Filed: March 24, 2015
Opinion by: Catherine D. Blake
(1) A corporate entity, in acquiring the assets of a predecessor, cannot be held liable solely based on continued use of a predecessor’s trade name, sale of a predecessor’s products, and retention of some of a predecessor’s accounts and employees.
(2) When a party does not allege facts to show that a corporate parent used its subsidiary “as a mere shield for the perpetration of fraud,” that party does not state a claim against the parent for the subsidiary’s obligations.
(3) A party may state a claim for breach of contract without alleging perfect performance of its own obligations under the contract.
(4) Maryland law does not recognize an independent cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealings.
(5) A party may obtain restitution on the theory of unjust enrichment, despite the existence of an express contract, when the party breaches the express contract.
Parent Defendant ("Parent") was the corporate parent of two subsidiaries, Subsidiary 1 and Subsidiary 2. Additionally, four divisions of Parent were unincorporated until they formed LLCs in February 2014.
Plaintiff, an advertising and public relations agency, was hired by Subsidiary 1, a consumer electronics vendor, to provide marketing services. In 2011, Subsidiary 1 agreed to pay Plaintiff $12,500 each month for 83 hours of work per month. In 2012, Subsidiary 2 hired Plaintiff under a similar agreement. Plaintiff performed work beyond the monthly retainer for both entities and was paid additional fees accordingly.
Subsidiary 1 later retained Plaintiff to perform advertising and marketing services for a new line of products on the terms outlined in the 2011 contract. In 2013, Plaintiff worked 3,000 more hours than the 83 hours per month contemplated in the 2011 contract. Despite this additional work, Plaintiff was paid monthly fees in 2013 based on the budgeted 83 hours per month. Based on the experience of its leadership, Subsidiary 1 knew based on the nature of the requested work that it would require substantially more than 83 hours each month.
In June 2013, Plaintiff’s Executive Vice President (the “VP”) met with three executives of Parent to discuss compensation for Plaintiff’s work in excess of the monthly budget. The executives assured the VP that Plaintiff would be paid in full for the additional hours. In August 2013, one of Parent's executives again told the VP that Plaintiff would be paid in full, and Plaintiff continued to perform more work until the Parent's executives informed the VP in January 2014 that Plaintiff’s services would no longer be needed. Plaintiff was never paid for the 3,000 hours of additional work performed in 2013.
In February 2014, four LLCs (the “LLC defendants”) were formed from the four unincorporated divisions of Parent. Subsidiary 1 also merged into Subsidiary 2.
In September 2014, Plaintiff sued Parent, Subsidiary 1, Subsidiary 2 and the four LLCs alleging, inter alia, breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealings, and unjust enrichment. All defendants moved to dismiss.
(1) The court first considered whether Plaintiff stated a claim against the LLC defendants. Under the general rule of corporate successor liability, a corporate entity acquiring assets from another entity does not acquire the liabilities of its predecessor. An exception is where the successor entity is a “mere continuation or reincarnation” of the predecessor entity. The exception applies where there is continuity among directors and management, common shareholder interest, and, in some cases, inadequate consideration in the transaction. Use of the predecessor’s trade name, sale of a predecessor’s products, and retention of the predecessor’s accounts and employees will not alone suffice. Because the contracts predated the existence of the LLC defendants, and Plaintiff only alleged the latter three factors, Plaintiff failed to state a claim against the LLC defendants.
(2) Next, the court considered Plaintiff’s claims against Parent. In general, a parent corporation is not liable for the obligations of its subsidiaries. The “corporate veil” may be pierced only in circumstances when it is necessary to prevent fraud or enforce a paramount equity, i.e., when the parent uses the subsidiary as a “mere shield” to commit fraud. Plaintiff never contracted directly with Parent, but instead it contracted with Subsidiary 1 and Subsidiary 2. Because Plaintiff did not allege facts to support Parent’s use of its subsidiaries to perpetuate fraud, Plaintiff failed to state any cause of action against Parent.
(3) The court then turned to Plaintiff’s contract claim against Subsidiary 2. To state a claim for breach of contract under Maryland law, a plaintiff must only show (1) the existence of a contractual obligation owed by defendant to the plaintiff and (2) a material breach of that obligation by the defendant. A plaintiff is not required to show that it complied with every procedural obligation described in the agreement. Here, Plaintiff did not allege that it had obtained approval for additional work or that timely billed for the work, but these omissions were not fatal to the claim. Plaintiff met its burden by alleging that (1) Subsidiary 2 was contractually obligated to pay for additional services beyond those contemplated in the 83 hour budget and (2) Subsidiary 2 failed to pay Plaintiff in breach of that obligation.
(4) The court dismissed Plaintiff’s claim of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealings, noting that Maryland does not recognize this as an independent cause of action.
(5) Lastly, the court addressed Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim. In Maryland, a claim of unjust enrichment may not be brought where the subject of the claim is covered by an express contract. An exception to this rule occurs when there has been a breach of contract, in which case a party may obtain restitution on the theory of unjust enrichment. If a jury finds that Plaintiff did not substantially perform under the agreement, thereby rejecting Plaintiff’s contract claim, then Plaintiff may still recover for unjust enrichment. Both the contract and unjust enrichment claims may stand as alternative, inconsistent theories of liability.
The opinion is available in PDF.