Wednesday, October 26, 2016
We've been talking about contract interpretation in my Contracts class lately and I'm always struck by how many cases involve a lower court ruling of ambiguity and then an appellate court reversal of that ruling, because it always strikes me as such a funny thing. The very definition of ambiguity would seem to be "multiple people disagreeing on the meaning of the word," but the appellate court decisions in those cases necessarily have to dismiss the reasonableness of the lower court's understanding of the meaning in order to assert that the meaning is SO OBVIOUS. This always makes these cases feel a little more...condescending? Than the typical reversal. Like, "We don't know what you were so confused about, lower court, this is OBVIOUS."
A recent case out of California, Borgwat v. Shasta Union Elementary School District, No. C078692, is another example of this. The plaintiff, upon retiring from the defendant, was entitled to a monthly post-retirement contribution toward her "medical insurance coverage." For a couple of years, the defendant paid the contribution toward the plaintiff's dental and vision coverage. But then the defendant concluded that dental and vision insurance was not included in "medical insurance coverage" and ceased paying the contribution. This lawsuit resulted.
The lower court found the phrase "medical insurance coverage" to be ambiguous and allowed extrinsic evidence to illuminate its definition, including the fact that the defendant had initially paid the plaintiff the contribution for a few years. Therefore, the lower court endorsed the plaintiff's interpretation that "medical insurance coverage" included dental and vision insurance.
The appellate court here reversed, though, saying that "medical insurance coverage" was not an ambiguous term. The relevant section of the contract was Section 5.7 but the appellate court looked to Section 5.2, which dealt with benefits during the course of employment. In that section, the defendant had agreed to pay sums "toward the cost of medical, dental and vision benefit coverage." The fact that dental and vision were considered independent from medical insurance in Section 5.2 rendered the use of "medical insurance" in Section 5.7 unambiguous: It can't include dental and vision insurance, because the parties in Section 5.2 revealed that they didn't understand medical to include dental and vision insurance when they felt it necessary to list all three. For this reason, the appellate court refused to allow any extrinsic evidence, because the defendant's mistake in paying for the dental and vision insurance could not change the unambiguous terms of the contract.
So there you have it. OBVIOUSLY. :-)
Saturday, October 22, 2016
A friend of mine asked me the other day about the ongoing controversy over all of that unaired Apprentice footage that is apparently sitting around somewhere. MGM and Mark Burnett have both claimed that they are not allowed to release the tapes due to confidentiality provisions in their contracts with Donald Trump. (Fortune has an article about this here, as does the New York Times.) My friend's question basically boiled down to this: Yeah, sure, maybe that deal made sense when the contract was signed with a New York self-professed billionaire but now he's running for President of the United States, and shouldn't that mean something?
Other people have raised this issue. What seems to me unique about the Donald Trump situation isn't necessarily the confidentiality provisions over the Apprentice tape, but how often, during this political campaign, we've been debating the secrecy Trump requires from all of those around him. The Apprentice contract is just the latest example of this. Over the summer, several news outlets reported on the unusually broad terms of the NDA Trump required his staffers to sign. To be fair, NDAs are not unusual during a Presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton has allegedly had her staffers sign them as well. But Trump's apparently are unusually broad, and he requires them even of volunteers who show up to make calls for Trump's campaign and presumably never even really meet Trump? What confidential information could these volunteers even know? Well, Trump is the one who gets to tell them that. And he's not afraid to sue on the NDAs: We know of at least one arbitration filed against a former staffer, alleging damages of $10 million.
Two things I take away from this:
(1) Donald Trump seems to be obsessed with controlling his image, which makes total sense, as he's made an entire career out of Being Donald Trump and it could even make him President. Trump is so fond of restricting what those around him can say about him that he's even said he'll make his federal employees sign NDAs if he does become President. At the same time, of course, Trump himself doesn't appear to feel restrained in any way to say any thought that comes into his head. So we seem to have a situation where part of the advantage of being rich is being able to say absolutely anything you want and also control to some degree what the people around you get to say, even once your relationship with them has been terminated.
(2) Despite this, however, we all know more about Donald Trump than I think he wants us to know. In the relentless glare of a Presidential campaign, no matter how many NDAs you leave in your wake, is it just impossible to keep secrets forever? And, maybe, is there something comforting about that? My friend wants to see the Apprentice tapes, but we don't know what's in the Apprentice tapes, and we don't know who even has time to review them. But we do know a great deal, maybe not Apprentice-related, but maybe enough?
P.S. This is not the first time I've blogged about Donald Trump's contracts. If you're curious, that case hasn't really progressed since that blog entry.
Monday, October 17, 2016
I was listening to the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish (highly recommended) when I learned that Einstein used his Nobel Prize money as a divorce settlement to his first wife...the only catch being that he divorced her in 1919 and won the Nobel Prize in 1921. The podcast characterized this as: "If I win the Nobel Prize, I'll give you the money." Amazing! Imagine being so confident in your Nobel Prize chances! (I guess if you are Einstein, you would be that confident.)
