planned, how do you prove damages? You have no history of income and it would be claimed that any damages would be pure speculation. Enter liquidated damages. Continue reading “How to Use a Liquidated Damages Clause in Utah Contracts”

Utah Law Governing Non-Competition Agreements – April 2017 Update

20150823_175608The Utah Legislature recently passed and Governor Herbert signed a law in 2016 limiting non-competition agreements. It can be found at Utah Code Ann. 34-51-101, et seq. Please note that I updated this article as of April 2017. When the law initially started through the Legislature, it seriously limited non-competition covenants. The end result was much tamer.

Here are the highlights of the non-competition statute:

  • Post-employment restrictive covenants, i.e., non-competition agreements, are limited to one year from the date of separation;
  • The statute does not apply to clauses concerning non-solicitation, non-disclosure, or confidentiality;
  • Exceptions to the one-year time limitation include the following:
    • Severance agreements that are reasonable and mutually and freely agreed upon in good faith after separation; and
    • Agreements in conjunction with the sale of a business.
  • Attorney fees: The employer will be liable to the employee if the non-competition agreement is found to be unenforceable. Although Utah has typically found attorney fee provisions to be reciprocal (i.e., both sides can be the recipient of fees, depending on who prevails), the statute does not expressly provide for fees to the employer. The prudent employer, therefore, will include an attorney fee provision providing fees to the prevailing party to ensure that the employer can recoup attorney fees if it prevails.

The statute defines non-competition agreements as any agreement in which an employee or former employee agrees they “will not compete with the employer in providing products, processes, or services that are similar to the employer’s products, processes, or services.”

One other note: the law in Utah is unsettled as to confidentiality agreements that act like a non-competition agreement but you should tread carefully. Utah courts are often pragmatic and if it talks like a duck and walks like a duck, the court will likely call it a duck. See Is Your Non-Disclosure Agreement a Non-Compete Agreement in Disguise? This simply means that you should carefully draft your confidentiality and non-competition agreements. You may find yourself with a void agreement if it is poorly drafted.

Effective Date: The law affects any agreement entered on or after May 10, 2016. The statute is not expressly retroactive.

Bad-Actor Employers Warned: Lastly, the statute imposes damages against an employer who seeks to enforce non-competition provisions that are found to violate the statute. The damages available to an employee include any costs of an arbitration, attorney fees and court costs, and actual damages.

Take-Away: Employers should reevaluate their severance agreements and employment agreements to ensure that such agreements are consistent with this new law. For many employers, the non-competition provisions are part of the employment contract signed when the employee is hired. Its effect is not felt until (hopefully) many months or years later when the employee leaves. It is important, then, that employers review their employment contracts now since later is too late.

There are issues and nuances that cannot all be addressed here. If you have questions, you should get specific legal advice. If you would like more information about employment, non-competition, non-solicitation, confidentiality, or non-disclosure agreements, call me, Utah attorney Ken Reich, directly. I have represented both companies and individuals in business matters and disputes involving employment agreements and related matters, including non-competition issues. Using my many years of experience and backed by a firm of legal specialists in nearly every legal field, I can help you or your company evaluate your situation and help you make smart decisions about your business and your life that will best fit your circumstances.

Do Your Contract or Settlement Negotiations Amount to Fraud?

IMG_1215Your initial response to the title question should certainly be ‘No’. In light of a recent case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals, however, you may want to reevaluate your representations made in contract or settlement negotiations. A bank VP was convicted of fraud based on representations he made in a deal he made with his bank employer, even when the bank acknowledged and waived the obvious conflict of interest. Makes me think any amount of ‘puffing’ in contract or settlement negotiations could turn to a fraud indictment.

Set Up

Let me set up the facts. Be patient, the complex setup is worth the payoff pitch:

In the U.S. v. Weimert case, Weimert was convicted of wire fraud in a negotiated transaction. Weimert was a bank senior vice president and president of a bank subsidiary, IDI. IDI was a 50% minority owner in CCLP, LLC. The majority owner of CCLP, Burkes, held a right of first refusal on IDI’s shares in CCLP. As the real estate market was crashing in 2008, the bank accepted Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds from the US government.

In order to gain liquidity and avoid bankruptcy, the bank told Weimert to sell assets to make interest payments. Weimert found a legitimate buyer, Kalka, to make a ‘stalking horse’ offer on the CCLP shares held by IDI. Kalka’s letter of intent included a provision that gave Weimert, personally, a commission on the deal and a buy-in interest of 4 7/8%  in CCLP. Weimert took that LOI to Burkes, as he was required to do, and convinced Burkes to match the offer. Burkes matched it (almost, but that’s not an issue in the case).

Weimert then took Burkes’ offer to the bank board of directors. Weimert represented to the board that the buyer would not purchase the asset unless Weimert received the commission and the stake in CCLP. This was factually not true; the buyer made no such requirements to consummate the deal. Weimert’s conflict of interest was acknowledged and signed off by the bank’s attorneys. The bank waived the conflict and approved the sale but was ignorant of Weimert’s misrepresentation about the buyer’s alleged stipulation that he obtain a commission and interest in CCLP.

TARP inspectors investigated the transaction and brought wire fraud claims against Weimert since his negotiations on the deal were communicated across state lines. A jury convicted him on 5 of 6 fraud counts. The jury found that Weimert defrauded the bank by inserting himself in the transaction based on the misrepresentation that the buyer would only buy the CCLP shares if he obtained a commission and interest in it.

