May 24, 2013
Dollar Rent a Car and the Borat Problem
Given all the excitement over boilerplate on this blog, I thought it would be a good time to remind readers of problems that might arise that don't exactly involve (just) boilerplate, It's not just the words in the contract -- the way the contract is presented can create problems, too. I've been meaning for a while to discuss this NYT article about a lawsuit against Dollar Rent a Car. According to the article and the complaint, the plaintiffs were customers who specifically declined the insurance coverage that car rental companies are always pushing (and which is often covered by customers’ personal auto insurance policy and/or credit card). They were then handed a tablet and asked to sign electronically. When they returned the car, they were surprised with a much larger-than-expected bill that included a “loss damage waiver” which, like insurance, “waives” the customer’s liability for loss or damage to the car.
I planned to blog about this last month, but just as I was about to, I received a reprint of Russell Korobkin’s article, recently published in the California Law Review. The title, The Borat Problem in Negotiation: Fraud, Assent and the Behavioral Law and Economics of Standard Form Contracts, sounded intriguing and as I started to read it, I realized that the article addressed a lot of the issues raised by the car rental form contract/electronic signature situation. I thought it might be fun (er, contracts prof style-fun) to view the Dollar Rent a Car problem through the lens of Korobkin’s proposed Borat solution.
According to the article, the Dollar-Rent-A-Car plaintiffs explicitly told the car rental agent that they were declining insurance coverage yet unknowingly signed for it on an electronic tablet. This illustrates one way that contracting form matters –I suspect it was easier for customers to be misled by the “loss damage waiver” language because they didn’t have an easy way to read the surrounding language. While paper consumer contracts are generally adhesive, customers do have the option of declining insurance coverage. While many customers may still have overlooked the meaning of the language, others may have scanned the few sentences immediately before the signature line (this seems particularly true of the plaintiffs, who one of whom is an insurance lawyer).
Sales agents are typically paid a commission to upsell the insurance coverage and each of the plaintiffs paid a hundred to several hundred dollars more than they expected to pay.
I tried to get a copy of Dollar’s rental agreement off their website. While their general policies are posted, which references their rental agreement, the agreement itself is not available. That’s already a strike against them in my book – why not post the rental agreement on your website since you’re going to have your customer sign it anyway? I think it’s because the company doesn’t really expect anyone to read the agreement. Most people don’t read, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if the company made more of an effort to make the agreement accessible and readable.
Without a copy of Dollar’s actual rental agreement, I can only make assumptions about what it contains but my guess is that it contains an integration clause and a no-oral modification or “NOM” clause. The latter may not be enforced but the former brings the contract into the grip of the parol evidence rule. The PER rule won’t effectively block a fraud claim, but fraud claims may be difficult to prove in this context. The other avenue for redress is under a consumer protection statute claiming unfair or deceptive trade practices. But what about contract law – can it do anything here to help the consumers?
Korobkin’s article doesn’t specifically address consumer actions, but he tackles the “Borat Problem” which often occurs in consumer contracting situations. According to Korobkin, the Borat Problem occurs when two parties “reach an oral agreement. The first then presents a standard form contract, which the second signs without reading or without reading carefully. When the second party later objects that the first did not perform according to the oral representations, the first party points out that the signed document includes different terms or disclaims prior representations and promises.”
As readers of this blog are well aware, contractsprofs went through a slight obsessive period with the Borat contract when it first arose. To quickly summarize, several people who were in the 2006 movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan sued the producer, Twentieth Century Fox, claiming that they were misled into appearing in it. Korobkin states that these plaintiffs claimed that the studio obtained their consent using a two part strategy, “false representations followed by standard form contracts that included language designed to contradict or disclaim those representations.”
Sound similar to the Dollar situation? Although the Dollar agent didn’t expressly make false representations, they allegedly acted in a way that misled the plaintiffs into believing they were acting consistent with their wishes, and that the contract they were signing reflected their understanding. Korobkin discusses existing legal remedies to the Borat problem and concludes they are not so satisfying for various reasons. He then discusses the risk of “bilateral opportunism,” meaning that a “pure duty to read” rule leaves nondrafting parties vulnerable to exploitation by drafters and a “no-exploitation rule” leaves drafters vulnerable to opportunistic behavior (i.e. bad faith claims) by nondrafters. He discusses the different ways that each party might take advantage of the other under either rule and throws in a good amount of behavioral economics to back up his arguments – for example, “confirmation bias” makes it difficult for even sophisticated nondrafters to notice when a contract term contradicts a prior representation made by the drafter. Korobkin also discusses the role of trust, specifically that reading a contract may signal that the nondrafter doesn’t trust the drafter. I think trust plays a role (even if small) in the Dollar scenario – afterall, nobody wants to be that jerk in line who challenges the smiling service rep. There's also social pressure in that nobody want to be that jerk holding up the line of foot tapping customers by asking questions about fine print (believe me, I know).
