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Contracts: assignment

Practical law uk practice note 7-381-7509  (approx. 42 pages).

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Assignments: The Basic Law

The assignment of a right or obligation is a common contractual event under the law and the right to assign (or prohibition against assignments) is found in the majority of agreements, leases and business structural documents created in the United States.

As with many terms commonly used, people are familiar with the term but often are not aware or fully aware of what the terms entail. The concept of assignment of rights and obligations is one of those simple concepts with wide ranging ramifications in the contractual and business context and the law imposes severe restrictions on the validity and effect of assignment in many instances. Clear contractual provisions concerning assignments and rights should be in every document and structure created and this article will outline why such drafting is essential for the creation of appropriate and effective contracts and structures.

The reader should first read the article on Limited Liability Entities in the United States and Contracts since the information in those articles will be assumed in this article.

Basic Definitions and Concepts:

An assignment is the transfer of rights held by one party called the “assignor” to another party called the “assignee.” The legal nature of the assignment and the contractual terms of the agreement between the parties determines some additional rights and liabilities that accompany the assignment. The assignment of rights under a contract usually completely transfers the rights to the assignee to receive the benefits accruing under the contract. Ordinarily, the term assignment is limited to the transfer of rights that are intangible, like contractual rights and rights connected with property. Merchants Service Co. v. Small Claims Court , 35 Cal. 2d 109, 113-114 (Cal. 1950).

An assignment will generally be permitted under the law unless there is an express prohibition against assignment in the underlying contract or lease. Where assignments are permitted, the assignor need not consult the other party to the contract but may merely assign the rights at that time. However, an assignment cannot have any adverse effect on the duties of the other party to the contract, nor can it diminish the chance of the other party receiving complete performance. The assignor normally remains liable unless there is an agreement to the contrary by the other party to the contract.

The effect of a valid assignment is to remove privity between the assignor and the obligor and create privity between the obligor and the assignee. Privity is usually defined as a direct and immediate contractual relationship. See Merchants case above.

Further, for the assignment to be effective in most jurisdictions, it must occur in the present. One does not normally assign a future right; the assignment vests immediate rights and obligations.

No specific language is required to create an assignment so long as the assignor makes clear his/her intent to assign identified contractual rights to the assignee. Since expensive litigation can erupt from ambiguous or vague language, obtaining the correct verbiage is vital. An agreement must manifest the intent to transfer rights and can either be oral or in writing and the rights assigned must be certain.

Note that an assignment of an interest is the transfer of some identifiable property, claim, or right from the assignor to the assignee. The assignment operates to transfer to the assignee all of the rights, title, or interest of the assignor in the thing assigned. A transfer of all rights, title, and interests conveys everything that the assignor owned in the thing assigned and the assignee stands in the shoes of the assignor. Knott v. McDonald’s Corp ., 985 F. Supp. 1222 (N.D. Cal. 1997)

The parties must intend to effectuate an assignment at the time of the transfer, although no particular language or procedure is necessary. As long ago as the case of National Reserve Co. v. Metropolitan Trust Co ., 17 Cal. 2d 827 (Cal. 1941), the court held that in determining what rights or interests pass under an assignment, the intention of the parties as manifested in the instrument is controlling.

The intent of the parties to an assignment is a question of fact to be derived not only from the instrument executed by the parties but also from the surrounding circumstances. When there is no writing to evidence the intention to transfer some identifiable property, claim, or right, it is necessary to scrutinize the surrounding circumstances and parties’ acts to ascertain their intentions. Strosberg v. Brauvin Realty Servs., 295 Ill. App. 3d 17 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1998)

The general rule applicable to assignments of choses in action is that an assignment, unless there is a contract to the contrary, carries with it all securities held by the assignor as collateral to the claim and all rights incidental thereto and vests in the assignee the equitable title to such collateral securities and incidental rights. An unqualified assignment of a contract or chose in action, however, with no indication of the intent of the parties, vests in the assignee the assigned contract or chose and all rights and remedies incidental thereto.

More examples: In Strosberg v. Brauvin Realty Servs ., 295 Ill. App. 3d 17 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1998), the court held that the assignee of a party to a subordination agreement is entitled to the benefits and is subject to the burdens of the agreement. In Florida E. C. R. Co. v. Eno , 99 Fla. 887 (Fla. 1930), the court held that the mere assignment of all sums due in and of itself creates no different or other liability of the owner to the assignee than that which existed from the owner to the assignor.

