Friday, August 3, 2018
Watch out for relevant statutes when entering into contracts (but also, read your own contract language)
A recent case out of the Eastern District of Virginia, K12 Insight LLC v. Johnston County Board of Education, Civil Action No. 1:17-cv-1397, is a cautionary tale for being aware of how statutes can affect contracts. But, also, it could have been decided just on the contractual language alone.
In the case, the Board of Education signed an Order Form with K12 Insight that provided for an annual fee for three one-year terms. After signature, the school district realized that it could not afford the final two years of the subscription to K12's software and so attempted to terminate the subscription. K12 sued for breach of contract, alleging that the school district was obligated to maintain its subscription for the full three years.
The court declared the Order Form contract to be void. First, there was a statute that required a pre-audit certification to be affixed to the Order Form in order to ensure that there would be funding for the school district's contract. This contract lacked the pre-audit certification (which maybe explains why there wasn't funding). The court found that the contract was also outside the scope of the superintendent's authority.
But, finally, even if the contract had been properly made, the Board was permitted under the contract's own terms to terminate it if it didn't have sufficient funds. That was exactly what happened here, so the termination was proper.
Thursday, July 26, 2018
It's the time of year when I start thinking about the fact that I should be thinking about my fall classes, and right on cue, here's a case out of the Seventh Circuit, Knopick v. Jayco, Inc., No. 17-2285, that's thoughtful about how waiver works and the policy underlying it. (You can listen to the oral argument here.)
The waiver portion of the case (there was also a jurisdictional issue) involved a warranty that stated it did not apply to RVs purchased by LLCs. The RV in question was purchased by an LLC. Therefore, under the unambiguous language of the warranty, the RV was not covered. However, Knopick argued that Jayco waived this exclusionary language of the warranty when it voluntarily performed some repairs to the RV as if the warranty applied. The warranty, though, had an additional clause stating that such "good will" repairs would not alter the exclusionary language of the warranty.
Even without that language, the court was skeptical that waiver could be used to achieve what Knopick wanted here. The court noted that waiver is ordinarily used as a "shield" to excuse non-performance. It's used so that a party cannot be "lulled" into a belief that its compliance is sufficient to fulfill a contractual obligation only to be surprised by a lawsuit for inadequate compliance later. Knopick, the court said, was trying to use waiver as a "sword." Rather than protecting himself, he wished to use it to compel performance by Jayco. The court, wary of expanding waiver because of how greatly it would damage the predictability of contracts, stated that it was unwilling to use the doctrine of waiver to compel Jayco, as such an action would have the effect of discouraging parties from "good faith" actions such as that undertaken by Jayco for fear of opening themselves up to expanded liability.
h/t to Timothy Murray of Murray, Hogue & Lannis for passing this one along!
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, July 18, 2018
A recent decision out of Ohio, Whitt v. The Vindicator Printing Company, Case No. 15 MA 0168, discusses the limits of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In the case, the contract contained a provision permitting termination of the contract for "malfeasance . . . , or at the will of either party for any reason or no reason" upon thirty days written notice. Vindicator terminated the contract with Whitt after an altercation between Whitt and a temp employee working for Vindicator. Whitt sued for, among other things, breach of contract, complaining that Vindictor had wrongfully terminated the contract only seven months into its three-year term. Whitt alleged that Vindictor violated the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing because it terminated the contract after Whitt was a victim of criminal assault at the hands of Vindicator's employee.
The court noted, though, that the requirement of good faith should not give a court the ability to second-guess decisions made within the context of the contract. The termination provision of the contract did not require just cause, which was what Whitt was trying to read in. Rather, the contract permitted Vindicator to terminate it for no reason whatsoever, so the exact circumstances of the termination did not matter.
I think many people assume that contracts provide a level of reliability and predictability that doesn't exist if those contracts permit termination for any reason, or for no reason. I think Whitt assumed that this contract would stay in effect unless he did something terrible, but that's not how the termination clause was worded.
