Friday, July 20, 2018
A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Garcia v. Good for Life by 81, Inc., 17-CV-07228 (BCM) (behind paywall), is an examination of a settlement agreement implicating the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). It's interesting for the language it's willing to approve vs. the language it says should not be contained in the agreement.
First, the court expresses concern about the contract's releases being overly broad and rewrites them, concerned that the language as written would have attempted to bar claims by a "second cousin once removed." Upon revision, the court is comfortable with the releases, but the court declares unenforceable the no-assistance and no-media provisions. The court finds it a violation of the FLSA to bar the plaintiff from assisting other individuals who might have a claim against the employer. The court also states that the effective "partial confidentiality clause" preventing the plaintiff from contacting the media is "contrary to well-established public policy." I found this last ruling especially interesting in our age of widepsread NDAs, which I've blogged about a bunch. I agree that such a clause would "prevent the spread of information" in a way that would be harmful to other wronged victims trying to vindicate their rights; we should keep talking about that when it comes to NDAs.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Recently a video went viral showing a 2016 altercation around an umpire ejecting Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard after he threw a fastball behind the Dodgers' Chase Utley. Umpires wear microphones during Major LeagueBaseball games, and the resulting (often loud and profane) discussions with Mets players and especially Mets manager Terry Collins was recorded.
The video recently surfaced in an apparent leak, because MLB has announced its intention to try to scrub the video from the internet. MLB's reason for this is that it violates a "commitment" that "certain types of interactions" involving umpires during baseball games would not be made public, claiming it was "in the collective bargaining agreement" and that there was "no choice" but to scrub the video from the internet. Indeed, according to one report it had already been scrubbed.
Not so fast, though, because I found it still embedded in news reports about it. It's hard to get anything to vanish from the internet, especially once it's gone viral, but it's not that difficult to locate this video at all.
And it's not hard to see why it went viral. It's a fascinating glimpse into a part of the game fans seldom get to see. As others have pointed out, the umpire does a fantastic job in the clip, so it's hardly like he's being cast in a bad light. The manager doesn't even come across all that poorly. In fact, in my opinion, the party that comes out of the clip looking the worst is Major League Baseball and its confusing way of handling the explosive Chase Utley situation.
It's unclear what "interactions" were agreed to be withheld from the public, but this one is certainly an interesting one. I'd love to know what the contract terms actually are.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
A new case out of Minnesota and subsequently the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit once again confirms what we suspect already: if there is any doubt about an employee’s status, he or she is likely to be held to be an at-will employee. Consider this:
Daniel Ayala is hired as an at-will employee in 2006 to serve as a vice president for CyberPower. In 2012, Ayala and CyberPower agree to convert his position to executive vice president for sales and general manager for Latin America. The written contract details his salary and compensation status, stating that the agreement “outlines the new salary and bonus structure to remain in place until$150 million USD [sic] is reached. It is not a multiyear commitment or employment contract for either party” (emphasis added). Ayala is fired before sales could reach $150. He claims breach of contract, contractual fraud, and unpaid wages, arguing that he was no longer an at-will employee, but rather should have been allowed to remain with the company at least until, as stated in the contract, the sales reached $150 million. CyberPower also relies on the contractual language, arguing that it unambiguously did notmodify his status as an at-will employee as contained the phrase that it was “not a multiyear commitment or employment contract.”
The appellate court agreed with CyberPower, highlighting the fact that the text of the agreement indicates that it governed compensation only. In Minnesota, there is a “strong presumption of at-will employment” which was applied here. The court also pointed out that Ayala did not produce any evidence supporting his claim that the company defrauded him by promising a definite term of employment and then firing him before the completion of the term.
Fair enough, it seems… until you consider the following as well: Ayala performed very well in his first sales position, bring the company’s annual sales from “virtually nothing” to almost $50 million by 2012. He aspired to become the company’s president when the original president, Robert Lovett, decided to retire. Lovett allegedly assured Ayala that he would be considered for that position but - surprise! - chose his son Brent as his successor when he retired in 2012. Ayala then expressed his desire to leave the company, but was persuaded to stay to mentor Brent (thus expecting Ayala to train his own replacement, in effect.). Ayala was assured that if he stayed, he would receive “better compensation, a promotion and a written contract ensuring Ayala long-term employment.” He was indeed promoted and, per the contract, promised to be able to stay “until” sales reached a certain amount, if the contractual language had been weighed that way. Further, the contract does not say that his position was in fact at-will. His previous contract had, in contrast, specifically said so.
