Addy v. Piedmonte, et al., Del. Ch., No. 3571-VCP (March 18, 2009), read opinion here.

Kevin Brady, a highly respected Wilmington lawyer, prepared the following review of this case:

In this Chancery Court decision, Vice Chancellor Parsons dismissed a claim for breach of fiduciary duty in a case with a complex fact pattern involving oil and gas exploration participation agreements, guarantees and notes.

The Court, in a 57-page opinion, addressed a multitude of issues raised by the eleven-count complaint against eleven defendants where the Court characterized the relationships among the parties under the various contracts as, “at best, murky.” In the pending motion, six of the defendants (the “Moving Defendants”) moved to dismiss eight claims for breach of contract, breach of guaranties, fraud and equitable fraud, breaches of fiduciary duty, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, and for equitable relief, including specific performance, an accounting, a constructive or resulting trust, and an equitable lien. The Court summed up the factual quagmire by noting “[this] dispute involves the interrelationship of several written contracts each purporting to integrate fully the agreement among the parties with the terms of notes that were described in summary fashion in informal documents, but never formally issued.”

The Court discussed the language of the Participation Agreements and issues related to them including the parties’ intentions, extrinsic evidence, the parol evidence rule and the concept of integration.

The Concept of Integration in Contract Law

With respect to arguments about integration of the contracts in this case, the Court noted:

Clauses indicating that the contract is an expression of the parties’ final intentions generally create a presumption of integration. Courts, however, may consider extrinsic evidence to discern if the contract is completely or partially integrated. Furthermore, in determining whether a contract is fully integrated, the Court focuses on whether it is carefully and formally drafted, whether it addresses the questions that would naturally arise out of the subject matter, and whether it expresses the final intentions of the parties.

With respect to the only claim that was dismissed by the Court (Count VIII Breach of Fiduciary Duty), the Court noted that in early 2006, two defendants, Piedmonte and Stover offered, at approximately the same time, separate investment opportunities to plaintiff. Within three months, the plaintiff, a sophisticated investor, contributed cash to the two investments in an aggregate amount exceeding $3 million. Pursuant to agreements with two of the defendant LLCs, the plaintiff directly provided money to those defendants, which undertook to purchase participation units in the investments from two of the Westside defendants in exchange for notes. The $3 million eventually found its way to two entities, each of which are owned 50% by an entity controlled by Piedmonte and 50% by an entity controlled by Stover.

The last part of the decision includes a helpful analysis and discussion of the tension between an integration clause and the reluctance of the courts to allow a person to lie–and then rely on a contract to exculpate the liar from liability.

Creation of Fiduciary Relationship Alleged

In Count VIII, the plaintiff claimed that Stover breached a fiduciary duty with respect to these commercial contracts by inducing his participation in those investments and engaging in self-dealing by retaining a portion of the plaintiff’s cash contribution. On this point, Vice Chancellor Parsons noted:

Under Delaware law, a fiduciary relationship arises where one person places special trust in another or where one person has a special duty to protect the interests of another. Generally, the fiduciary enjoys a position of superiority in knowledge or expertise upon which the other person relies. A fiduciary relationship requires confidence reposed by one side and domination and influence exercised by the other.

Based upon the above, the Court found that Stover did not owe a fiduciary duty to the plaintiff because the Participation Agreements included provisions under which the plaintiff represented that he conducted an independent investigation into Westside, including its business and financial welfare, and that he did not rely on any statements made or investigations performed by other entities.

Fiduciary Relationships v. Commercial Relationships

The Court also discussed the concerns of extending the fiduciary duty doctrine to ordinary commercial transactions:

[I]t is vitally important that the exacting standards of fiduciary duties not be extended to quotidian commercial relationships. This is true both to protect participants in such normal market activities from unexpected sources of liability against which they were unable to protect themselves and, perhaps more important, to prevent an erosion of the exacting standards applied by courts of equity to persons found to stand in a fiduciary relationship to others.

Bargained-for commercial relationships between sophisticated parties do not give rise to fiduciary duties. In addition, this Court is chary of expanding the scope of fiduciary duty to a broad set of commercial relationships which traditionally has been regulated by normal market conditions, rather than the scrupulous concerns of equity for persons in special relationships of trust and confidence.

The Court found that the plaintiff entered into an agreement to purchase participation units in the two projects at issue after he had ample opportunity to review their terms and negotiate new terms if required before contributing any money. Thus, the plaintiff’s claim that Stover breached his fiduciary duties was without merit, and as a result, it was dismissed.