ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, February 6, 2017

Federal Law Bans Gag Clauses

We’ve written about non-disparagement or “gag” clauses in wrap contracts on this blog in the past.  These clauses prohibit consumers from writing negative reviews about a company and typically impose a penalty or fee if the consumer does so.  California already has a law which prohibits them and now there’s a federal law.  The Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA) prohibits gag clauses and intellectual property transfer clauses in consumer form contracts.  (The prohibition on IP transfers is intended to prevent companies from using the DMCA takedown provisions to get posted content removed).  “Form contract” is defined as a contract with standardized terms “imposed on an individual without a meaningful opportunity for such individual to negotiate the standardized terms.”  Form contract does not include an employment or independent contractor contract.  The CRFA permits state attorney generals to bring a civil action on behalf of state residents.  The Federal Trade Commission may also institute action or intervene in a pending action.    

The law goes into effect for on March 14, 2017.

February 6, 2017 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 3, 2017

No Class Actions For Investment Fraud Claims in the Eighth Circuit

In Holtz v. JPMorgan Chase Bank (the “Bank”), Judge Easterbook recently held that litigants may pursue state law contracts or fiduciary duty claims in an individualized manner, but not in the form of class action law suits under the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“the Litigation Act,” 15 U.S.C. § 78bb (F)).

In the case, the plaintiffs alleged that the Bank gave its employees incentives to place clients’ money on the Bank’s own mutual funds, even when those funds have higher fees or lower returns than competing funds sponsored by third parties. The Bank allegedly failed to inform the clients of this conflict of interest or lied about it. Plaintiffs also argued that banks have fiduciary duty that they simply cannot contract out of under state contract law. J. Easterbrook recognizes that contract claims survive federal statutory pre-emption standards. Here, the Litigation Act is on point. However, to plead misrepresentations or omissions under the Act, the contract claims must not be “material.” (An omission is “material” when a reasonable investor would deem it significant to an investment decision.) In other words, the gravamen of litigation under the Act must, it seems, be statutory, and not purely contractual, issues. If the contractual issues are material, they must be litigated in the form of state law claims.

Per Easterbrook, “there are plenty of ways to bring wrongdoers to account – but a class action that springs from lies or material omissions in connection with federally regulated securities is not among them … If [the plaintiff] wants to pursue a contract or fiduciary-duty claim under state law, she has only to proceed in the usual way: one litigant against another.”

Another win in the “war” against class actions, it seems.

February 3, 2017 in Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Consent to Face Scanning

In a recent case, the video game publisher 2K recently won the right to collect and store gamers biometric data (in this case, face scans) indefinitely.  The face scanning technology is used in at least two of its NBA series games to allow gamers to create "personalized virtual basketball players". 

Plaintiffs agreed to allow them to do so when they agreed to the company’s terms and conditions.  The plaintiffs didn’t dispute that they had agreed to the terms or that they had consented to having their faces scanned; their objection was that they did not know that the scans would be stored “indefinitely” and that 2K could share the biometric data.  The court ruled that there was no harm under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.  The focus was not on contractual assent to the terms and conditions.  But this made me wonder, given how unobtrusive most terms and conditions are, and how easy it is to "manifest assent," shouldn't there be more stringent assent requirements when it comes to consent with respect to certain terms (such as the permanent storage and sharing of biometric data)?  Isn't it time we moved past the notion of blanket assent?

As more companies move toward biometric data for a wide range of reasons, we’re likely to see more problems with too-easy consent and wrap contracts.

February 3, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

No Substitution of Arbitrators by Courts when One Institution Becomes Legally Unavailable

There is split authority on the issue of whether courts can appoint a substitute for an arbitral institution that becomes unavailable after the execution of an arbitration agreement. In the Second Circuit, no such substitution is possible.

In the case, Deborah Moss applied for three payday loans through SFS, an online lender. SFS relied on First Premier Bank serving as the “middleman” in order to debit Moss’ account. The loan application documents with SPS included an arbitration clause listing the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”) as the arbitral institution.

After receiving the three loans, Moss filed a class action suit against First Premier Bank and Bay Cities Bank alleging violations under the RICO Act by “facilitate[ing] high-interest payday loans that have been outlawed in some states.” The banks moved to compel arbitration arguing they were entitled to enforce the terms that Moss agreed to when she applied for the loans. The district court agreed and granted the motion.