Korobkin’s “Borat Solution” would require specific assent to written terms that are inconsistent with prior representations. This effectively puts the burden on drafters to include a “clear statement” that the particular provision takes precedence over prior representations and “realistic notice” which would generally mean that the parties actively negotiated the term. I like this proposal (and have proposed something very similar to it in the context of online agreements) because it recognizes that drafters have the power to make terms more salient. The notion of blanket assent puts too much of a burden on the nondrafting party instead of the party that has the power to actually communicate the terms more effectively.
So would the Borat solution have changed anything in the Dollar scenario? I think so, but for a different reason than the actual Borat scenario. A clear statement and realistic notice would preclude having customers sign on an electronic tablet without also making immediately visible the relevant provision. In other words, the customer wouldn't be asked to sign without being able to read the waiver provision. Although it's not expressly stated, it seems implied from the NYT article that the contract provision was not viewable on the tablet. If that's the case, that provision would not be enforceable.
So, for those of you planning to research the consumer contracts conundrum this summer, in addition to Margaret Jane Radin’s book, Boilerplate: The Fine Print, Vanishing Rights, and the Rule of Law and Oren Bar-Gill’s book, Seduction by Contract, I recommend that you add Korobkin’s article to your summer reading list.
May 09, 2013
Harper Lee Sues to Recover Her Rights to To Kill a Mockingbird
For many lawyers, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is at the top of their list of "favorite books/movies about a lawyer." TKAM is about more than lawyering, of course. It's about racism, family, class and much more. This week, TKAM also is about "fraudulent inducement," "consideration" (a lack thereof) and "fiduciary duty." All of those subjects are in the complaint filed by TKAM author, (Nelle) Harper Lee, against her purported literary agent.
In the suit, Lee alleges that Samuel L. Pinkus (and a few other defendants) fraudulently induced her to sign her TKAM rights over to one of Pinkus's companies in 2007 and again in 2011. According to Lee, Pinkus, the son-in-law of Lee's longtime agent, Eugene Winick, transferred many of Winick's clients to himself when Winick fell ill in 2006. Pinkus then allegedly misappropriated royalties and failed to promote Lee's copyright in the U.S. and abroad.
For Contracts professors, the Lee v. Pinkus suit provides some interesting hypos to discuss when teaching fraud, consideration, and assignments of rights. Regarding fraud, Lee alleges that Pinkus lied to her about what she was signing at a time when she was particularly vulnerable due to a recent stroke and declining eyesight. Consideration is in play because there allegedly was no consideration from Pinkus to Lee in exchange for Lee's transfer of rights to Pinkus. Assignment issues arose because the many companies who owed Lee royalties reportedly struggled to figure out which company or companies they should pay given Pinkus's many shell companies. Overall, it's a sad story for Ms. Lee but one that students may find particularly engaging.
[Heidi R. Anderson]
p.s. Although there are many quote-worthy passages in TKAM, a favorite of mine (useful when advising students about their writing) is: “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts.” Please feel free to share your favorites in the comments.
May 02, 2013
Ticketmaster and Those Pesky Bots
May 01, 2013
"Cop Killer" Reward Offer Leads to Breach of Contract Suit
We previously blogged about high-profile reward offers by Donald Trump, Bill Maher, a laptop-seeking music producer, and a Hong Kong businessman. Only one of those (the producer) led to an actual lawsuit. The latest reward offer in the news involves murder.
In February of this year, the City of Los Angeles and other entities collectively offered a $1 million reward for information regarding Chris Dorner. Dorner was the former policeman and Navy officer who (allegedly) killed four people, including two policemen. The manhunt for Dorner, labeled the "Cop Killer," reportedly was one of the largest in LA County's history.
One of the people claiming the reward, Rick Heltebrake, has filed a breach of contract suit in LA Superior Court (the complaint can be obtained here but only for a fee). Heltebrake is suing the City of Los Angeles, and supporting entities for $1 million and is suing three cities that offered separate $100,000 rewards related to Dorner. Heltebrake was a carjacking victim of Dorner's. After he escaped, Heltebrake called the police and told them where they could find Dorner. Because Dorner was found at the location Heltebrake identified, he is seeking the rewards.
The contract controversy is one of interpretation. The rewards reportedly were available for "information leading to the apprehension and capture of" Dorner, for the "identification and apprehension" of Dorner, for the "capture and conviction" of Dorner, and for "information leading to the arrest and conviction of" Dorner (I do not have the complaint so these excerpts are cobbled together from TMZ, Courthouse News Service, ABC and other sources). Police charged Dorner on February 11, 2013. Heltebrake called police on February 12. On February 25, after a shootout with police and structure fire, Dorner was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Given the above facts, some of the intepretations questions are: (i) whether the authorities' shootout and recovery of Dorner's body qualifies as "apprehension" or "arrest," (ii) whether the "and" between "identification and arrest" or between "capture and conviction" means that both are required in order to collect, and many, many more. A complicating factor is that the $1 million reward was merely announced on TV; no written record was made. At least one reward offeror, the City of Riverside, has stated that the lack of a "conviction" means that it won't pay. Although this is a tragic story, I may mention it the next time I teach the Carbolic Smoke Ball case.
