Friday, January 13, 2017
Frequently when I teach Contracts I find myself telling the students to just put in the contract exactly what they want it to say, because so often I feel like cases revolve around parties saying, "I know what it said, but I thought that meant something else entirely." Although, often, of course, these might be ex post facto proclamations when a situation turns out to not be exactly what the party thought it was going to be.
A recent case out of Maryland, Norman v. Morgan State University, No. 1926 September Term 2015 (behind paywall), is another illustration of a party claiming that a contract means what a court finds it does not mean. In that case, Norman had sued Morgan State after he was denied tenure there. The parties entered into a settlement agreement under which Norman was permitted to apply for "any non-tenure track position at [Morgan State] for which he was qualified." The current lawsuit is the result of Norman's allegation that Morgan State prevented him from applying for an external research grant that that would have funded a future position at the school for him.
The court, however, found that the contract clearly stated that Norman could apply for "any non-tenure track position." It said nothing about external grants and external grants are not non-tenure track positions. Therefore the settlement agreement did not require Morgan State to permit Norman to seek the external grant. Norman tried to argue that he would not have agreed to the settlement agreement had he known it allowed Morgan State to block applications for external grants, but the court dismissed that argument based on the plain and unambiguous language of the contract.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
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.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
How is this for a most bizarre contract law decision: The Chicago Housing Authority (“CHA”) contracted with architectural and engineering company DeStefano and Partners (“DeStefano”) for consulting services in connection with the construction of seven multifamily residential buildings. CHA required a certain percentage of the homes to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and other federal law (some of the housing was to be accessible by mobility impaired individuals, some by elderly residents). Among other things, DeStefano was made contractually aware that the company was to “certify that all work was performed under the direct supervision of the Project Architect and that it conforms to… the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 … [and] Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.”
During the construction, CHA was notified by HUD that the project did not meet the various federal requirements. CHA hired another architecture firm to perform the work necessary to comply with its obligations under the voluntary compliance agreement with HUD. CHA incurred more than $4.3 million to bring the buildings into compliance with federal standards and brought suit against DeStefano for material breach of contract.
DeStefano defended itself by, at bottom, arguing that since CHA had a nondelegable duty to comply with the federal accessibility standards, it should not be able to recover damages from DeStefano for CHA’s failure to do so. In other words: “It’s your own fault that you have this problem, not ours, even though we were the designers and the problem was with the design.” Yah.
But wait, it gets better than that: the court agreed! It apparently bought wholesale defendant’s argument that “permitting CHA to proceed with its state-law breach of contract action would discourage CHA from fulfilling its own obligations to prevent discrimination under Section 504 and the ADA, directly undermining the goal and purpose expressed by Congress in enacting those statutes.” It also stated that “notably, however, … there are no provisions within the ADA, or its accompanying regulations, that permit indemnification or the allocation of liability between the various entities subject to the ADA.” The court found that CHA’s duties were, as mentioned, nondelegable and, because the duties were imposed on CHA by HUD, CHA’s failure to comply was the problem. “CHA was a ‘wrongdoer’ in the sense that it failed to ensure the subject premises complied with the applicable federal accessibility standards in order to prevent discrimination.”
Wait a minute! So, in trying to make sure that the housing in fact complied with the law, the housing authority was found to have violated it! That’s just crazy.
This case may work as a good example if you want to train your students how to identify faulty reasoning and logic by courts.
The case is can be found here. Hat tip to Justen Hansen of WesTech Engineering for bringing this to my attention. http://www.westech-inc.com/en-usa
Thursday, November 24, 2016
As our friends on the Faculty Lounge just announced, Dean Schwartz was just forced to step down as Dean of the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, School of Law. Why? After the recent presidential election, he sent an email to students offering counseling to those upset by the results. Similar initiatives were undertaken around the nation in places so politically and geographically different as the University of South Dakota and Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Apparently, what really cost Dean Schwartz his position was his personal opinion given in the email, namely that the services would be offered to students who “feel upset” following the “most upsetting, most painful, most disturbing election season of my lifetime.”
A colleague of Schwartz's, Robert Steinbuch, who previously tussled with Schwartz over diversity in admissions, explained [cite to FL]: “If you tell people every time they lose they’re entitled to counseling, you elevate the perceived level of wrong beyond what it is. Most assuredly, Democrats are disappointed a Republican won. I recall when the Democratic Party won the Presidency twice each of the previous two elections. I knew plenty of people who were disappointed at that time, but I didn’t know anybody that needed grief counseling. I think when we tell people that they need some form of grief counseling we are normalizing hysteria and suggesting there’s something immoral or wrong about our democratic process.”
