ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

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 (0)

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)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Continuing Impact of Confidentiality Provisions

Confidentiality provisions are everywhere these days, especially in all of those arbitrations most contracts now require. I've blogged about them in connection with Donald Trump, and now they are playing a starring role in the very messy divorce between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, in which Depp is allegedly refusing to provide Heard's divorce settlement because he alleges she breached their agreement's confidentiality provision when she spoke out publicly against domestic violence. 

It's unclear to me what the wording of the confidentiality provision was and whether Heard's behavior really did violate it. What is clear to me is that the confidentiality provision is being used to prevent communications of encouragement and support to people who are victims of domestic violence. There is a dual tragedy here: Not only are words of encouragement being muffled, but victims of domestic violence are now receiving the message that those words of encouragement could lead to punishing consequences. 

Confidentiality provisions can make sense, and there are definitely situations where they are vital to a deal getting done. But there are also situations where they seem to be operating against public policy. 

December 19, 2016 in Commentary, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reminder: Moral Obligations Do Not Equal Legal Obligations

A recent case out of Arkansas, Baxter v. Wing, No. CV-16-21 (behind paywall), has a nice discussion of the difference between moral obligation and legal obligation. In the case, a man named one of his four stepchildren, Susannah, as the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy and asked her to share it with her three siblings.

Nobody disputed that it was the deceased man's wish that Susannah share the money with her siblings. The problem, though, was that her obligation to comply with his wishes was merely moral, not legal, and the court could do nothing to force her to comply with it. The deceased man gave Susannah instructions, but he did not make her any promise, nor did Susannah make any promise in exchange. There was no deal along the lines of, "I promise to make you the sole beneficiary if you promise in exchange to share the proceeds with your siblings." The deceased man gave Susannah instructions, which did not rise to the level of an enforceable contract. 

Cases like this are valuable when you're teaching consideration but they always make me sad, because consideration cases so frequently seem to be about families feuding on a level so rancorous that they turn to the court system. Tough cases to get through. 

December 15, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 12, 2016

In Which Messy Handwriting Renders a Contract Ambiguous

Competition swimming pool block

If you've ever been in charge of taking care of a swimming pool, you know that it has a lot of moving parts and requires a working knowledge of chemistry and an adroitness at mathematics that is often lacked by those who become lawyers.* So I started reading this case because the first sentence told me it was about a swimming pool, but it's an interesting and fairly straightforward situation of contract ambiguity being resolved by extrinsic evidence. If you're looking for a recent case for your students to see this in action, this one might be it. 

The case is Horizon Pools & Landscapes, Inc. v. Sucarichi, No. 01-15-01079-CV, out of Texas. Sucarichi entered into a contract with Horizon to install a swimming pool and spa. The dispute centered around the number of lights Horizon was supposed to install. Sucarichi alleged that Horizon was supposed to install three lights total: two in the swimming pool and one in the spa. Horizon maintained that it was supposed to install two lights total: one in the swimming pool and one in the spa. 

The contract was ambiguous on this point. The contract was divided into many different sections. The relevant ones were as follows: 

  • A section reading "Lights(s)" [sic] with the handwritten notation "(2) L.E.D."
  • A section reading "Pool Light" with a handwritten notation that was illegible
  • A section concerning the spa reading "Light 100 watt." 

The court found that it was equally plausible that the contract here required three lights total, with the first general light section referring to two in the swimming pool and the spa section referring to one, or that the contract required two lights total, with the first general light section giving just the total of lights to be installed between the swimming pool and the spa. The illegibility of the "Pool Light" section made this question impossible to resolve without looking to extrinsic evidence. 

Horizon admitted that its salesman filled out the contract (including the illegible notation). Horizon also did not contest that its salesman told Sucarichi he needed to have two lights installed in his swimming pool. Sucarichi testified that he thought the contract provided for two lights in the swimming pool, based on the Horizon salesman's recommendation, and one light in the spa, for three total. He wrote as much in a letter to Horizon prior to the beginning of the court case, when he was trying to get Horizon to add the second light. Therefore, the court thought there was sufficient proof that the parties had agreed to install a total of three lights, with two in the swimming pool and one in the spa. 

One of the lessons to take away: Make sure your contracts are legible! 

*gross overgeneralization based on me and my frequent intense confusion when I try to take care of our family swimming pool. My talents lie elsewhere!