Moss then sent a letter to the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”) indicating her intent to proceed with arbitration. NAF refused the case stating “it was unable to accept Moss’s dispute pursuant to a consent judgment” it had entered into with the Minnesota Attorney General pursuant to which NAF would no longer accept consumer arbitrations such as Moss’s.

Moss then tried to vacate the district court’s motion to compel arbitration, arguing that she could not arbitrate her claims at all since NAF declined her case. The district court granted this motion, finding that the court could not appoint a substitute arbitrator because the parties had specifically designated NAF and because there was no “lapse in time in the naming of the arbitrator or … some other mechanical breakdown in the arbitrator selection process” under Section 5 of the FAA. The banks appealed, seeking to have the appellate court compel Moss to arbitrate before a different arbitrator.

The Second Circuit found that because the parties had designated an “exclusive arbitral forum, the district court cannot circumvent the intent of the parties nor can it appoint a substitute arbitrator.” Therefore, the Second Circuit held that the district court property declined to compel Moss to arbitrate in a “forum to which she did not agree.”

The case is Moss v. First Premier Bank, 15-2513 (2d Cir. 2016).

January 25, 2017 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Apollo 11 Moon Rock Bag Stolen, Sold to BFPV at Auction, Now Government Wants it Back

In times with enough serious and often depressing news, I thought I would bring you this little neat story (with profuse apologies to everyone, including my co-bloggers, for my virtual absence for a few months):

An Apollo 11 bag used to protect moon rocks samples was stolen by Max Ary, a former curator convicted in 2006 of stealing and selling space artifacts that belonged to the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. Mr. Ary subsequently served two years in prison and was sentenced to pay more than $132,000 in restitution. Space artifacts found in his home, including the Apollo 11 bag, were forfeited to meet that debt. However, the Apollo 11 bag was incorrectly identified as Ary's and subsequently sold to Nancy Carlson for $995 in February 2015 at a Texas auction held on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service. MoonRockBack

The government petitioned the court to reverse the sale and return the lunar sample bag to NASA, alleging that due to a mix up in inventory lists and item numbers, the lunar sample bag that was the subject of the April 2014 forfeiture order was mistakenly thought to be a different bag and that no one, including the United States, realized at the time of forfeiture that this bag was used on Apollo 11. The government cited cases where federal courts vacated or amended forfeiture orders, including where inadequate notice was provided to a property owner, as a justification for the bag's return to NASA.

Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled in the U.S. District Court for Kansas that Ms. Carlsen obtained the title to the historic artifact as "a good faith purchaser, in a sale conducted according to law." With her title to the bag now ordered by the Kansas court, Carlson needs to file a motion in the U.S. District Court for Texas for its return from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. However, “[t]he importance and desirability of the [lunar sample] bag stems solely and directly from the efforts of the men and women of NASA, whose amazing technical achievements, skill and courage in landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely [to Earth] have not been replicated in the almost half a century since the Apollo 11 landing," the judge wrote … Perhaps that fact, when reconsidered by the parties, will allow them to amicably resolve the dispute in a way that recognizes both of their legitimate interests," J. Marten wrote.

H/t to Professor Miriam Cherry for bringing this story to my attention.

January 22, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, Government Contracting, In the News, Miscellaneous, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

When the Break-Up of a Marriage Is Also a Breach of Contract

HGTV

Photo Source: hgtv.com

The main reason I have cable these days, honestly, is because of my HGTV addiction. I like that the shows are so predictable and formulaic, which makes them low-stress. It's a habit I started years ago as a stressed-out lawyer in a law firm, when I needed to come home and watch something that didn't require thought, and it's kept me company as I transitioned into academia. And I'm apparently not alone in using it as comfort television

I use HGTV a lot in my Contracts class as the foundation of hypotheticals (so much that I'm contributing a chapter to a book detailing how I use it) and so I'm always interested when there is a real-life HGTV contract problem...such as is happening right now with "Flip or Flop." 

You might not be anxiously following HGTV shows, so let me tell you that the world was recently rocked (well, a small corner of the world) by the revelation that Christina and Tarek, the married couple with two young children at the center of the house-flipping show "Flip or Flop," were separated and/or getting divorced. And now come reports that HGTV has threatened them with a breach of contract action if their ongoing marital problems affect the filming of the show.