And note that even though an assignment vests in the assignee all rights, remedies, and contingent benefits which are incidental to the thing assigned, those which are personal to the assignor and for his sole benefit are not assigned. Rasp v. Hidden Valley Lake, Inc ., 519 N.E.2d 153, 158 (Ind. Ct. App. 1988). Thus, if the underlying agreement provides that a service can only be provided to X, X cannot assign that right to Y.

Novation Compared to Assignment:

Although the difference between a novation and an assignment may appear narrow, it is an essential one. “Novation is a act whereby one party transfers all its obligations and benefits under a contract to a third party.” In a novation, a third party successfully substitutes the original party as a party to the contract. “When a contract is novated, the other contracting party must be left in the same position he was in prior to the novation being made.”

A sublease is the transfer when a tenant retains some right of reentry onto the leased premises. However, if the tenant transfers the entire leasehold estate, retaining no right of reentry or other reversionary interest, then the transfer is an assignment. The assignor is normally also removed from liability to the landlord only if the landlord consents or allowed that right in the lease. In a sublease, the original tenant is not released from the obligations of the original lease.

Equitable Assignments:

An equitable assignment is one in which one has a future interest and is not valid at law but valid in a court of equity. In National Bank of Republic v. United Sec. Life Ins. & Trust Co. , 17 App. D.C. 112 (D.C. Cir. 1900), the court held that to constitute an equitable assignment of a chose in action, the following has to occur generally: anything said written or done, in pursuance of an agreement and for valuable consideration, or in consideration of an antecedent debt, to place a chose in action or fund out of the control of the owner, and appropriate it to or in favor of another person, amounts to an equitable assignment. Thus, an agreement, between a debtor and a creditor, that the debt shall be paid out of a specific fund going to the debtor may operate as an equitable assignment.

In Egyptian Navigation Co. v. Baker Invs. Corp. , 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30804 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 14, 2008), the court stated that an equitable assignment occurs under English law when an assignor, with an intent to transfer his/her right to a chose in action, informs the assignee about the right so transferred.

An executory agreement or a declaration of trust are also equitable assignments if unenforceable as assignments by a court of law but enforceable by a court of equity exercising sound discretion according to the circumstances of the case. Since California combines courts of equity and courts of law, the same court would hear arguments as to whether an equitable assignment had occurred. Quite often, such relief is granted to avoid fraud or unjust enrichment.

Note that obtaining an assignment through fraudulent means invalidates the assignment. Fraud destroys the validity of everything into which it enters. It vitiates the most solemn contracts, documents, and even judgments. Walker v. Rich , 79 Cal. App. 139 (Cal. App. 1926). If an assignment is made with the fraudulent intent to delay, hinder, and defraud creditors, then it is void as fraudulent in fact. See our article on Transfers to Defraud Creditors .

But note that the motives that prompted an assignor to make the transfer will be considered as immaterial and will constitute no defense to an action by the assignee, if an assignment is considered as valid in all other respects.

Enforceability of Assignments:

Whether a right under a contract is capable of being transferred is determined by the law of the place where the contract was entered into. The validity and effect of an assignment is determined by the law of the place of assignment. The validity of an assignment of a contractual right is governed by the law of the state with the most significant relationship to the assignment and the parties.

In some jurisdictions, the traditional conflict of laws rules governing assignments has been rejected and the law of the place having the most significant contacts with the assignment applies. In Downs v. American Mut. Liability Ins. Co ., 14 N.Y.2d 266 (N.Y. 1964), a wife and her husband separated and the wife obtained a judgment of separation from the husband in New York. The judgment required the husband to pay a certain yearly sum to the wife. The husband assigned 50 percent of his future salary, wages, and earnings to the wife. The agreement authorized the employer to make such payments to the wife.

After the husband moved from New York, the wife learned that he was employed by an employer in Massachusetts. She sent the proper notice and demanded payment under the agreement. The employer refused and the wife brought an action for enforcement. The court observed that Massachusetts did not prohibit assignment of the husband’s wages. Moreover, Massachusetts law was not controlling because New York had the most significant relationship with the assignment. Therefore, the court ruled in favor of the wife.

Therefore, the validity of an assignment is determined by looking to the law of the forum with the most significant relationship to the assignment itself. To determine the applicable law of assignments, the court must look to the law of the state which is most significantly related to the principal issue before it.

