This post continues my series explaining the main elements of a contract, which are outlined on the attached infographic. My goal is to demystify some of these basic provisions to help business owners have a better general understanding of what they are signing.
Moving through the structure of a typical contract, next up is offer, acceptance, and consideration. Together, these clauses define what the offering party is promising to do (or refrain from doing) in exchange for the compensation the other party is willing to pay or provide. They basically comprise the tit for tat, or the meat of the obligations and privileges which are being offered. This is often referred to as a “meeting of the minds.” While this might seem obvious on its face, the devil may be in these details, so it is vital that you know and understand the specific nature of your obligations and be sure that they are sustainable, practical, and likely to result in a benefit to your bottom line or some other benefit to your business. So what can happen when parties fail to clearly memorialize their “meeting of the minds”? Here are a few scenarios that could result:
• The parties might become embroiled in a “battle of the forms”, particularly in the sale of goods context where a buyer submits a purchase order using their company’s form, and the seller responds using their own terms and conditions form containing different and/or additional terms.
• Parties can ask the court to apply certain legal theories to supplement the “four corners of the document” where the intent of the parties may not be clear from the contract itself. For example, even if there is no formal consideration, courts can apply the theory of promissory estoppel to enforce a party’s promise to do something if the other party relied on that promise to his or her detriment.
• Another equitable remedy allows the court to compel a party to make restitution if that party is enriched at the expense of the other party and the surrounding circumstances lead the court to conclude that it is unjust.
• Pennsylvania has a little-known statute called the Uniform Written Obligations Act, which allows the court to infer that consideration exists where the agreement includes language that clearly and expressly states that the parties intended to be legally bound by the agreement.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, which will move to the next element on the infographic: Conditions.
This post continues my series aimed at explaining the main elements of a contract. These elements are outlined on the attached infographic. My goal is to define the key elements of a contract and to offer some tips and cautions to avoid costly mistakes as you approach these essential documents in your day-to-day business operations.
First up: the preamble and recital sections. The preamble of a contract is the introductory paragraph that identifies the parties to the agreement. It is typically followed by paragraphs known as recitals (also called the background section). Sometimes, these recital paragraphs are labeled “Whereas”. Taken together, the preamble and the recitals tell the who, what, when, and why of the transaction. In other words, they should tell the reader who the parties to the agreement are, the date of the agreement, and what the parties hope to accomplish by entering into the agreement.
As with stories told in other settings, inaccuracies and ambiguities in the preamble and recitals of a contract can cause problems down the road. One of the underlying purposes of a contract is to set forth the agreement of the parties so that their expectations can be enforced by a court or other tribunal. An accurate and detailed introduction to the contract can educate the person who is charged with resolving the dispute as to who the parties are, why they entered into the contract, and what their expectations were at the time the agreement was entered into.
One of the most common mistakes in these preliminary sections of a contract is to incorrectly name the owner of the business as a party, rather than using the entity name. This mistake results in the owner being personally obligated as a party to the contract, which is clearly not the result an owner expects after taking the trouble to incorporate.
While it may be tempting to gloss over these preliminaries without questioning their accuracy, I highly recommend taking the time to carefully review this section in every contract to be sure the story it tells is true and complete. It could prevent costly conflicts later.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will move to the next element on the infographic: offer, acceptance, and consideration.
As a business owner, you are routinely asked to “sign on the dotted line.” The document could be a purchase order, an equipment lease, or a bill of sale. Often, these documents are in fact contracts that impose obligations on the parties, even if they don’t say “Contract” or “Agreement” at the top of page one. I can’t overstate the importance of knowing what you are signing – i.e., being able to recognize a contract when you see one, as well as understanding the components of a contract and how they impact your business. I often say “think before you sign; review before you renew.”
Over the years, I have worked with many business owners who discover a little too late that they have signed a document that does not align with their intentions and may have costly consequences. For this reason, and under the theory that knowledge is power, I have put together the attached infographic to try to demystify and define the essential elements of a contract. In the coming weeks, I will be writing a series of informational blogs on each of the identified sections of this schematic to offer guidance for business owners as they approach the documents which are so essential to the health and profitability of their enterprise.
Earlier this year, amendments to Pennsylvania’s statutes governing partnerships and limited liability companies (often referred to as unincorporated entities or alternative entities) went into effect. I recently blogged about the “transferable interest” concept adopted by the Act. Today, in Part 2 of this series, I highlight another significant change brought about by Act 170: the clarification of the fiduciary and other duties owed in the context of an unincorporated entity. In general, there are three basic duties:
• Duty of loyalty: generally, a duty to avoid self-dealing, competing and usurping company or partnership opportunities
• Duty of care: a duty to refrain from gross negligence and recklessness
• Duty of good faith and fair dealing: a duty to deal fairly and consistently with the terms of the parties’ agreement and the purpose of the entity
In a general partnership, each partner owes the above duties to each of the other partners and to the entity.
In a limited partnership: (a) the general partner owes each of these duties to the limited partners and to the partnership; and (b) the limited partners owe only a duty of good faith and fair dealing to each other.
