A recent case contains valuable analysis that has impact on whether a “successor” entity will be bound by a settlement agreement it was not a direct party to. This case contains arguments for contractors that can be raised in a number of different contexts if it is sued by a successor or related entity.
The same case discusses the difference between releasing a party for “known” claims without releasing the same party for “unknown” claims. This is an important distinction because unknown claims refer to latent defects so a release that only releases a party for known claims is not releasing that party for latent defects.
In MBlock Investors, LLC v. Bovis Lend Lease, Inc., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D1432d (Fla. 3d DCA 2019), an owner hired a contractor to construct a project. At completion, the owner transferred the project to an affiliated entity (collectively, the “Owner”). The contractor sued the Owner for unpaid work, the Owner claimed construction defects with the work, and a settlement was entered into that released the contractor for KNOWN claims. Thereafter, the Owner defaulted on the construction loan and agreed to convey the property through a deed in lieu of foreclosure to an entity created by the lender (the “Lender Entity”).
The Lender Entity sued the contractor for construction defects – in negligence (negligent construction) and a violation of Florida’s building code. The contractor argued that such claims should be barred by its settlement agreement with the Owner. There were two driving issues:
First, did the settlement agreement with the Owner extend to the Lender Entity because the Lender Entity was a successor entity to the Owner?
Second, even if the Lender Entity was a successor entity to the Owner, were the construction defects latent defects because the settlement agreement only provided a release of KNOWN (or patent) defects?
As to the first issue, the appellate court held that the Lender Entity was a successor entity to the Owner.
[I]t is rather clear that [Lender Entity] is in fact, [Owner’s] ‘successor’ for purposes of the settlement agreement with [contractor] because [Lender Entity] took over the Property and all of [Owner’s] rights with regard to the Property. Thus, [Lender Entity] clearly met the privity requirement for the application of res judicata in this case: it has a mutual or successive relationship to the same right that [Owner] had when it settled with [contractor]: a reduction in the amount owed to [contractor] for its services in exchange for releasing [contractor] from any claims of construction defects as provided for in the [settlement agreement].
As to the second issue, and really the driving issue whether or not the Lender Entity was a successor, was whether the release even protected the contractor from the types of construction defect claims sought. This is a question of fact because the settlement agreement only included a release of “known” claims and did NOT release the contractor for “unknown” claims, i.e., latent defects. Hence, the Lender Entity will establish such claims were unknown or could not reasonably have been discovered at the time of the settlement (a latent defect). The contractor will try to argue otherwise creating an issue of fact as to whether the settlement agreement released the contractor for the construction defects the Lender Entity is asserting.
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