ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, May 22, 2017

Terms and Conditions on Your DNA: How Complicated Can It Get?

This is a long one, that I didn't expect to be long, but I decided the point is how long this is, and the questions it raises about all of those terms and conditions on websites. 

A friend of mine asked me recently about the terms and conditions of the Ancestry.com DNA service. The service, if you're not familiar with it, takes your DNA and breaks it down into ethnic backgrounds for you, based on analysis of genetic markers. Here's a video that talks about it some: 

So if you're using the DNA service, you're handing your DNA over to Ancestry.com, and maybe we should think: what does that mean? After all, who does our DNA belong to, and what can it be used to? The Supreme Court looked at this in the context of patents a few years ago, finding that DNA cannot be patented. So we know that no one can own a patent on your DNA. But that's not really what's at issue in the DNA service site. No one is trying to patent the DNA, but Ancestry.com is still using the DNA in certain ways.

Looking into the terms and conditions initially seemed to me like it would be straightforward. Several hours later...

I started with the actual terms and conditions (makes sense, right?). It has a license provision:  

"By submitting DNA to AncestryDNA, you grant AncestryDNA and the Ancestry Group Companies a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA, and any DNA you submit for any person from whom you obtained legal authorization as described in this Agreement, and to use, host, sublicense and distribute the resulting analysis to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered."

That "we deem appropriate" language seems very broad to me. Appropriate for what? There isn't a lot of limitation there, and a lot of trust seems to be placed that your definition of "appropriate" will be the same as Ancestry's (and how likely is that, really?). I looked at some social media terms to compare (Facebook, TumblrTwitter), and none of their license grants had "we deem appropriate" language (and, in fact, Tumblr's license in particular was fairly narrow in its grant). Keep in mind, Ancestry has your DNA, not a random tweet about making a cup of tea in the morning. Also a point to think about: the social media is free, and I think we kind of expect that there's a trade-off for that. Ancestry costs money AND also takes a broad license grant in exchange. 

The terms and conditions also go on:

"You hereby release AncestryDNA from any and all claims, liens, demands, actions or suits in connection with the DNA sample, the test or results thereof, including, without limitation, errors, omissions, claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, right of publicity, emotional distress or economic loss. This license continues even if you stop using the Website or the Service."

So they can do whatever they deem appropriate, and you release them from any lawsuits in connection with it. 

Now, adding a complicating layer to all of this, though, is that the terms and conditions are supposed to be read in conjunction with the privacy statement, on a completely different webpage, that does appear to limit what they're doing with the DNA, I think, and also appears to give you the opportunity to cancel the service, although how that affects the license, which says that it survives termination of the service, is unclear to me. And in addition to that, there is another completely different webpage, called the Consent Agreement. I don't know when this comes up in the DNA process, because I didn't want to input my credit card, and before that point I only saw the terms and conditions and privacy statement referenced. But the Consent Agreement has to do with participation in scientific research, which seems cool, except that when you read further down into it, it says stuff like this: 

"If Data are obtained through these methods, it is possible that information about you or a genetic relative could be revealed, such as that you or a relative are carriers of a particular disease. That information could be used by insurers to deny you insurance coverage, by law enforcement agencies to identify you or your relatives, and in some places, the data could be used by employers to deny employment.

In the United States, a federal law called the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) generally makes it illegal for health insurance companies, group health plans, and most employers to seek your genetic information without your consent, and to discriminate against you based on your genetic information. GINA does not protect you from discrimination with regard to life insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, or military service. There may be state laws and laws outside the United States that prohibit discrimination against you based on genetic data."

Tl;dr: What I just want to say is that's the point. I spent all morning trying to piece together all the different clauses of all these different documents, and I'm still confused, and I'm an actual lawyer (theoretically). And then I wrote a blog entry about it that was also too long! How confused do you think consumers are? And how many of them do you think actually spent the amount of time I did to try to get through all of that? 

May 22, 2017 in Commentary, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 5, 2017

An "Egregious" Breach, But No Damages...

I haven't done a damages case in a while so here's one for you out of California, Wiring Connection, Inc. v. Amate, B264113

The parties entered into a lease totaling 65 months at $6,252 per month. After signing the lease, though, Amate leased the property to someone else and Wiring then had to lease a different property, under a three-year lease for $7,500 a month. Wiring sued for breach of contract and won. The court then had to determine damages. The lower court stated that the proper measure of damages would be the fair market value of Amate's property, less the amount Wiring had agreed to pay for it in the breached lease. Amate called an expert witness who testified that $6,252 had been the fair market value of Amate's property. The lower court was skeptical of this expert testimony, but Wiring did not call any expert witnesses of its own. Rather, Wiring argued that the proper measure of damages was the difference between what it would have paid in rent over 65 months at Amate's property and what it would pay in rent over the same time period at the property it had had to rent instead once Amate breached the lease.

