ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Chip, Joanna, and Their HGTV Contract's Non-Compete Provision

I spent my Thanksgiving fretting about net neutrality, so I thought for my first blog entry back from the holiday I'd let us indulge in a bit of speculation about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their future plans. My love for HGTV is well-known to my Contracts students, as I am constantly mining it for hypos, so I read with interest this Vanity Fair piece stating that Chip and Joanna from "Fixer Upper" have pitched another show to other networks. The article notes that Chip and Joanna's contract with HGTV's parent company probably prohibits them from doing another home-improvement show for another network, so it speculates that they're pitching some other type of show, possibly a talk show. 

Would you watch Chip and Joanna do a non-home-improvement show? What kind of show? And do you think networks will successfully negotiate for broader non-competes to keep their stars off competing networks altogether in the future? 

November 28, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Weinstein Protection Machine Was Fueled by Contracts

I mean, our entire society is filled with contracts, so it's no surprise that Harvey Weinstein was surrounded by a web of contracts designed to protect himself from accusations. Not just the NDAs I've previously discussed, but also contracts with his lawyer and with the investigators they hired. Not to the mention the interaction between his contracts with the National Enquirer's publisher and the National Enquirer's information. Because Dylan Howard at the National Enquierer's publisher considered himself to have to act in Weinstein's best interests because of other business deals, it affected the way National Enquirer used the information gained by its reporters. 

You can read the whole story here. It's extremely lengthy and I have not done it justice at all in this tiny blog entry, but it's got a lot about contracts there: what they said, why they existed, what was being done under them, etc. Just...a lot of contracts. All of them to keep people silent. 

November 9, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Al Hirschfeld's art galleries didn't have the right to reproduce giclees

A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Al Hirschfeld Foundation v. The Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., 16 Civ. 4135 (PAE) (the decision is behind a paywall, but you can read a news account of it here), is another contract interpretation case, this one involving a contract between the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and the art galleries that represented him. There are many things at issue in the case, among them the galleries' sale of giclees, "high-quality photostatic reproductions of existing works." The Foundation argued that the Galleries did not have the right under the contract to sell these giclees. The Galleries of course argued that they did. 

The contract language at issue was a clause giving the Galleries the ability to reproduce works "in connection with [the Galleries'] promotion, advertising and marketing in furtherance of [the Galleries'] rights under this . . . Agreement." But the court found that this was a limited carve-out that did not extend to giclees. The reproductions done under this clause were meant to further the rights of the Galleries, not to be freestanding rights, which the giclees were. There was no indication that the parties intended the Galleries' ability to reproduce works to be extended to include the giclees

There were lots of other issues in this case. I've just confined myself to this one in the interest of space. 

November 4, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Court finds terms are not ambiguous when their dictionary definitions are consistent with the contract

We just finished talking about contractual ambiguity in my contracts class, so I was happy to see this recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, SAS Institute, Inc. v. World Programming Ltd. ("WPL"), No. 16-1808 No: 16-1857 (behind paywall), discussing that very issue in the context of a software license agreement. This is actually part of a much larger case with important copyright implications for computer software code, but, given the subject matter of this blog, I'm focusing on the contract claims. You can read the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the copyright questions here

Among other things, the parties were fighting over the interpretation of a few of the contractual terms between them. However, the court reminded us that mere disputes over the meaning of a contract does not automatically mean that language is ambiguous. In fact, the court found here based on ordinary dictionary definitions that none of the terms were ambiguous. 

First, the parties were fighting over a prohibition on reverse engineering. The court looked to dictionary definitions of "reverse engineering" to arrive at a definition that also made sense in the context of the contract. WPL tried to introduce extrinsic evidence on the meaning of the term but the court found there was no reason to turn to extrinsic evidence since the term was not ambiguous. 

The parties were next fighting over the meaning of the license being for "non-production purposes only." The court construed this to have its "ordinary meaning" as forbidding "the creation or manufacture of commercial goods." WPL argued that the phrase had a technical meaning in the software industry, but the court did not find that the parties had intended to use this technical meaning. The dictionary definitions supported the court's construction of the phrase as unambiguous. 

