Friday, February 7, 2014

All That Jazz

An interesting opinion from the New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department sounds like a New York, New York kind of a story

This case, apparently one of first impression, aptly illustrates the well-known axiom that cautions against mixing business with pleasure. The question presented is whether a so-ordered stipulation, agreed upon by plaintiff and defendant Valenti in Family Court and which precludes all contact between them except by counsel, renders impossible the performance of two prior contracts between plaintiff and Jayarvee, Inc., Valenti's artist management company. We hold that it does.

Plaintiff is a well-known professional jazz singer. Valenti is the sole shareholder and president of Jayarvee, a corporation that manages musical artists, produces musical recordings, and owns and operates the well-known jazz club Birdland. Plaintiff and Valenti met in 2003 while plaintiff was performing at Birdland, and the two quickly kindled a romantic relationship. By early 2004, plaintiff had moved into Valenti's Manhattan apartment. They became engaged that year, and for some years held themselves out as husband and wife, although they never married. They also developed a professional relationship, many details of which are still at issue in Supreme Court.

By 2011, the couple's personal relationship had deteriorated. Plaintiff alleges that in or about March 2011, Valenti obtained her private electronic materials — in part by physically overpowering her — and subsequently made repeated threats to release those materials to the public. He allegedly stated that he would ruin plaintiff's professional career and personal life by posting the data on the internet.

Despite the ongoing personal drama between plaintiff and Valenti, their professional relationship continued. Plaintiff and Jayarvee — with Valenti signing as the company's president — entered into a recording contract and a management contract in April 2011 and June 2011, respectively. Plaintiff moved out of their shared residence in May 2011.

Nonetheless, in October 2011, plaintiff commenced a Family Court proceeding in which she sought an order of protection against Valenti. The court granted a temporary order of protection that, inter alia, prevented Valenti from contacting plaintiff, either directly or through third parties. The order was extended on consent several times through June 2012.

Plaintiff commenced the instant action on November 21, 2011 — while the Family Court proceeding was pending — against Valenti, Jayarvee, and plaintiff's accountant, Howard Weiss (who is not a party to this appeal). Among other things, plaintiff sought rescission of the contracts and a declaration that Jayarvee was in breach. In April 2012, defendants answered, Valenti counterclaimed for the return of an engagement ring he had given to plaintiff, and Jayarvee counterclaimed for breach of the contracts. Defendants then moved for a default judgment against plaintiff for failure to timely respond to the counterclaims; the motion was ultimately denied. In their verified answer, Valenti and Jayarvee — and Valenti, in his affidavit in support of defendants' motion for default — argued that the temporary order of protection had made performance of the contracts impossible.

Plaintiff and Valenti resolved the Family Court matter on June 13, 2012, by entering into a stipulation, so-ordered by the court. Under the terms of the stipulation, plaintiff withdrew her petition without prejudice, and both parties agreed to have no further contact with each other. The stipulation specified that "[n]o contact shall include no third party contact, excepting counsel." Following that provision, there is language, visibly crossed out, that would have allowed for contact by "other individuals at Jayarvee or [Valenti's] place of business." Thereafter, plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on her claims for rescission of the contracts. Supreme Court granted the motion and declared both contracts terminated on the ground of impossibility. We now affirm.

The court intrepeted and applied the doctrine of impossibility. (Mike Frisch)

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