ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Desperate times for law schools

As widely reported elsewhere such as by  David Frakt in The Faculty Lounge, law schools seem to be turning desperate to hide their student recruiting practices and ABA communications (see, e.g., Desperation Times at Thomas Cooley).  That blog post was cited to by the ABA in its brief in opposition to a motion filed by the Cooley law school for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in an attempt to prevent the ABA from publishing a letter online stating Cooley's noncompliance with at least one accreditation standard. Images

Of course, law students choosing to attend law school execute legally binding contracts with their schools.  So do employees choosing to work for these schools, many of which seem to be on the brink of discontinuation of operations.  For how much longer can we as law schools continue defending _not_ telling applicants the real truth about their prospects for passing the bar given our applicants' LSAT scores which are, we have to admit, highly determinative in predicting ultimate bar passage rates?  Is what we do ethical and professional?  Do we even follow contract laws against fraud in the inducement, or torts fraud laws, when we as schools have information that could and likely is crucial to applicants' decision-making?

David Frakt developed what he calls a "risk band" that correlates LSAT scores and students' risk of failing the bar.  Taking that even further, shouldn't applicants be told their _individual_, percent-wise chance of passing the bar?  If, for example, students know that with an LSAT score of 143 (this is just a random example), they have virtually zero chance of passing the bar, would they still execute a three-year contract with a law school that may cost them upward of $100,000?  I doubt it.  More honesty and transparency is clearly required in both the law school hiring and admissions world.

 

November 21, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Weinstein Protection Machine Was Fueled by Contracts

I mean, our entire society is filled with contracts, so it's no surprise that Harvey Weinstein was surrounded by a web of contracts designed to protect himself from accusations. Not just the NDAs I've previously discussed, but also contracts with his lawyer and with the investigators they hired. Not to the mention the interaction between his contracts with the National Enquirer's publisher and the National Enquirer's information. Because Dylan Howard at the National Enquierer's publisher considered himself to have to act in Weinstein's best interests because of other business deals, it affected the way National Enquirer used the information gained by its reporters. 

You can read the whole story here. It's extremely lengthy and I have not done it justice at all in this tiny blog entry, but it's got a lot about contracts there: what they said, why they existed, what was being done under them, etc. Just...a lot of contracts. All of them to keep people silent. 

November 9, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

St. Vincent de Paul trademark battle falters on breach of contract and promissory estoppel, but unjust enrichment survives

I think there is sometimes an impression out there that implied-in-fact contracts can be used to save all situations where formal contracts weren't executed, but that is definitely not the case. Implied-in-fact contracts still require some allegation of contractual intent between the parties. A recent case out of the Western District of Wisconsin, National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Inc. v. St. Vincent de Paul Community Center of Portage County, Inc., 16-cv-423-bbc, reiterates this. (Actually, this case dates from late May, but just crossed my inbox now. No idea why, but I'll blog it for you anyway!)

The case is a trademark dispute over several trademarks owned by the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the defendant for trademark infringement and the defendant asserted a number of counterclaims, including breach of contract. The defendant's breach of contract claim was based on a "contract implied in fact" because the plaintiff allegedly knew (either constructively or actually) about the defendant's use of the marks and the course of dealing between the parties created an implied contract regarding this use. But the complaint failed to show any intention to contract between the parties. Rather, its allegations illustrated that the parties coexisted but that they did so independent of each other. 

Even if there was an implied-in-fact contract, though, it would be terminable at will, meaning that the plaintiff could terminate it when it objected to the arrangement. The court refused to infer that any implied-in-fact contract waived the plaintiff's trademark rights against defendant in perpetuity, considering that there was so little evidence of any contractual intent in the first place. 

The defendant next asserted promissory estoppel but there was no allegation the plaintiff had ever made any promise that the defendant could rely on. The defendant's unjust enrichment claim, however, was allowed to proceed. The defendant had alleged that the plaintiff would benefit unjustly from the goodwill the defendant had built up in the community and that was enough to survive the motion to dismiss. 

November 5, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Shenanigans with a fake ruby at an auction

This recent case out of Nevada, Edy v. McManus Auctions, No. 70737 (behind paywall), caught my eye because it has facts that sound like a hypo. Basically, Edy attended a McManus auction. Prior to the auction, he examined what was purported to be a ruby pendant with a certificate estimating its value as $127,500. At the auction, Edy won the pendant with a bid of $15,842. However, when he brought the pendant to be appraised, he learned it was not a ruby and was only valued at $8,675. 

Edy sued for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraudulent misrepresentation, inter alia. However, his fraudulent misrepresentation claim was struck after he failed to submit a timely damages calculation pursuant to a court order. On an incomplete appellate record, the court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in striking these claims. That left a contract claim without any allegations of misrepresentation, and the court found that the contract entered into at the auction was valid and binding. So Edy lost. 