If anyone is able to find the complaint for free, please post a link in the comments.
[Heidi R. Anderson]
April 24, 2013
Paperless Tickets and Licenses
The Sacramento Bee reports that a California legislative committee (if you really want to know, it’s called the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media committee) “gutted” a bill that would have illegalized “paperless” tickets. Paperless tickets are more (or is it less?) than what they sound like – they are a way for companies like Ticketmaster to sell seats without permitting purchasers to resell those seats. Purchasers must show their ID and a credit card to attend the show. The bill pitted two companies, Live Nation (owner of Ticketmaster) and StubHub, against each other.
This bill and the related issues should be of interest to contracts profs because it highlights the same license v. sale issues that have cropped up in other market sectors where digital technologies have transformed the business landscape. Like software vendors and book publishers, Ticketmaster is concerned about the effect of technology and the secondary marketplace on its business. Vendors, using automated software (“bots”), can quickly purchase large numbers of tickets and then turn around and sell these tickets in the secondary marketplace (i.e. at StubHub) at much higher prices. Both companies argue that the other is hurting consumers. Ticketmaster argues that scalpers hurt fans, who are unable to buy tickets at the original price and must buy them at inflated prices. Stub Hub, on the other hand, argues that paperless tickets hurt consumers because they are unable to resell or transfer their tickets.
The underlying question seems to be whether a ticket is a license to enter a venue or is it more akin to a property right that can be transferred. Or rather, should a ticket be permitted to be only a license or only a property right that can be transferred? The proposed pre-gutted legislation would have taken that decision out of the hands of the parties (the seller and the purchaser) and mandated that it be a property right that could be transferred. In other words, it would have made a ticket something that could not be a contract. Of course, given the adhesive nature of these types of sales, a ticket as contract would end up being like any other mass consumer contract – meaning the terms would be unilaterally imposed by the seller. In this case, that would mean the ticket would be a license and not a sale of a property right.
It’s not just the media giants who are feeling the disruptive effect of technology - we contracts profs feel it, too.
[NB: My original post confused StubHub with the vendors who use the site. StubHub is the secondary marketplace where tickets can be resold. Thanks to Eric Goldman for pointing that out].
April 22, 2013
Phone "Bill Cramming" and Consent
The FTC recently charged a company, Wise Media, with unfair and deceptive business practices. The FTC complaint alleges that Wise Media charged unwitting mobile phone users for “premium" text services, or junk text messages (horoscopes, love tips, other “useful” information…) that consumers never authorized. The practice is referred to as “bill cramming,” and consumers often failed to notice the indefinitely recurring charges of, in this case, $9.99/month. Even when they did and sent a text to “stop” the messages, the company often failed to comply with the request.
Consumers often miss these charges because they aren’t aware that their mobile phone bills contain charges by third parties and because the charges are not clearly indicated. The result? Wise Media has made millions of dollars by surreptitiously charging consumers.
What I find particularly interesting and troubling is the potential interaction of contract law in the area of electronic contracts and consumer protection. What distinguishes a deceptive business practice (although not necessarily an unfair one) from a “hard bargain” is consent. The FTC complaint, for example, was filed because the charges were “unauthorized” by consumers - they were signed up "seemingly at random" without consumer "knowledge or permission." The FTC has, in my view, done a pretty terrific job of protecting consumers given the lack of resources and the wide range of consumer-harming activities out there. Courts have not done so well. What happens where contractual “consent” (such as in the form of a clickwrap”) is obtained for an unfair practice, such as bill cramming? What if the consumer had clicked "I agree" on a clickwrap to the premium service? Would the contract law notion of “consent” mean that the consumer had authorized the “premium text” service, even when we all know that nobody reads clickwraps and browsewraps? Or would the commonsense version of consent championed by the FTC prevail?
I talk about this disjunction between, what I refer to as “wrap contract doctrine” (since, let's face it, the digital contract cases are not consistent with traditional contract doctrine despite what Easterbrook and others claim) and the FTC’s more commonsense approach to consumer perception and business practices in my forthcoming book on wrap contracts. (Did you know a plug was coming? I actually didn’t but there it is.) The conclusion I reached was that there appears to be a disconnect between contract law notions of “reasonable notice” and the FTC’s notion of “reasonable notice” (which I find more reasonable….) The takeaway for businesses – just because you obtain consent for a particular business practice via an online contract which may meet the surreal standards of contractual consent set forth by courts doesn’t mean that the practice in question won’t be viewed as an “unfair and deceptive” one by the FTC.
