ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Is the viral umpire video a breach of contract?

Recently a video went viral showing a 2016 altercation around an umpire ejecting Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard after he threw a fastball behind the Dodgers' Chase Utley. Umpires wear microphones during Major LeagueBaseball games, and the resulting (often loud and profane) discussions with Mets players and especially Mets manager Terry Collins was recorded. 

The video recently surfaced in an apparent leak, because MLB has announced its intention to try to scrub the video from the internet. MLB's reason for this is that it violates a "commitment" that "certain types of interactions" involving umpires during baseball games would not be made public, claiming it was "in the collective bargaining agreement" and that there was "no choice" but to scrub the video from the internet. Indeed, according to one report it had already been scrubbed

Not so fast, though, because I found it still embedded in news reports about it. It's hard to get anything to vanish from the internet, especially once it's gone viral, but it's not that difficult to locate this video at all. 

And it's not hard to see why it went viral. It's a fascinating glimpse into a part of the game fans seldom get to see. As others have pointed out, the umpire does a fantastic job in the clip, so it's hardly like he's being cast in a bad light. The manager doesn't even come across all that poorly. In fact, in my opinion, the party that comes out of the clip looking the worst is Major League Baseball and its confusing way of handling the explosive Chase Utley situation. 

It's unclear what "interactions" were agreed to be withheld from the public, but this one is certainly an interesting one. I'd love to know what the contract terms actually are. 

June 20, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Film, In the News, Labor Contracts, Sports, Television, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 15, 2018

It's True: People Really Are Getting Dumber and Dumber

New scientific studies have proven what we might all have been jokingly saying, but which apparently is true: the world population is increasing, but IQ levels are decreasing.   The reason?  Nurture, not nature. 

The studies claim that after 1975, IQ levels started to drop because of, it is thought, "environmental factors."  These could include pollution, changes in the education system and media environment, nutrition, reading less, and being online more.   Yikes.

"It's not that dumb people are having more kids than smart people, to put it crudely. It's something to do with the environment, because we're seeing the same differences within families," said one of the co-authors and lead researchers on the project.

For us, this is not good news for obvious reasons.  But are we, in fact, a contributing cause?  I know that some of my students, for example, do not enjoy and sometimes simply will not read long homework assignments, don't read privately, and indeed spend large amounts of time online.  I'm sure your students are not very unlike mine in that respect.  Other studies that I don't have handy here also demonstrate that our students have difficulty reading longer texts simply because they are not used to reading anything much longer than blog posts, twitter feeds, and maybe the occasional article here and there, but certainly not books.  

Read the entire findings.  References to "changes in the education system" and "decreasing access to education" are disturbing.

 

 

June 15, 2018 in Commentary, Contract Profs, In the News, Law Schools, Miscellaneous, Science, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Employees Beware: You are Contractually Presumed to be At-will

A new case out of Minnesota and subsequently the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit once again confirms what we suspect already: if there is any doubt about an employee’s status, he or she is likely to be held to be an at-will employee.  Consider this:

Daniel Ayala is hired as an at-will employee in 2006 to serve as a vice president for CyberPower.  In 2012, Ayala and CyberPower agree to convert his position to executive vice president for sales and general manager for Latin America. The written contract details his salary and compensation status, stating that the agreement “outlines the new salary and bonus structure to remain in place until$150 million USD [sic] is reached.  It is not a multiyear commitment or employment contract for either party” (emphasis added).  Ayala is fired before sales could reach $150.  He claims breach of contract, contractual fraud, and unpaid wages, arguing that he was no longer an at-will employee, but rather should have been allowed to remain with the company at least until, as stated in the contract, the sales reached $150 million.  CyberPower also relies on the contractual language, arguing that it unambiguously did notmodify his status as an at-will employee as contained the phrase that it was “not a multiyear commitment or employment contract.” Unknown

The appellate court agreed with CyberPower, highlighting the fact that the text of the agreement indicates that it governed compensation only.  In Minnesota, there is a “strong presumption of at-will employment” which was applied here. The court also pointed out that Ayala did not produce any evidence supporting his claim that the company defrauded him by promising a definite term of employment and then firing him before the completion of the term.