Because of the parol evidence rule and, probably, the lack of written evidence of the negotiation statements, Ayala lost. The presumption about at-will employment may have been correctly applied. Not all court cases are resolved in a fair way for the employees. But the case clearly reeks of nepotism, luring an employee to stay with a company under false pretenses, and broken oral promises. True, Ayala did not have evidence of the oral negotiations, but neither did CyberPower.
Why is it apparently so darned important in U.S. society to treat employees as mere objects that can be disposed of at will, by definition? Why would it be so horrible to have to give employees a decent amount of notice and perhaps even a reasonable reason for being let go? Many other highly developed nations around the world – especially those in Europe – do not employ such law. These nations do very well. Companies there make good profits. Employees have more job security. They are equally, if not more, productive than American workers. What’s so bad about that?!
Clearly, cultural factors play a role in this context. That’s unlikely to change. In the meantime, employees in the U.S. should continue to be critical towards oral promises made by their employers and get every important term in writing. Of course, that is easier said than done in today’s often difficult job market and resulting reasonable fears of losing or not getting a coveted position. Employees such as Ayala should not be seen as mere impersonal chess pieces that can be manipulated and moved around for employer benefits only. But they often are.
The case is Daniel Ayala v. CyberPower Systems (USA), Inc., 2018 WL 2703102.
Friday, June 1, 2018
A recent case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, LLC v. Douglas, Civil Action No. 18-1470, declined to enforce a non-compete against the defendant Douglas, who had gone to work for an outdoor advertising firm that covered Manhattan and the Bronx. Catalyst, meanwhile, worked out of the Philadelphia area. The non-compete in question had no geographic limitations, which the court took issue with, noting it "covers the entire world." Catalyst asked the court to define reasonable geographic limits for the non-compete but the court declined to do so, stating, "[D]efining the boundaries is not our job." Additionally, because Catalyst operated in Southeastern Pennsylvania (with one billboard along the New Jersey Turnpike) and Douglas's new employer operated only within New York City, the court found that the two companies were not in competition with each other.
The court also found that Douglas had no confidential information belonging to Catalyst and that there was no evidence the information she knew from working at Catalyst would be beneficial in the entirely new territory of New York City. Therefore, the court concluded there was no likelihood of irreparable harm.
This is one of those cases that, from a pragmatic standpoint, makes little sense to me. Why would Catalyst pursue a court case against an employee going to work for a company not in its geographic area? The court's irreparable harm analysis seems right to me, that the employee here didn't have any specialized knowledge that could hurt Catalyst, given it didn't compete against the new employer. So, in that case, why is this case worth the money spent by Catalyst to bring it? Even if Catalyst had been successful, what was Catalyst's concrete gain? Is it just that companies don't want any employees to leave ever? Given the breadth of the non-compete in the first place, Catalyst might just be overprotective. Or is there some fact about this case left out of the opinion that makes it make more sense? Is Catalyst contemplating expansion down the road into New York City and is worried this employee might somehow make their plans less successful? This case is in the preliminary injunction stage, so maybe there is information that could arise later that would make it look more likely that Catalyst would succeed on the merits. It seems like Catalyst would have presented that information to the court at this point, though.
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
A professor at Columbia sued the university, alleging various contract-based claims. In a recent decision, Joshi v. The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, 17-cv-4112 (JGK), the Southern District of New York permitted the claims to survive the university's motion to dismiss.
The university argued that various employment policies did not constitute binding contracts between the parties. However, the court disagreed. The university had in place a Reservation of Rights that stated the employment handbook should not be treated as a contract. But there were factual disputes as to whether this Reservation of Rights applied to the other employment policies at issue, which did not seem to be found in the employment handbook. The parties disputed how clearly the Reservation of Rights was incorporated into the policies, and whether the Reservation of Rights was conspicuous. Therefore, the court allowed the breach of contract claim to survive the motion to dismiss (it also found that there were factual disputes about whether the university's actions were a breach of the policy).
