A Gentle Reminder to Get Specific with Your General Releases

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[I] irrevocably release and forever discharge [the Company] . . . from any and all actions, causes of action, suits, debts, claims, complaints, liabilities, obligations, charges, contracts, controversies, agreements, promises, damages, expenses, counterclaims, cross-claims, [etc.] whatsoever, in law or equity, known or unknown, [I] ever had, now have, or may have against the [Company] from the beginning of time to the date hereof.

When someone releases another from claims, he is relinquishing his right to sue in connection with the subject of the release.  So long as it is not procured by fraud, New York courts will generally enforce broad general releases, such as the one above, as a party’s waiver of future fraud and fiduciary duty claims even when such claims are not foreseeable at the time of contract execution.  In Chadha v Wahedna, 2021 NY Slip Op 50509(U), a June 2, 2021, decision by New York Commercial Division Justice Barry Ostrager, the plaintiff learned this lesson the hard way when his pleading was dismissed in its entirety due to his execution of a general release covering his claims.

Underlying Facts and the Amended Complaint

The dispute in Chadha involves a financial technology and services company that offers investment opportunities compliant with Islamic law (the “Company”) and its controlling shareholder, director, and CEO (“Wahedna,” together “Defendants”).

In his Amended Complaint, Nilish Chadha (“Chadha”), the former COO, board member, and shareholder of the Company, alleged that from October 2016 through January 2017, Defendants engaged in a fraudulent scheme to purchase 530 of Plaintiff’s shares in the Company at deeply discounted values by inducing Plaintiff to enter into a series of three Common Stock Repurchase Agreements (“CSRAs”). Plaintiff claimed that Defendants fraudulently misrepresented to Plaintiff the value of his shares, and, in breach of fiduciary duties owed to him, failed to disclose higher share prices that were being negotiated with third-party investors in order to buy out Plaintiff’s shares in the Company at lower prices.

In June 2020, more than three years after the sale of all his shares in the Company, Plaintiff filed this action seeking to recover damages arising from the alleged “surreptitious” purchase by Defendants of Plaintiff’s 530 shares through alleged fraud and failure to disclose the existence of the potential equity investors. Plaintiff asserted that knowledge of these discussions would have impacted his opinion of the value of his stock in the Company.

The Motion to Dismiss

Defendants pointed to a Settlement Agreement and Release (the “Settlement Agreement”), entered into between Plaintiff and Defendants in connection with the CSRAs, which included the general release language referenced above.  Relying on the Settlement Agreement, Defendants moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint on the basis that all of the causes of action were barred by the release, arguing that it broadly released all claims, whether known or unknown, and, as a consequence, the Settlement Agreement extinguished all of the Amended Complaint’s claims.  Defendants also argued that Plaintiff did not negotiate any specific limitations to the release that might preserve any of the claims, a fact which Plaintiff fully understood when he executed the Settlement Agreement.

The Court’s Analysis and Decision

In considering whether the general release at issue barred Plaintiff’s claims, the Court looked to guidance from the New York Court of Appeals.  In Centro Empresarial Cempresa S.A. v America Movil, S.A.B. de C.V., 17 NY3d 269 (2011), cited throughout the decision, the Court affirmed the First Department’s dismissal of a case brought by former owners of shares in a telecommunications company because the general release plaintiffs granted to defendants in connection with the sale of plaintiffs’ ownership interests encompassed unknown fraud claims, regardless of the fiduciary relationship between the parties.  The Court of Appeals held that, as sophisticated parties, plaintiffs negotiated and executed an “extraordinary release . . . [and] cannot now invalidate that release by claiming ignorance of the depth of their fiduciary’s misconduct.”

In Chadha, the Court held that Defendants met their burden of providing a release that encompassed unknown future fraud claims because the release unequivocally referred to “any and all actions” “whatsoever” “known or unknown,” thereby shifting the burden to Plaintiff to establish that the release was invalid due to contract defenses, such as fraud. Under the facts alleged in the Amended Complaint, however, the Court held that Plaintiff could not avoid dismissal for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the Court found dispositive the fact that Plaintiff did not allege a fraud separate from the subject of the release, stating that the allegation that Wahedna allegedly concealed the existence of a future investment by a third-party that would have been favorable to the Company was not “separate from the broad cover of the release which is ‘any and all claims [ ] the Investor Released Parties ever had, now have, or may have against the Company Released Parties from the beginning of time to the date hereof.’”

Next, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the fiduciary relationship between Plaintiff and Wahedna prevented the parties from being able to release fraud claims because Plaintiff signed the release after selling all his shares in the Company, so that a fiduciary relationship between the two of them no longer existed.  The Court also found that Plaintiff, as the COO of the Company at that time, had access to information relevant to the Company and did not exercise his own diligence in evaluating the value of his shares. The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that he lacked sophistication to understand that he was releasing all future and unknown claims inasmuch as Plaintiff had “an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from The American University in Dubai and was sophisticated enough to serve as the Company’s COO which inherently involved an understanding of the Company’s financial status.”

In the end, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint with prejudice.

Takeaway

The Court’s recent holding in Chadha reinforces the fact that parties can contract away fraud and fiduciary duty claims with general releases. If a party wants to ensure that it is not waiving its right to bring such claims, then it should make sure to negotiate disclaimer language specifically indicating that it does not intend to waive such a claim. By including targeted and specific language, a party can rest easy that a court will enforce a disclaimer in the way in which it intended.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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