Fair enough, it seems… until you consider the following as well: Ayala performed very well in his first sales position, bring the company’s annual sales from “virtually nothing” to almost $50 million by 2012.  He aspired to become the company’s president when the original president, Robert Lovett, decided to retire.  Lovett allegedly assured Ayala that he would be considered for that position but - surprise! - chose his son Brent as his successor when he retired in 2012.  Ayala then expressed his desire to leave the company, but was persuaded to stay to mentor Brent (thus expecting Ayala to train his own replacement, in effect.). Ayala was assured that if he stayed, he would receive “better compensation, a promotion and a written contract ensuring Ayala long-term employment.”  He was indeed promoted and, per the contract, promised to be able to stay “until” sales reached a certain amount, if the contractual language had been weighed that way.  Further, the contract does not say that his position was in fact at-will.  His previous contract had, in contrast, specifically said so. Images

Because of the parol evidence rule and, probably, the lack of written evidence of the negotiation statements, Ayala lost.  The presumption about at-will employment may have been correctly applied.  Not all court cases are resolved in a fair way for the employees.  But the case clearly reeks of nepotism, luring an employee to stay with a company under false pretenses, and broken oral promises. True, Ayala did not have evidence of the oral negotiations, but neither did CyberPower.

Why is it apparently so darned important in U.S. society to treat employees as mere objects that can be disposed of at will, by definition?  Why would it be so horrible to have to give employees a decent amount of notice and perhaps even a reasonable reason for being let go?  Many other highly developed nations around the world – especially those in Europe – do not employ such law.  These nations do very well.  Companies there make good profits.  Employees have more job security.  They are equally, if not more, productive than American workers.  What’s so bad about that?! 

Clearly, cultural factors play a role in this context. That’s unlikely to change.  In the meantime, employees in the U.S. should continue to be critical towards oral promises made by their employers and get every important term in writing.  Of course, that is easier said than done in today’s often difficult job market and resulting reasonable fears of losing or not getting a coveted position. Employees such as Ayala should not be seen as mere impersonal chess pieces that can be manipulated and moved around for employer benefits only.  But they often are.

The case is Daniel Ayala v. CyberPower Systems (USA), Inc., 2018 WL 2703102.

June 13, 2018 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (4)

Arbitration clause enforceability seems like a pretty safe bet these days

There is very little you can bet on in life but it seems like the continued prevalence of arbitration clauses is one of them. We just had a Supreme Court ruling confirming that, and a recent case out of Nebraska, Heineman v. The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, No. S-17-983, continues in the same vein. 

In the case, a nursing home resident sued the facility for injuries he sustained while living there. The nursing home facility sought to arbitrate the dispute under the arbitration clause Heineman agreed to before being admitted as a resident of the facility. The lower court refused to enforce the arbitration clause based on lack of mutuality of obligation as well as finding it contrary to public policy. The appellate court, however, disagreed. 

First, Heineman's argument on mutality of obligation concerned allegations that the nursing home facility had filed lawsuits against its residents without pursuing arbitration first. Heineman therefore argued that the nursing home's conduct indicated that only Heineman was bound by the arbitration clause. However, Heineman's argument depended on the court taking judicial notice of those lawsuits, considering that, as drafted, the arbitration clause did bind the nursing home. For some reason, though, this was apparently not an argument Heineman made at the lower court level, because the appellate court refused to take judicial notice of the lawsuits because they had not been presented to the trial court.

As far as the public policy concern went, the lower court had relied on a federal regulation prohibiting arbitration clauses as a requirement for admission to long-term care facilities. However, that regulation was passed almost two years after Heineman signed his arbitration clause, and at any rate has been enjoined from application by a federal court. Because there was no other legislation expressing a public policy against arbitration in the context of nursing-home facilities, the court found the arbitration clause was enforceable.

June 13, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Saving illusory promises with implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing

If you teach Lady Duff-Gordon, as I teach Lady Duff-Gordon, you know that it's a fun case that lets you talk about a frankly pretty incredible life. But it's also an older case, so here's a more recent case out of New York using the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to potentially save an allegedly illusory promise, Ely v. Phase One Networks, Inc., 2667/2017 (behind paywall). 