November 1, 2017 in Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Culpability of NDAs in Perpetuating Sexual Assault Culture

In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, everyone is talking about it: NDAs seem to be part of the problem. They were used consistently to silence people from speaking out. The NDA seemed to be how you could get away with it, as Weinstein's last-ditch offer to Rose McGowan to keep the lid on the story seems to illustrate. You can read criticisms of NDAs at Vox, Variety (and again), CNN (and again), the New York Daily News, Above the Law, and Forbes. And that was just my first page of Google results. I've been blogging about the danger of them for a while. It's not just the rich and powerful using them; college campuses are also using them in the sexual assault context. And they're not just being used to cover up sexual abuse; Amber Heard's NDA restricted her from apparently ever even mentioning domestic abuse at all. It's easy to see why NDAs are popular among the powerful (the President also loves them). They allow complete and total control of the narrative. An NDA can make it a legal breach for you to tell the truth; an NDA can indeed make it legally enforceable for you to lie, basically. And, in this way, the fuzzy line between truth and fiction becomes fuzzier and fuzzier. And people get victimized and feel alone and the culture of contractual silence makes them lonelier, depriving them of support systems. 

NDAs also exist for lots of valid and important reasons. But they are also being widely and abusively used and we as a society need to confront that. The question isn't why less powerful people sign these NDAs. Until we can fix power imbalances (and we're a long way from that), it's always going to happen. But we should really question the public policy justifications for NDAs in certain circumstances. These past couple of weeks have spotlighted lots of troubling systemic issues in our society. This is one of them. 

October 30, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Whitefish Energy - Strongarming Puerto Rico into Contractual Acceptance and Compliance?

As reported on The Hill and in several other national and international news outlets, tiny Montana energy company Whitefish Energy – located in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s very small hometown – stands to profit greatly from its contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. That’s fine, of course. However, highly questionable issues about the contract have surfaced recently.   For example, Whitefish very famously prohibited various government bodies from “audit[ing] or review[ing] the cost and profit elements of the labor rates specified herein.” DNHKNDgW4AACWYJ

What were those? The Washington Post reports that under the contract, “the hourly rate was set at $330 for a site supervisor, and at $227.88 for a ‘journeyman lineman.’ The cost for subcontractors, which make up the bulk of Whitefish’s workforce, is $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319.04 for a lineman. Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.” Another news source notes that “[t]he lowest-paid workers, according to the contract, are making $140.26 an hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in Puerto Rico is $7.25 an hour … [T]he average salary for a journeyman electrical lineman is $39.03 per hour in the continental U.S. However, a journeyman lineman on Whitefish Energy's Puerto Rico project will earn $277.88 per hour.”

Little wonder why the company did not want anyone to “audit or review” its labor rates. If it wasn’t for the apparent “old boy”/geographical connections that seemed to have led to this contract to have been executed in the first place, hopefully no Puerto Rican official would have accepted this contract in the form in which it was drafted.

But it doesn’t end there. When the San Juan mayor called for the deal to be “voided” and investigated, Whitefish representatives tweeted to her, “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”

To me, this entire contract to violate several established notions of contract law such as, perhaps, undue influence or duress (in relation to contract formation but perhaps also, if possible, to continued contractual performance), bad faith, perhaps even unconscionability, which is a alive and well in many American jurisdictions.

This could work as an interesting and certainly relevant issue-spotter for our contracts students. It also gives one a bad taste in the mouth for very obvious reasons. It will be interesting to see how this new instance of potentially favoring contractual parties for personal reasons will pan out.

