California Landmark Cases on Rescission of Contracts

A party to a contract has two different remedies when it has been injured by a breach of contract or fraud and lacks the ability or desire to keep the contract alive. (Akin v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd's London (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 291, 296 44 Cal. Rptr. 3d 284 (Akin).) The party may disaffirm the contract, treating it as rescinded, and recover damages resulting from the rescission. (Ibid.) Alternatively, the party may affirm the contract, treating it as repudiated, and recover damages for breach of contract or fraud. (Ibid.) Rescission and damages are alternative remedies. (Akin, supra, 140 Cal.App.4th at p. 296.) A party may seek rescission or damages for breach of contract or fraud "in the event rescission cannot be obtained" in the same action. (Williams v. Marshall (1951) 37 Cal.2d 445, 457 235 P.2d 372 defrauded vendee, citing Bancroft v. Woodward (1920) 183 Cal. 99 190 P. 445; Walters v. Marler (1978) 83 Cal.App.3d 1, 16 147 Cal. Rptr. 655 breach of contract, disapproved on another ground in Gray v. Don Miller & Associates, Inc. (1984) 35 Cal.3d 498, 505-507 198 Cal. Rptr. 551, 674 P.2d 253.) But "the election of one remedy bars recovery under the other." (Akin, at p. 296, citing Alder v. Drudis (1947) 30 Cal.2d 372, 383 182 P.2d 195.) Before 1961, California recognized two methods by which a party to a contract could obtain rescissionary relief: (1) unilateral rescission, followed by an action to enforce the out-of-court rescission or (2) an action for judicial rescission in which specific judicial relief is granted. (Runyan v. Pacific Air Industries, Inc. (1970) 2 Cal.3d 304, 311-312 85 Cal. Rptr. 138, 466 P.2d 682 (Runyan).) In 1961, however, the Legislature abolished the action to obtain judicial rescission and left only an action to obtain relief based on a party effecting rescission. (Id. at p. 313; see Paularena v. Superior Court (1965) 231 Cal.App.2d 906, 913 42 Cal. Rptr. 366.) Consequently, any post-1961 rescission must necessarily be accomplished by a party to the contract. The court does not rescind contracts but only affords relief based on a party's rescission. Both the grounds for rescission and the means by which parties may rescind their contract are governed by statute. (See Civ. Code, 1688 et seq.) Section 1689, subdivision (b)(1) permits rescission when "the consent to the contract of the party rescinding ... was given by mistake ... or obtained through ... fraud ... or undue influence ... exercised by ... the party as to whom he rescinds ... ." The steps to rescind a contract are set forth in section 1691, which provides in part: "Subject to Section 1693, to effect a rescission a party to the contract must, promptly upon discovering the facts which entitle him to rescind ... . (a) Give notice of rescission to the party as to whom he rescinds; and (b) Restore to the other party everything of value which he has received from him under the contract or offer to restore the same upon condition that the other party do likewise, unless the latter is unable or positively refuses to do so. When notice of rescission has not otherwise been given or an offer to restore the benefits received under the contract has not otherwise been made, the service of a pleading in an action or proceeding that seeks relief based on rescission shall be deemed to be such notice or offer or both." (Italics added.) Once a contract has been rescinded, any party to the disaffirmed contract may seek relief either by "bringing an action to recover any money or thing owing to him by any other party to the contract as a consequence of such rescission or for any other relief to which he may be entitled under the circumstances," or by asserting the rescission as a defense, counterclaim, or cross-complaint. ( 1692.) Under section 1692, a trial court's obligation is not over once it has determined whether the section's substantive and procedural requirements have been satisfied. If the court finds that the contract was rescinded, "'the aggrieved party shall be awarded complete relief, including restitution of benefits, if any, conferred by him as a result of the transaction and any consequential damages to which he is entitled... .'" (Sharabianlou v. Karp (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 1133, 1144-1145 105 Cal. Rptr. 3d 300) (Sharabianlou).) If the trial court finds that "'the contract has not been rescinded, it may grant any party to the action any other relief to which he may be entitled under the circumstances.'" (Runyan, supra, 2 Cal.3d at p. 311, fn. 10.) Thus, section 1692 "'restates the equity jurisprudence applicable in the rescission context.' The fundamental principle underlying that jurisprudence 'is that "in such actions the court should do complete equity between the parties" and to that end "may grant any monetary relief necessary" to do so. ' (Runyan, supra, 2 Cal.3d at p. 316 ... .) Rescission is intended to restore the parties as nearly as possible to their former positions and '"to bring about substantial justice by adjusting the equities between the parties" despite the fact that "the status quo cannot be exactly reproduced."' " (Sharabianlou, supra, 181 Cal.App.4th at p. 1144.) "Rescission extinguishes the contract (... 