Tuesday, April 5, 2016
I recently blogged here about the healthcare insurance problem of patients not knowing ahead of time for what they will ultimately be charged and by whom. California is now introducing a bill (“AB 533”) seeking to prevent the problem of patients being unexpectedly charged out-of-network charges at in-network facilities when the facility subcontracts with doctors that are (allegedly) out-of-network.
The practice is widespread, at least in California. Nearly 25% of Californians who had hospital visits since 2013 have been very unpleasantly surprised with unexpectedly high bills after the fact for “out of network” services. This even after inquiring about the contractual coverage ahead of time and ensuring – or attempting to – that their providers were in network.
I personally had the same experience once as described in my recent blog. I also recently encountered a similar problem in South Dakota when, after asking about billing prices from an emergency room, was assured of one relatively modest price, only to be billed roughly ten times that amount a couple of months later for various unrecognizable items on the bill that the service provider, to add insult to injury, subsequently did not want to even discuss with me. (Yes, that is right: sick and in the emergency room, I was leery of hospital pricing and asked, only to still not get correct information.)
The onus of information-sharing should be on doctors and other medical provider. They should tell their patients if they are not in network, patients shouldn’t have to jump through an almost endless row of hoops just to find out their ultimate contractual obligations. Doctors will know immediately once you swipe your health insurance card, whereas patients have no way of knowing, as these stories show. Making matters even worse: what are patients supposed to do when they often don’t even see all the involved doctors ahead of time? Wake up during anesthesia and ask, “Oh, by the way, are you in network”? This practice is unconscionable and must stop. It is arguably an ethical obligation as well.
Because some hospitals, for instance, only accept employer-provided plans and not individual ones, some patients will always be out of network, thus allowing doctors to bill full charge. “This is a market failure. It allows doctors to exploit the monopoly that they have.”
Although it seems ridiculous, patients may, for now, have to turn the tables on the providers and scrutinize as many providers and facilities as they get in touch with 1) what the prices charged to the patients will be, and 2) if the providers are truly, actually, really in network (!).
Contractually, would patients win if they informed providers that they will only pay for in-network providers and only up to a certain amount? What else can a reasonable patient do in situations of such blatant greed and ignorance as these stories depict? Comment below!
Monday, April 4, 2016
CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39855 (Harvard Science Center)
It's a very common thing, to be provided with a "policy" as opposed to a "contract." A recent case out of the District of Massachusetts, Charest v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Civil Action No. 13-11556-DPW, addresses that exact issue, and concludes, as you might expect, that what you call something isn't as important as how you behave.
Dr. Mark Charest was a chemistry graduate student at Harvard University. While he was there, he and his supervisor (also a defendant in this lawsuit) and other scientists developed a "novel and valuable method for creating synthetic tetracyclines," important for commercial antibiotics. Universities have lots of valuable things being created by their employees and students, so it's not surprising that Harvard had a policy in place for this sort of situation. Harvard had Dr. Charest, as a student, sign the Harvard University Participation Agreement, which contained a clause that Dr. Charest "ha[d] read and  under[stood] and agree[d] to be bound by the terms of the 'Statement of Policy in Regard to Inventions, Patents, and Copyrights,'" referred to in this case as the IP Policy. A lot of things happen from that point on, but the important thing to know for purposes of this blog entry is that Dr. Charest maintained that Harvard had breached the IP Policy. Harvard, in response, maintained (among other things) that the IP Policy was not a contract.
Other than being called a "policy," you might think this an odd argument for Harvard to try to make, considering that having Dr. Charest sign an agreement to be bound by the IP Policy sounds pretty contract-y. A 1988 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, Jackson v. Action for Boston Community Development, had held that an employer's personnel manual was not a contract, and so Harvard relied heavily on that precedent, trying to cast its IP Policy as similar to the personnel manual in that case.
Jackson established a number of factors for its decision, and, while some of those factors did weigh in favor of Harvard, others weighed in favor of Dr. Charest. For instance, Harvard maintained the ability to unilaterally modify the IP Policy and there were no negotiations between Harvard and Dr. Charest over the IP Policy, two factors Jackson said support a conclusion that the IP Policy does not impose contractual obligations. However, Harvard called special attention to the IP Policy and Dr. Charest's agreement to it, required Dr. Charest's signature acknowledging the IP Policy, and the IP Policy spoke in mandatory terms rather than suggestive terms, all of which made it seem more like a binding contract.
In the end, the court found that, as the Jackson precedent has developed, the really important thing is whether Dr. Charest understood himself to have to agree to the terms of the IP Policy in order to continue as a student researcher at Harvard, and that Harvard was likewise agreeing to be bound. The court concludes that yes, this was true. The IP Policy sounded as if it was being very clear about Harvard's obligations, because of its unambiguous language. Harvard itself consistently referenced the IP Policy as governing its actions when questioned by Dr. Charest and when communicating with its students. Therefore, Harvard could not pretend now that it had not been behaving as if it was bound by the terms of the IP Policy.
(Nevertheless, the court went on to dismiss most--but not all--of Dr. Charest's claims. The facts are too complicated to get into in the scope of this blog entry, but if you're interested in the relationship between research universities and their graduate students, it's an interesting read.)
UPDATE: This case has now settled. Dr. Charest released the following statement:
"Harvard University and I have settled our ongoing litigation regarding the allocation of royalties related to the license with Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals on mutually agreeable terms. In light of my claims and goals in bringing this litigation, I am very pleased to accept terms I view as equitable.”
You can read more here.
(Thanks to Brian O'Reilly at www.oreillyip.com for the update!)
Monday, March 28, 2016
Here, Stacey Lantagne reports on a very sad story of what can happen if health care customers fail to follow accurate procedure and, at bottom, dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s when contracting for health care services.
For me, this speaks to the broader issue of whether or not patients can truly be said to have given consent to all the procedures and professionals rendering services to patients. I think this is often not the case. As you know, Nancy Kim is an expert on this area in the electronic contracting context. She kindly alerted me to this story in the health care field. (Thanks for that.) The article describes the practice of “drive-by doctoring” whereby one doctor calls in another to render assistance although the need for this may be highly questionable. The NY Times article describes an instance in which one patient had meticulously researched his health care insurance coverage, yet got billed $117,000 by a doctor he did not know, had never met, and had not asked for. That doctor had apparently shown up during surgery to “help.”
