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Wrongful Termination and Failed Wasted Costs Claim

Wrongful Termination and Failed Wasted Costs Claim

By: Nita Mistry

CIS General Insurance Ltd v. IBM United Kingdom Ltd

The Technology and Construction Court has recently handed down authoritative guidance on wasted costs and the characterization of damages arising out of termination of a contract. The court was asked to determine whether the claimant was entitled to recover £128 million in damages for wasted costs arising from the alleged wrongful termination of a contract.

Mrs. Justice O’Farrell ruled that IBM (the defendant in the case) was not entitled to exercise any right of termination because CISGIL (the claimant in the case) disputed a particular invoice within the time prescribed in the contract, and nonpayment of the invoice in those circumstances did not entitle IBM to terminate. Accordingly, IBM’s purported termination amounted to a repudiatory breach, which CISGIL was entitled to accept. Nonetheless, the court decided that IBM was ultimately entitled to payment of the invoice, set off against the damages awarded to CISGIL.

This case is another stark reminder of the inherent risks involved with terminating a contract and why termination should always be regarded as a measure of last resort. It is advisable to take legal advice when considering termination.

Background

CISGIL (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Co-operative Group Limited), a company involved in the underwriting and distribution of general insurance products, engaged IBM to supply a new information technology (IT) system and manage the system for a term of 10 years. The services agreement between the parties provided for payment against certain milestones.

In early 2017, an issue arose as to whether or not the requirements of a particular milestone had been met. IBM submitted an invoice in the sum of c. £2.8 million on the basis that it considered the applicable milestone events and requirements to have been met.

CISGIL’s position was that the milestone had not been met (nor payment authorized), and it refused to accept or pay IBM’s invoice for the milestone payment. Following setoff notices (by CISGIL) and final payment notices (by IBM), IBM purported to exercise a contractual right of termination based on CISGIL’s failure to pay the invoice. CISGIL disputed IBM’s right to terminate and treated the purported termination as a repudiatory breach, which it accepted.

CISGIL brought a claim before the High Court seeking damages of £128 million, which it characterized as expenditure incurred in relation to the alleged wrongful termination by IBM, along with a number of alternative claims regarding breach of contractual warranty and delay claims. The characterization of CISGIL’s claim was significant, as the limitation of liability provision in the services agreement excluded claims for loss of profit, revenue, or savings.

IBM counterclaimed in the sum of c. £2.8 million for the unpaid invoice.

Judgment

A key issue considered by the court was whether IBM exercised a valid right of termination by reason of CISGIL’s failure to pay the invoice or whether its purported termination amounted to a repudiatory breach, which repudiation CISGIL was entitled to, and did, accept.

CISGIL’s position was not simply that the milestone had not been achieved. It also argued that it had not approved achievement of the milestone, which it said was a prerequisite to payment. CISGIL also argued that the invoice was not payable because (i) IBM failed to meet prior milestones, and (ii) the invoice was not correctly prepared or properly submitted. CISGIL also argued that (i) it was entitled to setoff against the invoice, (ii) IBM lost any right of termination by its delay, and (iii) IBM was in willful default as defined in the services agreement.

IBM’s position was that the milestone was not dependent on the achievement of any other milestones and that the invoice was correctly prepared and properly submitted. IBM argued that CISGIL did not dispute the invoice within the time frame prescribed by the services agreement and had failed to assert any rights of setoff against the invoice until the time for doing so had expired. IBM rejected CISGIL’s allegations of delay and willful default, arguing that notice of termination was served by IBM within a reasonable time of CISGIL’s purported default. Consequently, IBM maintained that it was entitled to payment of the invoice in the sum of £2,889,600.

The court concluded that:

  1. CISGIL was obliged to approve the achievement of the milestone and was in breach of this obligation. CISGIL was not entitled to benefit from its own default in seeking to avoid payment by asserting the invalidity of the invoice based on the absence of approval.
  2. CISGIL’s complaints that the invoice was defective and/or not properly submitted had no merit.
  3. CISGIL did, however, validly dispute the invoice in accordance with the contractual mechanisms, entitling it to withhold payment against the invoice.
  4. The provisions of the services agreement, read together, were clear and unambiguous: they introduced a “pay now, argue later” principle, but they did not exclude any right of setoff; CISGIL would retain its right of setoff against future payments due and would retain its right to counterclaim for damages. However, there was a provision that restricted the exercise of such setoff rights against invoices to those in respect of which a valid notice of dispute had been given within seven days.
  5. IBM was not entitled to exercise any right of termination under the services agreement because CISGIL disputed the invoice within seven days of its receipt. In those circumstances, the purported termination amounted to a repudiatory breach, which CISGIL was entitled to accept. There was, however, no willful default.
  6. The court considered “A high-risk strategy was adopted on both sides; the AG5 milestone payment, a modest sum in relation to the high value of the overall project, was the vehicle used to bring the project to an end.”

Regarding the quantum of the claim, CISGIL’s position was that its claim for wasted expenditure was not a claim for loss of profit (which would be excluded by the limitation of liability provision in the services agreement). CISGIL argued that compensation for wasted expenditure puts it into “a break-even position” and that its benefits from IBM’s performance would have been worth at least as much to CISGIL as the amounts expended in reliance on the contract.

Applying principles from relevant authorities, Mrs. Justice O’Farrell said, “The starting point is to identify the contractual benefit lost as a result of IBM’s repudiatory breach of contract.” The contractual benefit CISGIL anticipated was “substantial savings, increased revenues and increased profits” from the new IT solution, which IBM promised to supply. The loss of bargain suffered by CISGIL comprised the savings, revenues, and profits that would have been achieved had the IT solution been successfully implemented. Mrs. Justice O’Farrell said, “CISGIL is entitled to frame its claim as one for wasted expenditure, but that simply represents a different method of quantifying the loss of the bargain; it does not change the characteristics of the losses for which compensation is sought” and concluded that CISGIL’s claim was excluded “whether it is quantified as the value of the lost profit, revenue and savings, or as wasted expenditure.”

As a result of the court’s findings, CISGIL was awarded damages of £15.9m in respect of additional costs incurred arising out of IBM’s wrongful termination instead of the £128 million in damages that CISGIL’s had claimed for wasted costs. The court also concluded that IBM was entitled to payment of the unpaid invoice in the sum of £2,889,600 and that IBM was entitled to setoff this sum against CISGIL’s claims.

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