October 29, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, Government Contracting, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Twitter's Discretion in Its Terms of Service and the Way We Define Words

If you're a person who spends time on Twitter, you might be aware that it's been a manic week on the platform (although every week is a manic week on Twitter; it's 2017). As the news broke about Harvey Weinstein's pattern of multiple sexual assaults, Rose McGowan added to the many allegations and tweeted an accusation of rape against him. Later, McGowan's Twitter account was suspended. The reaction to this suspension was swift and furious by many of the platform's users. Twitter later clarified that it suspended her account because she had posted a personal phone number (in violation of Twitter's policies) but for a while the exact reason was unclear, and many users complained that it was more of Twitter's selective enforcement of its policies.

I'm about to settle in to teach contract ambiguity and rules of interpretation, and looking through Twitter's policies I'm reminded of how important it is that we keep our human biases in mind when defining words. Twitter's policies--which we all agree to through Twitter's Terms of Use--give the company a lot of discretion in how the policies get applied: "We may suspend an account if it has been reported to us as violating our Rules surrounding abuse" (emphasis added); "Some of the factors that we may consider when evaluating abusive behavior include . . . ." (emphasis added); "Keep in mind that although you may consider certain information to be private, not all postings of such information may be a violation of this policy. . . . We may consider the context and nature of the information posted, local privacy laws, and other case-specific facts when determining if this policy has been violated" (emphasis added). Aside from the discretion, though, is the issue of how words like "harassment" and "abusive behavior" are even getting defined. It's clear from the very public debates that have been erupting recently that there is a different view of that depending on which gender, race, and ethnic identity you ask. To take just one example, the discussion around telling women to smile indicates that many women find this harassing while many men don't see what the big deal is. Twitter might be deliberately selectively applying its policies but it also might just be defining its policies in a way that leads to selective enforcement because of the particular worldview of the people making the decisions. This means, dangerously, that they might sincerely believe they're applying rules neutrally, without recognizing any built-in bias. 

Social media's increasing reliance on algorithms to handle the speech going on on the sites has lots of problems, and as more and more public discourse collides up against more and more opaque policies, it seems like a problem that's only going to get worse. We should think about these issues, and we should especially think about them as we teach our students how to interpret the contracts that govern our lives: we all have an entrenched viewpoint that should be critically examined rather than blithely assume our own neutrality. 

In the meantime, I'm going to post this blog and then tweet to tell you all about it, because that's the way we communicate in today's society, and I'm going to have to agree to Twitter's policies to do it, and I'm going to hope these policies let me make the tweet, something that many of us take for granted but that is definitely not guaranteed. Our contracts are never as clear as we hope. 

October 13, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Fraud and Bad Faith No Excuse for Liability in Related Contract

The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals has held that conduct tending to show fraud and bad faith in relation to one contract is not an excuse for not performing in a closely related contract.

Dr. Halterman signed a recruitment agreement, an employment contract, and a promissory note in the amount of $50,000 as a “signing advance” – a loan - for his upcoming work as a doctor with the Johnson Regional Medical Center (“JRMC”). The recruitment agreement stipulated that the monthly payments on the signing advance would be forgiven so long as Dr. Halterman’s employment at JRMC “continued.” It did not. Five months into his employment, Dr. Halterman quit, citing to, i.a., JRMC’s fraudulent misrepresentations in negotiating his call-coverage obligations and bad faith in that respect. Dr. Halterman had also suffered a shoulder injury that both parties at one point agreed would result in him not being able to do all the work for JRMC that the parties had originally agreed upon.

JRMC claimed repayment of $37,894 still owed by Dr. Halterman when he resigned without, in the hospital’s opinion, a “legal defense.” Dr. Halterman sought to excuse himself from having to repay the remainder of the loan.

The appellate court agreed with JRMC that Dr. Halterman’s obligations to pay the remaining debt were not excused by his allegations (or eventual proof) of fraud or breach of the duty of good faith in the employment contract. An executory contract procured by fraud is not binding on the party against whom the fraud has been perpetrated. Here, Dr. Halterman sought not to perform under the employment contract, but the court found that the loan agreement was an entirely separate contract that thus still had to be performed.

