Lender Liability and the Duty of Good Faith
From time to time, lenders and their attorneys announce that lender liability is no longer an issue with which the lending community needs to be concerned. What usually prompts this proclamation of the death of lender liability is a recent case in which a court has summarily rejected a borrower's claim that the lender violated the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Many courts have rejected borrowers' lawsuits which are based on allegations of the violation of the lender's duty of good faith. Nevertheless, lender liability should continue to be an area of concern to lenders. Although courts often dismiss cases based on a borrower's claims of lender bad faith, in other cases courts find that lenders have indeed engaged in conduct that constitutes bad faith. Most courts carefully examine the unique facts of each case, consider the testimony of experts, and listen to the ever-inventive arguments of counsel. A loan agreement, like every other contract governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (the "U.C.C."), imposes on both the borrower and the lender "an obligation of good faith in its performance or enforcement." This simple good faith performance obligation may appear to be an uncontroversial codification of a basic, minimal standard of human behavior. It is proving, however, to be problematic to commercial lenders. Some courts have been quick to hold that, under certain circumstances, a lender, which believed it was merely exercising its contractual rights, nevertheless may have breached the duty of good faith performance obligation. For example, in 1985 the Sixth Circuit, invoking the good faith performance obligation, affirmed a jury verdict awarding $7,500,000 to a borrower whose lender refused to advance funds under a loan agreement, which specifically and unequivocally permitted the lender to exercise sole and absolute discretion to refuse to advance additional funds. The Alaska Supreme Court, likewise invoking the good faith performance obligation, held that a borrower could recover both actual and punitive damages from a lender who had taken possession of collateral without notice, notwithstanding the unambiguous terms of the loan and security agreement authorizing such repossession. On the other hand, many courts have abandoned the imposition of good faith obligations on the lender beyond what is set forth in certain loan agreements. In 1987, the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts held that the holder of a demand note does not need a good faith reason or any reason at all to demand payment. Additionally, the Seventh Circuit in 1990 flatly rejected imposing the duty of good faith when calling a demand note. Despite such far-reaching conclusions, courts have yet to articulate any specific criteria to distinguish good faith performance from bad faith performance. Consequently, the issue of a party's good faith performance under its contract is generally one of fact. In analyzing such facts, however, many courts are using the good faith performance obligation incorrectly. Instead of enforcing contract terms according to the expectations and intent of the contracting parties, many courts are deciding for themselves what they believe the parties ought to have done in "good faith," regardless of the terms of the contracts. The doctrine thus has become a loose cannon used by some courts to further their own views of fairness. In the commercial loan area, lenders are finding themselves increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable and inconsistent applications of the vague good faith performance obligation in situations where contractual terms, not questions of fact, formerly controlled. This paper will first discuss the good faith performance obligation and its definitions under the U.C.C. Subsequently, it will discuss the use of the obligation to limit a lender's ability to exercise its contractual rights. Next, the paper will discuss...
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