April 03, 2013
What Jay-Z Can Teach
The entertainment mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has added another hat, er, baseball cap, to his rather extensive collection. The NYT reports that his company, Roc Nation Sports, just signed up to represent Robinson Cano, the New York Yankees second baseman. I’ve long been interested in Jay-Z’s business acumen and his ability to gauge where unpredictable markets are headed (and made a brief mention of it in this short essay). More than that, he seems to be making the most of these changes rather than resisting them. When he signed with LiveNation in 2008, Jay-Z was one of the first musicians to work with, rather than fight or deny, the changes in the music business (Madonna, another savvy business person, did too). He took that money and started Roc Nation (of which Roc Nation Sports is a part). Now he’s realizing the potential to be found in the blurring of sports and entertainment (and the public's perception of athletes and entertainers) . An athlete typically has a relatively short shelf life in the field, so why not make that short shelf life as lucrative as possible? Furthermore, an athlete may have a longer shelf life as a brand. Gven the coalescence of sports and entertainment, and the way social media makes celebrities so accessible, there's a lot of revenue generating opportunities there. So why should this be interesting to readers of this blog, many of whom may have no interest in baseball? Sure, Jay-Z is probably a great negotiator and the contract – if we ever get to see it – will be interesting. But more than that, we should be like Jay-Z and recognize how quickly the landscape and technology changes – and consider what impact those changes might have on our contracts. For example, there are outstanding recording/distribution contracts which predate digital distribution formats. Are digital recordings included under such contracts? ( The Eminem case touches upon a related issue having to do with a failure to anticipate digital tunes). The book publishing industry is another sector that is undergoing much disruption. While no lawyer is expected to be an oracle, it may help your client – or help your students to help their future clients) to think about future marketplace and technological changes during contract negotiations, especially where the contract is a long term one.
March 14, 2013
New York Appellate Court Tosses Prenuptial Agreement Due to Fraudulent Inducement
A Brooklyn-based appellate court recently upheld a trial court ruling (946 N.Y.S.2d 66) that a prenuptial agreement was uneforceable due to fraudulent inducement. The Cioffi-Petrakis v. Petrakis ruling surprised family law experts in New York and nationally because prenuptial agreements like this one generally were seen as unassailable. The Wall Street Journal quotes several prominent divorce lawyers, stating that the ruling is "a game-changer" with "huge implications" that will "be quoted in every single case going forward."
Some appear to contribute the shocking result to Ms. Perakis's lawyer, Dennis D'Antonio, who is a contract litigator and not a family lawyer. Mr. D'Antonio stated told the WSJ that he presented the case as a contract case: "The matrimonial bar tends to do things the way they always did, and they approached the prenup as something you can't challenge," D'Antonio said. "We applied old-fashioned contract law."
Ms. Petrakis alleged that her husband lied to her in order to get her to sign the agreement. Specifically, he reportedly stated that he would tear up the agreement after the couple had a child (the couple had three children together). After she still refused to sign, Mr. Perakis threatened to call the whole thing off 4 days prior to their wedding after Ms. Perakis's parents already had spent $40,000.
The trial court stated the applicable standard as follows: "To sustain a claim for common-law fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must demonstrate the misrepresentation of a material fact, which was known by the defendant to be false and intended to be relied upon when made, and that there was justifiable reliance and resulting wrong." Ms. Perakis alleged facts sufficient to satisfy that standard. Specifically, the court stated:
"The court credits the wife's testimony...that her fiancé told her 'not to worry' and 'we'll work everything out' to be convincing. Similarly convincing is her testimony that she was told by her fiancé that, 1) if she didn't sign the prenuptial agreement they wouldn't be getting married in a week, 2) that 'everything they get after the marriage would be theirs' and 3) 'after they had a family he would tear up the agreement.' The court concludes that, based on the such promises, the wife called Mr. Hametz to arrange to sign the prenuptial agreement."
The appellate court opinion is rather short. It affirms that contracts may be deemed uneforceable due to fraud or duress but makes no sweeping statements regarding prenuptial agreements. For Ms. Perakis, the result is rather significant. The agreement stated that she would get only $25,000 per year. Her husband reportedly is worth $20 million.
[Heidi R. Anderson]
February 21, 2013
A Modern Twist on R.R. v. M.H. and Statutory Interpretation?
There's a theory among some of my foodie friends that, when it comes to food, bacon makes everything better. I'm considering a similar theory for teaching Contracts via hypos: when it comes to Contracts hypos, celebrities make everything better. Hypos work. Sure, they "taste" just fine using names like "Buyer," "Client," and "Sub-Contractor," and I use those names most of the time. But using names like "Jason Patric, you know, the guy from Lost Boys and Narc" often makes the hypo better, at least for the few people over 25 who remember those movies. So, in the interest of making hypos better via celebrity a.k.a. bacon, I bring you this story from TMZ (see, you don't actually have to go to sites of ill repute; you can count on me to go to them for you and only bring you the somewhat good, quasi-clean stuff).
As TMZ reports, actor Jason Patric is in a custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber. Upon their break-up in 2009, Patric allegedly agreed to compensate Schreiber for her troubles via donating his sperm instead of by paying her. Presumably, in exchange for Patric's promised sperm, Schreiber would not sue Patric for support payments. Simple enough (sort of). But wait, there's more! Patric allegedly would donate his sperm to Schreiber only if she also promised not to seek support from him for the child; Schreiber agreed. If this agreement actually was reached, Schreiber must have believed that Patric's sperm was so valuable that she was willing to forgo support payments for herself and for the child that would result. [Insert skepticism here.]