The plaintiff is a composer. The defendant is a company that produces music albums. The parties entered into recording and co-publishing agreements. The plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment that the contracts are unenforceable because they are illusory and unconscionable and moved for summary judgment. The court found that factual disputes existed as to both the unconscionability and illusory allegations. The analysis on unconscionability was very brief, but the court did provide a slightly deeper analysis on the illusory promise front. Although the recording contract provided that the recordings were "subject to the defendant's approval in its sole judgment," the court noted that the covenant of good faith and fair dealing "implicit in all contracts" meant that "the defendant could not unreasonably withhold approval." 

June 11, 2018 in Commentary, Famous Cases, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 1, 2018

Why do employers sue employees who leave to work for companies that don't compete against them?

A recent case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, LLC v. Douglas, Civil Action No. 18-1470, declined to enforce a non-compete against the defendant Douglas, who had gone to work for an outdoor advertising firm that covered Manhattan and the Bronx. Catalyst, meanwhile, worked out of the Philadelphia area. The non-compete in question had no geographic limitations, which the court took issue with, noting it "covers the entire world." Catalyst asked the court to define reasonable geographic limits for the non-compete but the court declined to do so, stating, "[D]efining the boundaries is not our job." Additionally, because Catalyst operated in Southeastern Pennsylvania (with one billboard along the New Jersey Turnpike) and Douglas's new employer operated only within New York City, the court found that the two companies were not in competition with each other. 

The court also found that Douglas had no confidential information belonging to Catalyst and that there was no evidence the information she knew from working at Catalyst would be beneficial in the entirely new territory of New York City. Therefore, the court concluded there was no likelihood of irreparable harm. 

This is one of those cases that, from a pragmatic standpoint, makes little sense to me. Why would Catalyst pursue a court case against an employee going to work for a company not in its geographic area? The court's irreparable harm analysis seems right to me, that the employee here didn't have any specialized knowledge that could hurt Catalyst, given it didn't compete against the new employer. So, in that case, why is this case worth the money spent by Catalyst to bring it? Even if Catalyst had been successful, what was Catalyst's concrete gain? Is it just that companies don't want any employees to leave ever? Given the breadth of the non-compete in the first place, Catalyst might just be overprotective. Or is there some fact about this case left out of the opinion that makes it make more sense? Is Catalyst contemplating expansion down the road into New York City and is worried this employee might somehow make their plans less successful? This case is in the preliminary injunction stage, so maybe there is information that could arise later that would make it look more likely that Catalyst would succeed on the merits. It seems like Catalyst would have presented that information to the court at this point, though. 

June 1, 2018 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Temperatures Affecting Test Scores - Bar Results Too?

Although this post does not have anything to do with contracts law, it is hopefully interesting to many of you law professors anyway.

Scientific research shows that in years with warmer temperatures, students score worse on tests.  The link is "significant."  Researchers calculated that for every 0.55° C increase in average temperature over the year, there was a 1% fall in learning.  

Colder days did not seem to damage achievement - but the negative impact began to be measurable as temperatures rose above 21° degrees C.  The reduction in learning accelerated once temperatures rose above 32° C and even more so above 38° C.

A simple solution could be to use more airconditioning on test days.  The more complex, but necessary, solution is to curb climate change.  The world is still not doing enough in that respect despite the 2015 Paris Agreement.  In particular, it is problematic that the USA has announced its withdrawal from the climate change agreement.

Could increasing temperatures also be part of the reason for our students' worse and worse bar performances?  Apparently so.  

May 30, 2018 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, Legislation, Science | Permalink

Friday, May 25, 2018

Trump Seeks to Alter Post Office Contracts with Amazon

As widely reported in, for example, the Washington Post, whose owner founded Amazon, President Trump has pushed Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate that the post office charges Amazon.com and some, but not all, similar online retailers.  

