Thursday, March 26, 2015
Some weeks ago, I blogged here about water rights and shortages in drought-ridden California. Of course, California is not the only state where contractual water rights interface with development and public health concerns.
In Ohio, shale driller Gulfport Energy recently filed suit against the town of Barnesville for rights to extract water for Gulfport’s fracking operations. Gulfport had a contract with Barnesville entitling it to draw water from a local reservoir at one cent per gallon. Under the contract, Gulfport would be able to draw the water unless the village determined that such action would endanger public health. Water rights were subsequently also issued to another driller. In the fall of 2014, the village told Gulfport to stop drawing water from the reservoir because of too low water levels. Gulfport’s suit now asks for adequate assurances of performance of the water contract to ensure that it can continue its fracking operations.
Whether that is a good idea is another story. From a short-term perspective: yes, we need energy preferably domestically sourced to avoid international supply interruptions and the geopolitical problems that are associated with importing energy raw materials. But fracking and fossil fuel production in general are associated with other severe problems including heavy water usage in the case of fracking. Such water, the argument goes, is better used for other things such as farming and household consumption.
Business as usual for fracking companies may not be the best idea seen from a societal point of view. Contracts rights are only a small part of this much bigger problem. However, time seems to have come for governments to incorporate escape clauses not only for “public health concerns” into water contracts, but also for drought concerns. This is not always done, as the above case shows, but such a relatively easy step could help solve at least some contractual disputes. In times of increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall in some areas, such contract drafting may well make sense.
Thursday, March 5, 2015
The official portrait of former President Bill Clinton has been completed. See it here. It was painted in the “conservative realistic style” … maybe a little too realistic and not sufficiently conservative?
According to the artist, Nelson Shanks, the bluish shadow of a person that you see on the mantelpiece next to Clinton is that of Monica Lewinski in her infamous blue dress. You got that right: the artist himself has admitted that he purposefully scarred the picture just as the Lewinsky scandal scarred Clinton’s second term. The artist has apparently caught quite some flak for having done this. Regardless of artistic freedom and setting aside all thoughts about the scandal per se, what is, after all, at issue here is a contract for artwork depicting a former President of the United States of America. A bit more respect may have been in order. This was not any regular client having a portrait done; it’s in effect the entire nation that commissioned this work. Perhaps a subjective satisfaction clause would have been in order here. Even if it had been any “regular” client, deliberately depicting one’s paying client in a highly controversial light seems to me to be in questionable taste.
On the other hand, the argument has been made that if the artist had been held to certain contractual stipulations, the portrait of the 42nd President would have been “stiff and untrue.”
That’s not the case? Take a look and judge for yourself. While much has been made of Clinton holding an actual, gash, newspaper – so retro – the strange positioning of his fingers on his hip looks more bizarre to me. An indication of his alleged two-sided look at what constituted “the truth” in certain contexts? To me, it looks more like the V sign for, perhaps, Clinton’s ultimate victory over at least some of the political and other challenges he faced.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Property development is often considered a way for local communities to earn more taxes and evolve with times in general. But when construction and other development is approved in geologically risk areas such as flood zones and things go awfully wrong, is this a mere property and contracts issue, or may criminal liability lie?
In France, the answer is the latter. The former mayor of the small French seaside town La Faute-sur-Mer was just sentenced to jail for four years for deliberately hiding flood risks so that he and the town could benefit from the “cash cow” of property development, a French court has held. His deputy mayor received a two-year sentence in the same plot.
In 2010, the cyclone Xynthia hit western Europe and knocked down seawalls in the French town, leading to severe floods and 29 deaths.
Wait… a cyclone in France? Yes. Climate change is real and it’s here. Unless we do something about it (which apparently we don’t), things will only get worse. As on-the-ground steps that could prevent extreme results such as the above are often simply ignored or postponed while more and more research is done and money saved at various government scales, lawsuits will necessarily follow. The legal disciplines, including contracts law, will have to conform to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate. For starters, we need to seriously question the wisdom and continued desirability of constructing more and more homes in coastal and other flood prone areas. Ignoring known risks is, well, criminal.
Monday, January 12, 2015
A misplaced comma (or something) cost an Oregon Ducks fan his premium seats to the college football championship game. According to this report from The Oregonian, a University of Oregon alumnus found premium tickets to the game (which he knew were selling for $4000) for $400 on StubHub. When, he placed his order, StubHub indicated that he would be charged $16,59.36, but his credit card was charged $16,059.36. He protested, and StubHub refused to honor the purchase, removing the charge and offering $1600 in StubHub vouchers, which the angry Duck says he will not use. He blows off some steam in a blog post, with observations about obnoxious terms and conditions.
In a sign of the times, MasterCard has filed suit in the Southern Distroct of New York against Nike, according to this report from Bloomberg.and Oregon Live (you have to go through a short survey to read it), for having poached a few of its cyber-security experts. MasterCard is suing the employees for breach of contract and Nike for tortious interference. Nike denies all wrongdoing.
