Monday, June 14, 2010

contracts - parol evidence - fraud in the inducement - no contract

Kropa v. Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation - MD Pa. - June 9, 2010

Defendant's motion to dismiss denied on Plaintiffs’ fraudulent inducement claim concerning and oil/gas lease. Plaintiffs contend that defendant’s agents assured them that the company would never pay more than $25.00 per acre. They relied on this statement and signed the lease, only to discover later that these statements were false and that others had signed far more lucrative deals with defendant. Defendant also represented to plaintiffs that if they failed to sign a lease defendant would negotiate leases with neighbors and capture the gas under plaintiffs’ land through the rule of capture, leaving plaintiffs without a lease or gas on their land. According to the complaint, these statements all were false and all induced plaintiff to sign the lease.

The parol evidence rule is a doctrine of contract interpretation. The rule works “‘to preserve the integrity of written agreements by refusing to permit the contracting parties to attempt to alter the import of their contract through the use of contemporaneous [or prior] oral declarations.’” Hamilton Bank v. Rulnick, 136 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1984) (quoting LaDonne v. Kessler, 389 A.2d 1123, 1126 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978)).

As defined in Pennsylvania, the parol evidence rule provides that: Where parties, without fraud or mistake, have deliberately put their engagements in writing, the law declares the writing to be not only the best, but the only evidence of their agreement. All preliminary negotiations, conversations and verbal agreements are merged in and superseded by the subsequent written contract, . . . and unless fraud, accident or mistake be averred, the writing constitutes the agreement between the parties, and its terms cannot be added to nor subtracted from by parol evidence. Mellon Bank Corp. v. First Union Real Estate Equity & Mortg. Inv., 951 F.2d 1399, 1405 (3d Cir. 1991) (quoting Gianni v. Russel & Co., 126 A. 791 (Pa. 1924)).

Thus, for the parol evidence rule to apply, a court must answer three questions: “(1) Have the parties made a contract? (2) Is that contract void or voidable because of illegality, fraud, mistake, or any other reason? (3) Did the parties assent to a particular writing as the complete and accurate ‘integration’ of that contract.” CORBIN ON CONTRACTS § 573. If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then the rule does not apply. Id.

As the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has pointed out, “‘no contract, no parol evidence rule.’” Mellon, 951 F.2d at 1408. The court will deny the motion for reconsideration on these grounds.

The defendant’s argument that the court found the written agreement between the parties to be fully integrated is only a part of the inquiry into whether the parol evidence rule should apply, and it is not material to the issue of whether a contract actually exists between the parties.

The purpose of the parol evidence rule is to give meaning to the writings of parties who sign valid contracts. Here, the plaintiff alleges that no valid contract exits, because the defendant induced plaintiff to sign the contract through fraud. Plaintiff does not ask the court to interpret the terms of the contract between the parties by using oral or written evidence outside that document, but instead asks the court to find that no contract existed between the parties because of fraud in the inducement. “[E]vidence of fraud in the inducement will suspend the parol evidence rule because fraud prevents formation of a valid contract.” Mellon, 951 F.2d at 1408; see also, CORBIN ON CONTRACTS § 580 (noting that “fraud in the inducement of assent, or an antecedent mistake by one known to the other, may make the contract voidable without preventing its existence, and without showing that the writing was not agreed on as a complete integration of its terms.”). The parol evidence rule does not prevent an inquiry into the existence of a contract itself.