If you run a business and use contracts drafted by a lawyer, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a clause like this:

This Contract contains the complete agreement between Buyer and Seller concerning the sale of the Products and Services and replaces any prior oral or written communications between them. In entering into this Contract, Buyer is not relying on any representation made by Seller that is not stated in this Contract.

The first part is called a “Merger Clause.” The idea is that it “merges” all prior representations, understandings, and agreements into the written Contract. The second part is called a “Disclaimer of Reliance.”

The main point of the Disclaimer of Reliance is to prevent Buyer from making a fraud claim if the deal goes south. The word “fraud” sometimes intimidates non-lawyers, but the basic concept is simple: if you lie to someone in a business deal and they take action in reliance on the lie, that’s fraud.

One special flavor of fraud is “fraudulent inducement.” It sounds legalistic, but the idea is simple: if I lie to you to get you to sign a contract, that’s fraudulent inducement.

When a business deal goes bad, fraudulent inducement is a popular theory, for two reasons. First, if you prove fraudulent inducement you may be able to avoid all the self-serving terms the other guy’s lawyer put in the contract. Second, you may be able to recover actual damages and even punitive damages.

But once upon a time, a smart lawyer figured this out and put the Merger Clause and the Disclaimer of Reliance in the contract he drafted for his client. The hope was that these clauses would prevent the other party from later claiming fraudulent inducement. The idea caught on, and soon his form went viral.

So today, any time a client needs a contract, a lawyer is going to pull up some form that likely includes both a Merger Clause and a Disclaimer of Reliance. For simplicity, let’s focus on the Disclaimer of Reliance.

If a party to the contract tries to claim fraudulent inducement—either to get out of the contract or to try to get damages—the smart litigator representing the other party is going to say, “sorry, Disclaimer of Reliance.”

Not so fast. The equally smart litigator representing the party claiming fraudulent inducement has an ace up her sleeve too. The Disclaimer of Reliance is ineffective, she’s going to argue, because the entire contract—including the Disclaimer of Reliance—was induced by fraud.

Expecto patronum!

Of course, whether the seller actually lied to the buyer to induce him to sign the contract is almost always in dispute. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the seller made material misrepresentations to the buyer that caused the buyer to sign the contract.

I know, this is Texas. Like Robert Earl Keen says, “nobody steals, nobody cheats.” But just as a hypothetical, what are courts to do with this common situation?

What Rule Should Apply to a Disclaimer of Reliance?

Let’s consider four different rules courts could choose:

A. A Disclaimer of Reliance has no effect on a fraudulent inducement claim.

B. A Disclaimer of Reliance defeats a fraudulent inducement claim.

C. A Disclaimer of Reliance is effective if, when signing the contract, the parties lit incense, struck a ceremonial gong, and recited the Latin phrase caveat emptor in unison.

D. It depends on the circumstances.

I know, choice C sounds silly, but stay with me.

Choices A through C have one clear benefit: they are what lawyers call “bright-line” rules.

Of course, there could always be a factual dispute about whether the incense was actually lit, or a legal dispute about whether the original public understanding of “gong” included a cymbal. But let’s put those quibbles aside. Choices A through C draw clear, bright legal lines that judges can apply with certainty.

But which outcome is more just? The case for Choice A is that “fraud vitiates everything.” The idea is that when one party fraudulently induces the other party to sign the contract, the whole contract is tainted. There is also a certain “realist” case to make for Choice A: the Disclaimer of Reliance is almost always standard “boilerplate” that was not specifically negotiated by the parties. So it should have no effect.

The problem with Choice A is that it tends to encourage more litigation and less certainty. Any party who regrets doing the deal can claim fraudulent inducement, even if the claim has no merit, and it can take months—or years—and thousands of dollars in legal fees to resolve that claim.

That’s why many lawyers—especially transactional lawyers—would pick Choice B: the Disclaimer of Reliance defeats the fraud claim. The rationale for B is that it may mean less justice in a handful of cases where there is real fraud, but overall it’s better for business if companies don’t have to spend time and money litigating fraud claims. Better to stick to what’s in black and white in the contract.

But there’s an obvious counter-argument to Choice B, too. If courts adopt a bright line rule that a Disclaimer of Reliance bars a fraudulent inducement claim, then everybody is going to put a Disclaimer of Reliance in their contracts (as almost everybody already does). Then you have effectively abolished the fraudulent inducement theory.

And what about Choice C, the incense ritual? No one would seriously pick Choice C, and the reason is obvious. Why should the parties’ legal rights depend on whether incense was lit and the gong was struck? Modern judicial decisions should not turn on such ritualistic formalism.

Ok, but isn’t Choice B effectively the same as Choice C? If we say that a business can avoid a fraudulent inducement claim simply by reciting the magic words “disclaimer of reliance” in the contract, is that really any different from the “gong” rule, in principle?

I think this very point—the reluctance to attach too much significance to “magic words”—is why most courts are going to pick Choice D: It depends. Courts recognize that, while a bright-line rule can provide certainty, reality is just too messy to pick one result that should apply in all cases.

