ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, July 25, 2016

Non-Competes: An Internet Show Is Not a Radio Show

A recent case out of the Eastern District of Michigan, Burke v. Cumulus Media, Inc., Case No. 16-cv-11220 (behind paywall), has some interesting things to say about the impact of the Internet on non-competes you may be drafting.

In the case, the plaintiffs had a radio show on a Michigan radio station owned by Cumulus. Cumulus terminated the plaintiffs, and they sued alleging age discrimination. In response, Cumulus counterclaimed alleging that the plaintiffs were violating their non-compete clause because they were hosting an Internet-based radio show together.

Unfortunately for Cumulus, though, the non-compete prohibited the plaintiffs from doing various things related to "radio stations." It said nothing about any other medium, including the Internet. Because the plaintiffs had shifted their show to an Internet stream, it was not covered by the non-compete.

If you're drafting non-competes in this context, keep this ruling in mind. Of course, I have no idea if a non-compete that included the Internet would have been considered enforceable or if it would have restricted the plaintiffs' ability to earn a livelihood too much.

Another interesting facet of this case is that only one of the plaintiffs' non-competes was at issue here. The other non-compete by its terms was only enforceable if Cumulus paid the plaintiff for the period of time he was prohibited from competing. Cumulus chose not to pay that plaintiff and so did not (and could not) seek to enforce his non-compete. Whenever I talk to my students about covenants not to compete, we talk about how easily they can be broadly drafted to possibly intimidate less legally knowledgeable employees, and one of the things we bring up is that making them have some cost to the employer could help judge the seriousness of the necessity of the covenant. Here, it apparently wasn't worth it for Cumulus to pay to keep one of the plaintiffs from competing.

July 25, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

More Adventures in Leasing: Persistent Apartment Flooding Edition

Here is a good case for illustrating equitable estoppel in a way that students, frequently renters, will probably appreciate: Pinnacle Properties Development Group, LLC v. Daily, Court of Appeals Case No. 10A01-1512-SC-2275, out of Indiana.

You may recognize Pinnacle's name. I previously blogged about them here. I stated in that blog entry that the case seemed straightforward and not worth the money to appeal, but apparently they have a habit of appealing relatively small (here, $752.37) judgments against them.

In this case, Daily was a tenant at a Pinnacle property. About eight months after moving into his apartment, Daily's apartment flooded. He reported the flooding using Pinnacle's emergency telephone number, which Pinnacle told its tenants to use in such circumstances. When no one answered the emergency number, he left a message and then dealt with the flooding himself, borrowing a wet/dry vacuum and removing thirty gallons of water from his unit. 

In the month of July, the apartment flooded three more times. The first two times, Daily again called the Pinnacle emergency number. He was told that someone would be sent out to his apartment, but no one ever came. Daily continued to deal with the flooding himself, removing another fifty-two gallons of water using the borrowed wet/dry vacuum.

The third time in July that the apartment flooded, Daily went personally to the Pinnacle office, rather than calling the number. Pinnacle submitted a work order into the system but still no one came out to Daily's apartment. Daily bought himself his own wet/dry vacuum and continued to remove gallons of water from his apartment. A week later, he filed a complaint against Pinnacle and was awarded his rent for the month of July, the cost of the wet/dry vacuum he purchased, and some costs and interest. (The amount he was awarded was considerably less than the three-thousand-plus dollars he was originally seeking.)

Pinnacle's main argument on appeal was that the lease required Daily to give Pinnacle written notice of the flooding, which he never did. The court wasn't sure written notice was required under the lease but it stated that, even if that was true, Pinnacle was equitably estopped from asserting the written notice requirement because it was undisputed that Pinnacle had actual notice of Daily's flooding issue. It would be unjust under these circumstances to force Daily to pay rent for an apartment that was partially uninhabitable, where Pinnacle knew that Daily was suffering this problem and provided Daily with false assurances that it would deal with the problem, on which Daily relied, justifiably, to his detriment. As the court says, "We can hardly imagine a more appropriate application of the equitable estoppel doctrine." The court affirmed the award of the July rent, plus the cost of the wet/dry vacuum as a consequential damage.

July 20, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Do Law Profs Breach a Commercial Educational Agreement by Wearing T-Shirts with a Social Message?

A group of 1L students recently caused a stir-up at an anonymous law school by posting an anonymous complaint after their criminal law professor wore a "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt "on campus" (not "to class," apparently).   See the letter and the professor's great response here.  (For full disclosure, our colleagues on the TaxProf Blog also wrote about the story here Images).

Do students, because they enter into a contract with a private law school (or even a public one), have a legitimate reason to complain that their professors wear t-shirts with a socially and legally provocative or at least thought-provoking message?  The students wrote, "We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors."

Is this reasonable, in your opinion?  First, this comparison is not apt.  In fact, it is an extreme over-exaggeration that barely needs commenting on.  The students also comment that the "BLM" movement does not have anything to do with the law, which demonstrates the sad state of ignorance about the law and society in which many of our students - and perhaps especially those in conservative areas such as Orange County, California - find themselves (that's where the anonymous law school is thought to be located).  The movement is clearly about very little but the law and policy.  Second, students can and should expect to get a quality legal education when attending an ABA-accredited law school, but simply because they pay money for it does not entitle them to only hear about the version of the law that _they_ prefer.  In fact, as the professor so correctly notes in his response, the consumer theory should not apply to the content of one's legal education. In other words, students don't pay to only hear part of the message.  And as the professor said: students certainly don't pay us _not_ to have an opinion about the classes we teach (note that the Tshirt was worn in connection with a criminal procedure class).

