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Agent for Undisclosed or Partially Disclosed Principal

15 January, 2016 - 09:35

An agent need not, and frequently will not, inform the person with whom he is negotiating that he is acting on behalf of a principal. The secret principal is usually called an “undisclosed principal.” Or the agent may tell the other person that he is acting as an agent but not disclose the principal’s name, in which event the principal is “partially disclosed.” To understand the difficulties that may occur, consider the following hypothetical but common example. A real estate developer known for building amusement parks wants to acquire several parcels of land to construct a new park. He wants to keep his identity secret to hold down the land cost. If the landowners realized that a major building project was about to be launched, their asking price would be quite high. So the developer obtains two options to purchase land by using two secret agents—Betty and Clem.

Betty does not mention to sellers that she is an agent; therefore, to those sellers the developer is an undisclosed principal. Clem tells those with whom he is dealing that he is an agent but refuses to divulge the developer’s name or his business interest in the land. Thus the developer is, to the latter sellers, a partially disclosed principal. Suppose the sellers get wind of the impending construction and want to back out of the deal. Who may enforce the contracts against them?

The developer and the agents may sue to compel transfer of title. The undisclosed or partially disclosed principal may act to enforce his rights unless the contract specifically prohibits it or there is a representation that the signatories are not signing for an undisclosed principal. The agents may also bring suit to enforce the principal’s contract rights because, as agents for an undisclosed or partially disclosed principal, they are considered parties to their contracts.

Now suppose the developer attempts to call off the deal. Whom may the sellers sue? Both the developer and the agents are liable. That the sellers had no knowledge of the developer’s identity—or even that there was a developer—does not invalidate the contract. If the sellers first sue agent Betty (or Clem), they may still recover the purchase price from the developer as long as they had no knowledge of his identity prior to winning the first lawsuit. The developer is discharged from liability if, knowing his identity, the plaintiffs persist in a suit against the agents and recover a judgment against them anyway. Similarly, if the seller sues the principal and recovers a judgment, the agents are relieved of liability. The seller thus has a “right of election” to sue either the agent or the undisclosed principal, a right that in many states may be exercised any time before the seller collects on the judgment.