In a manager-managed LLC: (a) the manager owes these duties to the members and to the entity; and (b) the members owe a duty of good faith and fair dealing to each other. In a member-managed LLC, the members owe these duties to each other and the company.
Some of these duties may be modified by agreement of the parties. In their operating or partnership agreement, the parties may modify, but not eliminate, the duty of loyalty and the duty of care, as long as the modification is not “manifestly unreasonable.” This standard is not defined and is left to the courts to interpret, but in general the agreement cannot convert the relationship into a strictly arm’s length relationship. The duty of good faith and fair dealing may not be modified or removed, but the owners’ agreement can identify the standards by which this duty will be measured.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly, with significant input from the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Business Law Section, recently passed Act 170, which overhauls the statutes governing partnerships and limited liability companies (often referred to as unincorporated entities or alternative entities). This Act brings these statutes up to date with the uniform laws on which they are based and is now in effect for all new and all existing unincorporated entities. These comprehensive amendments provide default rules for governance and other matters that fill the gaps in the absence of an operating agreement or partnership agreement (or the absence of applicable provisions in those documents). Accordingly, it is important for owners of partnerships and LLCs to review their governing documents and be sure they have a clear understanding of how these new rules apply to them. Owners should work with counsel to draft provisions to vary these default rules if that is the desired outcome.
One significant change brought about by the Act is the recognition that equity interests in unincorporated entities are bifurcated into governance rights (including consent, management, and information rights) and economic rights (i.e., the right to receive distributions). The amendments adopt a concept called a “transferable interest”, which is an interest in the partnership or LLC that includes only economic rights. The holder of a transferable interest has no governance rights; he or she has only the right to receive distributions from the entity (but not the right to demand or sue for distributions). The transferable interest approach honors the “pick your partner” principle, which assures owners of a business entity that they will be able to choose the co-owners of the enterprise. Under the revised statute, the only interest that can be conveyed to a non-member is a transferable interest, unless the operating agreement provides otherwise or the other owners expressly agree. Thus, a creditor foreclosing on a member’s equity interest or a person seeking to attach a spouse’s equity interest in a divorce proceeding can take only a transferable interest. This limitation on the rights of non-members affords owners important protections from assertions of control by outsiders which may not be in the best interest of the entity or its members. The exception to this rule is that a creditor foreclosing on an equity interest in a single-member LLC will take the full membership interest (governance and economic rights). The rationale for this exception is that because there is only one member, the “pick your partner” rationale does not apply to limit the rights of the lender.
The Pennsylvania legislature recently enacted changes to the state sales tax code that affect computer software providers and their customers. These changes went into effect on August 1, 2016.
Under the Pennsylvania Tax Reform Code of 1971, a tax is imposed on the sale of “tangible personal property”, which is defined generally as “corporeal personal property” along with a non-exclusive list of various types of property. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the term “tangible personal property" includes canned computer software and that the licensing of such software is subject to the tax. In so holding, the Court rejected the argument made by the taxpayer (Philadelphia-based law firm Dechert LLP) that canned computer software consists of intangible intellectual property rights that are not subject to the tax. The Court noted, however, that fees paid by Dechert for software maintenance and support services did not represent the payment for the transfer of tangible personal property and were likely not taxable (though for whatever reason Dechert did not make the distinction and so it was not part of the Court’s holding).
The Pennsylvania General Assembly apparently disagreed with the Court’s categorization of maintenance and support. While the amendment in question was ostensibly intended to just capture digital downloads of property already subject to the tax (e.g., games, apps, video streaming, canned software, etc.), the language adopted by the legislature arguably broadens the scope of the tax. The definition of “tangible personal property” was modified to include video, books, apps, music, games, canned software, and other items “whether electronically or digitally delivered, streamed or accessed, whether purchased singly, by subscription or in any other manner, including maintenance, updates and support”. The highlighted language contradicts the Supreme Court’s commentary in Dechert that software maintenance and support, as services, are not subject to the tax. Nevertheless, the General Assembly has spoken and prudent software vendors should collect sales tax not only on the price of the canned software package itself, but also on digitally or electronically delivered maintenance, update and support services, at least until the interpretation of this provision is clarified by the Department or through the courts.
The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue has published a summary of this and other changes that are part of the recent amendment to the Pennsylvania tax code: http://www.revenue.pa.gov/GeneralTaxInformation/TaxLawPoliciesBulletinsNotices/Documents/State%20Tax%20Summary/2016_tax_summary.pdf
Scammers targeting Pennsylvania businesses have been hard at work this summer. The Pennsylvania Department of State reports that three separate direct mail campaigns have sought to get unsuspecting Pennsylvania business owners to pay unnecessary fees:
• A mailing from a company calling itself “Division of Corporate Services – Compliance Division” urges companies to complete a form with officer and director information and return the form with a $150 payment.
• A postcard from a company calling itself “Business Compliance Division” urges owners to call a toll-free number “to avoid potential fees and penalties.” When that number is called, the owner is instructed to pay $100 by credit card to obtain a “certificate of existence” in order to comply with state regulations. The address for this company is the same as the address for the “Division of Corporate Services – Compliance Division” above. According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, this is the address of a UPS store in Harrisburg.