What are your thoughts on this?  And why does the law school not publish its name?

July 11, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Arbitration Clauses: Gogo Internet Edition

The rise of Wi-Fi on airplanes means that you never have to be without the internet if you don't want to be...which also means that you never have to be without terms of use! A recent case out of the Eastern District of New York, Salameno v. Gogo Inc., 16-CV-0487 (behind paywall), reinforces that those terms of use are binding on you, and, as could probably be predicted, leads to the enforcement of an arbitration provision contained in them.

In this case, the plaintiffs had purchased Gogo's in-flight Internet access multiple times. They claimed that the Internet access didn't work as advertised, with allegations that it was incredibly slow, crashed frequently, or sometimes didn't work at all. (Anecdotally, I have heard people around me on flights complain about this, although I don't know if Gogo was at issue there or if in-flight Wi-Fi is simply fraught with complications.) Despite these alleged ongoing issues, the plaintiffs kept buying Gogo's Wi-Fi, perhaps in eternal hope that it would someday work properly? At any rate, this all culminated in plaintiffs' lawsuit here.

A judge recently found that the plaintiffs are bound by the arbitration clause in Gogo's Terms of Use. All of the plaintiffs used Gogo's Internet access multiple times, and each time they had to indicate that they agreed to the Terms of Use. This wasn't just a one-time thing, which maybe would have made the court more sympathetic, but multiple times of clicking "Agree" without looking at the Terms of Use. And, the court said, those who seek Internet access in the air are experienced Internet users who should be expected to know how to read the Terms of Use contained in the hyperlink.

How to click on a hyperlink, yes, most Internet users know how to do; whether or not the average Internet user necessarily understands all of the legalese found at that hyperlink is another question entirely, of course, but not one addressed in this case. Possibly because the court assumes that all laypersons understand the difference between litigation and arbitration, although in my experience I am not entirely sure that's true. At any rate, the court here held this arbitration clause to be binding.

July 9, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Cheating the Cheaters

Yesterday, I blogged here about ticketscalping “ticketbots” outperforming people trying to buy tickets with the result of vastly increased ticket prices.

Now Ashley Madison – dating website for married people – has announced that some of the “women” featured on its website were actually “fembots;” virtual computer programs. In other words, men who paid to use the website in the hope of talking to real women were actually spending cash to communicate with computers (men have to pay to use the website, women don’t). Images-1

Why the announcement? The new leadership apparently wanted to air the company’s dirty laundry, so to speak.

Ashley Madison was hacked last year, revealing who was using the website to cheat on their husband, wife or partner. It was a devastating hack, ruining lives and even leading a pastor to commit suicide.

This seems to be a clear breach of contract: if you pay to communicate with real women, the contract must be considered breached if all or most of the contact attempts went to and/or from computers only. Perhaps even worse for Ashley Madison is the fact that the company is under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC does not comment on ongoing cases, but “it could be investigating whether Ashley Madison properly attempted to protect the identity of its discreet customers -- which it promised to keep secret. Or it could be investigating Ashley Madison for duping customers into paying to talk to fake women. On Monday, the company also acknowledged that it hired a team of independent forensic accounting investigators to review past business practices around bots and the ratio of male and female U.S. members who were active on the site." Images

July 6, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ticket Scalping Machines – An Intersection between Contracts and Criminal Law

Have you ever tried buying concert tickets right when they were made available for sale on the Internet, only to find out mere minutes later that they were all sold out? Or, for that matter, highly coveted camping reservations in national or some state parks?

Where once, we all competed against the speed of each other’s fingertips and internet connections, nowadays, “ticket bots” quickly snatch up tickets and reservations making it virtually impossible for human beings to compete online. Ticket bots are, you guessed it, automatic computer programs that buy tickets at lighting speed. They can even read “Captcha boxes;” those little squiggly letters that you have to retype to prove that you are not a computer. Yah, that didn’t work too well for very long.

“A single ticket bot scooped up 520 seats to a Beyonce concert in Brooklyn in three minutes. Another snagged up to more than 1,000 U2 tickets to one show in a single minute, soon after the Irish band announced its 2015 world tour.”

Ticket bots scoop up tickets for scalpers who then resell them on other websites, marking the tickets up many times the original price. (I’m actually not saying that state and national parks are cheated that way, maybe camping reservations in those locations are just incredibly popular as hotel prices have increased and incomes are staggering. I personally used to be able to, with t Imageshe help of a husband and several computers, make campground reservations for national holidays, but those days are long gone…”we are now full.”).

Ticket bots are already illegal in more than a dozen states. New York is considering cracking down on this system as well. However, the most severe penalty under New York law is currently fines in the order of a few thousand dollars where ticket scalpers make millions of dollars. A new law proposes jail time for offenders. This is thought to better deter this type of white-collar crime in the ticket contract market.

July 5, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News, Legislation, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Donald Trump and the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

Everyone else is talking about Donald Trump, so I guess why shouldn't we hop in, right?

This recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece introduced me to an ongoing contract dispute involving Trump that I hadn't been paying attention to, even though now I see it's been widely reported by various news outlets, including food blogs, because it involves restaurants. So if you don't normally like to read political stuff but you consider yourself a foodie, this blog entry is also for you!

