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How Documentary Evidence Can Be Used to Dismiss a New York Breach of Contract Claim

 

Although I often hear about how "frivolous" or "baseless" a lawsuit can be, there are some limited circumstances where New York's courts can - and will - dismiss claims at the very beginning.

 

One of the bases upon which a NY court may dismiss a lawsuit is where the claims set forth in the complaint are completely undermined by documentary evidence, or as some  New York courts have described it, "[T]he court may grant dismissal [only] when documentary evidence submitted conclusively establishes a defense to the asserted claims as a matter of law." Beal Sav. Bank v. Sommer, 8 NY3d 318, 324 (2007) (internal citations omitted); see also, Fortis Fin. Servs., LLC v. Fimat Futures USA, Inc., 290 AD2d 383 (1st Dept 2002). A movant is entitled to dismissal if the proffered evidence unambiguously contradicts the factual allegations supporting the causes of action contained within the complaint (Rivietz v. Wolohojian, 38 AD3d 301 [1st Dept 2007]; see also, Goshen v. Mutual Life Ins. Co. of New York, 98 NY2d 314 [2002]), regardless of any extrinsic evidence or self-serving allegations offered by the plaintiff. See, Excel Graphics Tech., Inc. v. CFG/AGSCB 75 Ninth Ave., L.L.C., 1 AD3d 65 (1st Dept 2003)."

 

At this point, a word of caution is in order.

 

If there is any ambiguity regarding that documentary evidence which inherently requires a determination as to what the document means, or if the facts leading up to the preparation of that documentary evidence is at issue, the court is supposed to deny the motion to dismiss, and allow for a trier of fact - such as a jury - to make those determinations.

 

One other point: although this doctrine most frequently comes up in the context of breach of contract claims (the reason for which should be relatively obvious - the contract says what it says, and if it directly contradicts the plaintiff's claims, then the complaint should often fail), this doctrine can - and has - been applied across the spectrum, including with respect to non-compete and breach of fiduciary duty claims, to name a few.