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Kolchins v. Evolution Markets, Inc.

New York Court of Appeals

March 29, 2018

Andrew Kolchins, Respondent,
Evolution Markets, Inc., Appellant.

          David B. Wechsler, for appellant.

          Jyotin Hamid, for respondent.


          STEIN, J.

         The issue on this appeal is whether the documentary evidence proffered by defendant Evolution Markets, Inc. on its motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1) conclusively refuted plaintiff Andrew Kolchins's breach of contract claims. We hold that defendant has not met its burden and we, therefore, affirm.

         - I

         Defendant is a corporation that structures transactions and provides brokerage and advisory services in the global environmental and energy commodity marketplace. In 2005, plaintiff joined defendant as a commodities broker and, in 2006, the parties entered into an employment agreement with a three-year term. Subsequently, in 2009, plaintiff and defendant entered into another three-year employment agreement with an "Ending Date" of August 31, 2012.

         Under the 2009 Agreement, plaintiff was an "at will" employee; however, if defendant terminated him without "Cause" or he ceased employment for "Good Reason, " and he complied with certain restrictive covenants, he would be paid his base salary through the Ending Date, as well as a "Special Non-Compete Payment" thereafter [1]. His compensation package included a $200, 000 annual base salary and a "Sign on Bonus" of $750, 000. Separately, the Agreement set forth terms under which plaintiff was eligible to receive a "Production Bonus" that was "based on [his] performance" each trimester, and which would be "paid within two months of the close of a given trimester." [2]

         The 2009 Agreement also provided for minimum "Guaranteed Compensation" of $750, 000 each contract year. The Guaranteed Compensation consisted of plaintiff's "base salary and any bonus paid or payable" to him for such period, but did not include the amount paid as his Sign On Bonus. In that regard, the 2009 Agreement provided that, "[f]or the avoidance of doubt, your bonus to be paid to you in respect of the second trimester of 2009 is not included in the calculation of your guaranteed compensation." However, any Special Non-Compete Payment made during the last year of the Agreement would "count towards your guaranteed compensation." Critically, the 2009 Agreement also set forth that, "in order to be eligible to receive any Production Bonus, bonus from the Discretionary Management Bonus Pool, or Guaranteed Compensation, you must be actively employed... at the time of our firm-wide bonus payment dates."

         On June 15, 2012, as the Ending Date of the 2009 Agreement approached, defendant's chief executive officer, Andrew Ertel, sent plaintiff an email with the subject line "In writing, " which stated that, "[t]he terms of our offer are the same [as the] terms of your existing contract (other than a clarification around the issue of departed members of the team), and include: [a] 3 year term[, ] $200, 000 base salary[, ] $750, 000 sign on bonus... [, ] $750, 000 per year minimum cash compensation[, and the same] production bonus." He added, "[a]ny further questions, let me know but u [sic] do have your existing contract." One month later, on July 16, plaintiff responded by email with "I accept, pls [sic] send contract, " to which Ertel replied, "Mazel. Looking forward to another great run." Following this exchange, plaintiff and defendant's general counsel, Benjamin Zeliger, communicated by email and in person over the ensuing weeks in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the parties' mutual understanding to a more formal written instrument. Despite these efforts, defendant notified plaintiff, by letter dated September 1, 2012, that his employment had ceased upon the expiration of the 2009 Agreement.

         Plaintiff then commenced this breach of contract action against defendant, alleging that the parties had entered into a valid and binding contract setting forth the terms of his continued employment with defendant. Plaintiff alleged that the June 15 and July 16 email correspondence with Ertel constituted a written confirmation of the new agreement. Plaintiff also sought to recover amounts allegedly still owed to him under the 2009 Agreement, including a Special Non-Compete Payment and a final Production Bonus. He asserted that the Production Bonus was vested and earned as of the Ending Date of the 2009 Agreement.

         Prior to answering the complaint, defendant moved for, among other things, an order dismissing plaintiff's breach of contract claims pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (1). In support of its motion, defendant annexed as exhibits the email and letter correspondence between the parties, as well as the parties' prior employment agreements. As relevant here, Supreme Court denied defendant's motion insofar as it sought to dismiss plaintiff's breach of contract claims.

         On defendant's appeal, the Appellate Division, with one Justice dissenting, modified Supreme Court's order by dismissing so much of the breach of contract cause of action that sought to recover a Special Non-Compete Payment under the 2009 Agreement, and otherwise affirmed (128 A.D.3d 47');">128 A.D.3d 47 [1st Dept 2015]). The Court held that, according plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable inference, "one may reasonably find that by the June 15-to- July 16, 2012 email exchange, the parties had entered into an agreement to renew plaintiff's employment for a new three-year term, carrying forward the existing compensation plan under the 2009 employment agreement" (id. at 60). The Court also concluded that the documentary evidence of the additional correspondence submitted by defendant did not "utterly refute" plaintiff's allegations that the parties reached an agreement on the material terms of a contract renewal (id. at 50) [3]. With regard to plaintiff's claim seeking payment of a Production Bonus under the 2009 Agreement, the Court held that defendant failed to establish, as a matter of law, that plaintiff was not entitled to the bonus, reasoning that the bonus could constitute wages not subject to forfeiture under Labor Law article 6 (see id. at 64).

         The Appellate Division granted defendant leave to appeal to this Court, certifying the question of ...

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