This is an example of the interesting issues that arise when your personal life becomes the equivalent of your contractually obligated professional life. Christina and Tarek no longer want to be married to each other, apparently, which is a stressful enough situation, without adding in the fact that their marriage is also the source of their livelihood. HGTV has a point that the show is less successful when you know that their personal life is a mess. The network was running a commercial pretty steadily through the holiday season where Christina and Tarek talked about their family Christmas, and every time I saw it I thought it was so weird and that they should pull the commercial. But that was clearly the advertising campaign HGTV had long planned for the show and it was probably costly for HGTV to change it at that point.

I am curious to see what the resolution of this is. I'm unclear how much longer Christina and Tarek were under contract for. They probably hoped to keep their separation quiet for as long as they could (they had, after all, kept it quiet for several months). But now that it's out in the open, we'll have to see how the parties recalibrate not just their personal but also their contractual relationships with each other. There is always a lot of talk about how "real" the shows on HGTV is. This situation is testing where our boundaries on "real" vs. "fake" actually lie. 

January 7, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Teaching, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Time Is of the Essence...Or Is It?

Multiple sources report that Syracuse University is suing its long-term law firm over the firm's failure to put a "time is of the essence" clause into one of the university's contracts. I can't seem to track down the docket online so I haven't been able to look at the actual court documents but if you're teaching "time is of the essence" clauses next semester and looking for a recent controversy, here's one!

December 29, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Contractual Brouhaha in the Fashion World

There is major drama happening in the world of high fashion, and it all revolves around an alleged non-compete. Carolina Herrera has sued Oscar de la Renta to keep Laura Kim from working for the rival company. According to CH, Kim signed a non-compete with CH which gave it the option of paying Kim fifty percent of her salary and health benefits in exchange for Kim not competing against it for six months. The six months seems like a suitably short period of time in the fast-moving fashion industry, especially as it has important impacts on New York Fashion Week in February. 

The judge ordered a TRO which has since been lifted pending a preliminary injunction hearing in the new year. In the meantime, you should go to this article for all of the juicy details on what exactly went down between Kim and CH. 

December 28, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Faculty Handbook as Contract

Just a quick entry in advance of a weekend that is a holiday for many, but this post on Inside Higher Ed caught my eye, discussing an in-progress case against NYU. An appellate court allowed two professors' complaint to survive a motion to dismiss based on sufficient allegations that the faculty handbook was a formal binding contract. One to keep an eye on in the new year. 

However you plan to spend this upcoming weekend, I hope it's full of peace and joy. 

December 23, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Prince's Complicated Legal Legacy Continues

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

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

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

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

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

Air Force None?

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

Air-force-one-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

Can a Breach of Contract Become Elder Abuse and Bad Faith?

A California Court of Appeals recently answered yes to this question, although finding that in the case at issue, the facts didn’t warrant a finding of actual elder abuse.

At bottom, the facts were as follows: an elderly couple – the wife was in her 80s – suffered rain damage to their house and claimed repair benefits under an insurance policy. The insurance company initiated investigations as to whether the damage was covered. The investigations were, among other things, hampered by the couple having discarded debris from the damaged room although the insurance company had requested an immediate investigation and announced its arrival two days later. Unknown

The couple first claimed bad faith in the insurance company subsequently denying part of the insurance claim. The court granted the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment in this respect, finding that a mere incorrect denial of insurance policy benefits does not constitute bad faith. Said the court: “[A]n insurer denying or delaying the payment of policy benefits due to the existence of a genuine dispute with its insured as to the existence of coverage liability or the amount of the insured's coverage claim is not liable in bad faith even though it might be liable for breach of contract.”

The bad faith issue also came up in another case where a husband died from a lethal dose of a prescription drug, the insurer assigned an investigator, who unsuccessfully attempted to obtain information from the plaintiff wife regarding the husband's state of mind before his death and the source of the fatal drugs. Where the insurer simply tried to “do all it reasonably could” to determine the cause of death, no bad faith was at issue in simply denying benefits.

