In a recent decision, the Honorable Eileen Bransten of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County, reinforced to all employers the need to utilized well-drafted commission agreements. The court considered a claim from a real estate broker alleging that she was not paid commissions and bonuses for sales that she arranged, in violation of her agreement with the employer. Rejecting her claim, the court pointed to express language in the parties’ agreement stating that the alleged commissions would only have been earned upon a closing and transfer for title, and stated that “parties to a brokerage agreement are free to add whatever conditions they may wish to their agreement, including a condition that the contract of sale actually be consummated before the broker is deemed to have earned his commission.” Root v Swig Equities, LLC, 2010 NY Slip Op 50843U at * 5 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Feb. 10, 2010).
The court then went further and, while recognizing the general principle that a “seller cannot avoid liability for a broker’s commission based on the non-occurrence of a condition precedent if the seller is responsible for its non-performance”, cited to existing case law and ruled that “[a] broker may choose to agree that even ‘if the sale falls through because of the seller’s fault, he shall be entitled to nothing.” Id. The court then turned to the plaintiff’s claim for unpaid commissions under the New York Labor Law. After stating that any Labor Law claim must be premised on a contractual right to recover commissions, the court rejected plaintiff’s labor law claim stating that “without a contractual right to the commissions [plaintiff] seeks to recover, she fails to state a violation of [the Labor Law].” Id. at * 7.
This decision reinforces to employers the importance of well-drafted commission agreements with specific condition precedents for the earning of commissions. In fact, in New York, written commission agreements are mandated and the lack of such an agreement not only limits an employer’s ability to defend a claim for unpaid commissions but also creates a presumption that the terms of employment that the commissioned salesperson has presented are the agreed terms of employment. N.Y. Labor Law § 191(1)(c).