It turns out that Trump is embroiled in breach of contract lawsuits with a couple of famous chefs who pulled out of commitments to put restaurants into one of Trump's new developments. According to the reports, the impetus for pulling out of the business deal was Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric during his presidential campaign. Jose Andres, himself an immigrant, was not too happy about Trump's statements. As seems to be the case with Trump, his business concerns don't necessarily track his political rhetoric when the bottom line is at issue. Faced with an immigrant refusing him rather than the other way around, Trump sued Andres for breach of contract. Andres counter-sued, alleging that Trump's many derogatory remarks about Hispanics rendered Andres's proposed Spanish restaurant "extraordinarily risky."

The chefs sought partial summary judgment, which a court recently denied, finding that material facts were still in dispute.

The crux of this lawsuit revolves around the covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Did Trump breach that covenant when he made his remarks, which would make him the one in breach of contract? Or were Trump's remarks not a breach of the covenant, either because they're not relevant to the contract or because they did not harm the prospects for success of Andres's restaurant? I don't know if the parties will continue to litigate this question but I'm curious what the result would be. In the current climate where rhetoric is frequently extremely inflammatory, could there be contract implications to such statements? How far, policy-wise, do we want the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to extend?

The case is Trump Old Post Office LLC v. Topo Atrio LLC, 2015 CA 006624 B (behind paywall), in District of Columbia Superior Court. 

July 5, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Food and Drink, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Judge Easterbrook’s Interpretation of “Reimburse”

In Walker v. Trailer Transit, Judge Easterbrook finds that in addition to “recover costs,” the word “reimburse” could just as easily mean to broadly “compensate” (at a profit) or “pay” even given a seemingly contradictory context. Unknown

In the case, one thousand truck drivers filed a class action lawsuit against their “gig” employer, Trailer Transit. The drivers contracted to earn 71% of Trailer Transit’s contracts with its end clients. Trailer Transit owned the trucks; the drivers drove them. Among other things, the contract between the drivers and Trailer Transit stated that

[t]he parties mutually agree that [Trailer Transit] shall pay to [Driver] … a sum equal to seventy one percent (71%) of the gross revenues derived from use of the equipment leased herein (less any insurance related surcharge and all items intended to reimburse [Trailer Transit] for special services, such as permits, escort service and other special administrative costs including, but not limited to, Item 889).

The drivers (perhaps inartfully) claimed that Trailer Transit cheated them out of earnings by labeling income “special services” whereby Trailer Transit could claim it was simply getting “reimbursed” and thus deduct certain amounts from the equation before compensating its drivers. Trailer Transit claimed that the drivers were only entitled to 71% of whatever was listed as the “gross charges” for the driving services, end of story.

Images-2

How would you interpret the provision in question?

The most obvious and reasonable reading of the contract seems to me to be as follows: If, for example, Trailer Transit enters into a contract with an end client for $1,000 plus $100 for also arranging for special services in the form of, for example, an escort vehicle (e.g. a “Wide Load” car), its drivers would earn $710, Trailer transit $290 in profits ($1,000 – 71% to the drivers), but bill the end client $1,100.

But what if, hypothetically speaking, the company was to seek to maximize its profits out of the total sum of $1,100 to be billed to the end client? It could then, for example, label $600 as “special services” to be “reimbursed” to it, thus reducing the amount to be paid to the drivers to $355 (71% of ($1,100-600)). That would increase its profits from the above $290 to $645 (($500-355) plus $500 (with the escort service at $100). Do you think that the contract was meant to be interpreted that way? Judge Easterbook (yes, of “bubble wrap fame”) does. Among other things, he found that

[d]rivers are entitled to 71% of the gross charge for “use of the equipment” (that is, the Drivers’ rigs), but the contract does not provide for a share of Trailer Transit’s net profit on any other part of the bill. It would be possible to write such a contract, but the parties didn’t … [T]he Drivers do not invoke any principle of [] law that turns “71% of gross on X and nothing on Y” into “71% of gross on X plus 71% of net on Y.” Images-1

Judge Easterbook also makes the unpersuasive and, in my opionion, ill-thought out example that if

Trailer Transit paid someone $1,000 to accompany an over-wide shipment and display a “WIDE LOAD” banner, and billed the shipper $1,250, then the Driver would be entitled to $887.50 for that escort service—and Trailer Transit would lose $637.50 ($1,250 less $1,000 less $887.50 equals $637.50).

This is unpersuasive as Trailer Transit would presumably not be as large and profitable as it is if it were so incompetent as to systematically incur the losses that Judge Easterbrook concocts here. Further, in his example, if the charge of $1,000 truly was for a cost of that amount, Trailer Transit would, per its own contract and intent, get to deduct that cost in full first. Nothing in the case indicates otherwise.

The meaning seems to hinge on two things: the meaning of “reimburse” and whether or not this was an example of the company taking opportunistic advantage of its contractual commitments, which the drivers had, for some reason, not argued (Easterbrook recognizes that such an argument might have changed the outcome of the case – note to our students: always consider that). As regards the meaning of “reimburse, Judge Easterbook argues

True enough, one standard meaning of “reimburse” is to recover costs. Someone who submits a voucher for expenses incurred on a business trip seeks reimbursement of actual outlays rather than a profit. But this is not the only possible meaning of “reimburse.” The word also is used to mean “compensate” or “pay.” If the contract had said “reimburse the expense of special services,” that would limit the word’s meaning to recovery of actual costs. But those italicized words aren’t in the contract.

