Narrow Escape of Expedited Judgment Under CPLR 3213 Due to Ambiguous Guaranty
May 13, 2022
As readers of this blog are aware—click here, here, here, and here for related posts—the CPLR 3213 motion for summary judgment in lieu of complaint can be a powerful tool to secure an expedited judgment, “meld[ing] pleading and motion practice into one step, allowing a summary judgment motion to be made before issue [is] joined.” Weissman v. Sinorm Deli, 669 NE 2d 242 (1996)
The New York legislature prescribes only a narrow set of circumstances under which CPLR 3213 may be applied. When an action is based upon “an instrument for the payment of money only,” CPLR 3213 can save a plaintiff time and money by skipping past the pleadings and discovery stages of litigation, and barreling straight toward a judgment.
That said, Section 3213 of the CPLR is generally unavailable if the sued-upon instrument is ambiguous on the payment obligation and requires proof beyond the face of the instrument, as was recently discussed by the First Department in Talos Capital Designated Activity Co. v 257 Church Holdings LLC (2022 NY Slip Op 03186).
Talos involved a mezzanine lender who sought to collect, pursuant to CPLR 3213, money owed to the lender under certain loan guaranties and pledges following the borrower’s failure to meet its obligations at the “Five Year Paydown,” a five-year checkpoint of the loan.
In the guaranty context, in order to demonstrate entitlement to judgment under CPLR 3213, the plaintiff must show: (1) the existence of the guaranty; (2) the underlying debt; and (3) the guarantor’s failure to perform under the guaranty.
The First Department modified the judgment entered by the trial court in favor of the lender against all defendants, limited to just the judgment against the guarantor under the loan’s Payment Recourse Guaranty.
Rather than looking at the Payment Recourse Guaranty in isolation, the First Department held that when read together with the underlying loan agreement, the Payment Recourse Guaranty was ambiguous as to the triggering event of guarantor’s obligations. Therefore, the lender could not show that the guarantor actually defaulted on his obligations under the Payment Recourse Guaranty.
The underlying loan agreement provided that a nonpayment default by the borrower at the Five Year Paydown date was not considered a default under the loan agreement. Instead, upon a nonpayment default at the Five Year Paydown date, certain penalties were applied (calculated per the loan agreement) and the lender was entitled to exercise a series of elective remedies under certain specifically named guaranties and guaranty pledges. Any remaining deficiency after lender exercised its remedies under these guaranties and pledges would remain outstanding as part of the principal balance due upon the maturity date of the loan.
Critically, the loan agreement did not specifically name the Payment Recourse Guaranty as one of the guaranties and pledges that lender could exercise its remedies against. Thus, the First Department held that the instrument sued upon (the Payment Recourse Guaranty, as informed by the underlying loan agreement) was ambiguous as to whether the appellant-guarantor’s obligation was triggered upon a nonpayment default of the Five Year Paydown, or upon the maturity date of the loan when the borrower’s full obligation becomes due.
Given this material ambiguity, the First Department vacated that part of the judgment as to the guarantor and deemed the moving and answering papers to be the complaint and answer, respectively.
Section 3213 of the CPLR can be an efficient tool to streamline actions that fall within its ambit, but courts are careful to limit the motion’s applicability to only those instruments that are unambiguously clear as to a defendant’s payment obligation.