ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Met Can Keep Picasso Sold During Nazi Flight

A U.S. judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking the return by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan of a Pablo Picasso masterpiece that a German Jewish businessman was allegedly forced to sell at a low price in order to fund an escape from the Nazis and fascism.

Paul and Alice Leffmann fled Germany for Italy in 1937. Paul Leffmann sold “The Actor” the next year to two art dealers for $12,000 to fund an escape to Switzerland from the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a Hitler ally.

The Met acquired “The Actor” in a 1952 donation, but did not acknowledge Leffmann’s ownership until 2011, after decades of incorrect cataloguing. Leffman’s great-grand niece, who handles the estate of the Leffmans, claimed that the circumstances of the 1938 sale meant that her family never lost title. The Met disagreed, while expressing sympathy for the Leffmanns’ plight.

The judge found that the sale “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments,” and not because of a “wrongful threat” by the buyers that took away Leffmann’s free will. Images

“Although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes,” the judge wrote, “that pressure, when not caused by the counterparties to the transaction (or the defendant) where the duress is alleged, is insufficient to prove duress with respect to the transaction.”

It is both sad and interesting that so many years after the fascist rise to and fall from power, these types of cases are still heard in courts in this country and beyond.

February 17, 2018 in Famous Cases, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Monetizing Sexual Harassment Contractually

Monetizing Sexual Harassment Contractually

In the Harvey Weinstein scandals, investigations have resulted in further almost incredible instances of alleged misconduct including:

  • Verbal threats, such as telling employees "I will kill you" or "I will kill your family"
  • Employing female staff as "wing women" to "accompany [Mr Weinstein] to events and facilitate [his] sexual conquests"
  • Demanding sexual favors in return for career promotion at the studio
  • Requiring his drivers to "keep condoms and erectile dysfunction injections in the car at all times"
  • The requirement for his assistants to schedule "personals for sexual activity" both during office hours and after work
  • Belittling female members of staff with insults about their periods, and shouting at one member of staff that she should leave the company and make babies as that was all she was good for.

Apparently, contracts for Mr. Weinstein contained the proviso that mistreatment claims would result in financial penalties imposed upon the accusers rather than be outright prohibited contractually. This, says some sources, “effectively monetized” sexual harassment.

Surely, no court of law would uphold a contractual clause penalizing an employee merely for making accusations of criminal conduct so long as this was done in good faith (which, as we now know, the accusations against Mr. Weinstein were). It is your legal right and arguably moral duty to call out criminal conduct when it happens. However, whether such an argument would ever be heard in court is questionable, for most employees working for famous, influential companies such as that of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Weinstein himself are probably loath to stand up contractually against Mr. Weinstein. He clearly knew that. Many women didn’t even dare speak out against him for his criminal conduct or if they did, were not believed or helped. But these contractual clauses still show the gall, sickness, and immorality of Mr. Weinstein.

On a happier note: Happy Valentine’s Day! (I swear that the timing of this post is mere coincidence.)

February 14, 2018 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Attorneys general request legislation to protect sexual harassment claims from arbitration clauses

By my count, 56 attorneys general have sent a letter to Congress asking for legislation that would exempt sexual harassment claims from the ubiquitous arbitration clauses found in employment contracts. The letter is succinct and eloquent on the damaging effects arbitration has on these victims and society as a whole. 

February 13, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Beyonce faces a breach of contract suit over Formation

I teach many Beyonce cases in entertainment law, but usually in an intellectual property context. The New Orleans Advocate reports that Beyonce has been sued in connection with her single Formation, but the lawsuit is contractual in nature. The plaintiff, Kimberly Roberts, is alleging that she entered into a contract with Beyonce to use footage from her documentary in exchange for a lump-sum payment and royalties. Roberts is alleging that Beyonce has breached the contract by failing to pay royalties. Roberts also alleges that Beyonce has exceeded the scope of the license that Roberts granted. 

February 9, 2018 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, Film, In the News, Music, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

We *think* there's an NDA. Or is there?

Someday I will blog about things other than NDAs again but I feel like every time I open the internet there's another story about an NDA. Everyone today was talking about last night's interview of Stormy Daniels on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which was a bizarre series of answering-questions-with-questions and playing coy and talking around the main issue, which was her alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006. You can find lots of articles online; here's one that lays it out. Those trying to summarize the interview generally seem to assume that Daniels must be restricted by an NDA, because she could say if there wasn't an NDA, but it's the proving of a negative, basically; the reporters are trying to make sense of the blank space the non-answers leave in their wake. 

It's all had me wondering about the role NDAs played--or maybe more importantly, didn't seem to play?--during the Clinton impeachment. Lots of details about Clinton's sexual harassment history came out during the impeachment, and from my brief research into it, it doesn't seem like there were any NDAs in play. Does anybody have other information about this? How do the number of NDAs around Trump in play today shift our perspective, conversation, and legal analysis? 

