Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Thanks to Andy Feldstein of Huntington Technology Finance, who sent me an email after reading yesterday's IHOP post. Reading the opinion left me confused, but Andy points out that a visit to the Gunther Toody's website sheds a lot of light on the matter. Andy wrote that to the extent "similar in concept" has meaning, it's pretty clear IHOP and Gunther Toody's are two diners with extremely dissimilar concepts. Agreed. This was very helpful in clearing things up!
Monday, April 16, 2018
I could not resist blogging this case out of the District of Colorado, Northglenn Gunther Toody's v. HQ8-10410-1045 Melody Lane, Civil Action No. 16-cv-2427-WJM-KLM (behind paywall), because it tackles these questions: "First, what is a diner? Second, is the IHOP restaurant a diner?"
I greatly enjoyed reading the court's definition of "diner," which, after evaluating expert testimony, settled on "a table service restaurant with a broad array of breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings, most of which are perceived as American cuisine." The court then decided that IHOP qualifies as a diner.
After that, though, things get a bit of a mess. The lease at issue prohibited the opening of "a diner similar in concept" to the one operated by the plaintiff. The court found that the parties provided it with no answer as to what that phrase meant. The court concluded it must be something more than just being "a diner," because otherwise there was no reason to include the "similar in concept" language. But plaintiff kept insisting that IHOP being a diner was enough to violate the clause. The court did not hold with that interpretation, since it left "similar in concept" with no work to do. The "concept," the court thought, had to refer to something more than just diners generally. The clause required the court to ask if IHOP was similar in concept to the plaintiff's restaurant, whereas plaintiff just kept arguing that the answer was yes, because they were both diners, without tackling the concept language (although I think the plaintiff was trying to argue that the concept was being a diner). Therefore, the court found that plaintiff offered no reasonable interpretation of the covenant and therefore there was no ambiguity.
This ruling is confusing, because the "similar in concept" language was so slippery that no one seemed able to advance any meaningful definition of it at all...and that resulted in a finding that it was unambiguous. I would avoid this language in contracts, as I think this case proves it's actually pretty ambiguous.
At any rate, the court went on to conclude that IHOP was not similar in concept to the plaintiff's restaurant, because the plaintiff failed to rebut the defendant's argument that they were different in concept. Which means that it sounds like there is some understanding of what "concept" means, after all...? I am confused by this case and have decided to mull it over at my local IHOP.
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
In case you missed it in the onslaught of news we're subjected to these days, the agreements settling several of the sexual harassment claims against Bill O'Reilly have been made public, thanks to a federal judge overruling the contracts' confidentiality clauses ("Strict and complete confidentiality is the essence of this agreement," reads one). You can read about them all over, including the New York Times, CNN, ThinkProgress, and Vogue.
The contracts say the usual things that we have come to expect regarding the confidentiality of the accusations but at least one of them contains the added twist that, should any incriminating documents come to light, the woman settling the claim is required to declare them to be "counterfeit or forgeries." The truth of the statement is irrelevant; the contract evidently requires the woman to lie and say they're counterfeit and forgeries even if they're genuine.
Another interesting part of that "counterfeit or forgeries" contract is that the accusing woman's attorney agrees not to cooperate in any other action against O'Reilly and, indeed, agrees to switch sides and advise O'Reilly "regarding sexual harassment matters." This sounds like it raises all sorts of ethical issues. They're brought up in the other articles I've linked, and Bloomberg has a rundown of the ethical issues as well.
Things lurking in these confidential agreements...
Monday, April 9, 2018
New York court rules sexual harassment by itself is not against an employer's interest such that it breaches a fiduciary duty
A recent case out of New York, Pozner v. Fox Broadcasting Company, 652096/2017, is related to the growing spotlight on sexual harassment cases. In the case, Pozner was terminated from his employment based on sexual harassment complaints and sued for breach of his employment contract. Fox brought counterclaims for breach of contract and fiduciary duty.