Assignment of Contractual Rights:

Generally, the law allows the assignment of a contractual right unless the substitution of rights would materially change the duty of the obligor, materially increase the burden or risk imposed on the obligor by the contract, materially impair the chance of obtaining return performance, or materially reduce the value of the performance to the obligor. Restat 2d of Contracts, § 317(2)(a). This presumes that the underlying agreement is silent on the right to assign.

If the contract specifically precludes assignment, the contractual right is not assignable. Whether a contract is assignable is a matter of contractual intent and one must look to the language used by the parties to discern that intent.

In the absence of an express provision to the contrary, the rights and duties under a bilateral executory contract that does not involve personal skill, trust, or confidence may be assigned without the consent of the other party. But note that an assignment is invalid if it would materially alter the other party’s duties and responsibilities. Once an assignment is effective, the assignee stands in the shoes of the assignor and assumes all of assignor’s rights. Hence, after a valid assignment, the assignor’s right to performance is extinguished, transferred to assignee, and the assignee possesses the same rights, benefits, and remedies assignor once possessed. Robert Lamb Hart Planners & Architects v. Evergreen, Ltd. , 787 F. Supp. 753 (S.D. Ohio 1992).

On the other hand, an assignee’s right against the obligor is subject to “all of the limitations of the assignor’s right, all defenses thereto, and all set-offs and counterclaims which would have been available against the assignor had there been no assignment, provided that these defenses and set-offs are based on facts existing at the time of the assignment.” See Robert Lamb , case, above.

The power of the contract to restrict assignment is broad. Usually, contractual provisions that restrict assignment of the contract without the consent of the obligor are valid and enforceable, even when there is statutory authorization for the assignment. The restriction of the power to assign is often ineffective unless the restriction is expressly and precisely stated. Anti-assignment clauses are effective only if they contain clear, unambiguous language of prohibition. Anti-assignment clauses protect only the obligor and do not affect the transaction between the assignee and assignor.

Usually, a prohibition against the assignment of a contract does not prevent an assignment of the right to receive payments due, unless circumstances indicate the contrary. Moreover, the contracting parties cannot, by a mere non-assignment provision, prevent the effectual alienation of the right to money which becomes due under the contract.

A contract provision prohibiting or restricting an assignment may be waived, or a party may so act as to be estopped from objecting to the assignment, such as by effectively ratifying the assignment. The power to void an assignment made in violation of an anti-assignment clause may be waived either before or after the assignment. See our article on Contracts.

Noncompete Clauses and Assignments:

Of critical import to most buyers of businesses is the ability to ensure that key employees of the business being purchased cannot start a competing company. Some states strictly limit such clauses, some do allow them. California does restrict noncompete clauses, only allowing them under certain circumstances. A common question in those states that do allow them is whether such rights can be assigned to a new party, such as the buyer of the buyer.

A covenant not to compete, also called a non-competitive clause, is a formal agreement prohibiting one party from performing similar work or business within a designated area for a specified amount of time. This type of clause is generally included in contracts between employer and employee and contracts between buyer and seller of a business.

Many workers sign a covenant not to compete as part of the paperwork required for employment. It may be a separate document similar to a non-disclosure agreement, or buried within a number of other clauses in a contract. A covenant not to compete is generally legal and enforceable, although there are some exceptions and restrictions.

Whenever a company recruits skilled employees, it invests a significant amount of time and training. For example, it often takes years before a research chemist or a design engineer develops a workable knowledge of a company’s product line, including trade secrets and highly sensitive information. Once an employee gains this knowledge and experience, however, all sorts of things can happen. The employee could work for the company until retirement, accept a better offer from a competing company or start up his or her own business.

A covenant not to compete may cover a number of potential issues between employers and former employees. Many companies spend years developing a local base of customers or clients. It is important that this customer base not fall into the hands of local competitors. When an employee signs a covenant not to compete, he or she usually agrees not to use insider knowledge of the company’s customer base to disadvantage the company. The covenant not to compete often defines a broad geographical area considered off-limits to former employees, possibly tens or hundreds of miles.

Another area of concern covered by a covenant not to compete is a potential ‘brain drain’. Some high-level former employees may seek to recruit others from the same company to create new competition. Retention of employees, especially those with unique skills or proprietary knowledge, is vital for most companies, so a covenant not to compete may spell out definite restrictions on the hiring or recruiting of employees.