• A letter from a company calling itself “Pennsylvania Council for Corporations” instructs business owners to complete a form with names of shareholders, directors and officers and return it with a $125 fee.
These solicitations include citations to Pennsylvania statutes and look official, but they are not: they were neither prepared nor authorized by the Commonwealth. Essentially, these notices represent a business-generating effort from the sender to prepare generic annual minutes for unwitting companies.
The Department of State cautions that any official notices sent to businesses by the Pennsylvania Department of State or the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office will contain letterhead and/or contact information for the Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations. If you receive one of these notices or a similar solicitation, contact the Bureau at 717-787-1057, or feel free to call Sue Maslow, Joanne Murray or Michael Mills at 215-230-7500.
On July 1, 2015, the Pennsylvania Association Transactions Act (also known as the Entity Transactions Act) (the “Act”) went into effect. The primary purpose of the Act is to simplify the architecture of Title 15 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes by moving the provisions applicable to names, fundamental transactions and registration of foreign entities into a new Chapter 3. Presently, those provisions are spread out in numerous subsections applicable to each entity type (e.g., corporations, limited liability companies, etc.). The thinking was that since identical or nearly identical provisions already applied to most or all entity types, they should be moved to a new chapter to streamline the statute and hopefully simplify the process for undertaking fundamental changes. The Act adopts new terms to refer to various entity concepts, so practitioners will have to learn a new vocabulary. For example:
Commercial lenders in Pennsylvania await action by the legislature to fix what appears to be an unintended byproduct of recent amendments to the Pennsylvania Probate, Estate and Fiduciaries (PEF) Code that went into effect earlier this year. You may be wondering what a statute that generally applies to trust and estate matters has to do with commercial lending transactions. The answer is that the recent changes applicable to powers of attorney generally could be interpreted to apply to powers of attorney granted in commercial loan documents, leases and other contracts (such as those granted in connection with confession of judgment clauses and certain other remedies). Historically, these statutory provisions did not apply to commercial agreements. It appears that the legislature was focusing on trust and estate documents when enacting this legislation and didn’t understand the impact of these amendments on commercial transactions.
These amendments are troubling from a lender’s perspective because they require that an agent must “act in accordance with the principal’s reasonable expectations to the extent actually known by the agent and, otherwise, in the principal’s best interest.” In a commercial loan transaction, the agent is the lender and the principal is the borrower, so the tension is obvious: a lender that is foreclosing on property, confessing judgment, collecting rents, or exercising Article 9 remedies is not likely to be acting in the best interest of the borrower.
Pennsylvania House Bill #665 would amend the PEF Code to clarify that the power of attorney requirements do not apply to commercial transactions. This bill is presently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Until this bill becomes law, lenders should consider making the following adjustments to commercial loan documents containing powers of attorney (typically these include documents with confessions of judgment, security agreements, assignments of rent, and mortgages):
• Include an acknowledgement by the borrower that its reasonable expectations include confession of judgment, foreclosure and other actions typically taken by a lender under the power of attorney;
• Include a waiver of the duties imposed by the PEF Code; and
• Add a notary page.
Commercial lenders were left shuddering in the wake of a September 6, 2013 Pennsylvania Superior Court decision that affirmed a $3.6 million Bucks County jury verdict in favor of a local developer against an area bank. In County Line/New Britain Realty, LP v. Harleysville National Bank and Trust Company, the developer successfully argued that the term sheet provided to it by Harleysville was in fact a binding contract notwithstanding evidence of the parties’ intent to execute subsequent, more detailed agreements. The court also upheld the lower court ruling that Harleysville’s decision not to fund the loan described in the term sheet constituted a breach of contract. The court dismissed Harleysville’s claim that the term sheet did not contain the essential terms of a loan agreement (such as the closing date, how interest would be calculated, a repayment schedule, representations and warranties, and defaults and remedies) and therefore was not enforceable. The court held that the term sheet contained sufficient terms to create a binding contract, such as the identities of the borrower and lender, the principal amount of the loan, interest rates, the term, the manner of repayment, the names of the guarantors, and an identification of the collateral. The court acknowledged that the evidence showed that the parties intended to execute subsequent agreements but nevertheless held the term sheet to be binding.
Harleysville also argued that the developer did not meet all the loan conditions specified in the term sheet, so Harleysville was not required to fund the loan. Specifically, Harleysville asserted that two conditions were not met: (i) a satisfactory review by the lender of an “environmental assessment” of the parcels, and (ii) a satisfactory review by the lender of all specifications, engineer reports and government approvals. It argued that the trial court impermissibly allowed the jury to consider evidence regarding industry custom and practice, the course of dealing between the parties, and evidence of Harleysville’s motives in evaluating whether these loan conditions had been met. The Superior Court found that the term sheet did not articulate these conditions in sufficient detail and that it was appropriate for the jury to consider additional evidence in order to interpret the parties’ intent. This extrinsic evidence was particularly damning to Harleysville because it showed that Harleysville lost interest in making the loan shortly after the term sheet was issued, due in part to its desire to reduce the amount of commercial real estate loans in its portfolio and its precarious position as a result of the recent bankruptcy filing of its largest customer.