The court also allowed the plaintiff's claim of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to survive, because it was about different conduct than the breach of contract claim (regarding the university's failure to investigate and stop the retaliation at issue, rather than the retaliation itself).
And the plaintiff's promissory estoppel claim also survived. The university argued that promissory estoppel claims do not apply to employment relationships, but the court disagreed and refused to dismiss the claim based on that alone, stating that the plaintiff was not seeking reinstatement of employment. The plaintiff's allegations, taken in the light most favorable to them, adequately pleaded promissory estoppel, so the court allowed the claim to survive.
The court did, however, dismiss the plaintiff's claim for fraud in the inducement, finding that the plaintiff had not adequately pleaded that the university acted with an intent to deceive.
Thursday, May 24, 2018
The life of a blogger can sometimes feel like toiling sometimes in relative obscurity. And then there's the moment when you get cited as evidence in a case!
A recent decision out of the District of Columbia in Mawakana v. Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia, 14-cv-02069-ABJ, referenced ContractsProf Blog. The case was a tenure dispute between the plaintiff professor and the defendant university. The plaintiff alleged he was denied tenure because of racial discrimination. The defendant moved for summary judgment, which was granted.
Part of the plaintiff's evidence was a number of favorable comments on his scholarship, including "honorable mention from ContractsProf Blog." The court cites to the plaintiff's opposition, which is sealed, so I can't see exactly what was stated about the entry. I found the school's write-up of it, but the link the school provides to the blog entry doesn't work for me (maybe my computer is just being fickle and you'll have better luck).
Despite the favorable comments, including the ContractsProf Blog entry, the court noted that there were also less favorable comments about the plaintiff's scholarship (the court actually noted in a footnote that one of the reviewers did not give the ContractsProf Blog honorable mention "any weight"). The court also found that the favorable comments did not mean that the plaintiff's denial of tenure must have been based on racial discrimination. The court eventually concluded, after much analysis (a great deal of it redacted), that the plaintiff wished for the court "to weigh in on the merits of the University's academic judgments in a manner that is contrary to the legal principles governing these disputes."
The court also found the plaintiff's contract claims to be time-barred, but, even if not time-barred, not supported by evidence.
(This is not, btw, the first time we blogged about this case.)
h/t to Prof. Eric Goldman at Santa Clara for sending this case to our attention!
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
I just blogged about the Ninth Circuit case of Morris v. Ernst & Young, and the Supreme Court has now come out with its decision, reversing the Ninth Circuit (shorter analysis here). Where the Ninth Circuit found that arbitration clauses prohibiting concerted actions by employees violated the National Labor Relations Act, the Supreme Court found that permitting concerted actions by employees where arbitration clauses existed would violate the Federal Arbitration Act. Justice Ginsburg wrote a long dissent; the majority opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch. The trend out of the Supreme Court has been that arbitration trumps every other policy. The Federal Arbitration Act is like the royal flush of statutes.
In a world where contracts with arbitration clauses govern almost every imaginable transaction, courts are forced into interesting decisions to press against the primacy of arbitration. So, for instance, on the same day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the Western District of Pennsylvania declined to enforce an arbitration provision in Jones v. Samsung Electronics America, Case No. 2:17-cv-00571-MAP (behind paywall). Jones sought to bring a class action against Samsung based on alleged defects in its S3 cell phones. Samsung sought to arbitrate, citing the contract allegedly contained in the instruction booklet included with the phone. But the court disagreed that the arbitration clause was enforceable. It found that the clause was "tucked away" in a section entitled "Manufacturer's Warranty" contained in a 64-page booklet. The court agreed that the clause might possibly have been more inconspicuous, but found that
the degree of prominence of the Arbitration Agreement here seems calibrated with dual goals: on the one hand, just enough to persuade a court to smother potential litigation; on the other hand, not enough to make it likely that a consumer will actually notice the Agreement and perhaps hesitate to buy. It is one thing to hold consumers to agreements they have not read; it is another to hold them to agreements that, perhaps by design, they will probably never know about.