A covenant not to compete may also define a specific amount of time before a former employee can seek employment in a similar field. Many companies offer a substantial severance package to make sure former employees are financially solvent until the terms of the covenant not to compete have been met.

Because the use of a covenant not to compete can be controversial, a handful of states, including California, have largely banned this type of contractual language. The legal enforcement of these agreements falls on individual states, and many have sided with the employee during arbitration or litigation. A covenant not to compete must be reasonable and specific, with defined time periods and coverage areas. If the agreement gives the company too much power over former employees or is ambiguous, state courts may declare it to be overbroad and therefore unenforceable. In such case, the employee would be free to pursue any employment opportunity, including working for a direct competitor or starting up a new company of his or her own.

It has been held that an employee’s covenant not to compete is assignable where one business is transferred to another, that a merger does not constitute an assignment of a covenant not to compete, and that a covenant not to compete is enforceable by a successor to the employer where the assignment does not create an added burden of employment or other disadvantage to the employee. However, in some states such as Hawaii, it has also been held that a covenant not to compete is not assignable and under various statutes for various reasons that such covenants are not enforceable against an employee by a successor to the employer. Hawaii v. Gannett Pac. Corp. , 99 F. Supp. 2d 1241 (D. Haw. 1999)

It is vital to obtain the relevant law of the applicable state before drafting or attempting to enforce assignment rights in this particular area.


In the current business world of fast changing structures, agreements, employees and projects, the ability to assign rights and obligations is essential to allow flexibility and adjustment to new situations. Conversely, the ability to hold a contracting party into the deal may be essential for the future of a party. Thus, the law of assignments and the restriction on same is a critical aspect of every agreement and every structure. This basic provision is often glanced at by the contracting parties, or scribbled into the deal at the last minute but can easily become the most vital part of the transaction.

As an example, one client of ours came into the office outraged that his co venturer on a sizable exporting agreement, who had excellent connections in Brazil, had elected to pursue another venture instead and assigned the agreement to a party unknown to our client and without the business contacts our client considered vital. When we examined the handwritten agreement our client had drafted in a restaurant in Sao Paolo, we discovered there was no restriction on assignment whatsoever…our client had not even considered that right when drafting the agreement after a full day of work.

One choses who one does business with carefully…to ensure that one’s choice remains the party on the other side of the contract, one must master the ability to negotiate proper assignment provisions.

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Out-law / your daily need-to-know, assignment and novation.

Out-Law Guide | 19 Aug 2011 | 4:40 pm | 4 min. read

Assignment involves the transfer of an interest or benefit from one person to another. However the 'burden', or obligations, under a contract cannot be transferred.

Assignment in construction contracts

As noted above only the benefits of a contract can be assigned - not the burden. In the context of a building contract:

After assignment, the assignee is entitled to the benefit of the contract and to bring proceedings against the other contracting party to enforce its rights. The assignor still owes obligations to the other contracting party, and will remain liable to perform any part of the contract that still has to be fulfilled since the burden cannot be assigned. In practice, what usually happens is that the assignee takes over the performance of the contract with effect from assignment and the assignor will generally ask to be indemnified against any breach or failure to perform by the assignee.  The assignor will remain liable for any past liabilities incurred before the assignment.

In construction contracts, the issue of assignment often arises in looking at whether collateral warranties granted to parties outside of the main construction contract can be assigned.

Funders may require the developer to assign contractual rights against the contractor and the design team as security to the funder, as well as the benefit of performance bonds and parent company guarantees. The developer may assign such rights to the purchaser either during or after completion of the construction phase.

Contractual assignment provisions

Many contracts exclude or qualify the right to assignment, and the courts have confirmed that a clause which provides that a party to a contract may not assign the benefit of that contract without the consent of the other party is legally effective and will extend to all rights and benefits arising under the contract, including the right to any remedies. Other common qualifications on the right to assign include:

Note that in some agreements where there is a prohibition on assignment, it is sometimes possible to find the reservation of specific rights to create a trust or establish security over the subject matter of the agreement instead.

Legal and equitable assignment

The Law of Property Act creates the ability to legally assign a debt or any other chose in action where the debtor, trustee or other relevant person is notified in writing. If the assignment complied with the formalities in the Act it is a legal assignment, otherwise it will be an equitable assignment.

Some transfers can only take effect as an equitable assignment, for example:

If the assignment is equitable rather than legal, the assignor cannot enforce the assigned property in its own name and to do so must join the assignee in any action. This is designed to protect the debtor from later proceedings brought by the assignor or another assignee from enforcing the action without notice of the earlier assignment.