Weimert’s case is now on appeal. At oral argument, the judges raised issues of prosecutorial judgment and whether this claim should have ever been brought.

One judge commented: “I’m very troubled by the application of federal wire fraud to statements about parties’ negotiating positions. That is, what terms are important in this deal to whom.” He also noted, “I have not found any case law treating those sorts of representations by anybody under any circumstances as material for purposes of federal fraud statutes.”

Apparently, the judge questioned whether Weimert’s representations about the deal were anything but ‘puffing’ or negotiation tactics. This position appears to make the assumption that the bank could no longer rely on Weimert’s impartiality when it waived the known conflict that Weimert was now personally interested in the deal and whether the reason for his personal interest was because the buyer required it or because he wanted a slice of the pie does not give rise to a claim under the wire fraud statutes.

He’s bluffing, sure. This happens in deals. These are capitalist acts among consenting adults.

The same judge then questioned the prosecutor about his concern that this was just negotiation rhetoric and not fraud. The prosecutor countered with an argument that there was a conflict of interest. The judge responded that “[Weimert] has disclosed the conflict of interest. It is out there for everybody to see. The board brings in its lawyer and says, in essence, eyes wide open. We need to do this deal.” The judge clarified: “Let me be very frank about what concerns me about this … it seems to me that … this case comes very close to making negotiations subject to federal criminal prosecutions at the discretion of the U.S. attorney and the grand jury.”

The judge drilled down on what makes this case fraud when other deal negotiations are dismissed as puffing and rhetoric. The prosecutor responded that this case is different because Weimert “induce[d] [the board] to waive the conflict of interest by misrepresentation” and “inserted [him]self in the deal” by representing to the board that Burkes required it. The judge’s response: “He’s bluffing, sure. This happens in deals. These are capitalist acts among consenting adults” and commented that “[t]his case seems to me to break very new ground.”

If you are really interested, you can search the Seventh Circuit’s oral arguments here.

The Take-Away

Negotiating is an art. Parties constantly make representations based on their position and outcome goals. There are fine lines between ‘puffing’ and fraud. Weimert crossed over. Let me see if I can help clarify some of the gray areas.

In negotiations, you will find yourself in differing situations. For example, Weimert was in a position of trust as an employee and senior vice president. Even though his personal interest was disclosed to his employer, the bank, he was not free to lie about the essential facts underlying the transaction. He was still the only person reporting or presenting the deal to the board. Certainly there is still some ‘shame on you’ to be shared with the board. Under the circumstances, if the board had any concerns, it should have assigned another employee to oversee the transaction since Weimert was clearly conflicted.

You need to examine your position in the deal. Do you owe any duty to the other side in the deal? Are you related by blood, employment, or contract? Is the other party relying on your opinion, investigation, or valuation that is not otherwise disclaimed in the written agreement? Are you in a position of trust in relation to the other party? Do you exert control over the other party?

Likewise, the amount of scrutiny a deal will receive is a function of the amount at stake and the parties involved. The bigger the numbers, the more scrutiny, usually. If government funds are involved, such as the TARP funds involved in Weimert, you can expect a certain amount of additional oversight. The IRS also likes to look at big deals to make sure they get their cut. If you are crafting a deal to avoid taxes and your express negotiations are key to entitlement to a preferred tax treatment, be careful. Likewise for family transactions. You may find a sweet deal from your elderly uncle but you have to know that your cousins and siblings are going to look at it very closely and blame you if it goes south or you took advantage. Also, with elderly people, you need to make sure that competency is not an issue. Appearance of fraud is sometimes as powerful as actual fraud. Think about how it would look in front of a jury. Put it in writing and disclose anything you think might make a difference to someone in an armchair quarterback role a year from now.

Another note: you should not rely on your attorney to sanitize your misrepresentations. Attorneys are your agent and you are bound by what they say or agree to on your behalf. Also, take a look at the lawyer rules about representations:

Rule 4.1 of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct provides:
In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall
not knowingly:
(a) Make a false statement of material fact or
law to a third person; or
(b) Fail to disclose a material fact, when disclosure
is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or
fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is
prohibited by Rule 1.6.

The comments to this rule help clarify some of the question about representations in negotiations:

Whether a particular statement should be regarded as one of fact can depend on the circumstances. Under generally accepted conventions in negotiation, certain types of statements ordinarily are not taken as statements of material fact. Estimates of price or value placed on the subject of a transaction and a party’s intentions as to an acceptable settlement of a claim are ordinarily in this category

(Emphasis added). My partner, Keith Call, recently addressed the subject in the Utah Bar Journal article “Is it Ethical to Be Dishonest in Negotiations?” (see page 40). His article is addressed specifically to lawyers but you may find it interesting.

There are issues and nuances for negotiations that certainly cannot all be addressed here. If you have questions, you should get specific legal advice. If you would like more information about negotiations or how to stay out of trouble, contact me, Utah attorney Ken Reich directly. I have represented both companies and individuals in numerous business matters and disputes since 1999. Using my many years of experience and backed by a firm of legal specialists in nearly every legal field, I can help you evaluate your situation and help you make smart decisions about your business and your life that will best fit your circumstances.