However, a concurrence in this case talked more about the misrepresentation allegations. The concurrence agreed that the district court's striking of the allegations was not an abuse of discretion, but the concurrence went on to analyze those allegations as if they have been permitted. McManus, at trial, admitted that the pendant was shown before the auction with a certificate claiming it was a ruby worth $127,500, just as Edy had claimed. McManus also testified that it knew there was a reserve price of $10,000, meaning that was the minimum acceptable bid, which was obviously far lower than the estimated value. Nevertheless, McManus did not independently verify the pendant nor did it disclose to the bidders that it might not be genuine or that it had such a low reserve price nor did it allow the bidders to get independent appraisals before the auction. Representations of value, the concurrence noted, are usually tricky bases for fraud, but here the pendant was unequivocally presented as a genuine ruby worth $127,500. The concurrence thought that was sufficient to constitute representations on behalf of McManus, had those allegations not been struck. But, without an adequate appellate record, the concurrence agreed that the district court's decision could not be reversed. 

This case is a little tragic to me. I'm not sure what happened at the district court level, but it seems like the concurrence thinks the auction company was behaving questionably here. The concurrence stands as a warning to the auction company to be cautious about its practices in the future. 

November 2, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Culpability of NDAs in Perpetuating Sexual Assault Culture

In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, everyone is talking about it: NDAs seem to be part of the problem. They were used consistently to silence people from speaking out. The NDA seemed to be how you could get away with it, as Weinstein's last-ditch offer to Rose McGowan to keep the lid on the story seems to illustrate. You can read criticisms of NDAs at Vox, Variety (and again), CNN (and again), the New York Daily News, Above the Law, and Forbes. And that was just my first page of Google results. I've been blogging about the danger of them for a while. It's not just the rich and powerful using them; college campuses are also using them in the sexual assault context. And they're not just being used to cover up sexual abuse; Amber Heard's NDA restricted her from apparently ever even mentioning domestic abuse at all. It's easy to see why NDAs are popular among the powerful (the President also loves them). They allow complete and total control of the narrative. An NDA can make it a legal breach for you to tell the truth; an NDA can indeed make it legally enforceable for you to lie, basically. And, in this way, the fuzzy line between truth and fiction becomes fuzzier and fuzzier. And people get victimized and feel alone and the culture of contractual silence makes them lonelier, depriving them of support systems. 

NDAs also exist for lots of valid and important reasons. But they are also being widely and abusively used and we as a society need to confront that. The question isn't why less powerful people sign these NDAs. Until we can fix power imbalances (and we're a long way from that), it's always going to happen. But we should really question the public policy justifications for NDAs in certain circumstances. These past couple of weeks have spotlighted lots of troubling systemic issues in our society. This is one of them. 

October 30, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Whitefish Energy - Strongarming Puerto Rico into Contractual Acceptance and Compliance?

As reported on The Hill and in several other national and international news outlets, tiny Montana energy company Whitefish Energy – located in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s very small hometown – stands to profit greatly from its contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. That’s fine, of course. However, highly questionable issues about the contract have surfaced recently.   For example, Whitefish very famously prohibited various government bodies from “audit[ing] or review[ing] the cost and profit elements of the labor rates specified herein.” DNHKNDgW4AACWYJ

What were those? The Washington Post reports that under the contract, “the hourly rate was set at $330 for a site supervisor, and at $227.88 for a ‘journeyman lineman.’ The cost for subcontractors, which make up the bulk of Whitefish’s workforce, is $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319.04 for a lineman. Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.” Another news source notes that “[t]he lowest-paid workers, according to the contract, are making $140.26 an hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in Puerto Rico is $7.25 an hour … [T]he average salary for a journeyman electrical lineman is $39.03 per hour in the continental U.S. However, a journeyman lineman on Whitefish Energy's Puerto Rico project will earn $277.88 per hour.”

Little wonder why the company did not want anyone to “audit or review” its labor rates. If it wasn’t for the apparent “old boy”/geographical connections that seemed to have led to this contract to have been executed in the first place, hopefully no Puerto Rican official would have accepted this contract in the form in which it was drafted.

But it doesn’t end there. When the San Juan mayor called for the deal to be “voided” and investigated, Whitefish representatives tweeted to her, “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”

To me, this entire contract to violate several established notions of contract law such as, perhaps, undue influence or duress (in relation to contract formation but perhaps also, if possible, to continued contractual performance), bad faith, perhaps even unconscionability, which is a alive and well in many American jurisdictions.

This could work as an interesting and certainly relevant issue-spotter for our contracts students. It also gives one a bad taste in the mouth for very obvious reasons. It will be interesting to see how this new instance of potentially favoring contractual parties for personal reasons will pan out.

October 29, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, Government Contracting, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Contract Cancellation as Punishment for Sexual Harassment

As reported by CNN, Penguin Press has just cancelled a contract with sexual-predator-of-the-day Mark Halperin, formerly of ABC News and recently a host of "Showtime" on HBO.  HBO has also cancelled its plan to create a mini-series based on his book.

Can a contract be cancelled for this reason?  I have not seen the actual contract, but it undoubtedly contained a provision allowing the publisher to do so.  If not, does it matter?  Clearly not.  Halperin and others like him well deserve the contractual outcomes of their incredibly poor behavior.  I doubt it that Halperin will dispute this legally too.

What in the world is going on with all these allegations and facts demonstrating sexual harassment, gender harassment, and other vile power games in the work place?  Sorry, gentlemen, but clearly, many men in the workplace and elsewhere still suffer from an almost incredible sense of entitlement to power over women.  "Almost" because history shows that this has apparently always been the case.  One would think that in 2017, things would be different, but quite evidently not.  Just look at our own industry, legal education, and how many men still dominate that field in the acquisition of job positions, promotions, presentations at conferences, etc.  Yes, it is still a man's world.  Yes, glass ceilings still exist.  How sad to think that as a society, we have not come further than this.  

