ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, August 29, 2011

Plaintiff's Inartful Pleading Leaves Queens Judge Yearning for Some "Old-Fashion Formalism"

In a case that appears to be about a breach of a construction contract, the plaintiff's attorney receives a benchslap from Judge Markey in Queens [ouch!]:

This is an action essentially for breach of a construction contract, where the plaintiff contends that it was not paid for its work. The defendants seek to dismiss the second and third causes of action of the complaint.
The Court, as an initial matter, does not find that the plaintiff's complaint is a model of clarity. The first cause of action is essentially for breach of contract, but the word "breach" does not appear in the complaint. The second cause of action is for unjust enrichment, but the plaintiff fails to narrow that broad concept to the facts by either naming or exploring concepts of "quasi-contracts" or "quantum meruit." Indeed, plaintiff's second cause of action implies that defendants retained or accepted the services provided. None of the essential elements of unjust enrichment, quasi-contract, or quantum meruit are spelled out thoroughly.
Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, while a Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, said famously: "The law has outgrown its primitive stage of formalism when the precise word was the sovereign talisman, and every slip was fatal. It takes a broader view today." Wood v Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, 222 N.Y. 88, 91 [1917]. Despite Cardozo's beautiful articulation of the concept, one reads the plaintiff's complaint yearning for some old-fashioned formalism that would spell out and sustain a cause of action.
The third cause of action is for fraud, but the acts or words of fraud are not spelled out. There is no clue of whether the fraud was in the inducement of the contract or in its execution. Plaintiff seems to be saying that the fact of nonpayment on a contract is enough to sustain a cause of action for fraud and its demand for punitive damages.
Even worse, it would have been helpful, although not essential, for plaintiff to attach a copy of the contract as an exhibit to the complaint. Plaintiff's counsel, in opposition to the defendants' motion does supply it: the original version in Chinese, not accompanied by a certified translation into English. See, e.g., Altivater Gessler-J.A. Baczewski Intern. (USA) Inc. v Sobieski Destylarnia S.A., 572 F.3d 86, 88 n.3 [2nd Cir. 2009] [Both sides offered proper English translation of contract in Polish]; Azimut-Benetti, S.P.A. v Magnum Marine Corp., 55 A.D.3d 483 [1st Dept. 2008] [contract translated to English from Italian]; American Swiss Potash Min. Corp. v Brugger, 137 N.Y.S.2d 729 [Sup. Ct. New York County 1954] [N.O.R.].
In fact, without a proper translation, the Court is unable to determine whether the contract contained a specific disclaimer clause that would have an effect on any oral recitations, possibly relevant to the third cause of action for fraud. See, e.g., Tarantul v Cherkassky, 84 A.D.3d 933 [2nd Dept. 2011].
Before dismissing plaintiff's second and third causes of action, the judge gives defense counsel a little benchslap as well: "The motion to dismiss by defendants is also not particularly helpful since there is no recitation of the salient facts, and the motion begins almost from the start with a legal argument by defense counsel."
[UPDATE 10/7/11: I had a nice chat with defendant's counsel in this case.  It sounds that she did everything she could under the circumstances, and she did ultimately prevail.  She asked what interested me in writing about the case and I reminded her of contractsprof's obsession with anything even marginally related to Judge Cardozo and/or Lady Duff-Gordon.]
[Meredith R. Miller]

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