Archive for the ‘contracts’ Category

Business Law Update: Michigan Bill Would Prohibit Non-Disparagement Clauses with Consumers.

I’m not going to sugar coat it – it is a gray day in downtown Grand Rapids.

I had lunch with a friend today, who told me – he can’t stand it when in response to the question “how are you doing” someone gives a pat answer – “good”.



I agree.

I appreciate authenticity.

And today, is gray, and somewhat depressing and I am a little down.

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a friend and fellow attorney who died suddenly. I am grieving and in prayer for Adam’s family, including his wife, two small children and his brother and parents.




Ok, enough authenticity, and on to the subject matter of this post…


I previously wrote about an interesting article published by the ABAJournal.

The article presents interesting questions that come up in business transactions:

when faced with entering a business relationship should you enter into a non-disclosure agreement? (NDA)

What about if the NDA contains a Non-Disparagement Clause?

What is Disparagement?

Michigan courts have held that “disparagement” is plain in its meaning. It is not ambiguous. Therefore, when signing a non-disparagement clause you can have some reasonable certainty in your conduct.

Disparage – as you will see below – has a fairly common meaning


‘Disparagement’ is ‘a false and injurious statement that discredits or detracts from the reputation of another’s property, product, or business.’ Black’s Law Dictionary (7th ed. 1999).

stated another way:

(1) To speak of in a slighting or disrespectful way; belittle.

(2) To reduce esteem or rank.’ . . . American Heritage Dictionary (4th Ed. 2000)


Non-Disparagement Clauses in Contracts with Consumers


Recently the Federal government passed a law holding that such non-disparagement provisions in contracts are unenforceable under Federal law

California has had such a law in place since 2016.


It is one thing if two sophisticated business parties are negotiating a business relationship, but should consumers have specific protections concerning Non-Disparagement Clauses?


At least one Michigan lawmaker thinks so.

Michigan House Bill 5193

On October 31, 2017, HB 5193 was introduced to amend the Michigan Consumer Protection Act (“MCPA”).

“The MCPA provides protection to Michigan’s consumers by prohibiting various methods, acts, and practices in trade or commerce.” Slobin v. Henry Ford Health Care, 469 Mich. 211, 215; 666 NW2d 632 (2003).

The Amendment would prohibit anyone engaged in Trade or Commerce from including in a contract with a consumer for the sale of lease or sale of consumer goods:





Of note, under this Bill businesses would still be permitted to include provisions that protect its proprietary information.


I understand the intent of this provision. However, it hasn’t made any progress in committee. I will keep you posted on any development.



Questions?  Comments?


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka


Business Law Basics: A 5 Million Dollar Comma

February 13, 2018 Leave a comment

Today in downtown Grand Rapids is the “World of Winter Festival” where Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.  provides a “Snow Globe” experience. Very colorful.  A lot of fun downtown.



Rosa Parks Circle, Grand Rapids, Michigan


Today I read an article posted by the ABAJournal that illustrates the profound impact on word and grammar usage in contracts and legislation.

As the ABAJournal reported:

“A dairy company in Maine has agreed to pay $5 million to its drivers after a federal appeals court last year found ambiguity in a state overtime law because it lacked an Oxford comma.”

The ABA Journal reported in its story last year Oxford comma issue benefits drivers in overtime case:


Ambiguity caused by lack of a comma in a law on overtime pay has benefited Maine dairy delivery drivers.”

“The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pointed out the issue in the first sentence of its March 13 decision(PDF). ‘For want of a comma, we have this case,” the court said in an opinion by Judge David Barron.

Because the statute was ambiguous, it should be interpreted in favor of the dairy workers who distribute milk but do not pack it, the appeals court found.


As a result – a 5 Million Dollar  Comma.



A few years back I wrote about how the words used in a contract dispute significantly impacted the rights and obligations in a business dispute, based upon the Michigan Supreme Court’s interpretation.