The court's decision here makes some sense, but it seems rooted in a somewhat fictional hypothetical. I don't know but I feel like Samsung could sell its phones with an instruction booklet with "ARBITRATION CLAUSE" in big, bold, red letters with exclamation points on the front of it, and I'm not sure it would in fact cause most consumers to "hesitate to buy," especially not if the majority of other cell phones contain similar arbitration clauses (the major cell phone carriers do).
But the bigger fiction at issue here is the idea that we're all "voluntarily" entering into these contracts. I mean, we are, to the extent that it's "voluntary" to have a cell phone in today's world. The answer to that question is: It is, to some extent, but not to the extent that we're willing to forego one entirely based on the mere possibility we might want to sue someday and can't. We all take risks, and maybe the court's view is this a risk that doesn't pay off for the consumer, oh, well, but it seems like the consumer has almost no power to take any other kind of risk. (This is, of course, not limited to cell phone contracts. So the real question is: is it "voluntary" to be a consumer in our capitalist society?) Likewise, is it "voluntary" to accept a job that require arbitrations, if you need a job to survive and jobs without arbitration clauses might be tough to come by?
There are statutory ways to shift the supremacy of arbitration, of course, as the Supreme Court's decision acknowledges. And at one point the FCC was contemplating doing something about the type of arbitration clause the court looked at in Jones. Maybe add it to your list of things to contact your representatives about, if you so desire.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
A recent case out of the Southern District of California, Davis v. Red Eye Jack's Sports Bar, Inc., Case No.: 3-17-cv-01111-BEN-JMA (behind paywall), found an arbitration clause in an employment contract unenforceable because it contained a concerted action waiver. Such a waiver violates labor law policy protecting employees' right to concerted legal claims. The court found that the waiver rendered the entire arbitration agreement unenforceable.
However, the Supreme Court has granted review in the Ninth Circuit case of Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, whose precedent this court followed in its ruling. Therefore, the court stayed the action pending the Supreme Court's decision in Morris, as a reversal of Morris would dictate a different outcome to this case.
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
I fell down a rabbit hole recently looking at athletes who had lied about their ages. You can find a flurry of pieces about this online, from lists purporting to gather names together (I found some here and here and here) to more in-depth examinations of the phenomenon (see here and here and here and here). I fell down the rabbit hole courtesy of stumbling across a Baseball Prospectus piece on Albert Pujols. I discovered that there had been a flurry of discussion around Pujols's age when the prospect of his next (and last) baseball contract was looming, as you can see here and here and here. I'd never paid much attention to this issue before but it's interesting to contemplate how it intersects with contract law.
Saturday, April 21, 2018
A recent case out of Tennessee, Sugar Creek Carriages v. Hat Creek Carriages, No. M2017-00963-COA-R3-CV, lets us peek behind the scenes at the competition between horse-drawn carriage operators in Nashville, Tennessee. (You can listen to the oral argument here.) The defendant hired one of plaintiff's carriage operators, and the plaintiff sued based on the non-competition agreement that the employee had entered into.
However, the court refused to enforce the non-competition agreement. The plaintiff's argument boiled down to training that it had provided to the employee, but the court warned the plaintiff that it couldn't protect itself against the employee's using general skills and knowledge learned on the job. There were no allegations of the employee having any confidential information and no allegations that any customers associated the employee with the plaintiff's business. And, in fact, the training that the plaintiff gave to the employee it actually made available to the public at large, encouraging them to use the training to go forth and start their own horse-drawn carriage businesses. So, having offered the training to others with explicit encouragement of competition, the court refused to allow the plaintiff to impose a non-competition restriction on the employee based on the same exact training.
Monday, April 9, 2018
New York court rules sexual harassment by itself is not against an employer's interest such that it breaches a fiduciary duty
A recent case out of New York, Pozner v. Fox Broadcasting Company, 652096/2017, is related to the growing spotlight on sexual harassment cases. In the case, Pozner was terminated from his employment based on sexual harassment complaints and sued for breach of his employment contract. Fox brought counterclaims for breach of contract and fiduciary duty.