How incredibly misunderstood and off point. First, there really is something wrong about our democratic process when repeatedly, the person winning most of the popular votes in an election does not become the president. Similarly, our two-party only, “winner takes it all” system is arguably not a sufficiently faceted system that can be considered to be a true representative, deliberative democracy. But I get that, the system should then be changed before the next election. That won’t happen, just like time after time, mass shooting episodes don’t cause a change to our gun laws or the mass murder situation in general. Such is our country, and so be it, apparently.
What is incredible to me in relation to the above is not Schwartz’ alleged normalization of “hysteria” (read: justified outrage), it is attempts to make this particular election appear normal. It simply was not. Everyone seems to agree on that, Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, note that many Republicans were outraged as well – and for good reason. Should it be acceptable that we now have a President who, for example, is proud that he “grabs women by the pussy” and “just start[s] kissing them” whether or not they want it? Someone who claims that he is “smart” for not paying taxes for, apparently, many years to a country that he wants to lead, even though he could easily afford doing so? A person who, in spite of sound science proving otherwise until at least yesterday claimed that climate change is a “hoax made up by the Chinese”?
I would hope not. But as we see, apparently that is what we just have to put up with and not even opine about, even in legal academia, in the form of a sentence as innocuous as one that refers to simple, but honest, feelings shared by millions of other people as well.
Throughout history, censorship has never proved particularly effective. As a nation, if we seek to revert to such strategies, we are truly in trouble. Schwartz’ comments may well have upset Republican law students, but maybe that in and of itself would have had some value, especially in an academic setting where thoughts are valued for being just that; thoughts that just might help improve our nation.
On an up note: Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks to Michael Schwartz for being a such a courageous, thoughtful dean and legal scholar!
Greetings from Berlin.
November 24, 2016.
Monday, November 14, 2016
I just wrote up a promissory estoppel case last week, and here's another one out of Connecticut, Sorrentino v. Rizza, Docket Number CV156013599 (behind paywall). In this case, the plaintiff failed to allege specific enough statements to form the foundation of her promissory estoppel claim. The case is a dispute over a promise of employment, and the relevant part of the complaint alleged that the defendant had promised the plaintiff "on several occasions" that she would be given "a similar position" with the defendant's company as the plaintiff already held in another company, with "a salary plus a percentage of any advertisement revenue she generated."
This was, in the court's view, "nebulous at best." No specific dates or locations were given for the promises in question, there was no explanation of the salary that was discussed, and there were no details about what percentage of revenues the plaintiff had been promised. The plaintiff's allegations were about indefinite statements that seemed to lack any material terms. The court said those could not be construed as any "clear and definite promise" that could the plaintiff could reasonably have relied on.
So if you think you have a promissory estoppel claim, the lesson from this case is to make sure you are very specific in relaying to the court exactly what was said and when.
Monday, October 31, 2016
A recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Douglas v. University of Pittsburgh, Civil Action No. 15-938 (behind paywall), found that there were factual disputes precluding summary judgment regarding whether or not a contract was in place between the plaintiff, an assistant football coach, and the University.
The plaintiff alleged that he was orally told by Pittsburgh's head football coach when he was offered the job that it would be a two-year-contract with $225,000 in the first year and $240,000 in the second year, with other perks. The plaintiff accepted the terms and began the job immediately upon receiving this alleged oral offer from the head coach.
A little more than a week later, the plaintiff received a proposed Employment Contract. The contract had his second-year salary as $235,000 instead of $240,000 and also stated that the University could terminate the plaintiff's employment if the head coach left the school. The plaintiff had concerns about these clauses and other parts of the contract and brought these concerns to the head coach, who allegedly told the plaintiff that he would take care of the issues.
A few months later, the plaintiff moved his wife and children to join him in Pittsburgh. Over the course of the next few months, the plaintiff claims to have periodically raised the issue that he had never signed a contract and was allegedly told by various people not to worry about it.
Less than a year after the plaintiff started the assistant coach job, the head coach left Pittsburgh to take a job at the University of Wisconsin. Pittsburgh then subsequently terminated the plaintiff and all of the other assistant football coaches. The University informed the plaintiff that, because he had never signed the Employment Contract, he was an "at-will" employee. The plaintiff, in the wake of losing his job, took a job at Florida State for $40,000 per year, necessitating more moving costs.
Not happy about how this all played out, the plaintiff sued the University of Pittsburgh. The plaintiff's allegation was that he was orally offered a contract for two years of employment that he accepted, and that the University breached that oral contract. The University responded that the conversation between the plaintiff and the head coach on which the plaintiff pins his hopes did not have enough essential terms to be considered a contract and that the essential terms were in the Employment Contract. Although the plaintiff refused to sign that written contract, the University maintained that he accepted the terms of the written contract when he continued to work for the University. The plaintiff, however, argued that the head coach's offer of employment was specific enough, giving job duties, term, and salary, to constitute a binding contract between the parties, and the plaintiff stated that he resigned from his job and moved his family in reliance on this.