The Michigan Supreme Court made a distinction between the inclusion of the word “in” in a Title Company’s Closing Protection Letter in a prior case, and the “exclusion” of the word “in” in that instant case. In the Court’s determination:

“Although the distinction is slight—the only difference is the word “in”—the distinction is legally significant.”

Words Matter.


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Law Update: Recent Court Case On Sour Business Relationships and Arbitration Clauses

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Good afternoon, all! The sun was beautiful this morning rising over downtown Grand Rapids.


IMG_2144Today I read a recent unpublished Court of Appeals decision that originated out of Kalamazoo County, Michigan –

The case: Elluru v Great Lakes Plastic, Reconstructive, and Hand Surgery PC


A summary of the Facts:

  • Plaintiff Elluru and defendant Holley practiced medicine together in  the Company.
  • Holley served as president and Elluru as secretary.
  • They entered into employment agreements with the Company.
  • The agreements provided for termination by the Company for cause upon written notice or without cause upon 90 days’ written notice.
  • They also executed a Stock Redemption Agreement that provided that a shareholder must sell his shares to the Company if he voluntarily terminated his employment  or if the Company discharged his employment with or without cause.  See Elluru , page 1.

Then the business relationship took a turn for the worse…

  • In 2015, Elluru began to express his desire to dissolve the Company.
  • Elluru called for special meetings of the shareholders to discuss his proposals for dissolution.
  • Holley disagreed with the plan to dissolve the corporation.
  • Instead, on December 7, 2015, Holley sent a letter to Elluru that he had terminated Elluru’s employment with the Company.
  • Elluru also was notified that, pursuant to the Stock Redemption Agreement, his shares were being acquired by the Company.
  • Elluru was further notified that, because he was no longer employed by the Company, he was also terminated as an officer and director of the Company.
  • The letter also reminded Elluru that he was subject to a non-compete agreement. Id, Page 1-2.

Not completely unexpected, Elluru sued Holley and Company and asked the Court to:  A. Dissolve the Corporation and B. Set Aside his Termination.

Holley and the Company filed a motion to compel Elluru to Arbitration pursuant to an arbitration clause in the parties’ employment contract. Id. Page 2.

Holley argued that “the employment agreement required that the claims be submitted to arbitration. Holley argued that “arbitration was required because all of the claims arose out of the employment agreement.” Id.

The Circuit Court denied Holley’s motion. Holley appealed.

The Court of Appeals was presented with this issue:

“whether the issue of arbitrability should have been decided by the trial court or by the arbitrator.” Id.


About Arbitration Clauses…


Michigan law favors upholding arbitration clauses in contracts.

Under Michigan law, arbitration clauses are to be liberally construed with any doubts to be resolved in favor of arbitration. Amtower v William C. Roney & Co., 232 Mich App 226,233 (1998).



In this case, the Court noted that:

The Uniform Arbitration Act, MCL 691.1681 et seq…provides that, where there is an agreement to arbitrate, a trial court must order the parties to arbitrate unless the court determines that there is no enforceable arbitration agreement. The Act further provides that it is for the court in the first instance to determine arbitrability…” Id. (my emphasis).

There is an exception to the rule that the Court determines arbitrability… 

The parties contractually agreed to delegate to the arbitrator the question of arbitrability. Id. Citing Rent-A-Center, West, Inc v Jackson, 561 US 63, 69 n 1; 130 S Ct 2772; 177 L Ed 2d 403 (2010).

In the instant case – the Court looked at the Employment Agreement:

“In paragraph 10 of the employment agreement, the parties agreed that ‘[a]ny controversy or claim arising out of or related to . . . this Employment Agreement . . . shall
be settled by arbitration . . . in accordance with the Employment Dispute Resolution Rules of the American Arbitration Association . . . .’ Those rules provide that the “arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope or validity of the arbitration agreement.'” Id. Page 3.