I'm blogging this case because it has an interesting ruling on the fiduciary duty claim in the context of sexual harassment cases (which I assume we might see more of; or maybe not if maybe people just stop sexually harassing others /end wide-eyed optimism). The court found that the employee handbooks were contracts whose terms Pozner had agreed to abide to, but the court dismissed Fox's breach of fiduciary duty claim, because the fiduciary duty of loyalty is about the employee acting against the employer's interests, and no court in New York has found sexual harassment on its own can serve as a basis for a breach of that duty of loyalty. Fox did not allege enough to convince the court that Pozner's sexual harassment was against Fox's interest. The court noted that other cases where sexual harassment was part of a breach of loyalty involved other financial improprieties or allegations of fraud.
Monday, April 2, 2018
Allow me to share some good “personal” news for once: I just received word that all levels of the USD administration has voted for granting me tenure! The Board of Regents will cast its final vote on this in early May.
As some of you will know, it has not been an easy process. I encountered several tiring and stressful procedural hurdles with the USD administration, but the law school was at all times supporting me intensely just as I only got excellent scholarship reviews, so it all ended well! I could also not have done this without the excellent, tireless, and creative legal assistance not to mention very highly encouraging support of David Frakt, Esq.
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Slate has a piece analyzing the enforceability of the liquidated damages provision in Stormy Daniels's contract with Donald Trump, quoting several very keen legal minds. (Disclaimer: including mine ;-))
Thursday, March 15, 2018
The New York Times reports that an upcoming Broadway production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is embroiled in a contract dispute. The new production features a script by Aaron Sorkin, governed by a contract that requires it to keep to "the spirit of the Novel." Author Harper Lee's estate believes the play's new script has breached this contract provision.
The crux of the disagreement seems to be that Sorkin's script apparently updates the novel's depiction of racial politics and shifts Atticus Finch's developmental arc. Atticus, well-known as the crusading heroic lawyer at the center of the novel, apparently begins the play "as a naive apologist for the racial status quo" who eventually develops into the Atticus familiar from the novel. Sorkin in an interview described Atticus as evolving in part through interactions with a black character, Calpurnia, whose role Sorkin had expanded in the play as compared to the book.
Lee's estate is objecting to the "massive alteration" of the novel, but the play's producers contend that, although the play is "different" from the novel, it is still true to the novel's spirit, pointing out that Lee's novel's universe was itself expanded and complicated by the recent publication of "Go Set a Watchman," in which an older Atticus is portrayed as a racist and segregationist.
As anyone who's sat in an English class might agree, "the spirit of a novel" is rather vague and can be the source of much contentious disagreement. Literature can be a very personal experience, and what stands out as the vitally important part of a novel to one person can barely register to another. We could probably as a society reach a consensus on what "the spirit" of "To Kill a Mockingbird" might be, but I still don't think that would be of much assistance in resolving this dispute. There are, I think, two approaches to adapting a novel, and one is a requirement to be faithful to the letter, and the other is to be faithful in a more abstract way. I suspect that both parties here actually agree about what the spirit of "To Kill a Mockinbird" is but that Lee's estate believes the former approach to adaptation to be the only acceptable one, and that the producers of the play believe the latter to be acceptable. This reminds me of a recent New Yorker article on the proper role of translators.
(As an unabashed fan of Sorkin's writing, as soon as I read the first paragraph of the article, I have to admit my reaction was: "Let me guess, the script sounds like Aaron Sorkin instead of Harper Lee." I haven't seen the script, of course, but there are few writers in my experience whose style is as instantly recognizable as Sorkin's.)
Sunday, March 11, 2018
I have the great honor and pleasure of posting the below guest blog written by noted environmental scholar Dan Farber, the Sho Sato Professor Of Law and the Faculty Director of the Center For Law, Energy, & The Environment at UC Berkeley.
There has been increasing interest in the environmental law community in the role that private firms can play in sustainability. For example, many major corporations bemoaned Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and pledged to continue their own environmental efforts. In fact, as a recent book by Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gillian documents, these firms already have their own programs to cut emissions. It’s worth thinking about the ways in which contracts between these companies could serve some of the same functions as government action.
