Sunday, November 5, 2017
St. Vincent de Paul trademark battle falters on breach of contract and promissory estoppel, but unjust enrichment survives
I think there is sometimes an impression out there that implied-in-fact contracts can be used to save all situations where formal contracts weren't executed, but that is definitely not the case. Implied-in-fact contracts still require some allegation of contractual intent between the parties. A recent case out of the Western District of Wisconsin, National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Inc. v. St. Vincent de Paul Community Center of Portage County, Inc., 16-cv-423-bbc, reiterates this. (Actually, this case dates from late May, but just crossed my inbox now. No idea why, but I'll blog it for you anyway!)
The case is a trademark dispute over several trademarks owned by the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the defendant for trademark infringement and the defendant asserted a number of counterclaims, including breach of contract. The defendant's breach of contract claim was based on a "contract implied in fact" because the plaintiff allegedly knew (either constructively or actually) about the defendant's use of the marks and the course of dealing between the parties created an implied contract regarding this use. But the complaint failed to show any intention to contract between the parties. Rather, its allegations illustrated that the parties coexisted but that they did so independent of each other.
Even if there was an implied-in-fact contract, though, it would be terminable at will, meaning that the plaintiff could terminate it when it objected to the arrangement. The court refused to infer that any implied-in-fact contract waived the plaintiff's trademark rights against defendant in perpetuity, considering that there was so little evidence of any contractual intent in the first place.
The defendant next asserted promissory estoppel but there was no allegation the plaintiff had ever made any promise that the defendant could rely on. The defendant's unjust enrichment claim, however, was allowed to proceed. The defendant had alleged that the plaintiff would benefit unjustly from the goodwill the defendant had built up in the community and that was enough to survive the motion to dismiss.
Saturday, November 4, 2017
A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Al Hirschfeld Foundation v. The Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., 16 Civ. 4135 (PAE) (the decision is behind a paywall, but you can read a news account of it here), is another contract interpretation case, this one involving a contract between the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and the art galleries that represented him. There are many things at issue in the case, among them the galleries' sale of giclees, "high-quality photostatic reproductions of existing works." The Foundation argued that the Galleries did not have the right under the contract to sell these giclees. The Galleries of course argued that they did.
The contract language at issue was a clause giving the Galleries the ability to reproduce works "in connection with [the Galleries'] promotion, advertising and marketing in furtherance of [the Galleries'] rights under this . . . Agreement." But the court found that this was a limited carve-out that did not extend to giclees. The reproductions done under this clause were meant to further the rights of the Galleries, not to be freestanding rights, which the giclees were. There was no indication that the parties intended the Galleries' ability to reproduce works to be extended to include the giclees.
There were lots of other issues in this case. I've just confined myself to this one in the interest of space.
Thursday, November 2, 2017
This recent case out of Nevada, Edy v. McManus Auctions, No. 70737 (behind paywall), caught my eye because it has facts that sound like a hypo. Basically, Edy attended a McManus auction. Prior to the auction, he examined what was purported to be a ruby pendant with a certificate estimating its value as $127,500. At the auction, Edy won the pendant with a bid of $15,842. However, when he brought the pendant to be appraised, he learned it was not a ruby and was only valued at $8,675.
Edy sued for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraudulent misrepresentation, inter alia. However, his fraudulent misrepresentation claim was struck after he failed to submit a timely damages calculation pursuant to a court order. On an incomplete appellate record, the court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in striking these claims. That left a contract claim without any allegations of misrepresentation, and the court found that the contract entered into at the auction was valid and binding. So Edy lost.
However, a concurrence in this case talked more about the misrepresentation allegations. The concurrence agreed that the district court's striking of the allegations was not an abuse of discretion, but the concurrence went on to analyze those allegations as if they have been permitted. McManus, at trial, admitted that the pendant was shown before the auction with a certificate claiming it was a ruby worth $127,500, just as Edy had claimed. McManus also testified that it knew there was a reserve price of $10,000, meaning that was the minimum acceptable bid, which was obviously far lower than the estimated value. Nevertheless, McManus did not independently verify the pendant nor did it disclose to the bidders that it might not be genuine or that it had such a low reserve price nor did it allow the bidders to get independent appraisals before the auction. Representations of value, the concurrence noted, are usually tricky bases for fraud, but here the pendant was unequivocally presented as a genuine ruby worth $127,500. The concurrence thought that was sufficient to constitute representations on behalf of McManus, had those allegations not been struck. But, without an adequate appellate record, the concurrence agreed that the district court's decision could not be reversed.
