In Snyder v. Bronfman, No. 105454/07, 5/06/08 N.Y.L.J. "Decision of Interest" (Sup.Ct., N.Y. Co. April 24, 2008), the New York Supreme Court, New York County, dismissed former Simon & Schuster CEO, Richard E. Snyder's claims against Edgar M. Bronfman -- Chairman and CEO of Warner Music -- relating to an alleged oral joint venture between the two.
Plaintiff sued for over $100 mil. based on six counts: breach of joint venture agreement, breach of fiduciary duty, joint venture accounting, unjust enrichment, promissory estoppel, and quantum meruit. Defendant moved to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) ("...the cause of action may not be maintained because of ... statute of frauds ..."), contending that New York's General Obligations Law prohibits a plaintiff from recovering a finder's fee or other compensation based on services rendered in connection with a corporate acquisition in the absence of a written agreement. (G.O.L. sec. 5-701(a)(10).)
The court disagreed, finding that the statute of frauds provision (id.) does not apply to an oral joint venture agreement "which involves two or more individuals pooling their respective efforts to create and/or operate a business venture as opposed to one person assisting or facilitating another to do so." (See Freedman v. Chemical Const. Corp., 43 N.Y.2d 260 (1977) and other cases cited herein.) Here, plaintiff was not a mere finder or intermediary -- "plaintiff functioned as more than just a broker assisting defendant in a limited and transitory manner".
Nonetheless, plaintiff's claims relating to the joint venture were dismissed because the alleged oral joint venture was too vague to support a joint venture agreement. Though plaintiff alleged that the parties had agreed he would receive a "fair and equitable" share of an amount of money from the alleged oral joint venture, the court found it too uncertain. (Citing Varney v. Ditmars, 217 N.Y. 223 (1916), and Freedman v. Pearlman, 271 A.D.2d 301 (1st Dep't 2000).) "The alleged contract in question is affected by too many facts that are in themselves indefinite and uncertain such that the intention of the parties is pure conjecture." Thus, after finding that the action was "ripe for dismissal" at the pleadings stage, the joint venture claims (and the promissory estoppel claim) were dismissed for vagueness. **
However, the unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims survived. Based on a legal presumption of a promise to pay a "reasonable value", the court found that whether plaintiff can establish some value for any services actually rendered "must await discovery." Therefore, plaintiff had 20 days to file an answer to the unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims.
** The court did not clarify under which provision of the CPLR it was granting dismissal of the joint venture and promissory estoppel claims. Although the portions of the decision relating to the statute of frauds clearly relate to defendant's motion under CPLR 3211(a)(5), it appears that dismissal of these counts was based on plaintiff's failure to state a cause of action. Can the court convert a 3211(a)(5) motion into a 3211(a)(7) motion sua sponte, assuming defendant's motion papers were brought only under 3211(a)(5)?