You Shook Hands – But Do You Have a Deal?

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Courts have held that, in business negotiations, “Handshakes are significant. When people shake hands, it means something.”  Unfortunately, they have also held that when people shake hands, “several meanings are possible.”

In Rennick v. O.P.T.I.O.N. Care, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal considered a party’s contention that a deal was struck when, after months of discussion and a 4-hour negotiating session, the parties “got up and circulated around the room and shook hands with each other on having made the deal.”  The Rennick case observed that a jury could reasonably find that “the handshake was confirmation of a contract, or that it was an expression of friendship and the absence of ill will after a day of hard bargaining.”  So, given the uncertainty of its meaning, should we stop shaking hands when discussing business?  Of course not.  Indeed, the Court noted that, “By custom, it is a rude insult to reject an outstretched hand in most circumstances, and to do so at the end of a long business meeting would likely prevent a future deal.”

The issue of the parties’ intent upon shaking hands is not a small one.  In August 2014, Charles Wang, the owner of the New York Islanders was sued by a hedge fund manager who claimed that the parties had shaken hands on a deal to buy the NHA hockey team for $420 million, and that Wang had breached their agreement by demanding more money.  The frustrated purchaser sued to either enforce an apparently unsigned 70-page agreement to conclude the sale of the team, or recover a $10 million break up fee that he claims was among the terms agreed upon with a handshake.

Courts struggle with this kind of issue, with or without handshakes.  In contract disputes, courts try to enforce the parties’ expressed intentions. For example, where the parties clearly express that they do not intend to be bound until they sign a formal written contract, courts will try to honor that intention by finding that no contract exists unless a written agreement was fully signed.  Indeed, negotiating parties usually can express almost any manner of requirement before an agreement becomes enforceable.  Quentin Tarantino’s civil war era film Django Unchained featured a climactic scene in which the odious character Calvin Candie extorted Dr. King Schultz into signing an outrageous contract, and then insisted that the signed contract was meaningless unless Dr. Schultz also shook his hand.  As a general point of law that was a doubtful proposition even in Mississippi in 1858, but if the parties had been careful to express that intention in their written agreement it probably would have been an enforceable prerequisite to the validity of the contract.

In reality, too often there is no such clear delineation.  If the parties do not eliminate such possibilities by an express statement of their intentions, oral expressions or an exchange of emails or text messages might create an enforceable agreement.  That is because, when the parties aren’t careful about expressing their intentions, courts are left to divine whether the parties intended an agreement with or without signatures on paper.  Courts consider testimony about what was said and evidence of what was written and the activities that took place before, during and after the time of the purported agreement to draw conclusions about what the parties’ intentions really were. Often, the parties’ contemporaneous correspondence is the most important evidence of whether the parties intended to have a binding agreement immediately, or whether the parties intended only to express their good will or intention to negotiate further.

To avoid unnecessary disputes, a cautious businessperson should make a point to express clearly his or her intentions.  The best approach is to plan ahead and be as clear as possible in a written expression as to when the deal is considered enforceable.  The Conkle law firm counsels and represents businesses in negotiations to achieve those ends, or in disputes that can arise when the businesses handled negotiations themselves and come to Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys only after things did not turn out as intended.

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National Article Profiles the Conkle Firm’s $6.2 million Judgment for Unpaid Sales Commissions

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s $6.2 million judgment against an electronics manufacturer is the subject of a feature article in the monthly publication of Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The article, Fallout From an Oral Contract, appears in the January 2014 issue of Agency Sales Magazine.

The article profiles Plaintiff Peter Reilly, a sales representative who was denied his commissions.  Author Jack Foster chronicles how CK&E lawyers Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim marshaled the facts and developed the law of the California’s Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act to win a treble damages judgment for Mr. Reilly.

The Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act is a little-known statute that requires a signed written contract containing specific terms in some commission agreements between manufacturers and sales representatives.  A willful failure to have a written contract that complies with the Act, or to account for and pay commissions as required by the written contract, can result in an award to the sales rep of three times the amount proved at trial, in addition to attorney fees.  In the Reilly v. Inquest case, the jury awarded the sales representative $2.1 million for unpaid commissions, which was trebled by the Court to more than $6.2 million.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the award in full.  The Reilly v. Inquest Technology decision was unprecedented, because it is the first published decision to endorse the full scope of remedies available under the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act.

The Agency Sales Magazine article follows an article about Reilly v Inquest that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

CK&E’s lawyers are well versed in issues affecting manufacturers and sales representatives.  CK&E lawyers litigate and resolve disputes over sales commissions and terminations, and use that knowledge to help manufacturers and sales representatives draft more effective contracts.  CK&E is a member of MANA and the Electronics Representatives Association (ERA).