(h/t to D. C. Toedt for the free link!)
Saturday, July 14, 2018
We went to Lake George on vacation a couple of times when I was a kid, so I am blogging this recent case out of New York, Edscott Realty Corp. v. LaPlante Enterprises, Inc., 61356, out of a sense of nostalgia. Also it's another ambiguity case, and I always find those interesting and instructive for thinking about things to watch out for.
The parties operate two adjacent hotels on the shores of Lake George. In 1999, the parties had a dispute over water access that was eventually resolved in 2002 by dividing up the water according to a fence line "continued out into the waters of Lake George in an easterly direction along said course." The waters north of the fence line were reserved for the plaintiff and the waters south for the defendant.
The parties are now disputing, among other things, the meaning of this division. The plaintiff alleged that it limits both the actual berthing of boats on the wrong side of this line plus ingress and egress to navigate into those berths. The defendant alleged that it pertains only to the berthing of boats and does not limit the navigation of boats on Lake George. The court found that there was an ambiguity as to how far out into Lake George the parties had stipulated their rights to extend, and so refused to award summary judgment on the issue.
Friday, July 13, 2018
A recent case out of New York, Niznick v. Sybron Canada Holdings, Inc., 650726/2018, illustrates how ambiguity can crop up anywhere, sometimes no matter how careful you are; it's difficult to plan for every eventuality.
The parties had a contract that included a non-competition clause that prohibited competition for five years after Niznick ceased to own any units in the company. Sybron tried to exercise an option to purchase Niznick's units in the company in 2014, but Niznick disputed the validity of Sybron's actions, and the parties engaged in litigation. Eventually, a court concluded that Sybron was permitted to exercise the option and that Niznick's ownership interest terminated as of the 2014 date when Sybron had attempted to exercise its option. After this decision, in 2017, the parties entered into a purchase and sale agreement "deemed to be effective as if the transfer" had occurred in 2014. Niznick also asserted that, therefore, the non-competition clause would expire in 2019--five years after the 2014 date. Sybron contested that reading.
The parties' previous contracts had referred to the non-compete as "a material part of the consideration" of the agreement. The court, therefore, did not allow Niznick's attempt to minimize its importance. The purchase and sale agreement executed in 2017 stated that Niznick "is the owner" of the units in question (emphasis added). The "deemed to be effective" date was not considered to alter the language of the non-compete, which stated that it would commence when Niznick ceased to own units, which did not happen until the 2017 purchase and sale agreement, regardless of the "deemed effective" date.
At the time of drafting the non-compete, it was probably thought that it would be pretty clear when Niznick ceased to own the units. Sybron probably did not anticipate that they would have a dispute about the operative date this way.
Thursday, July 5, 2018
A recent Indiana case demonstrates the continued necessity of distinguishing between the common law and the UCC. Nothing too new in the case legally as I see it, but it lends itself well to classroom use.
A medical center entered into two contracts with a medical billing services company for records-management software and related services. In Indiana and elsewhere, “where a contract involves the purchase of preexisting, standardized software, courts treat it as a contract for the sale of goods governed by the UCC. However, to determine whether the UCC applies to a mixed contract for both goods and services, Indiana uses the “predominant thrust test.” Courts ask whether the predominant thrust of the transaction is the performance of services with goods incidentally involved or the sale of goods with services incidentally involved. Id. To determine whether services or goods predominate, the test considers (1) the language of the contract; (2) the circumstances of the parties and the primary reason they entered into the contract; and (3) the relative costs of the goods and services.
