An opinion by the San Antonio Court of Appeals demonstrates that in order to prevail on a claim for tortious interference of contract, the claimant need not prove an outright threat. Certain statements and requests may be sufficient.
A salesman was recruited to work for a company by a general manager and a sales manager. Later that year, the salesman and his wife purchased a house from the president of the general partner of a general contractor, an important customer of the company. The president and the general manager were long-time friends.
When the salesman was preparing to move into the house, he discovered what he believed to be problems with the foundation. The salesman and his wife met with the president, and the salesman told the president that he wanted the president to buy back the house. The meeting grew tense, and the salesman left the meeting. The president testified later that he expected the salesman to file a lawsuit if he did not buy back the house.
After the meeting, the president called the general manager to discuss his anger over the situation. When the salesman returned to work, he was called into a meeting with the general manager and sales manager and told that he could no longer work at the San Antonio office. The general manager then sent an email to the human resources department. The email stated that the president had made it clear that having an employee from one of his major suppliers threaten legal action could jeopardize all current and future work. The email also stated that the president had directed the general manager not to allow the salesman to call on any project of the general contractor.
The salesman filed suit against the president and the general contractor, asserting tortious interference and other claims. The salesman contended that he was fired because the president threatened the company’s business if the salesman remained an employee of the company. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion. The salesman appealed.
The court of appeals noted that conduct constituting an interference may be an inducement. An inducement is any conduct conveying to the third person the actor’s desire to influence him not to deal with the other. It may be a simple request or persuasion. It may also be a statement having the same effect as a request.
The court of appeals concluded that summary judgment was not warranted. The president testified at trial that he did not intend to have the salesman fired; however, the salesman produced evidence that the general contractor was an important customer of the company and that the president was aware of this fact when he called the general manager. It was undisputed that the president called the general manager and instructed him not to allow the salesman to call on an of the general contractor’s projects. It was also undisputed that the general manager understood the president’s statements to be a threat to discontinue its business with the company. The court of appeals held that the evidence was sufficient to raise a fact issue about whether the president intentionally interfered with the salesman’s employment.
As this opinion demonstrates, conduct that constitutes interference with a contract need not be an outright threat. It may be a request or statement that could be interpreted as a threat. In addition, in a summary judgment proceeding, the burden of the non-movant to produce evidence of intentional interference may be met with circumstantial evidence.