I'm blogging this case because it has an interesting ruling on the fiduciary duty claim in the context of sexual harassment cases (which I assume we might see more of; or maybe not if maybe people just stop sexually harassing others /end wide-eyed optimism). The court found that the employee handbooks were contracts whose terms Pozner had agreed to abide to, but the court dismissed Fox's breach of fiduciary duty claim, because the fiduciary duty of loyalty is about the employee acting against the employer's interests, and no court in New York has found sexual harassment on its own can serve as a basis for a breach of that duty of loyalty. Fox did not allege enough to convince the court that Pozner's sexual harassment was against Fox's interest. The court noted that other cases where sexual harassment was part of a breach of loyalty involved other financial improprieties or allegations of fraud.
Monday, April 2, 2018
A recent case out of Indiana, AmeriGlobe v. Althoff, Court of Appeals Case No. 46A05-1708-PL-1845, reminds all of us that, if you're an at-will employee, your terms of employment can change at any time. If you keep working instead of quitting, that constitutes your acceptance of those new terms.
In the case, Althoff was employed by AmeriGlobe. He had a written employment contract that specified that his employment was terminable at will. When AmeriGlobe changed the commission rates it was paying Althoff, Althoff recognized that he had two choices: He could quit or continue to work. When he continued to work, he accepted his new terms of employment. An assertion that his commission should have been higher therefore failed.
Monday, March 19, 2018
A recent case out of the Southern District of Texas, Henderson v. A & D Interests, Inc., Civil Action No. 3:17-CV-096, deals with arguments regarding illusory promises and unconscionability.
The plaintiffs were exotic dancers at the defendant's adult entertainment club. They sued and the defendant moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement between the parties. The plaintiffs argued that the agreement was unenforceable because it was illusory. The relevant termination provision allowed either party to terminate "at any time with or without notice." Because the termination provision provided such rights to both parties, the court found it wasn't illusory and the agreement was enforceable.
The plaintiffs also argued that the arbitration provision in the agreement was unconscionable because it required the parties to split the cost of the arbitration, which the plaintiffs argued would be prohibitive. However, the court found unpersuasive the plaintiffs' evidence on the estimate of the cost of the arbitration, and there was no evidence of the plaintiffs' ability to pay for an arbitration at the time they agreed to the provision, which to the court was the relevant moment.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
That's going to be the blog's new slogan.
Frances McDormand briefly made contract law trend on Twitter by using "inclusion rider" as her important two-word closing. At the time, there was only one result for "inclusion rider" when you Googled it. Now, if you Google it, you get a million results of articles explaining what an "inclusion rider" is. But here's the original video from Stacy Smith which was the one result before McDormand made it a cultural conversation.
I've had a series of blog posts over the past few years discussing the ways in which private contract law has been used to obscure systemic discrimination and abuse and harassment (a bunch of them are linked in this post). This is a nice suggestion for a way to use private contract law to try to correct some of the problems we've now exposed.
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Completing the trilogy of non-compete cases this week, here's one out of the District of Maryland: Premier Rides, Inc. v. Stepanian, Civil Action No. MJG-17-3443. The industry this time is amusement park rides. The defendant is a structural engineer who worked for the plaintiff, mainly on roller coasters. He signed an employment agreement that contained a non-competition provision. When he decided that he wanted to resign his employment, he asked to be released from the non-competition provision. The plaintiff refused to release him. Subsequently, the defendant sought jobs that were non-competitive in nature, while apparently turning down a couple of employment offers from the plaintiff's competitors. He did, however, keep in touch with the plaintiff's customers, including interviewing for a job with at least one of them, before eventually accepting employment with DreamCraft. In his capacity at DreamCraft, the defendant worked on a project for one of the plaintiff's competitors and attended meetings with many of the plaintiff's customers. The plaintiff sued for breach of the non-compete.
The defendant first tried to argue that the agreement did not have adequate consideration, but the court noted that Maryland law is clear that "continued employment of an at-will employee" is sufficient consideration for a non-compete, as long as there is no other evidence of bad faith. The defendant continued to work for the plaintiff for three years after signing the agreement, receiving raises and bonuses throughout that time. So the court found that there was adequate consideration to enforce the non-compete.