In the case, the contractual language was neutral. Next, the primary reason for executing the agreements was to obtain billing services. The software was merely a conduit to transfer claims data to the billing services company in order to allow it to perform those services. The goods – the software – were incidental. The third and final factor—the relative cost of the goods and services—also pointed toward that conclusion. As the Indiana Supreme Court has explained, “[i]f the cost of the goods is but a small portion of the overall contract price, such fact would increase the likelihood that the services portion predominates.” Under the agreement, the medical center paid a one-time licensing fee of $8,000 for software; a one-time training fee of $2,000; and $224.95 each month for services and support for about nine years. Thus, for the life of the Practice Manager agreement, the services totaled approximately $26,294—more than three times the $8,000 licensing fee for the software. Under the agreement, the medical center also paid a one-time licensing fee of $23,275 for the software; a one-time training fee of $4,000; and $284 per month for services and support for about six years. Thus, the services totaled about $24,448—slightly more than the $23,275 software licensing fee. The relative-cost factor reinforces the conclusion that services predominated. Thus, the ten-year common-law statute of limitations and not the four years under the UCC applied.
Interestingly, the case also shows that because the UCC did not apply, plaintiff’s claim for good faith performance under the UCC dropped out too. In Indiana, a common-law duty of good faith and fair dealing arises “only in limited circumstances, such as when a fiduciary relationship exists,” which was not the case here. The parties were thus not under a duty to conduct their business in good faith. Yikes! This should allow for some good classroom discussions.
Wednesday, July 4, 2018
Here's a short case out of the District of New Jersey, Hall v. Revolt Media & TV, LLC, Civil Action No. 17-2217 (JMV) (MF), in which the plaintiff failed to adequately plead his breach of contract claim. I'm blogging it because I don't spend a lot of time teaching my students about complaint-drafting; there are always just so many other things I'm quickly trying to discuss. But this case strikes me as a nice straightforward way to talk about it. The claim fails because all of the plaintiff's allegations were about contract negotiations: He contacted the defendant to discuss a contract, he sent the defendant a contract that was never signed, he continued to attempt to contact the defendant to negotiate the contract, etc. The court said there was never an allegation that any contract had actually been finalized. Nor did the complaint contain any details about the terms of the contract, such that the court could not tell what had allegedly been breached. I think this can be used as a way to focus the students on what they do need to be sure to include in breach of contract allegations.
And being sure to also plead promissory estoppel would be a good idea. The complaint did adequately plead unjust enrichment, so this case can act as a good way to teach the distinctions of that cause of action as well.
Monday, July 2, 2018
An "exceedingly rare" case where a court discounted testimony, relying in part on the witness's admitted "habit of routinely lying" in the course of business
A recent case out of Michigan, Strategy and Execution Inc. v. LXR Biotech LLC, No. 337105, speaks to the perils of not putting agreements in writing (or doing so and subsequently losing the writing). The parties had a written contract that stated that they would arrive at performance criteria at a later time. But the parties disputed ever entering into a later agreement over the performance criteria. No party produced any written document. LXR's principal testified that the parties reached an oral agreement that he memorialized in writing but the writing was later lost. However, this testimony was not corroborated by any other witness except for one who gave "conflicting testimony" regarding the document. LXR's principal had admitted to "routinely lying" because he apparently thought it to be "good business practice." Furthermore, none of the "voluminous" emails exchanged between the parties ever referenced any agreement on the performance criteria. The court therefore agreed that "this is one of the exceedingly rare cases in which a witness's testimony is insufficient to find a jury question." Despite the testimony, the court was permitted to enter a directed verdict on the breach of contract claim.
Written contracts are not always required, but this case is an example of why they are often desirable to have, and to keep safe!
(There were other points of appeal in the case relating to other clauses of the contract and some jury instruction issues.)
Friday, June 29, 2018
A recent case out of the Second Circuit, Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics Bermuda Co. Ltd. v. FMC, LLC, No. 17-2400-cv (behind paywall), is another case about interpretation of contract terms -- twice over. Because here the parties entered into a contract, fought over breach of that contract, and then entered into a settlement agreement, which they were also fighting over. The moral is that, if you want something specific, you should ask for it rather than relying on unspoken industry practices.