The contracts between the Postal Service and Amazon are secret out of concerns for the company's delivery systems.  They must additionally be reviewed by a regulatory commission before being changed.  That, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not seem to phase President Trump who appears to be upset at both Amazon and the Washington Post.   The dislike of the latter needs no explanation, but why Amazon?  Trump has accused it of pushing brick-and-mortar stores out of business.  Others point out that if it weren't for Amazon, it is the post office which may be out of business.

Aside from the political aspects of this, does Trump have a point?  Is Amazon to blame for regular stores going out of business?  I am no business historian, but it seems that Amazon and others are taking advantage of what the marketplace wants: easy online shopping.  Yes, it is very sad that smaller, "regular" stores are closing down, most of us probably agree on that.  But retail shopping and other types of business contracting will evolve over time as it has in this context.  That's hardly because Amazon was founded; surely, the situation is vice versa.  Such delivery services are fulfilling a need that arose because of other developments.

From an environmental point of view, less private vehicle driving (for shopping, etc.) is better.  Concentrating the driving among fewer vehicles (FedEx, UPS, USPS, etc.) is probably better, although I have done researched this statement very recently.  One fear may be the additional and perhaps nonexistent/overly urgent need for stuff that is created when it becomes very easy to buy, e.g., toilet paper and cat litter online even though that may in and of itself create more driving rather than just shopping for these items when one is out and about anyway, but that is another discussion.

Suffice it to say that Trump should respect the federal laws governing the Postal Service _and_ existing contracts. What a concept!  If the pricing structure should be changed, it clearly should not be done almost single-handedly by a president.  

Meanwhile, the rest of us could consider if it is really necessary to, for example, get Saturday snail mail deliveries and to pay only about 42 cents to send a letter when the price of such service is easily quadruple that in other Western nations (Denmark, for example, where national postal service has been cut back to twice a week only and where virtually all post offices have been closed).  Fairly simple changes could help the post office towards better financial health.  This, in turn, would help both businesses and private parties.  

 

May 25, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Government Contracting, In the News, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Banks Violating Federally Mandated Contract Law Provisions

PNC Bank, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank have been sued for charging interest from homeowners paying off their mortgages early without disclosing how to avoid the charges in spite of HUD rules requiring the latter (and, in the case of one California plaintiff, the California Unfair Competition Law).  When do they ever learn, you ask yourself? - Not soon enough, seems to be the answer. 

This is how the most recent scandal went down (and might still be, so anyone wishing to pay off their mortgages before time, be aware): Homeowners paying off their mortgages ahead of schedule were charged “post-payment interest charges” for the entire month in which the loan was otherwise paid off.  What’s the big deal, you ask yourself?  Consider this: Lead California plaintiff Sandi Vare alleged that she asked PNC for a payoff statement when refinancing her home in July 2016.  She was charged $1,227.16 in interest for the entire month, despite the fact that her loan was paid off on July 16; roughly $600 too much.  Even for you and I, that’s a good chunk of change. Images-1

Banks, it seems, try whatever they can to fog and outright cheat their own clients in many contexts and certainly in the home financing/refinancing ones.  I am personally altering my home loan with Wells Fargo to 1) pay a chunk extra into the principal and 2) pay the loan off in a shorter timeframe than the current one.  The amount of fogging and, in effect, secret “code talk” one has to be subject to or use to achieve such a simple objective is amazing.  For example, if one does not mention the word “recast,” the bank representative may not mention this or may not outline the otherwise relatively advantageous terms of obtaining such a contractual amendment. If one does not very specifically ask for the interest rates and amounts per month, total loan period and interest vs. principal amount, etc. (you get it), the bank – at least Wells Fargo – does not seem to lay out all the details that could work in the borrower’s favor.  Granted, they do if one asks them to do so, but is this this amount of fogging, secrecy, and, in the case of the above-mentioned lawsuit, outright disregard of not only contractual ethics, but also state and federal law what we wish to accept as society just so that banks, who have repeated proved to not follow the law, ethics or even sound market-based risk principles, can continue to make money on services that their customers actively seek to avoid?  One would hope not, but as this case shows, more litigation is apparently needed to continue reigning in overly greedy banks. Images

The case is Vare et. al v. PNC Bank, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, 18-2988. The lawsuit is asking for a nationwide class for breach of contract.  Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank defeated nationwide class status last year as too many state-specific rules were involved in that case. 