This case is a little tragic to me. I'm not sure what happened at the district court level, but it seems like the concurrence thinks the auction company was behaving questionably here. The concurrence stands as a warning to the auction company to be cautious about its practices in the future.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Court finds terms are not ambiguous when their dictionary definitions are consistent with the contract
We just finished talking about contractual ambiguity in my contracts class, so I was happy to see this recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, SAS Institute, Inc. v. World Programming Ltd. ("WPL"), No. 16-1808 No: 16-1857 (behind paywall), discussing that very issue in the context of a software license agreement. This is actually part of a much larger case with important copyright implications for computer software code, but, given the subject matter of this blog, I'm focusing on the contract claims. You can read the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the copyright questions here.
Among other things, the parties were fighting over the interpretation of a few of the contractual terms between them. However, the court reminded us that mere disputes over the meaning of a contract does not automatically mean that language is ambiguous. In fact, the court found here based on ordinary dictionary definitions that none of the terms were ambiguous.
First, the parties were fighting over a prohibition on reverse engineering. The court looked to dictionary definitions of "reverse engineering" to arrive at a definition that also made sense in the context of the contract. WPL tried to introduce extrinsic evidence on the meaning of the term but the court found there was no reason to turn to extrinsic evidence since the term was not ambiguous.
The parties were next fighting over the meaning of the license being for "non-production purposes only." The court construed this to have its "ordinary meaning" as forbidding "the creation or manufacture of commercial goods." WPL argued that the phrase had a technical meaning in the software industry, but the court did not find that the parties had intended to use this technical meaning. The dictionary definitions supported the court's construction of the phrase as unambiguous.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
A recent case out of California, Diaz v. Hutchinson Aerospace & Industry, Inc., B271563, has a nice, organized unconscionability analysis that leads to finding an arbitration clause unenforceable.
The case concerns an employment agreement signed by Diaz with his employer Hutchinson. The employment contract was indisputably an adhesion contract, because it was distributed pre-printed to employees with no opportunity to negotiate. That does carry some degree of procedural unconscionability but the court characterized it as minimal, since it was not accompanied by any other elements of surprise or sharp dealing. Given the low degree of procedural unconscionability, the court required a high degree of substantive unconscionability.
Unfortunately for Hutchinson, that high degree of substantive unconscionability was met. First, the arbitration provision was one-sided: only claims against the employer were required to go to arbitration, not claims against the employee. Second, the arbitration provision limited discovery in such a way as to make it impossible for the employees to vindicate their rights.
Because this high degree of substantive unconscionability combined with the procedural unconscionability rendered the arbitration clause unenforceable, the court was justified in finding the entire agreement "permeated by an unlawful purpose" and refusing to enforce it.
Monday, October 16, 2017
Take That! Outstanding Contractual Balance, Not Just Profits, Due in Case of Asserted Commercial Impracticability
In Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, LLC v. Solarworld Industries Sachsen GmbH, 867 F.3d 692 (Sixth Cir. 2017), Hemlock contracted to provide Sachsen in Germany set quantities of polysilicon at fixed prices between 2006 and 2019. The market price at the time was well above the price agreed upon between these parties, but plummeted several years later when the Chinese government began subsidizing its national production of polysilicon.
When Sachsen refused to pay the original contractual amount for 2012, Hemlock brought suit for breach of contract. Sachsen defended itself claiming that the Chinese government (1) illegally subsidized its national production of polysilicon and dumped massive quantities of the product onto the market, causing the price of polysilicon to fall; and (2) committed acts of “criminal industrial espionage” against Sachsen's U.S.-based sister company, SWIA. As a result of these illegal actions, the price of polysilicon plummeted, rendering Sachsen's performance impracticable and frustrating the purpose of entering into the contracts with Hemlock.