The lower court said that, based on the evidence in front of it, it could not calculate any difference between the fair market value of Amate's property and the amount Wiring was going to pay under the lease, and found that it therefore could not award any damages to Wiring. The lower court said it was unhappy with the result, since Amate's breach had been "egregious," but it felt its hands were tied on the matter.

The appellate court agreed with the lower court. The lower court's statement of the measure of damages was the correct one, and Wiring failed to prove that there had been any difference between the fair market value and what was in the lease. Therefore, Wiring got nothing.  

I find this case a little curious because I find it difficult to believe that Wiring wasn't damaged in some way. Wiring is now paying substantially more for rent than it would have if the agreement had never been breached, after all. But it also seems like Wiring could have met its burden based on how much the new tenant was paying for Amate's property? I assume the new tenant was paying more (otherwise it would seem odd for Amate to breach, unless there was a personal relationship involved), and that that new tenant's monthly rate could be used to establish damages for Wiring. Probably not as high as the damages Wiring was seeking but at least something. But there is no discussion in the case of what the new tenant was paying, that I could see, so it either was less than Wiring was going to pay and so unhelpful to Wiring or Wiring simply ignored it in favor of putting all of their eggs in the basket of being compensated for the difference between their more expensive second lease. 

Either way, this is a painful damages case from Wiring's perspective. A welcome one, of course, from Amate's perspective! 

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Contractual Rights to Prince's "Vault"

On April 14, the Wall Street Journal reported that Universal Music Group has won the licensing rights to late pop/rock star Prince's music in the "vault" he apparently kept on his property.  The price tag was $30 million.  Now, however, Warner Music Group, the singer's first record label, claims that it has conflicting rights in the material.  

That turn of events is hardly surprising, but what is is the fact that Universal "hadn't seen a copy of Prince's 2014 contract with Warner, so it asked [a relevant party] to clarify the details afters signing the deal and running into roadblocks as it tried to move forward." Unknown

Of course, legal disputes also arose as Prince did not leave a will, thus ceding his entire estate to his sister and five half-siblings.

Textbook lessons of what NOT to do in the contracts and wills and estates areas of the law.

April 25, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Famous Cases, In the News, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

United Airlines and Unequal Bargaining Positions

It's by now common knowledge that United Airlines finally fessed up to its mistakes and promised not to use police to drag paying customers who held valid contracts and thus tickets with the airline off the planes anymore.  That seems like, uhm, a reasonable policy.

Now, as I have said before: when are we as a society going to wake up to and thus call for, yes, REGULATORY change in relation to the clearly dysfunctional contractual relationship between the few remaining American airlines and paying customers?  This recent debacle with the Asian doctor bloodied while being physically dragged away from a valid contractual situation (I know, I know, the airline had a right to oversell and so forth) shows the results of a clearly unequal bargaining position.

Let's call it what it is: unacceptable and abusively unequal commercial practice.  What, for example, if YOU want to change your ticket?  Good luck trying to do that unless you paid ten or so times what a regular ticket would be.  As I have also mentioned before: how about price gouging, or whatever we as attorneys may label the following: buying an airline ticket from point A to B in Europe with some low cost carriers will cost you very, very little.  Here, "low cost" carriers still charge you hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  I agree, the market place and capitalist system is better than the alternative, but it is far from perfect.  For what alternative do we have? Take the train? Drive?!  Right... in a country of this size, you just cannot reasonably do that.  

Or how about this: my elderly mother can fly to Los Angeles from Copenhagen and back on KLM/Delta Airlines for less than half of what I would have to pay on the VERY SAME AIRLINE, DATES, etc.   Yes, I've checked it.  Same route, you name it.  That's not "market forces," then, that's cheating customers because one can.

Airlines are great and provide a great and necessary service to many of us.  In fact, so necessary that they have, for all intents and purposes, become the "bus companies" or railroads of today.  Just as railroad companies and bus service providers were and are, to the best of my non-native knowledge, subject to quite some regulations, so would it not be unreasonable to look into the modern practices of airlines today.  Airlines around the world make a good living while facing quite a bit more regulation than American carriers do.  We are often being played for fools here.  We just put up with it too much.