The initial agreement between the parties was about an IT operating system. Although the system was going to cost $70 million, the contract wasn't very detailed, with no technical specifications or description of building methods. The parties' relationship deteriorated and they eventually entered into a Settlement Agreement to terminate the project. Under these new terms, FCM would be released from its obligation to provide the system to Ortho, while providing assistance while Ortho transitioned to a different contractor. After execution of the Settlement Agreement, Ortho apparently realized that FCM was not as far along as Ortho had thought and had not prepared certain items that Ortho had assumed it had prepared, and so Ortho claimed that as a result the IT system cost more and took longer.
The court, however, noted that there was nothing in the contract requiring FCM to produce the certain deliverables Ortho had been looking for. Ortho claimed it was "standard practice in the industry," but the court said that wasn't the equivalent of it being a contractual obligation. FCM was contractually required to provide assistance -- no more, no less. There was nothing in the contract about the job having to be at a particular stage of completion, or that any particular deliverables or documentation had to exist.
The court also pointed out that Ortho had released its claims regarding the original agreement in the Settlement Agreement. Ortho tried to argue that it had released claims but not damages but the court called that "a nonsensical reading."
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Treasure Chest Themed Value Mail, Inc. v. David Morris International, Inc., 17 Civ. 1 (NRB), deals with a digital marketing contract, presenting a variety of straightforward interpretation questions that could be helpful for basic examples for some things to look out for in contract drafting.
The parties entered into a contract in which Treasure Chest was required to provide "greater than 300,000 follow up weekly digital impressions." The first dispute was over whether "digital impressions" was too ambiguous to be enforced. The court, however, easily defined "digital impression" with reference to investopedia.com. The court distinguished "digital impression" from "email," saying if the parties had meant "email" they would have used the word "email." A lesson in just using what you wish to say if that's indeed what you want; fancier terms are not always necessary and might just leave some room open for arguments about ambiguity and interpretation.
There was also a dispute over whether it was ambiguous that compensation was "up to" a certain amount. But the court disagreed, saying it was clear that this simply meant the contract would not exceed a certain amount.
Therefore, the court found there was a valid contract, that Treasure Chest fulfilled all of its obligations under the contract, and David Morris did not, so Treasure Chest was entitled to damages. Treasure Chest also sought attorneys' fees, but the court found that the contract was not clear enough to justify attorneys' fees. The contract said that "costs necessary to collect" past due balances could be awarded, but the court said that did not satisfy the "high standard" for collection of attorneys' fees via contract. Again, if attorneys' fees are what you want, attorneys' fees are probably what you should say.
Monday, June 18, 2018
A recent case out of the District of Arizona, Colocation America Corporation v. Mitel Networks Corporation, No. CV-17-00421-PHX-NVW (behind paywall - h/t to reader D.C. Toedt for the non-paywall link!), is, in its own words, "a poster child for the rule of Section 201(2) of the Restatement."
The dispute was over whether or not an agreement between the parties to transfer a domain name also involved the transfer of IP addresses. The section at issue was ambiguously worded: "Mitel hereby agrees to quit claim . . . the goodwill of the business connected with and symbolized by [the] Domain Name and the associated IPv4 22.214.171.124/16 and any associated trade dress . . . ." Mitel claimed this required it to quit claim the goodwill of the business associated with the IP addresses. Colocation contended Mitel was required to quit claim the goodwill AND the IP addresses AND the trade dress.
The court found that the wording was ambiguous but that the rest of the contract supported Mitel's interpretation, since the contract did not mention the IP addresses anywhere else. At every other point the contract discussed the transfer only of the domain name. There were no clauses about the transfer of the IP addresses other than that one mention in the clause quoted.
Furthermore, the court found that Mitel had no reason to know Colocation thought it was acquiring the IP addresses. By contrast, though, Colocation did have reason to know that Mitel thought the agreement was not about the IP addresses. In fact, evidence showed that Colocation "intentionally misled" Mitel by pretending to wish to buy only the domain name and keeping all discussions domain-name focused, while "nebulously" slipping the IP addresses into the contract. The IP addresses were worth far more than the amount the parties agreed on for transferring the domain name, and the court found that this was further proof Colocation knew that Mitel only intended to transfer the domain name, not the IP addresses.