A good aspect of this current revelation trend is that women are finally speaking up against what has happened.  It's doubly troubling that not only were they discriminated against, but also did not find it feasible to bring these issues up until now, apparently.

October 27, 2017 in Commentary | Permalink

Monday, October 16, 2017

Take That! Outstanding Contractual Balance, Not Just Profits, Due in Case of Asserted Commercial Impracticability

In Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, LLC v. Solarworld Industries Sachsen GmbH, 867 F.3d 692 (Sixth Cir. 2017), Hemlock contracted to provide Sachsen in Germany set quantities of polysilicon at fixed prices between 2006 and 2019. The market price at the time was well above the price agreed upon between these parties, but plummeted several years later when the Chinese government began subsidizing its national production of polysilicon.

Images

When Sachsen refused to pay the original contractual amount for 2012, Hemlock brought suit for breach of contract. Sachsen defended itself claiming that the Chinese government (1) illegally subsidized its national production of polysilicon and dumped massive quantities of the product onto the market, causing the price of polysilicon to fall; and (2) committed acts of “criminal industrial espionage” against Sachsen's U.S.-based sister company, SWIA. As a result of these illegal actions, the price of polysilicon plummeted, rendering Sachsen's performance impracticable and frustrating the purpose of entering into the contracts with Hemlock.

Hemlock demanded the entire outstanding balance due to Hemlock from 2012 through 2019 – close to $600 million – plus post-judgment interest. Sachsen argued that this would be an unenforceable penalty rather than permissible liquidated damages under the contract. At the most, Sachsen argued, it should pay only for Hemlock’s lost profits since Hemlock did not have to actually produce polysilicon for Sachsen after the breach. This would have saved approximately $200 million for Sachsen.

Both the district and appellate courts found that since even drastic changes in the market are not sufficient to trigger the impracticability defense, Sachsen could not here either, even given the alleged Chinese interference. This, said the district court, was irrelevant because the alleged illegal actions of the Chinese government had “simply caused a market shift in pricing, making it unprofitable for Sachsen to perform as promised.” The appellate court cited to a case where even a $2m a day loss causing a company to go out of business did not warrant the defense. Both courts referred to the standard “floodgates” arguments and not blaming third parties for one’s own contractual misfortunes.

OK, but so what about the lost profit argument? Although such cost savings might factor into an ordinary breach-of-contract claim, the courts concluded that considering cost savings was inappropriate in the context of the particular take-or-pay provision in place between these parties. Hemlock, in other words, was entitled to full payment under the contract even if Sachsen refused delivery of the polysilicon. “Under these circumstances, Hemlock would have had no need to produce the polysilicon, but would still be entitled to be paid in full. The court persuasively reasoned that the [contract] therefore contemplated situations in which Hemlock's cost savings would be irrelevant to the amount of payment that Hemlock was due.” Unknown

That argument seems terribly circular to me. Hemlock was entitled to the full contractual amount because Hemlock was entitled to the full contractual amount? Uhm, even if it did not have to do anything and thus did in fact enjoy huge cost savings? I find that erroneous, nonsensical, and actually rather vindictive on the part of the U.S. court system over a foreign entity.

The appellate court also found that “restricting Hemlock's recovery to lost profits without accounting for the fact that Sachsen saved (and Hemlock lost) approximately $509.1 million earlier in the contract term would be inequitable. In light of the fact that Sachsen benefited substantially in the earlier years of the LTAs, the liquidated-damages award is not ‘unconscionable or excessive.’” That does not make sense to me either. The parties took the contractual risks that they did. Granted, Sachsen then breached. But greed then seemed to come into play, for profits were the only thing Hemlock would have gotten out of the situation had there not been a breach. Hemlock was placed in a vastly better situation here than what liquidated damages normally allow for, precisely because they cannot be punitive. They seemed to have been here as they were a simple, yet extreme formula: if breach, pay the rest of the contract no matter what. When the contractually stipulated liquidated amount grossly exceeds actual damages, courts of law usually construe such provision as an unenforceable penalty. Not in this case, not even for a windfall of $200 million.

The case is Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, LLC v. SolarWorld Indus. Sachsen GmbH, 867 F.3d 692, 707 (6th Cir. 2017), reh'g denied (Sept. 19, 2017)

October 16, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Twitter's Discretion in Its Terms of Service and the Way We Define Words

If you're a person who spends time on Twitter, you might be aware that it's been a manic week on the platform (although every week is a manic week on Twitter; it's 2017). As the news broke about Harvey Weinstein's pattern of multiple sexual assaults, Rose McGowan added to the many allegations and tweeted an accusation of rape against him. Later, McGowan's Twitter account was suspended. The reaction to this suspension was swift and furious by many of the platform's users. Twitter later clarified that it suspended her account because she had posted a personal phone number (in violation of Twitter's policies) but for a while the exact reason was unclear, and many users complained that it was more of Twitter's selective enforcement of its policies.

