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Implied Authority

15 January, 2016 - 09:35

Kanavos v. Hancock Bank & Trust Company

439 N.E.2d 311 (Mass. 1982)


At the close of the plaintiff’s evidence, the defendant moved for a directed verdict, which the trial judge allowed. The judge’s reason for so doing was that the plaintiff, in his contract action, failed to introduce sufficient evidence tending to prove that the bank officer who made the agreement with which the plaintiff sought to charge the bank had any authority to make it. Upon review of the record we are of opinion that there was evidence which, if believed, warranted a finding that the bank officer had the requisite authority or that the bank officer had apparent authority to make the agreement in controversy. We therefore reverse the judgment.

For approximately ten years prior to 1975, Harold Kanavos and his brother borrowed money on at least twenty occasions from the Hancock Bank & Trust Company (the Bank), and, during that period, the loan officer with whom Kanavos always dealt was James M. Brown. The aggregate loans made by the Bank to Kanavos at any given time went as high as $800,000.

Over that same decade, Brown’s responsibilities at the Bank grew, and he had become executive vice-president. Brown was also the chief loan officer for the Bank, which had fourteen or fifteen branches in addition to its head office. Physically, Brown’s office was at the head office, toward the rear of the main banking floor, opposite the office of the president—whose name was Kelley. Often Brown would tell Kanavos that he had to check an aspect of a loan transaction with Kelley, but Kelley always backed Brown up on those occasions.…

[The plaintiff, Harold Kanavos, entered into an agreement with the defendant Bank whereby stock owned by the Kanavos brothers was sold to the Bank and the plaintiff was given an option to repurchase the stock. Kanavos’ suit against the Bank was based on an amendment to the agreement offered by Brown.]

Kanavos was never permitted to introduce in evidence the terms of the offer Brown made. That offer was contained in a writing, dated July 16, 1976, on bank letterhead, which read as follows: “This letter is to confirm our conversation regarding your option to re-purchase the subject property. In lieu of your not exercising your option, we agree to pay you $40,000 representing a commission upon our sale of the subject property, and in addition, will give you the option to match the price of sale of said property to extend for a 60 day period from the time our offer is received.” Brown signed the letter as executive vice-president. The basis of exclusion was that the plaintiff had not established the authority of Brown to make with Kanavos the arrangement memorialized in the July 16, 1976, letter.

Whether Brown’s job description impliedly authorized the right of last refusal or cash payment modification is a question of how, in the circumstances, a person in Brown’s position could reasonably interpret his authority. Whether Brown had apparent authority to make the July 16, 1976, modification is a question of how, in the circumstances, a third person, e.g., a customer of the Bank such as Kanavos, would reasonably interpret Brown’s authority in light of the manifestations of his principal, the Bank.

Titles of office generally do not establish apparent authority. Brown’s status as executive vice-president was not, therefore, a badge of apparent authority to modify agreements to which the Bank was a party.

Trappings of office, e.g., office and furnishing, private secretary, while they may have some tendency to suggest executive responsibility, do not without other evidence provide a basis for finding apparent authority. Apparent authority is drawn from a variety of circumstances. Thus in Federal Nat. Bank v. O’Connell…(1940), it was held apparent authority could be found because an officer who was a director, vice-president and treasurer took an active part in directing the affairs of the bank in question and was seen by third parties talking with customers and negotiating with them. In Costonis v. Medford Housing Authy.…(1961), the executive director of a public housing authority was held to have apparent authority to vary specifications on the basis of the cumulative effect of what he had done and what the authority appeared to permit him to do.

In the instant case there was evidence of the following variety of circumstances: Brown’s title of executive vice-president; the location of his office opposite the president; his frequent communications with the president; the long course of dealing and negotiations; the encouragement of Kanavos by the president to deal with Brown; the earlier amendment of the agreement by Brown on behalf of the Bank on material points, namely the price to be paid by the Bank for the shares and the repurchase price; the size of the Bank (fourteen or fifteen branches in addition to the main office); the secondary, rather than fundamental, nature of the change in the terms of the agreement now repudiated by the Bank, measured against the context of the overall transaction; and Brown’s broad operating authority…all these added together would support a finding of apparent authority. When a corporate officer, as here, is allowed to exercise general executive responsibilities, the “public expectation is that the corporation should be bound to engagements made on its behalf by those who presume to have, and convincingly appear to have, the power to agree.” [Citation] This principle does not apply, of course, where in the business context, the requirement of specific authority is presumed, e.g., the sale of a major asset by a corporation or a transaction which by its nature commits the corporation to an obligation outside the scope of its usual activity. The modification agreement signed by Brown and dated July 16, 1976, should have been admitted in evidence, and a verdict should not have been directed.

Judgment reversed.


  1. Why are “titles of office” insufficient to establish apparent authority?
  2. Why are “trappings of office” insufficient to establish apparent authority?
  3. What is the relationship between apparent authority and estoppel? Who is estopped to do what, and why?