We could not have made this up: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Devin James Group (DLG), a public relations firm, is suing another public relations firm, Elasticity. Apparently, Elasticity hired DLG to help represent the City of Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. Elasticity fired DLG when it discovered that DLG's owner had a criminal record. Mr. James was convicted in 2006 for having shot an unarmed man. He claims he did $50,000 of work for which he has not been paid.
In another chapter in the dangers of state governments hiring private companies to handle public services, NJ.com reports that Hewlett Packard will refund New Jersey $7.5 million to get out of its contract to deliver a unifed system to administers the state's public assistance program. The Christie administration and HP agreed last year to suspend work on the project and they entered into a separation agreement in which each side agreed not to sue the other for breach of contract. The state is now looking for a new partner. In the meantime, it "continues to hobble along on its 1980s-era mainframe system," according to NJ.com.
Finally, an interesting conflict between a franchise and a large franchisee. Wendy's is requiring its franchisees to make technology upgrades and renovate stotes. DavCo, which operates 152 Wendy's restaurants is refusing to do so, claiming that Wendy's lacks the authority to require the changes. According to the Baltimore Sun, Wendy's has filed suit to terminate DavCo's franchises.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
As indicated in this story,* CNN.com is greatly invested in the story of Morten Storm, who claims that he is a Danish double-agent who infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP) and thus helped the U.S. target and kill AQAP operative and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
Storm (and his CNN co-authors) have quite a story to tell. Among other things, he claims that the United States promised him $5 million for helping the U.S. in its al-Awlaki operation. Although Storm is clearly an international man of mystery, there is little mystery on the question of whether he would have any luck on a claim against the U.S. for breach of a promise to pay $5 million. The U.S. would undoubtdedly point to the Totten case, as updated in Tenet v. Doe, and courts will find the claim non-justiciable.
NB: When you click on this site, you will see the following browsewrap banner across the top:
If you do not want to spend an hour or two parsing CNN's terms and don't want to be bound to terms that you have not read or cannot understand, do not "continue to use" CNN's site (whatever that means).
Hat tip to my student, Brandon Carter.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Ilya Shapiro at the Cato Institute posted last week about Century Exploration v. United States, decided by the Federal Circuit on March 14, 2014. Century Exploration (Century) acquired a lease for an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico. It paid $23 million up front, plus $50,000 per year of the lease. Century sought to protect itself against possible changes in applicable laws governing such leases through a contractual provision that no changes in law, other than reulgations created pursuant to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), would affect Century's rights under the lease.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon fire, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), which required oil exploration companies to develop worst case scenarios and certify that they have reserves adequate to address such worst cases. Using a methodology required by the Interior Department, Century would have to have $1.8 billion on hand to deal with such a worst case. When Century could not prove that it had such funds, the government sought to cancel the lease. Century brought suit, relying on the contractual provision that protected it against regulatory changes, such as those promulgated pursuant to the OPA. Ilya Shapiro questions whether the directives from the Interior Department even qualify as government regulations, as they were sent via e-mail by "a civil servant in the Interior Department." The government filed for summary judgment, and both the Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit sided with the government.
The Federal Circuit acknowledged that this case involves a lease provision nearly identical to that at issue in Mobil Oil Exploration & Producing Southeast, Inc. v. United States, 530 U.S. 604 (2000). However, in this case, the Federal Circuit found that the new regulations were actually promulgated pursuant to the OCSLA rather than the OPA. As such, they were within the carve-out to the contractual provision protecting Century against regulatory changes. In short, the Federal Circuit found this case distinguishable from Mobil Oil because of the nature of the regulations at issue.
To see in detail why the Cato Institute disgrees with that holding, you can have a look at its amicus brief. Ilya Shapiro provides the following summary:
First, it is vital to the smooth operation of the government and the health of the economy that private entities are confident that the government will honor its contractual promises. Federal spending on contracts has totaled roughly $500 billion annually since 2008—or 15% of the federal budget. If businesses and individuals have no reason to believe that the government will live up to its business obligations, they’ll have no reason to work with it. The Federal Circuit’s decision, which condoned the government’s flagrant breach of its contract with Century, sets a bad example and must be reversed.
Second, and quite simply, words have meaning—in the Constitution, in statutes, and yes, in contracts. A “regulation” is a formal rule adopted and issued by an authorized agency, in accordance with strict procedural protocols. It’s not a casual email. Giving informal government policy documents created by civil servants the full weight of the law is unconstitutional, undemocratic, and unsustainable.
Monday, November 24, 2014
File this under "Nice!" According to this report in the Durham Herald Sun, the parents of a child who has been prohibited from attending his private school, the Mount Zion Christian Academy, are suing the school for breach of contract. The allegations of breach are based on the fact that the child's parents are paying tuition, but their son is forbidden to attend his school.
And what has the child done to earn this suspension? Nothing! His parents were informed that the child would not be permitted to attend school becasue his father had traveled to Nigeria, and the school did not want to risk the spread of ebola. The school took these precautions despite the fact that:
- there is no ebola in Nigeria;
- the father had no contact with anyone with ebola;
- the father was screened at the airport and cleared.