April 12, 2017 in Commentary | Permalink

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Flying the Friendly Skies after the Suffering Through the Violent Boarding Process?

Everyone is surely, by now, aware of the (most recent) United Airlines scandal.  Numerous questions abound: Was the airline racist in asking a non-white person to give up his seat or was the selection of which passenger to bump truly random? If the latter, was the airline racist in pursing this action after seeing that the selected passenger was not white whereas it might have given up taking such drastic action if it the passenger had been white? Equally importantly, what in the world is going on when law enforcement officers act as they did in this situation?! Is it fair to consider United Airlines responsible for actions that were, after all, not taken by its employees, but rather by the authorities?

While these questions are being addressed in many other locations, I find it interesting that several news sources correctly point out that United was legally entitled to bump a passenger, but that several sources seem to incorrectly state that under Department of Transportation rules, airlines may only pay passengers “up to a” $1,350 limit for delays of more than two hours. I have not had the time to fully research this rule, but as I read the rules, there is nothing saying that there is a limit to how much airlines may choose to pay, only what the DOT rules guarantee a pay-out (that one can, incidentally, insist on getting as payment, not a voucher) of $1,350, not more under the federal rules. The DOT guideline states as follows (from a website version only, admittedly):

“If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).”

If my understanding is correct, United could have chosen to voluntarily pay out a lot more than what they reportedly did ($800-1,000) and, as many correctly point out, most likely found some taker.  Surely, the rules do not prohibit this.  Instead, however, United chose to do what seems to increasingly be the order of the day: stand on their own rights and disregard the interests of their customers in the name of making a few extra dollars. Why am I not surprised?

April 11, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Nevada Court: There Was No Oral Contract, and It Needed to Be in Writing Anyway

A recent case out of the District of Nevada, Greenstein v. Wells Fargo Bank, Case No. 2:14-cv-01457-APG-CWH (behind paywall), reminds us of the importance of the statute of frauds as a useful doctrine that can clarify when parties have entered into a contract and when they haven't. Greenstein contended that he and Wells Fargo had entered into an oral contract regarding modifying his existing home loan. However, Wells Fargo disputed that. The court agreed with Wells Fargo that there was no contract, because Greenstein at best had alleged that, during multiple telephone calls, Wells Fargo had represented that it "might" agree later to a modification. Wells Fargo did tell Greenstein that he needed to reduce his principal to qualify for a modification, but that was not the same thing as saying that he definitely would qualify for a modification if he paid down the principal (which, in any case, he did not do). 

Greenstein apparently misinterpreted these conversations with Wells Fargo, none of which amounted to an offer or acceptance or even any material terms. This is precisely the sort of situation that the statute of frauds exists to try to alleviate: Because the contract involved land, it needed to be in writing. It never was, and surely any writing between the parties would have cleared up at least some of the misunderstanding between the parties. Oral contracts (alleged or existing) lend themselves easily to mistaken conclusions; making the land contract be in writing at least sometimes saves confusion and disagreement over these all-important terms. 

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Everyone Else Is Talking About Healthcare. Why Not Us, Too?

This is a health insurance case, but it's also a case about implied contracts. 

In a recent case out of the Eastern District of California, San Joaquin General Hospital v. United Healthcare Insurance Co., No. 2:16-cv-01904-KJM-EFB (behind paywall), the hospital sued the health insurance company after it refused to pay the entirety of the bills the hospital sent to it. The hospital alleged that it had contacted the insurance company to obtain authorizations for the medical services in question and that the insurance company had orally authorized such care. The hospital therefore argued that the two parties had an oral or implied-in-fact contract and the insurance company's refusal to pay the whole bill was a breach of that contract. 

The insurance company moved to dismiss the claim but the court disagreed. It found that the complaint alleged the communications I outlined above, and also alleged that the insurance company had paid some of the bill and was refusing to pay the rest. The court found that this partial performance on the part of the insurance company was enough to indicate the presence of an implied-in-fact contract such that the hospital's claim could survive the motion to dismiss. 

