Get Specific! You Must Mention “FEES” in Your Attorney Fee Provisions

business lawyer Memphis, TN

Tennessee Requirements for Attorney Fee Provisions

As the business lawyer Memphis TN  trusts when it comes to contract negotiation and drafting, one piece of simple legal advice we frequently give our small business clients is to always include attorney fee provisions in your contracts and routine business forms. Why? Because if you don’t have such a provision and you end up in litigation, you’re on the hook for your own attorney fees and legal expenses even if the breach of contract, or the resulting litigation, isn’t your fault.

It has always been the case that a contractual provision allowing for the recovery of attorney fees must be specific. However, just last month, in Nyrstar Tennessee Mines-Strawberry Plains, LLC v. Claiborne Hauling, LLC, the Tennessee Court of Appeals went further to reinforce this principle by making clear that attorney fee provisions must specifically invoke the magic words “attorney fees.”   The Court held that it is not enough simply to provide recovery of “costs,” “expenses” or even “legal expenses” – all of which the Court held was simply not specific enough to permit recovery of attorney’s fees.

 In Nyrstar, the plaintiff won at trial on its breach of contract action against the defendant and the judge awarded the plaintiff $116,073.43 in damages. After winning the case, the plaintiff then sought attorney’s fees of $106,779.50 and expenses of $2,982.12 pursuant to the attorney fee provision in the applicable contract. The specific language of the contract in Nyrstar was as follows:

The Customer must pay Nyrstar all costs and expenses incurred by Nyrstar in connection with enforcing its rights against the Customer under an Agreement including legal expenses and other costs incurred in recovering monies owed by the Customer to Nyrstar.

The trial court awarded the plaintiff its expenses, but refused to award the plaintiff its attorney’s fees, despite the contract language providing for the recovery of “legal expenses.” The trial court stated:

[t]he plaintiff Nyrstar’s language does not use the term “fees.” It uses “expenses,” which has been found to be inadequate. Merely providing for the “recovery of ‘costs and expenses’” is insufficient to reach a contractual right to recover attorney’s fees.

(Emphasis added). The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld this decision. The Nyrstar case means that you should pull out your contracts and regular business forms, and then call us today to make sure that the language you are using in your attorney fee provisions is correct. After all, what is the point of having an attorney fee provision in your contracts and forms if it’s not going to hold up in court?

Bottom Line

Your attorney fee provision MUST specifically provide for the recovery of “attorney’s fees,” and not merely “costs” or “expenses.”

Even if a provision provides for the recovery of “legal expenses” or “costs and expenses of any suit or proceeding,” the right to recover attorney’s fees is not created because the provision does not specifically implicate “fees” as part of the recovery.

If you’d like the small business lawyer Memphis TN  trusts to review your small business contracts and routine business forms to make sure your language complies with the requirements in Tennessee for attorney fee provisions, call us today at (901) 372-5003.

Small Business Tip: Include Provision in Your Contracts to Recover Attorneys’ Fees

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Reason to Add an Attorney Fee Provision

You’re running a small business. You have a form, purchase order, or other short contract you always use.  Take a moment to look at your forms and contracts. Do they include an attorney fee provision?  If not, we recommend that you add one.

If someone fails to pay you, you might need to file a lawsuit to recover what you are owed. Going to court is expensive.  In Tennessee, each party is responsible for paying their own attorney fees. That’s right–even if you win in court, you generally can’t make the other side pay your attorney fees unless you have an attorney fee provision in your contract.  For more information on attorney fees, read this blog post.

Sample Attorney Fee Provision

If any party institutes any action or proceeding to enforce any provision of this contract by reason of any alleged breach of any provision herein, the prevailing party shall be entitled to receive from the losing party all legal fees and costs incurred in connection with any such proceeding.

We are Small Business Lawyers.

Check out our team at Wiseman Bray PLLC.  If you need help with your small business contracts, agreements, or forms, or if you have a question about business litigation or the recovery of attorney fees in a lawsuit, please call us at 901-372-5003 or email us here. We have offices in Memphis and Nashville TN.

 

 

Credit Application and Small Business

credit application small business lawyer

Signing a Credit Application on Behalf of a Company Could Subject You to PERSONAL Liability

Most small business vendors and suppliers require a company officer to sign a Commercial Credit Application or Agreement to buy goods and supplies on account.

Watch out, though!

Carefully examine the language of the Credit Application or you may find yourself personally liable for the debt even if you don’t have any ownership in the company!