I'm about to settle in to teach contract ambiguity and rules of interpretation, and looking through Twitter's policies I'm reminded of how important it is that we keep our human biases in mind when defining words. Twitter's policies--which we all agree to through Twitter's Terms of Use--give the company a lot of discretion in how the policies get applied: "We may suspend an account if it has been reported to us as violating our Rules surrounding abuse" (emphasis added); "Some of the factors that we may consider when evaluating abusive behavior include . . . ." (emphasis added); "Keep in mind that although you may consider certain information to be private, not all postings of such information may be a violation of this policy. . . . We may consider the context and nature of the information posted, local privacy laws, and other case-specific facts when determining if this policy has been violated" (emphasis added). Aside from the discretion, though, is the issue of how words like "harassment" and "abusive behavior" are even getting defined. It's clear from the very public debates that have been erupting recently that there is a different view of that depending on which gender, race, and ethnic identity you ask. To take just one example, the discussion around telling women to smile indicates that many women find this harassing while many men don't see what the big deal is. Twitter might be deliberately selectively applying its policies but it also might just be defining its policies in a way that leads to selective enforcement because of the particular worldview of the people making the decisions. This means, dangerously, that they might sincerely believe they're applying rules neutrally, without recognizing any built-in bias. 

Social media's increasing reliance on algorithms to handle the speech going on on the sites has lots of problems, and as more and more public discourse collides up against more and more opaque policies, it seems like a problem that's only going to get worse. We should think about these issues, and we should especially think about them as we teach our students how to interpret the contracts that govern our lives: we all have an entrenched viewpoint that should be critically examined rather than blithely assume our own neutrality. 

In the meantime, I'm going to post this blog and then tweet to tell you all about it, because that's the way we communicate in today's society, and I'm going to have to agree to Twitter's policies to do it, and I'm going to hope these policies let me make the tweet, something that many of us take for granted but that is definitely not guaranteed. Our contracts are never as clear as we hope. 

October 13, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A slip-and-fall in a cruise ship bathroom, a forum selection clause, a defective filing, an untimely filing...and equitable tolling

A recent case out of the Southern District of Florida, Jordan v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., Case No. 1:17-cv-20773-WILLIAMS/TORRES (behind paywall), concerned a plaintiff, Jordan, who was allegedly injured when she slipped and fell in the bathroom of her cabin. She attempted to sue the defendant, Celebrity Cruises, in Florida state court. However, her ticket contract with Celebrity Cruises required that any causes of action be filed in the Southern District of Florida. Jordan did eventually file in the Southern District of Florida but it was after the statute of limitations had run. 

The main issue in the case revolved around whether the statute of limitations could be equitably tolled, since she had filed in state court prior to the statute of limitations running. Jordan argued that she did not have her ticket contract, nor was she aware that it required suit in the Southern District of Florida--a not-at-all implausible argument on her part, considering that few of us read those terms and conditions or really register them. She claimed that the first time she realized she had a ticket contract with Celebrity Cruises was when Celebrity Cruises attached the ticket contract to its motion to dismiss her state court complaint, and that the case was refiled in the proper contractual forum shortly thereafter. 

The court found that equitable tolling could apply. Jordan was diligent in pursuing her cause of action, and Celebrity Cruises did not suffer any adverse consequences, since Jordan had provided timely notice of her injury to Celebrity Cruises. The court did not think Jordan was negligent in her failure to file in the proper forum. Celebrity Cruises seemed to argue that Jordan should have found the ticket contract online to learn where the proper forum to file would be, but there was no evidence in the record showing that the ticket contract was so easy to locate online that Jordan's failure to do so was negligent. Therefore, Jordan's timely filing in the wrong forum entitled her to equitable tolling, considering her diligence in all other respects. 

October 4, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Separate Bag Fees Raise the Cost of Flying

Three peer-reviewed studies have each concluded that travelers who pay an additional fee for luggage pay more than they did, on average, when bag costs were included in the airfare.   This finding was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Airlines started "unbundling" their services such as food, drinks, luggage and now even reserving seats in an alleged effort to give passengers the option of only paying for what they want.  

Officially, airfare rates have fallen over the past three consecutive years, but with the added luggage fees, flying is actually more expensive.

Since airlines by and large charge the same prices for things unless, perhaps, you have good frequent flyer credit with them and can book tickets months and months ahead of time, your contractual bargaining power with them will be almost zero.   Take it or leave it!

October 1, 2017 in Commentary | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Don't worry, corporate entities themselves get confused about their corporate structure...

I have actually seen a bunch of cases lately where people have either sued the wrong company in a complicated corporate structure (understandable) or where they have brought suit on behalf of the wrong company, which seems less understandable to me since you should presumably know your own corporate structure and which companies are bound by which contracts. But, as a recent case out of the District Court for the District of Columbia, Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Inc. v. Clark Nexsen, Inc., Case No. 15-cv-02254 (APM), shows: not always. 

The parties entered into an agreement where Clark Nexsen would design a tennis and education facility. About a year after entering into this agreement, Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Inc. ("WTEF") assigned "all of [it]s right, title and interest" in the contract to Washington Tennis & Education Foundation East, Inc. ("WTEF East"), a related company that was not a party to this lawsuit. After growing dissatisfied with Clark Nexsen's performance under the agreement, WTEF sued for breach of contract. Clark Nexsen moved for summary judgment that WTEF lacked standing to sue because all of its contractual rights now belonged to WTEF East by virtue of the assignment. 