The hospital also pled a cause of action for quantum meruit, which the insurance company also moved to dismiss, partly on the grounds that the insurance company claimed to receive no benefit from the hospital's actions. The hospital argued in response that it performed services for the insurance company's customers, which thereby benefitted the insurance company. My favorite line of this decision comes during the analysis of this cause of action: "It is plausible on its face that the patients received a benefit from the Hospital's services." Ha. I get why it's phrased that way but it makes me laugh. Maybe. Maybe you got a benefit by being treated for illness or injury by a hospital. Maybe. Seems plausible, at least. Somewhat believable that going to a hospital when ill or injured and receiving services to treat your condition might benefit you in some way. 

March 29, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 27, 2017

NDAs in the Sexual Assault Context

I've blogged a lot about NDAs on this blog, including in the context of allegations of domestic violence. So when I saw this recent essay on Inside Higher Ed discussing NDAs in the context of sexual assault investigations on university campuses, I thought it would be interesting to link to. Confidentiality provisions show up everywhere, and I think the essay is a thoughtful and important rumination on the effect they can have in some situations. 

March 27, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Law Schools, True Contracts, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Oxford Comma is (Still) Important

In case you have not yet heard about the recent First Circuit Court of Appeals case discussing the legal importance of a comma, here goes: A Maine statute lists the following activities as not counting for overtime pay: Images

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.

Does that mean that drivers can get overtime because driving does count for overtime since “packing” covers both “shipment or distribution”? Or should the sentence be read as “packing for storage” as one thing and “distribution” another, thus precluding the drivers from earning overtime pay?

Circuit judge David J. Barron concluded that “the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”

So, commas still matter. Consider too how “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are a little different. Language aficionados take note! Precise drafting still matters. Was this an outcome-oriented holding? Perhaps. But if so, a holding in favor of workers over a company in a case of interpretive doubt may, in today’s increasingly tough economy for middle and low-income earners, not be such a bad idea from a public policy point of view.

The case is O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901 (1st Cir. 2017).

March 19, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 17, 2017

No Lawsuit for Selling Suboptimally Sized Product

A group of plaintiffs suffering from glaucoma bought eye drops manufactured by six pharmaceutical companies. They claimed that the eye drops were unnecessarily large (no, let’s not go there this time): all drops sold by these manufacturers were larger than 16 microliters (equal to 10% of a tablespoon). The plaintiffs claim that unnecessarily large eye drops are wasteful because the human eye can only contain so much fluid. Anything in excess of that will simply overflow and be wasted, which is a waste of money.

The amount of fluid that the human eye can contain without overflowing varies from person to person. The defendants asserted that the amount often exceeds 16 microliters. Further, the active ingredient in each drop is only about 1% of the drop. The smaller the drop, the less therapeutic effect, they claimed (without explaining why, for example, two drops could not simply be applied by those with larger eyes…). Defendants also claimed that larger drops helps those with unsteady hands, such as the elderly, because “the smaller the drop, the likelier they are to miss.” Now, at least that makes sense… (not!).

As was said on the listserv, this is arguably not even a contract law case at all, especially because no allegation of misrepresentation, breach of contract, or the like was asserted. In the words of opinion author Judge Posner, this is merely a case of “you can do better by us” asserted by plaintiff consumers. “That is all they are arguing.” However, said Posner, “[o]ne cannot bring a suit in federal court without pleading that one has been injured in some way (physically, financially—whatever) by the defendant. That's what's required for standing. The fact that a seller does not sell the product that you want, or at the price you'd like to pay, is not an actionable injury; it is just a regret or disappointment—which is all we have here, the class having failed to allege ‘an invasion of a legally protected interest.’”

So, what do we have here? No contracts violation, perhaps. Consumer fraud under the respective state acts? Apparently not. What we seem to have, however, is another instance of Corporate America taking advantage of consumers with the consent of even the federal judicial appellate system. Of course any product that is larger than what is needed per “portion” is wasteful and thus arguably taking unnecessary advantage of consumers. Whether or not that can be framed as an actionable legal issue in our system is another story altogether, sadly. Even worse: companies do apparently not want to do right by their own customers, in this case often elderly folks going blind! Episode32

This is, of course, not the only instance of needless and blatant consumer fraud (for that is what these instances are, at least in the common, if not the legal, sense of the word). More examples:

  • When you buy lotion, it is next to impossible to get the last, oh, 20% out of those pump-type containers unless you unscrew the pump and pour out the lotion.
  • Almost all perishable food items are sold in much larger portions than what is needed for most of us – think cottage cheese, yoghurt, lunch meats (OK, apart from those itty bitty bags, those are great), milk, you name it. People needing more could just buy two items! (That’s how it’s done with great success in many European countries, but heaven forbid that we ever learn anything from other countries.) The rest of us often have to throw out much of the food as it doesn’t last that long.
  • How about packaging? Huge bags of chips that are only 1/2 full? Same for cereal boxes? Sun screen spray bottles that are also only 1/3 full?
  • OK, I’m in a crappy mood about companies and organizations today, I admit. Of course the capitalist model is the best one, etc. etc. But it would be nice if more companies would focus more on decency, less waste in packaging and eventual product usage, and consumer needs. This eye drop story really is one of forcing consumers to waste product and thus money. Let’s just call a spade a spade.