The University moved for summary judgment but the court found that there was enough evidence that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff and the University had agreed to enough essential terms to form a contract. However, the court dismissed the plaintiff's claims for fraud in the inducement and negligent misrepresentation as merely duplicating the surviving breach of contract claim. I'll keep you posted on what happens!
Law360 has an article about the filing of this lawsuit here.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
We've been talking about contract interpretation in my Contracts class lately and I'm always struck by how many cases involve a lower court ruling of ambiguity and then an appellate court reversal of that ruling, because it always strikes me as such a funny thing. The very definition of ambiguity would seem to be "multiple people disagreeing on the meaning of the word," but the appellate court decisions in those cases necessarily have to dismiss the reasonableness of the lower court's understanding of the meaning in order to assert that the meaning is SO OBVIOUS. This always makes these cases feel a little more...condescending? Than the typical reversal. Like, "We don't know what you were so confused about, lower court, this is OBVIOUS."
A recent case out of California, Borgwat v. Shasta Union Elementary School District, No. C078692, is another example of this. The plaintiff, upon retiring from the defendant, was entitled to a monthly post-retirement contribution toward her "medical insurance coverage." For a couple of years, the defendant paid the contribution toward the plaintiff's dental and vision coverage. But then the defendant concluded that dental and vision insurance was not included in "medical insurance coverage" and ceased paying the contribution. This lawsuit resulted.
The lower court found the phrase "medical insurance coverage" to be ambiguous and allowed extrinsic evidence to illuminate its definition, including the fact that the defendant had initially paid the plaintiff the contribution for a few years. Therefore, the lower court endorsed the plaintiff's interpretation that "medical insurance coverage" included dental and vision insurance.
The appellate court here reversed, though, saying that "medical insurance coverage" was not an ambiguous term. The relevant section of the contract was Section 5.7 but the appellate court looked to Section 5.2, which dealt with benefits during the course of employment. In that section, the defendant had agreed to pay sums "toward the cost of medical, dental and vision benefit coverage." The fact that dental and vision were considered independent from medical insurance in Section 5.2 rendered the use of "medical insurance" in Section 5.7 unambiguous: It can't include dental and vision insurance, because the parties in Section 5.2 revealed that they didn't understand medical to include dental and vision insurance when they felt it necessary to list all three. For this reason, the appellate court refused to allow any extrinsic evidence, because the defendant's mistake in paying for the dental and vision insurance could not change the unambiguous terms of the contract.
So there you have it. OBVIOUSLY. :-)
Friday, September 16, 2016
A British start-up company called Luminance, which is also the name of its flagship due diligence analysis, “promises” to read documents and speed up the legal process around contracting, “potentially cutting out some lawyers.” (See here and here).
Luminance says that its software “understands language the way humans do, in volumes and at speeds that humans will never achieve. It provides an immediate and global overview of any company, picking out warning signs without needing any instruction.” Really? When I was working in the language localization things more than a decade ago, I heard the same promises then… but they never come to fruition. We’ll see how this program fares.
The software is said to be “trained by legal experts.” Talk about personification of an almost literary-style. We see the same trend in the United States, though. Just think about phone and internet programs that pretend to be your “assistant” and use phrases such as “Hi, my name is [so-and-so], and I’m going to help you today…”
Meanwhile, if a law firm used software to analyze documents, would it not be subject to legal malpractice if it did not discover contracting or other issues that a human would have, in this country at least? It would seem so… and for that reason alone perhaps also be a breach of contract unless clients were made aware that cost-cutting measures include having computers analyze documents that attorneys normally do.
Monday, September 5, 2016
I always think it's interesting to see how courts judge the reasonableness of non-competition provisions. In this recent case out of the Eastern District of New York, Grillea v. United Natural Foods, Inc., 16-CV-3505 (SJF)(SIL) (behind paywall), a judge declined to preliminarily enjoin the employer from enforcing the former employee's non-compete and blocking him from accepting his new position, finding that the former employee had not shown a likelihood of success that the non-compete wasn't enforceable.
The plaintiff and former employee was one of the top executives at the defendant, United Natural Foods. He had signed a non-competition agreement that prohibited him from working anywhere in the United States for one year for any of United's direct competitors. After a few years, United terminated the plaintiff's employment. There was a lot of negotiation about when the termination would take place, which stock options were going to vest, which benefits would keep accruing, how the plaintiff would be categorized, etc., but for purposes of this blog entry, eventually the termination became effective and the plaintiff left United's employ.
Plaintiff received a job offer from a division of another company called Threshold. Plaintiff spoke to people at United about the job offer. They expressed concern that it would violate his non-compete. Plaintiff said he disagreed because he would be dealing with manufacturing, which was not what his responsibilities had been at United. Plaintiff put people at United down as references and Threshold called and spoke to them. They claimed they informed Threshold they thought what plaintiff was doing was a conflict of interest.