I know I just found a new go-to hypo to use in class.
Monday, October 10, 2016
Exciting news! JOTWELL (the Journal of Things We Like - Lots!) has a new Contracts section - and it has just gone live! David Hoffman (Temple) and I are the Section editors. Aditi Bagchi (Fordham), Dan Barnhizer (Michigan State), Shawn Bayern (Florida State), Omri Ben-Shahar (Chicago), Martha Ertman (Maryland), Robert Hillman (Cornell), Hila Keren (Southwestern), Florencia Marotta-Wurgler (NYU), Eboni Nelson (South Carolina), Robert Scott (Columbia), Tess Wilkinson-Ryan (Pennsylvania) and Eyal Zamir (Hebrew University) are contributing editors so expect to see articles from them over the next few months.
The inaugural article is by Prof. Robert Hillman of Cornell and reviews Aaron Perzanowski & Chris Jay Hoofnagle's article, What We Buy When We Buy Now, (forthcoming U. Pa. L. Rev.). The article raises interesting issues about ownership of digital "goods" and has already sparked interest in the popular press.
Welcome to the world of contracts JOTWELL!
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Hip-Hop Contracts Week continues! This time with a recent ruling out of the Southern District of New York in Walker v. Carter, #1:12-cv-05384-ALC-RLE (behind paywall).
In the case, the plaintiff, Walker, sued Jay-Z and others regarding not a song but the logo for Roc-a-Fella Records. The court was dismissive of Walker's relationship to the logo right off the bat: "Plaintiff casts himself as the creative mastermind of the Logo's design, though he admits that he neither came up with the idea for the Logo nor drew any part of it." Right away you can tell that this doesn't sound like a judge who's inclined to find for the plaintiff here.
And he doesn't. He grants defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no evidence of any written contract between the parties and so Walker's breach of contract claims could not survive. Walker had alleged that he and the defendants had entered into a contract providing for royalties to be paid over a period of ten years. Unfortunately for Walker, this contract--which couldn't possibly be performed within a year--is subject to the Statute of Frauds and required to be in writing, or at least for there to be sufficient evidence that a writing once existed. Generally, in New York this evidence has consisted of either the admission by the other party that a writing did exist at one time or the testimony of witnesses regarding the signing and content of the now-lost writing. Here, defendants denied that any writing had ever existed (which seems predictable, frankly) and Walker could produce no witnesses as to the signing of the contract, as Walker stated that no one other than the defendants and himself were there when the contract was signed.
Walker did produce two witnesses regarding the existence of the contract. However, they were insufficient. One testified that he had seen a piece of paper Walker told him was a contract but that he didn't read the contract and did not know what the contract said. The other testified in a number of ways that contradicted Walker's own testimony regarding the contract: Walker claimed to have written the contract in the same face-to-face meeting when it was signed, but the witness claimed to have seen the contract before it was signed, which couldn't have been possible if Walker's testimony was true. Walker claimed to have lost the contract in 1996, but the witness claimed to have seen it in 2000. Walker claimed the contract was written on blank paper, the witness claimed the contract was on lined paper. Et cetera. The court felt justified, given all of these impossible contradictions in the testimony, in disregarding this witness's testimony, especially since the witness also claimed to have a direct interest in the contract due to his close relationship with Walker. In fact, the court recounted that the witness had initially testified that he had never seen the contract, and only changed his testimony after being spoken to by counsel and after the statute of frauds had become an issue in the case.
Therefore the court concluded that the statute of frauds required the contract to be in writing, there was no writing, and there was no genuine issue of material fact that there had ever been a writing, and so granted defendants' summary judgment motion.
(He also found that Walker's copyright infringement claims were time-barred, so this was a total victory for Jay-Z and the other defendants.)
(A Reuters article about the case can be found here.)
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
A recent case out of the District of Utah, HealthBanc International v. Synergy Worldwide, Case No. 2:16-cv-00135-JNP-PMW, reminds us all of this rule. Well, it definitely reminded the parties and now I'm blogging about it and reminding all of you!
This case revolves around "a recipe for a powder comprised of various grasses and other components." Apparently you can combine this powder with water to make a nutritional supplement. HealthBanc entered into a contract with Synergy whereby Synergy would distribute the powder and pay HealthBanc royalties for every bottle of powder it sold. After almost a decade of doing business together, the relationship between the two parties soured. HealthBanc sued first, and then Synergy counterclaimed, alleging that HealthBanc had led Synergy to believe that it owned intellectual property rights in the recipe for the power, which apparently turned out to be untrue. HealthBanc then moved to dismiss this fraudulent inducement claim based on lack of particularity in Synergy's pleadings. The court here grants the motion.
Synergy's complaint just generally alleged that HealthBanc had made misrepresentations. Those general allegations are not enough for a fraudulent inducement claim. Synergy identified nothing about the misrepresentations: When did they happen? Where did they happen? Were they written? Oral? Who made them? Without any of this information, the court finds this cause of action can't survive.