No, but that intent seems to be clear here. Contracts are usually interpreted in accordance with both the plain meaning of the contract and the intent of the parties (not after-the-fact intent of one party).

What do you think the word “reimburse” means here? The word is defined by various sources as follows (my emphasis):

Black’s Law Dictionary:

  1. Repayment
  2. Indemnification

Merriam-Webster:

  1. to pay someone an amount of money equal to an amount that person has spent;
  2. to pay someone back;
  3. to make restoration or payment of an equivalent to an amount that person has spent

Dictionary.com:

  1. to make repayment to for expense or loss incurred;
  2. to pay back; refund; repay.

Vocabulary.com

  1. pay someone back for some expense incurred;
  2. reimburse or compensate (someone) as for a loss

Third Circuit Court of Appeals:

"To pay back, to make restoration, to repay that expended; to indemnify, or make whole." United States v. Konrad, 730 F.3d 343, 353 ( 3d Cir. 2013).

To me, all these sources indicate that the word means what we probably all think it means: money back for an outlay. But apparently, that is not the case in the Seventh Circuit.

June 30, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

If You Sign a Lease, You Should Get a Habitable Apartment

This seems like it should be obvious but a recent case out of Indiana, Pinnacle Properties Development Group, LLC v. Gales, Court of Appeals Case No. 10A01-1512-SC-2271, was still being fought at the appellate court phase.

Gales rented an apartment from Pinnacle. She was told that she could not view the apartment until the day of her move-in. On the date of the move-in, Gales signed the lease and was then shown the apartment. At that point, Gales realized that the apartment had a shattered sliding door, a toilet that flooded and soaked the carpet, and no electricity (and apparently could not be made to get electricity because the meter had been removed). Gales told the leasing agent that the apartment was unacceptable and, as there was no other apartment of that floor plan available and as there was going to be a delay of at least several days before the apartment could be inhabited, she wanted the lease canceled and her money back.

Pinnacle's main argument was that Gales signed the lease, it was binding, and so Gales shouldn't be let out of it. The court, however, disagreed. Gales signed the lease, it found, with the understanding that she would received a habitable apartment. Since she didn't receive that habitable apartment, the lease was unenforceable, and she was entitled to her money back.

This seems like it should be a straightforward case. I can't imagine why it would be worth the money to continue fighting this.

June 29, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Text Message Is a Writing, Too (Albeit with More Emojis)

As technology continues to evolve, so does the law, and a recent case out of Massachusetts, St. John's Holdings, LLC v. Two Electronics, LLC, MISC 16-000090, proves it. Addressing what the court termed a "novel" question in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court concluded that the text messages at issue in the case constituted writings for statutes of frauds purposes.

I have often thought that we communicate much more in writing these days than people did, say, twenty years ago. I know that it is now much more common for me to text the people I want to speak with than actually call them to speak orally. It will be interesting to see how the statute of frauds continues to develop.

(Thanks to Ben Cooper for sending this case my way!)

 

June 27, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Have You Designated a Legacy Contact on Facebook?

Facebook

Source: facebook.com

It isn't something we typically think about but as our world shifts to digital and as more and more of us leave behind large social media footprints, what happens to those accounts when we die? I have thought about it briefly, mostly in thinking that I should give my passwords to someone, so that, if something happens to me unexpectedly, someone will be able to get onto my social media to let my followers know. I have had social media friends vanish with no explanation, and it's always haunted me that maybe something happened to them and I had no way of knowing. 

Despite the fact that I'm a lawyer, it honestly never occurred to me that what happens to my social media accounts after my death might be governed by their terms of use...until I saw this story reported widely on the local news. There was a recent tragedy in a nearby town that resulted in the unexpected, untimely death of George Heath. George's widow, Rosemary, was accessing his Facebook account to send photos and videos to family and friends and share older memories. Given how long Facebook has been around now, there are potentially years' worth of memories built up on Facebook pages, and one could see how they would be of some comfort in a time of grief. 

However, Facebook's terms of use prohibited what Rosemary was doing. Someone notified Facebook that George had died and Facebook basically locked the account down. They call it "memorializing the page," but the effect of it is that it's locked and no one can access it, not even someone who has the password. Now, this makes sense in a way: People could do malicious and terrible things to a deceased person's Facebook page, theoretically, if Facebook didn't lock it down. But it's a harsh outcome when applied to people in Rosemary's situation. 

Facebook's terms of use inform you that you should designate a legacy contact. This was actually difficult for me to find in Facebook's policies and I eventually only found it by Googling "Facebook memorialized page," so it's not like this is very obvious on the website itself. And, anyway, not many of us think a whole lot about our unexpected deaths. And, if we do, not many of us think that we should read our social media terms of use about it. I looked it up, and Twitter also has a policy where you can lock down a Twitter account if the user dies, but Twitter seems to require a lot more proof than Facebook does

Also of concern to me is that, even if someone is designated as a legacy contact, it still might not allow the kind of access that Rosemary was looking for, or that you might want to grant to someone. Facebook limits what a legacy contact can do, meaning that your power over what happens to your Facebook account really ultimately lies with Facebook, not you or your wishes. Which is a reminder, of course, that our control over our Facebook accounts is limited to begin with and pretty much at the whim of Facebook

We tend not to read the terms of use of sites, as we all know. And we talk about that a lot in the context of agreeing to arbitration clauses and stuff like that. We don't often think about how that can have consequences for our loved ones after our deaths. I understand, of course, that Facebook and Twitter don't want to hand out log-in information, but if the user has given the log-in information to someone else--and, as I could foresee, if the user has given the log-in information to someone specifically for the purpose of managing the social media account if/when they die--it seems odd for Facebook to then react as if that person's actions are prohibited. On the other hand, I suppose, how would Facebook know otherwise? A conundrum.