January 31, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Society continues to rely on women breaking NDAs to report abuse

I’ve written many, many times now on the ways in which NDAs have been used to protect and enable systemic abuse of less empowered people, and they’re in the news again. USA Gymnastics has decided not to fine McKayla Maroney for violating her NDA and speaking out about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the Team USA doctor who recently pled guilty to sexual assault and has been accused by over 140 women. The women’s stories reveal how enforced silence can be used to obscure the full extent of harmful, abusive, and criminal conduct, making it seem as if each account was an isolated incident instead of a pattern of behavior.

A recent report from the Financial Times also makes this point. An expose on a men-only charity event in London, the article revealed that the hostesses hired for the event were asked to sign NDAs (which they were not allowed to read or take with them). Afterwards, during the event, they were subjected to multiple instances of groping, including hands up skirts, and one report of having a penis exposed to her. But we only know about this treatment because the NDAs meant to protect this behavior were broken.

January 29, 2018 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Sports, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

But what does the HQ stand for????

Everyone is talking about HQ Trivia right now, it seems. I'll be honest, though: Last week was the first time I've ever heard of the app. "It's a live trivia show," I was told. "You play twice a day with hundreds of thousands of your closest friends and try to win money." 

I downloaded the app because I was curious, and everything about it was an odd, surreal experience. I hadn't expected there to be a live host making uncomfortable one-sided banter to fill time while the start of the game was delayed. Then, when the questions started up, I...had no idea what to do, because nothing about my screen ever changed. I was just staring at the host the whole time. I couldn't figure out how to answer a question. 

I found out later that the question is supposed to pop up on your screen. It didn't on my screen, an issue that I saw other people online complaining about, so I know it at least wasn't my own incompetence. I didn't really stick around for more, though. I deleted the app, thinking it was just something that didn't seem to be my kind of thing. 

While I was Googling my app experience, though, I came across this pretty wild article from The Daily Beast and it made me think about a thought exercise I like to make my contracts students engage in at the very beginning of the semester: What does each party to a transaction want from the relationship they're about to enter into, and how will that translate into the contract? The article recounts an interview the Daily Beast conducted with the app's main host, and then their interactions with the app's CEO. At the end, it's revealed that the app is in a negotiation for a long-term contract with the main host. The rest of the article provides a lot of meat for speculation as to how those negotiations might go, based on the comments of both the main host and the CEO. The CEO appears to be very worried about the app's trade secrets being revealed, so one can assume that the contract would be very strict about the host's interactions with the media. Doubtless the parties will discuss a non-competition clause as well.  And how much will the negotiations be impacted by the newness of the HQ app phenomenon; the uniqueness of its setup; and the fuzziness of its future plans? All interesting things to consider. 

January 18, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Games, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 15, 2018

In which I arrive at a comic strip idea Marvel wouldn't approve of

I would say this is the time of year when I am perpetually behind, except that that is every time of year, so it's not surprising that it's taken me a bit to blog about Marvel's Create Your Own platform. As the article here makes clear, the terms and conditions require those uploading to the site to provide to Marvel the right to do almost anything it wishes with the material, without limit, notice, attribution, or payment. You can read all of the terms and conditions here.

In addition, the terms and conditions contain a long list of prohibited content, including such vague terms as "sensationalism" (defined as "killer bees, gossip, aliens, scandal, etc." which is one of my favorite collections of nouns ever) and "alternative lifestyle advocacies" (who is deciding what an alternative lifestyle is?), "misleading language" (misleading as to what?), and a catch-all "other controversial topics." (Incidentally, it also includes what I assume is a typo, as it prohibits "suggestive or revealing images" which it defines as "bare midriffs, lets, etc." I assume that's meant to be "legs.")

...Am I the only one who now wants to read a comic strip about aliens who advocate alternative lifestyles and raise killer bees, sharing scandalous gossip and double entendres (also prohibited) with their other alien alternative-lifestyle friends over a couple of glasses of wine (ditto) during their weekly high-stakes poker game (yup), all while baring their midriffs? 

(All of the prohibitions are blanket prohibitions except for graphic violence, which might be approved on a case-by-case basis.)

January 15, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 8, 2018

Heating oil contracts in the record cold

The news tonight reported on a real-life contracts issue near and dear to my heart, since my grandmother got caught up in an identical situation with her oil. Basically, New England has been in the middle of a two-week stretch of below-freezing temperatures, unusual for us. It's cold here, but not usually -18. Lots of people have contracts with oil companies that provide for automatic tank refill. These contracts are not cheap to enter into. My grandmother's cost hundreds of dollars a year, and that's just for them to show up; we still have to pay for the oil on top of it. But, because everyone's been using more oil than usual, the oil companies have been caught completely unprepared for how many of their automatic-renewal-contract customers have needed oil. How unprepared? Well, my 85-year-old grandmother spent more than 12 hours completely without heat, problematic in the arctic cold we were gripped in. And the problem is: What were our options? We'd paid hundreds of dollars to never be left in a situation, we thought, when our grandmother's tank would go empty. That was supposed to be the point of the contract, that we wouldn't have to worry about her running out of oil. But that was exactly what happened. 

And, as the news report makes clear, once you enter into this contract, you're not allowed to get your oil from anybody else. So we were in a situation where we couldn't get the service we'd paid for, and we were prohibited by contract from getting the service from anyone else. As the news report states, the oil company may waive the fee on a case-by-case basis. But, for many people on limited incomes dealing with already expensive heating costs, taking the risk of being charged a $399 fee might not be acceptable. 

