Thursday, September 03, 2020

Caliber Paving Co. v. Rexford Industrial (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 1, 2020)

I had to go back and reread this opinion four times -- the fact section, anyway -- before I could follow exactly who was what and the role each party played.  Once I finally understood the scoop, my initial impression about the merits somewhat changed.

On first read, Justice Fybel seems exactly right as to the doctrine.  The usual rule is that you can't interfere with someone else's contract, lest you be liable for tortious interference.  A classic tort.  If you tell a party to breach his contract with X, with knowledge of that contract, and he does so, then you're liable.  (He's also liable for breach of contract, of course, but you're liable too -- and as a tort.)

The trial court here granted summary judgment to the defendant, holding even though he was not a party to the contract, he wasn't a "stranger" to it because he "had an economic interest in it" and hence couldn't be liable for tortious interference.  (I'm using "he" instead of "it" purely for clarity reasons, even though we're actually talking about companies here.)  The Court of Appeal reverses, saying that's not right, and that the majority of appellate opinions agree.  And that was my sense too.  Whether you have an economic interest (or whether your conduct was "wrongful") might be relevant, IIRC, to a prospective economic advantage claim, but not to tortious interference; as for the latter, if you're not a party, you can potentially be liable for tortious interference.

So it seemed to me like Justice Fybel was right.

But then I went back to fully understand the facts.  And once I did, I wasn't nearly as convinced as I was at the outset of my initial doctrinal/equitable intuition.

Because, here, an owner of some property hired a general contractor to do a ton of work on the property, and the company it hired someone else (a subcontractor) to pave the parking lot.  On a particular day, the contractor and subcontractor get into what can rightfully be called (in my view) a snit.  The sub wants (or needs) to get the lot paved that day so goes to drive its machines on the lot but can't do the paving because there's some equipment from the general parked on the lot. The sub is upset, so drives away without doing the job.  That day or the next, the parties get into a fight; the sub complains about the equipment blocking the lot and emails a "bill" to the general for $7,500 -- which a few hours later increases to $15,000 -- for blocking the lot on that day, and says it's not going to pave the lot until the "bill" gets paid (which it says is legitimate), but the general refuses to pay and says that's not allowed by the contract.

So the parking lot's not getting paved -- there's an impasse.  And that day or the next the owner of the property finds out about the snit.  Apparently (or allegedly, at least), the owner takes the general's side in the snit and thinks that the sub's being unreasonable, so (allegedly) tells the general to get replace the sub so it can get its f*ing parking lot paved.  Which the general does.

Resulting in the suit filed by the sub -- for breach of contract against the general, and for tortious interference against the owner.

Once I understood those facts fully, I gotta be honest with you, I sympathized with the owner.  He paid for his parking lot to be paved.  It was not getting paved.  He wanted it done.  And he had a personal opinion -- right or wrong -- about which of the two complaining parties was the problem here.

What was he supposed to do?  Just sit there while the two fruitlessly argued about whether the $15,000 "bill" was going to be paid in advance?  That's not getting the parking lot paved.

So he (allegedly) picked the party he thought responsible and said "Get 'em out of here."  Which the general then did.

I have no doubt that the general's liable for breach of contract if the contract didn't allow that.  But I am not entirely sure I fault the owner in this context -- much less want them liable for a tort for solving the problem in a seemingly reasonable fashion.   The owner could surely say to the general:  "I don't care what the problem is.  Work it out. PAVE MY FREAKING LOT."  At which point the general would surely say:  "We'd love to, but the sub won't do it unless we write 'em an extra $15,000, which we're not going to do, because it's pure extortion."  At which point what's the owner to do other than threaten and be upset?  It's what we used to call a Mexican standoff.  There's no solution.  The general's not going to move (and rightly so, if he's right about the contract) and the sub's not going to move either (and, again, rightly so, if it is right about the contract).

But the owner doesn't care who's right.  He just wants the lot paved.  So there's a solution:  Fire the sub and pave the lot.

That seems like a reasonable solution, especially if (as the owner suspects) it's the sub who's being unreasonable.  It also seems socially optimal.  The lot gets paved, which we (society) wants and which the owner ENTIRELY REASONABLY expects.  And if it turns out the sub was right about the contract and $15,000 "bill", fine, it'll sue and get paid by the general, and maybe the general will be able to seek indemnity from the owner (or maybe not).  Regardless, the general has to decide what to do, and it did so here.  That seems fine.  Do we really make the world a better place by imposing tort liability on the owner.  Who -- and I know I've said this before, but it constantly seems to me to bear repeating -- JUST WANTS HIS PARKING LOT PAVED.

So I don't know.  I agree that "prospective economic interests" and the like don't generally seem to me to be a defense to tortious interference.  But when it's a situation like this one, where it's the owner of the property, I can definitely see an argument against tort liability.

The owner could, of course, have simply left it up to the general, with no instructions at all.  But I very much suspect that that ends up in a continuation of the standoff and the lot . . . not being paved.