The court agreed with Clark Nexsen. WTEF and WTEF East were two separate and distinct legal entities. It was true that they were related but they had separate boards of directors and separate records, etc. WTEF was not entitled to bring claims on WTEF East's behalf. Once WTEF assigned the contract to WTEF East, it became a "stranger" to the agreement and could not enforce it. 

WTEF tried to argue that it and WTEF East were, for all intents and purposes, the same. However, the court pointed out that WTEF created WTEF East in order to put itself in a position to secure extra financing. The court said that WTEF couldn't have its cake and eat it, too: If it wanted to have separate entities when it was advantageous for it to do so, then the court was going to treat them as separate entities even when it became disadvantageous. 

WTEF also tried to argue that it was a third-party beneficiary of the contract at issue, but there was nothing about the contract that indicated WTEF should be treated as a third-party beneficiary, and in fact the contract explicitly disclaimed that the contract should be construed to have any third-party beneficiaries. Nor was there anything in the assignment agreement indicating WTEF should now be treated as a third-party beneficiary of the original contract. In fact, the assignment agreement named Clark Nexsen as a third-party beneficiary to it, so it was clear the parties had thought about third-party beneficiary issues and had not given such status to WTEF. 

The court ended up dismissing all of WTEF's claims but maintaining jurisdiction over Clark Nexsen's counterclaim moving forward. Not a good outcome for WTEF. Double-check your corporate structure before deciding which entity needs to sue on a contract. 

September 20, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Making Money is Still Allowed” – As Are False Pricing Strategies

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held that retail stores, including online vendors, are free to advertise “before” prices that might in reality never have been used.

Although the particular plaintiff’s factual arguments are somewhat unappealing and unpersuasive, the case still shows a willingness by courts, even appellate courts, to ignore falsities just to entice a sale. Unknown

Max Gerboc bought a pair of speakers from www.wish.com for $27. A “before” price of $300 was juxtaposed and crossed out next to the “sale” price of $27. There was also a promise of a 90% markdown. However, the speakers had apparently never been sold for $300, thus leading Mr. Gerboc to argue that he was entitled to 90% back of the $27 that he actually paid for the speakers. Mr. Gerboc argued unjust enrichment and a violation of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (“OCSPA”).

The appellate court’s opinion is rife with sarcasm and gives short shrift to Mr. Gerboc’s arguments. Among other things, the court writes that although the seller was enriched by the sale, “making money is still allowed” and that the plaintiff got what he paid for, a pair of $27 speakers that worked. He thus did not unjustly enrich the seller, found the court. (Besides, as the court noted, unjust enrichment is a quasi-contractual remedy that allows for restitution in lieu of a contractual remedy, but here, the parties did have a contract with each other).

Interestingly, the court cited to “common sense” and the use of “tricks,” as the court even calls them, such as crossed out prices to entice buyers. “Deeming this tactic inequitable would change the nature of online, and even in-store, sales dramatically.”

So?! Where are we when a federal appellate court condones the use of trickery, even if a large amount of other large vendors such as Nordstrom and Amazon also use the same “tactic”? Is this acceptable simply because “shoppers get what they pay for”? This panel apparently thought so.

Of course, Mr. Gerboc would disagree. He cited to “superior equity” under both California case law and OCSPA. The court again merely cited to its argument that Mr. Gerboc had suffered no “actual damages” that were “real, substantial, and just.”

I find this line of reasoning troublesome. Sure, most of us know about this retail tactic, but does that make it warranted under contract and consumer regulatory law? If a vendor has truly never sold items at a certain “before” price, courts in effect condone outright lies, i.e. misrepresentation, in these cases just because no actual damages were suffered. This court said that Mr. Gerboc “at most … bargained for the right to have the speakers for 90% less than $300.” But if the speakers were indeed never sold at that price, is that not a false bargain? And where do we draw the lines between fairly obvious “tricks” such as this and those that may be less obvious such as anything pertaining to the quality and durability of goods, fine print rules, payment terms, etc.? Are we as a society not allowing ourselves to suffer damages from allowing this kind of business conduct? Or has this just become so commonplace that virtually everyone is on notice? Does the latter really matter? Images

I personally think courts should reverse their own trend of approving what at bottom is false advertising (used in the common sense of the word). Of course it is still legal to make money. But no court would allow consumer buyers to “trick” the online or department store vendors. Why should the opposite be true? The more sophisticated parties – the vendors – can and should figure out how to make a profit without resorting to cheating their customers simply because everyone else does it too. Statements about facts of a product should be true. Allowing businesses to undertake this type of conduct is, I think, a slippery slope on which we don’t need to find outselves.

The case is Max Gerboc v. Contextlogic, Inc., 867 F. 675 (2017).

September 19, 2017 in Commentary, E-commerce, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 15, 2017

California court finds broad arbitration clause unconscionable

A recent case out of California, Pimpo v. Fitness International, LLC, D071140 (behind paywall), finds an arbitration clause in a contract unenforceable due to unconscionability. 