The contract between the parties did contain a clause where HealthBanc
represents and warrants that it is the sole and exclusive owner of the entire rights, title and interest, including without limitation all patent, trademark, copyright and other intellectual property rights,
and another clause where HealthBanc "represents and warrants" that it has exclusive rights to the recipe that it can provide to Synergy. But those clauses don't raise a valid fraudulent inducement claim. Synergy made no allegations about the drafting of those clauses, nor did it allege that those clauses caused it to falsely believe that HealthBanc owned IP rights in the recipe and that that false belief prompted Synergy to sign the contract.
Likewise, Synergy failed to allege any particular way that it was harmed by the alleged misrepresentations.
Therefore, on basically every single element Synergy made very general claims that failed to meet the particularity standards. The court does dismiss without prejudice, though, giving Synergy the opportunity to try to fix the deficiencies. Stay tuned!
*Note the first: Synergy Worldwide sounds vaguely like what a company would be called in a Marvel movie so I actually looked the company up to see what it does. It seems to be a company specializing in nutritional supplements: "Your source for ProArgi-9 Plus, the highest quality l-arginine supplement on the market, as well as Mistica acai supplement, Core Greens, and more."
*Note the second: I also looked up "greens formula," which is what the court here refers to the recipe as. Wikipedia just wants to tell me about mathematical theorems, which then sent me down the Wikipedia rabbit hole to learn about George Green, a self-taught mathematical genius who received only one year of formal schooling as a child and to this day no one really knows where or how he learned the form of calculus that his theorems advanced.
Monday, September 26, 2016
This recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Landan v. Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust, 2:12cv926 (behind paywall), is sort of a try-try-again case, although the "try again" part has as negative an outcome for the plaintiffs as the "try" part did. The plaintiffs' breach of contract claim had already failed here because the court found there was no oral agreement between the parties and the parties' signed letter of intent indicated that the parties did not wish to be bound until a final formal contract was executed (as never happened).
In the face of the failure of their breach of contract claim, the plaintiffs turn here to promissory estoppel. But the lack of a final formal contract haunts the promissory estoppel analysis, too. The court finds the plaintiffs were unable to explain what promises had been made to them and characterizes the plaintiffs' stance as "unclear, inconsistent, constantly shifting, and ultimately unavailing." Given the confusion about the statements at issue, the court concludes that any reliance on such vague statements on the plaintiffs' part was unreasonable. A lot of the courts' characterization of the statements and the reasonableness, though, seem to revolve around the fact that the parties never reached a final formal contract: It would be hard for the plaintiffs to allege definite promises, the court says, because the parties were negotiating and hadn't entered into a formal deal yet; maybe Wal-Mart did make some statements but, the court says, in the context of the ongoing negotiations it would have been unreasonable for the plaintiffs to rely on those statements.
Granted, there seem to definitely be issues with the plaintiffs' promissory estoppel claim here. The court points out that the plaintiffs themselves behaved sometimes as if they did not understand Wal-Mart to be making any promises to them, apparently negotiating with other parties over the same piece of land because of their skepticism about the Wal-Mart deal going through. And there was the letter of intent between the parties that did seem to make it less reasonable that the plaintiffs would rely on indefinite negotiating statements that hadn't been reduced to writing the way others of the statements had been. But it also seems like, once the court decided that the letter of intent wasn't binding because it contemplated a subsequent agreement, the plaintiffs' promissory estoppel claim was likewise doomed. Without a formal executed agreement, there was nothing for the plaintiffs to do to save their claim.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into whether now-notorious EpiPen manufacturer Mylan inserted potentially anticompetitive terms into its EpiPen sales contracts with numerous local school systems.
EpiPens are carried by those of us who have severe allergies to, for example, bee stings. The active ingredient will help prevent anaphylactic shocks that can quickly result in death. In 2007, a two-pack of EpiPens sold for $57. Today, the price is $600. The company touts various coupons, school purchase programs and the like, but in my experience, at least the coupons are mere puffery unless you are very lucky to fit into a tiny category of users that I have not been able to take the time to identify.
However, there is finally hope for some real competition in this field: Minneapolis doctor Douglas McMahon has created an EpiPen alternative that he is trying to market. This doctor claims that Mylan and companies like it have lost sigh of patient needs and are catering to investors. In his opinion, that is the true reason for the skyrocketing prices. Well said.
The doctor is even resorting to something as unusual as a fundraising website to raise money for the required FDA testing and other steps.
Another contractual issue seems to be why customers have to buy at least two Epipens at a time. The active ingredient only lasts for one year. Those of use who carry EpiPens hope never to have to use them, but if we will, it is extremely unlikely that we will have to do so twice in a year! But alas, in the United States at least, you have to buy this product in a two-pack (EpiPens are sold individually in countries such as Canada and the UK). It may be a regulatory and not a pure contractual issue, but if the company truly sticks to its current story that it is on the up-and-up in all respects in this context, they should at least enable people to offer to buy only what they need, which in many cases would be only one EpiPen at a time.
Hat tip to Professor Carol Chomsky of the University of Minnesota School of Law for the information on the Minnesota doctor.