Security assignments

Using assignment as a way of taking security requires special care, as follows:

Please see our separate Out-Law guide for more information on types of security.

Restrictions on assignment

There are restrictions on the assignment of certain types of interest on public policy grounds, as follows:

If you want to transfer the burden of a contract as well as the benefits under it, you have to novate. Like assignment, novation transfers the benefits under a contract but unlike assignment, novation transfers the burden under a contract as well.

In a novation the original contract is extinguished and is replaced by a new one in which a third party takes up rights and obligations which duplicate those of one of the original parties to the contract. Novation does not cancel past rights and obligations under the original contract, although the parties can agree to novate these as well.

Novation is only possible with the consent of the original contracting parties as well as the new party. Consideration (the 'price' paid, whether financial or otherwise, by the new party in return for the contract being novated to it) must be provided for this new contract unless the novation is documented in a deed signed by all three parties.

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What Is an Assignment of Contract?

What happens when rights and duties under a contract are handed off to a third party.

An assignment of contract occurs when one party to an existing contract (the "assignor") hands off the contract's obligations and benefits to another party (the "assignee"). Ideally, the assignor wants the assignee to step into his shoes and assume all of his contractual obligations and rights. In order to do that, the other party to the contract must be properly notified. Read on to learn how assignments work, including how to keep an assignment option out of your contract.

How Assignments Work

How an assignment of contract plays out depends on many factors, especially the language of the contract. Some contracts may contain a clause prohibiting assignment; other contracts may require the other party to consent to the assignment.

Here's an example of a basic assignment of a contract: Tom contracts with a dairy to deliver a bottle of half-and-half to Tom's house every day. The dairy assigns Tom's contract to another dairy, and--provided Tom is notified of the change and continues to get his daily half-and-half--his contract is now with the new dairy.

An assignment doesn't always relieve the assignor of liability. Some contracts may include a guarantee that, regardless of an assignment, the original parties (or one of them) guarantees performance (that is, that the assignee will fulfill the terms of the contract ).

When Assignments Will Not Be Enforced

An assignment of a contract will not be enforced in the following situations.

The contract prohibits assignment. Contract language, typically referred to as an anti-assignment clause, can prohibit (and "void") any assignments. We provide a sample, below.

The assignment materially alters what's expected under the contract. If the assignment affects the performance due under the contract, decreases the value or return anticipated, or increases the risks for the other party to the contract (the party who is not assigning contractual rights), courts are unlikely to enforce the arrangement. For instance, if Tom's local, organic dairy assigned the contract to a factory farm dairy, this would be considered a material alteration.

The assignment violates the law or public policy. Some laws limit or prohibit assignments. For example, many states prohibit the assignment of future wages by an employee, and the federal government prohibits the assignment of certain claims against the government. Other assignments, though not prohibited by a statute, may violate public policy. For example, personal injury claims cannot be assigned because doing so may encourage litigation.

Delegation or Assignment?

In some cases, a party may not wish to assign the contract but only to get somebody else to fulfill its duties. Obviously, not all duties can be delegated--for example, some personal services are usually not delegated because they are so specific in nature. For example, if you hired Ted Nugent to perform at your event, he could not arbitrarily delegate his performing duties to Lady Gaga. To prohibit one party from delegating the responsibilities of the contract, the parties should include specific language to that effect in the agreement. For example, an anti-assignment clause might state, "Neither party shall assign or delegate its rights."

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Assignment is a legal term whereby an individual, the “assignor,” transfers rights, property, or other benefits to another known as the “ assignee .”   This concept is used in both contract and property law.  The term can refer to either the act of transfer or the rights /property/benefits being transferred.

Contract Law   

Under contract law, assignment of a contract is both: (1) an assignment of rights; and (2) a delegation of duties , in the absence of evidence otherwise.  For example, if A contracts with B to teach B guitar for $50, A can assign this contract to C.  That is, this assignment is both: (1) an assignment of A’s rights under the contract to the $50; and (2) a delegation of A’s duty to teach guitar to C.  In this example, A is both the “assignor” and the “delegee” who d elegates the duties to another (C), C is known as the “ obligor ” who must perform the obligations to the assignee , and B is the “ assignee ” who is owed duties and is liable to the “ obligor ”.