That’s a less satisfying answer—especially for non-lawyers—but it’s an answer that allows courts to enforce contract terms generally, while recognizing that justice may require exceptions in some cases.

At least that’s the theory. Let’s look at a case study to see how it applies.

Big Trouble for Big Blue?

Lufkin Industries manufactures machinery and equipment for the energy industry. It needed to upgrade its business operations software, so it called a little company called International Business Machines, which I call “IBM” for short. IBM recommended its “Express Solution for SAP.”

Before the contract was signed, IBM represented to Lufkin that the Express Solution was a preconfigured system that could be implemented within four to six months and meet 80% of Lufkin’s requirements without any enhancements. Oh, and IBM knew this was false (allegedly).

Would you believe the implementation of the software system did not go well? On the day of the “go-live-ugly” (what a great term), Lufkin followed IBM’s instruction to deactivate its old system. But the IBM system didn’t work. Lufkin was unable to use the Express Solution to invoice customers, manage inventory, track orders, calculate payroll, or pay employees and vendors. In short, the system failure crippled Lufkin’s business.

A jury later found that IBM fraudulently induced Lufkin to sign the contract and awarded over $20 million in damages.

But guess what was tucked away in the IBM-Lufkin contract? That’s right, a Disclaimer of Reliance and a Merger Clause. Section 2 of the Statement of Work said:

In entering into this SOW, Lufkin Industries is not relying upon any representation made by or on behalf of IBM that is not specified in the Agreement or this SOW, including, without limitation, the actual or estimated completion date, amount of hours to provide any of the Services, charges to be paid, or the results of any of the Services to be provided under this SOW. This SOW, its Appendices, and the Agreement represent the entire agreement between the parties regarding the subject matter and replace any prior oral or written communications.

These were the facts of IBM v. Lufkin Industries, decided by the Texas Supreme on March 15, 2019.[1]

So what rule did the Texas Supreme Court apply to determine if this clause was effective?

In theory, the court applied a version of Choice D: It depends.

The court started by noting its decision in Italian Cowboy Partners that said a merger clause, standing alone, does not bar a fraudulent inducement claim. But a disclaimer of reliance, in contrast, can be effective: “a clause that clearly and unequivocally expresses the party’s intent to disclaim reliance on the specific misrepresentations at issue can preclude a fraudulent-inducement claim.”

gong-701647_1920
Bang a Gong

On the other hand, “[n]ot every such disclaimer is effective,” and courts “must always examine the contract itself and the totality of the surrounding circumstances when determining if a waiver-of-reliance provision is binding.” In other words, the court must look to both extrinsic and intrinsic facts concerning the contract.

The most important fact is whether the contract was a settlement agreement that resolved a lawsuit or other dispute. Under the Schlumberger case, a disclaimer of reliance in a settlement agreement will usually be effective to bar a later fraud claim. The idea is that there has to be a way for parties to sign an agreement that ends litigation with certainty.

But most business contracts are signed at the beginning of the relationship, before any dispute. In that case, the relevant factors include whether:

(1) the terms of the contract were negotiated, rather than boilerplate, and during negotiations the parties specifically discussed the issue which has become the topic of the subsequent dispute;

(2) the complaining party was represented by counsel;

(3) the parties dealt with each other at “arm’s length”;

(4) the parties were knowledgeable in business matters; and

(5) the release language was clear.

When two businesses negotiate a contract and lawyers are involved, factors (2)-(5) will almost always apply. And in most cases the second part of (1) will be true. It’s hard to see how there could be a genuine fraudulent inducement claim if the issue in dispute was not discussed before the contract was signed.

All of those factors were present in the IBM case. With at most one factor weighing against enforcement, the court said it had “no trouble” concluding that the factors supported a finding that the disclaimer of reliance was effective. “The parties negotiated the Statement of Work at arm’s length,” the court said, “they were both knowledgeable in business matters and represented by counsel, and the two clauses expressly and clearly disclaim reliance.”

The court didn’t say much about the first half of the first factor: whether the merger clause and disclaimer of reliance were negotiated terms or mere boilerplate. I think we can assume the latter. And I think the court’s silence on that factor tells us the court doesn’t care too much about it.

So, despite the IBM opinion’s touchy-feely language about multiple factors and “totality of the surrounding circumstances,” it comes pretty close to this “bright-line” rule: when two businesses represented by lawyers negotiate a contract that contains a clear disclaimer of reliance, there is no fraudulent inducement claim, even if the disclaimer is boilerplate.

I think the “factors” and “circumstances” language is intended to give the court some wiggle room to allow a fraudulent inducement claim in a truly egregious case, e.g. where the party duped into signing the contract is an unsophisticated consumer not represented by a lawyer. But in most business cases, fraudulent inducement is out in Texas.

As long as you said the magic words.

____________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. This post is dedicated to 80s supergroup The Power Station. 

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Int’l Bus. Machines Corp. v. Lufkin Indus., LLC, No. 17-0666, 2019 WL 1232879, __ S.W.3d __ (Tex. Mar. 15, 2019).

One thought on “Can Your Business Avoid a Fraud Claim by Putting Magic Words in the Contract?

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