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It has become common practice for businesses to include arbitration provisions within agreements.  Arbitration provides businesses a more efficient and less costly alternative to expensive, time-consuming litigation.  Normally, arbitration provisions are drafted very broadly to cover all disputes or controversies that could arise between the contractual parties, commonly using the wording “arising from” or “relating to” the contract or agreement.  Thus, anyone who signs an agreement containing such a provision will usually be required to proceed with arbitration if a contractual dispute occurs.  Often times, however, a dispute will arise and the complaining party will wish to proceed in court rather than being compelled to participate in arbitration.  To circumvent arbitration, the complaining party will attempt to argue that the contract is not valid for some reason, i.e. lack of consideration or arguing that the contract was procured by fraud.  Based on these arguments, the complaining party will assert that the contract, as well as the arbitration provision contained therein, is not enforceable.  Peter Mavrick is a Fort Lauderdale business litigation attorney who has defeated such arguments by arguing that courts, at both the state and federal levels, have concluded that attacking the validity of a contract does not remove a party from the scope of an arbitration provision contained therein.

The leading authority for this principle is the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision in Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395 (1967).  In Prima Paint, the plaintiff brought an action seeking to rescind a contract based on fraud in the inducement.  The contract contained an arbitration provision, and the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff’s action for fraud was undoubtedly encompassed by the broad wording of the arbitration provision.  In so holding, the court reasoned that if the alleged fraud related to the arbitration clause itself, then a court should resolve the issue. But if the fraud in inducement related to the whole contract which contained an agreement to arbitrate, that issue should be resolved by arbitration.

Although Prima Paint was decided under federal law, Florida courts have found its reasoning persuasive and have extended Prima Paint’s holding to contracts formed and executed in Florida.  For example, in Simpson v. Cohen, 812 So. 2d 588 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002), the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal cited Prima Paint when holding that “[c]ontract language agreeing to arbitrate ‘[a]ny controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this Agreement, or breach thereof ’ has been found to be broad enough to encompass a claim that the execution of an agreement itself was procured by fraud…The fraud in the inducement claim arises from the contract and relates to the other claims that the arbitrator must determine.”

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Prospective business purchasers should diligently verify the accuracy of a sellers representations because misrepresentations made by sellers sometimes are inactionable under Florida law. Florida courts routinely apply the doctrine of caveat emptor, otherwise known as the buyer beware doctrine, to preclude misrepresentation claims that arise out of commercial transactions. See Transcapital Bank v. Shadowbrook at Vero, LLC, 2017 WL 3169271, at *4 (Fla. 4th DCA July 26, 2017) (citing Wasser v. Sasoni, 652 So.2d 411, 412 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) (“[T]he doctrine of caveat emptor, or ‘buyer beware,’ is still the common law rule applied to purchasers” in commercial transactions)). The buyer beware doctrine places the burden of diligence on consumers. Prospective business owners must, at a minimum, try to make an assessment of a seller’s representations concerning the business before purchasing the business. Courts are generally not sympathetic to seemingly imprudent would-be plaintiffs. The Fort Lauderdale office of the Mavrick Law Firm advises businesses sellers and prospective purchasers on issues concerning the sales of businesses.

Exceptions to the buyer beware doctrine exist. Purchasers may be able to prevail in misrepresentation claims if they can prove that: 1) a trick was employed to prevent the purchaser from making independent inquiry; 2) the purchaser did not have an equal opportunity to become apprised of the misrepresented fact; and, 3) the seller disclosed some facts but failed to disclose the whole truth. Transcapital Bank, 2017 WL 3169271, at *5.  However, the exceptions do not apply to commercial transactions between sophisticated parties. See Wasser v. Sasoni, 652 So. 2d at 413 (“where the parties are equally sophisticated, and have an equal opportunity to discover a defect…a negligent purchaser is not justified in relying upon a misrepresentation which is obviously false, and ‘which would be patent to him if he had utilized his opportunity to make a cursory examination or investigation’”). Courts expect relatively sophisticated buyers to use their acumen to screen out deceptive tactics.

If prospective purchasers have any doubt regarding the viability of the buyer beware doctrine, the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Transcapital Bank v. Shadowbrook at Vero, LLC, is instructive. The court found that the buyer beware doctrine entitled the defendants to a judgment as a matter of law on the plaintiffs’ fraudulent misrepresentation claim. See 2017 WL 3169271, at *5 (“Even if … defendants … misrepresented the property’s appraised value, such a misrepresentation would not be actionable under the doctrine of [buyer beware] in the absence of … fraudulent means in preventing a prospective purchaser from making an examination of the property under consideration”).  Therefore, prospective purchasers have a duty to protect themselves when evaluating the representations of the seller of a business.  Moreover, if purchasers have doubts about the validity of a seller’s claims, they may want to protect their interests by avoiding certain contractual terms that could prevent a misrepresentation claim. See Wasser v. Sasoni, 652 So. 2d at 413 (holding that contractual provisions such as “integration clauses … are recognized as valid defenses to claims of fraud [ and misrepresentation]” when there is no evidence that the contract induced by fraud.) Moreover, fraud can be difficult to prove as “there must be evidence of ‘the [speaker’s] knowledge that the representation is false.” MDVIP, Inc. v. Beber, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1248 (Fla. 4th DCA May 31, 2017). In sum, purchasers who do not make best efforts to evaluate a business do so at their own peril.

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If you are in a business partnership with someone that seems to be failing, it is probably time to start reevaluating things.  Perhaps you decided to partner up with someone based upon his or her skill-set or willingness to take on the responsibilities associated with running a successful business.   However, if you answer yes to one or more of the following, it may be time to take command of your business and let the partner go:

  • You and your partner do not communicate effectively when problems arise.
  • You and your partner disagree about fundamental issues facing your business.
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