(1) Assignment of Rights/Duties Under Contract Law

There are a few notable rules regarding assignments under contract law.  First, if an individual has not yet secured the contract to perform duties to another, he/she cannot assign his/her future right to an assignee .  That is, if A has not yet contracted with B to teach B guitar, A cannot assign his/her rights to C.  Second, rights cannot be assigned when they materially change the obligor ’s duty and rights.  Third, the obligor can sue the assignee directly if the assignee does not pay him/her.  Following the previous example, this means that C ( obligor ) can sue B ( assignee ) if C teaches guitar to B, but B does not pay C $50 in return.

            (2) Delegation of Duties

If the promised performance requires a rare genius or skill, then the delegee cannot delegate it to the obligor.  It can only be delegated if the promised performance is more commonplace.  Further, an obligee can sue if the assignee does not perform.  However, the delegee is secondarily liable unless there has been an express release of the delegee.  That is, if B does want C to teach guitar but C refuses to, then B can sue C.  If C still refuses to perform, then B can compel A to fulfill the duties under secondary liability.

Lastly, a related concept is novation , which is when a new obligor substitutes and releases an old obligor.  If novation occurs, then the original obligor’s duties are wiped out. However, novation requires an original obligee’s consent .  

Property Law

Under property law, assignment typically arises in landlord-tenant situations.  For example, A might be renting from landlord B but wants to another party (C) to take over the property.   In this scenario, A might be able to choose between assigning and subleasing the property to C.  If assigning , A would be giving C the entire balance of the term, with no reversion to anyone whereas if subleasing , A would be giving C for a limited period of the remaining term.  Significantly, under assignment C would have privity of estate with the landlord while under a sublease, C would not. 

[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team ]

Assignment and other dealings

assignment of contract english law

What does it do and why do I need it?

An assignment clause aims to control who performs a contract and who can receive benefits under the contract. It does not, however, mean that a party’s contractual obligations are transferred over, it simply means that the performance of such obligations can be delegated. This means that burdens cannot be assigned as a matter of law, but benefits can. 

Including such a clause is important if you wish to control who receives the benefit of your performance if you are the supplier, or if you are a customer, control who carries out the contract for you. This may be important to you, for instance, if you do not wish to deliver work to your competitors or you do not want a particular person in your supply chain.

If the contract is silent on assignment and other dealings, a party can normally assign, mortgage, charge or declare a trust over its rights under the contract, without the other party’s consent and use a subcontractor to perform (but not transfer) its contractual duties. In some cases, however, a restriction on subcontracting may be implied where personal performance is required for example.

In light of this, if the parties wish to restrict such abilities, they should do this expressly. Please note, however, a prohibition on assignment has no effect on assignment of a right to receive payment, this applies to many contracts for supply of goods, services or intangibles made between UK businesses on or after 31 December 2018. 

What should I look out for?

If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact Ben Taylor .

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assignment of contract english law

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Assignment and Novation: Spot the Difference 12 November 2020

The English Technology and Construction Court has found that the assignment of a sub-contract from a main contractor to an employer upon termination of an EPC contract will, in the absence of express intention to the contrary, transfer both accrued and future contractual benefits.

In doing so, Mrs Justice O’Farrell has emphasised established principles on assignment and novation, and the clear conceptual distinction between them. While this decision affirms existing authority, it also highlights the inherent risks for construction contractors in step-in assignment arrangements.

"This decision shows the court’s desire to give effect to clear contractual provisions, particularly in complex construction contracts, even where doing so puts a party in a difficult position."

This preliminary issues judgment in the matter of Energy Works (Hull) Ltd v MW High Tech Projects UK Ltd & Others¹ , is the latest in a long series of decisions surrounding the Energy Works plant, a fluidised bed gasification energy-from-waste power plant in Hull². The defendant, MW High Tech Projects UK Ltd (“MW”), was engaged as the main contractor by the claimant and employer, Energy Works (Hull) Ltd (“EWHL”), under an EPC contract entered into in November 2015. Through a sub-contract, MW engaged Outotec (USA) Inc (“Outotec”) to supply key elements for the construction of the plant.