The Court of Appeals agreed with Holley:  “that this matter should have been submitted to arbitration and that the trial court should have held the claims in abeyance pending the outcome of arbitration.” Id. page 2.



Lessons and General Arbitration Considerations:

1. Arbitration Clauses are favored. A Court generally decides whether the clause is enforceable, and whether or not the matters are arbitrable.” However, the parties’ can contract to allow the issue of arbitrability to be decided by the arbitrator.

2. This brings up a general point – the parties could have negotiated differently in their employment and shareholder agreements before signing. “Freedom of Contract.

3. Arbitration clauses have the benefit that they are usually most cost-effective, quick, and they are private (as opposed to court cases which are public filings).

4. Where is the Other Party located? For a client who engages in business over state lines, an arbitration clause might not be effective if you are trying to quickly collect a debt owed.  Instead, you  might want a “Jurisdiction and Venue Selection Clause

This clause would include language indicating that no matter where the dispute occurred, the contract will be interpreted under Michigan law, and the parties agree that any dispute shall only be resolved in _______ County (Typically,  Kent County, Michigan, for my clients.) Therefore, if your contract contains a jurisdiction and forum selection clause, and you are owed money by a company in Florida, you would not need to retain a Florida attorney to try and collect.

5. Arbitration may be a gamble.

Businesses should realize that if you elect to arbitrate a matter and you do not like what the arbitrator finds – your rights to appeal may be severely limited.

Questions? Comments?


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Law Update: Concerning Current Politics and Non-Disparagement Clauses

January 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Today I read an interesting article published by the ABAJournal.

The ABAJournal article asks an interesting question (all politics aside):

“If Trump sues Bannon for violating a nondisclosure agreement, what are his damages?”

Again, all politics aside, the article presents interesting questions that comes up in business transactions: when faced with entering a business relationship should you enter into a non-disclosure agreement? (NDA)


The thought that comes to mind when I hear the word “Politics”

What if the NDA contains a non-disparagement clause? Can you even enforce it if breached? If so, what are your damages?

Going back to the ABAJournal Article, one legal scholar quoted in the ABAJournal article opined that such a lawsuit would be problematic, given damages are speculative (my paraphrase). University of Arizona law professor Jane Roberta Bambauer stated:

“It’s difficult for litigants to claim large damages when the nature of the award is that they expected to be less embarrassed (as opposed to NDA cases involving trade secrets and other financially valuable pieces of information that the protected party expected to exploit himself)”

Regardless of the damages argument, in general, such agreements are enforceable. That was the opinion of Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter who stated:


“We can put aside nondisparagement clauses buried in the boilerplate of consumer contracts, which companies sometimes try to use to prevent those who buy their products from posting negative reviews. Most courts have understandably held such clauses unenforceable,”…“But when non-disparagement clauses are included in employment contracts or separation agreements, they are enforced more or less routinely.”


Non-Disparagement Clauses…With a Penalty?

Would you sign a non-disparagement clause with a penalty attached to it in the event of breach?

A few years ago an interesting story emerged regarding a non-disparagement clause involving a settlement entered into by the City of Lansing.

As a lawyer, if I was approving my client’s signature on the City of Lansing Settlement agreement, I’d want to be sure that my client fully understood what constitutes “disparagement”


What is Disparagement?

Michigan courts have held that “disparagement” is plain in its meaning. It is not ambiguous. Therefore, when signing a non-disparagement clause you can have some reasonable certainty in your conduct.

Often times as part of a confidential settlement agreement, the parties to a dispute will agree not to “disparage” each other.

Disparage – as you will see below – has a fairly common meaning.

‘Disparagement’ is ‘a false and injurious statement that discredits or detracts from the reputation of another’s property, product, or business.’ Black’s Law Dictionary (7th ed. 1999).

stated another way:

(1) To speak of in a slighting or disrespectful way; belittle. (2) To

 reduce esteem or rank.’ . . . American Heritage Dictionary (4th Ed. 2000)

2. Michigan Case Law Concerning “Non-Disparagement Agreements”

Rarely have I ever seen a non-disparagement clause become an issue. In fact, a review of Michigan case law supports this – I found only a handful of cases in Michigan where the parties litigated over one party’s alleged “disparagement” after a settlement agreement was entered.