This dispute followed, with plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction that United not enforce the non-compete so that plaintiff can accept his new position. The court, however, denied plaintiff's motion. The court found that the one-year time period of the non-compete was reasonable and also that the fact that it had no geographic limitation was reasonable because United is a nationwide company (the geographic limitation thing was important to plaintiff's argument because he was switching coasts for the new job).
What I found most interesting about this case was that the judge emphasized several times that United had stated that the non-compete only prevented plaintiff from working for twenty-nine companies (of which Threshold was one). That was clearly a detail that was compelling to the court.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Yesterday, Stacey noted how employers should be careful not to be too greedy when dealing with employees. Another example of the backlash – judicial or legislative – that may be the result if employers overstep what ought to be reasonable limits in interactions with their employees is a new law in Massachusetts that prohibits employers from asking job candidates about their salary history as part of the screening process or during an interview.
Why indeed should they be able to do so?! In a free market, freedoms cut both ways: just as an employee can, of course, not be sure to get any particular job at any particular salary, the employer also cannot be sure to be able to hire any particular employee! There is no reason why employers should enjoy financial insight about the employee when very often, employees don’t know about the salaries at the early stages of the job negotiation process. Both parties should be able to come to the negotiation table on as equal terms as possible, especially in this job market where employers already often enjoy significant bargaining advantages.
Massachusetts also requires Commonwealth employers to pay men and women equally for comparable work.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
One of the things I caution my students about is the danger of being greedy in a covenant not to compete. If you are in a jurisdiction that enforces such covenants, you still must be aware that courts frequently subject them to close examination. It might be true that in many cases, the employee subject to the over-restrictive covenant might simply accept it without challenging it, but a recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, RLM Communications, Inc. v. Tuschen, No. 14-2351 (you can listen to the case's oral argument here), serves as a reminder that a court can knock a covenant not to compete out of a contract and leave no protection at all in its place.
Tuschen was an employee of RLM who had the following non-compete in her employment contract:
While I, the Employee, am employed by Employer, and for 1 years/months afterward, I will not directly or indirectly participate in a business that is similar to a business now or later operated by Employer in the same geographical area. This includes participating in my own business or as a co-owner, director, officer, consultant, independent contractor, employee, or agent of another business.
Tuschen eventually resigned from RLM and went to work for a competitor, eScience, and RLM alleged that Tuschen had thereby breached her non-compete.
The Fourth Circuit, however, found that the non-compete was overbroad and therefore unenforceable. First it noted that it prohibited direct and indirect participation, which the court found inherently problematic, because it theoretically prevented Tuschen from, say, acting as eScience's realtor, landscaper, or caterer. Nor was the only problem with the covenant its use of the word "indirectly," which RLM argued could just be struck from the clause, leaving the rest of the clause enforceable and in place. The breadth of prohibition on Tuschen's actions, including to businesses that might be operated by RLM in the future, wasn't justified by RLM's business concerns. The non-compete's focus on the identity of the new employer, rather than on Tuschen's behavior in the new employment, was misplaced: RLM should have been more concerned about the risk that Tuschen would use secret RLM knowledge detrimentally, rather than concerned about who she was working for (directly or indirectly).
An interesting case, with some interesting things to say about non-competes (and also trade secret misappropriation). When you read the case, it becomes clear that the court thought Tuschen was in many ways a good employee for RLM who was not engaging in sketchy behavior. In fact, in the court's characterization, one of the things RLM complains about was that Tuschen took steps to make the transition within RLM for her replacement easier and more streamlined without seeking permission first. This whole case stands as a warning not to be overly aggressive with enforcement in situations where a court will find it inappropriate.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
In Walker v. Trailer Transit, Judge Easterbrook finds that in addition to “recover costs,” the word “reimburse” could just as easily mean to broadly “compensate” (at a profit) or “pay” even given a seemingly contradictory context.
In the case, one thousand truck drivers filed a class action lawsuit against their “gig” employer, Trailer Transit. The drivers contracted to earn 71% of Trailer Transit’s contracts with its end clients. Trailer Transit owned the trucks; the drivers drove them. Among other things, the contract between the drivers and Trailer Transit stated that
[t]he parties mutually agree that [Trailer Transit] shall pay to [Driver] … a sum equal to seventy one percent (71%) of the gross revenues derived from use of the equipment leased herein (less any insurance related surcharge and all items intended to reimburse [Trailer Transit] for special services, such as permits, escort service and other special administrative costs including, but not limited to, Item 889).
The drivers (perhaps inartfully) claimed that Trailer Transit cheated them out of earnings by labeling income “special services” whereby Trailer Transit could claim it was simply getting “reimbursed” and thus deduct certain amounts from the equation before compensating its drivers. Trailer Transit claimed that the drivers were only entitled to 71% of whatever was listed as the “gross charges” for the driving services, end of story.