Of course, this is a method for doctors to make end runs around price controls. Other methods are increasing the number of things allegedly or actually performed for patients. Other questionable practices include the use of doctors or facilities that all of a sudden turn out to be “out of network” and thus cost patients much more money than if “in network.” I personally had that experience a few years ago. I had to have minor surgery and checked my coverage meticulously. The doctor to perform the surgery was in network and everything was fine. She asked me to report to a certain building suite the morning of the surgery. All went well. That is, until I got the bill claiming that I had had the procedure performed by an “out of network” provider. This was because… the building in which the procedure was done by this same doctor was another one than the one where I had been examined! When I protested enough, the health care company agreed to “settle” in an amount favorable to me.
In these cases, patients typically have very little choice and bargaining power. In the emergency context, what are they going to do? There is obviously no time to shop around. You don’t even know what procedures, doctors, etc., will be involved. The health care providers have all the information and all the power in those situations. However, in my opinion, that far from gives them a carte blanche to bill almost whatever they want to, as appears to be the case, increase their incomes in times when insurance companies and society in general is trying to curb spiraling health care costs.
In the non-emergency context, how much of a burden is it really realistic and fair to put on patients who are trying to find out the best price possible for a certain procedure, only to be blind-sighted afterwards? That, in my opinion, far exceeds fair contracting procedure and veers into fraudulent conduct. Certainly, such strategies go far beyond the regular contractual duty to perform in good faith.
Of course, part of this is what health care insurance is for. But even with good health care insurance, patients often end up with large out-of-pocket expenses as well. The frauds in this context are well known too: most health care providers blatantly offer two pricing scheme: one (higher) if they have to bill insurance companies, and a much lower price if they know up front to bill as a “cash price.”
We have a long ways to come in this area still, sadly.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
One of the areas of contract law where the mere language alone frequently trips my students up is the area of assignment and delegation, largely because neither courts nor contracts are always exactly precise in what they mean in this area. It remains one of the areas that, say, a large insurance company can find it got the wording wrong, as happened in a recent case out of Florida, Bioscience West v. Gulfstream Property and Casualty Insurance, Case No. 2D14-3946.
A homeowner had bought a insurance policy from Gulfstream. The policy prohibited assignment "of this policy" without Gulfstream's written consent. The homeowner's house suffered water damage and she hired Bioscience to fix the damage. She assigned "any and all insurance rights, benefits, and proceeds pertaining to services provided by BIOSCIENCE WEST INC. under the above referenced policy to BIOSCIENCE WEST, INC." When Gulfstream subsequently denied the homeowner's insurance claim, Bioscience sued as the assignee of the homeowner's right to recover the insurance policy's benefit. Gulfstream responded by stating that the policy could not be assigned with Gulfstream's consent, which had never been given. The distract court agreed, found the homeowner's assignment to be improper, and entered summary judgment in Gulfstream's favor.
The appellate court disagreed. The appellate court said that the phrase "assignment of this policy" plainly referred to the entire policy. What the homeowner assigned, however, was something less than the entire policy, i.e., just a portion of the benefits. Therefore, under the "unambiguous" wording of the policy, the homeowner's actions were permissible without Gulfstream's consent; Gulfstream's consent was only required if she tried to assign the entire policy.
And, in fact, the court found this was consistent with the loss-payment portion of the policy, which provided that Gulfstream would pay the homeowner "unless some other person . . . is legally entitled to receive payment." The court said that proved that Gulfstream understood that the homeowner would be able to assign benefits under the policy. (Although arguably all this proved was that Gulfstream understood that the homeowner would be able to assign benefits under the policy with Gulfstream's consent.) At any rate, there was ample precedent in Florida's case law supporting the proposition that policyholders can assign post-loss claims without the consent of the insurer.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
I just find this case so tragic and frustrating that I had to share with others, because that's just how I am, I like to spread those emotions around. But I think it's important, as we continue to debate how we do health care and health insurance in this country, to really think about the outcomes of these questions. And I have a nephew who was born premature and had to spend a little time in the NICU. My nephew is now a happy, energetic, clever five-year-old who we are very grateful for (even though we don't understand how five years have managed to pass, surely that's incorrect and he was just born yesterday, no?), but this case made me think of him and remember those first few scary days when you have a baby who you can't bring home with you. And how unforgiving bureaucracy can be in the face of your mere human emotions.
Kurma v. Starmark, Inc., No. 12-11810-DPW, a recent case out of the District of Massachusetts, introduces us to the Kurmas. Their son was born about two months premature and was immediately hospitalized after birth and remained in the intensive care unit for over two months. His hospital bills totaled more than $667,000. It seems as if it was a happy ending for the baby boy and that he eventually went home with his parents, because the case doesn't tell us otherwise, so that at least seems like good news for the Kurmas.
The bad news was that they failed to comply perfectly with all of the formalities of their health insurance policy, and for this reason the court found it had no choice but to find that the baby boy was not covered by his father's health insurance plan and therefore the Kurmas are responsible for the $667,000 hospital bill.
Mr. Kurma had been employed by First Tek since 2006. First Tek enrolled in the Bluesoft Group Health Benefit Plan on July 1, 2010. Mr. Kurma and his family joined in the plan as soon as it became available. His wife at the time was already pregnant, and her pregnancy care was covered under the plan. Their son was born on October 7, 2010, three months after they joined the Bluesoft plan.
What makes this case so tragic to me is that it wasn't as if Mr. Kurma did nothing to inform his health insurance that his baby son had been born. He did, in fact. He called his health insurance's claims processor on October 14, 2010, to inform him that his son had been born the previous week. Everybody agreed that this was timely notice to the health insurance company of the baby's birth. A week later, on October 21, Mr. Kurma received a letter from an affiliate of his health insurance company referring to "Baby Boy" and requesting medical information to determine the necessity of the baby's ongoing treatment.
Mr. Kurma had several more conversations with his health insurance company during the month of October. The parties disputed what was said in those conversations, although they agreed that Mr. Kurma wished to add his newborn son to the health insurance plan. There was disagreement as to whether or not Mr. Kurma was told that he needed to provide his HR department at work with written notice of his son's birth in order to add him to the policy. At any rate, on November 8, 2010 (more than 30 days after the baby's birth, which was the time limit Mr. Kurma had under the policy), the health insurance company sent Mr. Kurma a "Certificate of Group Coverage" that "is evidence of your coverage under this plan." The new baby was listed as the individual to whom the coverage applied and the "Date coverage began" was given as October 7, 2010, the date of the baby's birth. To be honest, I would at that point, if I were Mr. Kurma, probably have considered the baby to have been covered, as that piece of paper would have seemed self-evident to me as "evidence of...coverage." However, this piece of paper contained a trick: It claimed the "Date coverage ended" as October 6, 2010, the date before the baby's birth. According to the health insurance company, this should have been a red flag to Mr. Kurma, as that was the health insurance company's way of indicating that it had refused coverage on the baby. I'm not entirely sure why the way to do this wouldn't have been to send a letter saying "We are not covering the baby," rather than sending some weird time-travel-y message like this. It would be a good policy for all of us to just say what we mean in communications like this, don't you think? This paper, far from raising any red flag that Mr. Kurma needed to do anything further, seemed to reassure Mr. Kurma that he had done everything he needed to do.