One such case was the 2011 case of Sohal v. Mich. State Univ. Bd. of Trs. & Davoren Chick M.D., 2011 Mich. App. LEXIS 915, *12-14, 2011 WL 1879728 (Mich. Ct. App. May 17, 2011).)

There the Court held: “the term “disparage” in the non-disparagement clause is not ambiguous. While plaintiff attempts to ascribe several “reasonable” meanings to the term “disparage,” and thus the non-disparagement clause, the term fairly admits of but one interpretation.” Citing Meagher v Wayne State Univ, 222 Mich App 700, 722; 565 NW2d 401 (1997).

As the Court noted, “Other state courts have determined that the term “disparage” in non-disparagement clauses of settlement agreements are unambiguous.” (citations omitted).


In closing – non-disparagement clauses are standard clauses (but not universally used). Courts have consistently held that “Disparage” is a plainly understood term. It isn’t an ambiguous term.

Disparagement clauses may be enforceable. Most often, I would presume they would at least serve the purpose of deterring a party from speaking disreputably after a settlement is signed. However a good question to ask before entering into the agreement; unless you have a stipulated damages provision, how will you calculate damages in the event of a breach?


Questions?  Comments?


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Law Update for LLCs: The Words You Use In Your Operating Agreement Matter.

October 18, 2017 1 comment

Good morning, all! Yesterday was a beautiful day, see the photo I took overlooking downtown Grand Rapids. The leaves are already changing color.

Today I read a Court of Appeals Case that came out yesterday that provides a good example for business owners.

Background – Today LLCs are generally the entity of choice.

Most businesses that were formed in Michigan last year were Lim


ited Liability Companies. This is for several reasons:

Limited liability (Once a limited liability company comes into existence, limited liability applies, and a member or manager is not liable for the acts, debts, or obligations of the company. “Duray Dev., LLC v. Perrin, 288 Mich. App. 143, 151 (2010))

Flexibility (centralized management – generally no distinction between owners/managers) 

No double taxation (like in traditional C-Corporations).


Your Operating Agreement is an Important Document

However, just forming the LLC by filing the articles of organization with the State of Michigan is not enough to fully protect your business.

One fundamental document is your operating agreement.  It is that document that spells out how the business affairs of the company are conducted.

It also spells out the “exit” – in what event and on what terms can a member leave the company?

I have often written about why your operating agreement matters.

Today I read an unpublished court of appeals decision that provides another illustration on why not only having the operating agreement matters, but also the exact language in your operating agreement matters.


Healthwise Medical Clinic, PLLC, and NP DREAMS,LLC



The parties:

Plaintiff Rhonda Keller, LNP and Defendant Kasandra Lechel, licensed nurse practitioners.

They were the sole members of two LLCs – HealthWise was the “operating company” and NP Dreams owned the real estate used by HealthWise.

Keller and Lechel had entered into operating agreements governing
HealthWise and NP Dreams.

The HealthWise Agreement had a “personal and professional standard of conduct” section that required a member to withdraw from the company if they violated the provision.

Keller found out that Defendant Lechel had taken actions that she deemed should require Lechel to resign. Lechel did not resign and therefore Keller sued to compel withdrawal from the company.

There were other claims and counter-claims made between the parties; however, the issue relevant for purposes of my article is regarding the buy-out provision in the Operating Agreement.

The Operating Agreement required the Company to buy out a withdrawing member under certain terms.

Plaintiff sued to expel Lechel, claiming she committed bad acts that required her removal. As such, Plaintiff should not be required to compensate her buy out.


Trial Court’s Decision

The Trial Court agreed.

