Differentiating The Duties Owed by Agents

Prof. Deborah A. DeMott from Duke University School of Law has written a thoughtful article in which she differentiates among the fiduciary duties owed by agents.  Prof. Demott begins as follows:

“Legal theorists differ on how best to characterize fiduciary duty; to some, it’s best understood as a consequence of contract – as a set of default terms to which parties would agree, had they the benefit of unlimited resources.”

[On this topic, see my prior article regarding Le vs. Pham, in which I posit that the court got it wrong by creating additional duties where the contract already established the relationship between the parties.]

Prof. DeMott continues.  “It’s conventional to distinguish among an agent’s duties.  Restatement (Third) of Agency uses the terminology of duties of performance and duties of loyalty.

Hooray – someone who breaks down the different duties owed by a fiduciary.  As to agents, she says it’s a duty of loyalty and a duty of performance.

The duty of performance is seemingly self-evident.  “An agent’s duties of performance include the duty:

  • To act only as authorized by the principal;
  • To fulfill any obligations to the principal defined by contract;
  • To act with the competence, care, and diligence normally exercised by agents in similar circumstances; and
  • To use reasonable effort to provide the principal with facts material to the agent’s duties to the principal.

“An agent’s duties of performance are often defined by agreement between principal and agent.”

The obligations arising the duty of loyalty are more subtle.  “An agent’s duties of loyalty stem from the agent’s basic obligation to act loyally for the principal’s benefit in matters connected with the agency relationship.  An agent’s more specific duties of loyalty include:

  • A duty not to acquire a material benefit from a third party in connection with transactions or other actions taken on behalf of the principal or otherwise through the agent’s use of position;
  • A duty not to deal with the principal as or on behalf of an adverse party;
  • A duty not to compete with the principal or assist the principal’s competitors during the duration of the agency relationship; and
  • A duty not to use property of the principal, and not to use or communicate confidential information of the principal, for the agent’s own purposes or those of a third party.”

The author then tracks the effects of the legal analysis to the remedies available to the principal.  Explains Prof. DeMott, “The remedies available to a principal do not map neatly onto the contours of either contract law or tort law principles and remedies.

“For example, remedies that have the consequence of stripping profit or benefit from the agent do not necessarily approximate the amount of harm that a principal either has suffered or would be able to prove or the benefit that the principal expected to realize through the transaction conducted by the agent.”

From “DISLOYAL AGENTS” by Deborah A. DeMott, Professor of Law, Duke University School of Law.  Prof. Demott served as the Reporter for the Restatement (Third) of Agency.

Alabama Law Review (2007) Vol. 58:5:1049