Group action, based on contracting, could be a way of amplifying these efforts by individual firms. One possibility would stick pretty close to the structure of the Paris Climate Agreement. Under the Paris Agreement, nations agree to engage in certain types of monitoring and to implement emissions cuts that they set themselves. There are already ways that corporations can publicly register their climate commitments. The next step would be to
enter into contracts to engage in specified monitoring activities and report on emissions. The goal would be to make commitments more credible and discourage companies from advertising more emissions efforts than they actually undertake.
The contracts could be structured in different ways. One possibility is for each company to contract separately with a nonprofit running a register of climate commitments. The consideration would be the nonprofit’s agreement to include the company in the register and require the same monitoring from other registered companies. An alternative structure would be for the companies making the pledge to contract with each other, ensuring that there would be multiple entities with incentives to enforce the agreement against noncompliant firms. The biggest contract law issue is probably remedial. It would be difficult to prove damages, so a liquidated damage clause might be useful, assuming the court could be persuaded that significant liquidated damages are reasonable. An alternative set up would be to require representations by the company about compliance with monitoring protocols at they make their reports, providing a basis for a misrepresentation action.
We can also imagine something like a private carbon tax in which companies pledge to pay a nonprofit a fixed amount based on their carbon emissions. The nonprofit would use the funds to finance renewable energy projects, promote sustainability research, or fund energy efficiency projects such as helping to weatherize houses. Such pledges would probably be enforceable even without consideration under Cardozo’s opinion in Allegheny College. Damages would presumably be based simply on the amount of unpaid “taxes.”
It’s also possible to think in terms of a private cap-and-trade scheme, something like the ones used by California and by the Northeastern states. In these markets, governments set caps on total emissions and auction or otherwise distribution allowances, each one giving the owner the right to emit a single ton of carbon. In the contractual version, firms would agree to create a market in carbon allowances and to buy as many allowances as they need to cover their emissions. For instance, firms could agree to cut their emissions on a schedule of, say, 2% per year for five years. Every year, they would get allowances equal to their current target, which could be traded. Firms that were able to cut their emissions more than 2% could recoup the cost by selling permits to firms that found it too expensive to make their own cuts. Each firm would have to be bound contractually to pay for purchased allowances coupled with an enforceable obligation to achieve the target. If firms fail to buy the needed allowances, the measure of expectation damages seems to be the market price of the allowances the contract required them to purchase from other firms.
One advantage of government regulation is that the government can assess penalties, while contract law does not enforce penalties. For that reason, arguments for substantial compensatory damages will be crucial to provide an incentive for compliance. There will also be questions about how to structure the contracts (between firms or only between each firm and the nonprofit administering the scheme). And of course, all the usual issues of contract interpretation, materiality of breach, etc., will surface. (If nothing else, this could be the basis for an interesting exam question.)
Whether any of this is practical remains to be seen. There are also potential antitrust problems to contend with. But it is intriguing to think about ways that private contracting could be used to address societal issues such as climate change, particularly in situations where the government seems unlikely to act. There might be real gains from using private-law tools like contract to address public-law problems.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
That's going to be the blog's new slogan.
Frances McDormand briefly made contract law trend on Twitter by using "inclusion rider" as her important two-word closing. At the time, there was only one result for "inclusion rider" when you Googled it. Now, if you Google it, you get a million results of articles explaining what an "inclusion rider" is. But here's the original video from Stacy Smith which was the one result before McDormand made it a cultural conversation.
I've had a series of blog posts over the past few years discussing the ways in which private contract law has been used to obscure systemic discrimination and abuse and harassment (a bunch of them are linked in this post). This is a nice suggestion for a way to use private contract law to try to correct some of the problems we've now exposed.
Monday, March 5, 2018
To the New Jersey native it happened to, well, a very costly mistake through several states.