 

June 20, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Gender Bias and Ageism in Hollywood

OK, so this post is more about employment law than pure contract law, but for me at least, the issues overlap. Besides, the following is just plain interesting “summer Hollywood” news… who doesn’t need a tiny dose of that from time to time!

Racial bias in Hollywood hiring practices has been discussed widely recently. Now, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (“EEOS”) is expanding its investigations into gender discrimination in Hollywood entertainment contracts. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-0512-aclu-women-directors-update-20160509-snap-story.html If the EEOS finds out that there is indeed a pattern of discrimination, it could take legal action or seek mediation. However, the highly complex Hollywood hiring processes make it very difficult to identify any deliberate wrongdoing. Images-1

The problem:

Of the top-grossing 100 films of 2013 and 2014, only 1.9% of the directors were women.

Of 25 Paramount Pictures films that have been announced through 2018, not a single one has a women director. The same is true of the 22 Twentieth Century Fox films that have been announced.

Some women directors have taken action against this problem, but have noticed a backlash for their activism. Says one source: “There has been much lip-service paid to furthering opportunities for women, but few definitive steps and no serious movement in the number of women directors hired. We are confident that the government will corroborate our work and push industry leaders to address the ongoing violations of the legal and civil rights of these directors and of all women in the film and television industries." Images-2

This adds to the problem of ageism against women. In 1962, two women over 50 were still able to topline a major studio film. That does not happen today. According to a 2015 USC study, not one of 2014's 100 highest-grossing films featured women over 45 in a leading role. Between 2007 and 2014, women made up less than a quarter of film characters between ages 40 and 64. Images

June 18, 2016 in Commentary | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Non-Disparagement Clauses in Employment Termination Agreements

A few days ago, I blogged here about a German employee’s national origin discrimination lawsuit against Abbott Laboratories. The company also made legal headlines for firing its American workers in order to farm out the work to cheaper labor overseas. This article describes an interesting argument advanced by some of the terminated workers: national origin discrimination for being … American!

A less juicy, but no less legally interesting, issue is whether non-disparagement clauses are desirable for public policy and other reasons. Disparagement clauses are very commonly used as a tool for preventing former employees for criticizing their former employers after the discontinuation of employment (whether voluntary or not.) “’It’s a very, very common practice,’ said Sheena R. Hamilton, an employment lawyer at Dowd Bennett in St. Louis who represents companies in workplace cases. ‘I’ve never recommended a settlement that didn’t have a clause like that.’”

So what’s the problem with these clauses? “’It is very frustrating that you can’t share your story with the public,’ said one former Abbott manager, who had worked for the company for 13 years, rising to an important supervisory position. He had prepared a 90-page manual for his foreign replacements showing how to perform every detail of his work. With a disabled child who requires medical care, he said he had to take his severance and its nondisparagement clause, since it extended his medical benefits.”

Leading members of Congress from both major parties have questioned the nondisparagement agreements, which are commonly used by corporations but can prohibit ousted workers from raising complaints about what they see as a misuse of the temporary visas known as H-1Bs for foreigners with “a body of specialized knowledge” not readily available in the American labor market. “I have heard from workers who are fearful of retaliation,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “They are told they can say whatever they want, except they can’t say anything negative about being fired.” This raises the ugly, yet to us familiar, question of whether the American educational system is becoming so mediocre that foreigners simply have better skills than American professionals. (For full disclosure, I should note that I myself was born, raised and educated overseas with a J.D. from this country, so I see these issues from both an American and a “foreign” angle).

From a contract law point of view, the case raised an interesting debate on the AALS Contracts Law listserv. For example, are these kinds of in terrorem clauses unconscionable under § 208 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts (which, ironically, is said to be derived from German law)? If so, wouldn’t severance packages simply be discontinued, arguably leaving employees even worse off? Is unfairness a tolerable tradeoff for the benefits of severance pay? Are these types of clauses simply thrown in for good measure on the “what can it hurt” principle as employers will almost never be able to prove damages from an alleged breach? Even recovery of the severance in restitution is, it has been noted, a game not worth the candle for the vast bulk of American employers.

Thanks to my colleagues for interesting comments. I invite them and other readers to comment more below.

June 14, 2016 in Commentary | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Any Property Owner" Could Be Almost Anyone in the World

Words are tricky things, as contracts remind us every day. When I teach contract ambiguity, a lot of the cases seem to revolve around insurance contracts, with the doctrine of contra proferentem coming into play. A recent case out of Michigan, Atlantic Casualty Insurance Co. v. Gustfason, No. 325739, provides another example. 

