Thursday, June 15, 2017
I've blogged before about whether a faculty handbook creates a binding contract between a university and its faculty. A recent case out of Indiana, Dodson v. Board of Trustees of Indiana University, Court of Appeals Case No. 45A03-1611-CT-2703, found that disclaimers contained within the faculty handbook can protect it from being considered a binding contract.
Dodson had alleged that she had been denied tenure in contravention of the faculty handbook, and that this constituted a breach of contract on behalf of the university. The university, however, pointed out that the handbook had a disclaimer that it was not be a construed as a contract, and as a result Dodson's claim failed. The disclaimer was evidence that the university never intended the handbook to be part of its contract with Dodson.
Monday, June 5, 2017
I've already blogged about the contractual disputes around the music that the late artist Prince left behind when he died unexpectedly. They continue with another case in the District of Minnesota, Paisley Park Enterprises, Inc. v. Boxill, Case No. 17-cv-1212 (WMW/TNL). In this dispute, Boxill, a consultant and sound engineer who worked with Prince, had announced that he would release five Prince recordings in his possession on the anniversary of Prince's death. Prince's estate sued, seeking a preliminary injunction against the release, which the court granted. One of the causes of action revolved around the Confidentiality Agreement that Boxill had entered into with Prince. Under the terms of the agreement, Boxill was allowed to enter Prince's home and work with Prince and disclaimed any property interest connected with this work. Yet when Prince's estate demanded return of the recordings in Boxill's possession, he refused to turn them over. This was sufficient to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits for breach of the contract.
Boxill's main argument was that the Confidentiality Agreement only covered his work consulting on the remodel of Prince's music studio; the Confidentiality Agreement did not cover Boxill's work as a sound engineer recording music with Prince. Boxill's reasoning on this was that the Confidentiality Agreement prohibited him recording any of Prince's performances, but he was required to do so when he was working with Prince as a sound engineer. The Prince estate's response to this was that it had waived the recording portion of the Confidentiality Agreement but the rest stayed in force and covered all of Boxill's activities. The Court concluded that either interpretation was plausible, and that Prince's estate had a "fair chance" of prevailing on the merits.
A motion to dismiss is currently pending in the case, so we'll see what happens!
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
In a recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Argue v. Triton Digital, Inc., Civil Action No. 16-133 (behind paywall), Argue, an engineer, brought suit alleging that his employer had been unjustly enriched by Argue's efforts. It's an interesting allegation. The court pointed out that what Argue was characterizing as "unjust enrichment" was really just him performing his job. He received a salary in exchange for his work, which included inventions, and his employer took that work and those inventions and used them to increase the value of its business. That wasn't unjust enrichment; the employer was entitled to do exactly what it did.
Complicating this further? Argue had an employment agreement. The court pointed out that unjust enrichment is a doctrine that's supposed to be used only when no contract exists between the parties. Here there was a written agreement that provided Argue's employer with the right to Argue's inventions on the job. He could not, therefore, argue unjust enrichment at all.
Monday, May 8, 2017
In a recent case out of the District of New Jersey, Saturn Wireless Consulting, LLC v. Aversa, Civ. No. 17-1637 (KM/JBC) (behind paywall), the court took a (light) "blue pencil" to a non-solicitation covenant in the parties' contract.
Saturn hired Aversa and they entered into a non-solicitation clause that prohibited Aversa from contact with any entity connected with Saturn, for the purpose of diverting work from Saturn, for a period of one year following Aversa ceasing to work for Saturn. Aversa resigned from Saturn and set up his own business that was partly in competition with Saturn. Saturn sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting Aversa from these activities based on the non-solicitation clause of the employment contract.
The court carefully interpreted the non-solicitation clause, noting that Aversa was restrained from doing some business with Saturn's customers but not restrained from doing any business with them. Rather, the non-solicitation said that the prohibited activities had to be "for the purpose of diverting work or business." If Aversa was working with some entities in some areas where Saturn was not operating--as he was--then those activities were permitted under the agreement.
The court did not, however, buy Aversa's argument that he did not run afoul of the non-solicitation clause because he did not contact the customer; the customer contacted him. The court noted that the clause had been expansively worded to include any "contact," not just solicitation, and therefore Aversa's returning of the customer's phone calls qualified.
Aversa also tried to argue that Saturn had not alleged any trade secrets or confidential information that Aversa knew that Saturn was trying to protect. Rather, Saturn's allegations were more generally about Aversa's relationships with the customer at issue. Aversa stated that Saturn was therefore trying to prevent him from using his general skills and know-how, which it could not do. However, the court found that Saturn had a legitimate interest in protecting customer relationships to some extent, independent of any trade secrets or confidential information. The evidence showed that Saturn invested resources to help Aversa build business relationships on Saturn's behalf. Aversa could not then turn around and use that investment to harm Saturn. However, the court made clear that this prohibition applied only to Aversa working with the same people he'd personally worked with while at Saturn. Otherwise, Aversa would be subjected to undue hardship in his chosen career field.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Just when you think the political debacle in this country cannot get anymore grotesque, here's a recent proposal by Iowa State Senator March Chelgren: to counter the liberal slant at Iowa's three public universities, the job candidates' political affiliations would have had to be considered. Why? To ensure "balanced speech" and avoid the "liberal slant" in public universities these days.