According to this article, the man called an Uber after going out with friends in West Virginia. He was staying near West Virginia University, but he apparently requested an Uber to drive him to his home...which is in New Jersey. The drive was 300 miles, and problematically the man was drunk and so passed out upon getting into the car. He didn't wake up until two hours into the drive.
The news article is unclear as to the status of the trip. Uber claims the man has agreed to pay the fare; the man says he's contesting the fare because he never requested the Uber drive him to his home. It is true that Uber allows you to store a home address and also pulls up recent destinations when you request a ride, so one could foresee how such a mistake could happen.
It seems to me from the story that this was more likely user error, as the man was admittedly fairly drunk at the time he ordered the Uber. This also means that the man was probably too intoxicated to comprehend what he was doing as he entered into the agreement with Uber to order the car to take him home, but how was the anonymous Uber app to know? One could, however, foresee a separate confirmation page being necessary if the ride is going to cost more than, say, a thousand dollars (at least), but it's unclear that would have avoided the mistake, as the man may have been too drunk to grasp the import of the message. What should Uber do to try to avoid this sort of mishap? Anyone else have similar Uber mistakes?
h/t to reader Timothy Murray of Murray, Hogue & Lannis for sending this story to our attention!
Friday, March 2, 2018
Yesterday I wrote about a non-compete clause, and here's another one out of New York: Cogint, Inc. v. Moraes, 159597/2017. Yesterday's concerned auction houses, this one concerns digital marketing and advertising, in which Moraes was prohibited from competing for one year after his employment. The non-compete here seems to be worded as broadly in scope as the one that yesterday's court found to be overbroad, but there is no discussion about janitorial capacity in this case. Rather, the court concluded that the non-compete here was necessary to protect the plaintiff's interest because Moraes was a key employee in possession of trade secrets.
Not only was Moraes potentially in violation of the non-compete, but the court found that he potentially breached his employment agreement by terminating his employment before the term of the agreement concluded. The court found that the agreement did not provide him the right to terminate his employment at will.
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
In this recent case out of California, Darien Ephram, Inc. v. Yashar, B279827, the lower court denied a motion to compel arbitration, finding that the plaintiff's claims were outside the scope of the arbitration provision. The defendant took issue with that determination, arguing on appeal that the lower court should have required the plaintiff to prove its claims, instead of merely relying on the allegations made in the complaint. This ruling, according to the defendant, showed a "hostility" to arbitration in violation of the policy favoring it.
The appellate court, however, disagreed, nothing that the defendant was "misunderstanding" the lower court's rulings. There was no reason for the lower court to take evidence because there were no factual disputes that the arbitration provision depended upon: None of the parties disputed the interpretation of the scope of the arbitration provision, and there was no factual defense that would have altered the character of the plaintiff's claims or the scope of the arbitration provision. Therefore, the court was entitled to legally determine that the claims in the complaint were not within that scope; no factual determination was necessary. The proving of the allegations in the complaint were for the next phase in the litigation, not for the motion to compel arbitration stage.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
The largest U.S. producer of farmed salmon has lost a contract on a lease site in Puget Sound. The decision came after multi-agency state investigation in connection with a broken holding pen. The investigation said that the net collapsed due to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific’s failure to adequately clean their nets per the contract. The extra weight of mussels and other debris caused the net to fail and allowed thousands of non-native fish to escape into the Sound. Cooke has disputed the state’s findings about the amount and size of the fish that weren’t recovered.
The blowback from the pen failure has resulted in Washington state voting to phase out net pen salmon farming in Puget Sound. While Cooke argues there is no scientific basis for claiming the farmed Atlantic salmon are a threat to Pacific salmon, but the new regulations could endanger their other operations in Washington. Cooke maintains four facilities in western Washington, with two being closed for violations in the last two months.
The legislation against net pens could spell the end of aquaculture in 1,020 sq. mi. Puget Sound. It is too early to measure the economic impact that these phase-outs will have, but Cooke employees could be out of a job. Cooke’s violations of their lease agreement not only include improperly maintaining their nets, but also anchor lines outside the lease zone, and an unapproved feed barge. The Washington Department of Natural Resources cited that remaining net pen groupings were in danger of catastrophic failure. The repercussions of the net breakage has already created a massive ripple in the Washington aquaculture industry. This simply goes to show the importance of following the rules established when parties enter into a contract.
