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Broken Promises Won't Get You a Fraud in the Inducement Claim: Station # 2, LLC v. Lynch, et al.

The Virginia Supreme Court recently gave us yet another example of a breach of contract case that couldn’t rise to a fraud in the inducement claim in Station #2, LLC v. Lynch, et al., Record No. 091410.

In Station #2, the Lynches owned a three-story building in the City of Roanoke. They sold the top two floors to 237 Granby LLC in order to convert the floors to condos. The Lynches then leased the ground floor to Station #2 so it could operate a restaurant with live music and other entertainment. The lease between the Lynches and Station #2 required Station #2 to install soundproofing material in the void space between Station #2’s ceiling and the lower level of 237 Granby’s condos. 237 Granby’s agent agreed to allow Station #2 access to the void space, but the company hired by the agent to renovate and develop the condos closed off the void space before Station #2 could soundproof.

After repeated noise ordinance citations, the City of Norfolk ordered Station #2 to stop all musical performances, causing a steep decline in the restaurant’s business. Station #2 threatened to withhold rent until it was allowed access to install the soundproofing, and the Lynches responded by locking Station #2 out of the building.

Station #2 filed suit, alleging among other things breach of contract and fraud in the inducement against 237 Granby’s agent and statutory conspiracy against the agent and the Lynches. The thrust of these claims was 237 Granby’s refusal to honor the agreement to allow access to the void space. The defendants filed a demurrer based on the economic loss rule and an interesting statute of frauds argument.

Regarding the fraud claim, the Court reiterated that fraud requires a false representation of a material fact, and that mere failure to perform a promise is insufficient unless the promisor had no intention of performing at the time he made the promise. Unfortunately for Station #2, its complaint did not allege that 237 Granby’s agent had no intent to perform at the time it promised to allow access to the void space. Instead, the complaint merely claimed that the agent and the Lynches agreed to prevent Station #2 from soundproofing the void space. The only duty alleged – providing access to the void space – was a mere contractual duty that could not give rise to fraud in the inducement. In resolving this issue, the Court unfortunately sidestepped the more interesting question – whether a person who fraudulently induces someone into entering into a contract can be liable for fraud in the inducement if that person is not a party to the ultimate contract.

Regarding Station #2’s statutory conspiracy count, the Court refused to allow mere breach of contract to constitute an “unlawful act” that could form the underpinning for a conspiracy. Had Station #2 sufficiently alleged fraud in the inducement, it may have been able to also proceed with its statutory conspiracy claim.

Regarding the statute of frauds, the defendants claimed that installing soundproofing in the void space was the equivalent of creating a party wall, i.e. accessing and occupying real property. According to the defendants, Station #2 was required to have an easement, and the agreement for an easement would have had to have been in writing. The Court rejected this argument, pointing out that Station #2 did not need continuing access to and use of the void space. Instead, Station #2 needed only permission – a license – to enter the void space and install the soundproofing, and that permission could be given orally.

Stay posted until next time when we contrast Station #2 with a recent Circuit Court opinion that reached the opposite conclusion and allowed a fraud in the inducement claim to go forward.