In payment or collection-type lawsuits, the party suing for money sometimes asserts a claim for unjust enrichment or quantum meruit as an alternative equitable remedy to a breach of contract claim. Frankly, sometimes a party will do this as a means to throw everything against the wall hoping something, just something, sticks. However, if there is a contract by and between the parties, equitable claims such as unjust enrichment or quantum meruit will invariably fail. They will fail because a party cannot circumvent a contract simply because their recourse may prove better under an equitable theory. It doesn’t work like that! And, it should not!
For example, in Daake v. Decks N Such Marine, Inc., 41 Fla. L. Weekly D1992e (Fla. 1st DCA 2016), a contractor was hired to construct a seawall and a beach house on two lots. One lot was owned by the homeowners in a personal capacity and the other lot was owned by them in the name of a family trust. The contractor was unpaid and sued the owners for breach of contract and sued the family trust for quantum meruit. The problem was that the family trust was deemed a party to the contract. Because the family trust was a party to the contract, the contractor could NOT recover any damages under an equitable theory such as quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. This was a harsh ruling, but the correct ruling since the contractor was deemed a party to the contract. The contractor was owed money but did not sue the family trust for breach of contract. As a result, the contractor could not recover money by bypassing a breach of contract claim for an equitable quantum meruit claim. A court cannot award damages under an equitable theory when the contractor has an adequate remedy of law—a breach of contract claim. See Daake, supra, (“Quantum meruit is premised upon the absence of an express and enforceable agreement; accordingly, the existence of a valid, written contract between the parties necessarily precludes the doctrine’s application.”).
There are times where pleading alternative theories of liability is important. This includes pleading a breach of contract claim and an alternative equitable claim such as unjust enrichment or quantum meruit. This becomes important if you do NOT know whether a certain party will actually be bound by and deemed a party to the contract, which was the situation in Daake. With that said, in your typical payment / collection-type lawsuit, there is a contract between the parties and the equitable claim will fail and should fail. If parties could bypass the harsh remedy of contractual provisions by suing for unjust enrichment or quantum meruit, believe me, they would. When parties are owed money or lost money on a contract, they typically want to avoid risks they agreed to by virtue of the contract.
Please contact David Adelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.