In the case, Pimpo worked at one of Fitness International's fitness centers, where another employee sexually harassed her. Pimpo made several reports about the other employee's behavior and ultimately ended up suing over the sexual harassment. Fitness International responded by moving to compel arbitration based on a contract Pimpo electronically signed when she submitted her application for employment with Fitness International. However, the very terms of that agreement said it was only effective for 45 days, so it had expired by the time Pimpo filed suit. Fitness International tried to argue that Pimpo had signed a different arbitration agreement upon accepting employment but the trial court found no evidence of such agreement and the appellate court said that Fitness International's statement that it moved to compel arbitration based on this other agreement for which there was no evidence "border[ed] on a misrepresentation to this court."

So the appellate court already wasn't too happy with Fitness International as it began its unconscionability analysis, which it turned to in the interest of thoroughness. The arbitration clause that Pimpo signed when she applied for employment, the court concluded, was unenforceable due to unconscionability. Because the contract was a contract of adhesion presented to Pimpo on a take-it-of-leave-it basis, the court found that it was "by definition procedurally unconscionable." The court then went on to note, though, that Pimpo was in the usual position of someone applying for a job: She needed money to survive and did not have the resources to hire an attorney to look over the contracts for every application that she submitted. 

The court also found substantive unconscionability because the clause was drafted to be breathtakingly broad. It explicitly required Pimpo to give up her right to a jury trial on all claims, "even those unrelated to the application or her employment," against Fitness International and "its officers, directors, employees, agent, affiliates, entities, and successors," forever. The court noted that this language meant that if Pimpo got into a car accident with a Fitness International employee, it was covered by this arbitration clause. Fitness International tried to argue that the clause should be read more narrowly than that but the court noted that that was not how it was drafted (and Fitness International had drafted it). In addition, the discovery procedure that the arbitration clause allowed for placed Pimpo at such a disadvantage that the court agreed that was substantivaly unconscionable, too. 

Beware of drafting your clauses too broadly. Such can be the outcome. Even arbitration clauses can have their limits. 

September 15, 2017 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

California Outlaws Forced Arbitration Clauses by Banks

On Sept. 12, 2017, Senate Bill 33 was approved by the California Senate and now awaits Governor Brown’s approval before becoming law.

The legislation was designed after the Wells Fargo scandal to block legal the legal tactic of keeping disputes over unauthorized bank accounts out of public court proceedings an favor of private arbitration.

Said the law’s author, Sen. Dodd (D-Napa): “The idea that consumers can be blocked from our public courts when their bank commits fraud and identity theft against them is simply un-American.” It is also clearly unethical and, once again, emphasized how difficult it can be in modern times to strike a fair contractual bargain with a party that has much greater bargaining power than individuals and that uses lengthy and often complex boilerplate contracts with terms few read and understand.

September 15, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why didn't the people in "Rent" just, like, pay their rent?

The other day, I happened to re-listen to "Rent." The 20th Anniversary Tour is coming to town next month, and I have my ticket in hand, and, excited about the upcoming show, I pulled the original Broadway cast album up on Spotify for a re-listen. The thing about "Rent" is its one of those shows that I find it difficult to be rational about. It has its flaws, but I was in high school the first time that I heard "Rent," and it blew me away then, and it still stays fresh to me. Even when I think it should have aged, I hear the first notes of "One Song Glory," and they get me every time, and by the end of my re-listen I'm sitting in floods of tears on my living room and thinking, ...Huh, this whole musical is about a breach of contract. 

Because it is!

If you don't know the plot, it's loosely a re-telling of "La Boheme" that revolves around a number of young New York artists struggling to survive in an age when AIDS is ravaging their community. The titular "Rent" is the first major song in the musical, and it's a reaction to one of the characters, Benny, going back on a promise he made to the main characters, Mark and Roger. Benny used to be roommates with Mark and Roger but now (with his rich bride's money behind him), he's become their landlord. However, when he bought their building the year before he told Mark and Roger they were "golden". Nonetheless, at the beginning of the play, he shows up and demands all of the previous year's rent, which Mark and Roger allege he led them to believe they didn't have to pay (and which Benny never really refutes). 

There are a lot of critiques of the characters of "Rent" and how annoying it can be to listen to the show as an "adult." Yes, you do find yourself asking why Mark can't just rake in some dough for a little while to pay off the debt. Isn't this what all adults have to do? We all have to go out and get jobs to pay for the roofs over our heads. But Mark and Roger shouldn't have been in the rent-money debt in the first place, because they had an agreement with Benny. Are there issues with the formation of this contract? Yes. It's pretty informally done, after all, because of their friendship. And it probably suffers from a consideration issue, because it seems like a gift from Benny to Mark and Roger (the musical doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the details of the transaction, tbh, but it seems like he made the offer because he was feeling generous toward his friends). But I think it could be saved by promissory estoppel. Benny made that promise to Mark and Roger, and he's got to know them well enough to know they were going to rely on it by not worrying much about a source of income for the year, which in fact Mark and Roger did. And now Benny is demanding an entire year's worth of rent all at once, which would be a lot for anyone to come up with, never mind starving artists with uncertain sources of income. 