The superintendent of schools failed to appear at a hearing and a judge ordered the school to allow the child to return
According to this story from the Spokane Spokesman Review, an Idaho judge has thrown out as invalid a $60 million contract that the state entered into with Education Networks of America (ENA) and Qwest to provide a broadband network that would link every Idaho high school. The plaintiff in the case, Syringa, had partnered with ENA on one of the two bids on the contract, but when the state awarded the contract to ENA, it cut Syringa out of the allocation of work in the contract. The court found this a violation of state procurement law.
Sandra Troian a physicist at CalTech, has filed a complaint against the school, alleging violations of the California whistleblower protection statute and breach of contract, among other things. Troian alleges that she had reported that the school had been infiltrated by a spy who was sending classified information to the Israeli government. Troian alleges that the school ignored her because it did not want to endanger a large contract with Jet Propulsion Laboratories. She further alleges that the school has retaliated against her for blowing the whistle.
Monday, November 10, 2014
According to this report on the International Business Times website, two children, through their mother, are suing Malaysia Airlines for breach of contract and negligence in connection with their father's death on Flight MH370. Plaintiffs allege that the airline breached a safety agreement that it entered into with their father and the other passengers on the flight.
As reported here in the Bellingham Herald, the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments on October 30th about the state's contract with IBM to privatize its welfare services. The state was so disappointed with IBM's performance that it cancelled the contract three years into a $1.3 billion, ten-year deal. Friend of the blog, Wendy Netter Epstein (pictured), has written about this case in the Cardozo Law Review.
Sunday's New York Times Magazine has a cover story pondering whether lawyers are going to do to football what they did to tobacco. As an example of what this might look like we have this case filed on October 27, 2014 on behalf of Julius Whittier and a class of plaintiffs who played NCAA football from 1960-2014, never played in the NFL, and have been diagnosed with latent brain injury or disease. Mr. Whittier suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's. The complaint alleges, among other things, breach of contract, based on NCAA documents requiring each member instittuion to look after the physical well-being of student athletes.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
In a recently unsealed ruling, the U.S. Court of Claims has awarded $1.1 million in damages for breach of contract to a former undercover Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") informant who was kidnapped in Colombia and held captive for more than three months.
Here's a flavor from the opening paragraphs of the 52-page decision:
This breach-of-contract action comes before the Court after a trial on damages. In its decision addressing liability, the Court determined that the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) breached an implied-in-fact contract and its duty of good faith and fair dealing by failing to protect Plaintiff, an undercover informant. During an undercover operation in Colombia, Plaintiff, known as “the Princess,” was kidnapped and held captive for more than three months. Plaintiff claims that her kidnapping and prolonged captivity caused the onset of her multiple sclerosis and seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $10,000,000 for financial losses, inconvenience, future medical expenses, physical pain and suffering, and mental anguish arising from Defendant’s breach.
Because Plaintiff demonstrated that Defendant’s breach of contract was a substantial factor in causing the Princess’ kidnapping and captivity, and triggering her multiple sclerosis, the Court awards the Princess the value of her life care plan, $1,145,161.47. Plaintiff failed to prove any other damages.
The decision covers a number of issues related to damages. For example, the court holds that it was reasonably foreseeable at the time of contracing that a DEA informant would be kidnapped in Colombia and suffer resulting health issues:
The inquiry under foreseeability in this case is whether Plaintiff's damages, namely her multiple sclerosis and the ensuing costs of her medical care, were reasonably foreseeable at the time of contract formation. Anchor Sav. Bank, FSB, 597 F.3d at 1361; Pratt v. United States, 50 Fed. Cl. 469, 482 (2001) (“Whether damages are foreseeable is a factual determination made at the time of contract formation.”) (citing Bohac v. Dep't of Agriculture, 239 F.3d 1334, 1340 (Fed.Cir.2001)). Hence, Plaintiff must show that both the kidnapping, her ensuing health problems, and consequential financial costs of medical care constituted the type of loss that was reasonably foreseeable when the parties formed their implied-in-fact contract.
Plaintiff has established that her kidnapping was reasonably foreseeable at the time the contract was entered into. From the outset ASAC Salvemini voiced concerns for the Princess' safety, and DEA moved her family because of the dangers of her operation as part of her agreement to work with DEA. Evidence revealed that kidnappings were not uncommon in Colombia at the time. 2007 Tr. 270 (Princess); 2007 Tr. 1523 (Warren) (“[W]e got the report [the Princess] had been abducted. That was not an unusual report in Colombia then or now unfortunately.”). Plaintiff established that harm to undercover informants, including injury and death, were reasonably foreseeable consequences of a breach at the time of contract formation.
