ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Friday, March 31, 2017

Prison Telephone Service Provider Continues to Lose on Enforcing Arbitration Provision

I have already blogged about a related case out of the Western District of Arkansas, in which the court concluded that prison inmates did not consent to arbitrate when they funded their telephone accounts to enable them to make calls. This case out of the Third Circuit, James v. Global Tellink Corp., No. 16-1555, affirms a similar conclusion by the District of New Jersey. To refresh your memory, GTL provides telephone services to prison inmates. Inmates sign up for accounts and deposit funds into the account, either through GTL's website or through its automated telephone service. When interacting with GTL's automated telephone service, users are alerted that their transactions are governed by the terms of use found online but they are not required to indicate their assent to those terms. Inmates have brought a class action alleging that GTL's charges are unconscionable. GTL moved to compel arbitration based on its online terms of use, but the district court found that those who used GTL's automated telephone service never agreed to be bound by those terms of use. 

The Third Circuit agreed with the district court's conclusion. The subject of how to form a binding contract through interactive telephone services was a new and different one, as most of these cases involve websites these days. GTL argued that the inmates manifested the requisite assent by continuing to use the telephone services after being notified there were terms of use. But the inmates never had to perform any affirmative act to indicate their assent, and they were never told that their continued use alone would constitute such assent. None of the inmates in question who used the automated telephone services had ever taken the necessary extra step to access GTL's website to see the terms of use, so they were never presented with the terms of use or the arbitration provision in question. The inmates simply never received the terms, and were never told that use of the telephone system would bind them to the terms. 

March 31, 2017 in Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 27, 2017

NDAs in the Sexual Assault Context

I've blogged a lot about NDAs on this blog, including in the context of allegations of domestic violence. So when I saw this recent essay on Inside Higher Ed discussing NDAs in the context of sexual assault investigations on university campuses, I thought it would be interesting to link to. Confidentiality provisions show up everywhere, and I think the essay is a thoughtful and important rumination on the effect they can have in some situations. 

March 27, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Law Schools, True Contracts, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Oxford Comma is (Still) Important

In case you have not yet heard about the recent First Circuit Court of Appeals case discussing the legal importance of a comma, here goes: A Maine statute lists the following activities as not counting for overtime pay: Images

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.

Does that mean that drivers can get overtime because driving does count for overtime since “packing” covers both “shipment or distribution”? Or should the sentence be read as “packing for storage” as one thing and “distribution” another, thus precluding the drivers from earning overtime pay?

Circuit judge David J. Barron concluded that “the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”

So, commas still matter. Consider too how “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are a little different. Language aficionados take note! Precise drafting still matters. Was this an outcome-oriented holding? Perhaps. But if so, a holding in favor of workers over a company in a case of interpretive doubt may, in today’s increasingly tough economy for middle and low-income earners, not be such a bad idea from a public policy point of view.

The case is O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901 (1st Cir. 2017).

March 19, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 17, 2017

No Lawsuit for Selling Suboptimally Sized Product

A group of plaintiffs suffering from glaucoma bought eye drops manufactured by six pharmaceutical companies. They claimed that the eye drops were unnecessarily large (no, let’s not go there this time): all drops sold by these manufacturers were larger than 16 microliters (equal to 10% of a tablespoon). The plaintiffs claim that unnecessarily large eye drops are wasteful because the human eye can only contain so much fluid. Anything in excess of that will simply overflow and be wasted, which is a waste of money.

The amount of fluid that the human eye can contain without overflowing varies from person to person. The defendants asserted that the amount often exceeds 16 microliters. Further, the active ingredient in each drop is only about 1% of the drop. The smaller the drop, the less therapeutic effect, they claimed (without explaining why, for example, two drops could not simply be applied by those with larger eyes…). Defendants also claimed that larger drops helps those with unsteady hands, such as the elderly, because “the smaller the drop, the likelier they are to miss.” Now, at least that makes sense… (not!).

As was said on the listserv, this is arguably not even a contract law case at all, especially because no allegation of misrepresentation, breach of contract, or the like was asserted. In the words of opinion author Judge Posner, this is merely a case of “you can do better by us” asserted by plaintiff consumers. “That is all they are arguing.” However, said Posner, “[o]ne cannot bring a suit in federal court without pleading that one has been injured in some way (physically, financially—whatever) by the defendant. That's what's required for standing. The fact that a seller does not sell the product that you want, or at the price you'd like to pay, is not an actionable injury; it is just a regret or disappointment—which is all we have here, the class having failed to allege ‘an invasion of a legally protected interest.’”

