In Riverisland Cold Storage, Inc., v. Fresno-Madera Prod. Credit Ass., S190581, the unanimous California Supreme Court recently overturned the widely criticized Pendergrass rule, thus restoring the full breadth of the fraud exception to the parol evidence rule. In 1935, the Court limited the fraud exception to the parole evidence rule – holding that evidence of a promise that was “directly at variance with the promise of the writing” was inadmissible. (See, Pendergrass (1935) 4 Cal.2d 258, 263.) This allowed defendants to demur to promissory fraud claims by citing the contract terms, or at least obtain summary judgment. This rule had put California in a minority of one, as it departed from the majority rule, the Restatement, and most treatises. Indeed, Riverisland concluded that Pendergrass is unsupported by the controlling statute (C.C.P. §1856), was contrary to then existing California law, has been widely criticized ever since (resulting in convoluted attempts to distinguish it), and can be used to shelter fraud (begging the question of how the Pendergrass rule managed to survive for nearly 80 years).
While there has been some hand wringing by potential defendants over losing the Pendergrass rule, and it will certainly be more difficult to resolve promissory fraud claims by demurrer or summary judgment, all is not lost. Consider:
- California now follows the majority rule, so most of the country has already adapted to this holding.
- Plaintiffs still have to meet the more demanding pleadings requirements for any fraud claim, and Riverisland confirms that the intent element of promissory fraud entails more than proof of an unkept promise or mere failure of performance.
- In Rosenthal, 14 Cal.4th 394, the Court held that the negligent failure to read a contract precludes a finding that it is void for fraud, although the threshold for this showing might be lower for equitable relief.
- Promissory fraud requires justifiable reliance on the defendant’s oral misrepresentation, which ties back into plaintiff’s negligent failure to read the contract.
The Supreme Court in Riverisland refused to decide whether the borrowers justifiably relied on the lender’s oral promises not to execute on the promissory notes for at least a year, notwithstanding the contract terms allowing prompt execution, given the borrowers’ failure to read the contract. So, how to balance these considerations remains an open question. While procedures to fend off such claims are often already in place, California businesses should proactively tighten up their practices and procedures to lessen the potential exposure that Riverisland represents, rather than wait for the courts to address these issues. In particular, the parties should customarily document that no oral promises were relied on in entering into the agreement. In addition to fending off claims based on an oral promise, such documentation will presumably support an argument that the plaintiff was negligent in failing to read the contract.