On an unrelated note: I apologize for being so inactive on this blog for so long. I have had a disappointing contractual work experience that has drained me and continues to do so, frankly. I am trying the hardest I can to find interesting cases to blog about. Should you hear of any, I’d be delighted to be notified. I also invite guest bloggers to blog here with us. As always: thanks to my co-bloggers for their hard and excellent work!

The case described above is Eike, et al. v. Allergan, et al., No. 16-3334 (Seventh Cir. 2017).

Hat tip to my colleagues on the Contracts listserv for discussing this case.

March 17, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Iowa Bill Proposal: To Get Faculty Position, Must Have Correct Political Affiliation

Just when you think the political debacle in this country cannot get anymore grotesque, here's a recent proposal by Iowa State Senator March Chelgren: to counter the liberal slant at Iowa's three public universities, the job candidates' political affiliations would have had to be considered.   Why?  To ensure "balanced speech" and avoid the "liberal slant" in public universities these days. 

Under SF 288, the universities would use voter registration information when considering job applicants, and could not make any hire that would cause declared Democrats or Republicans on the faculty to outnumber the other party by more than 10%.

Demonstrating the very deep and logical (not!) argument, check this line of thinking: Chelgren said professors who want to be hired could simply change their party affiliation to be considered for the position.  "We have an awful lot of taxpayer dollars that go to support these fine universities," he said. "(Students) should be able to go to their professors, ask opinions, and they should know publicly whether that professor is a Republican or Democrat or no-party affiliation, and therefore they can expect their answers to be given in as honest a way possible. But they should have the ability to ask questions of professors of different political ideologies."

Duh!

February 26, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink

Saturday, February 25, 2017

This Is a Case About Trade Secrets But in Other News: Google Has a Project Called "Project Loon" Involving Balloons in Earth's Stratosphere

Balloon fully inflated.jpg
By CambridgeBayWeather - Own work, GFDL, Link

Here's a case that's out of this world, lolololol, I'm ashamed of myself. 

But a recent case out of the Northern District of California, Space Data Corp. v. X, Case No. 16-cv-03260-BLF, deals with weather balloons and a failed negotiation between Space Data and Google regarding becoming partners. Like many corporations who have valuable trade secrets that need to stay protected during negotiations but also need to be revealed so they can be evaluated and discussed, the parties entered into an NDA. This lawsuit resulted from Google's subsequent development of "Project Loon," which involves using high-altitude balloons to provide wireless services, and which Space Data alleges uses information Google gained from Space Data during the failed negotiations. 

Space Data's challenge, of course, is that it knows very little about Google's Project Loon, and so all of its allegations regarding trade secret misappropriation and breach of the NDA are vague and conclusory. Space Data was unable to point to any confidential information Google used that violated the NDA, and therefore those counts were dismissed. Space Data tried to argue that it didn't know yet what information Google was using but that it had provided enough information for the court to infer that Google must be using some misappropriated confidential information. The court, however, found there was not enough in the complaint for these causes to survive into discovery. 

A guiding tale for anyone writing up a trade secret complaint right now. 

Space Data's patent infringement claims against Google still exist. The complaint is available here

February 25, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Contracts IN THE FUTURE

So far in the future, they're on Mars. 

I've been doing a ton of traveling over the past few weeks, which is why my blogging has been so sporadic. One of the things I've been doing, therefore, is listening to lots of podcasts. So many podcasts that I've run out of many of my more news- or education-oriented ones, and so I started delving into a podcast called "Penumbra," which a friend recommended. Specifically the Juno Steel series of stories. "It's about an emotionally complex, sardonic character," she said, "that sounds like your thing." Such is my reputation. 