And, even more confusingly, not even the insurance company itself, internally, seemed to know whether or not it thought the baby was covered. On November 4, an employee noted that the baby was automatically covered for the first month of his life and then needed to be formally added to the policy. A second note on November 5 corrected that to explain that the baby needed to be immediately enrolled in order to be covered. But it seems to me that if not even the health insurance company's own employees can figure out whether or not the baby was covered, it seems ridiculous to assume that a harried new father, with a baby in intensive care and a five-year-old at home to worry about, was supposed to be able to figure it out.
On November 29, 2010, Mr. Kurma had a conversation with his health insurance company in which he stated that he had added his new son to the plan. That night he e-mailed HR at First Tek to ask them to add the baby to the plan. That e-mail was the first written contact Mr. Kurma had had with HR. It came, as you can see, more than 30 days after the baby's birth. Which was a violation of the policy, which provided, "You notify Us and the Claims Processor of the birth . . . within 30 days," with "Us" defined as Mr. Kurma's employer, First Tek. Mr. Kurma had only informed the claims processor within 30 days.
In December 2010, Mr. Kurma was told for the first time that the health insurance company was denying coverage for his new baby. Confused, Mr. Kurma inquired as to why and was told it was his failure to return the written enrollment forms to his HR department within 30 days of the baby's birth. Mr. Kurma called his health insurance company to complain; they were unmoved.
Mr. Kurma's employer, however, was moved by Mr. Kurma's situation. To be honest, it seems as if First Tek knew all along that Mr. Kurma's son had been born and was in intensive care, which makes sense to me, as it is the kind of thing that employers tend to know, if you're taking time off and such. First Tek's CEO actually contacted the health insurance company on behalf of Mr. Kurma, asking for leniency: "[Mr. Kurma] has a prematurely born child who is still in hospital and in deep sorrow and was not in a right frame of mind. Is there anything you can do to make the carrier make an exception?" The carrier--who nobody disputed was well aware of the baby's existence and Mr. Kurma's desire to add him to the plan--refused to make such an exception, insisting that it could not because First Tek (the company requesting leniency) had not been properly notified. Note that that was the only basis for the health insurance company's denial, as stated in the letter it sent Mr. Kurma: "The plan required that Mr. Kurma notify [the insurance company] AND his employer, within 30 days after the infant's date of birth. [The insurance company] received notification within the required time frame, but First Tek did not." No matter, apparently, that First Tek itself requested that its notice requirement be waived and at any right apparently believed itself to have been properly notified.
Now the insurance plan in this case contained language that added further confusion to what was going on here: It gave First Tek "full, exclusive and discretionary authority to determine all questions arising in connection with this Contract including its interpretation." Under this clause, one might think that, if First Tek considered itself to have been validly notified, then it was. Not so fast, though. The insurance plan also contained language that the insurance company "has full, discretionary and final authority for construing the terms of the plan and for making final determinations as to appeals of benefit claim determinations . . . ." So whose interpretation, First Tek's or the insurance company's, should win here, when they both have some sort of "full" and "discretionary authority"?
The court concluded that this language meant that First Tek had authority over contract interpretation, but the insurance company had authority over claim determinations under the contract. Therefore, First Tek was correct in its assertion that the baby was enrolled, because that lay within First Tek's discretion. However, First Tek could not contradict the insurance company's determination, even accepting that the baby was enrolled, that the benefits were denied. I admit I'm so confused by this determination, I read this paragraph of the decision over several times, and I'm fighting a cold myself at the moment (and worrying about what health insurance coverage I'm going to mess up should I need to see a doctor over this illness!), so if I'm reading this wrong, please let me know, but this seems contradictory. What's the point of giving First Tek "ultimate" authority over who's enrolled under the policy if the health insurance company has "ultimate" authority to ignore First Tek's "ultimate" authority and deny benefits because it doesn't think people are enrolled? The court seems to think that this is a system that makes sense, but it mostly seems to me that it's just a fancy way of obscuring the fact that First Tek really had no authority here. Which might be fine as just a straightforward matter, but this is anything but straightforward: The contract manages to strip First Tek of authority by saying the opposite, much like the weird denial of coverage the insurance company sent that actually read that it was "evidence . . . of coverage." This is like being Alice in Looking-Glass Land, frankly.
At any rate, as you could probably tell was coming, Mr. Kurma loses this case. What's interesting is that he presents no claim that he ever informed First Tek in any way of the birth of his son within the relevant 30-day period. I find this difficult to believe, personally, and I don't know how there couldn't have been something he could have used to argue that he gave First Tek some notice, especially given the evidence that even First Tek's CEO tried to get coverage for the baby. But the court says there was no dispute that there had been no notice "of any kind," not even oral, and so Mr. Kurma failed under the terms of the policy.
Mr. Kurma argued that First Tek clearly wished the baby to be enrolled and tried to intercede with the insurance company on Mr. Kurma's behalf. The court's reaction to this is unimpressed: the plan says what the plan says, and First Tek's desire not to follow the plan doesn't mean anything. (Of course, presumably First Tek didn't have a whole lot of opportunity to negotiate the terms of the plan in the first place.) Mr. Kurma also tries to argue estoppel, which fails because, again, the words of the plan were clear, and Mr. Kurma failed to follow them, so he can't argue estoppel. Likewise, there was no duty on the insurance company's part to explain to Mr. Kurma what steps he had to take to insure his son, and there was no bad faith on the insurance company's part in failing to do so.
So, the end result is that the Kurma family is now over $667,000 in debt, as a result of having sought to save their son's life. This case just kills me. I know what the plan said, but I am a trained lawyer who found the words being said to Mr. Kurma confusing; I am bewildered by how it could be reasonable to expect Mr. Kurma to wade through all of this during what was doubtless the most stressful and emotionally exhausting time of his life. Think of how challenging you find it to deal with bureaucracy under ideal circumstances; imagine having to do it while your tiny infant son is fighting for his life in intensive care. And having to do it under circumstances where you're given dense pages of legalese, no assistance to walk through that legalese, and documents that say one thing while meaning the opposite.
