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The parol evidence rule is a substantive rule of law that limits the introduction of evidence to interpret the meaning of a contractual provision. King v. Bray, 867 So. 2d 1224 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004) (“The parol-evidence rule is a substantive rule of law and… provides that a written document intended by the parties to be the final embodiment of their agreement may not be contradicted, modified or varied by parol evidence.”). The general rule prohibits the use of parol evidence to interpret contracts. As Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal explained in King v. Bray, 867 So. 2d 1224 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004), courts presume the parties entering the contract intended their writing “to be the sole expositor of their agreement.”  As an example, the parol evidence rule would prohibit the introduction of evidence regarding an oral agreement the parties entered contemporaneously with the written agreement. Madsen, Sapp, Mena, Rodriguez & Co., P.A. v. Palm Beach Polo Holdings, Inc., 899 So. 2d 435 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (“The parol evidence rule provides that a contemporaneous oral agreement may not be used to vary the terms of a written agreement unless there is ambiguity as to the meaning of the contract.”). Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation attorney, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. The Mavrick Law Firm represents businesses and their owners in breach of contract litigation and related claims of fraud, non-compete agreement litigation, trade secret litigation, trademark infringement litigation, employment litigation, and other legal disputes in federal and state courts and in arbitration.

Contractual ambiguity is an exception to the parole evidence rule. When the term of a contract is ambiguous, parol evidence is admissible to “explain, clarify or elucidate” the ambiguous term. Strama v. Union Fid. Life Ins. Co., 793 So.2d 1129 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (citation omitted). However, a trial court cannot admit parol evidence until it first determines the term in dispute is ambiguous. See Weisfeld-Ladd v. Estate of Ladd, 920 So. 2d 1148 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006). Ambiguous terms are susceptible to more than one meaning. Friedman v. Va. Metal Prods. Corp., 56 So.2d 515 (Fla.1952). The court must determine whether the provision in question is susceptible to more than one meaning because it is a question of law. Strama v. Union Fid. Life Ins. Co., 793 So. 2d 1129, 1132 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001) (“The initial determination of whether the contract term is ambiguous is a question of law for the court, and, if the facts of the case are not in dispute, the court will also be able to resolve the ambiguity as a matter of law.”). Thereafter, the fact finder determines the correct interpretation of the ambiguous provision assuming the parties disagree on the interpretation. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Steve Hull Chevrolet, Inc., 513 So.2d 218 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987). (“Where the terms of the written instrument are disputed and reasonably susceptible to more than one construction, an issue of fact is presented as to the parties’ intent which cannot properly be resolved by summary judgment.”).

Non-compete contracts are no exception. The parol evidence rule prohibits introduction of evidence intended to demonstrate the meaning of a restrictive covenant provision unless a party shows the covenant is susceptible to more than one meaning. Thompson v. Squibb, 183 So.2d 30 (Fla. 2d DCA 1966). (“In construing restrictive covenants[,] the question is primarily one of intention, and the fundamental rule is that the intention of the parties as shown by the agreement governs, being determined by a fair interpretation of the entire text of the covenant.”); Barnett v. Destiny Owners Ass’n, Inc., 856 So. 2d 1090 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003) (holding that when a restrictive covenant is ambiguous, parol evidence regarding the developer’s intent is material). Application of the parol evidence rule in a restrictive covenant lawsuit may enable the party opposing enforcement to create a factual issue and avoid early judgment. See Evergreen Communities, Inc. v. Palafox Pres. Homeowners’ Ass’n, Inc., 213 So. 3d 1127 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017) (finding that the “language in the declaration of covenants and restrictions that expressed the developer’s personal intent to develop the property for commercial use is ambiguous as to whether the developer intended to create a restriction on the property such that it could only be used for commercial purposes” and reversing summary judgement because an ambiguity existed).

Peter Mavrick is a Miami business litigation lawyer, and represents clients in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach. This article does not serve as a substitute for legal advice tailored to a particular situation.

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