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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

“When I get the big money, I’ll take care of you.”

Do such words imply an enforceable promise to give an employee additional compensation both for work already performed and for work to be performed in the future if the speaker actually obtains a sizeable chunk of money?  (Does it matter to your answer if the words were uttered by Heather Mills, famous or infamous ex-wife of Sir Paul McCartney?..)

Your answer to the former question would probably be a resounding “of course not.”  In a recent decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agrees (Parapluie v. Heather Mills, No. 12-55895).  The case resembles such Contracts casebook classics old and new as Kirksey v. Kirksey (1945), Ricketts v. Scothorn (1898) and Conrad v. Fields (2007).  One might have thought that promissory estoppel and, in this case, promissory fraud and intentional misrepresentation claims had generated enough case law to prevent an appeal.  Apparently not, much to the amusement of law students and law professors alike.

At bottom, the facts behind the case against Ms. Mills are as follows: In 2005, Ms. Mills hired Michele Blanchard to conduct PR work for her.  Ms. Blanchard was paid nothing for her work from 2005 to 2007.  In 2007, however, Ms. Mills and Ms. Blanchard agreed that Ms. Blanchard would be paid $3,000 per month because Mills couldn’t pay Blanchard’s usual fee of $5,000 per month.  The payments were made.  In 2008, the relationship between the two women soured.  Ms. Blanchard quit and sent Ms. Mills an additional invoice for $2,000 per month in arrears.  Ms. Blanchard claimed to be entitled to the greater amount because Ms. Mills allegedly misrepresented her financial situation when telling Ms. Blanchard that she could only pay $3,000 a month when she could, allegedly, afford to pay more.  In making this assertion, Ms. Blanchard relied on Ms. Mills having expressed an interest in renting a house for $80,000 per month, having bid $30,000 on a cruise at a charity auction, and having once stated about the fee to Ms. Blanchard, “I don’t know if I can pay the entire amount, but I’ll do something” and, after Ms. Blanchard askeed Ms. Mills if she might pay Ms. Blanchard “a little something,” allegedly agreeing that “I’ll take care of you when I get the big money.”  Ms. Blanchard claims that the latter statement was a promise to pay her regular fee of $5,000 both in the future and for the work already performed.  The court pointed out that Ms. Mills interest in renting expensive housing was just that; an interest.  She had in fact only rented “modest” properties via Ms. Blanchard for $2,000-3,000 per week for one week.  Perhaps most tellingly of Ms. Mills’ financial state of affairs at the time is the fact that when she attempted to pay for the cruise bid with a credit card, the payment was denied. 

Ms. Mills is reported to have obtained a nearly $50 million divorce settlement with a sizeable interim payment around the times listed above.  But as the court pointed out, when Ms. Mills did receive this interim payment, she also started paying Ms. Blanchard $3,000 a month, suggesting that her earlier statements about her inability to pay Blanchard were true, not false, when made.  Ms. Blanchard’s monthly invoices further stated “the total amount due” as $3,000, negating any inference that the contractual parties intended a retroactive or future payment for more than that amount.

Ms. Blanchard’s attorney may have wanted to read Baer v. Chase (392 F.3d 609, U.S. Ct. of App. for the Third Cir. (2004)).  In that case, Robert Baer, a former state prosecutor wishing to pursue a career as a Hollywood writer, similarly claimed that David Chase had promised to “take care of” Baer and “remunerate him in a manner commensurate to the true value of [his services]” should the project on which Baer worked for Chase become a success.  It did: the project was the creation and development of what turned out to be the hit TV series The Sopranos.  Baer received nothing for his services.  The court found that the alleged contract was unenforceable for vagueness because nothing in the record allowed the court to figure out the meaning of “success,” “true value,” and, in general, what it meant to be “taken care of” in this context.

Potentially starstruck employees be ware: if you think that your employer promises you a chunk of money, make sure you find out exactly what you have to do to earn that.  Now as well as hundreds of years ago: alleged promisors are unlikely to simply “take care of you” out of the goodness of their hearts.  And as always: get the promise in writing!

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