This situation could have been avoided with more legally apt language, of course. Such language could have included express conditions stating that the loan was not to be repaid under a set of circumstances covering, for example, fraud. However, I find it troublesome that the legal effects of three contracts that clearly were meant to relate to and arguably depend on each other were separated decisively as the court did here. In fact, the parties disagreed on whether the three executed documents should be considered separately or as one single contract. The court analyzed the employment contract as separate from the recruitment agreement and note, which were treated as one. That may or may not make sense. Granted, it may make sense that sophisticated parties such as these could simply, if they had intended one single legally binding contract to arise, have worded their documents accordingly. On the other hand, it does not make much common sense to find that a “recruitment” contract is entirely different from an “employment” contract; the two are clearly connected. If fraud has arisen, is not the result of the above that the party acting fraudulently – the hospital, allegedly – can if not outright recover from a fraud, then at least avoid losses from it? Although I do agree with the outcome here, it seems like it to me that some troublesome aspects of this finding remain, namely that an employer apparently got away with broken employment promises fairly scot-free. That’s not fair.

The case is Johnson Regional Medical Center v. Dr. Robert Halterman, 867 F.3d 1013 (Eighth Cir. Ct. of App. 2017).

October 4, 2017 in Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reminder that silence generally doesn't constitute acceptance

The allegations of this recent case out of the Northern District of California, Consumer Opinion LLC v. Frankfort News Corp., Case No. 16-cv-05100-BLF (behind paywall), are fascinating. Basically, Consumer Opinion owned a consumer review website and alleged that Defendants provided "reputation management" services by which Defendants copied the contents of Consumer Opinion's website, back-dated these contents so that it would look like Defendants' site pre-dated the Consumer Opinion website posting, and then asserted that the Consumer Opinion website was infringing their copyright. Such, at least, were the allegations in the complaint. (You can read the complaint here. You can also read the order on Consumer Opinion's TRO motion here and the order on Consumer Opinion's motion for early discovery here.)

The parties had discussed settlement, and in the current motion Consumer Opinion moved to enforce a settlement agreement between it and Defendant Profit Marketing, Inc. The problem? They never reached any such agreement. First Consumer Opinion tried to argue that Profit Marketing agreed to settle for $50,000 but Profit Marketing's lawyer's last communication on the matter read, "Well I can't agree without my clients consent but that sounds fine to me. I'll get their approval when I talk to them today." As I've been teaching my students as we walk through offer and acceptance, this statement betrayed a lack of authority to enter into a present commitment ("I can't agree without my client's consent."). 

Consumer Opinion then tried to argue that Profit Marketing agreed to settle for $35,000. However, its proof of this was a general e-mail whereby one of Profit Marketing's other attorneys expressed openness to pursuing settlement, followed by several replies by Consumer Opinion that were never responded to. Eventually, in the face of the continuing silence from Profit Marketing's attorney, Consumer Opinion asserted that if it got no response by 5 pm, it would move to enforce the settlement agreement. It got no response, and this motion followed. 

The court refused to read Profit Marketing's attorney's silence as acceptance of Consumer Opinion's settlement offer. Rather, Profit Marketing's lack of response indicated that it never accepted the offer, and so there was no binding settlement agreement between the parties. 

October 2, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Super Bowl commercial pitch copyright claim survives, but not the contract ones

A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Betty, Inc. v. Pepsico, Inc., No. 16-CV-4215 (KMK) (behind paywall), tackles a fairly common issue: Often people make pitches based on ideas they have. Ideas aren't copyrightable, so often the only protection people have is contract-based. But, also often, they don't actually have a written contract, so they have to rely on an implied-in-fact contract theory. However, as this case reiterates, an implied-in-fact contract is more than just a conclusory allegation that "oh, we had an agreement that they'd pay me something for my pitch." 

The case in question involves an advertising agency, Betty, who pitched a commercial to Pepsi for use in the Super Bowl. Pepsi invited Betty to participate in a telephone pitch meeting, during which Pepsi provided the "general outline of what it envisioned for the Super Bowl commercial," followed by a more formal face-to-face presentation. At the presentation, Betty presented eight different ideas and provided Pepsi with a USB drive with some concepts contained on it. Pepsi allegedly reacted favorably and asked for more details about some of the concepts. 