How would you interpret the provision in question?
The most obvious and reasonable reading of the contract seems to me to be as follows: If, for example, Trailer Transit enters into a contract with an end client for $1,000 plus $100 for also arranging for special services in the form of, for example, an escort vehicle (e.g. a “Wide Load” car), its drivers would earn $710, Trailer transit $290 in profits ($1,000 – 71% to the drivers), but bill the end client $1,100.
But what if, hypothetically speaking, the company was to seek to maximize its profits out of the total sum of $1,100 to be billed to the end client? It could then, for example, label $600 as “special services” to be “reimbursed” to it, thus reducing the amount to be paid to the drivers to $355 (71% of ($1,100-600)). That would increase its profits from the above $290 to $645 (($500-355) plus $500 (with the escort service at $100). Do you think that the contract was meant to be interpreted that way? Judge Easterbook (yes, of “bubble wrap fame”) does. Among other things, he found that
[d]rivers are entitled to 71% of the gross charge for “use of the equipment” (that is, the Drivers’ rigs), but the contract does not provide for a share of Trailer Transit’s net profit on any other part of the bill. It would be possible to write such a contract, but the parties didn’t … [T]he Drivers do not invoke any principle of  law that turns “71% of gross on X and nothing on Y” into “71% of gross on X plus 71% of net on Y.”
Judge Easterbook also makes the unpersuasive and, in my opionion, ill-thought out example that if
Trailer Transit paid someone $1,000 to accompany an over-wide shipment and display a “WIDE LOAD” banner, and billed the shipper $1,250, then the Driver would be entitled to $887.50 for that escort service—and Trailer Transit would lose $637.50 ($1,250 less $1,000 less $887.50 equals $637.50).
This is unpersuasive as Trailer Transit would presumably not be as large and profitable as it is if it were so incompetent as to systematically incur the losses that Judge Easterbrook concocts here. Further, in his example, if the charge of $1,000 truly was for a cost of that amount, Trailer Transit would, per its own contract and intent, get to deduct that cost in full first. Nothing in the case indicates otherwise.
The meaning seems to hinge on two things: the meaning of “reimburse” and whether or not this was an example of the company taking opportunistic advantage of its contractual commitments, which the drivers had, for some reason, not argued (Easterbrook recognizes that such an argument might have changed the outcome of the case – note to our students: always consider that). As regards the meaning of “reimburse, Judge Easterbook argues
True enough, one standard meaning of “reimburse” is to recover costs. Someone who submits a voucher for expenses incurred on a business trip seeks reimbursement of actual outlays rather than a profit. But this is not the only possible meaning of “reimburse.” The word also is used to mean “compensate” or “pay.” If the contract had said “reimburse the expense of special services,” that would limit the word’s meaning to recovery of actual costs. But those italicized words aren’t in the contract.
No, but that intent seems to be clear here. Contracts are usually interpreted in accordance with both the plain meaning of the contract and the intent of the parties (not after-the-fact intent of one party).
What do you think the word “reimburse” means here? The word is defined by various sources as follows (my emphasis):
Black’s Law Dictionary:
- to pay someone an amount of money equal to an amount that person has spent;
- to pay someone back;
- to make restoration or payment of an equivalent to an amount that person has spent
- to make repayment to for expense or loss incurred;
- to pay back; refund; repay.
- pay someone back for some expense incurred;
- reimburse or compensate (someone) as for a loss
Third Circuit Court of Appeals:
"To pay back, to make restoration, to repay that expended; to indemnify, or make whole." United States v. Konrad, 730 F.3d 343, 353 ( 3d Cir. 2013).
To me, all these sources indicate that the word means what we probably all think it means: money back for an outlay. But apparently, that is not the case in the Seventh Circuit.
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
This One Again: Handwritten Contracts Really Are Binding (but Mediation Transcripts Are Highly Recommended)
The Seventh Circuit just reconfirmed the fact that handwritten contracts are enforceable as long as they contain all the material terms of the contract.
In the relevant case,Martina Beverly brought suit against her former employer, Abbott Laboratories, for discrimination and retaliation against her because of her German nationality (not a lot of anti-German discrimination going on in this country these days, one might think, but that was nonetheless the allegation) as well as on the basis of her disabilities. The case went to mediation. A day before the mediation took place, Abbott’s attorney sent Beverly’s attorney a “template settlement agreement in order to avoid any surprises in the event that [the parties] are able to resolve the matter.” That document also stated that Beverly had twenty one days to review it and seven days to revoke any possible acceptance.