By March 2019, issues had arisen with the project. EWHL terminated the main contract for contractor default and, pursuant to a term in the EPC contract, asked MW to assign to it MW’s sub-contract with Outotec. The sub-contract permitted assignment, but MW and EWHL were unable to agree a deed of assignment. Ultimately, MW wrote to EWHL and Outotec, notifying them both that it was assigning the sub-contract to EWHL. EWHL subsequently brought £133m proceedings against MW, seeking compensation for the cost of defects and delay in completion of the works. The defendant disputed the grounds of the termination, denied EWHL’s claims, and sought to pass on any liability to Outotec through an additional claim under the sub-contract. Outotec disputed MW’s entitlement to bring the additional claim on the grounds that MW no longer had any rights under the sub-contract, because those rights had been assigned to EWHL.

The parties accepted that a valid transfer in respect of the sub-contract had taken place. However, MW maintained that the assignment only transferred future rights under the sub-contract and that all accrued rights – which would include the right to sue Outotec for any failure to perform in accordance with the sub-contract occurring prior to the assignment – remained with MW. In the alternative, MW argued that the transfer had been intended as a novation such that all rights and liabilities had been transferred. As a secondary point, MW also claimed eligibility for a contribution from Outotec under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978 for their alleged partial liability³.

An assignment is a transfer of a right from one party to another. Usually this is the transfer by one party of its rights and remedies, under a contract with a counterparty, to a third party. However, importantly, the assignor remains liable for any obligations it owes under the contract. As an example, Party A can assign to Party C its right to receive goods under a contract with Party B, but it will remain liable to pay Party B for those goods. Section 136 of the Law of Property Act 1926 requires a valid statutory assignment to be absolute, in writing, and on notice to the contractual counterparty.

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Rebecca Williams

Rebecca Williams

Partner London

Mark McAllister-Jones

Mark McAllister-Jones

Senior Associate London

"In the absence of any clear contrary intention, reference to assignment of the contract by parties is understood to mean assignment of the benefit, that is, accrued and future rights."

In this case, the precise scope of the transferred rights and the purported assignment of contractual obligations were in issue. Mrs Justice O’Farrell looked to the House of Lords’ decision in Linden Gardens⁴ to set out three relevant principles on assignment:

Hence, in relation to MW’s first argument, it is theoretically possible to separate future and accrued rights for assignment, but this can only be achieved through “careful and intricate drafting, spelling out the parties’ intentions”. The judge held that, since such wording was absent here, MW had transferred all its rights, both accrued and future, to EWHL, including its right to sue Outotec.

Whereas assignment only transfers a party’s rights under a contract, novation transfers both a party’s rights and its obligations . Strictly speaking, the original contract is extinguished and a new one formed between the incoming party and the remaining party to the original contract. This new contract has the same terms as the original, unless expressly agreed otherwise by the parties.

Another key difference from assignment is that novation requires the consent of all parties involved, i.e. the transferring party, the counterparty, and the incoming party. With assignment, the transferring party is only required to notify its counterparty of the assignment. Consent to a novation can be given when the original contract is first entered into. However, when giving consent to a future novation, the parties must be clear what the terms of the new contract will be.

"Mrs Justice O’Farrell stressed that “it is a matter for the parties to determine the basis on which they allocate risk within the contractual matrix.”"

A novation need not be in writing. However, the desire to show that all parties have given the required consent, the use of deeds of novation to avoid questions of consideration, and the use of novation to transfer ‘key’ contracts, particularly in asset purchase transactions, means that they often do take written form. A properly drafted novation agreement will usually make clear whether the outgoing party remains responsible for liabilities accrued prior to the transfer, or whether these become the incoming party’s problem.

As with any contractual agreement, the words used by the parties are key. Mrs Justice O’Farrell found that the use of the words “assign the sub-contract” were a strong indication that in this case the transfer was intended to be an assignment, and not a novation.

This decision reaffirms the established principles of assignment and novation and the distinction between them. It also shows the court’s desire to give effect to clear contractual provisions, particularly in complex construction contracts, even where doing so puts a party in a difficult position. Here, it was found that MW had transferred away its right to pursue Outotec for damages under the sub-contract, but MW remained liable to EWHL under the EPC contract. As a result, EWHL had the right to pursue either or both of MW and Outotec for losses arising from defects in the Outotec equipment, but where it chose to pursue only MW, MW had no contractual means of recovering from Outotec any sums it had to pay to EWHL. Mrs Justice O’Farrell stressed that “it is a matter for the parties to determine the basis on which they allocate risk within the contractual matrix.” A contractor in MW’s position can still seek from a sub-contractor a contribution in respect of its liability to the employer under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978 (as the judge confirmed MW was entitled to do in this case). However, the wording of the Act is very specific, and it may not always be possible to pass down a contractual chain all, or any, of a party’s liability.