Gustafson operated a landscaping business. While one of his employees was clearing brush on a homeowner's property, the homeowner was watching off to the side and was struck with debris and injured. The homeowner sued Gustafson, and Gustafson contacted his insurance agent. Atlantic Casualty reported that the loss to the homeowner was excluded from the insurance policy, so Gustafson sued Atlantic Casualty, contending that the loss was covered by the policy. 

The relevant clause in the policy stated that it didn't apply to bodily injury to any "contractor," and then defined "contractor" using a long string of examples: including but not limited to

any independent contractor or subcontractor of any insured, any general contractor, any developer, any property owner, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any general contractor, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any general developer, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any property owner and any and all persons providing services or materials.

The emphasis there is added, because Atlantic Casualty sought to exclude the homeowner's injuries by asserting that he was "any property owner."

The court pointed out that the phrase "any property owner" was extraordinarily broad and would include almost everyone in the world "except perhaps for a newborn baby," because most people can be found to at least own the clothes they're wearing, which would make that person a property owner. Such a broad reading, excluding virtually the entire planet, would render the policy illusory. 

Atlantic Casualty apparently acknowledged that the phrase was broad as written and instead argued that what it really meant was "the owner of the real property upon which the insured is performing work." The court, however, found that it made sense, given the other items in the list, to interpret "any property owner" to mean "those who are being compensated, or who otherwise have a commercial interest, for being on the job site." In that case, "any property owner" would cover not the real property owners whose land was being worked on but owners of any equipment being used (possibly rented) to work on the real property. 

Because "any property owner" is an ambiguous term and the court found itself with two reasonable interpretations, it employed contra proferentem and interpreted the contract against Atlantic Casualty, who had drafted the contract. Therefore, it stated that "any property owner" did not include those "without a commercial interest in the project," and therefore did not include the residential homeowners, which meant the policy covered the homeowner. 

While I generally like the court's reasoning and interpretation in this case, I do find it slightly odd to decide that a property owner doesn't have a commercial interest in the project being performed on his own land. Presumably he is paying for the work and therefore does have a commercial interest in making sure that the work is being done properly. Even if he's not paying for it, the improvement to his land will likely increase its value, also giving him a commercial interest in what's happening. I think the better phrasing is to interpret it as someone who is being compensated for their presence on the job site. 

June 8, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

This One Again: Handwritten Contracts Really Are Binding (but Mediation Transcripts Are Highly Recommended)

The Seventh Circuit just reconfirmed the fact that handwritten contracts are enforceable as long as they contain all the material terms of the contract.

In the relevant case,Martina Beverly brought suit against her former employer, Abbott Laboratories, for discrimination and retaliation against her because of her German nationality (not a lot of anti-German discrimination going on in this country these days, one might think, but that was nonetheless the allegation) as well as on the basis of her disabilities. The case went to mediation. A day before the mediation took place, Abbott’s attorney sent Beverly’s attorney a “template settlement agreement in order to avoid any surprises in the event that [the parties] are able to resolve the matter.” That document also stated that Beverly had twenty one days to review it and seven days to revoke any possible acceptance.

Images

During the fourteen-hour mediation session the next day, both parties were represented by counsel. At the end of the session, both parties and their counsel signed a very brief handwritten agreement that, at bottom, stated that Abbott would pay the cost of mediation and “$200,000+” with Beverly demanding $210,000. The parties were probably and understandably tired after such a long session, but still: a quarter million-dollar settlement, and no one had the energy or took the time to type up one measly paragraph?...

Next day, Abbott emailed a typed agreement to Beverly’s specifying the amounts to be paid ($46,000 to Beverly and a relatively whopping $164,000 to her attorneys!). The emailed response from Beverly’s attorneys: “Oh happy days!.. You are a gem.”

Soon after that, Beverly – perhaps for good reason – got cold feet and sought to rescind from the deal, arguing that additional terms were needed for a contract to have been formed, that the twenty one days mentioned in the pre-meeting template (which was never used in its original form) were applicable to her settlement offer, and that a “more formal future writing” was anticipated.

The appellate court struck down each of these arguments. First, additional terms such as any future cooperation between the parties and Beverly’s future employment with the company were nonessential details. The language in the original template pertaining to a cool-down period was never actually used. The fact that parties anticipate a more formal writing does not nullify an otherwise binding agreement.  The court found the happy exclamation by Beverly’s attorney dispositive of the parties’ intent to enter into a contract when they did (one might also say it was simply an indication of the attorneys’ happiness with a large payment, not their clients’ mood).

Perhaps most importantly, the court pointed out that “[i]t bears mentioning that a transcript (or some other recording) of the private mediation session here may have provided important clarity regarding the parties’ beliefs and intentions relating to the handwritten agreement and the draft proposal. We encourage future litigants to record any communications that directly relate to final settlement agreements.”

Sound advice in days of, apparently, little or no secretarial assistance even when relatively large sums of money are at stake. An assistant could have typed up the agreement in less than one minute. So could an attorney. In the end, though, the handwriting argument did not prevail, but having something in writing or at least an audio recording would have precluded even more costly lawyering.

June 7, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Trump “University” - Fraud in the Inducement?