Knowing, as DEA did, of the dangers inherent in undercover operations aimed at highechelon Colombian traffickers, especially kidnapping in Col ombi a–a “hot spot”–the Princess' kidnapping and resultant harm to her health was a reasonably foreseeable type of injury at contract formation. The Court recognizes that DEA likely did not specifically foresee that the injury would be multiple sclerosis, but this is not a requirement for a showing of foreseeability. Anchor Savings Bank, FSB, 597 F.3d at 1362–63 (noting that “the particular details of a loss need not be foreseeable,” as long as the mechanism of loss was foreseeable) (quoting Fifth Third Bank v. United States, 518 F.3d 1368, 1376 (Fed.Cir.2008)).
Not the ordinary intrigue of the average contracts case.
SGS-92-X003 v. U.S., No. 97-579C (Ct. of Fed. Claims, filed Aug. 30, 2014)(republished Sept. 26, 2014).
Thursday, August 7, 2014
It is not often that the Supreme Court of the United States entertains a contract issue (which is, coincidentally, one of the main reasons it is such a delight to teach contract law). The Supreme Court did, however, recently settle a contract dispute of its own.
The curious case of the trapezoidal windows at the U.S. Supreme Court is closed.
Documents filed recently in lower courts indicate that a contentious seven-year dispute over mistakes and delays in the renovation project at the high court has been settled.
“Everybody was worn out by the litigation,” Herman Braude of the Braude Law Group said this week. Braude represented Grunley Construction Company, the main contractor for the modernization project on the nearly 80-year-old building. “All good things have to come to an end,” he said.
The most contested feature of the litigation was the belated discovery by contractors that more than 150 large windows, many of which look out from justices’ chambers, were trapezoidal—not strictly rectangular. The building's persnickety architect, Cass Gilbert, designed them that way so they would appear rectangular from below, both inside and outside the building.
But Grunley and its window subcontractor failed to measure all four sides of the windows before starting to manufacture blast-proof replacements, so some of them had to be scrapped.
Grunley claimed it was not obliged to make the measurements, asserting that the government had “superior knowledge” of the odd shape of the windows that it should have shared with contractors. The company asked for an extra $757,657 to compensate for the extra costs of fabricating the unconventional windows.
But the federal Contract Appeals Board in 2012 rejected Grunley’s claim, stating: “We find inexcusable the firms’ failure to measure a necessary component of the windows prior to installation.”
Grunley appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and placed other contract disputes before that court and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Both sides eventually agreed to settlement negotiations.
In February, both parties reported to the federal circuit that “the parties are now in the final process of closing out the underlying construction contract and settling various requests for equitable adjustment.” They also told the federal circuit that “the settlement discussion are at a very high level between the parties … and are being primarily led by the principals of each party, not the litigation counsel.”
Subsequent orders by both courts have dismissed the litigation, but no details of the settlement are available on the docket of either court.
Attempts to obtain details of the settlement have been unsuccessful so far. The Architect of the Capitol—the congressional agency that has jurisdiction over the Supreme Court building and was the defendant in the litigation—did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice’s civil division, which handled the litigation for the architect's office, did not respond as of press time, and neither did anyone from the Supreme Court.
Braude, Grunley's attorney, was reluctant to give details. “The dollar figure doesn’t matter,” he said. But when pressed, Braude said his client “got some” of the $15 million in extra compensation it was seeking from the government, beyond its original $75 million contract for the work.
“Everybody agreed to an adjusted contract price that recognizes the budget limitations of the government,” Braude said, adding that the settlement was “satisfactory to all parties. Nobody was jumping for joy, but everybody was a little happy.” Braude also said the Supreme Court signed off on the settlement.
John Horan of McKenna Long & Aldridge, an expert on government contract disputes, said there is no general rule about the confidentiality of settlements, and sometimes “the government doesn’t go out of its way to make settlements public.” But a document spelling out terms of the agreement is sometimes made part of the public record or can be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, he said. The Supreme Court and the Architect of the Capitol, an arm of Congress, are exempt from the FOIA.
The modernization project at the Supreme Court broke ground in 2003 and the target completion date was 2008, though some follow-up work is still underway. The court's aging infrastructure—including one of the oldest Carrier air-conditioners in existence—was the trigger for the project, which has cost an estimated $122 million overall.
More here. Great basis for an exam hypo. And, wow! -- to be the attorney that sues the Supreme Court!
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
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Friday, May 23, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
In California, the Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of divvying up water contracts in the California River Delta between the general public and senior local water rights owners. Years ago, it signed off on long-term contracts that determined “the quantities of water and the allocation thereof” between the parties. About a decade ago, it renewed these contracts without undertaking a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to find out whether the contract renewals negatively affected the delta smelt, a small, but threatened, fish species. The thinking behind not doing so was that since the water contracts “substantially constrained” the Bureau’s discretion to negotiate new terms, no consultation was required.
Not correct, concluded an en banc Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel recently. By way of brief background, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions jeopardizes threatened or endangered species or their habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a). Among other things, federal agencies must consult with the FWS if they have “some discretion”"some discretion" to take action on behalf of a protected species. In this case, since the contractual provision did not strip the Bureau of all discretion to benefit the species, consultation should have taken place. For example, the Bureau could have renegotiated the pricing or timing terms and thus benefitted the species, said the court.