About a month later, Pepsi informed Betty that it had decided to go in another direction with the commercial. However, when Betty saw the commercial during the Super Bowl, it thought it was substantially similar to one of the concepts it had pitched to Pepsi. The decision itself is behind a paywall but the lawsuit's filing was reported in some outlets.

This lawsuit followed, alleging copyright claims as well as a variety of contract-based claims. The breach of contract claim faltered, though. In the complaint, it consisted of just three paragraphs of conclusory allegations that didn't appear to rise to the level of an agreement. In the most generous reading, it sounded like an "agreement to agree" that can't be enforced. The complaint contained absolutely no terms of the contract. The fact that the contract was an implied-in-fact contract didn't excuse the plaintiff from having to allege facts sufficient to allow the court to draw an inference that the parties had entered into a contract based on their conduct and the surrounding facts and circumstances. That didn't happen here. Therefore, the court dismissed the breach of contract claims.  

The copyright infringement claim, though, survived, and the court granted leave to amend on the breach of contract claim, so the plaintiff does live to fight another day. 

(This post has been edited to correct a typo in the previous version. Pepsi provided the "general outline" over the phone, not Betty.)

September 27, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, Sports, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Negotiations falling apart =/= a breach of contract

If you, like me, just taught about letters of intent and also promissory estoppel, then here's a case with both for you, out of the District of Minnesota, City Center Realty Partners v. Macy's Retail Holdings, Civil No. 17-CV-528 (SRN/TNL). (The decision is behind a paywall, but you can read about the background of the lawsuit here.) 

The parties were negotiating a sale of Macy's property in Minneapolis and had executed a Letter of Intent before (predictably, since we're in court) the deal fell apart. City Center brought claims against Macy's, including breach of contract based on the letter of intent. However, Macy's argued that the letter of intent was not binding, and the court agreed. The clauses in the letter of intent referred to a future purchase agreement that was never executed, and so, absent this purchase agreement, the letter of intent only bound the parties in very limited ways. 

City Center also brought a claim that Macy's breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in delaying the finalizing of the transaction. However, the actions that City Center complained about were not things that Macy's was obligated to do. Macy's fulfilled its obligations under the letter of intent and City Center's other allegations of delay and obstruction on Macy's part were not actionable. 

Finally, City Center brought promissory estoppel allegations based on oral statements Macy's made in the context of the parties' negotiations. But the court pointed out that the letter of intent represented the parties' agreements about their negotiations. City Center could not use promissory estoppel to alter the terms of the written contract. And, to the extent that City Center alleged other terms had been agreed upon not written in the letter of intent, the court refused to use promissory estoppel to save the statute of frauds problem (since this was a contract for the sale of land). Under the circumstances here, City Center knew that it and Macy's were engaged in ongoing negotiations that might not pan out. If City Center wanted assurance that Macy's would keep certain promises, it should have had those put in the letter of intent in a binding way. This was not a situation where Macy's had committed some kind of fraud where justice would require the enforcement of Macy's oral statements; it was just a situation where negotiations fell apart in a way that City Center didn't like. That didn't justify the application of promissory estoppel. 

September 18, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 15, 2017

California Outlaws Forced Arbitration Clauses by Banks

On Sept. 12, 2017, Senate Bill 33 was approved by the California Senate and now awaits Governor Brown’s approval before becoming law.

The legislation was designed after the Wells Fargo scandal to block legal the legal tactic of keeping disputes over unauthorized bank accounts out of public court proceedings an favor of private arbitration.

Said the law’s author, Sen. Dodd (D-Napa): “The idea that consumers can be blocked from our public courts when their bank commits fraud and identity theft against them is simply un-American.” It is also clearly unethical and, once again, emphasized how difficult it can be in modern times to strike a fair contractual bargain with a party that has much greater bargaining power than individuals and that uses lengthy and often complex boilerplate contracts with terms few read and understand.

