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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Posner Sides with Donald Trump Upholding Dismissal of Suit by 87-Year-Old Woman

Trump Int'lIn 2006, Jacqueline Goldberg signed an agreement* to purchase two hotel condominium units in Trump Tower Chicago, a 92-story building in downtown Chicago that comprises residential condo units, hotel condo units and all of the amenities one expects to find in a hotel (pictured at left).  Some of these amenities are called "common elements" in which each individual purchaser of the condo units has rights.  But the agreement into which Ms. Goldberg entered included a "change clause" that permitted the Trump Organizations to modify those rights with either the notice to or approval by the purchasers.  Ms. Goldberg attempted to negotiate for a return of her deposit if she disapproved of the changes, but the Trump Organizations refused.  Three such changes took place before Ms. Goldberg signed the agreement.  

But then came the fourth change, to which Ms. Goldberg strenuously objected.  She refused to close on the deal and demanded a return of her $516,000 deposit.  The Trump Organizations placed her deposit in escrow, and she sued, alleging breach of contract and other causes of action.  Some of her claims were dismissed, some were tried before a jury, and some were tried before a judge.  Both the jury and the judge found for the Defendants.  Ms. Goldberg appealed to the Seventh Circuit, resulting in Judge Posner's opinion upholding the District Court in Goldberg v. 401 North Wabash Venture LLC.

Ms. Goldberg's common law allegations basically came down to a claim that the Trump Organizations had engaged in a bait and switch -- she had bought the condos as an investment and had been led to believe that they would have a certain value.  After the changes, that value was diminished.  Judge Posner rejected this characterization of the agreement, since Ms. Goldberg, "a wealthy and financially sophisticated Chicago businesswoman," was aware of the change clause and had even attempted to have it removed.  On the facts, there was no deception.  She took a risk when she entered into the agreement with the change clause included.

Of more interest to us, Judge Posner concluded that Ms. Goldberg's breach of contract claim collapsed once her "bait-and-switch" theory was eliminated.  While there is a duty of good faith, Judge Posner reminded Ms. Goldberg that it applies only in the performance of a contract, not in its formation.  There follows an interesting discussion of law and equity.  Ms. Goldberg challenged the trial judge's decision to decide on her breach of contract claim rather than submit the question to the jury.  Judge Posner noted that rescission is an equitable, not a legal, remedy, and under both Illinois and Federal law, there is no right to a jury trial on an equitable claim.

One could imagine that Ms. Goldberg might have argued that the Trump Organizations breached the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the performance of the contract.  After all, the bait might have occurred in the formation of the contract, but the switch occurred during performance.  Ms. Goldberg would then have to show that while some changes were to be expected under the change clause, the actual changes that the Trump Organizations engaged in were not in the contemplation of the parties at the time they entered into the contract and undermined the original agreement (or something like that).  It's not clear that Ms. Goldberg could have made such a showing.  It seems that the Trump Organizations had good reasons for the changes that were made.  In any case, if she were making that sort of argument, I think Ms. Goldberg would not have sought rescission of the agreement but enforcement of the original agreement without the changes.  

Finally, one might see this as another example of corporations getting to impose unreasonable terms on a consumer.  Here, Judge Posner has very little sympathy for the plaintiff, despite her advanced age, because of her sophistication.  But the facts make clear that even she, who bought two condos as an investment, had no bargaining power as to the terms at issue.  Posner undoubtedly applied the law correctly, but just think, if a person with Ms. Goldberg's means has no bargaining power as to one-sided and potentially unreasonable terms, what chance do the rest of us have?

For a different take on the same case, check out my law school's student law blog, the VALPOLAWBLOG, where you can find this post by student Faith Alvarez.

*Following Judge Posner's example, we simplify things by making it one agreement and ignore the complexities of the various Trump entities by referring to those entities collectively as the Trump Organizations.

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