In 1993, the delta smelt had declined by 90% over the previous 20 years and was thus listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Of course, fish is not the only species vying for increasingly scarce California water. Man is another. The current and ongoing drought in California – one of the worst in history – raises questions about future allocations of water. Who should be prioritized? Private water right holders? People in Southern California continually thirsty and eager to water their often overly water-demanding garden plants? Industry? Farmers? Not to mention the wild animals and plants depending on sufficient levels of water? There are no easy answers here.
The California drought is estimated to cost Central Valley farmers $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. While that seems drastic, the drought is still not expected to have any significant effect on the state economy as California is no longer an agricultural state. In fact, agriculture only accounts for 5% of jobs in California. Still, that is no consolation to people losing their jobs in California agriculture or consumers having to pay higher prices for produce in an increasingly warming and drying California climate.
The 1974 movie Chinatown focused on the Los Angeles water supply system. 40 years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse. The game as to who gets water contracts and for how much water is still on.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
I had the pleasure of chairing a panel populated by four young scholars all writing on Behavior, Bargaining, Incentives and Contract.
Kenneth Ching went first with his paper on Justice and Harsh Results: Beyond Individualism and Collectivism in Contracts. His paper focused on Cardozo's celebrated opinion in Jacob & Youngs v. Kent in which Cardozo held that, although Jacob & Youngs had not installed Reading pipes as called for in the contract, it had nonetheless substantially performed the contract by installing pipes of similar quality. Professor Ching maintains that Cardozo was wrong on both the facts and the law in the case. The contract in the case made clear that complete performance was a condition of payment, and the law was clear (then and now) that there can be no substantial performance of a condition. Moreover, even if it were possible to substantially perform conditions, Jacob & Youngs did not do so, as Cardozo would have noted had he actually applied the test to the facts of the case.
The case is but a gateway to Professor Ching's larger point about collectivist and individualist approaches to contracts law. Judge Cardozo's opinion seems to take a collectivist (or parternalist) approach to the doctrinal problems that the case raises. That is, Cardozo thinks we are all better off if people aren't held to unreasonable terms that would require the destruction of a home to replace pipes with virtually identical pipes. Judge McLaughlin's dissent seems to be more individualist, focusing on Kent's perspective and his right to insist on the contracts rights for which he had bargained. Professor Ching's approach rejects both collectivist and individualist approaches. He favors a Thomist approach that tries to resolve conflict in line with reason and with the goal of promoting human flourishing. Cardozo's opinion might be attractive from a Thomist perspective. Responding to a question, Professor Ching acknowledged that James Gordely, whose approach informs Professor Ching's, would find for Jacob & Youngs based on unconscionability. Still, Professor Ching maintains, Judge Cardozo reached the wrong result because of his mischaracterization of the facts and the law.
Next up was Andrew Verstein who gave a (his first ever) Prezi presentation (which was super cool) on Ex Tempore Contracting. His paper takes on a tradition that distinguishes between ex ante and ex post approaches to contracts interpretation. In the former, the parties specify how the contract is to be interpreted ("use Reading pipes"), and in the latter, the parties delegate interpretation to an adjudicator ("use merchantable pipes"). In the ex ante approach, the parties determine the meaning of the terms; in the ex post approach, some neutral third party (court or arbitrator) determines the meaning. Ideally, parties decide between precise (ex ante) terms and vague (ex post) terms based on the costs and benefits of choosing specific terms in particular contexts. Parties should draft to minimize the sum of ex ante and ex post costs.
But Professor Verstein contends that there is middle ground between before performance and after (alleged) breach. Some contracts disputes can be resolved during performance. The parties can specify that a particular third party will resolve disputes that arise during performance (ex tempore), and they can be resolved whether the terms are superficially vague or superficially precise. The aim remains to reduce the costs of dispute resolution, and there are many situations in which it is most efficient for the parties to agree to ex tempore dispute resolution, especially in construction agreements. Professor Verstein illustrates this point with the case of the Chinese Ertan Dam, a huge construction project. All disputes relating to that dam were resolved within six months of the dam's completion. This fact is attributable to the existence of netural expert panels (dipute boards) that addressed disputes as they arose and were able to sort out most disputes before the parties became too aggrieved. Reviewing Florida dispute boards, Professor Verstein finds that 98% of disputes are resolved without further conflict and the cost is 10-50% of arbitration. This is not really dispute resolution, Professor Verstein contends; it is ex tempore contracting. And, it turns out, this happens a lot more often than we realize.
Professor Verstein's paper is forthcoming in the William & Mary Law Review and can be downloaded here.
Wendy Netter Epstein next presented her paper on Public Private Contracting and the Reciprocity Norm. Professor Epstein's thesis is that in some public private contracts it is very difficult for the government to reduce agency costs by writing more detailed contracts. Picking up on Professor Verstein's theme, Professor Epstein contends that in certain circumstances it is better to have less detailed contracts with mechanisms for ongoing dispute resolution during contract performance. This approach is most appropriate where there is a shallow market (i.e., very few private contractors bid), a narrow application (e.g., private prisons) or a disempowered group of third-party beneficiaries (e.g., welfare recipients).