Donald Trump is currently attacked on many fronts, one of which for the potential re-launch as President of his now-defunct for-profit real estate training classes. The “playbook” used by the corporate recruiters for the business unit required them, among other things, to use such arguably despicable and potentially fraudulent recruiting language as the following:

“As one of your mentors for the last three days, it’s time for me to push you out of your comfort zone. It’s time for you to be 100% honest with yourself. You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals. I’m looking at your profile and you’re not even close to where you need to be, much less where you want to be. It’s time you fix your broken plan, bring in Mr. Trump’s top instructors and certified millionaire mentors and allow us to put you and keep you on the right track. Your plan is BROKEN and WE WILL help you fix it. Remember you have to be 100% honest with yourself!”

and

“Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”

(Can you imagine reading those statements allowed for a living?)

Does promising potential students too much constitute fraud in the inducement? In a not entirely dissimilar case in our own field, law student Anna Alaburda recently lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law.  Ms. Alaburda had argued that the law school had committed fraud by publishing deceptive post-graduation employment statistics and salary data in order to bait new students into enrolling. Alaburda claimed that despite graduating at the top of her class and passing the California bar exam, she was unable to find suitable legal employment, and had racked up more than $150,000 in student loan debt. An attorney for the school rejected the claims and said Alaburda never proved them. The attorney also reminded jurors that she had turned down a job offer, and that many Thomas Jefferson alumni have had successful careers. The verdict in that case was 9-3 in favor of Thomas Jefferson.

The cases are of course not similar, yet similar enough to remind us of the importance of not promising too much in the for-profit educational field (in Thomas Jefferson’s case, the school won, but a dozen other lawsuits have allegedly been filed against other schools). This makes sense from both an ethical and business risk-avoidance angle.

What about the use of the very word “University”? The media seems to stubbornly – probably for “sound bite” reasons – continue using the phrase even though the business was, in effect, forced to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after government pressure around 2010.   The business was just that, and not a certified university.

If Trump decides to start up the business again, does the media not help him do so again by using a much too favorable term? It seems like it. Linguistics matter in the law and beyond. May media PR inadvertently (or not) contribute to a potential fraud? Comment below!

June 2, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book Review: Drafting and Analyzing Contracts: A Guide to the Practical Application of the Principles of Contracts Law

Carolina Academic Press has just released the fourth edition of the above title by Professor Scott J. Burnham. I got a chance to review it and, although I have not used it in a classroom setting yet, share my impressions with you here.

The book is well organized into twenty clearly defined chapters. Each chapter boils the relevant contract law into nicely terse “blackletter” law segments with no cases (a plus!) or irrelevant matter. This may serve the dual function of reminding students taking a contract drafting class about the applicable law for purposes of such a class, but also to refresh their memories again before taking the bar.

The exercises alter between reading/understanding-style problems and actual drafting problems. For example, some problems will ask the students pointed questions about contract clauses (“Is nonperformance excused?,” “What does the company have to pay [an injured worker],?” “Which of the following clauses are enforceable?” Many more, though, ask for more student involvement and deeper analysis while drafting. For example, several exercises give students a range of objectives to be accomplished and ask the students to draft the appropriate language, others ask students to identify ambiguities and improving them, some deliberately provide overly complicated “legalese” clauses, asking students to modernize them without compromising the legal objectives, and yet others ask students to rely on certain passages in the book in order to draft certain clauses, taking into consideration certain concerns.

The book also asks students to address various ethical concerns, which is a plus.

The only activity that I saw that I personally do not care for is one asking the students to “research the law in your jurisdiction” to be draft a certain problem. For me, that is too open-ended. I would fear questions about substantive law provisions with which I am not personally familiar and the potential surprise when students find out that we do not know “everything” about the law. However, that was just one of many great, diverse exercises.

In short: this book contains much good substantive information and features a wealth of different types of exercises. I highly recommend that you examine this book for your potential classroom or other use.

May 26, 2016 in Books, Commentary | Permalink

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How Bad Can a New Law Graduate’s Representation Be?

Pretty darned bad! Imagine this: A law student starts giving professional legal advice while still in law school. The advice is rendered to a 78-year-old Chinese-American with limited English skills and experience with the American legal system. The student renders the advice in person, over the phone, and in extensive e-mail exchanges. He even persuades the client to “assign” the lawsuit to the student so that the student would be “better able to control the suit and properly advise” the client. In doing so, the student promises to “minimize any legal costs to [the client] before [the student] getting [sic] his license by doing all the work he can carry on for said case.” The students subsequently graduates (from a California law school not accredited by the ABA, according to the website of the State Bar of California), passes the bar, and becomes the formally retained lawyer for the client.

The new graduate sues a party on behalf of his client. The graduate also names his own client on a lawsuit for an unrelated matter “only as a matter of legal procedure.” Additionally, the graduate sues his client’s defendants! The advice he renders is thought to be legally incorrect by a mediator. The client thus fires the graduate. The State Bar of California brings disciplinary proceedings against the new graduate for conflict of interest matters as well as the unauthorized practice of law. The graduate stipulates to the charges and is suspended for some time.  Trial is brought against the graduate by his former client for professional negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, unlawful business practice, breach of contract, and fraud. The client wins a judgment of $552,412.