California law broadly defines financial abuse of an elder as “occurring when a person or entity takes, secretes, appropriates, obtains, or retains real or personal property of an elder for a wrongful use or with intent to defraud, or both,” as well as “by undue influence.” See Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15610.30, subds. (a)(1), (a)(3).)). Additionally, the wrongdoer must have known or should have known that the conduct was likely to be harmful to the elder. In this case, however, the improper conduct was missing: there was no evidence that the insurance company acted in subjective bad faith or unreasonably denied policy benefits. This stands in contrast to cases where, for example, insurance companies have employed deceptive practices in executing contract such as annuity agreements with senior citizens.

December 5, 2016 in Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Sad and Regrettable Loss to Contract Law Academia

As our friends on the Faculty Lounge just announced, Dean Schwartz was just forced to step down as Dean of the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, School of Law. Why? After the recent presidential election, he sent an email to students offering counseling to those upset by the results. Similar initiatives were undertaken around the nation in places so politically and geographically different as the University of South Dakota and Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Apparently, what really cost Dean Schwartz his position was his personal opinion given in the email, namely that the services would be offered to students who “feel upset” following the “most upsetting, most painful, most disturbing election season of my lifetime.”

A colleague of Schwartz's, Robert Steinbuch, who previously tussled with Schwartz over diversity in admissions, explained [cite to FL]: “If you tell people every time they lose they’re entitled to counseling, you elevate the perceived level of wrong beyond what it is. Most assuredly, Democrats are disappointed a Republican won. I recall when the Democratic Party won the Presidency twice each of the previous two elections. I knew plenty of people who were disappointed at that time, but I didn’t know anybody that needed grief counseling. I think when we tell people that they need some form of grief counseling we are normalizing hysteria and suggesting there’s something immoral or wrong about our democratic process.”

How incredibly misunderstood and off point. First, there really is something wrong about our democratic process when repeatedly, the person winning most of the popular votes in an election does not become the president. Similarly, our two-party only, “winner takes it all” system is arguably not a sufficiently faceted system that can be considered to be a true representative, deliberative democracy. But I get that, the system should then be changed before the next election. That won’t happen, just like time after time, mass shooting episodes don’t cause a change to our gun laws or the mass murder situation in general. Such is our country, and so be it, apparently.

What is incredible to me in relation to the above is not Schwartz’ alleged normalization of “hysteria” (read: justified outrage), it is attempts to make this particular election appear normal. It simply was not. Everyone seems to agree on that, Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, note that many Republicans were outraged as well – and for good reason. Should it be acceptable that we now have a President who, for example, is proud that he “grabs women by the pussy” and “just start[s] kissing them” whether or not they want it? Someone who claims that he is “smart” for not paying taxes for, apparently, many years to a country that he wants to lead, even though he could easily afford doing so? A person who, in spite of sound science proving otherwise until at least yesterday claimed that climate change is a “hoax made up by the Chinese”?

I would hope not. But as we see, apparently that is what we just have to put up with and not even opine about, even in legal academia, in the form of a sentence as innocuous as one that refers to simple, but honest, feelings shared by millions of other people as well.

Throughout history, censorship has never proved particularly effective. As a nation, if we seek to revert to such strategies, we are truly in trouble. Schwartz’ comments may well have upset Republican law students, but maybe that in and of itself would have had some value, especially in an academic setting where thoughts are valued for being just that; thoughts that just might help improve our nation.

On an up note: Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks to Michael Schwartz for being a such a courageous, thoughtful dean and legal scholar!

Greetings from Berlin.

November 24, 2016.

November 24, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Law Schools | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Top Gear, Grand Tour, Non-Competes--What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

My love for the British car show "Top Gear" over the past few years was deep and abiding, despite the fact that I am not interested in cars at all. Like most of the people I know, I watched Top Gear for the hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May--a trio of men whose friendly and hilarious chemistry was, I thought, a little like capturing lightning in a bottle; it comes around so infrequently that it's striking when it does. 

