Beware the “Choice of Law” Provision

mapDo you realize that many of the contracts, equipment leases and loan documents that you have signed would require a Michigan judge to use other States’ laws in deciding lawsuits rather than Michigan’s?

This is because many contracts contain a “choice of law” or “governing law” provision, by which the parties choose to apply the law of one particular state to govern their contract.  A choice of law provision may affect the outcome of a lawsuit if the law of the chosen state differs from Michigan law on a key issue.

When reviewing a proposed contract before signing it, it is essential to read and understand the entire contract.  This is not just the price or the interest rate.  It also includes the general provisions at the end or on the back of the page—otherwise known as the “fine print” or “boilerplate”.

Many companies do business in multiple states.  For them, it is important to have certainty about what their contracts mean.  As a result, their standard contracts will contain a choice of law provision.  In addition, they may choose the law of a state that is most favorable to them — such as the law of a state that allows lenders to charge higher interest rates without violating usury laws.

If the law of Michigan doesn’t differ from the law of the chosen state on any important issue for the contract, then the choice of law provision is moot.  If, however, there is an important difference, then the party being asked to accept the choice of law provision has three options:  (1) Negotiate to change the contract; (2) Refuse to sign the contract containing the choice of law provision; or (3) Sign the contract knowing that it contains that provision and its implications.  If you are dealing with a much bigger company, they may not be willing to alter their standard contract.  You need to go into the transaction with a full understanding of its terms, so you are not surprised when a dispute arises.

The Michigan courts will normally enforce a choice of law provision, with two major exceptions:

  1. The chosen state must have some relationship to the transaction, such as one of the states being based there, or part of the transaction being performed there.  A choice of law provision may not be enforced if two Michigan companies, with a transaction to be performed in Michigan, try to choose the law of some other state for the purpose of avoiding the application of a Michigan law.
  2. A Michigan court may also refuse to enforce a choice of law provision if that would violate Michigan public policy.  In other words, if the result would be contrary to an important Michigan law, and Michigan has a greater interest in the outcome than the state whose law was chosen by the parties, the Court may disregard the choice of law provision.  This does not occur very often, particularly where there is no irregularity in the making of the contract containing the choice of law provision.

Many contracts also contain a “choice of venue”  provision, by which the parties agree to litigate their disputes in the courts of a particular state.  Choice of venue provisions will be discussed in a future article.

This article was written by Mark S. Demorest, Managing Member of Demorest Law Firm. Click here to view his professional resume.

Tags: , , ,