By Kelsey Hyde
On March 17, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published an opinion in the civil matter of Sharma v. USA International, vacating the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanding for further proceedings. In departing from the lower court’s ruling, the Court found the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia improperly granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based solely on the contested issue of plaintiff’s purported damages.
Factual & Procedural Background
The plaintiffs in this case, Jatinder Sharma & his corporation Haymarket Fast Foods, Inc., were involved in a business transaction with defendants Khalil Ahmad and Mahrah Butt, partners at USA International, LLC. Sharma became interested in purchasing two restaurants– a Checkers and an Auntie Anne’s– from defendants upon learning how these restaurants were generating high sales. Throughout negotiations for the purchase of these restaurants, Sharma reviewed USA International’s tax returns and financial statements, which indicated the combined sales of the restaurants for the most recent months were about $75,000 per month.
The parties’ first purchase agreement specified a price of $720,000, and made the sale contingent on the stores collectively acquiring $90,000 in monthly sales in the two months prior to a settlement. Subsequent financial statements revealed lower monthly sales, thus the price was later reduced to $600,000 and the conditional-sale provision was eliminated from the final agreement. Sharma formed the entity Haymarket Fast Foods, Inc. in relation to the transaction, and also applied for a loan at his bank to secure part of the purchase price. His application represented that the restaurants’ average monthly sales based on the figures presented in the financial statements provided by defendants.
Shortly after the closing, Sharma noticed sales well below the figures that had been conveyed by defendants. Sharma looked further at other elements of the business– namely the supply orders, employee’s personal observations, and bank records– in an attempt to uncover the discrepancy. This investigation made Sharma realize that, based on the supplies available, the amount of sales defendants had purported to make were simply not possible; he then suspected that defendants had inflated their sales on the income statements provided to him before closing. Further, employees who had been working for defendants revealed to Sharma that defendant Butt had, on numerous occasions, rung up high sales for food not ordered by customers, and then directed employees not to prepare the food that coincided with these orders. Moreover, Bank of America accounts revealed that deposits attributable to the restaurant were substantially lower than those represented in the statements given to Sharma.
In response to these findings, Sharma filed on action for fraud against the defendants, alleging they had inflated sales figures and lied during negotiations, resulting in fraudulent inducement to pay a higher price for the business than it was truly worth. He proposed that damages be calculated by either (1) multiplying weekly sales by 36, or (2) multiplying monthly earnings by 48, either of which meant to provide the proper valuation of the business.
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently establish the materiality of the alleged misrepresentations, their reliance on the misrepresentations, and their damages (i.e. three of the particular elements necessary to succeed on a fraud claim). The district court found that plaintiffs had adequately shown the materiality of and reliance on defendants’ misrepresentation, but had indeed failed to provide enough evidence for a factfinder to estimate with reasonable certainty the amount of damages they sustained. Namely, the court rejected the two methods proposed by plaintiff for finding the actual value of the two restaurants, concluding that neither method conformed to any generally accepted methods for valuing a business, nor sufficiently proved they were independently reliable. Thus, because damages are a necessary element of a fraud claim under controlling state law, the court granted summary judgment. On appeal, the sole issue presented regarded the district court’s finding of insufficient evidence of damages.
Elements of the Claim & Standards to be Met on Motion for Summary Judgment
On a motion for summary judgment, the court takes the record in the light most favorable to the non-movant party. The moving party is entitled to a grant of summary judgement as a matter of law if they show there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. F.R.C.P. 56(a).
To establish a claim for fraud under Virginia law, a plaintiff must show: (1) false representation, (2) of a material fact, (3) made intentionally and knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, (5) reliance by the party misled, and (6) resulting in damages to the party so misled. Evaluation Research Corp. v. Alequin, 439 S.E.2d 387, 390 (Va. 1994). Because all such elements are necessary, failure to satisfy any one element is enough to bar relief for a fraud claim, as the district court found in their ruling based on failure to establish damages.
Under Virginia law, when a dispute involves the transfer of goods or property, damages are measured by the difference between the asset’s actual value at the time of contract and the asset’s purported value if the representations made had instead been true. Courts have previously treated sales prices as sufficient evidence of value, especially in arms’ length transactions. Virginia law maintains that plaintiffs need not prove damages with absolute certainty, but a plaintiff still must provide sufficient evidence to allow a factfinder to make an intelligent, probable estimate of the damages or losses allegedly sustained.
Fourth Circuit Finds Plaintiffs’ Evidence Regarding Estimated Damages Sufficient to Survive Motion for Summary Judgement
The Court concluded that plaintiffs had indeed met their burden and had put forth sufficient evidence to allow an estimate of damages by a factfinder. Namely, the Court emphasized that the parties’ arms-length transaction would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude that the restaurants’ final sales price represented their value, as needed for the calculation of damages. Viewing the record most favorably for the plaintiffs, the Court found that negotiations surrounding the final price of the restaurants evidenced that both parties’ relied on a valuation of the businesses derived from a multiple of weekly and/or monthly sales. Moreover, the entire content of negotiations between the parties clearly revolved around the restaurants’ weekly or monthly sales, from Sharma’s initial interest in purchasing the restaurant to the later financial statements used by defendants to further persuade Sharma to go forward with the purchase. The Court even performed its own calculations to affirm this result, despite the defendants’ refusal to confirm the calculation methods used to arrive at the sales price.
However, the Court also emphasized that the actual multiplier-numbers used or derived are not dispositive in this case, and that defendants could indeed challenge those numbers as a matter of fact later in the case. Instead, the true question was whether plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence, as a matter of law, for a factfinder to estimate a probable calculation of damages. In the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, the plaintiffs did just that by presenting their own estimate with reasonable precision and support for their own calculations, using an accepted approach based on income and computing their results with specific numbers provided by defendants to estimate the purchase price.
Vacated & Remanded
Based on their finding that Plaintiff’s purported estimates of damages were acceptable and sufficient to create a material dispute of fact, the Fourth Circuit vacated the District Court’s grant of summary judgement and remanded for further proceedings to continue plaintiff’s fraud claims.