With regard to the HealthWise and NP Dreams Agreements and compensation due to Lechel, the trial court held that “neither the buyout nor the liquidation option provides a logical and just resolution.” The court pointed to uncontroverted proofs that the corporate debts exceeded assets. Further, the trial court explained, because Lechel had breached the contract first, she was not entitled to recover on it. The trial court issued an order stating that Lechel “is not entitled to any compensation for her interests in the two Limited Liability companies.” Id. Page 4.



The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Court of Appeals reversed on this issue.

Law: Your Operating Agreement is a Contract. Courts will interpret a Contract in accordance with its plain meaning.

The Court of Appeals analyzed this issue as follows:

“Our primary goal in interpreting a contract is to honor the intent of the parties by enforcing the plain and unambiguous language of the agreement. See Klapp v United Ins Group Agency, Inc, 468 Mich 459, 473; 663 NW2d 447 (2003); Defrain, 491 Mich at 367. Clear and unambiguous language will be enforced as written. Farmers Ins Exch v Kurzmann, 257 Mich App 412, 418; 668 NW2d 199 (2003).


The Court reviewed the Operating Agreement and held that the language was clear and unambiguous:

“[i]f such Member shall fail to voluntarily withdraw, the Company shall take such
action as may be required to compel resignation under the same terms.” Section 5.2 lists the terms for voluntary withdrawal, including 2 options for compensating the withdrawing member: either (1) payment of 80% of the member’s share of the agreed-upon value of the company, which amounts to $40,000 to defendant.” Id. at Page 7.


The Court’s language in its opinion is very telling. It was not going to apply “equity” since the parties were free to contract how they saw fit.

Despite testimony that HealthWise’s liabilities exceeded its assets, we see no reason to apply an equitable remedy when a contractual remedy is available. See Tkachik v Mandeville, 487 Mich 38, 45; 790 NW2d 260 (2010).

The parties were free to bargain for protection in the event of a court-ordered withdrawal, and they did so.




Take care in drafting your operating agreement. If you desire a penalty in the event of termination of a membership interest – then make sure that language is included in your operating agreement. The courts will enforce clear language in an operating agreement.



Questions? Comments?


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka



Business Law Update: Another Call to Clear Contract Drafting.

September 26, 2017 Leave a comment

It is Artprize again in downtown Grand Rapids! See one of the exhibits on Monroe Avenue in front of the Venue.

2017-09-14 13.08.48



Did you know: “Shall” has a different meaning then “May”?

One is mandatory.

The other is permissive.

In business, it pays to be clear in the contract language you use.


Check out this recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision on why you need to take care in drafting contracts.



This case was a dispute over a commercial lease contained in a “letter agreement” – and the legal concept of contra proferentem that ambiguities in contracts should be construed against the drafter.



According to the Court of Appeals: “the primary question presented in this case is
whether the following paragraph of the letter agreement precluded plaintiffs from filing this lawsuit:
“10. The failure of either party to perform the preliminary duties outlined in
this agreement will permit the obligee of the duty to declare a default and
terminate this preliminary agreement to lease or other remedy that may be agreed
to by the parties.”

The trial court found that this language precluded the tenant from suing.

The court of appeals disagreed.

The Court of Appeals evidently found this language to be ambiguous.

“It is an elementary rule of construction of contracts that in case of doubt, a contract is to be strictly construed against the party by whose agent it was drafted.” Shay v Aldrich, 487 Mich 648, 673; 790 NW2d 629 (2010).

This rule of construction is known as “contra proferentem”.

The contra proferentem rule is applicable only as a last resort, when other techniques of interpretation and construction have not resolved the question of which of two or more possible reasonable meanings the court should choose. It is a tie breaker when there is no other sound basis for choosing one contract interpretation over another.”
Klapp v. United Ins. Group Agency, Inc., 468 Mich. 459, 460, 663 N.W.2d 447, 449, 2003 Mich. LEXIS 1224, *1 (Mich. 2003).