Hemlock demanded the entire outstanding balance due to Hemlock from 2012 through 2019 – close to $600 million – plus post-judgment interest. Sachsen argued that this would be an unenforceable penalty rather than permissible liquidated damages under the contract. At the most, Sachsen argued, it should pay only for Hemlock’s lost profits since Hemlock did not have to actually produce polysilicon for Sachsen after the breach. This would have saved approximately $200 million for Sachsen.
Both the district and appellate courts found that since even drastic changes in the market are not sufficient to trigger the impracticability defense, Sachsen could not here either, even given the alleged Chinese interference. This, said the district court, was irrelevant because the alleged illegal actions of the Chinese government had “simply caused a market shift in pricing, making it unprofitable for Sachsen to perform as promised.” The appellate court cited to a case where even a $2m a day loss causing a company to go out of business did not warrant the defense. Both courts referred to the standard “floodgates” arguments and not blaming third parties for one’s own contractual misfortunes.
OK, but so what about the lost profit argument? Although such cost savings might factor into an ordinary breach-of-contract claim, the courts concluded that considering cost savings was inappropriate in the context of the particular take-or-pay provision in place between these parties. Hemlock, in other words, was entitled to full payment under the contract even if Sachsen refused delivery of the polysilicon. “Under these circumstances, Hemlock would have had no need to produce the polysilicon, but would still be entitled to be paid in full. The court persuasively reasoned that the [contract] therefore contemplated situations in which Hemlock's cost savings would be irrelevant to the amount of payment that Hemlock was due.”
That argument seems terribly circular to me. Hemlock was entitled to the full contractual amount because Hemlock was entitled to the full contractual amount? Uhm, even if it did not have to do anything and thus did in fact enjoy huge cost savings? I find that erroneous, nonsensical, and actually rather vindictive on the part of the U.S. court system over a foreign entity.
The appellate court also found that “restricting Hemlock's recovery to lost profits without accounting for the fact that Sachsen saved (and Hemlock lost) approximately $509.1 million earlier in the contract term would be inequitable. In light of the fact that Sachsen benefited substantially in the earlier years of the LTAs, the liquidated-damages award is not ‘unconscionable or excessive.’” That does not make sense to me either. The parties took the contractual risks that they did. Granted, Sachsen then breached. But greed then seemed to come into play, for profits were the only thing Hemlock would have gotten out of the situation had there not been a breach. Hemlock was placed in a vastly better situation here than what liquidated damages normally allow for, precisely because they cannot be punitive. They seemed to have been here as they were a simple, yet extreme formula: if breach, pay the rest of the contract no matter what. When the contractually stipulated liquidated amount grossly exceeds actual damages, courts of law usually construe such provision as an unenforceable penalty. Not in this case, not even for a windfall of $200 million.
The case is Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, LLC v. SolarWorld Indus. Sachsen GmbH, 867 F.3d 692, 707 (6th Cir. 2017), reh'g denied (Sept. 19, 2017)
Monday, October 9, 2017
I am gearing up to teach specific performance soon, so this recent case out of New York, Grunbaum v. Nicole Brittany, Ltd., 2015-10155, caught my eye. The relevant facts of the dispute are fairly simple and straightforward: The parties had a contract regarding property and the closing didn't happen. The plaintiff sued for specific performance. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint and the plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment on the complaint. But the plaintiff failed to establish that he was actually able to buy the property in question. He submitted no evidence as to his financial condition, and to receive specific performance that plaintiff had to show "that he was ready, willing, and able to purchase the subject property." Therefore, even though the defendant's motion to dismiss was denied, the court also denied the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
A slip-and-fall in a cruise ship bathroom, a forum selection clause, a defective filing, an untimely filing...and equitable tolling
A recent case out of the Southern District of Florida, Jordan v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., Case No. 1:17-cv-20773-WILLIAMS/TORRES (behind paywall), concerned a plaintiff, Jordan, who was allegedly injured when she slipped and fell in the bathroom of her cabin. She attempted to sue the defendant, Celebrity Cruises, in Florida state court. However, her ticket contract with Celebrity Cruises required that any causes of action be filed in the Southern District of Florida. Jordan did eventually file in the Southern District of Florida but it was after the statute of limitations had run.