I know that insurance companies have a lot to deal with, too. And I know this insurance company didn't want to pay $667,000 in medical bills. I know this insurance company wanted to make sure it makes people jump through a few hoops first to make sure they really deserve the health care. But I just find this outcome in this case tragically absurd in a way that makes me despair for how we're dealing with health care in this country: Nobody disputed that the health insurance company was well aware Mr. Kurma's wife was pregnant and would presumably soon be having a child; nobody disputed that the health insurance company was well aware Mr. Kurma's son had been born and was hospitalized; nobody disputed that the health insurance company indicated to Mr. Kurma that it was evaluating the necessity of his son's medical treatment; nobody disputed that the health insurance company even sent "evidence of . . . coverage" to Mr. Kurma. And still the health insurance company didn't have to cover the baby, because of one missed hoop that the company it pertained to sought to waive entirely.
Maybe your view is that Mr. Kurma should have been more on top of things. But I just think this seems like an incredibly harsh case.
Peter Gulia, an adjunct professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law, sent me this as a follow-up and I add it to the text here with his permission because I think it's a valuable contribution.
Your great essay on Kurma v. Starmark, Inc. paints a striking story. But let me give you a way to reconsider what happened.
The health plan is a “self-funded” health plan that is not health insurance. The employer pays the claims from the employer’s assets. (The employer likely has a stop-loss insurance contract that pays the employer, not the plan or any participant, if claims exceed specified measures.)
Starmark is not an insurer; it provides services to the employer, which also is the health plan’s sponsor, administrator, and named fiduciary.
In any moment during Mr. Kurma’s difficulties, the employer, acting as the plan’s administrator, could have instructed the processor to treat Kurma’s newborn as regularly enrolled. Doing so would make the employer responsible to pay the mother’s and newborn’s medical expenses.
(Even if the employer asked: “Is there anything [the processor] can do to make the carrier make an exception?”, this likely referred to trying to persuade the stop-loss insurer to provide more coverage than its contract promised.)
If one analyzes this case under the common law of contracts, one might classify it as a duty-to-read case. The reported facts suggest the participant did not read the plan, and also did not read, at least not carefully, its summary plan description.
That Mr. Kurma suffered a loss because he didn’t sufficiently understand his employee-benefit plan’s conditions is harsh. But it’s not because Starmark failed to perform its service agreement. And it’s not because Starmark sought to avoid an expense it never would bear.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
Every time I teach the mailbox rule, I'm amazed by how different the world was not so long ago. Imagine having to wait days to receive documents, instead of seconds via e-mail. When I was practicing, if documents didn't come through to me instantaneously, I found myself going through my spam, annoyed at the delay and the time I was losing in not having the documents in hand immediately. I think all the time that the practice of law must have been very different.
A recent case out of the District of Maryland, CMFG Life Insurance Co. v. Schell, Case No. GJH-13-3032, made me think again about how important timing can be. In that case, a delay in sending a document that amounted to only a couple of hours contributed to a sizable financial loss.
Sandra Lee had an annuity with CMFG that listed as its beneficiaries her husband William Schell and her three children. On December 14, 2012, between 11 and 11:30 am, Schell delivered a Change of Beneficiary form to the office of Lee's financial advisor, Nelson Turner. The form, signed by Schell as attorney-in-fact for Lee pursuant to a power of attorney that had been executed by Lee on December 6, named Schell as the sole beneficiary of the annuity, removing Lee's three children. Turner faxed the form to CMFG; the fax transmission stated CMFG received it at 2:01 pm.
At 1:10 pm, in between the time of Schell leaving the form with Turner and the time of CMFG receiving the faxed form, Lee died. Therefore, CMFG rejected the beneficiary change because it had not received the form prior to Lee's death, as required by the contract. Schell objected to CMFG's payment of the benefits to Lee's children, arguing that he was the only beneficiary of the annuity, and this lawsuit resulted.
Section 4.2 of the annuity stated that the beneficiary could be changed "by written request any time while the annuitant is alive." Both parties agreed that this language was clear that any beneficiary change had to take place while Lee was alive. But Schell said that the contract said the beneficiary change would be effective on the date signed, and he signed it while Lee was alive. The court, however, noted that this reading of the contract ignored the "by written request" language. The annuity actually contained a definition of "written request" that said it was a "written notice . . . received in our home office." The court noted that, although Schell might have signed the beneficiary form while Lee was still alive, it was not received by CMFG, as required by the contract, until after Lee had died. Therefore, it was not effective under the terms of the contract requiring it to be received while Lee was alive.
You might be thinking that, if not for Turner's delay in faxing the form, Schell would have been tens of thousands of dollars richer at this moment. However, the court went on to rule that the change of beneficiary form would not have been effective in any event because Schell could not breach his fiduciary duty to Lee and use his power of attorney to achieve his own personal gain.
At any rate, though, if you do have a properly executed change of beneficiary form for an annuity, it is in your best interest not to delay sending it in and making it effective.
Friday, March 18, 2016
Thank you to Matthew Bruckner for posting the following comment on my post on crowdwork: "Thanks for the interesting discussion of crowd-working issues. If folks are interested, in a recent article I discussed using crowdworkers to supplement lawyer's work in bankruptcy cases. Article here."
Monday, March 14, 2016
H-2B visas provide for foreign citizens to work temporarily for American businesses in non-agricultural roles. However, these visas can sometimes lead to abuse of the foreign citizens working under them, as was alleged in a recent case out of the Eighth Circuit, Cuellar-Aguilar v. Deggeller Attractions, No. 15-1219. Also blogged about here from a workplace law point of view, the case involved a group of nineteen workers who had been employed in a traveling carnival. The workers alleged, among other things, that their employer had breached their employment contracts by paying them below the minimum wage.
The district court found that there had been no contract between the workers and their employer, basing its decision on the federal regulations governing the H-2B visa program. However, the appellate court said that was the incorrect place to look for guidance on whether a contract existed. Rather, the existence of a contract is governed by state common law, and in this case there was enough evidence of a contract to survive a motion to dismiss. The workers received offers of employment from Deggeller and then traveled to the United States in acceptance of those offers, which was enough to establish a contractual relationship. The court then used the federal regulations governing the H-2B visa program to fill in the particular terms of the contract, which included a requirement that the employer pay no less than the minimum wage. Therefore, the workers' allegations that the employer had breached this requirement established a valid contract cause of action.
Allowing the workers to proceed on a contract theory may seem like a positive development for similarly situated workers who might find themselves taken advantage of. However, I had the pleasure recently of hearing Prof. Annie Smith from the University of Arkansas School of Law speak on the prospect of mandatory arbitration clauses being applied to guestworkers. As we all know, mandatory arbitration clauses are currently in major vogue, and Prof. Smith expressed concern that mandatory arbitration would be detrimental to already vulnerable guestworkers. The decision here might encourage employers like Deggeller to enter into more formal contracts that would include arbitration clauses. If they're going to be found to be in a contractual relationship anyway, presumably the employers would want to exercise control over the terms of that contractual relationship.