During the fourteen-hour mediation session the next day, both parties were represented by counsel. At the end of the session, both parties and their counsel signed a very brief handwritten agreement that, at bottom, stated that Abbott would pay the cost of mediation and “$200,000+” with Beverly demanding $210,000. The parties were probably and understandably tired after such a long session, but still: a quarter million-dollar settlement, and no one had the energy or took the time to type up one measly paragraph?...
Next day, Abbott emailed a typed agreement to Beverly’s specifying the amounts to be paid ($46,000 to Beverly and a relatively whopping $164,000 to her attorneys!). The emailed response from Beverly’s attorneys: “Oh happy days!.. You are a gem.”
Soon after that, Beverly – perhaps for good reason – got cold feet and sought to rescind from the deal, arguing that additional terms were needed for a contract to have been formed, that the twenty one days mentioned in the pre-meeting template (which was never used in its original form) were applicable to her settlement offer, and that a “more formal future writing” was anticipated.
The appellate court struck down each of these arguments. First, additional terms such as any future cooperation between the parties and Beverly’s future employment with the company were nonessential details. The language in the original template pertaining to a cool-down period was never actually used. The fact that parties anticipate a more formal writing does not nullify an otherwise binding agreement. The court found the happy exclamation by Beverly’s attorney dispositive of the parties’ intent to enter into a contract when they did (one might also say it was simply an indication of the attorneys’ happiness with a large payment, not their clients’ mood).
Perhaps most importantly, the court pointed out that “[i]t bears mentioning that a transcript (or some other recording) of the private mediation session here may have provided important clarity regarding the parties’ beliefs and intentions relating to the handwritten agreement and the draft proposal. We encourage future litigants to record any communications that directly relate to final settlement agreements.”
Sound advice in days of, apparently, little or no secretarial assistance even when relatively large sums of money are at stake. An assistant could have typed up the agreement in less than one minute. So could an attorney. In the end, though, the handwriting argument did not prevail, but having something in writing or at least an audio recording would have precluded even more costly lawyering.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
The Department of Labor is finalizing a rule that will extend overtime pay to 4.2 million more Americans currently not eligible for such pay under federal law. This is expected to increase wages for workers by $12 billion over the next ten years and thus contribute to the relatively stagnant wages experienced by the majority of American workers in spite of six years of continual job growth and, now, solid profits by many companies.
The earnings situation did not use to be so poor for so many people. In fact, in 1975, 62% of full-time workers qualified for overtime pay. Today, only a measly 7% do.
As Henry Ford and others knew a long time ago: more money to more people will boost the economy for everyone, including businesses.
Read more about the ruling here
Thursday, May 12, 2016
If you and I worked in an industry with highly sensitive information (assuming that we do not), it might be one thing if we thought we could email confidential information to our private email accounts and copy such information to a memory stick without finding out. But if a C-level employee at a high-tech company does so, does such conduct not rise to an entirely different level of at least naivety, if not deliberate contractual and employment misconduct?
A court will soon have to answer that question. Louis Attanasio, former head of global sales for an IBM cloud computing unit has been sued by IBM for breach of a contractual confidentiality clause, misappropriation of trade secrets, and violation of a non-compete agreement when he left – information in hand – to work for direct competitor Informatica.
In 2016, Attanasio allegedly started sending confidential information to his private email account, including draft settlement agreements between other IBM employees who had left to work for competitors. Before leaving IBM, Attanasio was asked to return a laptop to the company, which claims that he cpied files to a USB storage device.
Once again, the extent of the traceability of our electronic actions at work has become apparent. I continually remind my students of this to help them avoid “traps” such as the above or, frankly, simply to remind them that they should not spend much, if any, time on their computers not working (most seem to use their own electronic devices anyway these days, but still… and doing so is also very visual in an office setting.). Employers frequently complain about the work ethics of new college graduates, so it might be worthwhile to remind our students of what seems obvious to us.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
In spite of most jurisdictions reading a duty of good faith and fair dealing into all contracts, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is unlikely that the Texas Supreme Court would find such a duty to exist in Texas. Wow. Additionally, the court found that no fiduciary relationship between a university student and his/her university faculty and other representatives.
Section 205 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts states that “[e]very contract imposes upon each party a duty of good faith and fair dealing in its performance and enforcement.” See also Farnsworth, “Good Faith Performance and Commercial Reasonableness under the Uniform Commercial Code,” 30 U.Chi.L.Rev. 666, 670 (1963).