Commercially, contractors often assume some risk of liability to the employer without the prospect of recovery from a sub-contractor, such as where the sub-contractor becomes insolvent, or where the sub-contract for some reason cannot be negotiated and agreed on back-to-back terms with the EPC contract. However, contractors need to consider carefully the ramifications of provisions allowing the transfer of sub-contracts to parties further up a contractual chain and take steps to ensure such provisions reflect any agreement as to the allocation of risk on a project.

This article was authored by London Dispute Resolution Co-Head and Partner Rebecca Williams , Senior Associate Mark McAllister-Jones and Gerard Rhodes , a trainee solicitor in the London office.

[1] [2020] EWHC 2537 (TCC)

[2] See, for example, the decisions in Premier Engineering (Lincoln) Ltd v MW High Tech Projects UK Ltd [2020] EWHC 2484, reported in our article here , Engie Fabricom (UK) Ltd v MW High Tech Projects UK Ltd [2020] EWHC 1626 (TCC) and C Spencer Limited v MW High Tech Projects UK Limited [2020] EWCA Civ 331, reported in our article here .

[3] The Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978 allows that “ any person liable in respect of any damage suffered by another person may recover contribution from any other person liable in respect of the same damage whether jointly with him or otherwise .”

[4] Linden Gardens Trust Ltd v Lenesta Sludge Disposals Ltd [1994] 1 AC 85

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Assignment of Rights and Obligations Under a Contract: Everything You Need to Know

An assignment of rights and obligations under a contract occurs when a party assigns their contractual rights to a third party. 3 min read

Updated October 29, 2020:

An assignment of rights and obligations under a contract occurs when a party assigns their contractual rights to a third party. The benefit that the issuing party would have received from the contract is now assigned to the third party. The party appointing their rights is referred to as the assignor, while the party obtaining the rights is the assignee.

What Is an Assignment of Contract?

In an assignment contract, the assignor prefers that the assignee reverses roles and assumes the contractual rights and obligations as stated in the contract. Before this can occur, all parties to the original contract must be notified.

Contracts create duties and rights. An obligor is the party who is legally or contractually obliged to provide a benefit or payment to another, while an obligation is owed to the obligee. The obligee transfers a right to obtain a benefit owed by the obligor to a third party. At this point, the obligee becomes an assignor. An assignor is the party that actually creates an assignment. 

The party that creates an assignment is both the obligee and a transferor. The assignee receives the right to acquire the obligations of the promisor/obligor. The assignor can assign any right to the obligor unless:

Assignments are important in business financing, especially in factoring . A factor is someone who purchases a right to receive a benefit from someone else.

How Assignments Work

The specific language used in the contract will determine how the assignment plays out. For example, one contract may prohibit assignment, while another contract may require that all parties involved agree to it before proceeding. Remember, an assignment of contract does not necessarily alleviate an assignor from all liability. Many contracts include an assurance clause guaranteeing performance. In other words, the initial parties to the contract guarantee the assignee will achieve the desired goal.

When Assignments Will Not Be Enforced

The following situations indicate when an assignment of a contract is not enforced:

Delegation vs. Assignment

Occasionally, one party in a contract will desire to pass on or delegate their responsibility to a third party without creating an assignment contract. Some duties are so specific in nature they cannot be delegated. Adding a clause in the contract to prevent a party from delegating their responsibilities and duties is highly recommended.

Characteristics of Assignments

An assignment involves the transfer by an assignor of some or all of its rights to receive performance under the contract to an assignee. The assignee then receives all the benefits of the assigned rights. The assignment doesn't eliminate or reduce the assignor's performance commitments to the nonassigning party.

Three Steps to Follow if You Want to Assign a Contract

There are three main steps to take if you're looking to assign a contract:

Once the obligor is notified, the assignor will effectively be relieved of liability.

Anti-Assignment Clauses

If you'd prefer not to allow the party you're doing business with to assign a contract, you may be able to prevent this from occurring by clearly stating anti-assignment clauses in the original contract. The three most common anti-assignment clauses are:

Based on these three clauses, no party in the contract is allowed to delegate or assign any obligations or rights without prior written consent from the other parties. Any delegation or assignment in violation of this passage shall be deemed void. It is not possible to write an anti-assignment clause that goes against an assignment that is issued or ordered by a court.

If you need help with an assignment of rights and obligations under a contract, you can  post your job  on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.

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