Monday, September 19, 2016
A now formerly tenured teacher with the Saint Paul Public School District http://www.spps.org/domain/1235 had several complaints lodged against him by students. The teacher was alleged to have been racially discriminative towards certain students and to have exhibited “other inappropriate conduct towards students.”
The story continued as follows: the district placed the teacher on paid administrative leave pending further investigations. The teacher obtained legal representation from a union attorney. The school’s investigations uncovered “additional issues” in relation to the teacher and notified the teacher that his termination would be proposed at a school board meeting. The teacher’s attorney advised him that he could (1) acquiesce in the termination, (2) negotiate a separation, or (3) attend a hearing.
The teacher subsequently testified that he felt like a gun had been placed to his head and that he had been forced to resign. Prior to the district taking any action against him, he sent a draft resignation letter to the district, requesting that in exchange for his resignation, he would be allowed to take his sick days, would receive a clean employment file, a letter of recommendation, and an opportunity to continue teaching driver’s education.
The dispute took some other twists and turns, but ended up with the teacher being upset that he could not continue as a driver’s ed teacher and attempting to withdraw a resignation letter that he had submitted. The district declined this. The teacher filed suit for duress and misrepresentation.
As for the duress, the teacher claimed that the district didn’t have the actual intent to fire him and no grounds to do so either. He also alleged that the district had promised not to report him if he resigned, which was a violation of Minn. Stat. § 122.A.20. He also claimed economic duress.
Strangely, economic duress is not recognized in Minnesota. Only “when an agreement is coerced by physical force or unlawful threats … which destroys the victim’s free will and compels him[/her] to comply with some demand of the party exerting the coercion” may suit lie. Bond v. Charlson, 374 N.W.2d 423, 428 (Minn. 1985); Wise v. Midtown Motors, 42 N.W.2d 4040, 407 (1950).
As for the regular duress, the court found that the teacher could not demonstrate that his free will had been destroyed. The court found that doing so requires more than “a scintilla of evidence” and that the teacher simply had not presented enough evidence of any wrongdoing by the district. The court also emphasized the fact that the teacher was represented by and received counsel from a union attorney skilled in these very matters. The court found no misrepresentations made by the school district.
Intimidating procedures or not: if one wishes to retain a chance to keep a job even in times of severe allegations, it becomes necessary to stand by one’s rights at all times until, perhaps the bitter end. The duress claim does indeed seem very weak here - almost fabricated after the fact.
What seems more surprising is the fact that Minnesota does not recognize economic duress. In times when the employment situation for many is still not the easiest (understatement), that’s a tough limitation on the legal rights of employees. This is exacerbated by the fact that employees have recognized property interests in both their jobs and teaching licenses. But of course, “where there’s smoke, there’s [often] fire.” At least in this case, it does seem that there was underlying wrongdoing by the teacher, so it’s a bit difficult to feel too sorry for him as well.
The case is Olmsted v. Saint Paul Public Schools, 2016 WL 4073494.
Friday, September 16, 2016
A British start-up company called Luminance, which is also the name of its flagship due diligence analysis, “promises” to read documents and speed up the legal process around contracting, “potentially cutting out some lawyers.” (See here and here).
Luminance says that its software “understands language the way humans do, in volumes and at speeds that humans will never achieve. It provides an immediate and global overview of any company, picking out warning signs without needing any instruction.” Really? When I was working in the language localization things more than a decade ago, I heard the same promises then… but they never come to fruition. We’ll see how this program fares.
The software is said to be “trained by legal experts.” Talk about personification of an almost literary-style. We see the same trend in the United States, though. Just think about phone and internet programs that pretend to be your “assistant” and use phrases such as “Hi, my name is [so-and-so], and I’m going to help you today…”
Meanwhile, if a law firm used software to analyze documents, would it not be subject to legal malpractice if it did not discover contracting or other issues that a human would have, in this country at least? It would seem so… and for that reason alone perhaps also be a breach of contract unless clients were made aware that cost-cutting measures include having computers analyze documents that attorneys normally do.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
I'm cheating a little because, while this case has a breach of contract claim in it, it doesn't really have anything interesting to say about contract law, mostly because the claim fails because the complaint didn't identify any contract, any terms to the contract, or any facts about the formation of the contract.
But this case out of the Northern District of New York, Golub Corp. v. Sandell Transp., Inc., 1:15-CV-0848 (LEK/CFH) (behind paywall), has an amazing set of facts relayed by the judge in a playful way, and sometimes you just want to read about a good pistachio heist, you know?
Because yes, that's what happened in this case. Golub in New York ordered some pistachios from Wonderful in California. Sandell was arranged to ship the pistachios. Sandell sought to subcontract out the job by posting on an industry job board and hiring a company called GM EXPRESS. In the court's words:
But appearances can be deceiving, and it turns out that "GM EXPRESS" was not actually GM EXPRESS. Unknown to Sandell, the identity of GM EXPRESS had been stolen by criminals who were set on pilfering Golub's pistachio shipment. . . . In this shell game of trucking companies, the pistachio thieves provided Sandell with stolen yet still valid bona fides, including insurance information, tractor and trailer license plate numbers, and a driver's license number (which Sandell claims was valid despite its conspicuously sequential numbering of B7890123). . . . Through this scheme, Sandell and Wonderful would become the thieves' unwitting insiders, happily loading the nuts directly onto the getaway vehicle.