The seminal case in this area is Market Street Associates v. Frey, 941 F.2d 599 (7th Cir. 1991). In that case, Judge Posner held that in spite of the somewhat “moralistic overtones of good faith,” not every contract signatory is expected to be his “brother’s keeper.” Nonetheless, “the essentials of the modern doctrine [are] well established in nineteenth-century cases.” “This duty is … halfway between a fiduciary duty (the duty of utmost good faith) and the duty merely to refrain from active fraud. Despite its moralistic overtones it is no more the injection of moral principles into contract law than the fiduciary concept itself is.” “The office of the doctrine of good faith is to forbid the kinds of opportunistic behavior that a mutually dependent, cooperative relationship might enable in the absence of rule. “
In the new Texas case involving a student at SMU who got fired from his part-time job as a Community Adviser for misconduct toward students and faculty, the circuit court held that “Texas law does not impose a generalized duty of good faith and fair dealing and, in fact, rejects it” in all circumstances apart from when 1) a formal fiduciary relationships exists or 2) a “special or confidential relationship” exists. Examples of the former are attorney-clients, trustee-beneficiary, and principal-agents. In Texas, the latter apparently only includes the relationship between an insurer and an insured. That’s it! Texas courts have, found this panel, refused to impose the duty on, for example, employer-employees (not too surprising), lender-borrowers, medical provider-patients (double wow!), mortgagor-mortgagees, and franchisor-franchisees. The court in the described case also said that an “ordinary student-professor relationship is no different;” in other words, there is no fiduciary or even “confidential” or “special” relationship between students and faculty in Texas.
The case does not show how the student’s allegation that a duty of good faith existed between SMU and the student would really have helped the student on the merits. SMU seemed to have a very good case for firing the student from his job. Nonetheless, it is surprising that the court would so categorically reject that such a duty even exists apart from in traditional fiduciary relationships. While it may make sense that “a purely unilateral, subjective” sense of trust in one’s contractual counterpart and that the other party will have one’s interests at heart is not enough to create a fiduciary relationship, there is a vast difference between that and reading out the duty of good faith and fair dealings from most contracts law in general in Texas. Of course, as contracts law is state law, it is true that it is the Texas courts who must change this line of thinking, but doing so seems to be highly warranted given how courts in other parts of the nation rule on the issue.
The case discussed is Hux v. Southern Methodist University, 2016 WL 1621720 (no free online copy available yet).
Friday, April 22, 2016
To determine when the statute of limitations has run in relation to benefits contracts, the classification of the contract as “entire” or “divisible” may turn out to be crucial. If the contract is entire, the statute may start running on, for example, a certain date when the employer made a single contractually binding promise to provide health care for its employees, typically once a year. If the contracts is divisible, the contract may extend further into the future and run from, for example, ongoing times when the employee makes monthly premium payments under the plan.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals notes that in Georgia, a contract is entire if “the whole quantity, service, or thing, all as a whole, is of the essence of the contract,  if it appears that the contract was to take the whole or none,” and if the contract “involves a single sum certain.” In contrast, a divisible contract is one that involves “successive performances” and is “for an indefinite total amount which is payable in installments over an uncertain period.” (See Wood v. Unified Government of Athens – Clarke County, Ga. 2016 WL 1376443. ).
In the dispute before the court, the panel found that although the employer had made a single contractual promise for retirement healthcare benefits, the contract was divisible because the employer could only perform its promise by successive performances throughout the uncertain span of each retiree’s life. This was furthermore the case because of the unpredictable fluctuations in each retiree’s healthcare costs, the contract requiring the payment of many successive payments, and because the employees had no immediate claim for the entirety of the contract if the contract were entire. Thus, the statute of limitations ran separately as to each premium payment when it became due.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Outsourcing work to locations where employees earn even less than many in the United States do has already become commonplace. Now comes the corporate idea of “taskifying” work to people eager to obtain some work, even if just in bits and pieces. “Crowdwork,” as it is known, lets companies use online platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk or www.fiverr.com to find people willing to do routine tasks such as drafting standardized reports, filing forms, coordinating events and debugging websites, but also much more complex ones such as designing logos, ghostwriting, etc. Many of today’s work tasks can be broken up into bits and farmed out online, and many employers are already doing so. Could this also come to encompass routine lawyerly work? Quite possibly so. Researchers at Oxford Univesity’s Martin Programme estimate that nearly 30% of jobs in the U.S. could be organized in a crowdwork format within just twenty years.
In this context where few regulations or laws yet govern the contracts, workers would no longer be either “employees” or “contractors,” (which has already proved to be troublesome enough for companies such as Uber), but rather “users” or “customers” of the websites that enable, well, workers and companies (“providers”) to find each other. These transactions would not be governed by employment contracts, but by online “user agreements” and “terms of service” that currently resemble software licenses more than employment contracts. There are few, if any, legal obligations towards employees in the current legal landscape that also offers employees very few means for obtaining and enforcing something so basic pay for the work performed.
Employers today require a flexible and eager workforce that is constantly on the ready and that can maybe even work 24 hours a day. Crowdworkers provide just such availability and demand very low salaries because the name of the game seems to be to compete on prices. The problem is that workers, to have a decent life, need the opposite: stability, higher salaries than what is often currently the case, retirement, salary, and medical benefits. Do these come with crowdwork tasks? Sadly, no.