September 15, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Uber Arbitration Clause Win

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to deny Uber’s move to compel arbitration in a contract with one of its passengers, Spencer Meyers.

The district court had found that Meyer did not have reasonably conspicuous notice of Uber’s terms of service (which contained the arbitration clause) when he registered a user, that Meyer did not unambiguously assent to the terms of service, and that Meyer was not bound by the mandatory arbitration provision contained in the terms of service.

The Second Circuit summed up the usual difference between clickwrap agreements, which require a user to affirmatively click on a button saying “I agree” and which are typically upheld by courts, and browsewrap agreements, which simply post terms via a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen and which are generally found unenforceable because no affirmative action is required to agree to the terms.

In the case, Meyer had been required to click on a radio button stating “Register,” not “I agree.” But in contrast to browsewrap agremeents, Uber also informed Meyer and other users that by creating an account, they were bound to its terms. Uber did so via a hyperlink to the terms on the payment screen.

Meyer nonetheless claimed that he had not noticed or read the terms. The Court thus analyzed whether he was at least on inquiry notice of the arbitration clause because of the hyperlink to the terms. This was the case, found the court, because the payment screen was uncluttered with only fields for the user to enter his or her payment details, buttons to register for a user account, and the warning and related hyperlink. Further, the entire screen was visible at once and the text was in dark blue print on a bright white background. Thus, the fact that the font size was small was not so important.

Mayer was bound to the arbitration clause because he had assented to that term after getting “reasonably objective notice.”

The case is Meyer v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. 16-2750 (2d Cir. 2017).

 

September 12, 2017 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Crumbling foundations are happening all over Connecticut, and the insurance policy fights are underway

I'd been seeing a lot of insurance cases come across my alert dealing with crumbling house foundations in the District of Connecticut. This one, Roberts v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., No. 3:13-cv-00435 (SRU) (behind paywall), tells us why. Apparently it's part of an epidemic across Connecticut that so far has affected at least four hundred homes and may ultimately affect as many as 34,000 (!). The mix used in the concrete to pour these foundations contained a naturally existing mineral called pyrrhotite that degrades rapidly, causing the issues the homeowners are seeing. You can read more about this horrible situation here

The Robertses are one of the homeowners caught up in the deteriorating foundation issue. They brought a claim under their homeowners' insurance policy, which was denied because the policy excluded coverage based on faulty construction, which Liberty Mutual explained was the problem at issue with the foundation. However, the policy did cover loss due to defective construction if it resulted in "collapse." The issue in this case revolved around the definition of the word "collapse." The Robertses claimed the cracks in the foundations will eventually cause the walls to give way and collapse and so they should be covered. 

The insurance policy did not define the term "collapse," and previous Connecticut precedent had found the term in homeowners insurance contracts to be ambiguous. Because insurance contracts are construed against the insurance company, these courts had concluded that "collapse" could be something beyond just "a catastrophic breakdown" to include the "substantial impairment of the structural integrity of a building." But what does "substantial impairment" mean? Does it mean the building has to be in "imminent danger" of falling to the ground? Precedent suggested no. Connecticut courts had allowed recovery under "collapse" where the house never caved in and indeed the homeowners continued to live in it. So this court concluded that "substantial impairment" means that the building would cave in without repair to the damage. The judge found that there were factual disputes in this case involving whether the Robertses' home was in this state and thus summary judgment was inappropriate. 

This series of cases is painful to read and made me walk around my house worrying about what's not covered by my howeowners insurance that could destroy it...

September 5, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Is Amazon Selling Products or Services?