As I said, the breach of contract claim doesn't amount to much in this case, but I enjoyed reading this opinion nonetheless and felt I had to pass it on, so you too can now ponder the disappearing truck of pistachios whose fate remains unknown.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Ordering Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions Makes You Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions (Even If You Claim You Never Saw Them)
By atul666 from Portland, USA - blueberries, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4112199
A recent case out of Michigan, Naturipe Foods, LLC v. Siegel Egg. Co., No. 327172, affirmed a high six-figure jury verdict against Siegel Egg Co. in the case of an alleged breach of contract over blueberries. Naturipe sent Siegel an offer to sell Siegel blueberries. Siegel specified in writing on the received offer that the blueberries in question were to be Grade A. Siegel than signed the offer. Underneath the line provide for Siegel's signature (where Siegel in fact signed) was the pre-printed phrase, "Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions." Naturipe sent Siegel two shipments of the blueberries ordered. The blueberries, according to Siegel, were not Grade A. Siegel therefore never paid for the blueberries it received nor did it ever order the rest of the blueberries that were supposed to be shipped under the contract. So Naturipe sued and won over $700,000 in damages, costs, and fees after a jury trial.
On appeal here, Siegel's main argument centered around the trial court's decision that Naturipe's terms and conditions did indeed apply to the contract. The terms and conditions at issue specified that Siegel's only remedies for breach of the contract were replacement of the blueberries in question or a credit of the price paid for those blueberries. Furthermore, Siegel was required under the terms and conditions to provide Naturipe with thirty days' notice of any breach of contract. Siegel failed to provide notice and sought cancellation of the entire contract as its remedy, in violation of these terms and conditions.
However, Siegel argued, Naturipe's terms and conditions should not have been considered part of the contract between the parties binding on Siegel because, according to Seigel, it was never given a copy of the terms and conditions, nor were they ever explained to Siegel. But, the court said, it was Siegel's duty to ask for an explanation and obtain a copy of the terms and conditions, because they were referenced in the offer Siegel signed. Therefore, Siegel was on notice that there were other contractual obligations in play and Siegel should have asked what those were. The court noted that Siegel had annotated the offer to require Grade A blueberries, and so was plainly capable of crossing out the "Subject to Seller's Terms and Conditions" phrase if it had so desired. Because it failed to, the court found that it was clear and unambiguous that the parties intended their contract to be subject to those terms and conditions.
I'm sure Siegel probably never gave a second thought, either at the time it was ordering or the time it received the shipments, to Naturipe's terms and conditions. That said, this case stands as a lesson that it's probably always a good policy to call someone up when you're dissatisfied with the product they have provided you. You don't necessarily have to know the law to give people an opportunity to cure; sometimes it seems like it could, in most circumstances, be the most efficient first option.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Vast Majority of Consumers Prefer Court Procedure over Arbitration
We have discussed arbitration clauses in this blog several times. Now, a Pew Charitable Trust survey of more than 1,000 individuals shows that 95% of consumers prefer judge or jury trials regarding questionable bank fees and similar practices over arbitration clauses. 89% want to be able to join a class action lawsuit. At the same time, no less than 93% of banks include jury (but not bench) trial waivers in their checking account agreements.
What about the argument that the only thing that consumers get out of this is higher fees and fewer services to cover increased litigation costs? First, consumers are not prohibited from choosing arbitration, it’s the option to have class action suits that is at issue here. And as the Los Angeles Times reported, “if banks keep their noses clean, they won’t end up in court” in the first place. Besides, it’s not so much consumers that choose to litigate, businesses file four times as many lawsuits as individuals. Maybe this is for good reason: arbitrators ruled in favor of banks and credit card companies 94% of the time in disputes with California consumers. Maybe it is not: since banks are the ones who pay for the arbitration process, a recurring concern is that arbitrators may be reluctant to find against the banks.
Of course, class action lawsuits is the only feasible way for consumers to have their legal rights vindicated because of the small individual amounts involved. For the banks, however, this is big business – literally: In April, the Supreme Court let stand a decision that Wells Fargo had deliberately arranged checking-account payments in order to “maximize the number of overdrafts” resulting in fees of $25-35. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/13-16195.pdf
Monday, September 5, 2016
A few days ago, I posted a blog here on Amtrak raising the rent on backyard lots neighboring Amtrak's railroad lines in New York. The rent in some cases went up by 100,000% (!) according to the website of Congressman Joseph Crowley.