How does this relate to Contracts hypos? It works as a hypo for R.R. v. M.H., which many of us use to teach how a contract can be deemed unenforceable if it violates public policy. In R.R. v. M.H., the court must decide whether to enforce the surrogacy agreement between a fertile father, married to an infertile wife, and the surrogate mother, who also happens to be married, and who was inseminated with the fertile father's donor sperm. I won't go into the case in more detail here; instead, I would like to focus one part of the case has a direct parallel to the Jason Patric dispute.
In R.R. v. M.H., a state statute provided that the husband of a married woman inseminated with donor sperm was treated as the legal father of the child, with all of the associated benefits and obligations that fatherhood carried along with it. The statute was supposed to facilitate the common practice of women being inseminated by a (usually anonymous) sperm donor. Strictly applying the statute to the facts in R.R. v. M.H. would have led to an absurd result. Specifically, it would have meant that the legal father of the child born to the surrogate would have been the surrogate's husband, who had no real interest in the child. The court wisely argued its way around that literal application and ruled differently.
The Patric dispute also involves a law of unintended consequence much like that involved in R.R. v. M.H. A California law states as follows:
"(b) The donor of semen provided to a licensed physician and surgeon or to a licensed sperm bank for use in artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization of a woman other than the donor's wife is treated in law as if he were not the natural father of a child thereby conceived, unless otherwise agreed to in a writing signed by the donor and the woman prior to the conception of the child."
Applying this law to the Patric situation could, like the law in R.R. v. M.H., produce an absurd result. Let's paraphrase the statute with applicable facts in parentheses:
"The donor of semen (Patric) for use in artificial insemenation of a woman (Schreiber) other than the donor's (Patric's) wife (they weren't married) is treated in law as if he (Patric) were not the natural father unless otherwise agreed in a signed writing."
So, even though Patric and Schreiber had been romantically involved, the formalized donation and the couple's unmarried status could negate Patric's claims to custody. It is not clear whether the statute applies and, not being admitted in California, I'd rather not analyze it further. But it always surprises me how what seems like a one-in-a-million kind of case does, in fact, repeat itself. Eventually.
[Heidi R. Anderson]
February 12, 2013
Update: Maher Takes Aim at Trump's Lawyer
We had previously blogged about the demand letter that Donald Trump sent to Bill Maher. Maher dedicated a segment on his show to the dispute, taking aim at Trump's lawyer. Maher begins: “Donald Trump must learn two things: what a joke is and what a contract is.”
The segment is reminiscent of the Leonard v. Pepsico decision when Judge Wood takes on the task of explaining why the harrier jet commercial was "evidently done in jest." Here, Maher continues the humor in explaining why it was parody when challenged Trump to prove that he (Trump) was not born of an orangutan.
Here's the clip:
[Meredith R. Miller]
February 11, 2013
CA fires contractor, providing a helpful breach of K scenario
The LA Times reports that the state of California has terminated its contract with SAP Public Services, a contractor that was supposed to fix the state's outdated computer network system that handles paychecks and medical benefits for 240,000 state employees.
While both SAP and California are unhappy about the state of events, I have just covered breach, substantial performance, conditions and damages in my Contracts course and was delighted to find a real life scenario to illustrate the relevance of the material we just covered.
So what triggered CA's termination? SAP was hired three years ago but when its program was tested, it made errors at "more than 100 times" the rate of the old system.
Was failing this test a breach? If so, was it a minor or material breach? It seems it would depend on what was in the contract. As contracts profs know, the first place to look in a contract dispute is the contract itself. The are terms in the contract that will be relevant in evaluating whether there was a breach or the applicable measure of damages. For example, there may be performance targets (i.e. conditions) that SAP had to meet which weren't met. Those conditions would be relevant in determining each party's obligations (would the contract terminate upon failure to meet the condition, for example?) There's also likely to be a provision dealing with whether SAP gets paid per deliverable or target met or per person/hour or time spent on a project. If this was a scheduled deliverable, then the facts tend toward finding a breach (or, if the contract language indicates, it could be a condition that was just never met). If it was a test done in the course of moving the project toward completion, CA may have jumped the gun. A material breach would allow CA to then terminate its obligation. If not a material breach, CA should have sought adequate assurance of performance and could itself be in breach by terminating the contract.
Facts matter, as I repeat like a broken record to my students (I guess I should update my reference for the iPod generation) - so it matters what it means to say that SAP failed the test. The LA Times reports that:
"During a trial run involving 1,300 employees....some paychecks went to the wrong person for the wrong amoung. The system canceled some medical coverage and sent child-support payments to the wrong beneficiaries."
Furthermore, because the system sent money to retirement accounts "incorrectly,"' the state had to pay $50,000 in penalties.
Given the late stage of the project, if not a material breach itself, the failed trial seems to at least give rise to a reasonable belief that SAP would breach. What did CA do then? Did it immediately terminate or seek explanations/reassurance?
