(1) The Effect of Minor Discrepancies Re: the Submissions Required by a Standby Letter of Credit (SLC) (2) The Criteria for Interpreting an SLC (3) the Nature of an SLC and (4) the “Independence Principle” as Applied to an SLC Discussed in Some Depth
The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Andrias, reversed Supreme Court and determined the issuer of standby letters of credit (SLC) was required to honor them. The opinion is detailed and fact-based. Among the legal issues discussed are: (1) minor discrepancies re: the documents required to be submitted (for a drawdown) by the terms of an SLC do not violate the “strict compliance” rule; (2) how to interpret an SLC; (3) the nature of an SLC (versus a guaranty); and (4) the “Independence Principle” which requires that an SLC be deemed separate and distinct from the other contractual agreements underlying the transaction:
Under New York law, in order to recover on its claim that the issuer wrongfully refused to honor its request to draw down on a letter of credit, the beneficiary must prove that it strictly complied with the terms of the letter of credit … . “The corollary to the rule of strict compliance is that the requirements in letters of credit must be explicit, and that all ambiguities are construed against the [issuer]” … . The reasoning is that “[s]ince the beneficiary must comply strictly with the requirements of the letter, it must know precisely and unequivocally what those requirements are” … . “Where a letter of credit is fairly susceptible of two constructions, one of which makes fair, customary and one which prudent men would naturally enter into, while the other makes it inequitable, the former interpretation must be preferred to the latter, and a construction rendering the contract possible of performance will be preferred to one which renders its performance impossible or meaningless” … . * * *
There are three parties to an SLC: the applicant who requests the SLC; the beneficiary to whom payment is due upon the presentation of the documents required by the SLC; and the issuer which obligates itself to honor the SLC and make payment when presented with the documents the SLC requires. In turn, there are three corresponding agreements: the agreement between the applicant and the beneficiary, which creates the basis for the SLC; the agreement between the issuer and the applicant; and the SLC itself … .
“[A] fundamental principle governing these transactions is the doctrine of independent contracts, [which] provides that the issuing bank’s obligation to honor drafts drawn on a letter of credit by the beneficiary is separate and independent from any obligation of its customer to the beneficiary under the … contract and separate as well from any obligation of the issuer to its customer under their agreement” … .
From the beneficiary’s perspective, the independence principle makes a letter of credit superior to a normal surety bond or guaranty because the issuer is primarily liable and is precluded from asserting defenses that an ordinary guarantor could assert. Indeed, “a letter of credit would lose its commercial vitality if before honoring drafts the issuer could look beyond the terms of the credit to the underlying contractual controversy or performance between its customer and the beneficiary”… . BasicNet S.P.A. v CFP Servs. Ltd., 2015 NY Slip Op 02080, 1st Dept 3-17-15