The court also concluded that the non-compete had a valid corporate interest in that it prevented the defendant from exploiting the customer contacts he made while working for the plaintiff for the benefit of one of the plaintiff's competitors. The defendant, however, argued that the provision was not narrowly tailored to that interest. The time restriction of twelve months is routinely upheld in Maryland so the court focused on the fact that the non-compete was not limited in scope geographically. The court found that the plaintiff's market was global in scope, so the lack of geographic limitation was permissible.
The court did, though, find that the non-compete prohibited more activity than necessary. The defendant was an engineer, not a salesman, so the plaintiff's concerns about the defendant's customer relationships seemed misplaced. The defendant necessarily had to meet the plaintiff's customers to perform his job, but the plaintiff admitted that this kind of personal relationship was not important for the customers, who made their purchasing decisions based on price and "impact"of the amusement park ride. The agreement in separate provisions prohibited the defendant from soliciting the plaintiff's customers on behalf of his new employer and from disclosing the plaintiff's confidential information. The plaintiff did not allege the defendant had violated these provisions; rather, the plaintiff focused on just the fact of the defendant's employment by DreamCraft being enough to violate the agreement. But since the plaintiff's non-compete interests had been solicitation of customers or disclosure of trade secrets, to the court it was telling that neither of those was at issue in this case.
Accordingly, the court found the non-compete overbroad and unenforceable. It noted that it could rewrite the non-compete to be enforceable but it didn't know enough to edit it effectively at the moment.
Friday, March 2, 2018
Yesterday I wrote about a non-compete clause, and here's another one out of New York: Cogint, Inc. v. Moraes, 159597/2017. Yesterday's concerned auction houses, this one concerns digital marketing and advertising, in which Moraes was prohibited from competing for one year after his employment. The non-compete here seems to be worded as broadly in scope as the one that yesterday's court found to be overbroad, but there is no discussion about janitorial capacity in this case. Rather, the court concluded that the non-compete here was necessary to protect the plaintiff's interest because Moraes was a key employee in possession of trade secrets.
Not only was Moraes potentially in violation of the non-compete, but the court found that he potentially breached his employment agreement by terminating his employment before the term of the agreement concluded. The court found that the agreement did not provide him the right to terminate his employment at will.
Thursday, March 1, 2018
A recent case out of New York, Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries, Inc. v. Christie's, Inc., 651806/2014, deals with the world of luxury auctions. The plaintiff alleged, inter alia, that the defendant Rubinger breached the non-compete provision of his employment agreement when he resigned his position and went to work for Christie's Hong Kong office. The opinion is behind a paywall but the many points of contention between these companies has been documented in several places, including here, here, and here.
The employment agreement was governed by Texas law, so the court applied Texas law to determine that the non-compete provision was overly broad. The non-compete prohibited Rubinger from providing services for any business that participated, either directly or indirectly, in auctioning collectibles in North America in a manner competitive to the plaintiff's auction business. The problem was that the non-compete tried to prohibit Rubinger from providing any services for such business. As the court noted, Rubinger could have violated the agreement by working as a janitor at Sotheby's or in the mailroom at Christie's. The court therefore concluded that the non-compete was unreasonable.
However, under Texas law, the court reformed the provision to be enforceable, rewriting the provision to prevent Rubinger from providing services to competitors identical to those he provided to the plaintiff. Because that was exactly what Rubinger was doing, he was in violation of this rewritten non-compete provision.
The court found the time and geographic scope of the non-compete to be reasonable, and then found that the question of whether Rubinger's activities in Hong Kong violated it was a factual determination that could not be resolved.
Rubinger's employment agreement also contained a non solicitation covenant. When Rubinger resigned from the plaintiff to move to Christie's, two of Rubinger's staff resigned on the same day to make the identical move. The court found the non solicitation covenant enforceable, but nevertheless dismissed the claim because the non solicitation covenant, by its terms, prohibited Rubinger from soliciting the plaintiff's employees after termination of his employment. Because Rubinger's solicitation of his staff took place prior to termination of his employment, it was not prohibited by the terms of the contract.
There were many other claims in this complaint, including trade secret allegations and unjust enrichment. I focused on Rubinger's alleged breach of contract in this blog entry, but there were other aspects to the court's decision.