Another issue is what damages measure is applicable? CA paid SAP $50million dollars but it had incurred much more trying to get the system up and running. It wasn't clear to me whether the $50million dollar amount was the amount paid up to that point, or the total due to SAP. In class, the cases we study regarding breach of contract to provide services typically involve some type of construction contract. The standard measure then would be the difference between the cost of completion and the contract price. But in a situation like this, the cost of completion is a bit funny given the various factors involved - and the period of time it would take to implement a new project (SAP took the project over from a prior contractor). Furthermore, the purpose of the new system wasn't so CA could make money (no loss profit measure applicable here). Given that, the standard expectation measure likely would not be appropriate and a reliance (or restitution) measure makes more sense. Not surprisingly, CA is seeking recovery of the $50million dollars paid.
What about SAP? Will it claim that it substantially performed? I don't think it can with a straight face, but again, I am only basing my conclusion upon the facts contained in the newspaper article. Will SAP seek restitution for the reasonable value of its services to CA? It very well may, (and any students reading this, should raise it on an exam...) since it has spent three years on this project. Based upon the information in the article, it doesn't sound as though CA received any benefit from the services rendered. If SAP is determined to be the breaching party, it may not get awarded anything. The real world problem for SAP is that trying to hang on to money for delivering a system that doesn't work might hurt its reputation even more. And it doesn't help that the other party is a state entity - meaning lots of future potential business at stake. (The LA times noted that SAP projects with other CA entities are not going so well, either).
As is true for other contracts profs, I spend a lot time trying to situate doctrine into a problem solving (or minimizing) scenario since this is how most lawyers deal with contract law. For example, prior to cancelling the contract, the attorneys for the state of CA most likely sat down and discussed its available options under both the contract and contract law. SAP, too, likely reviewed (or is reviewing) its options under the contract and contract law. My guess is that the contract terms probably permit CA to cancel under these circumstances, although a spokesperson for SAP stated that it believed it had "satisfied all contractual obligations in this project."
I'm sure I missed a few things in my quick analysis of ths situation, so feel free to note any other issues in the comments.
February 07, 2013
A Unilateral Contract to "Like"
Shades of Hamer v. Sidway! A man offered his daughter $200 if she quits Facebook for five months. It seems that the daughter was well aware of the irresistible time-wasting hazards of the popular social networking site, but needed an incentive to quit. The father even had her sign a contract. But, as contractsprofs know, it's not the written form that makes the contract but the bargain. Even though quitting Facebook may be better for productivity (as I keep telling my students....), it is still a legal "detriment" so if she's successful, dad should pay up.
February 04, 2013
Did Bill Maher Offer Donald Trump $5mill for Proof that Trump Was Not Born of an Orangutan?
File this under "objective theory" example that even a law professor could not invent.
On national tv Bill Maher challenged Donald Trump to come forward with Trump's birth certificate to prove that Trump was in fact born from a human father (not an orangutan). Apparently Trump provided his birth certificate and then requested that Maher remit the $5 million. The discussion on Fox News: what did Donald Trump reasonably believe? Was this an offer to enter into a unilateral contract? Watch it here:
Who wins: Trump or Maher?
[Meredith R. Miller h/t Steven Crosley]
January 30, 2013
A New Stambovsky?
[Edited: Apologies to my co-blogger, Nancy Kim, for posting this before reading our own blog to see that she already covered it. I'll keep this up for the links to the cases but please read Nancy's post for a more in-depth analysis of the materiality issue.]
For professors who teach nondisclosure as a "reason not to enforce a contract," (that's what the book I use calls "defenses"), Stambovsky v. Ackley often is a favorite case due its entertaining facts. In the case, the buyers of a Nyack, NY house (pictured) seek to have the contract rescinded due to the home being haunted by poltergeists. The haunted condition was known by the sellers but was not disclosed to the buyers.
I am particularly fond of the case in part because the opinion is filled with puns such as, "[I]n his pursuit of a legal remedy for fraudulent misrepresentation against the seller, plaintiff hasn't a ghost of a chance, [however,] I am nevertheless moved by the spirit of equity to allow the buyer to seek rescission of the contract of sale and recovery of his down payment.". Puns aside, the case is instructive because it helps students understand the difference between nondisclosure versus misrepresentation and gets some students to question their faith in caveat emptor. The fact that I teach the case right around Halloween is a nice bonus.
The only potential problem with the case is that it's somewhat dated (yes, something from the 1990s can feel dated to current first-year students). Thankfully, a student of mine from last semester just sent me a link to this newer version of Stambovsky out of Pennsylvania (what do ghosts love about the mid-atlantic states?). In this new dispute, the buyer, a recent widow, is seeking to rescind the contract for sale of a home based on the nondisclosure of a murder-suicide in the home in the same year she agreed to purchase it. The trial court granted summary judgment to the sellers and the appellate court affirmed, finding that, "psychological damage to a property cannot be considered a material defect in the property which must be revealed by the seller to the buyer." The buyer now has appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. No one knows how that court will exorcise its discretion (ba-dum-bum).