For a taste of what this version of Top Gear was like, please enjoy my personal favorite, one of the caravan episodes: 

 

Or maybe you would prefer one of the boat-car episodes: 

 

The Top Gear Wikipedia entry details that the show's popularity resulted in consistently high ratings, a waiting list for tickets to the stage-filmed portion of the show that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and a Guinness World Record for the world's most widely watched factual television show

There have been a number of high-profile Top Gear events over the years that I could document here, from Richard Hammond's terrifying crash while filming the show to the fascinating contractual dispute over the Stig, the show's famously anonymous racing driver, revealing his true identity

But what I'm really focusing on in this entry is the fact that the Top Gear hosts have a new show, "The Grand Tour," that looks a whole lot like their old show, and it made me wonder what their contracts looked like. 

The hosts left Top Gear over controversially. The BBC declined to renew Jeremy Clarkson's contract in March 2015, following an attack by Clarkson on one of the producers on the show (later the subject of a lawsuit that Clarkson settled for a hundred thousand pounds and a formal apology). The other two presenters, Hammond and May, also had contracts up for renewal and chose not to re-sign with the BBC, instead following Clarkson to Amazon, where the trio have launched a show called The Grand Tour

I didn't know what to expect from The Grand Tour but it turns out to be Top Gear by a different name. Where Top Gear had a Stig, The Grand Tour has "the American" -- and they tell us who he is right off the bat, rather than get embroiled in that kind of controversy again. Top Gear had a segment called, simply, "The News"; The Grand Tour launched a similar segment called "Conversation Street." Top Gear had a segment called "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car"; The Grand Tour...well, you should watch the show for its take on that segment. This review does a nice job running down all the similarities between the old show and the new. 

This all fascinated me from a contract perspective. I knew that Clarkson had previously co-owned the commercial rights to Top Gear. He sold them to the BBC in 2012 for fourteen million pounds. So, having given up those rights and left the BBC, Clarkson clearly couldn't keep making "Top Gear." But he is making a motoring show that is almost identical in every cheeky winking respect to the one he left behind (right down to a simple title highlighting a prominent "T" and "G"). 

I do think, from an IP point of view, the new show seems safe: they've been careful to avoid any trademarks and only seem to resemble Top Gear in the uncopyrightable idea level, i.e., being a playful show about cars. But I assumed that Clarkson, Hammond, and May had to have had a non-compete with the BBC, so I went looking for it, and I did find evidence that there was one. It apparently prohibited the three from presenting a competing car program for a period of two years. The two years aren't up yet, leaving lawyers to speculate that a conclusion was drawn that the non-compete only applied to terrestrial broadcast stations and not to Amazon's streaming Internet television. The entertainment industry is changing so quickly, it doesn't surprise me that the contracts are having trouble keeping up. 

Surely the BBC would have preferred to keep Clarkson, Hammond, and May from kicking a rival car show into production so quickly, especially while the BBC's relaunched Top Gear has reportedly struggled. But apparently their contracts failed to give them sufficient protection to save them from the result. 

I will leave for another day the issues of contracts made during the filming of Top Gear itself; like, for instance, the time Clarkson offered to save Hammond from a sinking boat in exchange for a bucket...that turned out to have holes. 

And instead I will leave this entry with an acknowledgment that Jeremy Clarkson is a problematic and controversial figure who is not a stranger to making offensive statement. That's beyond the scope of this article about the BBC's contracts, but this review, I think, does a decent job of capturing the internal tension of a former Top Gear fan contemplating the new Grand Tour.  

November 21, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Film Clips, In the News, Television, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Scholarship highlight: Climate change and the "Act of God" doctrine

Allow me to highlight my most recent article, An “Act of God”? Rethinking Contractual Force Majeure in an Era of Anthropogenic Climate Change.

Given anthropogenic climate change, what were previously considered to be inexplicable and unpredictable “acts of God” cannot reasonably be said to be so anymore. They are acts of man. “Extreme” weather events have become the new normal. Accordingly, the contractual force majeure defense, which largely rests on the notion that contractual parties may be exculpated from liability for failed or delayed performances if supervening unforeseen events that the party could not reasonably control or foresee have made a performance impracticable, is becoming outdated in the weather context. It makes little sense to allow contractual parties to escape contractual performance liability for events that are highly foreseeable given today’s knowledge about climate change. Parties can and should take reasonable steps to contractually assess and allocate the risks of severe weather events much more accurately than ever before. Further, they should be better prepared to take reasonable steps to alleviate the effects of severe weather on their contractual performances instead of seeking to avoid liability at the litigation stage.