What could go wrong? Consider this case: Mr. Khan, an Indian man living in India, was eager to make some money. He decided to try Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. On good days, he would make $40 in ten hours; more than 100 times what his neighbors made as farmers. He even outsourced some of his own work to a team that he supervised. This must have violated Amazon’s Participation Agreement as all of a sudden, Mr. Khan received the message that his account was closed and “could not be reopened.”Amazingly, Mr. Khan was also notified that “[a]ny funds that were remaining on the account are forfeited, and we will not be able to provide any additional insight or action.” Talk about lopsided contracts! Using a “Contact Us” link, Mr. Khan was eventually able to get through to Amazon, which simply referred him to a contractual clause stating that Amazon had the “right to terminate or suspend any Payment Account … for any reason in our sole discretion.”
With these types of ad-hoc online agreements, people who should arguably at least have been classified contractors if not, as in some current cases, employees. Of course, this only pertains to U.S. law, but it is important to note that not all jobs are “taskified” to foreign workers. Thus, employees risk being “stiffed” twice: once for losing their jobs to cheaper folks willing to be crowdworkers and, if they chose to work under such contracts and don’t do exactly as the “provider” requires in their apparent almost exclusive discretion, not being paid and not having any effective means of enforcing their contracts. An undisputedly troublesome development both in this nation and beyond.
How could at least the issue with medical and other employee benefits be solved? It might via universal payment systems such as those typical in EU nations. There, when employees change jobs, their vacation time, medical and other benefits travel remain in a centrally administered pool (whether government administered or privately so with tough regulations in place), they do not become discontinued with the employment only to have to be restarted under other plans as typical in this country. This system could potentially be transferred to the crowdwork arena. A percentage of each job (sometimes even called “gigs”) could be centra lly administered in a more employee-centric version than the still American employer-centric solutions. Such systems are, of course, largely seen here in the U.S. as “socialist” and thus somehow inherently negative.
As if the employment situation for workers around the world is not already bad enough, add this new development, called “a tsunami of change for anyone whose routine work can be broken into bits and farmed out online.” Our students’ future work tasks may, at least in the beginning of their careers, constitute just such work. This is a worrying development as workers in our industry and in this country in general are not seeing improved working conditions in general. Crowdworking could add to that slippery slope.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
We've looked at arbitration provisions and unconscionability before. In this recent case out of California, Yeotis v. Warner Pacific Insurance Services Inc., No. B245770, the agreement in question was found to be unconscionable in places, but that didn't doom the arbitration provision contained within it.
There was an element of procedural unconscionability to the contract. The court concluded that the contract was an adhesion contract, because the plaintiff was required to sign it in order to keep her job. There was, therefore, some procedural unconscionability attached to the formation of the contract. Additionally, there was some substantive unconscionability in the contract's provisions that gave the court pause. The wording of the contract required the plaintiff to pay fees in arbitration that she wouldn't have had to pay in a court of law. The defendant tried to argue that that was only the impression given and that the plaintiff would never have had to pay those fees in reality, but the court was concerned that the plaintiff would assume, under the contract's language, that she would be responsible for the fees and therefore might hesitate to pursue her remedy against the employer.
So the court directed the costs provision to be severed from the contract, but it found that the rest of the contract was enforceable. The procedural unconscionability was slight, it thought, and did not permeate the whole contract. The plaintiff's allegation that she had never been provided with the relevant arbitration rules prior to signing the contract was unpersuasive to the court as a more serious procedural unconscionability problem because the court thought she could have found the rules herself very easily and there was no contention otherwise. As for the rest of the arbitration procedures as explained in the contract, the court found that they were not substantively unconscionable and so could be enforced.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
It's not a secret that some colleges and universities out there are really struggling. At Lake Superior State University in Michigan, where enrollment has been declining, two professors were recently denied tenure, as Josh Logue reported for InsideHigherEd. As required by the faculty association's agreement with the university, the denials set forth the reason tenure had been denied, and the reason given was the need for the university to reduce staffing in the face of the declining enrollment. The professors took issue with this reason for denial, however, because the agreement contained the following clause:
Recommendations for tenure shall be based on:
a) Careful review of the Tenure Application File [letters of support, CV, and evaluations].
b) Consideration of the faculty member’s collegiality in their relation to faculty, students, staff, and administration.
The professors are saying that that doesn't allow for denial of tenure based on another consideration, such as financial.
It's unclear whether there was a communication with the candidates beforehand that institutional need might impact the tenure decision. The contract doesn't seem to ever mention financial considerations impacting the faculty, or institutional need, or indeed any kind of catch-all, at first glance. It does, however, provide for an appeal of a tenure decision, so I'm curious if the denied candidates will take advantage of this, and what the eventual outcome will be.