While a lot of scholarship has focused on the need for more detailed contracts in this context so as to provide for strong oversight of private actors working in the public interest. Professor Epstein suggests that the result has been to increase the size and complexity of government contracts. However, this solution does not work well because, where there is no well-functioning market, the government cannot effectively moitor and discipline private contractors. Moreover, one point of outsourcing is to promote innovation and creativity, and excessive government monitoring of private contractors undermines that aim. Professor Epstein drawns on research in the behavioral sciences and contends that reciprocity norm, which rewards people for kind actions, constrains actors more powerfully than models based on rational actors would predict. She thus thinks that strict enforcement mechanisms and sanctions regimes often undermine cooperation in the public private contracting context. Governments might be better served by communicating their positive intentions towards private contractors by entering into looser contracts that would permit the parties to chart the course of the collaboration on an on-going basis as the project proceeds.
Finally, Eric Zacks presented a paper on The Moral Hazard of Contract Drafting. One party to a contract can act opportunistically as an economic agent of the other party. The agency relationship arises when one party asks the other party to draft the agreement. That is a delegation of authority that would then be ratified upon acceptance. The danger of agency costs arises in that there may be a disparity between the contract as conceived and the contact as written.
There may be economic value in having one party be the contract preparer. For example, that party might have greater experience and expertise in contract preparation. But the drafter may write the contract is such a way as to enable it to take advantage of the other party after performance has begun. Then the question arises whether the principal (the non-drafting party) is able to monitor the agent (the drafting party). For example, in consumer contracts, it seems unlikely that non-drafting consumers would be capable of both foreseeing and monitoring the agency costs involved in allowing sellers to draft consumer contracts. One solution is for the principal to hire an agent (e.g., a lawyer) to monitor the contract. Or there might be outside monitoring services to prevent opportunistic behavior, such as regulatory agencies or courts, or statutory requirements that certain transactions be written in plain language.
Courts are less likely to intervene when they think the principal (non-drafting party) is sophisticated and has the means to protect itself against opportunistic behavior by the agent (drafting party). In the contractual context, we have more limited ways to discourage opportunistic behavior through incentives for good behavior.
Those not satisfied with this summary of Professor Zacks' argument can download the entire thing here.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
According to this article from The New York Times, Detroit filed suit on Friday, seeking to invalidate complex transactions that it used to finance its debts. Detroit claims that the contracts at issue were illegal and are thus unenforceable.
The transactions brought in $1.4 billion for the city, but it now claims that they were an unlawful scheme to get around a ceiling on the amount of debt the city could take on and that it thus has no obligation to make payments on the "certificates of participation" issued in connection with the transactions. Detroit is also seeking to cancel some related "interest-rate swaps" with two banks that obligate the city to pay tens of millions of dollars annually to the banks. Just a few weeks ago, Detroit had offered to pay $165 million to get out of the contracts, but the bankruptcy judge rejected that as "too much money." Paying nothing seems like a better deal for the city, if they can find a legal basis to get out of the obligation.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
This is the second in a series of posts that draw on Michael Dorelli and Kimberly Cohen's recent article in the Indiana Law Review on developments in contracts law in Indiana. This post will discuss State of Indiana Military Department v. Continental Electric Company, which was decided by the Indiana Court of Appeals in 2012.
In 2006, Continental Electric Company (Continental) submitted a bid as a subocontractor on the construction of an avaiation facility at the Gary/Chicago Internaional Airport (see the image at left). Continental's submitted a bid of about $1.8 million to do the electrical work on the project, noting in its bid that $335,000 should be added to its bid under "Alternative 2," which was designated "Diesel Generator." The State of Indiana Military (the State) which had issued the bid hosted a pre-bid meeting at which it sought to clarify that costs relating to Alternative 2 should be included in the base bid, but Continental did not do so, relying on its understanding of the written bid documents. The State provided a written version of its clarification of Alernative 2, but Continental claims that the written version did not reflect what was said at the pre-bid meeting.
The Larson-Danielson Construction Company (Larson) was awarded the project and chose Continental to do its electrical work. Continental began work in October 2006. It dealt only with Larson and there was no contractual relationship between it and the State. Continental billed Larson for an extra $207,000 worth of work associated with Alternative 2.
Continental complained throughout the process that it was entitled to payment for the work done under Alternative 2, but both Larson and the State believed that no extra payment was required, since both interpreted the bid documents as requiring that work associated with Alternative 2 be part of the base bid. Getting no satisfaction from Larson, Continental brought suit against the State, claiming $207,000 in damages for breach of contract or quantum meruit. The trial court found for Continental and the State appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed. It found that Continental could not bring a breach contract claim against the State because it was not in a contractual relationship with the State. Nor had the State agreed to hear appeals arising out of controversies between Larson and its subcontrators.