As first reported on Above the Law, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that Amazon is nothing but a simple purveyor of “online services” and does not make “sales” of goods. Although the issue in the case was one of intellectual property infringement and thus not the UCC, the differentiation between “goods” and “services” is also highly relevant to the choice of law analyses that our students will have to do on the bar and practitioners in real life. Unknown

How did the Court come to its somewhat bizarre decision? Amazon, as you know, sells millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of tangible, physical products ranging from toilet paper to jewelry, books to toys, and much, much more. They clearly enter into online sales contracts with buyers and exchange the products for money. “Amazon” is the name branded in a major way in these transactions whereas the names of the actual sellers – where these differ from Amazon itself – are listed in much smaller font sizes. Often, it is Amazon itself that packages and ships the products to the buyers, whereas at other times, third party buyers are responsible for the shipping. Amazon “consummates” the sale when the buyer clicks the link that says “buy” on the Amazon website. Amazon then processes the payments and receives quite significant amounts of money for this automated process.

Clearly a “sale,” right? Nope. I guess “a sale is not a sale when a court says so.” As regards the IP dispute, the crucial issue was whether or not Amazon could control the acts of the third-party vendors. You would think that even that would clearly be the case given the enormous control Amazon has over what is marketed on its website and how this is done. Amazon, however, argued that it sells so many items that it cannot possibly police all of them. Thus, it won on its argument that it was not liable under IP law for a knock-off item that had been sold on the Amazon website as the real product (cute animal-shaped pillowcases). Unknown

Had this been an issue of contracts law and had the court still found that the transaction was not a sale of goods under UCC Art. 2, would it have erred? Arguably so. Under the “predominant factor test” used in many, if not most, jurisdictions, courts look at a variety of factors such as the language of the contract, the final product (or service) bought and sold, cost allocation, and the general circumstances of the case. When you buy an item on Amazon, it is true that you obtain the service of being able to shop from your computer and not a physical location, but at the end of the day, it is still the product that you want and buy, not the service. Apart from the relatively small service fee (which gets deducted from the price paid to the seller), the largest percentage of the sales price is for the product. Modernly, online buyers have become so used to that “service” being provided that it is arguably not even that much of a service anymore; it is just a method enabling buyers to buy… the product. Clearly, it seems to me, a “sale” under Art. 2.

Again, this was not a UCC issue, but it does still show that courts apparently still produce rather odd holdings in relation to e-commerce, even in 2017.

The case is Milo & Gabby LLC v. Amazon.com, Inc., (Fed. Cir. 2017)

August 24, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 21, 2017

"We Built This City" (that was just to give you the earworm)

This case, out of the Northern District of California, Chaquico v. Freiberg, Case No. 17-cv-02423-MEJ, concerns a fairly common entertainment law issue that results when bands lose and gain members: who gets to still use the band name? Jefferson Starship has a fairly rocky naming history, having originally been called Jefferson Airplane and later morphing into Starship after a prior fight over the name. Because band name ownership can be a tricky thing to decide under intellectual property law, and because it might result in rulings that the band members (current and former) might not like, bands frequently try to handle these disputes by contract. Like with any contract, the efficacy of this approach differs based on the wording of the particular contract, which is what happens with the contract claims in this case: based on wording and timing and the interplay of other contracts, the court dismisses all of them but those that happened after January 2016.  

(If you're interested in this sort of thing, Rebecca Tushnet writes up another of these cases, this one involving the band Boston.)

August 21, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Los Angeles Allegedly Violates Free Speech Rights with Entertainment Contracts

Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles is an outdoor area that is regularly the home of free summer concerts and demonstrations of various kinds throughout the year. You would think you could snap as many photos as you wanted of events there since it is an outdoor, public area, right? Cropped_26394084682_722974dd19_k.0

This past summer, the answer was no. A photojournalist wanted to take pictures of, among others, the B-52s. However, he was informed of a policy that had been set up with the performers per contractual agreement. The policy barred professional photography equipment, albeit not cell phone usage, from the square during concerts.

ACLU has complained to the Los Angeles City Attorney and the General Manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, claiming that the city does not have a right to contract away the general public’s First Amendment rights because some performers want it that way.

How do you see contractual rights intersecting with the First Amendment in the government contracting context? Comment below!