Professor Bruckner posed the relevant question of whether the now hotly contested leases are truly new leases or the renegotiation of existing ones. I've been trying to find out, but not having seen the actual letter from Amtrak (yet), I've dug through news reports and website of legislators. This is the upshot as best as I can find out right now: It looks like Amtrak is upping the price on _existing_ leases after having had very low prices for years. See, e.g., these statements: "For decades, Amtrak has leased the property underneath the trusses to homeowners for a nominal fee which releases the agency from the burden of maintaining the premises. Residents were given a 30-day notice to accept an unconscionable annual rent increase – in some cases as much as 100,000 percent or tens of thousands of dollars" and "[i]n a letter addressed to homeowners, Amtrak argues that a review of the lease and the premises it covers, indicates the lease is substantially undervalued. For some, the rent will go up from $25 annually to over $26,000 annually. Failure to approve the new rental amount would result in the termination of the lease 30 days from the notice."
To me, that does indeed seem if not outright unconscionable, then certainly in violation of reasonable contractual expectations and the contractual terms what appears to be an already existing contract.
As mentioned, Amtrak does have a good argument in its prices having been exceptionally low for decades, but perhaps market prices should be introduced over time as the lessees get replaced over time with the existing leases somehow being grandfathered in? Granted, the turnover in the NYC real estate market may not be high in the case of lucrative deals, but on the other hand, nobody lives in any home forever. Underlying this story does seem to be the fact that Amtrak got upset not so much about the low rents per se, but the fact that some renters were making profits off them.
I always think it's interesting to see how courts judge the reasonableness of non-competition provisions. In this recent case out of the Eastern District of New York, Grillea v. United Natural Foods, Inc., 16-CV-3505 (SJF)(SIL) (behind paywall), a judge declined to preliminarily enjoin the employer from enforcing the former employee's non-compete and blocking him from accepting his new position, finding that the former employee had not shown a likelihood of success that the non-compete wasn't enforceable.
The plaintiff and former employee was one of the top executives at the defendant, United Natural Foods. He had signed a non-competition agreement that prohibited him from working anywhere in the United States for one year for any of United's direct competitors. After a few years, United terminated the plaintiff's employment. There was a lot of negotiation about when the termination would take place, which stock options were going to vest, which benefits would keep accruing, how the plaintiff would be categorized, etc., but for purposes of this blog entry, eventually the termination became effective and the plaintiff left United's employ.
Plaintiff received a job offer from a division of another company called Threshold. Plaintiff spoke to people at United about the job offer. They expressed concern that it would violate his non-compete. Plaintiff said he disagreed because he would be dealing with manufacturing, which was not what his responsibilities had been at United. Plaintiff put people at United down as references and Threshold called and spoke to them. They claimed they informed Threshold they thought what plaintiff was doing was a conflict of interest.
This dispute followed, with plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction that United not enforce the non-compete so that plaintiff can accept his new position. The court, however, denied plaintiff's motion. The court found that the one-year time period of the non-compete was reasonable and also that the fact that it had no geographic limitation was reasonable because United is a nationwide company (the geographic limitation thing was important to plaintiff's argument because he was switching coasts for the new job).
What I found most interesting about this case was that the judge emphasized several times that United had stated that the non-compete only prevented plaintiff from working for twenty-nine companies (of which Threshold was one). That was clearly a detail that was compelling to the court.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Ambiguous contracts can be a nightmare to untangle, especially twenty years later. A recent case out of the Northern District of Texas, Cooper v. Harvey, Civil Action No. 3:14-CV-4152-B (behind paywall), illustrates just that.
Steve Harvey, currently the host of "Family Feud," has been sued by Joseph Cooper over Harvey's attempts to curtail Cooper's use of performances Cooper taped at Harvey's comedy club in 1993. Cooper claims Harvey gave him permission to film the performances, paid Cooper to film them, and gave Cooper ownership of the videotapes and the right to use and display them. Since that time, Harvey and Cooper have had multiple disputes over the footage, most recently over Cooper's posting of some of it to YouTube.
Harvey disputes Cooper's claim. He says that he paid Cooper to tape the performances so that Harvey could use them "as study material," and that he never granted Cooper ownership or any rights in the videotapes. Harvey alleges that Cooper uses the video footage as a type of blackmail, essentially, knowing that Harvey might find the material on the videotape embarrassing to have made public.
This case isn't just he-said/he-said, in that there does appear to be an actual written contract between the parties, even if there is some debate whether or not Harvey ever signed it. At any rate, seeking summary judgment, Harvey argues that the written contract is ambiguous and that the court can therefore hear parol evidence as to whether the parties intended for Harvey to bargain away all of his rights to the work in question. Cooper, for his part, argues that the contract is unambiguous and that, according to its terms, bargaining away all of his rights is exactly what Harvey did.
The court agreed with Harvey that the contract is ambiguous in whether Cooper or the Comedy House was intended to own the videos under the contract. But, turning to the parol evidence, the court found that nothing Harvey had put forth shed any light on Cooper's intent in entering into the contract. Harvey provided an affidavit that he did not intend the contract to convey his ownership rights but that didn't resolve what the parties' intent was when they signed the contract in 1993. Therefore, the court denied summary judgment on the breach of contract claim.