Friday, March 11, 2016
I bet we'd have a lot fewer people fighting arbitration clauses if arbitration = tweeting J.K. Rowling.
As reported around the Internet, a student and her high school science teacher entered into a contract concerning whether Rowling would write another Harry Potter book. The contract called for the loser to declare the victor "Mighty" (a much more charming form of consideration than payment of a sum of money).
The article (from last month) reports that there were two possible Harry Potter pieces of creativity to be contended with. One is the prequel movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling wrote the original textbook (which already existed at the time the contract was entered into and so isn't part of the dispute) and also wrote the screenplay for the movie, which could have been in dispute. However, the article points out that Rowling wrote the screenplay to the movie, and the contract concerns a Harry Potter "novel." Even if you wish to make an argument that screenplays should have been included in the definition of the contractual term "novel," it seems like Fantastic Beasts would fail because it does not "feature the character Harry Potter as part of the main plotline," as required by the contract. (At least, so I assume from what I know about the movie so far.)
The other piece of Harry Potter creativity being debated under the contract, and the one for which Rowling was called in to arbitrate, concerned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play focusing on Harry as an adult and his relationship with his children, especially his son Albus. Cursed Child raised issues: It was a play but it is being billed as "the eighth story," the script will be published in text form, and the website claims it's "based on an original story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany." It does seem as if, considering this is a "play," even its published script would not be considered a "novel" under the contact. However, the student who was a party to the contract sought further clarification from Rowling.
Using the convenient method of Twitter, the student explained her contract to Rowling and asked for a decision on whether Cursed Child would fulfill the terms of the contract. Rowling responded, confirming that Cursed Child is a play and also noting that, while she had contributed to the story, Jack Thorne was the "writer" of the play.
The student was pleased that her clear contractual terms meant that she was still the victor, but also noted that the term of the contract had not yet run. Since the publication of the article and the arbitration of the Cursed Child dispute, J.K. Rowling has announced a new set of stories to be collected under the title History of Magic in North America. So far, these stories also seem not to fulfill the terms of the contract, as they seem more like "extra books" rather than "an entirely new book," and they do not seem to feature Harry Potter at all. However, Rowling seems to be dancing right around the edges of this contract's terms.
Monday, March 7, 2016
People keep challenging arbitration provisions, and they keep losing. In this instance, a case out of Washington called Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services of Seattle, Inc. v. Yates, Wood & MacDonald, Inc., No. 73199-8-I.
This time, the parties were both voluntary members of the Commercial Broker's Association (the "CBA"), the bylaws of which contained a clause that CBA members agreed to arbitrate disputes with each other according to the CBA's arbitration procedure. Neither party ever signed any sort of membership agreement to belong to the CBA, which Marcus focused on in its argument that the arbitration provision therefore wasn't enforceable. Marcus argued that, without a signed agreement, there was no evidence that it had manifested assent to the arbitration provision. However, well-established Washington law held that membership in the voluntary organization was evidence enough that Marcus and Yates assented to abide by its bylaws. There was no requirement that there be a signed agreement.
Marcus didn't confine its arguments to just asserting that there should have been a signed agreement, however. Marcus then tried to argue that it wasn't even a member of the CBA, because of the fact that no one had been able to produce a membership agreement signed by Marcus. This was a bad move on its part and lost it a lot of credibility. The court pointed out that Marcus had paid all of the CBA's required fees and dues since 1993 and had in fact on two previous occasions taken advantage of the CBA's arbitration tribunal to resolve disputes, a procedure only available to CBA members. The court also pointed out that, despite testifying that he did not believe Marcus was a member of the CBA, Marcus's regional manager had routinely provided other brokers with Marcus's "CBA Office ID" number.
Marcus was willing to fight hard to keep this dispute out of arbitration, to the point of having to be scolded by the court for "prevaricating." At the point when that is happening, I'm not sure winning the case and staying in front of that judge is what you want!
Friday, March 4, 2016
I am pleased to be able to post the following from guest blogger Creola Johnson of the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law:
“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” said Mitt Romney during a speech denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. This statement has prompted additional inquiries into lawsuits filed against Trump University by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and others. (See Petition from New York v. The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative LLC.)
In a class-action lawsuit, many attendees of Trump University alleged that they paid as much as $35,000 to be personally mentored in learning how to earn millions investing in real estate. Despite numerous attempts by lawyers for the Trump defendants to get these lawsuits to dismiss, courts have given the green light for the lawsuits to continue against the Trump defendants. See, e.g., Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, No. 10-CV-940-IEG (WVG), 2010 WL 3988684 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 12, 2010) (refusing to dismiss claims against the for-profit Trump program on educational malpractice grounds because the court was not convinced “Trump University” was “an educational institution to which this doctrine applies.”). For the most recent decision permitting Mr. Schneiderman’s case to proceed, go to: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/AD1/calendar/appsmots/2016/March/2016_03_01_dec.pdf.
What can we say for sure at this juncture about the lawsuits? First, “Trump University” was not a university. There are numerous educational standards and laws that must be complied with for an institution to legitimately claim to be a university. The question then becomes: did the people running Trump’s real estate program (the Trump Program) make promises that arose to level of being a contract. For example, the consumer-plaintiffs alleged that the Trump Program promised that the instructors and mentors running the program would be “hand-picked by Donald Trump.” However, this promise was allegedly breached because most of the instructors and mentors were unknown to Mr. Trump and that they didn’t actually teach any real estate techniques.
We’ll have to wait for a court or jury’s finding regarding what promises were actually made by Donald Trump and the people running the Trump Program. The good news for the plaintiffs and Mr. Schneidermann is that they do not have to prove the existence of a contract. New York, along with every state, has laws that prohibit businesses from engaging in deceptive and unfair business practices.
Consumers should be leery of any language that appears to promise an educational outcome—e.g., “you will earn a six-figure salary after graduation.” While a state’s attorney general, such as Mr. Schneiderman, has the authority to make businesses stop deceptive practices, the attorney general may not be able to get back the money consumers have lost. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! For an in-depth discussion of deceptive degrees, see my article, Degrees of Deception: Are Consumers and Employers Being Duped by Online Universities and Diploma Mills?
President’s Club Professor of Law,
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Monday, February 29, 2016
Are arbitration provisions binding against exotic dancers? Well, if you're wondering, in this Connecticut case, Horrocks v. Keepers, Inc., CV156054684S (behind a paywall), the answer is yes.
The plaintiffs here filed the lawsuit alleging that they were employees, not independent contractors as the gentleman's club maintained, and as such the club had violated plaintiffs' legal rights as employees, including failing to pay minimum wage. The club moved to stay the proceedings arguing that it had signed an entertainment lease agreement with all of the dancers that required binding arbitration to resolve disputes.