The Court then moved on to Continental's unjust enrichment claim. Under Indiana law, four criteria must be met to establish such a claim:
1)Whether the owner impliedly requested the subcontractor to do the work; 2) whether the owner reasonably expected to pay the subcontractor, or the subcontractor reasonably expected to be paid by the owner; 3) whether there was an actual wrong perpetrated by the owner; and 4) whether the owner’s conduct was so active and instrumental that the owner “stepped into the shoes” of the contractor.
The Court concluded that because Larson was paid in full, the trial court erred in finding that the State had retained a benefit for which it did not pay. Basically, the Court agreed with Larson and the State the the bid documents and the clarification established that the costs associated with Alternative 2 were to be included in the base bid. The Court concluded as follows:
In sum, we conclude that Continental Electric had no right to recover against Indiana Military. Continental Electric failed to establish that a measurable benefit was conferred on Indiana Military and that its retention of a benefit without payment would be unjust. Indeed, Indiana Military did not receive a measurable benefit from Continental Electric that it had not already paid for.
All concerned, including Continental Electric, knew long before Continental Electric ever entered into a subcontract with Larson that the wiring in question was part of the base contract with Larson and that Indiana Military would expect Larson to install the wiring between the facility building and the concrete generator pad. Larson 28completed the work, and was fully paid for that work. In short, Indiana Military has not unjustly retained a benefit without payment.
The Court of Appeals set aside the trial court's ruling on quantum meruit and reversed its judgment.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
We have perviously posted examples of government contracting difficulties relating to technology contracts and websites. Saturday's New York Times featured this op-ed by Georgetown Law Professor David A. Super (pictured), which chronicles technology contracting problems that have disproportionately affected the poor.
Some recent technology contracts gone wrong that did not make the headlines:
- 66,000 Georgia food stamp recipients and about half that many Medicaid recipients had their benefits terminated for failing to respond to renewal notices that, through a contractor's error, had never been sent;
- A Massachusetts contractor deactivated food stamp cards because new ones had been sent without seeking any confirmation that the new ones had been received; and
- A contractor's errors made food stamps unavailable to people in 17 states.
Properly supervised contractors can use technology to improve the delivery of government services. But attention, oversight and willingness to act decisively to remedy fiascoes seem to depend on the wealth and clout of those who are affected. As Obamacare regains its footing, that lesson shouldn’t be forgotten.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
It seemed unthinkable that the Obama administration could have so badly botched the rollout of the website associated with Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). However, as The New York Times reported here on Monday, and as we have already discussed here and here, the technological fumble may be a result of broader problems in the structures of government procurement systems which may finally get the attention they deserve because of the high-profile Obamacare rollout fiasco.
To reduce the Times' report to its essence, the process of winning a government contract is very complex and daunting. There are two problemmatic consequences of this structural element of government contracting. First, it is hard for small companies or companies without expertise in the government procurement process to jump through all the hoops associated with that process. Second, when the contracts are both long term and deal with technology, the government in some cases would be better served by working with smaller, more nimble contractors that can innovate and adapt as technology develops. With technology improving at the rate at which it improves, the government cannot afford to get locked into multi-year contracts with entities that are not in a position to adapt as quickly as technology advances. As the Times puts it:
Longstanding laws intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interest often saddle agencies with vendors selected by distant committees and contracts that stretch for years, even as technology changes rapidly. The rules frequently leave the government officials in charge of a project with little choice over their suppliers, little control over the project’s execution and almost no authority to terminate a contract that is failing.
“It may make sense if you are buying pencils or cleaning services,” said David Blumenthal, who during Mr. Obama’s first term led a federal office to promote the adoption of electronic health records. But it does not work “when you have these kinds of incredibly complex, data-driven, nationally important, performance-based procurements.”
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Congressional Study Finds that Violation of Federal Labor Laws Is No Bar to the Award of Federal Contracts
As reported here in The New York Times, a new congressional study found that the U.S. government continues to enter into contracts with firms that have been assessed heavy penalties for violating fundamental labor laws. According to the report (unfortunately the Times provides no link and I could not find one through a quick Google search), 18 companies that received federal contracts were among the recipients of the 100 largest fines issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Thirty-two federal contractors were among the leading companies in the amount of back pay owed to employees for wage violations.
The congressional committee that produced the report called for higher standards but did not go so far as to recommend that companies with major violations of labor law be considered ineligible for the award of government contracts.
Thanks to our anonymous tipster (see comments below), we have been able to find the full study. Below is the Executive Summary:
Each year, the United States pays out over $500 billion in taxpayer dollars to private companies for goods and services, much of which is used to pay the salaries of millions of workers. Taken together, companies that receive government contracts employ an estimated 22 percent of the American workforce, approximately 26 million workers.
Some of the nation’s largest federal contractors fail to pay their workers the wages they have earned or provide their employees with safe and healthy working conditions. The analysis found that almost 30 percent of the top violators of federal wage and safety laws are also current federal contractors.