May 23, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, True Contracts | Permalink

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Update: In Which Arbitration Reigns Supreme (Supreme Court Kind-Of Pun Intended)

I just blogged about the Ninth Circuit case of Morris v. Ernst & Young, and the Supreme Court has now come out with its decision, reversing the Ninth Circuit (shorter analysis here). Where the Ninth Circuit found that arbitration clauses prohibiting concerted actions by employees violated the National Labor Relations Act, the Supreme Court found that permitting concerted actions by employees where arbitration clauses existed would violate the Federal Arbitration Act. Justice Ginsburg wrote a long dissent; the majority opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch. The trend out of the Supreme Court has been that arbitration trumps every other policy. The Federal Arbitration Act is like the royal flush of statutes.

In a world where contracts with arbitration clauses govern almost every imaginable transaction, courts are forced into interesting decisions to press against the primacy of arbitration. So, for instance, on the same day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the Western District of Pennsylvania declined to enforce an arbitration provision in Jones v. Samsung Electronics America, Case No. 2:17-cv-00571-MAP (behind paywall). Jones sought to bring a class action against Samsung based on alleged defects in its S3 cell phones. Samsung sought to arbitrate, citing the contract allegedly contained in the instruction booklet included with the phone. But the court disagreed that the arbitration clause was enforceable. It found that the clause was "tucked away" in a section entitled "Manufacturer's Warranty" contained in a 64-page booklet. The court agreed that the clause might possibly have been more inconspicuous, but found that

the degree of prominence of the Arbitration Agreement here seems calibrated with dual goals: on the one hand, just enough to persuade a court to smother potential litigation; on the other hand, not enough to make it likely that a consumer will actually notice the Agreement and perhaps hesitate to buy. It is one thing to hold consumers to agreements they have not read; it is another to hold them to agreements that, perhaps by design, they will probably never know about.

The court's decision here makes some sense, but it seems rooted in a somewhat fictional hypothetical. I don't know but I feel like Samsung could sell its phones with an instruction booklet with "ARBITRATION CLAUSE" in big, bold, red letters with exclamation points on the front of it, and I'm not sure it would in fact cause most consumers to "hesitate to buy," especially not if the majority of other cell phones contain similar arbitration clauses (the major cell phone carriers do).

But the bigger fiction at issue here is the idea that we're all "voluntarily" entering into these contracts. I mean, we are, to the extent that it's "voluntary" to have a cell phone in today's world. The answer to that question is: It is, to some extent, but not to the extent that we're willing to forego one entirely based on the mere possibility we might want to sue someday and can't. We all take risks, and maybe the court's view is this a risk that doesn't pay off for the consumer, oh, well, but it seems like the consumer has almost no power to take any other kind of risk. (This is, of course, not limited to cell phone contracts. So the real question is: is it "voluntary" to be a consumer in our capitalist society?) Likewise, is it "voluntary" to accept a job that require arbitrations, if you need a job to survive and jobs without arbitration clauses might be tough to come by?

There are statutory ways to shift the supremacy of arbitration, of course, as the Supreme Court's decision acknowledges. And at one point the FCC was contemplating doing something about the type of arbitration clause the court looked at in Jones. Maybe add it to your list of things to contact your representatives about, if you so desire.  

May 22, 2018 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 30, 2018

Opting out of Facebook once you've opted in (or, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave)

In the earlier years of the twenty-first century, I did what now literally billions of people have done and opened a Facebook account. I didn't use it for very long, and in fact I stopped using it probably almost ten years ago at this point. I stopped for a variety of reasons, but I left the account up because of that rule about how bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, I suppose. I didn't use it, it was just a passively existing thing, and it seemed like effort to get rid of it. 

With everything coming out about Facebook and data, I started wondering why I still had that account sitting there. I didn't think Facebook had a whole lot of data on me since I'd stopped using it so many years ago, but I figured, What was the point of giving it any info on me at all? Why not just delete the account?