1688), terminates further liability, and restores the parties to their former positions by requiring them to return whatever consideration they have received. Thus, the 'relief given in rescission cases--restitution and in some cases consequential damages--puts the rescinding party in the status quo ante, returning him to his economic position before he entered the contract.'" (Id. at p. 1145.) In rescission cases involving a real estate purchase, "the seller must refund all payments received in connection with the sale. If the buyer has taken possession of the property, the buyer must restore possession to the seller. Such recovery of the consideration exchanged is part of restitution. As consequential damages, rescinding buyers or sellers may recover such items as real estate commissions paid in connection with the sale , escrow expenses , interest on specific sums of money paid to the other party , and attorney fees in appropriate cases ." (Sharabianlou, supra, 181 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1145-1146, citing Kent v. Clark (1942) 20 Cal.2d 779, 784 128 P.2d 868.) In some cases, the value of improvements may also be recovered. (Runyan, supra, 2 Cal.3d at p. 315; Lobdell v. Miller (1952) 114 Cal.App.2d 328, 344 250 P.2d 357.) Whether to grant relief based on rescission "generally rests upon the sound discretion of the trial court exercised in accord with the facts and circumstances of the case ." (Hicks v. Clayton (1977) 67 Cal.App.3d 251, 265 136 Cal. Rptr. 512; see Fairchild v. Raines (1944) 24 Cal.2d 818, 826 151 P.2d 260 "the granting or withholding of equitable relief involves the exercise of judicial discretion".) "However, that discretion is not an arbitrary one, but should be exercised in accord with the principles and precedents of equity jurisprudence." (Hicks, at p. 265.) An insurer may rescind an insurance contract when the insured has misrepresented or concealed material information, even unintentionally, in obtaining insurance coverage. (See Ins. Code, 331 concealment, 359 false representation; Philadelphia Indemnity Ins. Co. v. Montes-Harris (2006) 40 Cal. 4th 151, 157 "injured party may rescind, even though the misstatements 'were the result of negligence, or, indeed, the product of innocence'"; see generally, Civ. Code, 1689, subd. (b).) To effect rescission, the insurer must give notice to the insured and refund all premiums received before commencement of an action on the contract. (Ins. Code, 650; Civ. Code, 1691 governing rescission generally; see Allstate Ins. Co. v. McCurry (1964) 224 Cal. App. 2d 271, 273-274 "For the right of the insurer to rescind a contract of insurance to be restricted under this section it is necessary that an action on the contract be brought by a party to the contract. An action by a third party against an insured for injuries received in an accident with the car of the insured is not an action upon the contract of insurance.".) After rescission has been effected, the insurer may bring an action for declaratory or other relief to enforce it. (See Civ. Code, 1692; West Coast Life Ins. Co. v. Ward (2005) 132 Cal. App. 4th 181, 183-184 life insurer brought declaratory judgment action against beneficiary to establish no benefits payable after rescinding policy for fraud committed by deceased insured.) "In any such action, the trial court will determine not only whether rescission was effected but also whether it was justified, and thereafter grant appropriate relief." (Little v. Pullman (2013) 219 Cal. App. 4th 558, 569 162 Cal. Rptr. 3d 74.) When an insurance policy is rescinded, "it is void ab initio, as if it never existed." (Little v. Pullman, supra, 219 Cal. App. 4th at p. 568; see Imperial Casualty & Indemnity Co. v. Sogomonian (1988) 198 Cal. App. 3d 169, 184 "in other words, defendants, in law, never were insureds under a policy of insurance"; LA Sound USA, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. (2007) 156 Cal. App. 4th 1259, 1267 67 Cal. Rptr. 3d 917 "'rescission effectively renders the policy totally unenforceable from the outset so that there was never any coverage and no benefits are payable'"; see generally Civ. Code, 1688 "contract is extinguished by its rescission".) Consequently, in addition to the refund of premiums by the insurer, the insured must return any advance payments that have been received. (Imperial Casualty & Indemnity Co., at p. 184.) In contrast, the cancellation of a policy terminates coverage only prospectively. (Id. at p. 182.) Rescission applies to all insureds under the contract, including additional insureds, unless the contract provides otherwise. (Ins. Code, 650.) When an insurer rescinds a policy "in conformity with all of the requirements imposed by law , the insurer generally may avoid liability on the policy ... to any third party injured by the insured." (Philadelphia Indemnity Ins. Co. v. Montes-Harris, supra, 40 Cal. 4th at p. 157.)