As the court summarized,
"Colocation's objective from the outset was to acquire the IPv4 addresses. But it purported to negotiate only for a domain name without ever leveling with Mitel Networks. Colocation not only had 'reason to know' Mitel Networks attached a 'different meaning' to their agreement, it created and promoted that different meaning on the part of Mitel Networks. Thus, the Domain Name Assignment Agreement must be interpreted in accordance with the meaning attached by Mitel Networks, that is, as an agreement to assign a domain name and goodwill and not as an agreement to transfer IPv4 addresses."
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
There is very little you can bet on in life but it seems like the continued prevalence of arbitration clauses is one of them. We just had a Supreme Court ruling confirming that, and a recent case out of Nebraska, Heineman v. The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, No. S-17-983, continues in the same vein.
In the case, a nursing home resident sued the facility for injuries he sustained while living there. The nursing home facility sought to arbitrate the dispute under the arbitration clause Heineman agreed to before being admitted as a resident of the facility. The lower court refused to enforce the arbitration clause based on lack of mutuality of obligation as well as finding it contrary to public policy. The appellate court, however, disagreed.
First, Heineman's argument on mutality of obligation concerned allegations that the nursing home facility had filed lawsuits against its residents without pursuing arbitration first. Heineman therefore argued that the nursing home's conduct indicated that only Heineman was bound by the arbitration clause. However, Heineman's argument depended on the court taking judicial notice of those lawsuits, considering that, as drafted, the arbitration clause did bind the nursing home. For some reason, though, this was apparently not an argument Heineman made at the lower court level, because the appellate court refused to take judicial notice of the lawsuits because they had not been presented to the trial court.
As far as the public policy concern went, the lower court had relied on a federal regulation prohibiting arbitration clauses as a requirement for admission to long-term care facilities. However, that regulation was passed almost two years after Heineman signed his arbitration clause, and at any rate has been enjoined from application by a federal court. Because there was no other legislation expressing a public policy against arbitration in the context of nursing-home facilities, the court found the arbitration clause was enforceable.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Here’s a nice little case that lends itself well to classroom use.
The Robertson family owned Duck Commander, Inc. (“DC”), a hunting supplies company that eventually morphed into an iced tea maker after Si Robertson ("Uncle Si") became known for the its members’ affinity for ice tea on a reality TV show about duck hunting. This was broadcast on the A&E network.
In late 2013, DC contracted with Chinook USA, LLC (“Chinook”), a ready-to-drink beverage company, to produce and market the Robertson family’s ice teas in cooperation with the Robertsons. A fairly elaborate contract is drawn up. This spells out the corporations’ mutual obligations in relation to “iced tea,” “ready-to-drink [RTD] teas,” and “RTD beverages.” This includes an integration clause purporting to make the agreement the “entire understanding between the parties.”
A few months later, in the summer of 2014, sales of iced tea apparently did not go as well as the parties had hoped and planned for. The Robertson family thus branched out into energy drinks and vitamin water. DC contracted with another marketer of those products. Chinooks sued DC for breach of contract, among other things claiming that the contractual terms “iced tea,” “ready-to-drink teas,” and “RTD beverages” also encompassed vitamin water and energy drinks and that DC should thus also have dealt with Chinook in relation to those products.
The contract was held to be ambiguous. Parol evidence was brought in showing that during the contract negotiations, iced tea accounted for about 95% of the focus of the negotiations with coffee products for the other 5%. No mention had been made of energy drinks or similar products. After contract execution, a Chinook negotiator sent Chinook an email stating “[T]hank you for taking the time to ask for a confirmation of Chinook USA’s rights as our exclusive licensee of tea …. This email confirms the same.”