Saturday, February 24, 2018
The Weinstein Co. has had yet another lawsuit filed against it for breach of contract over the Canadian distribution rights of “Paddington 2.” Prior to the allegations against co-founder Harvey Weinstein, the company had an agreement with Toronto-based EOne to distribute the film throughout Canada. In their lawsuit, EOne is seeking to recover $7.8 million that it advanced to Weinstein to obtain the rights to distribute the film throughout Canada. Amidst the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein, the company sold the rights to Warner Bros. After Weinstein broke the agreement, EOne terminated the distribution deal. The original contract provided for post-termination repayment of the advance.
Beyond the $7.8 million advance that EOne paid the Weinstein group, an action for lost profits may be available. The movie has so far grossed $192 million. The U.S. and Canadian box offices opened at $11 million. However, if EOne does decide to try to recover lost profits, it had better act fast. Since the allegations of misconduct were levied against Harvey Weinstein, the company has been on the verge of bankruptcy. The sale of “Paddington 2” to Warner Bros was enough to keep the company afloat until January. According to Reuters, the company is $375 million in debt. Killer Content and Abigail Disney have said that bankruptcy may be the best option for Weinstein Co.
Also found in the complaint is an allegation that Bob Weinstein telephoned the EOne division president to apologize for the sale to Warner Bros and to acknowledge that they would have to compensate EOne. It will be interesting to see if this argument is permitted. Further, the term “compensate” could be construed to include further damages. While only time will tell what the fallout will be from the ongoing Weinstein court battles, it is clear that the bucket is draining quickly.
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Monetizing Sexual Harassment Contractually
In the Harvey Weinstein scandals, investigations have resulted in further almost incredible instances of alleged misconduct including:
- Verbal threats, such as telling employees "I will kill you" or "I will kill your family"
- Employing female staff as "wing women" to "accompany [Mr Weinstein] to events and facilitate [his] sexual conquests"
- Demanding sexual favors in return for career promotion at the studio
- Requiring his drivers to "keep condoms and erectile dysfunction injections in the car at all times"
- The requirement for his assistants to schedule "personals for sexual activity" both during office hours and after work
- Belittling female members of staff with insults about their periods, and shouting at one member of staff that she should leave the company and make babies as that was all she was good for.
Apparently, contracts for Mr. Weinstein contained the proviso that mistreatment claims would result in financial penalties imposed upon the accusers rather than be outright prohibited contractually. This, says some sources, “effectively monetized” sexual harassment.
Surely, no court of law would uphold a contractual clause penalizing an employee merely for making accusations of criminal conduct so long as this was done in good faith (which, as we now know, the accusations against Mr. Weinstein were). It is your legal right and arguably moral duty to call out criminal conduct when it happens. However, whether such an argument would ever be heard in court is questionable, for most employees working for famous, influential companies such as that of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Weinstein himself are probably loath to stand up contractually against Mr. Weinstein. He clearly knew that. Many women didn’t even dare speak out against him for his criminal conduct or if they did, were not believed or helped. But these contractual clauses still show the gall, sickness, and immorality of Mr. Weinstein.
On a happier note: Happy Valentine’s Day! (I swear that the timing of this post is mere coincidence.)
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
By my count, 56 attorneys general have sent a letter to Congress asking for legislation that would exempt sexual harassment claims from the ubiquitous arbitration clauses found in employment contracts. The letter is succinct and eloquent on the damaging effects arbitration has on these victims and society as a whole.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
I am late to the party on this, but I still thought I would point you to Jill Lepore's recent review in the New Yorker of (among other books) Orly Lobel's You Don't Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie's Dark Side. The book is about the epic showdown between Mattel, makers of Barbie, and MGA, maker of rival dolls Bratz, and it has a contract law angle: The designer who created Bratz worked for Mattel and allegedly arrived at the design for Bratz while under an employment contract with Mattel that would have entitled Mattel to the copyright for the design.