I don't know if you've ever tried to delete your Facebook account. There are two options: deactivation, which deactivates your account but continues its existence, or deletion, which actually deletes your account. I wanted the latter, which requires you to fill out a contact form saying you would like to delete your account. So, in January, I filled out the form and received a verification email saying that my account would be deleted within the next two weeks, and I moved on with my life. 

Except. No, I didn't. Because Facebook kept emailing me little updates about my friends on Facebook, even though I kept clicking the "unsubscribe" link to try to get out of the emails. And then an email came in saying that someone had sent me a message. Which seemed like something they shouldn't be able to do if my account was deleted. I asked a friend still on Facebook to check for me, and she said that yup, I was still on Facebook. My account had never been deleted. 

And now's where the confusion really started, because, well, after literally months of dealing with this, I have to admit: I have no idea how to contact Facebook without being on Facebook. It's so convoluted that in fact an entire scam has mushroomed up around it, taking advantage of people who just want to try to get in touch with Facebook.

Facebook's log-in page (if you're logged out of Facebook) has no real contact info on it. The "About" link takes you to Facebook's Facebook page (so meta!), which contains links to a "website" and "company" info, both of which take you to "Page Not Found" pages, which is kind of hilarious to me. It seems to recommend you use Facebook Messenger to contact them, but...I'm not on Facebook Messenger. That's the whole point.

When you click on the "Help" link, it takes you to a FAQ page divided by topics, some of which are about account deletion but it seems to just be a bunch of people complaining about how Facebook won't delete their accounts. Or, what's worse, suggesting you call a customer service number that seems to be a scam, as evidenced by complaints here and here; by the fact that NPR did a previous story on the fact that Facebook has no customer service number; and the fact that Facebook itself appears to say it's a scam, as the below Google snippet shows:

Facebook

That link looked to me like exactly what I'm trying to track down, so I clicked on it, but, alas, it's only available to me if I join Facebook. 

So it looks like, once you've opted into Facebook, there really is no opting out. I've tweeted at them  with no response and tried some general email addresses (info@facebook; support@facebook) with no response. The emails I keep trying to unsubscribe from give me a physical mailing address, so I guess I could send them a letter asking them to follow through and delete my account and also unsubscribe me from the email lists, but I'm not hopeful that will get a response, either. 

I am hardly the first person to realize that Facebook is nearly impossible to get in touch with (the Sikhs for Justice case seems to have kicked off based at least in part on an inability to get any substantive responses from Facebook), but it seems like, in the wake of a lot of questions about control over our own data, our first step might at least make it a requirement that websites provide contact info for discussions about that data -- contact info that doesn't require you to first "opt in" to their terms and conditions (which is exactly what I'm trying to get out of!). 

We've been doing a lot of talking about the terms and conditions we agree to without reading them, and I guess I always assumed that if I changed my mind, I could back out. Facebook's terms and conditions even allow for that, stating that I can delete my account at any time. But it has turned out not to be nearly so simple, and I am literally flummoxed as to what options I have, seeing as how I don't really feel like going to court in the State of California, as required by the terms and conditions. It looks like I have an account on Facebook, whether I like it or not, for the foreseeable future. You don't realize how much privacy you've already given up until you try to get just a bit of it back. 

April 30, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Similar in concept" IHOP diner follow-up!

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! 

April 17, 2018 in Commentary, Food and Drink, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Court answers the question: Is IHOP a diner?

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. 

April 16, 2018 in Commentary, Food and Drink, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Bill O'Reilly's sexual harassment settlement agreements

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...

April 10, 2018 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

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. 

April 9, 2018 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 2, 2018

Tenured!

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. Tenurecartoontweaked

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.

I’ll now try to blog a lot more here. Tips and ideas on cases are always welcome (they are harder to find than you might think). Phd072011s

April 2, 2018 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Stormy Daniels liquidated damages provision

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Being true to the spirit of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

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.)

March 15, 2018 in Books, Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Using Contract Law to Address Climate Change

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 Images
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. Unknown

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.

March 11, 2018 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Contract law: cool enough to be included in an Oscar acceptance speech

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. 

March 7, 2018 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Film Clips, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)