Oops, it’s difficult to claim afterthe fact that when you yourself – a seasoned company with professional negotiators – get a deal for “tea,” you really intended something more than that. The appellate court thus also affirmed the district court’s judgment against Chinook on its breach of contract claims (see Chinook USA, L.L.C. v. Duck Commander, Incorporated, 2018 WL 1357986). https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca5/17-30596/17-30596-2018-03-15.html
This case lends itself well to students issue-spotting issues such as contract interpretation, ambiguity, the PER, etc., but could also be used to discuss bargaining powers, party sophistication, and the smartness of, if nothing else, sending confirmatory memos… only they should, of course, be drafted such that they truly represent the parties’ intent. If that was the case in this matter, was Chinook simply regretting not getting a broader agreement at a point when sales of the originally intended product was already known to falter? This appears to be the case here.
Monday, June 11, 2018
If you teach Lady Duff-Gordon, as I teach Lady Duff-Gordon, you know that it's a fun case that lets you talk about a frankly pretty incredible life. But it's also an older case, so here's a more recent case out of New York using the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to potentially save an allegedly illusory promise, Ely v. Phase One Networks, Inc., 2667/2017 (behind paywall).
The plaintiff is a composer. The defendant is a company that produces music albums. The parties entered into recording and co-publishing agreements. The plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment that the contracts are unenforceable because they are illusory and unconscionable and moved for summary judgment. The court found that factual disputes existed as to both the unconscionability and illusory allegations. The analysis on unconscionability was very brief, but the court did provide a slightly deeper analysis on the illusory promise front. Although the recording contract provided that the recordings were "subject to the defendant's approval in its sole judgment," the court noted that the covenant of good faith and fair dealing "implicit in all contracts" meant that "the defendant could not unreasonably withhold approval."
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
A good cause termination clause operates to save oral agreement from statute of frauds writing requirement
Here's another helpful teaching case, this time for the statute of frauds section. Out of Delaware, World Class Wholesale, LLC v. Star Industries, Inc., C.A. No. N17C-05-093 MMJ, discusses the "one year" statute of frauds category. The parties entered into an oral agreement "in which WCW agreed to be the exclusive distributor of Star's products in Delaware for an indefinite period of time." Star contended that the oral agreement violated the statute of frauds and should have been in writing.
The court disagreed. WCW had alleged that the oral agreement contained a "'good cause' termination clause." This meant that either party could have terminated the agreement with good cause at any time, including within a year. Therefore, under Delaware law, there was a possibility this oral agreement could have been permissibly terminated and therefore performed within one year, and therefore the statute of frauds did not block enforcement of it.
Monday, June 4, 2018
Here's a parol evidence case if you're looking for a recent example for teaching purposes. It's out of the Northern District of Illinois, Eclipse Gaming Systems, LLC v. Antonucci, 17 C 196.
The case concerned licensing agreements for source code for casino gaming software. The court found that the written agreement was facially unambiguous and complete and contained an integration clause. Nonetheless, the counter-plaintiffs argued that evidence of a contemporaneous oral agreement should be permitted. But the court refused, finding that Illinois law, which governed the contract, required the parties to put any contemporaneous oral agreements into the four corners of their unambiguous integrated contract if they wished them to be enforced. The counter-plaintiffs argued that they should be allowed to present their parol evidence to show the contract was in fact ambiguous, but the Illinois Supreme Court had rejected that approach where the contract contained an explicit integration clause, as was the case here.
Counter-plaintiffs claimed that their parol evidence would establish that no contract was ever formed between the parties but the court found that such evidence would contradict the terms of the contract, which contained explicit terms regarding its effectiveness, and parol evidence was inadmissible to "contradict the clear written provisions of an integrated contract." The written licensing agreement, the court found, was not equivalent to a letter of intent that provided some question on the parties' intent to be bound, but instead was clear on the parties' intent to be bound.
Counter-plaintiffs tried to turn to promissory estoppel but the court noted that promissory estoppel should be used to rescue promises that didn't rise to the level of an enforceable contract. The counter-plaintiffs were instead trying to use the doctrine to vary the terms of their written contract.
There were other allegations and analyses, including pertaining to mutual mistake and unconscionability, but these also failed.