The plaintiffs' main argument was that the entire entertainment lease agreement was void because it had an illegal purpose in seeking to implement the club's violation of labor laws as alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint. Because the entire agreement was void, the argument went, the arbitration clause wasn't enforceable. In the alternative, the plaintiffs argued that the arbitration provision was unconscionable.
On the plaintiffs' first point, the court concluded that the legality of the overall entertainment lease agreement was a matter for the arbitrator to decide. According to Connecticut precedent, the courts' job is only to determine if the arbitration clause is valid; every other issue is left to the arbitrator. Therefore, all of the arguments about the illegality of the entertainment lease agreement were left to the arbitrator, and the court focused its analysis on the alleged unconscionability of the arbitration provision.
We've seen this story before. And, in fact, courts have seemed pretty determined to find arbitration provisions enforceable, even when other parts of the contract were unconscionable (or, as here, where it was questionable whether the contract was enforceable at all). There was actually Connecticut precedent about another set of exotic dancers suing another gentlemen's club with similar allegations, and in that case, D'Antuono v. Service Road Corp, 789 F. Supp. 2d 308 (D. Conn. 2011), the court upheld the arbitration provision against attacks of unconscionability. The court in this case follows the precedent, finding this case indistinguishable from D'Antuono.
The court here allows for the possibility that this arbitration clause was part of an unenforceable adhesion contract presented in bad faith with a knowing illegal purpose, but says that alone isn't enough to deny enforcement of the arbitration clause, because that would only be procedural unconscionability. As far as substantive unconscionability went, the cost and fee shifting provisions provided in the arbitration clause weren't unreasonable, and the class action waiver included in the arbitration provision was also not unconscionable according to precedent: "Requiring the plaintiffs to pursue their claims individually is not an ineffective vindication of their rights."
I admit that I'd never really given a lot of thought to class action waivers, but it does seem odd to assert that class action waivers do not harm the plaintiffs' ability to vindicate their rights. After all, class actions are frequently understood to exist to correct the problem that, sometimes, individual pursuit of claims isn't effective.
At any right, individual pursuit through arbitration is what these plaintiffs are left with.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
American Airlines has nonsuited (i.e., dismissed without prejudice to refilling the lawsuit) its declaratory judgment claim against Gogo. American had recently asked a Texas state court to determine whether the provision of the availability of "better service" (or some similar term) in its 2012 contract had been triggered such that American could force Gogo to submit a competitive bid to retain its service.
As discussed in a previous post, American's negotiating leverage arose as much from the publicity surrounding it filing of a lawsuit as it did from the actual contract term. The term was apparently vague enough that Gogo could (and did) take the position that its rights as American's exclusive in-flight service provider had not been called into question by American's request for a new proposal. Upon American's filing of a declaratory judgment lawsuit in Texas state court, however, Gogo's stock price dropped 27 percent.
Today, the word is out that Gogo has changed its position and accepted American's interpretation of the contract. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports:
[American Airlines had said] that its contract with Gogo allowed it to renegotiate or terminate its agreement if another company offered a better service. Gogo had disputed that clause in the contract, but Friday agreed to the contract provision and said it would provide a competitive bid within 45 days.
“American is a valued customer of Gogo, and Gogo looks forward to presenting a proposal to install 2Ku, our latest satellite technology, on the aircraft that are the subject of the AA Letter,” Gogo said in a government filing Friday. “We acknowledge the adequacy of the AA Letter and that our receipt of the AA Letter triggered the 45 day deadline under the agreement for submission of our competitive proposal.”
* * *
Once American reviews Gogo’s proposal, if it does not beat out a competitor’s proposal, American can terminate Gogo’s contract with 60 days’ notice.
Shares of Gogo [ticker: GOGO] jumped on the news of the dropped lawsuit, up almost 10 percent....
The swift manner in which this episode had played out emphasizes the extent to which contract doctrine and interpretation it frequently not the principal driver of business relationships. Gogo could have marshalled a team of lawyers and stood on its interpretation of the contract up to final judgment--likely a summary judgment based on a question of law. But what would be the reputational and business cost? Eventually, the marketplace won't allow contract rights to serve as a substitute for proof of the quality of a product.
A challenge I find in teaching future transactional lawyers is to ensure that they do not become enamored with legal rights as being the be-all and end-all of deal making. Law is important, but a business lawyer must employ practical wisdom, as well. That wisdom includes the fact that law itself is only one part of practicing law... and it sometimes isn't even the most important part.
Friday, February 19, 2016
At any given time, the Uniform Law Commission/NCCUSL is engaged in many important and useful state-law drafting projects, but one of the more interesting ones for me is its current work in drafting a proposed Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act. I have had the fantastic opportunity to act as an observer to the drafting committee and watch the stakeholders and commissioners navigate disparate policy perspectives and try find as-common-as-possible ground, while Chair Fred Miller keeps the group on task and Reporter Sarah Jane Hughes assimilates an incredible amount of debate into a rapidly evolving draft. The experience is a wonder that I would recommend to anyone with a serious interest in legislative policymaking. It also, for present purposes, helps illustrate both the benefits and limits of contract law in a nascent market-space.
The current drafting project arose out of the phenomenon of Bitcoin, the first technologically viable means of electronically transmitting value without the possibility of double spending or the need for a financial intermediary, like a bank. While the use cases for virtual currency technology are still in their relative infancy, states began to consider and enact disparate regulatory schemes, with New York's BitLicense regulatory framework being the most prominent example. While federal regulators and law enforcement have understandably focused on preventing the use of pseudonymous cryptocurrency to advance criminal enterprises and finance international terrorism, the state concerns have tended more toward protection of consumers and other users engaged in perfectly legal transactions. While Bitcoin does not require an intermediary any more than paper cash requires use of a bank, intermediaries--like digital wallet services--have arisen to fill the convenience role analogous to bank accounts. These virtual currency intermediaries are, for the most part, the principal target of state-law regulation and current work of the Uniform Law Commission.
What is the contract law angle here? It's this: In the absence of specially-crafted law of the sort now under consideration, the common law of contracts fills the void to enable some degree of enforceable private ordering. The flexibility of contract law is such that it can allow for the birth of business models no one contemplated as recently as the eve of Bitcoin's creation in 2008. The flexibility of such a legal regime is amazing. Contract law can, nonetheless, only facilitate business so far. Public-protective regulation is necessary to achieve widespread market acceptance beyond the universe of early-adopters and risk takers. Regulation carries its own risks, however, as a heavy-handed approach can stifle innovation and create anti-competitive barriers to market entry.