Time has come for the judiciary to rethink the availability of the impracticability defense based on “extreme” weather for public policy purposes. Perhaps most importantly, by taking a hard look at the doctrine and modernizing it to reflect current on-the-ground reality, the judiciary may help instigate a broader awareness of the underlying pollution problem and need for action at many scales. Meanwhile, a more equitable risk-sharing framework that might become known as “comparative risk sharing” and which would resemble the notion of comparative negligence in torts could be introduced where parties have failed to reach a sufficiently detailed antecedent agreement on the issue. This is surprisingly often the case. Parties often use mere boilerplate phrases that do not reflect today’s highly volatile weather and appurtenant risks.

The law is never static. It must reflect real world phenomena. Climate change is a super-wicked problem that requires attention and legal solutions at many fronts to many problems, including contractual ones. The general public is often said to have lost faith in the judiciary. Given this perception, courts could regain some of that faith in the context of contracts law and force majeure caused by events for which no “God,” other supernatural power, or even nature can be blamed.

The article can be downloaded here.

I apologize that I have not been able to post very many blogs recently and that I will, for family and work reasons, also not be able to do so until January.  I trust it that my lovely assistant Ashley and my co-bloggers will keep you intrigues until then!

November 13, 2016 in About this Blog, Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Legislation, Miscellaneous, Science, True Contracts | Permalink

Monday, November 7, 2016

Liberty Mutual's Ad Campaign Is a Call for Clearer Contracts

I was struck by this ad that Liberty Mutual Insurance is now running: 

Because what it boils down to is a call for greater clarity in contracts so that they can be more easily understood by consumers. (I appreciate the lawyer shout-out but not even all lawyers read all 22 pages!) But, in the midst of trying to simplify things, the small print on the commercial takes care to explain that "Not all of your coverages are shown in Coverage Compass(TM). For complete explanation of your coverages, please consult your Liberty Mutual sales representative and your policy" (emphasis added). You can try to streamline things, but there's no avoiding that 22-page policy in the end!

November 7, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Film Clips, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Student Plagiarism Contract Case

Thanks to InsideHigherEd, I became aware of this recent case out of the First Circuit, Walker v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 15-1154, and seeing as it involved JOLT, the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology that I was an executive editor of when I was in law school there, I couldn't resist digging into the case. 

And I'm glad I did, because it's a really interesting case about the lingering effect of honor code violations and the wording of school academic policies. 

The plaintiff graduated from Harvard Law School in 2009. During her time at Harvard, she was a member of JOLT. In that capacity, she drafted a student note. However, when she sent the note to senior editors at JOLT, they became concerned about plagiarism issues and referred the note to the HLS Administrative Board. The Board concluded that the plaintiff's note contained plagiarism that violated the school's Handbook of Academic Policies and a notation was placed on her transcript. The plaintiff still graduated from HLS but had a "lucrative" offer of employment withdrawn after the notation was placed on her transcript. So the plaintiff sued to have the notation on her transcript removed. HLS won summary judgment at the district court level and this appeal followed. 

The court affirmed the judgment of the district court. The parties agreed that the Student Handbook constituted a contract between the plaintiff and HLS. (The court noted that this was not actually obvious under Massachusetts law but that it would treat the handbook as a contract because the parties did not dispute it.) Therefore, the court focused its review on whether the plaintiff's behavior violated the stated plagiarism policy in a way that the plaintiff should have reasonably expected.

The Handbook stated: "All work submitted by a student for any academic or non-academic exercise is expected to be the student's own work." The plaintiff's main argument was that the student note she sent to the JOLT editors was just a draft that she planned to edit in the future, and the Handbook policy should be read as only applying to completed work that was not expected to undergo further editing. The court disagreed, however. The wording of the Handbook was extremely broad, referring to "all work." A student in the plaintiff's position should reasonably have expected that any student note submitted to the editors, whether a draft or in final form, would be held to the standards of the policy. Nothing about "all work" would make a student think that drafts were omitted from the definition, according to the court. 