January 8, 2018 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

"Illegal use of alcohol" doesn't mean driving under the influence

A recent case out of the Sixth Circuit, Heimer v. Companion Life Insurance Co., No. 16-2274, "is about whether a contract should mean what it says." The insurance policy at issue disclaimed coverage for injuries that resulted from the "illegal use of alcohol." Heimer legally consumed a great deal of alcohol (he was legal drinking age), but then illegally operated a motorbike while his blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. He collided with another motorbike and suffered extensive injuries. 

The insurance company claimed that the policy didn't cover the accident because it resulted from the illegal use of alcohol. The court disagreed based on the plain language of the contract. The policy said "use," not "under the influence." Therefore, Heimer's injuries weren't covered only if his use of the alcohol was illegal, which it was not. Heimer's criminal offense was illegally using a motor vehicle, not illegally using alcohol.  

The court acknowledged that obviously the insurance company didn't want to have to pay for the injuries caused by the drunken motorbike driving, but the court noted that the contract's language needed to be modified to reach that result. 

A concurrence in part / dissent in part agreed with the outcome and accused the insurance company, the contract's drafter, of "sloppy drafting," but did allow that the phrase might be ambiguous. 

 

January 3, 2018 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

When your extramarital relationship can allegedly be found in a contract

I may have just used the recent royal engagement news as the basis of my Contracts final hypo, so I read with interest this complaint out of the Eastern District of New York, Purcell v. Pressman, 17-cv-6879 (behind paywall), that got sent to me under an alert. (I have the alert set up for "fanfiction," because of my scholarly interest in fan activities, and sometimes I get the most random hits on it, like this one.) The complaint is behind a paywall, but the New York Post has an article up that summarizes both this complaint and the previous fraud complaint filed in Connecticut District Court by Pressman against Purcell a few days before Purcell filed her lawsuit

Basically, Purcell's complaint alleges a passionate and intense relationship begun in a hotel in Puerto Rico and continued over lavish vacations in Antigua and New York City. At one point, Pressman allegedly drew up a contract between his alleged business Triton and Purcell, containing certain provisions under which the company agreed to pay some of Purcell's expenses, although neither party ever signed the contract. The contract, according to the allegations of the complaint, was meant to be a gesture of commitment on the part of Pressman to his romantic relationship with Purcell. Pressman's complaint denies ever drafting the contract. 

The allegations continue: Purcell and Pressman moved in together. A few days later, Pressman suffered a medical emergency and was rushed to the hospital after Purcell called 911. Pressman also disputes this version of the tale in his complaint, claiming he called 911 himself after Purcell failed to assist him; as you can tell, Pressman's complaint tells a different story about the relationship with Purcell, accusing her of defrauding him, instead of Purcell's opposite allegations.

While in the hospital, Purcell claims to have answered Pressman's ringing cell phone and to have realized only then that Pressman was married. The complaint then continues to allege further events in the relationship and then asserts a number of causes of action, including breach of contract based on the contract Pressman had allegedly drawn up. 

The complaint concedes that neither party ever signed the contract, but Purcell alleges that she acted in reliance on the enforceability of the contract and so, therefore, the contract should be treated as valid, with the execution of it merely a formality. As I've stated, Pressman has denied ever drafting the contract. 

There are no other pleadings in this case yet. 

December 20, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Desperate times for law schools

As widely reported elsewhere such as by  David Frakt in The Faculty Lounge, law schools seem to be turning desperate to hide their student recruiting practices and ABA communications (see, e.g., Desperation Times at Thomas Cooley).  That blog post was cited to by the ABA in its brief in opposition to a motion filed by the Cooley law school for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in an attempt to prevent the ABA from publishing a letter online stating Cooley's noncompliance with at least one accreditation standard. Images

Of course, law students choosing to attend law school execute legally binding contracts with their schools.  So do employees choosing to work for these schools, many of which seem to be on the brink of discontinuation of operations.  For how much longer can we as law schools continue defending _not_ telling applicants the real truth about their prospects for passing the bar given our applicants' LSAT scores which are, we have to admit, highly determinative in predicting ultimate bar passage rates?  Is what we do ethical and professional?  Do we even follow contract laws against fraud in the inducement, or torts fraud laws, when we as schools have information that could and likely is crucial to applicants' decision-making?

David Frakt developed what he calls a "risk band" that correlates LSAT scores and students' risk of failing the bar.  Taking that even further, shouldn't applicants be told their _individual_, percent-wise chance of passing the bar?  If, for example, students know that with an LSAT score of 143 (this is just a random example), they have virtually zero chance of passing the bar, would they still execute a three-year contract with a law school that may cost them upward of $100,000?  I doubt it.  More honesty and transparency is clearly required in both the law school hiring and admissions world.

 

November 21, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Weinstein Protection Machine Was Fueled by Contracts

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Culpability of NDAs in Perpetuating Sexual Assault Culture

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reminder that silence generally doesn't constitute acceptance

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

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

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

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

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