December 12, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Prince's Complicated Legal Legacy Continues

When the legendary musician Prince died suddenly, he left behind an enormous volume of music and no will. The courts have already been dealing with how to distribute Prince's assets to a complicated and squabbling cadre of potential heirs. The rights to all of his music have raised their own complicated issues that have most recently manifested themselves in a lawsuit in the District of Minnesota, NPG Records, Inc. v. Roc Nation LLC, Case No. 16-cv-03909

The case revolves around Roc Nation's streaming of Prince's music on its streaming service Tidal, and whether or not it had the contractual rights to do so. Roc Nation alleges yes, based on what it terms both written and oral agreements that it struck with Prince before his death. Commentators have tried to draw conclusions about these agreements based on Prince's statements and other behavior before his death. NPG, meanwhile, claims that there was a single contract between Prince and Roc Nation and that it only allowed Roc Nation to stream a very limited number of songs, which Roc Nation has now violated in streaming a much wider variety of Prince's song catalog. The case has been reported on in multiple places, including here and here and here and here.

If this case progresses, it seems like it's going to require an untangling of written contracts between the parties, whatever oral statements Prince will allege to have been made, and the interaction between the two. It adds an interesting layer to consider that Prince was notorious for fighting for artists' rights to their music and had a fraught relationship with online streaming of music. He does seem to have favored Tidal above the other Internet services. In any case, although NPG claims that there was never any such license and Tidal has been infringing the songs' copyright since it began streaming them, NPG has already proactively sought to cancel any license that Prince may have granted to Roc Nation to stream the music in question. 

(I'd post something Prince-related from YouTube, but Prince didn't like his music to be on YouTube. And, in fact, Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., the recent case that wended its way through the Ninth Circuit and is currently on petition to the Supreme Court, involves a Prince song in a YouTube video.)

December 7, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Music, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Air Force None?

Recently, Donald Trump famously tweeted that “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”  Trump has not said why he believes the planes will cost "more than $4 billion." Boeing says it currently has an Air Force One contract worth $170 million.

Air-force-one-3

This raises several contractual issues that could be used as an interesting issue-spotting practice for our students. At first blush, it seems like an impossible attempt at a breach of contract that would, conversely, at least give very reasonable grounds for insecurity if not constitute an anticipatory repudiation outright.

Needless to say, Trump’s remark that “[w]e want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money” finds no support in contract law. One contractual party has no control over how much money the other party should make. One would have thought that Trump – as a staunch “market forces” supporter – would have understood and embraced that idea, but that either was not the case or he is flip-flopping in that respect as well.

Digging deeper into the story, however, it turns out that “not even [Boeing] can estimate the cost of the program at this time, since the Pentagon has not even decided all the bells and whistles it wants on the new Air Force One." Further, “without knowing all the security features, it is hard to estimate the cost … and the Air Force isn't even sure whether it wants two or three of the planes.” Does a contract even exist at this point, then, when the essential terms have apparently not been mutually agreed upon, or is there simply an unenforceable agreement to agree? A valid argument cold be made for the latter, I think.

Mr. Trump has been accused of overestimating the cost of the planes. Does he, however, have a point? “So far[,] the Air Force has budgeted $2.9 billion through 2021 for two new Air Force Ones.” It is not inconceivable that the price tag may, in these circumstances, run higher than that. That circularity goes back to the essential terms – the price in this case – arguably not having been decided on yet.

There might, of course, be other issues in this that I have not seen in my admittedly hasty review of the story, but it is interesting how the media jumps at a legally related story without thoroughly or even superficially attempting to get the law right.

December 7, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Outlandish Contract Decision re. ADA-related Construction

How is this for a most bizarre contract law decision: The Chicago Housing Authority (“CHA”) contracted with architectural and engineering company DeStefano and Partners (“DeStefano”) for consulting services in connection with the construction of seven multifamily residential buildings. CHA required a certain percentage of the homes to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and other federal law (some of the housing was to be accessible by mobility impaired individuals, some by elderly residents). Among other things, DeStefano was made contractually aware that the company was to “certify that all work was performed under the direct supervision of the Project Architect and that it conforms to… the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 … [and] Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.”

During the construction, CHA was notified by HUD that the project did not meet the various federal requirements. CHA hired another architecture firm to perform the work necessary to comply with its obligations under the voluntary compliance agreement with HUD. CHA incurred more than $4.3 million to bring the buildings into compliance with federal standards and brought suit against DeStefano for material breach of contract.

DeStefano defended itself by, at bottom, arguing that since CHA had a nondelegable duty to comply with the federal accessibility standards, it should not be able to recover damages from DeStefano for CHA’s failure to do so. In other words: “It’s your own fault that you have this problem, not ours, even though we were the designers and the problem was with the design.” Yah.

