Shutterstock_174040418Good faith and fair dealing

New York law "implies" a duty in all contracts — a duty to perform promises in good faith.* 

Does that mean a party must adjust a contractual benchmark rate if it knows something has distorted the benchmark?

Yes, the Second Circuit held in Security Plans, Inc. v. CUNA Mut. Ins. Society, No. 13-384-cv (2d Cir. Oct. 17, 2014).

The ruling may prove important in pending cases that involve trillions of dollars in benchmark transactions.

Credit insurance

The case before the court arose from the sale of a credit insurance business. The asset purchase agreement required CUNA Mutual, the buyer, to pay an "earnout" that tracked future profits from the business.

The problem arose from the "loss ratio" that CUNA Mutual used to deduct "losses" from premium payments to compute the profits. As it realized before the earnout period ended, the loss ratio it applied to all its lines of business — including the credit insurance segment — overstated actual losses.

Lawsuit

The unduly high loss ratio produced a zero earnout. That upset the seller, Security Plans.

It sued, alleging, in relevant part, that CUNA Mutual breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing — both by setting the loss ratio too high and by failing to adjust it at the end of the earnout period.

The district court granted CUNA Mutual summary judgment in relevant part.** Security Plans appealed.

Second Circuit ruling

The Second Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. It laid out the pertinent law as follows:

Under New York law, all contracts that confer discretion include an implied promise that neither party will "act arbitrarily or irrationally" in exercising that discretion.

*  *  *  *

The implied covenant [of good faith] does not "undermine a party's 'general right to act on its own interest in a way that may incidentally lessen'" the other party's expected benefit. . . . The covenant will be breached only in a narrow range of cases. A plaintiff must show substantially more than evidence that the defendant's actions were negligent or inept. . . . The plaintiff must instead demonstrate something more, such as that the defendant "act[ed] arbitrarily or irrationally in exercising [the] discretion" afforded to it under the contract.

Security Plans, slip op. at 3 & 24-25 (citations omitted).

CUNA Mutual's error in setting the loss ratio, the panel held, did not support a bad faith claim "inasmuch as the record contains nothing to suggest anything more than negligence" on its part. Id. at 26.

But CUNA Mutual's "refus[al] to provide a revised earnout calculation in light of an alleged system-wide error concerning claim reserves" presented a different matter, the court believed. Id. The panel said:

[T]he contract places on the defendant the responsibility for calculating the earnout, thereby conferring a limited discretion in selecting the values — such as loss ratios and written premium — that enter into the calculation in the first place. . . . This latter form of discretion is indeed the subject of plaintiff's claim in this case, and the plaintiff may therefore argue that the defendant acted arbitrarily or irrationally in handling the earnout calculation.

Id. at 26-27 (citations and footnote omitted). The panel concluded:

Making all inferences in the plaintiffʹs favor, a rational trier of fact could properly conclude that it was arbitrary for the defendant to refuse to revise the earnout calculation in order to correct for the suspect numbers. On this record, a trier of fact could, but would not necessarily be required to, conclude that: (i) the initial decision that set high claim reserves for the earnout period was made by mistake, and not as a result of actuarial judgment; (ii) this mistake caused Security Plansʹ performance data to be distorted in ways that negatively affected the earnout; (iii) this mistake30 was noticed in time to revise the earnout calculation accordingly, and such revision was possible; (iv) the mistake was acknowledged by all parties concerned; and (v) CUNA Mutual, for no valid business reason, decided not to adjust the earnout calculation. In making this second decision not to revise the calculation, CUNA Mutual was exercising its contractually conferred authority as the party charged with calculating the earnout, but a trier of fact could find it exercised this discretion arbitrarily.

Id. at 29-30.

Implications

The Southern District of New York has before it several cases that involve claims of deliberate manipulation involving benchmark rates. These include In re Foreign Exchange Benchmark Rates Antitrust Litigation, No. 13-07789 (S.D.N.Y.), In re North Sea Brent Crude Oil Futures Litigation, No. 13-md-02475 (S.D.N.Y.), and In re LIBOR-Based Financial Instruments Antitrust Litigation, No. 11-md-2262 (S.D.N.Y.).***

The benchmarks at issue affect trillions of dollars in transactions.