The review relays testimony from Mattel's CEO regarding his understanding of the scope of such clauses in employment contracts, namely that they are broad enough to entitle Mattel to claim ownership of designs created decades before the employee in question was hired. Unsurprisingly, in my experience, corporations frequently believe that clauses in employment contracts are indeed very broad; it's unclear how much the assertions of such broad readings affect employees' understandings of their rights.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Someday I will blog about things other than NDAs again but I feel like every time I open the internet there's another story about an NDA. Everyone today was talking about last night's interview of Stormy Daniels on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which was a bizarre series of answering-questions-with-questions and playing coy and talking around the main issue, which was her alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006. You can find lots of articles online; here's one that lays it out. Those trying to summarize the interview generally seem to assume that Daniels must be restricted by an NDA, because she could say if there wasn't an NDA, but it's the proving of a negative, basically; the reporters are trying to make sense of the blank space the non-answers leave in their wake.
It's all had me wondering about the role NDAs played--or maybe more importantly, didn't seem to play?--during the Clinton impeachment. Lots of details about Clinton's sexual harassment history came out during the impeachment, and from my brief research into it, it doesn't seem like there were any NDAs in play. Does anybody have other information about this? How do the number of NDAs around Trump in play today shift our perspective, conversation, and legal analysis?
Monday, January 29, 2018
I’ve written many, many times now on the ways in which NDAs have been used to protect and enable systemic abuse of less empowered people, and they’re in the news again. USA Gymnastics has decided not to fine McKayla Maroney for violating her NDA and speaking out about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the Team USA doctor who recently pled guilty to sexual assault and has been accused by over 140 women. The women’s stories reveal how enforced silence can be used to obscure the full extent of harmful, abusive, and criminal conduct, making it seem as if each account was an isolated incident instead of a pattern of behavior.
A recent report from the Financial Times also makes this point. An expose on a men-only charity event in London, the article revealed that the hostesses hired for the event were asked to sign NDAs (which they were not allowed to read or take with them). Afterwards, during the event, they were subjected to multiple instances of groping, including hands up skirts, and one report of having a penis exposed to her. But we only know about this treatment because the NDAs meant to protect this behavior were broken.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Everyone is talking about HQ Trivia right now, it seems. I'll be honest, though: Last week was the first time I've ever heard of the app. "It's a live trivia show," I was told. "You play twice a day with hundreds of thousands of your closest friends and try to win money."
I downloaded the app because I was curious, and everything about it was an odd, surreal experience. I hadn't expected there to be a live host making uncomfortable one-sided banter to fill time while the start of the game was delayed. Then, when the questions started up, I...had no idea what to do, because nothing about my screen ever changed. I was just staring at the host the whole time. I couldn't figure out how to answer a question.
I found out later that the question is supposed to pop up on your screen. It didn't on my screen, an issue that I saw other people online complaining about, so I know it at least wasn't my own incompetence. I didn't really stick around for more, though. I deleted the app, thinking it was just something that didn't seem to be my kind of thing.
While I was Googling my app experience, though, I came across this pretty wild article from The Daily Beast and it made me think about a thought exercise I like to make my contracts students engage in at the very beginning of the semester: What does each party to a transaction want from the relationship they're about to enter into, and how will that translate into the contract? The article recounts an interview the Daily Beast conducted with the app's main host, and then their interactions with the app's CEO. At the end, it's revealed that the app is in a negotiation for a long-term contract with the main host. The rest of the article provides a lot of meat for speculation as to how those negotiations might go, based on the comments of both the main host and the CEO. The CEO appears to be very worried about the app's trade secrets being revealed, so one can assume that the contract would be very strict about the host's interactions with the media. Doubtless the parties will discuss a non-competition clause as well. And how much will the negotiations be impacted by the newness of the HQ app phenomenon; the uniqueness of its setup; and the fuzziness of its future plans? All interesting things to consider.