November 2, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Donald Trump's Many Confidentiality Provisions

A friend of mine asked me the other day about the ongoing controversy over all of that unaired Apprentice footage that is apparently sitting around somewhere. MGM and Mark Burnett have both claimed that they are not allowed to release the tapes due to confidentiality provisions in their contracts with Donald Trump. (Fortune has an article about this here, as does the New York Times.) My friend's question basically boiled down to this: Yeah, sure, maybe that deal made sense when the contract was signed with a New York self-professed billionaire but now he's running for President of the United States, and shouldn't that mean something? 

Other people have raised this issue. What seems to me unique about the Donald Trump situation isn't necessarily the confidentiality provisions over the Apprentice tape, but how often, during this political campaign, we've been debating the secrecy Trump requires from all of those around him. The Apprentice contract is just the latest example of this. Over the summer, several news outlets reported on the unusually broad terms of the NDA Trump required his staffers to sign. To be fair, NDAs are not unusual during a Presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton has allegedly had her staffers sign them as well. But Trump's apparently are unusually broad, and he requires them even of volunteers who show up to make calls for Trump's campaign and presumably never even really meet Trump? What confidential information could these volunteers even know? Well, Trump is the one who gets to tell them that. And he's not afraid to sue on the NDAs: We know of at least one arbitration filed against a former staffer, alleging damages of $10 million

Two things I take away from this: 

(1) Donald Trump seems to be obsessed with controlling his image, which makes total sense, as he's made an entire career out of Being Donald Trump and it could even make him President. Trump is so fond of restricting what those around him can say about him that he's even said he'll make his federal employees sign NDAs if he does become President. At the same time, of course, Trump himself doesn't appear to feel restrained in any way to say any thought that comes into his head. So we seem to have a situation where part of the advantage of being rich is being able to say absolutely anything you want and also control to some degree what the people around you get to say, even once your relationship with them has been terminated.  

(2) Despite this, however, we all know more about Donald Trump than I think he wants us to know. In the relentless glare of a Presidential campaign, no matter how many NDAs you leave in your wake, is it just impossible to keep secrets forever? And, maybe, is there something comforting about that? My friend wants to see the Apprentice tapes, but we don't know what's in the Apprentice tapes, and we don't know who even has time to review them. But we do know a great deal, maybe not Apprentice-related, but maybe enough? 

P.S. This is not the first time I've blogged about Donald Trump's contracts. If you're curious, that case hasn't really progressed since that blog entry. 

October 22, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 14, 2016

Month-long TV Station Outage and the Duty of Good Faith

DISH Network sells satellite television packages to viewers nationwide.  In 2014, its contracts with Turner Network Sales and FOX News Networks expired. DISH was not able to negotiate renewals with these stations for approximately one month. DISH Network also did not offer complaining subscribers any form of monetary relief for the interruptions with the result that subscribers that had selected packages including FOX and Turner TV filed a class action suit for breach of contract in spite of being able to access literally hundreds of other channels.

One of the issues on appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was whether DISH Network violated the duty of good faith and fair dealing by not providing those two particular channels in an uninterrupted manner.  The court found that not to be the case. Images

The contract provided a Limitation of Liability Clause which, in relation to interruptions and delays, stated that “[n]either we nor our third-party billing agents … will be liable for any interruption in any service or for any delay or failure to perform, including without limitation … DISH Network’s access to all or any portion of services….”

The covenant of good faith will “not contradict terms or conditions for which a party has bargained.”  Thus, said the court, the argument was precluded by the unambiguous terms of the agreement.  “Courts must take care to ensure that we don’t use the covenant as another means for substituting a different deal from the one the parties contemplated.” 

That makes sense.  I can’t help thinking how litigious our society can be in allowing suits such as the above to proceed that far.  Does it really matter that one cannot get a couple of TV stations out of hundreds for a month?  Is it worth burdening the court system such a matter?

On the other hand, DISH could also just have offered some sort of compensation to its customers.  Cable TV is indeed very expensive these days, so the subscribers do have a point here. 

Furthermore, Cable TV providers still refuse to unbundle services to an arguably sufficient extent.  What about those of us who really truly only want to see a few specific stations?  Why should we continually have to pay for a bunch of extra stations that we never watch?  Until such unbundling become reality, arguments such as there being many other stations to choose from are arguably somewhat irrelevant.

The case is Neil Stokes; Craig Felzien v. DISH Network, L.L.C., 2016 WL 5746329.

October 14, 2016 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, Television | Permalink