Which seems like, in the end, this written contract is going to come down to he-said/he-said.
Monday, August 29, 2016
Allow me to highlight my most recent article on the questionable ecosystem viability and contractual common law validity of so-called “trophy hunting” contracts. With these contracts, wealthy individuals in or from, often, the Global North contract for assistance in hunting rare animals for “sport.” Often, these hunts takes place in the Global South where targeted species include giraffes, rhinos, lions, and other vulnerable if not outright threatened or endangered species.
A famous example of this is Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killing “Cecil the Lion” in 2015 causing widespread outcry in this country and around the world. Trophy hunting also takes place in the USA and Canada, where targeted animals include polar bears, grizzly bears, and big horn sheep.
Trophy hunting should be seen on the background of an unprecedented rate of species extinction caused by several factors. Some affected species are already gone; others are about to follow. Western black rhinoceroses, for example, are already considered to have become extinct in 2011. The rest of the African rhinoceros population may follow suit within the next twenty years if not sufficiently protected. In the meantime, more than 1.2 million “trophies” of over 1,200 different kinds of animals were imported into the United States just between 2004 and 2015. In addition to the extinction problem, the practice may also have ecosystem impacts because, among many other factors, the trophies often stem from or consist of alpha animals.
Of course, no one is arguing that rare species should be driven to extinction, in fact, quite the opposite: both trophy hunters and those opposing the practice agree that such species should be conserved for the future. However, the question lies in how to do so. Some argue that trophy hunting creates not only highly needed revenue for some nations, but also brings more attention to the species conservation issue.
I argue that at least until there is much greater certainty than what is currently the case that the practice truly does help the species in the long run (and we don’t have much time for “the long run”!), legal steps must be taken against the trophy hunting. Even when positive law such as hunting laws and/or the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) do not address the issue (yet), common law courts may declare contracts that have proved to be “deleterious effect upon society as a whole,” “unsavory,” “undesirable,” “nefarious,” or “at war with the interests of society” unenforceable for reasons of public policy.
In the case of Cecil, African lions had been proposed for listing under the ESA when the animal was killed, but the listing did not take effect until a few months later. The case, others like it, and several studies demonstrate that a sufficient and sufficiently broad segment of the population have come to find the killing of very rare animals so reprehensible that common law courts can declare them unenforceable should litigation on the issue arise. This has been the case with many other contracts over time. The same has come to be the case with trophy hunting. As long as doubt exists as to the actual desirability of the practice from society’s point of view – not that of a select wealthy individuals – the precautionary principle of law calls for nations to err on the side of caution. The United States prescribes to this principle as well.
The article also analyzes how different values such as intrinsic and existence values should be taken into account in attempts to monetize the “value” of the practice. Instead of the here-and-now cash that may contribute to local economies (much revenue is also lost to corruption in some nations), other practices such as photo safaris are found by several studies to contribute more, especially in the long term. (Note that Walter Palmer paid a measly USD 50,000 for his contract with the landowner and local hunting guide).
Trying to save rare animals by shooting them simply flies in the face of common sense. It also very arguably violates notions of national and international law.
Friday, August 26, 2016
I have witnessed with interest the evolving story of what exactly happened in Rio involving Ryan Lochte the morning of August 14. Initially Lochte claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint. I later heard through the gossip mill that that story was untrue and that Lochte had in fact beat up some security guards. That turned out, it seems, just to be rumor-mongering, but the story has continued to evolve from there, with both Lochte and the Rio police making statements that later seem untrue, or only partially true, or exaggerated. Slate has a good run-down of the changing versions of Lochte's story, although it's from a week ago. Now Lochte has been charged with filing a false police report, since it does seem clear at this point that no robbery happened. Even that, however, is confusing to parse if you read a lot of articles about it: It seems like the crime is more accurately making a false communication to police, as some articles have eventually stated, since there are conflicting reports about whether a police report was ever filed.
In the wake of this whole mess, Lochte has lost several of his sponsorship deals (although he's also picked one up). It's unclear, because the contracts don't seem to be public, whether this is a choice of just not renewing the contract (apparently that's the case with Ralph Lauren) or if a violation of a morals clause is being invoked to allow cancellation of the contract (which might be what's going on with Speedo). All of this provokes an interesting morals-clause conversation to me, and we had a bit of discussion about it on the Contracts Professors listserv. It seems clear that Lochte engaged in some sort of inappropriate behavior, and it seems also clear that whatever that behavior was, even the most minor version of the story is arguably a violation of any morals clause out there.
What is most clear is that, no matter what really happened, this has definitely served to tarnish his reputation, and that's is what's striking to me. This story has taken on an enormous life of its own, with many differing versions of it floating around the Internet. This situation has been caused, of course, by Lochte's many differing stories, together with some apparent conflicting statements by the Rio police, coupled with reporting that may have been less than precise itself in describing what was going on. One online story details all the conflicting information and asks the individual reader what they believe about the story.