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.
Tuesday, May 29, 2018
The Supreme Court of Delaware just issued a contracts law case suitable for teaching purposes in relation to several different issues including contract formation, the parol evidence rule and forum selection clauses. It also raises some puzzling questions regarding the Court’s own analyses and conclusions.
The Court first analyzes whether three investment and tech companies displayed sufficient overt manifestation of assent – not subjective intent - to be bound by any contract at all. Referring to Professor Williston, the Court found this to be the case when a signature is present because it “naturally indicates assent, at least in the absence of an invalidating cause such as fraud, duress, mutual mistake, or unconscionability....” Because both parties here signed the contract and hugged each other after doing so (!), there was an objective manifestation of assent.
The Court then stated that “a contract must contain all material terms in order to be enforceable … Until it is reasonable to conclude, in light of all of the[ ] surrounding circumstances, that all of the points that the parties themselves regard as essential have been expressly or (through prior practice or commercial custom) implicitly resolved, the parties have not finished their negotiations and have not formed a contract.” Common sense, found the Court, “suggests that parties to a sophisticated commercial agreement … would not intend to be bound by an agreement that does not addressall terms that they considered material and essential to that agreement.” Consequently,“all essential or material terms must be agreed upon before a court can find that the parties intended to be bound by it and, thus, enforce an agreement as a binding contract.” In the case, the precise consideration under the contract was highly material to the parties. One of the documents addressed the consideration to be exchanged, although not in a concise manner. The recordregarding other terms was also “woefully undeveloped.” Some key terms were missing. Others were contested by the parties.
Nonetheless, the Court somewhat strangely did not find this to be a major problem. The real dispute was, per the Court, whether the terms relating to that consideration were sufficiently definite. The majority found this to be the case under the Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 33(2). Said the Court: “A contract is sufficiently definite and certain to be enforceable if the court can—based upon the agreement's terms and applying proper rules of construction and principles of equity—ascertain what the parties have agreed to do. Indeed, as Corbin has stated, “[i]f the parties have concluded a transaction in which it appears that they intend to make a contract, the court should not frustrate their intention if it is possible to reach a fair and just result, even though this requires a choice among conflicting meanings and the filling of some gaps that the parties have left.” Because the agreement's recitals summarized that technology company owner was to contribute to the holding company all his rights in certain intellectual property and technology company securities in exchange for units in holding company, technology company owner warranted that he could deliver all securities as promised, and agreement provided for situation of employees making successful claims for technology company securities, the Court found the consideration to be sufficiently definite. Fair enough, but what about several terms either having been omitted or “differing in reality from the parties’ statements”? The Court relied on parol evidence to resolve these issues.
The Court remanded for the lower court to make explicit findings as to whether or not the parties agreed to be bound.
The dissenting justices raise some good questions. Among other things, they identify valid issues regarding the missing material terms, whether the parties even agreed on the contract at all given its short-lived nature, and whether it was a waste of judicial and party resources to remand the case when the Supreme Court found it to be sufficiently specific. Most importantly and for good reason, the dissenters focus on the contract formation issue that the majority did away with for, it seems, the somewhat simplistic reasons that the parties had signed the documents and hugged each other. If our students concluded their analyses of contract formation on this ground, we would probably also point out the problem in so doing.
Of course, the parties may also consider reaching a solution amongst themselves at this point. Said Justice Strine: One hopes that before the parties engage in remand proceedings of great expense, they exhale and consider a sensible solution so that they can move on, with [one party] receiving fair compensation for his investments, but without harming themselves or others by continuing a bitter battle over whether they should be declared to have had a brief, loveless marriage, only to then commence immediate divorce proceedings.
The case is Eagle Force Holdings, LLC and EF Investments, LLC v. Stanley V. Campbell, C.A. No. 10803-VCMR. H/t to Professor Chiappinelli for bringing this case to my attention, and congratulations to Professor Stark for being cited to by the Delaware Supreme Court.