In at least two of the three, the plaintiffs assert state law claims (as well as federal ones). The Second Circuit's ruling in Security Plans should give those claims a legal boost, pointing the way to showing conduct that violates the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in the setting or adjustment of the relevant benchmarks.

 _________________

Moran v. Erk, 901 N.E.2d 187, 190 (N.Y. 2008) (stating that "neither party shall do anything which will have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the fruits of the contract").

** We've ignored other parts of the case to focus on the benchmark aspect.

*** Blawgletter's firm serves as lead counsel for one of the plaintiff classes in the LIBOR litigation.

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Photo of Barry Barnett Barry Barnett

Clients and colleagues call Barry Barnett an “incredibly gifted lawyer” (Chambers and Partners) who is “magic in the courtroom” (Who’s Who Legal), “the top antitrust lawyer in Texas” (Chambers and Partners), and “a person of unquestioned integrity” (David J. Beck, founder of Beck…

Clients and colleagues call Barry Barnett an “incredibly gifted lawyer” (Chambers and Partners) who is “magic in the courtroom” (Who’s Who Legal), “the top antitrust lawyer in Texas” (Chambers and Partners), and “a person of unquestioned integrity” (David J. Beck, founder of Beck Redden).

Barnett is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, and Lawdragon has named him one of the top 500 lawyers in the United States three years in a row. Best Lawyers in America has honored him as “Lawyer of the Year” for Bet-the-Company Litigation (2019 and 2017) and Patent Litigation (2020) in Houston. Based in Texas and New York, Barnett has tried complex business disputes across the United States.

TRIAL COUNSEL
Barnett’s background, training, and experience make him indispensable to his clients. The small-town son of a Texas roughneck and grandson of a Texas sharecropper, Barnett “developed an unusual common sense about people, their motivations, and their dilemmas,” according to former client Michael Lewis.

Barnett has been historically recognized for his effectiveness and judgment. His peers chose him, for example, to the American College of Trial Lawyers and American Law Institute. His decades of trial and appellate work representing both plaintiffs and defendants have made him a master strategist and nimble tactician in complex disputes.

Barnett focuses on enforcement of antitrust laws, the “Magna Carta of free enterprise,” in Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s memorable phrase. “Barry is one of the nation’s outstanding antitrust lawyers,” according to Joseph Goldberg, a member of the Private Antitrust Enforcement Hall of Fame. Named among Texas’s top ten antitrust lawyers of 2023, Business Today calls Barnett a “trailblazer” among the “distinguished legal minds” who “dedicate their skill and expertise to the maintenance of healthy competition in various sectors” of the Lone Star State’s booming economy. Barnett is also adept in energy and intellectual property matters and has battled for clients against a Who’s Who list of corporate behemoths, including Abbott Labs, Alcoa, Apple, AT&T, BlackBerry, Broadcom, Comcast, Dow, JPMorgan Chase, Samsung, and Visa.

Barnett commands a courtroom with calm and credibility and “is the perfect lawyer for bet the company litigation,” said Scott Regan, General Counsel of former client Whiting Petroleum. His performance before the Supreme Court in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend prompted the Court to withdraw the question on which it had granted review. The judge in a trial involving mobile phone technology called Barnett “one of the best” and that his opening statement the finest he had ever seen. Another trial judge told Barnett minutes after a jury returned a favorable verdict against the county’s biggest employer that he was one of the two best trial lawyers he’d ever come across—adding that the other one was dead.

COMPLETE PACKAGE
A versatile trial lawyer, Barnett knows how to handle a case all the way from strategic pre-suit planning to affirmance on appeal. He’s tried cases to verdict and then briefed and argued them when they went before appellate courts, including the Second, Third, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits, the Supreme Court of Louisiana, and (in the case of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend) the Supreme Court of the United States.

Barnett is a sought-after public speaker, often serving on panels and talking about topics like the trials of antitrust class actions and techniques for streamlining complex litigation. He also comments on trends in commercial litigation and the implications of major rulings for outlets such as NPR, Reuters, Law360, Corporate Counsel, and The Dallas Morning News. He’s even appeared in a Frontline program about underfunding of state pensions, authored chapters on “Fee Arrangements” and “Techniques for Expediting and Streamlining Litigation” (the latter with Steve Susman) in the ABA’s definitive treatise on Business and Commercial Litigation in Federal Courts, 5th, and commented on How Antitrust Enforcers Might Think Like Plaintiffs’ Lawyers.