So, what do we have here? No contracts violation, perhaps. Consumer fraud under the respective state acts? Apparently not. What we seem to have, however, is another instance of Corporate America taking advantage of consumers with the consent of even the federal judicial appellate system. Of course any product that is larger than what is needed per “portion” is wasteful and thus arguably taking unnecessary advantage of consumers. Whether or not that can be framed as an actionable legal issue in our system is another story altogether, sadly. Even worse: companies do apparently not want to do right by their own customers, in this case often elderly folks going blind! Episode32

This is, of course, not the only instance of needless and blatant consumer fraud (for that is what these instances are, at least in the common, if not the legal, sense of the word). More examples:

  • When you buy lotion, it is next to impossible to get the last, oh, 20% out of those pump-type containers unless you unscrew the pump and pour out the lotion.
  • Almost all perishable food items are sold in much larger portions than what is needed for most of us – think cottage cheese, yoghurt, lunch meats (OK, apart from those itty bitty bags, those are great), milk, you name it. People needing more could just buy two items! (That’s how it’s done with great success in many European countries, but heaven forbid that we ever learn anything from other countries.) The rest of us often have to throw out much of the food as it doesn’t last that long.
  • How about packaging? Huge bags of chips that are only 1/2 full? Same for cereal boxes? Sun screen spray bottles that are also only 1/3 full?
  • OK, I’m in a crappy mood about companies and organizations today, I admit. Of course the capitalist model is the best one, etc. etc. But it would be nice if more companies would focus more on decency, less waste in packaging and eventual product usage, and consumer needs. This eye drop story really is one of forcing consumers to waste product and thus money. Let’s just call a spade a spade.

On an unrelated note: I apologize for being so inactive on this blog for so long. I have had a disappointing contractual work experience that has drained me and continues to do so, frankly. I am trying the hardest I can to find interesting cases to blog about. Should you hear of any, I’d be delighted to be notified. I also invite guest bloggers to blog here with us. As always: thanks to my co-bloggers for their hard and excellent work!

The case described above is Eike, et al. v. Allergan, et al., No. 16-3334 (Seventh Cir. 2017).

Hat tip to my colleagues on the Contracts listserv for discussing this case.

March 17, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inmates Didn't Consent to Be Bound to a Contract Every Time They Used the Telephone

Myanna has already blogged about the problem of inmate telephone rates being set unreasonably high. Myanna's blog post was about a dispute in California but a recent decision out of the Western District of Arkansas, In re Global Tel*Link Corporation ICS Litigation, Case No. 5:14-CV-5275 (behind paywall), deals with the same issue. (There are several of these litigations, as well as other government debates about regulation of these rates.) In the Arkansas decision, the court refuses to compel arbitration. 

Global Tel*Link's allegation was that the inmates consented to the terms of use when they funded their accounts to enable them to make phone calls, and the terms of use contained an arbitration clause. Every time the inmates put money on their accounts with Global Tel*Link, they heard a message similar to the following: 

Please note that your account, and any transactions you complete with GTL or any of its affiliates, are governed by the terms of use and the privacy statement posted at www.connectnetwork.com . The terms of use and the privacy statement were most recently revised on March 30, 2015.

The court determined, however, that a reasonable person would not have understood this message as referring to a contract and as constituting consent to be bound by that contract, since it never used any contract buzzwords like "contract," "consent," "agree," "assent," "offer," "accept," etc. The court said that, as far as the inmate listening to the message was concerned, the terms of use and privacy statements could have been just generally applicable legal rights imposed by regulators. The court characterized Global Tel*Link's behavior as basically hiding the contract ball: Global Tel*Link could have straightforwardly said the inmates were entering into a contract but instead "invite[d] [them] to visit a website where [they] might accidentally stumble across this fact." (I went to connectnetwork.com. The terms of use are located at the bottom of the page and required me to scroll to find them, and I just blogged about a case where the persistent location of the terms of use hyperlink at the bottom of the page didn't constitute enough notice.)

Because the inmates never signed anything, never clicked or punched any button signifying acceptance of contract terms, never had an opportunity to review the terms of use prior to using Global Tel*Link's services, and would not reasonably have understood the message to be referring to contractual terms, the inmates did not assent to the contract and thus are not bound by the contract's arbitration provision. 