[Heidi R. Anderson]
January 29, 2013
Murder-suicide and the new homeowner
A Pennsylvania homeowner is suing the seller of the house and a real estate agent, claiming fraud and misrepresentation, for failing to tell her that the home she recently purchased had been the scene of a murder-suicide the previous year. The homeowner had moved to Pennsylvania from California with her two children after her husband's death. She learned of the murder-suicide from a neighbor, several weeks after moving in. You can read about it here.
I don't know about you, but I think a murder suicide is pretty material, although there aren't enough facts here to indicate whether the seller and agent deliberately concealed the fact or whether the buyer inquired as to any unusual events happening in the house.... With respect to the seller, it might be one of those "tough luck" situations where the law just doesn't help the buyer even if the court feels sympathetic toward the buyer's situation. It's not clear whether the agent is the buyer's agent - if so, the agent should have disclosed this as a fiduciary. But it's more likely that the agent was actually the seller's agent, and not the agent of the buyer or a dual agent. (Got that? Just because someone has the word "agent" in their job title doesn't make that person your agent. Who is paying the commission? When in doubt about where the agent's loyalties lie - ASK the agent).
The lesson here - especially relevant given the recent rise in home sales - is BUYER BEWARE. I wonder if a quick online search of the address would have uncovered the grisly events that took place in it. It would probably be prudent for all potential home buyers to expressly ask, "Did anything unusual ever happen in this house that we should know about such as any crimes?" A buyer should also ask how long the current sellers have lived in the house and why they are moving. [In this case, such a question probably wouldn't have helped the homeowner. The immediate sellers were not the owners of the house when the murder-suicide took place, but subsequent owners who bought it, presumably at a low price given what had just happened in it, and then turned around and sold it to the out-of-state buyer]. The seller's failure to disclose in a situation where the buyer has specifically asked is entirely different from a failure to affirmatively disclose unasked for (albeit material) information.
N.B. Under California real estate law (which imposes a duty to disclose facts materially affecting the value of real property where the facts would be hard to uncover), the result would probably have been different. See Reed v. King, 145 Cal. App. 3d 261 (1983) involving a failure to disclose a multiple murder by a home seller. Interesting, given that the PA home buyer was from California and might have expected a bit more from the seller based upon her real estate experiences there...
January 15, 2013
Conde Nast and Writers Rights
The N.Y. Times reports that Conde Nast has issued new contracts to its writers with changes that diminish their right to profits from articles. Conde Nast is the publisher for magazines like Wired, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. (You remember magazines, right? They’re printed on paper and you can usually find them at airports. Unlike newspapers, they don’t leave inky residue on your fingers). Conde Nast writers typically lack job security and benefits, signing one-year contracts – but they are (or were) allowed to keep the rights to their work. These rights could be valuable if an article becomes a movie, like “Argo” or “Brokeback Mountain.” Under the new contracts, however, Conde Nast has exclusive rights to articles for periods of time ranging from thirty days to one year and option rights where payments to the writer top out at $5K. If the article is turned into a movie, there is also a cap on what writers can receive.
It would be easy for me to demonize Conde Nast given my association with writers. Yet, it’s no secret that the demand for glossies is diminishing and that publishers need to figure out a way to monetize their content better – otherwise, there won’t be any magazine writers at all. Perhaps Conde Nast could bargain employee benefits for these rights, the way newspapers do. Maybe they could increase the cap based on different variables. Maybe they could lift the exclusivity for certain writers after a period of time (or a designated number of successes). Maybe they could commission articles that they conceived in-house, so that the work is a traditional work for hire, and the cap isn’t tied to an idea that originated with the writer. In any event, it’s clear that Conde Nast needs to evolve with the marketplace; what’s not so clear is that this is the way to do it.
December 19, 2012
Thoughts on the Instagram Kerfuffle
Stop me if you've heard this one before - Facebook changes its Terms in a way that its users find offensive and invasive of their privacy. Uproar ensues and Facebook promises that the changes are harmless and everyone is just overreacting. Facebook backs off, a little, and then pushes the boundaries a little further next time, regaining even more ground against its users. Sound familiar?
I think the public backlash is a very good thing since it reminds companies that there are at least some people who are reading their online agreements. Unfortunately, they are usually only reading the terms of companies that already have a monopoly in the marketplace. It's not easy for unhappy Facebookers, Googlers or Instagramers to pick up their content and go elsewhere - where would they go?
What makes my skin crawl, however, is the misleading reassurances doled out by companies when they are called on their online agreements. Instagram, for example, states on its blog that users shouldn't fear, because it respects them, really it does:"Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed. We respect that there are creative artists and hobbyists alike that pour their heart into creating beautiful photos, and we respect that your photos are your photos. Period.
I always want you to feel comfortable sharing your photos on Instagram and we will always work hard to foster and respect our community and go out of our way to support its rights."