That--in many different flavors--is the policy question being grappled with in the Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act, and the question is relevant in any other space where rapidly developing technology exceeds the capacity of existing law. Where do we apply protective public law, and what do we keep within the realm of private contracts?
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Change is coming to the energy field, finally. As the realization is broadening that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground, solar and wind energy are becoming more popular to investors and private households alike.
The problem is still the types of contracts and financing options available. An average solar system costs $14,700. If paying that in cash, homeowners would typically save around $50 a month on their electric bills. However, most people cannot afford to pay that in cash. Financing options will reduce the monthly savings to about $20-30 a month. “Net metering,” which allows homeowners to sell electricity back to the utilities, may result in bigger savings.
Problems still loom on the horizon with contracts in this area. A new financing program known as the “Property Assessed Clean Energy” financing program (“PACE”) allows solar panel buyers to finance the system and add the loan to the property as a tax assessment. Some are criticizing that for making it difficult or sell the homes or refinance mortgages.
More importantly, utility companies are complaining that the electric grids were designed to send electricity to consumers, but not receive it back. The utility industry is even referring to individually owned power systems as “disruptive technologies.” This new interaction will force changes in the market and infrastructure. But so what? Utilities have had a chance to make quite a lot of money for years on end, often in pure or monopoly-like situations. Now the market is changing. Utilities must adapt to necessary societal changes. This is clearly one of them. The resentment towards new technological change by parties in an industry that is per se technological is inexpedient and childish. Yes, utilities have invested much money in the existing electricity infrastructure, but they have surely never been promised that the market wouldn’t change and that users won’t demand other product sources than what has been the case for, now, more than a hundred years. Time has come to innovate.
The industry is also complaining that in the future, new rules are going to force the industry to provide more services, which will cost more money and thus result in fewer savings via alternative energy sources. Yeah, let’s see about that one. That still sounds like a contrarian, outmoded argument against inevitable progress.
What could be more troublesome is the expected erosion of benefits such as solar credits. For example, the existing 30% federal solar tax credit will end in 2019 unless, of course, Congress renews it. Hopefully under the new Paris Agreement on climate change and with the looming risks, financial and otherwise, on continually rising global temperatures (2015 was yet another hottest year on record), such and other benefits will be increased, not decreased.
For anyone wishing to buy a solar system, the best deal on the market still seems to be buying outright, even if via a property tax assessment. Many of the still-typical 20-year lease contracts are still too lengthy in nature. Too many things could change in this marketplace to make them seem like a viable option.
It is too bad that with as many hours of sunshine as many parts of this nation has, there still is not a really good, viable option for solar energy contracts for middle- or low-income private homeowners.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Is the public commercial law of payment systems being displaced by private contract law? The short answer is "yes." Recently, I had the opportunity to write an invited post for the CLS Blue Sky Blog, Columbia Law School's Blog on Corporations and the Capital Markets, and I hope you'll indulge me a moment to share about it here.
Emerging Payment Systems and the Primacy of Private Law is a synopsis of a larger project on how the public law and Uniform Commercial Code aspects of the regulation of payments have become marginalized over the last few decades--and how the marginalization isn't necessarily a bad thing. Contract law is presumptively a better organizing instrumentality, but there still remains a significant and robust role for public regulation. Or, as I state in part of the longer post:
Payment systems have now clearly exceeded the regulatory capacity of public legal institutions to govern them via a comprehensive code like the UCC. Public law protection of the end user, however, has proven so successful and facilitated such industry growth that complete privatization of payments law is not the best response either. Emerging payment systems should be subject to a division between private law and public law in which private law is predominant, but not exclusive.
Private contract law is best equipped to deal with both current and future developments as the primary governance mechanism for emerging systems of payment. This market-friendly primacy of private law is only assured, nonetheless, by ceding to public law specific protections for payment system end users against oppression, fraud, and mistake.
If this particular intersection of contract law and commercial law is of interest to you, read the complete post. Or, if you are a particular glutton for punishment, the draft article on which the CLS Blue Sky Blog piece is based is here.
Monday, February 8, 2016
This case is a lesson in: Do what the judge tells you to do.
Ruiz v. Millennium Square Residential Association, Civil Action No. 15-1014 (JDB), out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is a fairly staid dispute over whether a condominium owner complied with the condominium association bylaws when he made changes to his unit. The bylaws contained an arbitration provision for disputes like this, which the plaintiff argued was unconscionable.
The court didn't seem to think much of the unconscionability argument. First of all, procedurally, it was unpersuaded by the plaintiff's allegation that, because he had to accept the bylaws as they were and couldn't negotiate them, they were unconscionable. The court pointed out that this would make all condominium bylaws everywhere unconscionable, which the court termed "at odds with common sense." The court pointed out that some very powerful buyers might in fact have the ability to negotiate condominium bylaws (which would seem to me to present a different case altogether, and so not very relevant to this case at all). The court also pointed out that the plaintiff could have chosen to buy real estate elsewhere if he didn't like the bylaws at Millennium Square.
As for substantive unconscionability, the plaintiff raised three separate problems with the arbitration structure set forth in the agreement: (1) it didn't require a written decision; (2) it didn't provide for discovery; and (3) it didn't allow the plaintiff to participate in selecting the arbitrators. The court was dismissive of the first two arguments, saying that precedent doesn't require arbitration to have those characteristics, so there was no reason to find a clause not requiring them to be unconscionable.
The third argument is where the defendant dropped the ball in this litigation, apparently. The defendant tried to argue that the plaintiff did have a role in selecting the arbitrators under the agreement. This argument hinged on reading together two separate provisions of the agreement. The court, however, was unconvinced by this reading. The court then specifically requested that the defendant address whether the arbitration procedure would be unconscionable if the defendant's reading was wrong and the plaintiff didn't have a role. The court actually invited supplemental briefing on that issue. The defendant, however, declined to make that argument. Maybe the precedent was really bad for the defendant, but it's generally a good idea to give the court supplemental briefing when it requests it, I think. The court concluded that the defendant's behavior was a concession that the clause was unconscionable. Faced with a failure to argue by the defendant, the court concluded that the defendant's reading of the contract was wrong; plaintiff had no role in selecting the arbitrators under the agreement; and that was unconscionable because the court had been given no ability to rule otherwise.
The court therefore severed the unconscionable arbitration procedure in the arbitration clause but upheld the rest of the clause. It requested that the parties work together to arrive at new, detailed, acceptable arbitration procedures.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
Although some things bear little direct relation to Contracts Law, they are still worth mentioning here for their inherent news value and for potential classroom use by creative law professors. Here’s one such story:
Both British and American studies show that women pay an average of… 48% more for items targeted for women compared to those for men. This “sexist pricing” pattern is reflected in, for example, razors costing 11% more for women than those for men, jeans allegedly 10% more (I would personally have thought more than that, but that’s another story), skin lotion around $15 for women, but similar lotion $10 for men.