March 4, 2017 in Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Iowa Bill Proposal: To Get Faculty Position, Must Have Correct Political Affiliation

Just when you think the political debacle in this country cannot get anymore grotesque, here's a recent proposal by Iowa State Senator March Chelgren: to counter the liberal slant at Iowa's three public universities, the job candidates' political affiliations would have had to be considered.   Why?  To ensure "balanced speech" and avoid the "liberal slant" in public universities these days. 

Under SF 288, the universities would use voter registration information when considering job applicants, and could not make any hire that would cause declared Democrats or Republicans on the faculty to outnumber the other party by more than 10%.

Demonstrating the very deep and logical (not!) argument, check this line of thinking: Chelgren said professors who want to be hired could simply change their party affiliation to be considered for the position.  "We have an awful lot of taxpayer dollars that go to support these fine universities," he said. "(Students) should be able to go to their professors, ask opinions, and they should know publicly whether that professor is a Republican or Democrat or no-party affiliation, and therefore they can expect their answers to be given in as honest a way possible. But they should have the ability to ask questions of professors of different political ideologies."

Duh!

February 26, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink

Thursday, February 23, 2017

No Deal, No Exchange of Money or Possession, No Ownership in Elvis Guitar

The National Music Museum (“NMM”), located in South Dakota, brought suit against Larry Moss and Robert Johnson asking the court to declare it the legal owner of a Martin D-35 guitar formerly owned by Elvis Presley. Images

Moss and Johnson, both interested in collectibles, have been friends for thirty-five years. In 2007, Johnson contacted Moss stating that he may be interested in acquiring three guitars previously owned by Elvis, which included the D-35. Johnson originally was going to negotiate a deal for Moss to buy all three guitars for $95,000 from a third-party seller. In 2007, a two-part contract for $120,000 was finally drafted stating that (1) Moss would pay Johnson $70,000 and take immediate possession of two of the guitars, and (2) that Johnson would deliver two remaining guitars – including the D-35 – in exchange for the remaining $50,000.

At trial, Moss testified about the 2007 interaction and said, “Well, we never had a deal. I never gave him the money. He never gave me any guitars. There was no deal.” Moss’s actions in 2007 and from 2008-2010 are consistent. Moss never asserted title of the Martin D-35 during either time period because Moss did not believe he had title to the guitar. Moss knew he would not own the Martin D-35 until Johnson delivered it and Moss paid him for it. Because delivery never occurred, Moss never acquired title to the Martin D-35.

Nonetheless, in 2013, Moss contacted a friend of Johnson's inquiring about the status of the D-35. Moss then contacted the NMM where the guitar was on display claiming that he owned the D-35. A lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court seeking declaratory judgment on who was the rightful owner of the guitar.

Under Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which is the governing law for Tennessee and South Dakota, “[u]nless otherwise explicitly agreed title passes to the buyer at the time and place at which the seller completes performance with reference to the physical delivery of the goods . . . .” Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-2-401(2) (2008); SDCL 57A-2-401(2). Here, Johnson never physically delivered the Martin D-35 to Moss. Moss never had physical possession of the Martin D-35. Because Johnson never delivered the guitar and Moss never had possession of it, Moss never acquired title to the Martin D-35. Peeps-with-guitar

Furthermore, in spite of Moss's attempt to seek specific performance under a breach of contract theory, the court did not find this persuasive because the contract specifically stated that Moss would not pay the $50,000 balance until there had been delivery of the guitar. Based on the plain text of the contract, delivery was set to be a future date. Additionally, Moss and Johnson exchanged emails for five years, but Moss never asked Johnson to deliver the guitar, nor did he claim to the owner of the guitar. As a result, the court found Johnson had the title to the D-35 guitar, and transferred it to the NMM. Thus, the NMM is the rightful owner of the guitar.

The case is National Shrine Museum; America’s Shrine to Music v. Robert Johnson and Larry Moss.

 

February 23, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Federal Law Bans Gag Clauses

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

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

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

No Class Actions For Investment Fraud Claims in the Eighth Circuit

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

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

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

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

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

Consent to Face Scanning

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

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

HGTV

Photo Source: hgtv.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Contractual Brouhaha in the Fashion World

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

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

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

Faculty Handbook as Contract

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Prince's Complicated Legal Legacy Continues

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

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

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

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

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

Air Force None?

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

Air-force-one-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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