September 14, 2017
Authored by: Jerry Blanchard
Investors frequently talk in terms of trying to find the next unicorn, that small start-up company that is going to turn into a billion dollar valuation. Lawyers are like that as well, always looking for that new decision where a court opens a crack in the door of some long held legal theory. Something like this occurred in the 1980’s when the courts in California held that a party could bring a tort action for the breach of the obligation of good faith. The courts were expanding a doctrine that then existed only in the area of insurance contracts. The expansion of this theory to noninsurance contracts generated universal criticism by other courts and scholars across the US and after a ten year experiment the California Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision for the following reasons: (1) the different objectives underlying the remedies for tort or contract breach, (2) the importance of predictability in assuring commercial stability in contractual dealings, (3) the potential for converting every contract breach into a tort, with accompanying punitive damage recovery, and (4) the preference for legislative action in affording appropriate remedies. [See: Blanchard, Lender Liability: Law, Practice and Prevention, Chapter 4, Bad Faith Tort Claims]
When a party enters into a loan agreement or a promissory note, one understands what the consequences of a breach might be. If a lender is found to have improperly failed to fund under a line of credit it knows that it may have to pay compensatory damages to the borrower. Likewise, guarantors understand that if the borrower fails to pay the underlying obligation the guarantor must step in and pay the obligation. Our commercial banking industry is built on this understanding that parties will need to put the nonbreaching party into as good of condition as they would have been if there had been no breach. Damages for breach are therefore predictable.
The unicorn for borrowers counsel today is to tag a lender with punitive damages. This has traditionally been a difficult endeavor. Courts almost uniformly dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims because absent some unusual set of facts, the normal lender/borrower relationship is not a fiduciary one. Lenders owe no special duty to borrowers or guarantors to advise them on whether a particular business transaction for which the borrower is obtaining funds is a “good” one or not. Fraud claims are a bit easier for a borrower to keep from being dismissed but such claims are subject to heightened pleading standards and require specificity in making the claim, a general claim of “fraud” without more will be dismissed.