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CK&E Attorneys Speak at ERA Owners Forum

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CK&E attorneys Eric Engel and Kim Sim were pleased to be invited to speak at ERA So Cal’s January 28, 2014 Owners Forum.  ERA is the international association of professional sales representatives and electronics industry manufacturers who use independent sales reps.  ERA’s member rep firms sell more than $40 billion annually in electronics products for thousands of manufacturers.

The ERA roundtable forum included lively and thoughtful questions and comments by business owners and managers, directed toward improving their ability to collect commissions owed for their sales representatives’ work promoting sales for manufacturers.  In addition to outlining important terms that should be included in written contracts, much of the discussion concerned the application of the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act, California Civil Code §§ 1738.10 et seq.  Under the Act, a manufacturer must have a signed written contract with the sales rep containing particular terms required by the Act, and the manufacturer must provide a written accounting with every payment of commissions.  When a manufacturer willfully fails to comply with the requirements of the Act, the sales rep is entitled to three times his or her unpaid commissions and other damages, plus attorney fees.

Eric Engel and Kim Sim were the trial attorneys in Reilly v. Inquest Technology, the first precedent in California that enforced the full remedy of treble damages under the Act.  In Reilly, application of the Act led to a $2.1 million jury verdict becoming a judgment for $6.2 million, plus attorney fees and interest.  ERA and its partner organization, Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA), were important sponsors of the Act and similar legislation enacted in about 36 other states to protect the rights of independent wholesale sales representatives.  CK&E is proud to be able to help sales representatives create contracts that protect their rights to be paid for their services, and to help them enforce their rights when disputes arise.

 

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CKE’s L.A. Daily Journal Article: Treble Damages for Breach of Oral Contract

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The article “Breach of Oral Contract, Treble Damages,” was published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on August 13, 2013.  The article discusses the importance for manufacturers, distributors and sales representatives of the published decision of Reilly v. Inquest Technology, Inc., 2013 DJDAR 10164 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. July 31, 2013).  The Reilly decision is the first precedent in California to uphold a jury verdict and judgment of treble damages and attorney fees against a manufacturer who failed to pay all sales commissions owed to an independent sales representative.  Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim represented Peter Reilly, the sales representative, at trial in Orange County Superior Court.  They obtained a unanimous jury verdict awarding Reilly $2.1 million in unpaid commissions.  Using the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act, CK&E then obtained an order from Judge Frederick Horn multiplying the jury’s award by a factor of three, for a judgment of $6.2 million plus attorney’s fees and interest.  That judgment was fully upheld by the California Court of Appeal in its July 31, 2013 decision.  The decision provides a template for future cases seeking treble damages for breach of commission contracts made with independent sales representatives, and can serve as a guide to manufacturers and distributors who want to avoid exposure to such liability.

Click here for the full text of the article, “Breach of oral contract, treble damages”:  Reilly v Inquest Daily Journal Article

Click here for the full copy of the California Court of Appeal decision:  Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

 

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Deal done? Maybe Not, if it’s a Copyright Sale

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Copyright ownership sales are generally controlled by ordinary state contract laws, but there are some limits when dealing with an agent of the copyright owner. In the recent case of MVP Entertainment v. Frost, a film producer offered to purchase the movie rights to author Mark Frost’s book, “The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever.” The purchaser dealt with the attorney for the owner. In response to an email by the purchaser offering purchase terms, the attorney replied by email, “done . . . thanks!” Under many state laws that might have been enough to transfer ownership, but not so under copyright law.

The Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 204(a)) says that “transfer of copyright ownership . . . is not valid unless . . . a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.” An attorney is an agent, so the attorney’s email saying the deal is “done” should be enough, shouldn’t it? Not quite, said the California Court of Appeal in MVP, because the owner disputed that his attorney had the owner’s actual authority to sell the copyright. In other words, the attorney was not the “owner’s duly authorized agent” for that purpose.

But the purchaser claimed it was led to believe that the attorney had authority, which is a theory known as “ostensible agency.” Under California law, a property owner can be bound by the acts of another person (the “ostensible agent”) whom the owner “intentionally or by want of ordinary care, causes or allows” another (the purchaser) to believe had the owner’s authority. Contracts can be created by “ostensible agents” in many circumstances. But the MVP decision held that copyright transfers cannot be done by “ostensible agents.” Copyright law requires that the purchaser deal directly with the owner, or with an agent expressly and “duly authorized” to act on behalf of the owner, with the goal that copyright interests are not inadvertently given and there is no uncertainty about what rights were transferred.

The takeaway from MVP is, when buying copyrights it’s wise to get the owner’s signature.  CK&E lawyers routinely guide clients through transfers and licensing of intellectual property including copyrights, trademarks and patent rights. As well, when a client’s rights in intellectual property are threatened, CK&E lawyers respond with effective enforcement.

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