Thursday, January 25, 2018
A recent case out of the Northern District of Illinois, Washington v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, No. 17 CV 2343 (behind paywall), tackles, among other things, fraud and duress in the context of enforcing a settlement agreement. Washington worked for the defendant. After a dispute arose between the parties, they entered into a settlement agreement. Washington now seeks to declare the settlement agreement unenforceable on a number of grounds.
First, Washington alleged fraud on the part of the defendant, alleging a number of misrepresentations and intentional omissions in the agreement. But the defendant argued that Washington's reliance on the alleged statements and omissions wasn't reasonable and further that it had no duty to disclose any information to Washington, which the court agreed with. Washington had her own counsel; had three weeks to consider the agreement; and had seven days after signing within which she could revoke the agreement. Since she had adequate counsel and time to consider the terms, the court found that Washington could not allege that the settlement agreement was procured by fraud.
Second, Washington alleged duress because she feared for the termination of her job and "a humiliating public hearing." The board argued that Washington had alternatives to signing the agreement, and in fact those alternatives would have entitled her to continue to receive her full salary while she pursued them, so there would have been no economic duress to those choices. Again, given her independent counsel and the amount of time she was given to consider her choices, the court found that Washington failed to allege duress.
Washington made many other allegations, including illegality, mistake, and lack of consideration, all of which the court dismissed.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
A recent case out of Minnesota, Oberfoell v. Kyte, A17-0575, reminds all of us that noncompete agreements need to have a justification. Kyte worked for Oberfoell's online-auction business and signed a contract that contained a noncompete clause. He later left to start his own online-auction business and Oberfoell sued.
The lower court found the noncompete agreement to be unenforceable and this appellate court agreed. Oberfoell simply couldn't justify its necessity because he failed to assert a legitimate business interest protected by the noncompete clause. Oberfoell made general allegations that Kyte had personal relationships with many of Oberfoell's customers and thus possessed goodwill belonging to Oberfoell. But Oberfoell never identified any customers who he was worried about, nor did he ever introduce any evidence that Kyte had used any of Oberfoell's customer lists improperly. The court concluded that Kyte did not seem to be the "face" of the business nor was he the exclusive contact the customers had with the business. There was no evidence that any of Oberfoell's customers were concerned about Kyte leaving and no evidence that any of them followed Kyte to his new business. Therefore, Oberfoell failed to prove that the noncompete was protecting a legitimate business interest.
Oberfoell also tried to assert that his customer lists and other materials were taken by Kyte and qualified as a violation of the noncompete. The court pointed out that the customer lists weren't secret and weren't treated as secrets by Oberfoell, and so couldn't qualify as trade secrets. The other materials suffered from the same lack of confidential protection.
Finally, the noncompete also failed on the basis of reasonableness. It prohibited Kyte from competing in a radius of 150 miles for five years. The court found the 150-mile restriction to be "arbitrary," and Oberfoell produced no evidence justifying his choice of such a large radius. The five-year restriction was also unreasonable because the evidence showed Oberfoell could have replaced Kyte easily and quickly, so there was no reason to keep Kyte from competing for so long (in fact, Oberfoell apparently never hired anyone to replace Kyte, delegating his responsibilities to already-existing employees). There was no evidence that Kyte had received any extensive training that gave him an advantage in establishing his business, which took him a few months to get started.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Nusbaum v. E-Lo Sportswear LLC, 17-cv-3646 (KBF) (behind paywall), granted summary judgment based on a chain of emails between an employer and employee. The emails were discussing a severance provision, and the last email in the chain read in relevant part, "I am agreeing to the below . . . . I will sign when I get back." The parties never executed any further document.
The court nevertheless found an enforceable contract between them. Although it was true that the emails seemed to contemplate a final agreement, it was also true that both parties regarded the negotiations as concluded and the agreement reached at the time of the final email. The employee than spent nineteen months performing under this perceived agreement. It was clear from the emails that the parties had reached agreement on the material term, and the matter was not so complex that it needed to be reduced to a formal writing. Indeed, the employer admitted it usually did not reduce employment agreements to a formal writing. Therefore, the emails demonstrated that the parties had reached agreement and they were enforceable.