August 20, 2017 in Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Miscellaneous, Music, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Brian O'Conan Hypo

Having disappeared for a couple of weeks into frantic preparation for the new semester, I thought I would re-emerge by sharing a hypo that I do with my students on the first day of class, based on Conan O'Brien's contract dispute with NBC from a few years ago. The hypo goes something like this: 

Brian O’Conan is a comedic host who has helmed a show on CBN, Later at Night, for sixteen years. Later at Night airs at 12:30, and Brian has always wanted to “move up” in the world of late night hosts to host a show at the earlier time of 11:30. Five years ago, in order to keep Brian at the network, CBN promised to give Brian hosting duties for its legendary 11:30 show, Somewhat Late at Night, as soon as Len Jayo’s current contract was up. Somewhat Late at Night is a flagship show that has aired in its time slot on CBN for 43 years; prior to that, it started at 11:15 for 14 years. For its entire 57-year existence, Somewhat Late at Night has begun directly after the late local news.

Brian and CBN enter into a contract with the following terms:

  • Brian is guaranteed that he will be the host of Somewhat Late at Night.
  • Both Brian and CBN promise to act in good faith in executing the contract.
  • Both parties will mitigate any damages caused by a breach of contract, but CBN agrees that it will pay Brian $40 million if it breaches the contract.
  • Brian is prohibited from being a late-night host on any other network in the event of a breach of the contract.

As promised by the contract, Brian becomes host of Somewhat Late at Night. After a strong start, Brian’s ratings trail off. Six months into Brian’s stint as host, CBN makes a public announcement that Somewhat Late at Night will be moved to start at midnight. It will use the 11:30 time slot for a new late-night show with old Somewhat Late at Night host Len Jayo.

Brian, learning all of this for the first time from the public announcement, tells CBN it has breached the contract, demands payment of $40 million, and also opens discussions with a competing network, Wolf, to host a new late night show at 11:30.

***

I like this hypo because, even though it was several years ago now, most students recognize the real-life situation this problem was based on and so feel somewhat engaged with it. In addition, even though I have taught them literally nothing about contract law at this point, I think they gain a lot of confidence from being able to examine the problem and come up with ideas for how the analysis should begin. I usually split them up and assign them a side to represent and have them make arguments on their client's behalf, and then allow them time for rebuttal. Along with discussing the contract's terms around the show itself, the students get into discussions about good faith, mitigation of damages, and just basic fairness. When we're done with the discussion, I then ask them how they felt about the side they had been assigned to, and if any of them had wished they'd had the other side. I think it is a good basic introduction to the task of being lawyers that I find relaxes them a little on the first day: If they can already talk about this problem on the first day, imagine how much better they'll be once they know some law!

If you're starting school years like I am, good luck!

August 18, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, Teaching, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Fact-Checking the Snopes Lawsuit

You, like me, might often resort to Snopes to weed through what's true and what's not in the avalanche of information we're exposed to every day. (My most recent Snopes search: can a gift shop upcharge federal postage stamps? The answer is yes!) Recently Snopes turned to its constituents on the Internet to help provide funding to keep the website alive, precipitated by a lawsuit stemming from several contracts between the parties at issue. The whole thing is a matter of messy corporate structure that really seems like it's going to depend on the court's reading of the stock purchase agreement between the parties. Vox has a rundown of the whole situation here (that I'm quoted in). 

August 1, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Make Sure You Use Photos According to the License Agreement

Recently, Procter & Gamble has been sued for copyright infringement based on its use of photographs on packaging. It's not that P&G didn't have a license; it's that P&G allegedly violated the scope of the license. The allegations claim that P&G, trying to keep costs down, negotiated for fairly narrow rights. It makes a ton of sense to do that if that's all you want the photos for. After all, why pay for rights that you're probably not going to utilize? However, the caveat with that is to be sure that you won't want to use the photos beyond what you're negotiating. That's allegedly what P&G did, and why it finds itself the subject of a lawsuit. 

July 27, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)