NNN Realty disputed its obligations under a guaranty, noting that the definition of “borrower” in the instrument listed sixteen entities (all of which contained “NNN” in some fashion), concluding with the conjunction “and.” Thus, argued NNN, all of those entities had to be in default to trigger its obligations. The Court rejected this argument, noting the overall structure of the guaranty and related security instrument, as well as the usage of similar terms. It gave little weight to textual arguments about the definition that arose from a misplaced parenthetical. While many of the grammatical arguments – especially as to the the erroneous parenthetical – are unique to the facts of this case, the broader analysis about the interplay between a collectively-defined term and individual obligations applies in many business settings. WBCMT 2007 C33 Office 9720, LLC v. NNN Realty Advisors, Inc., No. 15-20086 (Dec. 22, 2016).
American Construction, the general contractor on a hotel construction project, signed a “joint check” agreement, by which it would pay its subcontractor (Cratus Development) and its supplier (Shelter Products) jointly for building materials. American’s agreement also included this term: “If Cratus Development does not start or complete work on this project, and/or becomes past due with Shelter Products, Inc. to the extent that Shelter Products, Inc. can no longer extend credit to Cratus Development[,] American Construction will make payments directly to Shelter Products, Inc. for all outstanding and unpaid invoices for materials delivered to the jobsite . . . . ” The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that this language, in the overall context of the parties’ business dealings, created a suretyship by American. Shelter Products Inc. v. American Construction Hotel Corp., No. 16-30001 (July 27, 2016, unpublished).
Dickson guaranteed a large debt owed by Community Home Financial Services. Community went into bankruptcy, disputing the extent and validity of its obligations to its lenders. Unfortunately for Dickson, his guaranty not only waived all defenses to enforcement, and stated that it created an obligation independent of Community’s, but also said it was not changed “by the partial or complete unenforceability or invalidity” of the guaranteed obligation. He also disputed the amount owing, but the Fifth Circuit agreed that the affidavit evidence he submitted “contained only another set of allegations” and did not preclude summary judgment against him. Edwards Family Partnership LP v. Dickson, No. 15-60683 (April 29, 2016).
As chronicled in the sister blog 600Commerce (following business cases in the Dallas Court of Appeals), the issue of whether a guarantor can waive the “fair market value” offset right provided by the Texas Property Code — a problem that arises frequently after foreclosure sales — was hotly-litigated until the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter in Moyaedi v. Interstate 35/Chisam Road, L.P, 438 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. 2014), finding that the right was waivable.
The Fifth Circuit acknowledged and applied that holding in Hometown 2006-1 1925 Valley View, LLC v. Prime Income Asset Management LLC, finding that the waiver there was even clearer than in Moyaedi. In Moyaedi, the guarantor waived “every . . . defense”; here, the guarantor waived “any . . . offset, claim or defense,” and the guaranty also had a provision saying: “Guarantor WAIVES each and every right to which it may be entitled by virtue of any suretyship law, including any rights it may have pursuant to . . . Section
51.005 of the Texas Property Code.” No. 14-10182 (Dec. 11, 2014, unpublished).
The Fifth Circuit, which in recent years has shown a healthy skepticism about suits to enforce guaranty obligations, again reversed a judgment against a guarantor in JRG Capital Investors I, LLC v. Doppelt, No. 13-20418 (Aug. 5, 2014, unpublished). The underlying note was “generally a nonrecourse debt, meaning that the borrower could not be held personally liable for any deficiency.” While the note had several exceptions that triggered personal liability, the parties agreed that none had occurred. The Court found that the guaranty was only for “the prompt, complete and full payment and performance when due . . . of Borrower’s Recourse Obligations,” and contrasted language involving similar guaranty documents in other cases that was not so limited.