But wait, it gets better than that: the court agreed! It apparently bought wholesale defendant’s argument that “permitting CHA to proceed with its state-law breach of contract action would discourage CHA from fulfilling its own obligations to prevent discrimination under Section 504 and the ADA, directly undermining the goal and purpose expressed by Congress in enacting those statutes.” It also stated that “notably, however, … there are no provisions within the ADA, or its accompanying regulations, that permit indemnification or the allocation of liability between the various entities subject to the ADA.” The court found that CHA’s duties were, as mentioned, nondelegable and, because the duties were imposed on CHA by HUD, CHA’s failure to comply was the problem. “CHA was a ‘wrongdoer’ in the sense that it failed to ensure the subject premises complied with the applicable federal accessibility standards in order to prevent discrimination.”

Wait a minute! So, in trying to make sure that the housing in fact complied with the law, the housing authority was found to have violated it! That’s just crazy.

This case may work as a good example if you want to train your students how to identify faulty reasoning and logic by courts.

The case is can be found here. Hat tip to Justen Hansen of WesTech Engineering for bringing this to my attention. http://www.westech-inc.com/en-usa

December 1, 2016 in Commentary, Government Contracting, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Settlement Agreement That's Too Vague Doesn't Settle Much At All

I am always saying to my students that if they care about something, they should put it in their contract, and they should be specific about what it is they want. I think sometimes people might think there's something to gain strategically by being vague, but introducing ambiguity into a contract can work out very poorly (and also takes control out of the hands of the parties). A recent case out of Florida, Boardwalk at Daytona Development, LLC v. Paspalakis, Case No. 5D15-1944, is a case where the court, faced with an ambiguous description of the land at issue in a contract, just threw up its hands in frustration. 

The dispute between these two parties has been long and contentious. According to this article, it's dragged on for over a decade. It was originally rooted in an eminent domain proceeding in which Boardwalk at Daytona ("BDD")'s predecessor obtained property belonging to Paspalakis and the other appellees. The appellees contested BDD's acquisition of their land and eventually that lawsuit was settled. The settlement agreement provided the appellees with an option to purchase and operate 7500 square feet of retail space on the Daytona Boardwalk. The agreement contained no legal description or street address for the property at issue. The agreement said that the land would: (1) be adjacent to another particular business; (2) have a minimum of 50 boardwalk frontage feet; and (3) have sufficient land to build a 7500-square-foot, one-story building. Unfortunately for the appellees, there were at least three parcels of land that met this description, and they ranged drastically in size from around 7700 square feet to over 17,000 square feet. 

The problem with the description of the land in the settlement agreement was exposed when the appellees tried to operate their option. BDD offered a piece of property that met all three criteria set forth in the settlement agreement. However, the property required unusual structural design features that troubled the appellees and also came with a negative easement for light, air, and unobstructed view that benefitted the BDD property next door. The appellees therefore objected to this plot of land and asked for another one. 

BDD sought a declaratory judgment that the plot of land it proposed was sufficient under the settlement agreement and that it did not have to provide another plot of land. The appellees, in response, sought specific performance that BDD provide  a plot of land fitting the description in the settlement agreement, without the restrictions of the land BDD had offered. In the face of the counterclaim, BDD shifted stance and argued that the settlement agreement was too ambiguous to be enforced. 

The trial court sided with the appellees and ordered BDD to convey the largest possible plot of land to the appellees. BDD appealed, and this court agreed with BDD. The court noted that a description of the land in question is usually considered an essential part of any land purchase agreement, and that without any such description there are serious doubts whether the parties reached a meeting of the minds. The description of the land in the settlement agreement here was ambiguous. The trial court correctly examined parol evidence to try to resolve the ambiguity, but it didn't help. The contract terms at issue here simply could have been fulfilled by any of three very different parcels of land.  To this court, there was no contractual way to choose between them and no parol evidence that shed light on which parcel of land the parties had in mind. Indeed, the court was skeptical the parties ever really agreed on which parcel of land would be conveyed, and so the parties never reached a meeting of the minds that could be enforced. Therefore, the court reversed the order of specific performance and entered judgment for BDD instead. 

A bitter pill here for the appellees, who doubtless thought that they were getting something of value in the settlement agreement they struck and end up with nothing to show for it. But it does seem like there was considerable confusion about which land was affected by the situation here. I guess it's a lesson to all of us: try to be as specific as possible. I tell my students drafting contracts is frequently like playing a game of what-if with yourself. What if BDD offers this parcel of land instead of that parcel of land? If the answer to that question is that you would prefer one parcel of land over the other, best to be specific in the contract. 

November 30, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)