Under SF 288, the universities would use voter registration information when considering job applicants, and could not make any hire that would cause declared Democrats or Republicans on the faculty to outnumber the other party by more than 10%.
Demonstrating the very deep and logical (not!) argument, check this line of thinking: Chelgren said professors who want to be hired could simply change their party affiliation to be considered for the position. "We have an awful lot of taxpayer dollars that go to support these fine universities," he said. "(Students) should be able to go to their professors, ask opinions, and they should know publicly whether that professor is a Republican or Democrat or no-party affiliation, and therefore they can expect their answers to be given in as honest a way possible. But they should have the ability to ask questions of professors of different political ideologies."
Sunday, February 12, 2017
A recent case out of the Eastern District of Kentucky, Taylor v. University of the Cumberlands, Civil No: 6:16-cv-109-GFVT (behind paywall), has lots of causes of action, including an interesting dispute over whether an agreement between the university and its former President and Chancellor was supported by consideration.
While the decision itself, granting in part and denying in part the university's motion to dismiss, is behind a paywall, the dispute has been reported and described in the press. Dr. Taylor served as the President of the university for 35 years. He alleged that the school had agreed to pay him and his wife almost $400,000 annually after his retirement until they were both dead. The school disputed the validity of that agreement. The Taylors then brought several claims against the university, including breach of contract.
On the motion to dismiss, the main contract argument involved consideration. The university argued that the contract was given in recognition of the Taylors' successful fundraising efforts and service to the school, which had already occurred. This, the university contended, meant it was past consideration and rendered the agreement unenforceable.
The court acknowledged that the agreement discussed the Taylors' past behavior. However, the court also identified five current promises the Taylors made under the agreement: to continue to serve as president until he decided to retire; to accept the role of Chancellor until he decided to retire; to serve as an Ambassador of the university; to serve the university in any capacity requested; and to continue to fundraise for the university. Therefore, there was consideration.
The university then argued that the agreement had no definite end date, which would mean it was terminable at will. However, the court noted that that rule applies to contracts that would otherwise run forever. In such a circumstance, the right to terminate at will can be considered appropriate. In this case, the contract would terminate once both of the Taylors were dead. No one knew when that date would be, but presumably the Taylors will not live forever and therefore the contract will not run forever. Therefore, the contract was not terminable at will, and the Taylors lived to fight another day on their breach of contract claim (although the court noted that there were significant disputes surrounding the execution of the agreement and its proper interpretation).
Saturday, February 4, 2017
A recent case out of New York, Wilson v. New York State Thruway Authority, 931-16, deals with the collective bargaining agreement between the New York State Thruway Authority and its retirees over whether the Thruway Authority was contractually bound to provide health insurance coverage to the retirees at no cost. The retirees had enjoyed free health insurance until April 1, 2016, when the Thruway Authority required them to start paying six percent of their premiums. The retirees wanted to introduce evidence that the parties understood that the Thruway Authority was going to pay all of their health insurance premiums, pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement.
The problem was that the contract between the parties contained no such obligation and the court found that the contract was unambiguous on its face. All that the contract stated was that the Thruway Authority should provide "retirement benefits" made available by New York statutes the contract went on to enumerate. None of those statutes contained provisions requiring the Thruway Authority to provide health insurance coverage. In fact, health care benefits were governed by different New York statutes, not the ones enumerated, and New York state courts had long pointed out that "retirement benefits" and "health care benefits" were two different things governed by two different statutes under New York law. Given that, the court concluded that "retirement benefits" was an unambiguous term of art that the parties knew the definition of, given their particular citation of New York statutes to define it. The court refused to allow extrinsic evidence in the face of this lack of ambiguity. If the retirees had wished the Thruway Authority to pay for their health insurance premiums, they should have included an express provision saying that in the collective bargaining agreement, as many other collective bargaining agreements construed under New York law had done.
This decision is fairly straightforward as a matter of the law: finding that the term was unambiguous (and indeed basically defined within the document through the statutory citations) and so therefore extrinsic evidence was unnecessary to decide the breach of contract action (the court here concluded that, with no obligation to pay the health insurance premiums, the Thruway Authority had not breached the contract). However, it is a legal dispute that we might see more and more of, as deals with retirees are reevaluated and altered in an age of shrinking budgets.
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.