While this particular maelstrom seems to have some basis in fact, it's not difficult to imagine something like this getting out of control without such justifying behavior at the root of it. Morals clauses tend to be about perception, but does that mean you can manipulate the perception of someone, through no real fault of their own? Take, for instance, the "Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer" meme that was popular on the Internet earlier this year. Ted Cruz wasn't born until after some of the Zodiac killings had happened, so he obviously could not have been the Zodiac Killer, and in fact some people interviewed about the meme noted that was the point: what they were saying was impossible. Nevertheless, it was reported that polls indicated 38% of those surveyed thought he might, in fact, be the Zodiac Killer, despite the impossibility. If a substantial number of people start thinking you did something you absolutely did not do, is that enough for a morals clause to be violated, because of the perception that you did it?
Thursday, August 25, 2016
The New York Times reports here (paid access) on the increasing use of so-called “rent-to-own” housing contracts. Under these contracts, companies from big Wall Street giants to a slew of small landlords hoping to strike it rich lend or, should I say, purport to sell homes to tenants who contractually commit to make all repairs on the homes no matter how major or minor (yes, you read that right: all repairs… and it gets more extreme than that, read on!). Typically, tenants under such contracts are not told what repairs are needed, yet face a contractual deadline for making sure that the houses in question are brought up to local code. Unlike most typical home purchases, rent-to-own contracts do not require the tenant/buyer to obtain an independent home inspection.
We probably all know how many things can go wrong with older homes, even newer ones. Examples of how bad things can go in this context thus abound. One tenant moved into a home not having been told that it had several unresolved building code violations and had to remain vacant by city order. Another moved into a home that had no heat, no water, and major problems with its sewage system that led to nearly $10,000 in repairs (many of these homes have been purchased by the lender for less than $10,000 and are not worth very much more than that, if any). A third example describes a woman moving into a home with her three children and partner in Michigan, living in the house during cold winter with the only heat sources being one electric heater and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, only to be evicted and charged $3,100 in overdue rent after she stopped paying rent because of the heat issue.
People who accept these kinds of contracts often do not qualify for mortgages. Banks have virtually stopped making mortgages on homes worth less than $100,000, which leaves millions of people with few options for - now or one day - owning their own homes.
One company that rents homes on a rent-to-own basis does so “as is,” calling the contracts “hybrid leases” that allow people to build up “implied equity.” If tenants are evicted during the contract (typically of a seven-year-duration), they get no credit for money spent on repairs or renovations. Neither do they receive any equity unless they actually end up buying the home at the end of the contract term. At that point, they still need financing for the home which, as mentioned, many people just cannot obtain.
A number of legal questions arise in this context, among them several contractual ones such as the role of caveat emptor vs. the violation of a possible duty to disclose. If the landlords know of the problems from which many of these houses suffer, should they disclose this knowledge? On the other than, shouldn’t these potential (long-term) buyers be presumed to have at least enough savvyness to not promise to bring a home that they do not own outright up to Code by a certain deadline? Then again, are landlords fraudulent in their dealings with these folks when the landlords require such potentially extensive repairs when, as the owners of the homes, they presumably if not actually have actual knowledge of the problems from which these houses suffer? What about the statement that renters get “implied equity?” What in the world does that mean, if anything? Do low-income folks that may never have been homeowners truly understand what it means to bring a home “up to Code” and buying “as is?” Does it matter? And what about the doctrine of unconscionability, which is alive and well in some states such as California? If nothing else, this case seems to smack of both procedural and substantive issues.
In some states, landlords are required to keep homes and apartments in habitable condition. But rent-to-own contracts have, for good reason, been said to reside in a gray area of the law: are they rental contracts? - Or purchase contracts? Or something else?
Further, rent-to-own contracts may, to some extent, resemble contracts for deeds. However, the latter are subject to basic consumer-lending regulations such as the Federal Truth in Lending Act.
The housing market again seems to host highly questionable practices. This story almost reads as a contract or property law issue-spotting exam. Meanwhile, housing sharks seem to be swimming relatively freely in some areas of the nation.
For further information, see Alexandra Stevenson and Matthew Goldstein, Rent-to-own Homes: A Win-Win for Landlords, a Risk for Struggling Tenants, the New York Times, Aug. 21, 2016.
Monday, August 22, 2016
In a move that demonstrates how contracts for various aspects of marijuana products and services are going mainstream, Microsoft Corp. has accepted a contract to make marijuana-tracking software available for sale on its cloud computing platform. The software is developed by “cannabis compliance technology” Kind Financial and allows regulators to track where and how much marijuana is being grown, sold or produced in real time. In turn, this lets the regulators know how much sales and other tax they should be collecting and from whom (maybe this is the beginning of the end of some growing marijuana plants in state and national parks to hide their activities from the government).
This contract – called a “breakthrough deal” because it is the first time that Microsoft ventures into the marijuana business - may end up enabling the software developer to capture as much as 60% of this very lucrative market. (Other companies with government contracts often end up with such a large market share.)
How did the company strike such a lucrative deal? You guessed it: by networking. Kind’s CEO was introduced by a board member to an inside contact in Microsoft.