So it's not entirely Mark and Roger's fault that they owe a year's rent. They were led to believe they didn't. But, more than that, the more I think about the critiques of "Rent," the more I think that actually that's the point of rent. Mark and Roger are annoying and entitled, yes, not just because they don't want to have to pay rent that their friend told them they wouldn't have to pay, but because they don't want to have pay rent going forward, because the payment of rent pushes them into making compromises regarding their art and the type of life they want to live. When you listen to "Rent" as a sixteen-year-old, it's different than listening to it as a thirty-six-year-old, and that difference is that yes, I grew up, and I realized that suddenly I'm no longer on the side of the artists who want to create and live their lives. And then that makes me think about the fact that I'm on the side of people not following dreams because I grew up and I compromised and I paid my rent. And I don't think it's a failing in "Rent" that it makes me pause to think about that, that there was a teenager in me who believed in La Vie Boheme who became an adult who didn't. I think that's the point. The story takes place in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, when these people are losing friends left and right, and so it makes sense that they don't feel like they have time to pretend to be other than what they are. Maybe the joke's on all of us that we feel like we do have time. 

Because, let's face it, for all of "Rent"'s enduring genius as a musical achievement--and there's a lot of it--"Rent"'s story is also the story of all the music that its composer never got to write. Jonathan Larsen died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before the musical's Off-Broadway premiere. He left far too early and left us with just this one perfect masterpiece, about people with uncertain lives clinging stubbornly to their dreams. It's hard for you to reach the end of "Rent" without an appreciation for how lucky we are that some people live that way and give it their all in their time here on Earth. Jonathan Larsen only wrote the one masterpiece, and that's a tragedy, and he didn't live to see the huge success it became, which is an even bigger tragedy, but at least he got to write one, which meant he got to leave a legacy behind him that you've got to think he'd be pretty happy with. And how lucky we all are that he stuck with his art. 

None of which has anything to do with contracts law, oops. EXCEPT EVERYTHING HAS TO DO WITH CONTRACTS LAW. Including the entire plot of "Rent." The end, back to regularly scheduled cases, here, have a song:  

 

September 13, 2017 in Commentary, Film, Film Clips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Employment Contracts in France under Macron

As reported by the Los Angeles Times and others, the no. two economy in the Eurozone - France - may see its notoriously worker-friendly labor laws overhauled in favor of fewer restrictions soon.

One key measure proposed by the government trims the role of unions, notably in small- and medium-size companies — which the prime minister said make up nine out of 10 companies in France.  Under the reforms, companies with fewer than 50 employees would be able to negotiate work rules with an elected colleague — not unionized — and companies with fewer than 20 employees can negotiate directly with their workers.

Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud said the reforms aim to not just change France's work rules but "to change the behavior of social dialogue in our country."

Whether this will be a favorable turn of events for France on the national and international business stage remains to be seen.  For workers, however, "negotiating directly" with employers sounds an awful lot like the very unequal bargaining powers so frequently seen in the USA.  Here, such contractual bargaining and conditions have not resulted in improved incomes for the middle and lower classes, although other factors of course also weigh in.  Nonetheless, it is a basic tenet of contract law - and thus employment law - that one can only strike the bargain that one has leverage to strike.  Trade unions and labor regulations can contribute significantly and importantly to an otherwise very skewed bargaining situation, especially in times and locations of unemployment and for older workers.

But of course, France should do something to improve its equally notorious unemployment rate, currently at 10%.  The work environment in Europe is still so much more relaxed than in the USA that it is doubtful whether any employer would seriously expect workers to amass the very high amount of hours worked by Americans or the very few weeks of vacation.  Hence, a social dialogue may be what it takes in France.

 

September 11, 2017 in Commentary | Permalink

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Crumbling foundations are happening all over Connecticut, and the insurance policy fights are underway

I'd been seeing a lot of insurance cases come across my alert dealing with crumbling house foundations in the District of Connecticut. This one, Roberts v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., No. 3:13-cv-00435 (SRU) (behind paywall), tells us why. Apparently it's part of an epidemic across Connecticut that so far has affected at least four hundred homes and may ultimately affect as many as 34,000 (!). The mix used in the concrete to pour these foundations contained a naturally existing mineral called pyrrhotite that degrades rapidly, causing the issues the homeowners are seeing. You can read more about this horrible situation here

The Robertses are one of the homeowners caught up in the deteriorating foundation issue. They brought a claim under their homeowners' insurance policy, which was denied because the policy excluded coverage based on faulty construction, which Liberty Mutual explained was the problem at issue with the foundation. However, the policy did cover loss due to defective construction if it resulted in "collapse." The issue in this case revolved around the definition of the word "collapse." The Robertses claimed the cracks in the foundations will eventually cause the walls to give way and collapse and so they should be covered. 

The insurance policy did not define the term "collapse," and previous Connecticut precedent had found the term in homeowners insurance contracts to be ambiguous. Because insurance contracts are construed against the insurance company, these courts had concluded that "collapse" could be something beyond just "a catastrophic breakdown" to include the "substantial impairment of the structural integrity of a building." But what does "substantial impairment" mean? Does it mean the building has to be in "imminent danger" of falling to the ground? Precedent suggested no. Connecticut courts had allowed recovery under "collapse" where the house never caved in and indeed the homeowners continued to live in it. So this court concluded that "substantial impairment" means that the building would cave in without repair to the damage. The judge found that there were factual disputes in this case involving whether the Robertses' home was in this state and thus summary judgment was inappropriate. 