However, in this case, the Court seemed to make much of the fact that the drafter, who was a party to the contract, was an attorney.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision and found that the language did not preclude the tenant from filing suit and the case needed to proceed to trial.



Small business owners often times are wearing many “hats”. They are working with limited cash flow and are forced to make many choices. Many of these choices are in areas outside of their expertise.

Oftentimes startups and small business owners will “cut corners” to be more efficient and cost-effective.

When it comes to signing a legally binding contract – it is simply not worth cutting corners on.

The cost of what you do not know can be significant.

Question? Comments?


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka







Business Law Update: Court Lessons on Personal Guarantees.

Rosa Parks Circle in Downtown Grand Rapids

In the world of lending if a business wants to secure financing, you will be hard-pressed to find a bank that is not going to require some collateral, including a personal guarantee of the debt by the principal owner(s) of the business.

businesses don’t want to sign personal guarantees; it’s why businesses take on the corporate formalities of a limited liability company, or a corporation – to limit their personal liability. Therefore, it is understandable in a lawsuit over a promissory note that an individual would argue against the enforceability of a personal guarantee.
This is a reason why lenders, private investors, should make sure their legal documents are precise – so that in the event a lawsuit needs to be filed the document is not drafted so as to create an ambiguity.
Two cases come to mind that illustrate problems in enforcing personal guarantees – one recent and one a few years back.
June 29, 2017 Real Estate Development case
For an interesting case that went up and down the appellate courts, just look no further than a June 29, 2017 decision of WNC Housing LP v Shelborne Development Company
In that case a mortgage loan for a particular real-estate development project, the “Shelborne Park project,” was in default, and to avoid foreclosure, plaintiffs purchased the debt at a negotiated price.” Id.
The trial court found the general partner in a limited partnership of the development, Makino, to be a guarantor.
Makino appealed the trial court’s determination that she was personally liable, attacking the language of the general partnership agreement. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision that Makino was liable, but the Michigan Supreme Court, vacated that portion and essentially told the Court of Appeals to reconsider it.  The Court of Appeals reconsidered, reviewing the text of Makino’s partnership agreement and found, once again, Makino was liable under the language of the agreement (The pertinent language stated that Makino as general partner “hereby guarantees lien free Completion of Construction of the Apartment Housing on or before May 1, 2003”) . Id. at page 3.
October 9 , 2012 Case of the Ambiguously Signed Promissory Note.
Another example is illustrated in the 2012 unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals case of Marcuz v. Steven Premiere Properties & Dev., L.L.C., 305733, 2012 WL 4801060 (Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 9, 2012)
The promissory note was signed by Branoff twice: once as a “member” of Premiere Properties, and once “individually.” The note was also signed by defendants Mario and Antonio Giannandrea “individually.”
Premiere Properties defaulted on the promissory note so Marcuz sued the company and individuals on September 3, 2009.
In court, Branoff admitted that he signed the promissory note twice, but he claimed his second signature was not intended as a personal guarantee.  But his signature and the two other individuals were simply “because “we were showing…who were going to be the finalized members of the company.

Thus, an ambiguity exists.
Regardless, the trial court and the Court of Appeals disagreed with Branoff.
The Court held that “[w]hen Branoff signed the promissory note first as a “member” of Premiere and second “individually,” he manifested his intent to personally guarantee the note. Simply put, it would have been redundant for Branoff to sign the promissory note a second time if he did not intend that his second signature have some legal effect different from his first signature.”
LESSON from these two cases:Don’t Draft Legal Documents In a Manner That Creates Ambiguities.
Although the Lender in both instances did in fact win the day, the problem remained – they won after litigating a case that went to appeal, (and in Makino’s case, up to the Supreme court and back down to the Court of Appeals) which undoubtedly cost significant legal fees. The  drafter of the promissory note and the partnership agreement – much of the trouble could have likely been avoided if the partnership agreement and promissory note were more clearly drafted.

Questions? Comments?


Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka