Sunday, August 20, 2017
Beauty Salon's Customer Lists Weren't Confidential When They Were on Social Media (and more beauty salon rulings)
A recent case out of New York, Eva Scrivo Fifth Avenue, Inc. v. Rush, 656723/2016, stems from the defendant, Rush, being discovered working for a rival beauty salon, Marie Robinson, while still employed by the plaintiff, Scrivo. Scrivo terminated Rush upon learning of this. Rush spoke to two clients in the Scrivo salon before exiting the salon, allegedly saying she would get in touch with them, and at least one of the clients left the salon, refusing to be serviced by anyone but Rush. Rush also posted a note on her personal Instagram saying that she would be moving to Marie Robinson and people should get in touch with her for appointments.
Scrivo sued alleging, among other things, breach of contract, based on the restrictive covenant contained in the Employment Agreement, which prohibited Rush from, among other things, soliciting Scrivo's clients and disclosing confidential information and trade secrets. Scrivo sought to enjoin Rush from soliciting, communicating with, or providing services to anyone she serviced while working for Scrivo, for a period of one year.
Unfortunately for Scrivo, the court denied its motion. The court noted that the noncompete needed to protect Scrivo's legitimate interests, avoid undue hardship on Rush, and be in the public interest. The court found that Scrivo failed to demonstrate the that noncompete was necessary to protect its interests. There was nothing about Rush's services that were "unique or extraordinary," and Rush was replaceable. Scrivo's customer lists were not confidential information, because the identity of its customers was pretty readily available online in social media posts and Scrivo never attempted to hide any of it. None of the skills Rush used in cutting hair were confidential, either. Rush claimed to be self-taught, claimed not to have taken any customer lists, and claimed that any clients that followed her did so of their own accord and initiative and that she did not solicit them.
Not only was the court dubious that Scrivo had legitimate interest to protect, the court also thought the sought injunction was unduly burdensome on Rush. Scrivo provided evidence that Rush had serviced 900 clients over the course of six years at Scrivo. Rush would surely have to therefore affirmatively ask each person who came to Marie Robinson if they had ever been serviced at Scrivo in order to ascertain if there was a possibility Rush had worked on them. Scrivo wanted Rush to turn away clients who came in independently, and the noncompete had only required Rush to refrain from soliciting clients.
Finally, the court didn't think Scrivo would suffer any irreparable harm without injunctive relief. If Scrivo could prove Rush violated the noncompete, then Scrivo could get the value of the services the client didn't purchase from Scrivo.
Thursday, August 3, 2017
I'm just going to start a little subset of cases involving misrepresentations in the context of real estate transactions. This latest case is out of Tennessee, Hall v. Eagle Rock Development, LLC, No. E2015-01487-COA-R3-CV (you can listen to the oral arguments here). In this case, the Halls won rescission of the purchase contract and a refund of the money they paid, based on misrepresentations regarding the lot's access to public sewage disposal. While there was a dispute as to whether they were specifically told by the development's broker that the lot had access to public sewage, the court found the broker had not been "forthcoming" about the sewage situation, and the other documents involved in the transactions represented at several points that public sewage access would be possible, including the MLS brief and the real estate listings that contained public sewage as a product feature. The website for the development stated that the lots would have public sewage access, and nowhere qualified the statement as being contingent on certain funding requirements. Plus, there was a sewer manhole directly in front of the lot.
The first time the Halls were provided with a disclosure statement indicating they would not have public sewage access was actually the day the sales contract was executed, despite the fact that the sellers had prepared this document months earlier and so could have shared it well in advance. The fact that the Halls signed the disclosure statement while executing the sales contract did not bar their recovery. (Nor did the fact that the Halls' contract stated that they were purchasing the property "as is.")
The Halls maintained that they would never have bought the lot had they known it didn't have public sewage access, not least because it restricted the size of the house they could build on the lot. Accordingly, the court ordered the contract rescinded and the purchase price be refunded, which was exactly the remedy that the Halls were seeking.
The sellers pointed out that it actually took the Halls three years to figure out public sewage access was not possible. They claimed that the problem here was the Halls' failure to fully investigate the property or fully read the documents they signed at closing. However, the court found that the weight of all the contrary representations the Halls had been given outweighed this.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
You, like me, might often resort to Snopes to weed through what's true and what's not in the avalanche of information we're exposed to every day. (My most recent Snopes search: can a gift shop upcharge federal postage stamps? The answer is yes!) Recently Snopes turned to its constituents on the Internet to help provide funding to keep the website alive, precipitated by a lawsuit stemming from several contracts between the parties at issue. The whole thing is a matter of messy corporate structure that really seems like it's going to depend on the court's reading of the stock purchase agreement between the parties. Vox has a rundown of the whole situation here (that I'm quoted in).
Thursday, July 27, 2017
Recently, Procter & Gamble has been sued for copyright infringement based on its use of photographs on packaging. It's not that P&G didn't have a license; it's that P&G allegedly violated the scope of the license. The allegations claim that P&G, trying to keep costs down, negotiated for fairly narrow rights. It makes a ton of sense to do that if that's all you want the photos for. After all, why pay for rights that you're probably not going to utilize? However, the caveat with that is to be sure that you won't want to use the photos beyond what you're negotiating. That's allegedly what P&G did, and why it finds itself the subject of a lawsuit.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
This recent case out of the Central District of California, Perez v. DirecTV Group Holdings, LLC, Case No. 8:16-cv-1440-JLS-DFMx, has some interesting allegations. The plaintiff claims that DirecTV contacted her, unsolicited, at her place of business and sold her a promotional deal there for satellite cable. After the plaintiff agreed to the deal, DirecTV installed the equipment that same day and then asked the plaintiff to sign an Equipment Lease Agreement (ELA). The ELA was entirely in English, even though all communications up to that point had taken place in Spanish (and even though DirecTV apparently had a Spanish-language version of the ELA). The plaintiff signed the ELA, even though she couldn't understand it and it wasn't translated for her, and gave it to the DirecTV representative. She was not given a copy to keep for herself.
Later, after selling her the satellite cable, DirecTV then contacted the plaintiff to say that she didn't have permission to display the cable, since she was displaying it in a business. It demanded settlement of the purported illegal reception and display. The reception and display DirecTV complained about was the same equipment that DirecTV had just installed. DirecTV demanded $5,000 from the plaintiff to settle the claim. The plaintiff brought this class action, alleging that this was part of a scheme DirecTV had to target selling its services to small business owners (especially minority business owners) and then immediately turn around and accuse those small business owners of having purchased the wrong type of DirecTV for their businesses.
DirecTV moved to compel arbitration. The ELA did have an arbitration provision, and the plaintiff did sign it. However, the ELA referenced the Customer Agreement, which she did not receive until it was sent to her by mail later, and therefore the ELA's terms were actually ambiguous, meaning there was no clear agreement to arbitrate.
DirecTV therefore argued that the plaintiff consented to arbitration when she received the Customer Agreement in the mail, with its full and thorough arbitration provision, and didn't cancel DirecTV's service. However, silence alone does not ordinarily represent acceptance. And the offer and acceptance on the contract between the plaintiff and DirecTV had already happened, on the day of installation. There was nothing in the ELA that indicated that the terms of the contract would change in the future when she received the Customer Agreement and that by keeping the Customer Agreement she was consenting to those changes.
Other courts have enforced DirecTV's arbitration provision but those cases were distinguishable because those customers were given the Customer Agreement before installation. In at least one other case, a court enforced the Customer Agreement when it was provided after installation because of "practical business realities." This court, however, expressed skepticism that "business practicalities" were a valid justification, and, at any rate, there was no such business practicality at issue here. DirecTV could easily have provided the plaintiff with the Customer Agreement when service was installed.
At any rate, even if the arbitration provision were enforceable, it excepted any dispute regarding "theft of service," which the case at issue concerns. DirecTV alleged that it was not required to arbitrate these disputes, but its customers were. This one-sided interpretation of this provision raised issues of unconscionability, especially paired with the plaintiff's powerlessness to negotiate the contract at all, which was not in a language she spoke, and which she did not receive until after she was in a position where to refuse the terms would have resulted in a contractual penalty of a cancellation fee of several hundred dollars. Therefore, the court refused to compel arbitration.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I started reading this case out of the Northern District of Alabama, ProctorU, Inc. v. TM3 Software GMBH, Civil Action Number 2:17-cv-00926-AKK (behind paywall), because it involves exam proctoring software, which of course is a type of software I am interested in. It ends up really being a case about forum selection and German law vs. American law.
ProctorU alleged that TM3 was contractually obligated to provide software that could "accurately identify test-takers" within 140 characters. Instead, TM3 provided software that ProctorU claimed could not accurately identify test-takers, even after 280 characters. (I'm not sure how this works technologically; the opinion doesn't get into it beyond this, although I found the website for the software here.) ProctorU therefore sued in the Northern District of Alabama. TM3 moved to dismiss based on a forum selection clause in their contract that required cases to be brought in Germany.
ProctorU tried to argue that the forum selection clause was unenforceable because of the differences between German and American law. For instance, a jury trial wouldn't be available to ProctorU, it wouldn't be able to recover punitive damages, and discovery would be much more limited than American discovery. The court, however, found that nothing about those differences indicated that ProctorU would be unable to prove its case in Germany.
ProctorU also tried to argue that it had agreed to the forum selection clause based on misrepresentations by TM3, and that, having been induced by fraud, it should therefore be unenforceable. ProctorU alleged that TM3 told ProctorU its investor was the state of Bavaria, who would not agree to any forum selection clause that was not German. It turned out that Bavaria had only an indirect minority interest in TM3. ProctorU claimed had it known how minor the state of Bavaria's interest was, it would not have agreed to the German provision. However, the court found that the statement that the state of Bavaria was an investor was true; TM3 had not told ProctorU that the state of Bavaria was a majority investor. Furthermore, it was ProctorU's obligation to conduct due diligence before accepting the contract terms, which should have revealed who TM3's investors were.
Therefore, the court dismissed the case based on the forum selection clause.
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
At ContractsProf Blog, we love it when our readers send us new material or highlight interesting cases. This post below provides an interesting tale of course of performance with a sprinkling of negotiable instruments law. It comes to us courtesy of Keith Paul Bishop, partner with the California corporate and securities law firm of Allen Matkins. You can find Keith's original post on his firm's blog here.
Most creditors likely assume that they have not been paid unless and until they receive checks from their debtors. In many cases that assumption may be correct, but in some cases it won’t be. Section 1476 of the California Civil Code provides:
If a creditor, or any one of the two or more joint creditors, at any time directs the debtor to perform his obligation in a particular manner, the obligation is extinguished by performance in that manner, even though the creditor does not receive the benefit of such performance.
The application of this statute is illustrated by a case, Sleep EZ v. Mateo, Cal. Ct. Appeal Case No. BV 031618 (July 4, 2017). The contract at issue in the case was an apartment lease. The lessor’s manager had instructed the tenant to pay the rent by mail to a post office box and to always pay by money order. The tenant had done so for 30 years until one day the lessor didn’t receive the rent. The trial court gave judgment for the defendant finding that the tenant had purchased a money order for the full amount of the rent due and the lease required that rent be paid “to landlord by U.S. Mail”. The Court of Appeal affirmed, citing Section 1476. In doing so, the Court rejected the landlord’s argument that under Section 3310 of the California Uniform Commercial Code a money order remains unnegotiated until it is honored.
Several facts may distinguish this case from other cases in which a debtor defends on the basis that the check was mailed. First, the record established that the creditor had required rent to be paid only by mail and prohibited payment in person. Second, the record established that the tenant had performed in this manner for several decades. Third, the tenant was able to introduce evidence that she had performed as directed by the landlord (i.e., the receipt for the money order).
Monday, July 17, 2017
A recent case out of Texas, Carnegie Homes & Construction, LLC v. Sahin, No. 01-16-00733-CV, brings up no fewer than three golden discussion topics of contracts law courses: conditions precedent, specific performance, and unclean hands.
The dispute is actually a pretty run-of-the-mill disagreement over a real estate purchase. It just happens to contain a lot of arguments.
First, Carnegie Homes, the buyer, attempted to argue that a number of conditions precedent had never been fulfilled, and therefore none of its obligations to buy the property had been triggered. The contract in question did read it "shall only be effective upon performance of the conditions set forth in Section E of this agreement." But despite calling the contents of Section E "conditions," the court read them and found them to be covenants, not conditions, dictating when and how much Carnegie Homes would pay and how much their respective obligations would be. Rather than conditions, Section E contained mutual promises, and indeed, Section E was called "Terms" instead of conditions. Therefore, the reference to conditions was a mistaken one.
Second, specific performance was deemed to be the proper remedy, because the contract was for the sale of a unique property. Carnegie Homes tried to argue that specific performance was not usually made available to the seller of a piece of property, only to the buyer of that property. However, the court said that specific performance was not so limited and that sellers have the right to seek and be rewarded specific performance just as much as buyers.
Finally, Carnegie Homes tried to argue that unclean hands prevented the seller, Sahin, from receiving relief. The conduct Carnegie Homes complained of concerned Sahin's service of a supplemental petition that alleged Carnegie Homes committed fraud. Sahin served the petition but never filed it. Carnegie Homes, however, was required to disclose it in a loan application, which allegedly caused it to be refused financing, leading to Carnegie Homes's difficulty in fulfilling its obligation to buy the property. The court, however, found that the disclosure to one lender did not block Carnegie Homes from performing the rest of its obligations, and did not act as unclean hands on Sahin's part. The contract did not require Sahin to help Carnegie Homes obtain financing, nor did it condition Carnegie Homes's obligation to pay on the receipt of financing. Therefore, Carnegie Homes was not excused from its obligations and Sahin was entitled to relief.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
I'm blogging this case because I had a whole conversation with non-lawyer friends about what the term "renovate" means, and I think maybe they changed my mind about what "renovate" means. I don't know. Upon first reading this case, I spent a lot of time reflecting on all the episode of "House Hunters Renovations" I've watched and what actually happens in them.
Anyway, if you want to go away and watch a marathon of "House Hunters Renovation" at this point, it's okay. I understand. This blog post will still be here for you to contemplate afterward.
The case in question (there is an actual case) is a recent case out of Pennsylvania, Blackburn v. King Investment Group, No. 2409 EDA 2016, and, as you may have guessed, the debate in the case was over the meaning of the word "renovate" in the contract. One party maintained that the term was ambiguous, because it could have required them to demolish the bathrooms at issue or merely to do what was necessary to bring them up to modern standards (which was less than full demolition). The other party argued that it was not an ambiguous term and clearly required demolition.
The court agreed that it was a clear and unambiguous term that required demolition and replacement, and this was what got me to thinking: Do I think that renovation requires demolition? At first my kneejerk reaction was like, "I don't know, I don't think it does." But after conversations with people, I decided maybe it does mean demolition? That doing something less than demolition wouldn't be called renovation but just updating? If you say you're going to renovate your kitchen, does that always imply that you're demolishing the entire kitchen? If you do less than that, is saying you renovated your kitchen misleading?
My struggling with the word leads me to believe maybe it's not clear and unambiguous but I often feel that way with these types of cases. What I find extra-striking about this case is that, while the court proclaimed the term "clear and unambiguous," it did so by relying entirely on parol evidence, and this parol evidence, in my view, just determined what the parties understood "renovation" to mean. I think finding what renovation meant in the context of this contract to these parties makes a lot more sense than declaring it to be a clear and unambiguous term generally.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Will an associate who makes a $1.5 billion (yes, with a “b”) clerical error still make partner?... Do law firms owe a duty of care to clients of opposing party’s law firm? The answers, as you can guess: very likely not and no! The case goes like this:
General Motors (“GM”), represented by law firm Mayer Brown, takes out a 2001 loan for $300 million and a 2006 loan for $1.5 billion secured by different real estate properties. JP Morgan acts as agent for the two different groups of lenders. GM pays off the first loan, but encounters severe financial troubles and enters into bankruptcy proceedings before paying off the big 2006 loan. GM continues to follow the terms on that loan, and the bankruptcy court also treats the lenders as if they were still secured.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? When Mayer Brown prepared and filed the UCC-3 termination statement for the 2001 loan, the firm also released the 2006 loan by mistake. The lenders of that were thus not secured under the law any longer even though both GM itself and the bankruptcy court treated them as such. The big loan was simply been converted from a secured transaction into a lending contract. Yikes.
How did this happen? The following is too good to be true, if you are in an irritable or easily amused summer mode, so I cite from the case:
“The plaintiffs' complaint offers the following autopsy of the error: a senior Mayer Brown partner was responsible for supervising the work on the closing. He instructed an associate to prepare the closing checklist. The associate, in turn, relied on a paralegal to identify the relevant UCC-1 financing statements. As a cost-saving measure, the paralegal used an old UCC search on General Motors and included the 2006 Term Loan. Another paralegal tasked with preparing the termination statements recognized that the 2006 Term Loan had been included by mistake and informed the associate of the problem, but he ignored the discrepancy. The erroneous checklist and documents were then sent to [JP Morgan’s law firm] Simpson Thacher for review. The supervising partner at Mayer Brown never caught the error, nor did anyone else. With JP Morgan's authorization, the 2001 Synthetic Lease payoff closed on October 30, 2008 … We must also note that, when provided an opportunity to review the Mayer Brown drafts, a Simpson Thacher attorney replied, ‘Nice job on the documents.’”
The lenders represented by JP Morgan sued not Simpson Thacher or JP Morgan, but… Mayer Brown; counsel for the opposing party, arguing that the law firm owed a duty to them not because Mayer Brown represented them or their agent, JP Morgan, in connection with these loans, but rather because, plaintiffs argued, Mayer Brown owed JP Morgan – not the plaintiffs directly – a duty of care as a client in other unrelated matters! As the court said, an astonishing claim.
A law firm or a party directly must always prepare a first draft of any document. “By preparing a first draft, an attorney does not undertake a professional duty to all other parties in the deal.” In sum, said the court, “there is no exception to the Pelham primary purpose rule, and there is no plausible allegation that Mayer Brown voluntarily assumed a duty to plaintiffs by providing drafts to Simpson Thacher for review.”
The case is Oakland Police & Fire Ret. Sys. v. Mayer Brown, LLP, States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Case No. 15 C 6742
Monday, July 10, 2017
When I teach my students rules of construction and we talk about contra proforentem, I feel like the standard examples I use with them are insurance contracts, where it's easy to identify who the drafter is. A recent case out of Indiana, Song v. Iatarola, Court of Appeals Case No. 64A03-1609-PL-2094 (thank to D.C. Toedt for the new non-paywall link!), involved an actual discussion of who was the "drafter" in a situation where both parties had input in the contract. The Iatarolas seemed to try to argue that Song should be considered the drafter and have the contract construed against him because he was the one who typed it into Microsoft Word. The court pointed out, though, that the rule of construction is about independent drafting, not a situation where both parties contributed to the contractual terms. Who physically types the contract up means nothing if both parties have helped to decide on the terms being typed up. I have never thought to discuss that with my students, but I think I might bring it up, just to be clear on what the rule is talking about.
Friday, July 7, 2017
If You Want to Hold Your Real Estate Development to Its Master Plan, Make Sure It's in Your Contract
A recent case out of Idaho, Swafford v. Huntsman Springs, Inc., Docket No. 44240, serves as a word of warning for those purchasing plots in real estate developments. As someone who recently purchased a plot of land in an in-progress real estate development, I read this case with interest.
The Swaffords bought a plot of land early on in the development's life, based on a master plan that they had viewed. Later, as the development continued underway, Huntsman Springs altered its plans, so that they way it turned out was not as it had been in the master plan the Swaffords had viewed. The Swaffords then sued for breach of contract.
The problem was that the "master plan" had never been part of the Swaffords' contract with Hunstman Springs. The contract did not incorporate the master plan and in fact the contract stated in several places that Huntsman Springs was bound by no other representations outside of the four corners of the contract and, in an integration clause, that the contract was the entire agreement. The contract was much less specific in Huntsman Springs's obligations to the Swaffords, but Huntsman Springs did comply with all of them. Therefore, there was no breach of contract.
Important lesson learned: If you want your developer bound by a master plan, make sure it's in your contract. (Of course, that's possibly easier said than done, depending on power differentials. But, if you allow for reasonable modifications of that master plan in some way, maybe you could accomplish it.)
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
A recent case out of New York, In re Estate of Edmund Felix Hennel, No. 78, explains when promissory estoppel will overcome the statute of frauds, and the answer is: not always. Sometimes unfairness may result from the failure to overcome the statute of frauds, but promissory estoppel only saves a party in cases of unconscionable injury.
In the case, Hennel's grandsons allegedly reached an agreement with him whereby they would assume maintenance for a particular property and eventually assume ownership, and their grandfather would pay off the property's mortgage in his will. A 2006 will seemed to have terms that supported this oral agreement. However, a 2008 will revoked all previous wills and did not include the same terms, although the grandsons claimed Hennel told them nothing had changed in their agreement. The grandsons assumed ownership of the property but the 2008 will failed to pay off the property's mortgage.
After Hennel's death, his grandsons sued to have the property's mortgage satisfied by their grandfather's estate, but they admitted that they could not satisfy the statute of frauds, since their agreement with their grandfather had been oral. Instead, the grandsons sought to rely on promissory estoppel. The court held, however, that even if they satisfied the elements of promissory estoppel, they would not suffer unconscionable injury if the statute of frauds was enforced, and unconscionable injury was required to allow promissory estoppel to trump the statute of frauds. Here, the grandsons had been able to pay the mortgage out of the rental income the property generated, and the grandsons did not have to expend any personal money to pay the mortgage. In such a case, there was no unconscionable injury.
The court noted that the grandsons could always sell the property if they wished to get out from under the mortgage, considering that the property had an estimated $150,000 worth of equity. The grandsons contended that, had the mortgage been paid as they had been promised, they would have received the full value of the property ($235,000) as equity. The court agreed this loss was unfair, but it was not unconscionable. In fact, the court stated, "cases where the party attempting to avoid the statute of frauds will suffer unconscionable injury will be rare."
Monday, June 26, 2017
"As Is" Clauses Don't Grant You Immunity If You Commit Fraud -- and Parol Evidence Can Help Prove It
A recent case out of South Dakota, Oxton v. Rudland, #28070 (behind paywall), is another case involving alleged fraud during the sale and purchase of a house, this one with an explicit parol evidence debate.
As in the previous case I blogged about on this topic, the contract for the house contained an "as is" clause. The Oxtons agreed that the contract with this "as is" clause was unambiguous and fully integrated. However, they argued that the parol evidence rule never applies when a party is alleging fraud. Because they were alleging fraud, they wanted to be able to bring in parol evidence regarding that fraud.
The court agreed that the parol evidence rule does not apply in cases of fraud, which cannot be avoided by disclaimers in the contract. Therefore, the court looked at the Oxtons' evidence of fraud, which consisted of the fact that the Rudlands who sold them the house had just bought it a few months before and in the course of buying it had been told about "major settling" of the house (the problem at issue). The Rudlands, however, did not disclose that "major settling" when they sold to the Oxtons months later. The Rudlands countered that the disclosure statement that did not contain any language about "major settling" was largely irrelevant, and that the Oxtons were well aware they were purchasing the home "as is" and had the opportunity to obtain an inspection before finalizing the contract.
The court found that it could not resolve these questions of fact but that there was enough evidence to possibly support the Oxtons' fraud claim, such that summary dismissal of that claim was inappropriate. The court allowed the parol evidence to support the claim, and also explicitly pointed out that "as is" clauses do not provide "general immunity from liability for fraud." Therefore, the Rudlands could not rely on the "as is" clause alone as blanket protection for all of their behavior and statement, and the litigation over the alleged fraudulent inducement should continue.
It's interesting to contrast this with the Texas case I just blogged. There, the court held that getting an inspection was enough to prove that you were not relying on the sellers' statements. The Oxtons did obtain an inspection in this case but little attention is given to that fact. I wonder if it will gain more prominence as the debate over the alleged fraud goes forward, as at the moment the case was pretty focused on the parol evidence rule and the operation of the "as is" clause, not on the effect of the inspection.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
More fun with ambiguity! I like this recent case out of Pennsylvania, BL Partners Group, L.P. v. Interbroad, LLC, No. 465 EDA 2016, because it really delves into grammatical rules in a way that pleases the 13-year-old me who enjoyed learning how to diagram sentences. (I did. I can't help it. I admit it publicly here.)
The appellant leased billboard space on the rooftop of a building owned by the appellee. The appellee decided to demolish the building and sent the appellant a termination notice. The appellant argued that the termination notice was invalid under the terms of the lease and that it would not vacate the premises. The provision in question was:
"In the event that Lessor's building is damaged by fire or other casualty and Lessor elects not to restore such building, or Lessor elects to demolish the building, Lessor may terminate the Lease . . . ."
The trial court found that this provision gave the appellee the right to demolish the building for any reason, finding that the comma preceding the "or" indicated that it was an independent basis for termination and was not dependent upon the building first being damaged by fire or other casualty. This appeal followed.
The appellate court began its analysis by looking to the dictionary definition of the word "or," and then finding that the placement of a comma before the word "or" joins two independent clauses. Nonrestrictive phrases separated by commas are construed as parentheticals, "supplemental to the main clause." The appellate court then concluded that the intent of the contracting parties was not clear. The appellate court said that the trial court's reading actually read words into the contract, i.e., "In the event that Lessor's building is damaged by fire or other casualty and Lessor elects not to restore such building, or in the event that Lessor elects to demolish the building, Lessor may terminate the Lease . . . ." The appellate court said it was unclear if that reading was correct, or if in fact the clause should be read in conjunction with the previous clause, and therefore the meaning could not "be determined definitively from the particular terms, grammar, or structure" of the provision. Both parties offered reasonable interpretations, and therefore extrinsic evidence had to be examined for the true meaning of the provision.
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.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
5-hour ENERGY is one of those products that I feel like an entire class could be built around. I already teach a couple of 5-hour ENERGY cases in trademark, and here's a contracts case (that seems to also have patent and trade secret implications). The case is Innovation Ventures, LLC v. Custom Nutrition Laboratories, LLC, Case No. 12-13850 (behind paywall), out of the Eastern District of Michigan.
The heart of the allegations currently at issue in this most recent litigation revolve around a previous settlement agreement between the parties, under which the defendant agreed not to use certain 5-hour ENERGY ingredients in any formulas for other energy shots. The defendant didn't deny that it did in fact use those prohibited ingredients. However, it raised a laches defense to try to shield it from liability, alleging that the plaintiff delayed filing the lawsuit for three years, during which the defendant was openly using the ingredients at issue, with the plaintiff's knowledge. During the time period that the plaintiff delayed suit, the defendant alleged that it developed and sold other products that it would have developed differently had the plaintiff indicated that it had an issue with the defendant's activities. The plaintiff's response, however, was that, because it brought suit within the applicable statute of limitations, laches can't apply.
The plaintiff's argument was unavailing. The court noted that Michigan had again and again reiterated that statute of limitations not having run alone cannot be enough to defeat a valid laches defense. The defendant alleged that the plaintiff knew that the defendant was selling products with the prohibited ingredients and sat back and waited for more products to be developed and further damages to accrue before bringing suit. This behavior, if true, could support a finding of laches.
(There were lots of other issues, allegations, and defenses in this litigation. I've focused on this one small piece.)
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Insurance contracts often provoke disputes over language interpretation. A recent case out of West Virginia, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Co. v. Chaber, No. 16-0490, overturns on appeal the lower court's finding of ambiguity, declaring that the language at issue was in fact unambiguous.
The Chabers had an insurance policy that excluded "earth movement," which was defined as including "landslide . . . whether . . . caused by an act of nature or . . . otherwise caused." Soil and rock slid down a hill behind the Chabers' property and damaged it. The insurance company refused to pay out, pointing to the exclusion of landslides. The Chabers alleged that the landslide was caused by improper excavation, not natural causes, and thus shouldn't have been excluded under the policy. The lower court found that the insurance policy was ambiguous, and that the Chabers might have expected that landslides caused by actions of humans were covered. The appellate court, however, disagreed.
The appellate court found that previous cases had found ambiguity in insurance policies that excluded events arising "from natural or external forces." In contrast, the Chabers' insurance policy language was the much more general "act of nature or . . . otherwise caused," losing the word "external" that had been considered ambiguous. The language in the Chabers' policy was relatively new but the few courts that had considered it had found it to be unambiguous. Therefore, the appellate court found the policy was unambiguous and covered landslides, whether human-triggered or naturally occurring.
I always find it interesting when courts disagree regarding ambiguity, because the very fact of courts disagreeing seems to indicate ambiguity! However, this policy does seem to be unambiguous in its breadth of exclusions. Possibly the lower court just felt bad for the Chabers.
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 31, 2017
We are by now probably all familiar with the modern phenomenon of GoFundMes to cover medical care. Those funds likely aren't just to cover situations where the parties didn't have health insurance, but also situations where the parties did have health insurance and the health insurance refused to pay. Sometimes because of the terms of the particular health insurance policy, but also sometimes without adequate justification. A recent case out of the Southern District of Florida, Grewal v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., Case No. 17-cv-80318-MIDDLEBROOKS (behind paywall), seems like the latter situation, based on the allegations of the complaint.
Grewal, who had Aetna health insurance, also had a six-year-old son, A., who became seriously and unexpectedly ill. He was eventually diagnosed with a rare and very dangerous condition that required long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation. A.'s doctors determined that he should be transferred to a different hospital that could properly treat A. The hospital where A. had been was unable to handle the specialized care A.'s condition required. (In fact, there were allegations the hospital had allowed A. to lay in his own vomit for long periods of time, which seems...alarming???)
Aetna refused to clear A.'s flight transfer, finding that it was not medically necessary, but A.'s condition grew increasingly serious, so A.'s father decided to go through with the flight. He then filed a claim with Aetna to pay for the flight, which Aetna refused within days, without examining A. or the hospitals in question. This refusal left A.'s father with a bill over $300,000.
Aetna's motion to dismiss required the court to determine if the complaint had sufficient allegations that A.'s flight between hospitals was indeed "medically necessary." And the court determined that it did. The complaint alleged that, at the time that A. was transferred, ground transportation was unsafe because of the seriousness of A.'s condition. Therefore, if A. had to be transported, it had to be by flight. And the complaint further alleged that A.'s current hospital was so inadequate to treat A. that it was a life-threatening situation for A. Finally, the complaint alleged that A.'s doctors, those medical professionals most familiar with A.'s condition, recommended the flight transfer. Those allegations were all sufficient to establish that the transfer was "medically necessary" and thus covered by the health insurance policy. Therefore, taking the facts in the complaint as true, a breach of contract was alleged.
We'll see how this case plays out, but I can't help but feel intense sympathy for A.'s father, having to make this decision. Imagine your six-year-old son being suddenly, unexpectedly, very seriously sick, and your son's doctors saying he needed to be transferred to have any chance at recovery. How rational do you think you would be dealing with your insurance company in your situation? Would you really consider it time to have a debate over contractual language?