In 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court considered a credit application in  84 Lumber Company v. Smith that contained the following language:

BY SIGNING BELOW I HEREBY … UNCONDITIONALLY AND IRREVOCABLY PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THIS CREDIT ACCOUNT AND PAYMENTS OF ANY AND ALL AMOUNTS DUE BY THE ABOVE BUSINESS….

Mr. Smith signed the Credit Application as “R. Bryan Smith, President.” This manner of signing is typically referred to as signing in a “representative capacity” to denote that it is being executed by the company only, as compared to signing your name without a title to indicate that it is being signed personally.

However, the  Court ruled that the attempt to sign in a representative capacity did NOT  trump the unmistakable language of the Application, and held that Mr. Smith was personally liable for the debt as well.  This same logic would presumably apply not just to company presidents like Mr. Smith but also even to junior employees who might have signed such an agreement.

Credit Application Best Practices

So what should you do if faced with this situation?

  1. Strike through offending language. In order to avoid personal liability, you would at a minimum need to physically strike through the personal guarantee language AND then also sign the document in a “representative capacity” (i.e. name + title).
  2. Make an Informed Decision.  Many suppliers and vendors require a personal guarantee in order to do business, and so you may have to decide whether to go ahead and sign the agreement, shop around, or try to negotiate a better deal (e.g. perhaps provide for a maximum limit on the guarantee, or secure a bank letter of credit instead, etc.). At least you will be making an informed decision.
  3. Ask a “Higher Up” to Sign. If you’re just an employee or junior officer of the company then you should probably take the agreement to a superior to make certain that the right person is signing the agreement. A regular employee (i.e. someone with no ownership interest) should not fairly be expected to personally guarantee the obligations of his or her employer.
  4. Go see an attorney! The above tips are intended only as general legal advice. Each agreement, contract, and situation is different, and you should seek legal advice tailored to your specific situation.

We are Small Business Lawyers.

Check out our team at Wiseman Bray PLLC.  If you need help with your small business contracts, agreements, or forms, or if you have a question about business litigation, please call us at 901-372-5003 or email us here. We have offices in Memphis and Nashville TN.

Are Oral Contracts Enforceable?

oral contracts

Elements of a Contract in Tennessee

With a few limited exceptions oral contracts are enforceable in Tennessee just like a written contract.  Of course, a written contract is much easier to prove because there is hard evidence of the agreement.  However, an oral contract IS enforceable in most cases.  The parties and/or their witnesses can testify about the terms of the agreement, and things such as partial performance or “normal course of dealing” can serve as powerful circumstantial evidence of the terms of the deal.

A contract is a contract – oral or written – so long as it has the following elements:

  1. A legal purpose (e.g. Tennessee courts will not enforce a contract between neighbors to illegally use one cable box);
  2. A mutual agreement that is free from fraud or undue influence;
  3. Terms that are definite enough to be enforced (e.g. a promise to work for a person’s lifetime would be too vague because a lifetime is not a definite duration); and,
  4. Adequate value exchanged by both parties (referred to as “consideration” in legal terms).

Contracts Required to be in Writing

There are certain contracts that are required to be in writing under a legal doctrine called the “Statute of Frauds.”  In Tennessee, the six types of contracts that must be in writing include contracts for the following:

  1. Marriage;
  2. Contracts with a term greater than 1 year (i.e. a 2 year lease must be in writing);
  3. Sale of land/property;
  4. Executor’s/Administrator’s promise to pay debts of the estate;
  5. Sale of Goods/Personal Property that costs $500 or more; and
  6. Suretyship agreements (i.e. a promise to guarantee payment of the debts of another person).

Even after you have successfully navigated all of the above requirements, you should still be careful to file a lawsuit for a violation of an oral contract within 6 years in Tennessee – the same statute of limitation as a written contract.  Additionally,  oral contracts often require the testimony of a witness to verify the terms of the agreement.

We advise avoiding oral contracts.

While oral contracts are enforceable, you should avoid them, if at all possible, simply because written contracts are so much easier to prove and enforce.  Contracts can be difficult to navigate, and if you have any doubts when drafting or entering into a contract, it is best to consult an experienced contract attorney.  If you need help in negotiations, contract drafting, or even contract disputes, please give us a call at 901-372-5003.

 

Wiseman Bray PLLC

8001 Centerview Parkway, Suite 103

Memphis, Tennessee 38018

(901) 372-5003 Office

www.WisemanBray.com