But yeah, totally my thing. Juno Steel is a private investigator on Mars many centuries from now. The podcast plays around with the film noir genre, complete with hard-boiled narration. But the reason why I'm rambling about it on this blog is because the first episode, Juno Steel and the Case of the Murderous Mask, happens, delightfully, to revolve around contracts. The most powerful family in Hyperion City on Mars requires everyone who is allowed in their house to sign an intensely detailed contract. One of the characters remarks that they've seen novels shorter than the contract and would need a month to read the whole thing. They end up signing the contract without reading it, mostly because they'd already had to agree to a shortened version of it before receiving the long version. And the contract, of course, required them to reveal nothing about the family in question. So apparently, in the future, the powerful will still be surrounding themselves with NDAs! (Interestingly, the "liquidated damages," should you breach the contract, appeared to be that the wealthy family would broadcast all of your secrets. Mutually assured privacy destruction, I suppose!)

Part of the plot also involves an oral agreement that isn't properly captured by the subsequent written agreement, as well as forged signatures. I don't want to spoil it, but if you're looking for something somewhat more fun than the latest cases (although what is more fun than the latest cases???), you can give it a listen and still feel like you're Thinking About the Law. 

February 24, 2017 in Commentary, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Providing "Retirement Benefits" Isn't the Same as Providing Health Insurance Coverage

A recent case out of New York, Wilson v. New York State Thruway Authority, 931-16, deals with the collective bargaining agreement between the New York State Thruway Authority and its retirees over whether the Thruway Authority was contractually bound to provide health insurance coverage to the retirees at no cost. The retirees had enjoyed free health insurance until April 1, 2016, when the Thruway Authority required them to start paying six percent of their premiums. The retirees wanted to introduce evidence that the parties understood that the Thruway Authority was going to pay all of their health insurance premiums, pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 

The problem was that the contract between the parties contained no such obligation and the court found that the contract was unambiguous on its face. All that the contract stated was that the Thruway Authority should provide "retirement benefits" made available by New York statutes the contract went on to enumerate. None of those statutes contained provisions requiring the Thruway Authority to provide health insurance coverage. In fact, health care benefits were governed by different New York statutes, not the ones enumerated, and New York state courts had long pointed out that "retirement benefits" and "health care benefits" were two different things governed by two different statutes under New York law. Given that, the court concluded that "retirement benefits" was an unambiguous term of art that the parties knew the definition of, given their particular citation of New York statutes to define it. The court refused to allow extrinsic evidence in the face of this lack of ambiguity. If the retirees had wished the Thruway Authority to pay for their health insurance premiums, they should have included an express provision saying that in the collective bargaining agreement, as many other collective bargaining agreements construed under New York law had done. 

This decision is fairly straightforward as a matter of the law: finding that the term was unambiguous (and indeed basically defined within the document through the statutory citations) and so therefore extrinsic evidence was unnecessary to decide the breach of contract action (the court here concluded that, with no obligation to pay the health insurance premiums, the Thruway Authority had not breached the contract). However, it is a legal dispute that we might see more and more of, as deals with retirees are reevaluated and altered in an age of shrinking budgets. 

February 4, 2017 in Commentary, Government Contracting, Labor Contracts, Legislation, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Consent to Face Scanning

In a recent case, the video game publisher 2K recently won the right to collect and store gamers biometric data (in this case, face scans) indefinitely.  The face scanning technology is used in at least two of its NBA series games to allow gamers to create "personalized virtual basketball players". 

Plaintiffs agreed to allow them to do so when they agreed to the company’s terms and conditions.  The plaintiffs didn’t dispute that they had agreed to the terms or that they had consented to having their faces scanned; their objection was that they did not know that the scans would be stored “indefinitely” and that 2K could share the biometric data.  The court ruled that there was no harm under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.  The focus was not on contractual assent to the terms and conditions.  But this made me wonder, given how unobtrusive most terms and conditions are, and how easy it is to "manifest assent," shouldn't there be more stringent assent requirements when it comes to consent with respect to certain terms (such as the permanent storage and sharing of biometric data)?  Isn't it time we moved past the notion of blanket assent?

As more companies move toward biometric data for a wide range of reasons, we’re likely to see more problems with too-easy consent and wrap contracts.

February 3, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Equitable Estoppel Saves Statute of Frauds Issue in an Agreement Between Father and Daughter

This is a point I teach in class and I was happy to see it illustrated in a recent case out of Connecticut, Fitzgerald Management, LLC v. Fitzgerald, FBTCV166056848S (behind paywall). In the case, the defendant alleged that her father had promised multiple times to give her title to her residence if she took care of her grandmother and maintained other properties. Unfortunately, this alleged agreement between the defendant and her father was entirely oral and never committed to paper, in contravention of the statute of frauds admonition that contracts regarding real estate be in writing. 