A report by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, released in December, found similar patterns. It compared nearly 800 products with clear male and female versions from more than 90 brands sold in New York, both online and in stores. It found that women pay more in 42% of cases.
Similarly, a bill in California calling for lawmakers to exempt tampons and sanitary pads from the state sales tax got a big endorsement in January from the board that administers the state's sales taxes. A few other states such as Utah, Virginia and New York have introduced similar bills. Even President Obama seems to subscribe to the notion that women should not have to pay tax on products they simply have to have because of Mother Nature’s demands. When asked in a recent interview if he felt it was right that tampons are taxed, he said, “I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it's because men were making the laws when these were passed.” Well, not quite: states typically just tax all goods and exempt some. But states such as California don’t tax foods, for example. Time truly seems to have come to exempt some other goods.
British Labor Party MP Paula Sheriff sums up the issue well “[w]omen are paid less and are expected to spend more on products and services ... they are charged more simply for being women.” The only thing that should also be mentioned, in all fairness, is the price of clothing and shoes. I personally find those items much cheaper than men’s clothes, but I’m also not a brand-conscious person. As long as it fits and looks good, I don’t care whether it’s called one thing or another, so my anecdote may not fit into the “pink tax” story and protests which are gaining momentum in several nations.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
A recent case out of New York, Gosh v. RJMK Park LLC, No. 155024/2015 (thanks to reader Frank for the non-paywall link!), tackled the familiar issue of negligence liability release provisions, this time in the context of a trampoline park that the plaintiffs' child was injured at while playing "trampoline dodgeball." I had no idea what this was, so I looked it up. Here's a video:
It mainly looks like something people who don't get motion-sick should play (i.e., people who are not me).
The plaintiffs had signed an agreement with the trampoline park with a clause under which they waived all claims against the trampoline park arising out of negligence. Under New York law, such a clause is unenforceable when "a place of amusement or recreation" with an entry fee is involved as against public policy.
However, that didn't mean the plaintiffs got everything they wanted in this case. The plaintiffs' argument was that the presence of the negligence liability release clause rendered the entire agreement with the trampoline park unenforceable, including the venue provision that required them to bring suit in Westchester County. The court disagreed: Just because that one provision was unenforceable didn't mean the entire agreement got thrown out. Rather, the court severed the negligence liability release provision as "unrelated" to the main goal of the agreement. It didn't actually clarify what the main objective of the agreement was, just dismissed the release provision as being related to "legal stuff," basically. At any rate, the agreement had contained the standard boilerplate provision stating that any illegal clause should be severed from the agreement and the rest of the agreement enforced, which also supported the court's conclusion. So venue was transferred to Westchester County.
Monday, February 1, 2016
Okay, there's actual contract stuff to talk about in this case, but mostly I was fascinated to learn that IMAX theaters rent the movie-showing equipment from IMAX and, in 2004 at least, the cost was $41,400 in annual maintenance fees plus the greater of $75,000 or 7% of the box office receipts in annual rent. So, if you win the lottery and want an IMAX theater in your house, there's a rough idea of the kind of costs you're looking at.
And now that we've learned that fascinating tidbit of information, what happens when you get into a fight with IMAX about whether the equipment it's leased you is capable of playing "Hollywood" movies?
That's what happened in a recent case out of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, IMAX Corp. v. The Capital Center, Civ. No. 1:15-CV-0378. In that dispute, Capital Center alleged that it told IMAX it wanted to rent its equipment so it would be able to show "Hollywood" movies. In 2004, it entered into a fifteen-year lease of IMAX's movie-showing equipment/software/etc. Apparently around 2014, IMAX announced that it had developed new technology that rendered the equipment Capital Center had rented obsolete, interfering with Capital Center's ability to play "Hollywood" movies. (I keep putting "Hollywood" in quotation marks because it's in quotation marks in the opinion. Clearly Capital Center considered it a direct quote and an important characterization.)
In reaction to the new technology, Capital Center stopped paying rent on the old technology, apparently because it felt its equipment was now valueless. IMAX pointed out that Capital Center had therefore breached the contract and IMAX was entitled to the remainder due under the lease in liquidated damages (a clause in the contract). Capital Center gave the equipment back to IMAX, and IMAX sued to collect the money it claimed it was due under the contract. Capital Center raised in response defenses of mutual mistake and frustration of purpose. It also claimed IMAX had no right to demand the further rent amounts because Capital Center no longer had possession of the equipment. Finally, it claimed that IMAX had not properly disclaimed its warranty that the equipment was fit for a particular purpose, i.e., playing "Hollywood" movies. Unfortunately for Capital Center, none of these defenses succeeded.
Capital Center's mutual mistake defense centered on the "mistake" that both parties made that the equipment that was the subject of the lease would still be capable of playing "Hollywood" movies fifteen years later. However, the mutual mistake defense exists to vindicate mistakes of fact, not errors in predicting the future; this situation was the latter. There was no "fact" that IMAX thought it knew that the equipment would still be valid in fifteen years. And, in fact, the agreement itself contemplated as much, because the agreement contained a clause noting that IMAX might upgrade its equipment and setting forth the terms by which Capital Center could receive the improved equipment. Difficult for Capital Center to argue that the parties were mistaken about the future viability of the equipment in question when the agreement itself noted that the equipment in question might not be viable in the future.
The frustration of purpose defense failed for a similar reason. Here, the purpose of the contract might have been to play "Hollywood" movies but there was no unforeseen event that occurred after the signing of the contract that frustrated that purpose. The agreement itself predicted that the equipment might not continue to be viable for the showing of "Hollywood" movies. Therefore, the continued viability of the equipment could not be said to have been a basic assumption of the contract.
As for the argument that IMAX shouldn't be entitled to future rent payments because IMAX was in possession of the equipment, under Pennsylvania law, IMAX was entitled to choose either future rent payments or repossession of the equipment. However, IMAX didn't seek to repossess the equipment; Capital Center gave the equipment back to IMAX of its own volition. Therefore, IMAX wasn't seeking repossession, only the future rent payments: a choice it was allowed to make.
Finally, the contract between the parties had contained a clause in which IMAX disclaimed all of the usual warranties, including suitability to a particular use, i.e., showing "Hollywood" movies. Under Pennsylvania law, such a disclaimer is valid as long as it is "conspicuous." Capital Center tried to argue that the disclaimer in question wasn't conspicuous, but it was the only clause in the seven-page Schedule B of the agreement that was in bold font, which, according to the precedent, rendered it "sufficiently conspicuous."