HARD GRADERS
Clients and other hard graders have praised Barnett for his courtroom skills and legal acumen.

A client in a $100 million oil and gas case, which Barnett’s team won at trial and held on appeal, said Barnett and his team “presented a rare combination of strong legal intellect, common sense about right and wrong, and credibility in the courtroom.” David McCombs at Haynes and Boone said Barnett “has a natural presence that goes over well with juries and judges.”

Even former adversaries give Barnett high marks. Lead opposing counsel in a decade-long antitrust slugfest said “Barry is a highly skilled advocate. He understands what really matters in telling a narrative and does so in a very compelling manner.”

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Barnett relishes opportunities to collaborate with all kinds of people. At the Center for American and International Law (CAIL), founded by a former prosecutor at Nuremberg in 1947 and headquartered in the Dallas area, he has served on the Executive Committee, co-chaired the committee that produced CAIL’s first-ever strategic plan, supported CAIL’s Institute for Law Enforcement Administration and other development efforts, and proposed formation of a new Institute for Social Justice Law. CAIL’s former President David Beck said “Barry is extremely bright” and is “very well prepared in every lawsuit or professional task he undertakes.”

Barnett is also a Trustee of the New-York Historical Society, a Sterling Fellow at Yale, a member of the Yale University Art Gallery’s Governing Board, a winner of the Class Award for his work on behalf of his college class, and a proud contributor to the Yellow Ribbon Program at Harvard Law. Barnett’s pro bono work includes leading the trial team representing people who are at greatest risk of severe illness and death as a result of being exposed to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 while being detained in the Dallas County jail—work for which he received the NGAN Legal Advocacy Fund RBG Award.

At Susman Godfrey, Barnett has served on the firm’s Executive Committee, Employment Committee, and ad hoc committees on partner compensation, succession of leadership, and revision of the firm’s partnership agreement. He also twice chaired the Practice Development Committee.

KEEPING PERSPECTIVE
Barnett understands that clients face many pressures. Managing the stress is important, especially in matters that take years to resolve. He encourages clients to call him whenever they have a question or concern and to keep the inevitable ups and downs in perspective. He wants them to know that he will do his level best to help them achieve their goals. He also strives to foster trust and to make working with him a pleasure.

Cyrus “Skip” Marter, the General Counsel of Bonanza Creek in Denver and a former Susman Godfrey partner and client, said Barnett is “excellent about communicating with clients in a full and honest manner” and can “negotiate for his clients from a position of strength, because he is not afraid to take a case through a full trial on the merits.” Stacey Doré, the President of Hunt Utility Services and a former client, said that Barnett is “an excellent trial lawyer and the person you want to hire for your bet-the-company cases. He is client focused, responsive, and uniquely savvy about trial and settlement strategy.” A New York colleague said, “Barry is a joy to work with as co-counsel. He tackles complex procedural and factual hurdles capably, efficiently, and without drama.”

PERSONAL
Barnett’s wide-ranging experience and calm, down-to-earth approach enable him to connect with clients, judges, jurors, witnesses, and even opposing counsel. He grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas. He co-captained his high school varsity football team as an All-East Texas middle linebacker while also serving as the Editor of Key Club’s Texas-Oklahoma District, won the Best Typist award, took the History Team to glory, and sang in the East Texas All Region Choir. As Dan Kelly of client Vistra Corp. put it, Barnett is “a great person to be around.”

Barnett is steady and loyal. He has practiced at Susman Godfrey his entire career. He and his wife Nancy live in Dallas and enjoy spending time in Houston and New York. Their daughter works for H-E-B in Houston, and their son is a Haynes and Boone transactions lawyer in Dallas.

As a member of Ivy League championship football teams in his junior and senior years at Yale and a parent of two Yalies, Barnett has no trouble choosing sides for “The Game” in November. And he knows how important fighting all the way to the end is. On his last play from scrimmage, in the waning minutes of The Game on Nov. 22, 1980, he recovered a Crimson fumble.

Yale won, 14-0.