Whenever I teach equitable estoppel in connection with the statute of frauds, I note that one of the situations where you see it come up most often is in family situations, where people might not think to enter into formal written contracts or, if they think about it, might be reluctant to insist upon it because it might be perceived as implying a lack of trust. This situation, about an agreement between a father and a daughter, fits that mold. The daughter alleged that, in reliance on her father's promise, she performed substantial improvements on the property at issue. The court found that this reliance on the daughter's part was reasonable. The daughter took care of her grandmother and maintained the requested properties, thus fulfilling her part of the bargain. At this stage of the litigation, the court found that this could entitle the daughter to equitable estoppel preventing the invocation of the statute of frauds against the agreement with her father. 

January 25, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Misunderstanding a Question Won't Save You If the Question Wasn't Ambiguous

A recent case out of the Middle District of Georgia, Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Queen, Case No. 3:15-CV-123 (CDL) (behind paywall), serves as an example of a case where the insured claimed the insurance policy at issue was ambiguous and the court disagreed.

In the case, Queen, the insured, owned a home with several outbuildings. While Queen's home and outbuildings were on an eight-acre parcel of land, Queen answered "no" to the question on the Great Lakes homeowners' insurance policy that asked if the property to be insured was on more than five acres. When one of Queen's outbuildings was destroyed in a fire, he sought to recover under the insurance policy. Great Lakes, however, upon learning that Queen's parcel of land encompassed eight acres, denied coverage, alleging that it would not have issued the policy had Queen not misrepresented the size of the parcel of the land. 

Queen argued that he had not made a misrepresentation on the insurance application. He argued that, while the parcel of land he owned totaled eight acres, it had been divided into four tracts, each of which was less than five acres. Queen's home and outbuildings were located on a particular "tract" of the larger parcel that was smaller than five acres, and so Queen had answered "no" to the question. 

The court conceded that Queen may have misunderstood the question on the insurance policy, but asserted that the question was nevertheless not ambiguous. The question asked if "the property" to be insured was situated on more than five acres. In this case, Queen provided an address as "the property" to be insured, and the amount of property associated with that address was eight acres, as even Queen conceded. Queen may have subjectively intended only to insure a particular tract of land inside that parcel, and may have had no intention to mislead Great Lakes, but that didn't change the court's conclusion that it was unambiguous--and in fact undisputed--that the property to be insured--the address provided to Great Lakes by Queen--was situated on more than five acres.

Queen next tried to argue that his misrepresentation was not material. Great Lakes submitted an affidavit that it would not have insured the property had it known that it was situated on more than five acres. The court questioned the business justification for this, asserting that the affidavit provided no explanation for how Great Lakes's risk would have increased, given that Queen's house and outbuildings sat on less than five acres. However, Queen provided no evidence rebutting Great Lakes's affidavit. Without any contrary evidence, the court had no choice but to accept Great Lakes's affidavit at face value and conclude that there was no genuine fact dispute on the question of the materiality of Queen's misrepresentation.

In the end, the court found that Great Lakes was entitled to rescind the insurance policy and granted Great Lakes summary judgment. You get the feeling that the court felt badly for Queen but also felt that it could not reach any other conclusion. 

January 24, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Apollo 11 Moon Rock Bag Stolen, Sold to BFPV at Auction, Now Government Wants it Back

In times with enough serious and often depressing news, I thought I would bring you this little neat story (with profuse apologies to everyone, including my co-bloggers, for my virtual absence for a few months):

An Apollo 11 bag used to protect moon rocks samples was stolen by Max Ary, a former curator convicted in 2006 of stealing and selling space artifacts that belonged to the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. Mr. Ary subsequently served two years in prison and was sentenced to pay more than $132,000 in restitution. Space artifacts found in his home, including the Apollo 11 bag, were forfeited to meet that debt. However, the Apollo 11 bag was incorrectly identified as Ary's and subsequently sold to Nancy Carlson for $995 in February 2015 at a Texas auction held on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service. MoonRockBack

The government petitioned the court to reverse the sale and return the lunar sample bag to NASA, alleging that due to a mix up in inventory lists and item numbers, the lunar sample bag that was the subject of the April 2014 forfeiture order was mistakenly thought to be a different bag and that no one, including the United States, realized at the time of forfeiture that this bag was used on Apollo 11. The government cited cases where federal courts vacated or amended forfeiture orders, including where inadequate notice was provided to a property owner, as a justification for the bag's return to NASA.

Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled in the U.S. District Court for Kansas that Ms. Carlsen obtained the title to the historic artifact as "a good faith purchaser, in a sale conducted according to law." With her title to the bag now ordered by the Kansas court, Carlson needs to file a motion in the U.S. District Court for Texas for its return from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. However, “[t]he importance and desirability of the [lunar sample] bag stems solely and directly from the efforts of the men and women of NASA, whose amazing technical achievements, skill and courage in landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely [to Earth] have not been replicated in the almost half a century since the Apollo 11 landing," the judge wrote … Perhaps that fact, when reconsidered by the parties, will allow them to amicably resolve the dispute in a way that recognizes both of their legitimate interests," J. Marten wrote.

H/t to Professor Miriam Cherry for bringing this story to my attention.

January 22, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, Government Contracting, In the News, Miscellaneous, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reminder: Contracts Mean What They Say. And External Grants Aren't Non-Tenure Track Positions

Frequently when I teach Contracts I find myself telling the students to just put in the contract exactly what they want it to say, because so often I feel like cases revolve around parties saying, "I know what it said, but I thought that meant something else entirely." Although, often, of course, these might be ex post facto proclamations when a situation turns out to not be exactly what the party thought it was going to be. 

A recent case out of Maryland, Norman v. Morgan State University, No. 1926 September Term 2015 (behind paywall), is another illustration of a party claiming that a contract means what a court finds it does not mean. In that case, Norman had sued Morgan State after he was denied tenure there. The parties entered into a settlement agreement under which Norman was permitted to apply for "any non-tenure track position at [Morgan State] for which he was qualified." The current lawsuit is the result of Norman's allegation that Morgan State prevented him from applying for an external research grant that that would have funded a future position at the school for him. 

The court, however, found that the contract clearly stated that Norman could apply for "any non-tenure track position." It said nothing about external grants and external grants are not non-tenure track positions. Therefore the settlement agreement did not require Morgan State to permit Norman to seek the external grant. Norman tried to argue that he would not have agreed to the settlement agreement had he known it allowed Morgan State to block applications for external grants, but the court dismissed that argument based on the plain and unambiguous language of the contract. 

January 13, 2017 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

When the Break-Up of a Marriage Is Also a Breach of Contract

HGTV

Photo Source: hgtv.com

The main reason I have cable these days, honestly, is because of my HGTV addiction. I like that the shows are so predictable and formulaic, which makes them low-stress. It's a habit I started years ago as a stressed-out lawyer in a law firm, when I needed to come home and watch something that didn't require thought, and it's kept me company as I transitioned into academia. And I'm apparently not alone in using it as comfort television

I use HGTV a lot in my Contracts class as the foundation of hypotheticals (so much that I'm contributing a chapter to a book detailing how I use it) and so I'm always interested when there is a real-life HGTV contract problem...such as is happening right now with "Flip or Flop." 

You might not be anxiously following HGTV shows, so let me tell you that the world was recently rocked (well, a small corner of the world) by the revelation that Christina and Tarek, the married couple with two young children at the center of the house-flipping show "Flip or Flop," were separated and/or getting divorced. And now come reports that HGTV has threatened them with a breach of contract action if their ongoing marital problems affect the filming of the show.

This is an example of the interesting issues that arise when your personal life becomes the equivalent of your contractually obligated professional life. Christina and Tarek no longer want to be married to each other, apparently, which is a stressful enough situation, without adding in the fact that their marriage is also the source of their livelihood. HGTV has a point that the show is less successful when you know that their personal life is a mess. The network was running a commercial pretty steadily through the holiday season where Christina and Tarek talked about their family Christmas, and every time I saw it I thought it was so weird and that they should pull the commercial. But that was clearly the advertising campaign HGTV had long planned for the show and it was probably costly for HGTV to change it at that point.

I am curious to see what the resolution of this is. I'm unclear how much longer Christina and Tarek were under contract for. They probably hoped to keep their separation quiet for as long as they could (they had, after all, kept it quiet for several months). But now that it's out in the open, we'll have to see how the parties recalibrate not just their personal but also their contractual relationships with each other. There is always a lot of talk about how "real" the shows on HGTV is. This situation is testing where our boundaries on "real" vs. "fake" actually lie. 

January 7, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Teaching, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)