The Forthright Negotiator Principle and Creative Ambiguity

In this December 2007 post I wrote about the Delaware Chancery Court opinion in the litigation between United Rentals Inc. and two Cerberus Partners acquisition vehicles. But I wasn’t so much interested in the opinion as in what had caused the confusion and how it could have been avoided, so I didn’t even mention the principle that the court invoked, “the forthright negotiator principle.” Here’s how the court described it:

The forthright negotiator principle provides that, in cases where the extrinsic evidence does not lead to a single, commonly held understanding of a contract’s meaning, a court may consider the subjective understanding of one party that has been objectively manifested and is known or should be known by the other party.

(For more about the forthright negotiator principle, see this post on Private Equity Law Review and this post on Settle It Now.)

As I noted in a comment to the Settle It Now post, the court perhaps rather unhelpfully applied a little-used moniker to a straightforward notion. But I’m pleased that the court highlighted this notion, because it’s caused me to revisit the issue of “creative ambiguity.”

Creative ambiguity is the term I use to describe a drafter’s intentionally adding ambiguous language to a contract—the other side thinks a certain phrase means X, but you know that it means X or Y, and you want to be able argue, down the road, that it means Y if it’s to your advantage to do so.

I discussed creative ambiguity in this October 2007 post on gamesmanship in contract drafting. Here were my objections to gamesmanship:

My problem with gamesmanship is that it’s deceitful. If that doesn’t pose any ethical problem for you, consider the practical implications: If the other side catches you playing any of these games, it could sour your client’s relationship with the other side, resulting in your client missing out on future deals and your losing your client’s business. It could also inflict more general harm on your professional reputation. And playing games with ambiguity can result in your being hoisted by your own petard.

Considered more broadly, gamesmanship is indicative of a narrow adversarial view of negotiation. I prefer negotiation based on mutual problem-solving.

But at least as regards creative ambiguity, I omitted the most forceful argument: that if the other side thinks that a given provision means X, and you know that they think it means X, then a court could well invoke the forthright negotiator principle—whether or not they use that name—to hold that you’re estopped from arguing that the provision in fact means Y. This provides a more immediate, and less touchy-feely, argument against creative ambiguity.

By the way, language is ambiguous if it’s capable of conveying two or more inconsistent meanings. Courts and practitioners routinely, and unhelpfully, invoke ambiguity when referring to any of the various sources of uncertainty in a contract. That’s something I discuss in this March 2008 post and in chapter 6 of MSCD.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

4 thoughts on “The Forthright Negotiator Principle and Creative Ambiguity”

  1. I agree Ken – creative ambiguity is bad lawyering. No client will ever thank you for getting them involved in litigation over a contractual misunderstanding. If the client thinks it means Y, and the other side thinks it means X, you have messed up badly. If you know this is the case, or if you engineer it deliberately to avoid a negotiation, you deserve to be sued – however difficult you think that negotiation will be and however long it make take.

    My only caveat is that if your client is aware of the ambiguity and the potential consequences, then they are free to take that risk – it may be a very small one. I would never advise a client to take that route though, because the “positive” result still involves litigation. I don’t think they would be impressed by my professional standards if I suggested it, either.

    Also, does anyone have any views about whether the doctrine of mistake would apply to this kind of scenario (assuming it applies in the US as it does in the UK)? It would seem generally relevant, but perhaps it does not apply if there is a contract that can be interpreted objectively?

  2. Ken:

    There a tactic that relies on this rule and that is useful when confronted with a counter-party who won’t negotiate away an ambiguous statement. Simply send an email to them confirming that the such-and-such clause means X, not Y, then print their answer confirming that fact and file it with your copy of the contract. It’s almost as good as changing the words in the document, but most people won’t think twice about the email.

    Chris Lemens


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