While it may be true that Instagram users own their content, Instagram does take a pretty broad license from its users:
As Instagram knows, it doesn't need to own your content in order to use it as if it owned it. All it needs is a broad license, like the one it has. Note that it has the right to "use" the content - and doesn't define what that means or restrict that use very much.
- "provide personalized content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing
- provide, improve, test, and monitor the effectiveness of our Service
- develop and test new products and features
- monitor metrics such as total number of visitors, traffic, and demographic patterns"
I found this sentence particularly sneaky:
"We will not rent or sell your information to third parties outside Instagram (or the group of companies of which Instagram is a part) without your consent, except as noted in this Policy"
Did you like the "except as noted in this Policy" ? And, as Contracts profs know, "consent" means something other than what a layperson might think - it can mean just using a website in many cases. There is similar broad language here:
"We may also share certain information such as cookie data with third-party advertising partners. This information would allow third-party ad networks to, among other things, deliver targeted advertisements that they believe will be of most interest to you."
I'm not as concerned about the targeted advertisements (which doesn't mean I'm not concerned at all) as I am about the "such as" and "among other things."
And remember, the Terms do expressly state:
"Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you."
The company reassures its users, on its blog that it is not their "intention" to "sell" user photos. The company says it is working on language to make that clear. Let's hope so, but my guess is that they are probably going to use more mealy language like "at the moment" or "sell as a good defined under the UCC," or something that leaves wide open the possibility that it can make money off user photos by selling them to third party advertisers.
I'd suggest you save Granny some embarrassment and delete that photo now.
October 25, 2012
Can You Trump This Unilateral Contract Offer?
Although I am loathe to increase publicity for someone as publicity-hungry as "The Donald," I am confident that our loyal readers will permit me this one post. A few first semester Contracts students sent me a link to the above video and suggested that this was a great example of an offer to enter into a reward-style unilateral contract. I told them I'd oblige them and post it here. It clearly identifies the one person who can accept, the manner and mode of acceptance, and the performance sought in return for Trump's promise. In case you've been living under a rock ignoring anything political lately, the performance he seeks is President Obama's submission of passport and college application records (which Trump reportedly believes indicate a place of birth of Kenya). The offered reward is Trump's promise to donate $5 million to a charity of the president's choice.
The president's fantastic response from The Tonight Show is posted below.
Not to be outdone, Stephen Colbert has offered up his own reward, the nature of which was, well...see for yourself (viewer discretion strongly advised).
[Heidi R. Anderson]
October 11, 2012
Sausage or Pepperoni?
On the way in to work this morning, I heard on the radio that Pizza Hut is making an offer for a unilateral contract (okay, that’s not exactly the way the d.j. put it, but anyway…). The offer is free pizza for life to anyone who manages to ask either one of the presidential candidates during the town hall debate, “Do you prefer sausage or pepperoni on your pizza?” The debate will take place October 16 at Hofstra University. (It turns out that the offer is not actually “free pizza for life” it’s actually a $520/year gift card for up to 30 years). A silly contest, of course -- but a good example to illustrate the difference between a unilateral and bilateral contract and related issues having to do with effective offers and acceptances. Often, it doesn’t really matter if an offeree accepts by performing by by promising to perform– but in some cases (i.e. bets, dares), it really does. I used to refer to the bet in the book, HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS to explain the difference between a unilateral and bilateral contract (15 worms in 15 days for $50). This year I might use the more election -season- friendly example of the Pizza Hut offer.
October 09, 2012
Challenge to Religious Arbitral Bodies Referred to European Court of Justice
As reported in The Guardian here, a challenge to a series of UK rulings permitting parties to specify the religion of their arbitrator is being referred to the European Court of Justice. The UK Supreme Court case at issue, Jivraj v. Hashwani, was decided in July 2011. The two parties to the dispute are members of the Ismaili Muslim community, and they agreed that any disputes involving their joint venture would be decided by an arbitrator who belonged to that same community.
The parties fell out and, after some complicated litigation, their chosen arbitrator resigned. Hashwani wanted to replace the Ismaili arbitrator with a retired judge, but Jivraj objected that the nomineed was not Ismaili. Hashwani contended that the part of the paties agreement specifying the ethnicity of the arbitrator is s unenforceable under European legislation and the Equality Act 2010 because it unfairly discriminates against non-Ismaili arbitrators. The Supreme Court ruled in Jivraj's favor, finding that the Equality Act does not apply to arbitrators and, even if it did, the requirement that the arbiter be Ismaili was a "genuine occupational requirement" and thus permissible.
A new, Ismaili arbiter was appointed, but he too resigned, and Hashwani then asked the European Commission to refer the issue to the European Court of Justice. Given that the dispute is clearly commercial, rather than religious in nature, Hashwani believes that there is no need for the arbitrator to be from the Isamili Islamic community. The Guardian suggests that an ECJ ruling could have far-reaching consequences for religious arbitration, but it would seem that there is room for a narrow holding that religious arbitration is perfectly appropriate when there are issues of religious law to be adjudicated.
[JT, with hat tip to my student, Alex Seciuch]