This series of cases is painful to read and made me walk around my house worrying about what's not covered by my howeowners insurance that could destroy it...

September 5, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Beware starting work on a property before you own the property

When I poke through recent contracts cases trying to find ones to blog about, I tend to decide pretty quickly whether I want to spend time reading an opinion or not. This recent case out of Virginia, American Demolition and Design v. Pinkston, CL16000199-00 (behind paywall), caught my eye because the very first paragraph sounds like a hypo: 

This case arises out of a contractual negotiation for sale of real property . . . from . . . Pinkston to . . . Sweet. The negotiations never resulted in a final contract for sale of the property and no conveyance of the real property ever resulted. After the parties entered into contractual negotiations, but before the parties terminated contractual dealings, with oral permission from Pinkston, Sweet began preliminary construction on the property for the purpose of improving parts of the farmhouse located on the property. Although Pinkston discovered that Sweet’s work on the property had exceeded the scope of their discussions, Pinkston never stopped Sweet from performing further work on the property. Finally, when Sweet and Pinkston learned that a lien against the property hindered Pinkston from conveying title, Sweet stopped all work on the property. The property was subsequently rendered to be worth only a fraction of what it was previously worth before Sweet began working on the property.

So, naturally, I stopped to read the rest. Sweet brought the suit quantum meruit, for recovery of the value of his work performed on the property.  

The court acknowledged that there was no written contract about Sweet's work on the property, but the parties did make oral agreements on the subject that the court used in evaluating the quasi-contract claim. The work that Sweet performed on the property apparently brought the value of the property down, raising the question of whether it conferred a benefit on Pinkston as is required for recovery. However, the court noted that Pinkston knew Sweet was doing the work and did nothing to prevent him from doing it. In fact, they negotiated that Sweet would do the work. Therefore, the court found the work was a benefit that Sweet conferred on Pinkston with Pinkston's knowledge, despite the effect of the work on the value of the property at issue. 

But mere rendering of the services is not enough to merit recovery. The circumstances also must indicate that it would be inequitable for Pinkston to retain the benefit of Sweet's work without compensating him for it. There was no evidence that the parties ever thought Pinkston would pay Sweet for his labor. It was very clear that Sweet, expecting to buy the property, was in fact performing the work for himself, not Pinkston. Not only did Sweet not expect Pinkston to pay him, he expected to have to pay Pinkston when he bought the house. Therefore, the circumstances did not indicate that Pinkston needed to pay Sweet for his work. 

The case stands as a word of warning: be careful expending time and effort on a piece of real estate before negotiations for it have concluded. 

August 25, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Is Amazon Selling Products or Services?

As first reported on Above the Law, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that Amazon is nothing but a simple purveyor of “online services” and does not make “sales” of goods. Although the issue in the case was one of intellectual property infringement and thus not the UCC, the differentiation between “goods” and “services” is also highly relevant to the choice of law analyses that our students will have to do on the bar and practitioners in real life. Unknown

How did the Court come to its somewhat bizarre decision? Amazon, as you know, sells millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of tangible, physical products ranging from toilet paper to jewelry, books to toys, and much, much more. They clearly enter into online sales contracts with buyers and exchange the products for money. “Amazon” is the name branded in a major way in these transactions whereas the names of the actual sellers – where these differ from Amazon itself – are listed in much smaller font sizes. Often, it is Amazon itself that packages and ships the products to the buyers, whereas at other times, third party buyers are responsible for the shipping. Amazon “consummates” the sale when the buyer clicks the link that says “buy” on the Amazon website. Amazon then processes the payments and receives quite significant amounts of money for this automated process.

Clearly a “sale,” right? Nope. I guess “a sale is not a sale when a court says so.” As regards the IP dispute, the crucial issue was whether or not Amazon could control the acts of the third-party vendors. You would think that even that would clearly be the case given the enormous control Amazon has over what is marketed on its website and how this is done. Amazon, however, argued that it sells so many items that it cannot possibly police all of them. Thus, it won on its argument that it was not liable under IP law for a knock-off item that had been sold on the Amazon website as the real product (cute animal-shaped pillowcases). Unknown

Had this been an issue of contracts law and had the court still found that the transaction was not a sale of goods under UCC Art. 2, would it have erred? Arguably so. Under the “predominant factor test” used in many, if not most, jurisdictions, courts look at a variety of factors such as the language of the contract, the final product (or service) bought and sold, cost allocation, and the general circumstances of the case. When you buy an item on Amazon, it is true that you obtain the service of being able to shop from your computer and not a physical location, but at the end of the day, it is still the product that you want and buy, not the service. Apart from the relatively small service fee (which gets deducted from the price paid to the seller), the largest percentage of the sales price is for the product. Modernly, online buyers have become so used to that “service” being provided that it is arguably not even that much of a service anymore; it is just a method enabling buyers to buy… the product. Clearly, it seems to me, a “sale” under Art. 2.

Again, this was not a UCC issue, but it does still show that courts apparently still produce rather odd holdings in relation to e-commerce, even in 2017.

The case is Milo & Gabby LLC v. Amazon.com, Inc., (Fed. Cir. 2017)

August 24, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)