- Eighteen federal contractors were recipients of one of the largest 100 penalties issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor between 2007 and 2012. Almost half of the total initial penalty dollars assessed for OSHA violations were against companies holding federal contracts in 2012.
- Forty-two American workers died during this period as a result of OSHA violations by companies holding federal contracts in 2012.
- Thirty-two federal contractors received back wage assessments among the largest 100 issued by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor between 2007 and 2012.
- Thirty-five of these companies violated both wage and safety laws.
- Overall, the 49 federal contractors responsible for large violations of federal labor laws were cited for 1,776 separate violations of these laws and paid $196 million in penalties and assessments. In fiscal year 2012, these same companies were awarded $81 billion in taxpayer dollars.
Federal law is intended to prevent taxpayer dollars from increasing the profits of companies with a record of violating federal law in two ways: by requiring contracting officers to assess a prospective contractor’s responsible compliance with federal law prior to awarding a contract, and by allowing agencies to suspend or debar contractors for certain behavior, including violations of federal law, in order to protect the integrity of taxpayer dollars.
In recent years, the federal government has increasingly used the contracting process to procure employee-based service work such as cleaning, security, and construction. However, a new analysis shows that taxpayer dollars are routinely being paid to companies that are putting the livelihoods and the lives of workers at risk. Many of the most flagrant violators of federal workplace safety and wage laws are also recipients of large federal contracts.
Almost half of the total initial penalty dollars assessed for OSHA violations were against companies holding current federal contracts.Unfortunately, this report demonstrates that the officials responsible for determining if a prospective contractor is a responsible entity prior to awarding a contract lack access to information on labor violations and lack the tools to evaluate the severity or repeated nature of these types of violations.
This is true even though the Clean Contracting Act of 2008 specifically required that a database be established to help agencies evaluate violations of federal law in making a responsibility determination. Some of the many incidents of misconduct that are not currently available to contracting officers in this database include:
- The death of a 46-year-old father of four, who was working as a washroom operator at a Cintas Corporation facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was killed after being swept into an industrial dryer when he attempted to dislodge a clothes jam. The dryer continued to spin with him inside for 20 minutes at over 300 degrees. Cintas received $3.4 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2012.
- The death of two employees of a Mississippi shipbuilding and ship repair company owned by ST Engineering Limited, who were killed when highly flammable materials being used to prepare a tugboat for painting ignited, leading to an explosion and fire. Findings of the investigation included failure to properly ventilate a confined space and lack of a rescue service available for a confined space. ST Engineering received $1.9 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2012.
- The deaths of seven workers at an Anacortes, Washington refinery owned by Texas based Tesoro Corporation, who were killed when a heat exchanger ruptured and spewed vapor and liquid that exploded. The workers who died were standing near the area of the rupture specifically to attempt to stop leaks of the volatile, flammable gases in the facility which had not been inspected for 12 years prior to the rupture. Tesoro received $463 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2012.
The federal government is not required to contract with the private sector. Indeed, many of the functions that private contractors carry out for the government could be done equally well or better by government employees. But, when the government does solicit work from the private sector, it should use taxpayer dollars in a way that promotes compliance with federal law and improves the quality of life for working Americans.
Ensuring that the government contracts with actors who do not engage in serious or repeated violations of federal labor law is one important step to further that goal. Recommendations that will better protect taxpayer dollars and promote compliance with laws that protect the lives and livelihoods of American workers by those who receive taxpayer money include:
- Improvements in the quality and transparency of Department of Labor information regarding violations of federal law.
- Publication of an annual list of federal contractors that were assessed penalties or other sanctions, and as well as additional information concerning contractor compliance with labor law by the Department of Labor.
- Improvement of contracting databases administered by the General Services Administration including increasing public transparency and expanding the amount of misconduct information included in those databases.
- Issuance of an Executive Order requiring contracting officers to consult with, and obtain recommendations from, a designated official at the Department of Labor about violations of federal labor law when making responsibility determinations.
- Issueance of an Executive Order to establish additional tools – beyond the existing responsibility determination and suspension and debarment process – that contracting officers, in consultation with the Department of Labor, can use to ensure that contractors comply with federal labor law.
Monday, December 2, 2013
According to this report from the Courthouse News Service, California Controller John Chiang is suing SAP Public Services (SAP), a company with which the state of California had contracted for payroll services software (MyCalPAYS) that would assist California in managing payments to its 240,000 employees. After three years of development and eight months of trials, California alleges that SAP still has not managed to get the system to work.
The system was projected to cost California taxpayers just over $100 million, but by the time it was cancelled, it had cost $260 million and never worked right, according to the state. The state claims that MyCalPAYS was tried out on a test goup, and the results were disastrous: overpayments, underpayments, failures to report deposits in retirement accounts, childcare payments and medical contributions. Although the state complained before declaring SAP to be in default, SAP contended that the system was working as designed.
As Courthouse News Service reports, California encounered similar problems when it contracted with software developer Deloitte to manage its statewide judicial case management system.
California, Kathleen Sebelius feels your pain.