In the earlier case of Levy Gardens Partners v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., the Fifth Circuit concluded that a pleading about the extent of coverage was “fundamental to the complaint” and “did not raise a new matter outside of the complaint”; accordingly, it did not implicate the rules about the pleading of affirmative defenses. 706 F.3d 622, 633 (5th Cir. 2013). In contrast, in LSRef2 Baron LLC v. Tauch, the Court held that a guarantor’s defense of payment by the primary obligor was an affirmative defense. After a review of Louisiana law on the topics of offset and setoff, which characterizes those matters as defenses, the Court concluded that “[Plaintiff] simply had to allege in its complaint that there was an event of default, which is defined in the Loan Agreement, not in the Guaranty.” The Court also agreed that the issue had not been raised in a “pragmatically sufficient time,” as “all of the critical pretrial deadlines had passed or were about to expire.”
After a recent example of attorneys fees that were not “inextricably intertwined” under Texas law, the Fifth Circuit followed this month with a practical example of the Texas requirement of “presentment” of a contract claim before fees may be recovered. In Playboy Enterprises, Inc. Sanchez-Campuzano, the Court reminded that the pleading of presentment is procedural, and thus not a requirement in the federal system. No. 12-40544 (Dec. 23, 2013, unpublished). It is, however, a substantive requirement. In this case, sending a “Notice of Default” under a primary obligation was enough to “present” a claim for liability on a guaranty, noting the “flexible, practical understanding” of the requirement by Texas courts. The Court distinguished Jim Howe Homes v. Rodgers, 818 S.W.2d 901 (Tex. App.-Austin 1991, no writ), which found that service of a DTPA complaint was not presentment of a later-filed contract claim, on the ground that the “Notice” here went beyond mere service of a pleading. For thorough review of this principle, and other key points about fee awards, please consult the book “How to Recover Attorneys Fees in Texas” by my colleagues Trey Cox and Jason Dennis.)
The Fifth Circuit continued its conservative approach to the construction of guaranties in McLane Foodservice Inc. v. Table Rock Restaurants, LLC, No. 12-50980 (Nov. 15, 2013). In 1997, an investor in a restaurant chain guaranteed the chain’s debts to PFS, a division of Pepsioco. Years later, McLane became the owner of PFS’s operations after a series of sales transactions. In 2010, a customer of McLane called Table Rock went out of business, owing McLane over $400,000, and sought to collect on the original guaranty. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that the guaranty only reached credit extended by PFS, that McLane was not an “affiliate” of PFS, and that “successors and assigns” language in the guaranty could not expand the scope of the underlying guaranty obligation.
In Westlake Petrochemicals v. United Polychem, the plaintiff obtained judgment for $6.3 million under the UCC for breach of a contract to supply ethylene. No. 10-20634 (July 24, 2012). The Fifth Circuit affirmed on liability, finding that evidence about the need for credit approval did not disprove contract formation, defeat the Statute of Frauds, or establish a condition precedent. Id. at 9-13. The Court reversed and remanded on damages, finding that the plaintiff was analogous to a “jobber” and thus could recover lost profits but not the contract-market price differential. Id. at 17 (citing Nobs Chemical v. Koppers Co., 616 F.2d 212 (5th Cir. 1980)). The Court also reversed as to an individual’s guaranty of the damages, finding a conflict between the termination provision of the guaranty and the plaintiff’s argument about when liability accrued, which created an ambiguity that made the guaranty unenforceable under Texas law. Id. at 20-21.
The question in Haggard v. Bank of the Ozarks was whether a guarantor’s liability was limited under Texas law to the last $500,000 due on the note of the principal obligor. (No 11-10154, Jan. 19, 2012). Comparing language in the guaranty which limited liability “to the last to be repaid $500,000, of the principal balance of the loan,” with other terms that excused the creditor bank from first trying to collect from the principal, the Court found the guaranty ambiguous and reversed a summary judgment for the bank. Op. at 7, 8. (citing, as to the limitation language, NH Properties v. Mittleider, 267 F. App’x 375 (5th Cir. 2008)). The Court reminded that a “guaranty agreement is construed strictly in favor of the guarantor,” so “[i]f the guaranty is ambiguous, then the court must apply the ‘construction which is most favorable to the guarantor.'” Op. at 8.