You guessed it! The graduate does not pay. Rather, he appears in some subsequent judgment debtor proceedings, but disputes the court’s personal jurisdictions (that argument is waived once an appearance has been made, by the way). He submits briefs to the court misciting passages from outdated Matthew Bender Civil Procedure practice treaties. He refuses to produce tax returns to show his income. The court has to order him to do so. He goes bankrupt, and produces a “myriad” of inconsistent stories in the case. As the court said, “a few examples should suffice:

  • Yan testified he sold his membership in an LLC to two persons for $650,000, but could not remember their names.
  • Yan testified that his mother provided him checks, but could not remember: whether the checks numbered more than a hundred; when the most recent check was received; or when his mother last worked or her last job.
  • Yan testified that he was the sole support for his children, supported solely by his income, which for 2014 was “less than [$]10,000.” The support included rent, which included $8,400 in 2014, but he refused to provide the identity of the person to whom the rent was paid. Yan was asked the source of the money to pay his children's rent, and he said it was from his “income.” Asked if that was from legal fees, Yan said, “I don't know.”
  • Enough is enough.”

The monetary judgment against the graduate was affirmed. Years later, at least one other disciplinary matter has been brought against the graduate.

The question is: is this just one example of an unusually rotten apple? Or does this point to the assertion made by many that California really does not need a number of unaccredited law schools on top of the already large amount of ABA-accredited ones? (But note too that even the trial court record contains “no evidence of anything, only assertions as to what occurred, though [the plaintiff’s] assertions are supported by various exhibits” and not disputed by the defendant. There were, for example, “no reporter’s transcript, nor any real evidence – that is, sworn evidence….”

Comment below! The case Th is Charles Li v. Demas Yan, 2016 WL 1757283.

May 24, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Wait a Minute, George Zimmerman is Not a Man of His Words?

Is it unthinkable to you that George Zimmerman would seek to profit from killing Trayvon Martin? No? How about reneging on one contract if he were to get an even more lucrative one?

The latter has recently been shown to be the case. The former Florida neighborhood watchman who shot the unarmed teenager in 2012 has confirmed that he has accepted an auction bid for $250,000 for the gun with which he killed Mr. Martin. Before that, he had accepted a bid for $150,000 from a Florida bar owner for the same gun, but backed out of that deal when he got a better one. Says the bar owner, “I thought [Mr. Zimmerman] was a man of his word.”

The sale drew heavy criticism from people claiming that Mr. Zimmerman was seeking to profit from the sale. Gun rights advocates claim that Mr. Zimmerman is simply exercising his legal rights under the law.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zimmerman has displayed his apparent usual lack of social skills by accusing one gun auction website that refused to sell the gun of being “Nazi loving liberal liars Unknown” (Huh? How would that work?). At least he promises to give some of the proceeds of the sale to “fight Black Lives Matter violence against law enforcement officers”…

No further comments are needed for this story.

 

May 23, 2016 in Commentary, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink

From a Colonial Cemetery to a World War II Factory to Condos and a Spa: Environmental Concerns, Contract Releases, and Secret Underground Containers Are Just the Latest Chapter

North Jersey

(Photo from northjersey.com)

I use a lot of hypos in my class based on undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards, and I feel like sometimes my students wonder if this is a thing that actually happens. Unfortunately, yes, as a recent case out of New Jersey, North River Mews Associates v. Alcoa Corp., Civil Action No. 14-8129, proves. 

The case centers around a piece of land on which Alcoa had operated a manufacturing facility from 1917 to 1968, a facility once so central to East Coast industry that it had actually been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The piece of land had been vacant since 1978 and became a popular site for people looking to photograph "modern ruins." It was eventually sold to North River Mews Associates and 38 COAH Associates (the Plaintiffs). Twenty years ago, the New York Times reported optimistically that the development deal would be a "win-win" the would help clean up the Hudson River shoreline. The site, however, has been plagued by a number of challenges and tragedies (several fires, workman injuries from freak accidents, etc.) that have led some people to talk about curses. (Well, it apparently had been built on an old graveyard dating back to colonial times.) The latest obstacle has now emerged in the form of, yes, previously undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards.  

The parties were well aware that the land would have environmental contamination, as the Times article makes clear. But the Plaintiffs had worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and believed that the property had been remediated. In 2013, however, the Plaintiffs discovered two previously unknown underground storage tanks filled with hazardous materials. The property around the tanks seemed to indicate that at one point the tanks had attempted to be burned instead of properly disposed of. The presence of these tanks, needless to say, was never disclosed by Alcoa to the Plaintiffs. 

Alcoa's stance, however, is that the purchase contracts for the land released them from liability for various claims brought against them. The court disagreed at this motion to dismiss stage, finding that the language was ambiguous. The release in the contract stated that the Plaintiffs waived the rights "to seek contribution from [Alcoa] for any response costs or claims." The court said that it was unclear whether the contribution language modified only response costs or whether it modified both response costs and claims. Was this a blanket release of all claims, or only a release of the right to seek contribution? This question, the court concluded, could not be determined on a motion to dismiss. 

At any rate, the Plaintiffs also alleged that Alcoa concealed the presence of the underground tanks, fraudulently inducing them to enter into the contracts, and the court concluded that, if true, that would be grounds for the release to be vitiated. 

This case is a great example of how long environmental issues, development deals, and contractual disputes can drag on. In 1997, the parties signed the purchase contract. Today, the parties are still trying to clean up the site and fighting over which of them ought to pay for it, with language drafted twenty years ago taking center stage. As the case continues, it will of course likely become relevant who knew about the storage tanks and when, and I am curious to see if the tanks can be dated. Since Alcoa apparently ceased using the site for manufacture in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how much knowledge from that time period still exists. It's the latest chapter in the history of a plot of land that seems to have been a busy place for centuries. 

May 23, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)