In an ideal world, parties would have written contracts. In reality, parties should endeavor to ensure every transaction they enter into is memorialized in a written contract. This should not be disputed. Of course, written contracts are not always the case. Parties enter transactions too often whereby the transaction is not memorialized in a clean written agreement. Rather, it is piecemealing invoices, or texts, or discussions, or proposals and the course of business. A contract can still exist in this context but it is likely an oral contract. Keep in mind if there is a dispute, what you think the oral contract says will invariably be different than what the other party believes the oral contract says. This “he said she said” scenario gets removed, for the most part, with a written contract that memorializes the written terms, conditions, and scope.
A recent federal district court opinion dealt with the alleged breach of an oral contract. In Movie Prop Rentals LLC vs. The Kingdom of God Global Church, 2023 WL 8275922 (S.D.Fla. 2023), a dispute concerned the fabrication and installation of a complex, modular stage prop to be used for an event. But here lies the problem. The dispute was based on an oral contract and invoices. The plaintiff, the party that was fabricating the modular stage prop, sued the defendant, the party that ordered the stage prop for the event, for non-payment under various claims. The defendant countersued under various claims.
The trial court analyzed a motion for summary judgment relating to the defendant’s breach of oral contract claim against the plaintiff. Each party claimed a different fixed price term for the transaction. The trial court found that while the parties disputed the fixed price amount, and whether there were fixed installment payments, it was undisputed that an oral contract existed for a fixed price with money being exchanged for the fabrication of the stage prop, and within a specific duration, as consideration. However, the trial court found that whether the payments were to be installment payments were not an essential term when “it is undisputed that the Oral Contract contains a specified price, a specific duration, and a defined scope of work to be performed.” Move Prop Rentals, supra, at *6.
Because of the oral contract, the trial court granted summary judgment as to an unjust enrichment claim. “As noted, Defendants rely on their payments under the Oral Contract to support their unjust enrichment claim. That fact is fatal to their unjust enrichment claims, as [a]ny proof of an express agreement between the parties as to the compensation to be paid for the services rendered…defeat[s] rather than sustain[s] an action based upon quantum meruit.” Movie Prop Rentals, supra, at *8 (internal quotations and citation omitted). Stated differently, the oral contract precluded the unjust enrichment claim.
Because of the oral contract, the trial court granted summary judgment as to a breach of an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing claim.
Where a party to a contract has in good faith performed the express terms of the contract, an action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith will not lie. Accordingly, a cause of action for breach of the implied covenant cannot be maintained (a) in derogation of the express terms of the underlying contract or (b) in the absence of breach of an express term of the underlying contract.
Movie Prop Rentals, supra, at *8 (internal quotations and citation omitted).
Here, the trial court found that the breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was in derogation of the express terms of the oral contract because it was based on the plaintiff’s failure to fabricate in exchange for payment:
Defendants content that the Oral Contract obligated Plaintiffs to fabricate the Stage Prop in exchange for Defendants’ installment payments, contingent on Plaintiffs’ status updates. Defendants’ breach of the Oral Contract claim is based on Plaintiffs breach of this express term rather than on an implied duty to perform in good faith. Plaintiff’s failure to fully perform either constitutes a breach of this express term, or, should Plaintiff prevail on their breach of contract claim, Plaintiff’s partial performance does not constitute a breach in light of Defendants’ failure to continue making payments.
Movie Prop Rentals, supra, at *8.
Could this dispute have been avoided with a written contract? Maybe. Maybe not. However, one thing is clear. A written contract would have memorialized terms and conditions and each of the parties’ expectations under the contract as it relates to payment and work progress.
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.