The main issue in the case revolved around whether the statute of limitations could be equitably tolled, since she had filed in state court prior to the statute of limitations running. Jordan argued that she did not have her ticket contract, nor was she aware that it required suit in the Southern District of Florida--a not-at-all implausible argument on her part, considering that few of us read those terms and conditions or really register them. She claimed that the first time she realized she had a ticket contract with Celebrity Cruises was when Celebrity Cruises attached the ticket contract to its motion to dismiss her state court complaint, and that the case was refiled in the proper contractual forum shortly thereafter.
The court found that equitable tolling could apply. Jordan was diligent in pursuing her cause of action, and Celebrity Cruises did not suffer any adverse consequences, since Jordan had provided timely notice of her injury to Celebrity Cruises. The court did not think Jordan was negligent in her failure to file in the proper forum. Celebrity Cruises seemed to argue that Jordan should have found the ticket contract online to learn where the proper forum to file would be, but there was no evidence in the record showing that the ticket contract was so easy to locate online that Jordan's failure to do so was negligent. Therefore, Jordan's timely filing in the wrong forum entitled her to equitable tolling, considering her diligence in all other respects.
The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals has held that conduct tending to show fraud and bad faith in relation to one contract is not an excuse for not performing in a closely related contract.
Dr. Halterman signed a recruitment agreement, an employment contract, and a promissory note in the amount of $50,000 as a “signing advance” – a loan - for his upcoming work as a doctor with the Johnson Regional Medical Center (“JRMC”). The recruitment agreement stipulated that the monthly payments on the signing advance would be forgiven so long as Dr. Halterman’s employment at JRMC “continued.” It did not. Five months into his employment, Dr. Halterman quit, citing to, i.a., JRMC’s fraudulent misrepresentations in negotiating his call-coverage obligations and bad faith in that respect. Dr. Halterman had also suffered a shoulder injury that both parties at one point agreed would result in him not being able to do all the work for JRMC that the parties had originally agreed upon.
JRMC claimed repayment of $37,894 still owed by Dr. Halterman when he resigned without, in the hospital’s opinion, a “legal defense.” Dr. Halterman sought to excuse himself from having to repay the remainder of the loan.
The appellate court agreed with JRMC that Dr. Halterman’s obligations to pay the remaining debt were not excused by his allegations (or eventual proof) of fraud or breach of the duty of good faith in the employment contract. An executory contract procured by fraud is not binding on the party against whom the fraud has been perpetrated. Here, Dr. Halterman sought not to perform under the employment contract, but the court found that the loan agreement was an entirely separate contract that thus still had to be performed.
This situation could have been avoided with more legally apt language, of course. Such language could have included express conditions stating that the loan was not to be repaid under a set of circumstances covering, for example, fraud. However, I find it troublesome that the legal effects of three contracts that clearly were meant to relate to and arguably depend on each other were separated decisively as the court did here. In fact, the parties disagreed on whether the three executed documents should be considered separately or as one single contract. The court analyzed the employment contract as separate from the recruitment agreement and note, which were treated as one. That may or may not make sense. Granted, it may make sense that sophisticated parties such as these could simply, if they had intended one single legally binding contract to arise, have worded their documents accordingly. On the other hand, it does not make much common sense to find that a “recruitment” contract is entirely different from an “employment” contract; the two are clearly connected. If fraud has arisen, is not the result of the above that the party acting fraudulently – the hospital, allegedly – can if not outright recover from a fraud, then at least avoid losses from it? Although I do agree with the outcome here, it seems like it to me that some troublesome aspects of this finding remain, namely that an employer apparently got away with broken employment promises fairly scot-free. That’s not fair.
The case is Johnson Regional Medical Center v. Dr. Robert Halterman, 867 F.3d 1013 (Eighth Cir. Ct. of App. 2017).
Monday, October 2, 2017
The allegations of this recent case out of the Northern District of California, Consumer Opinion LLC v. Frankfort News Corp., Case No. 16-cv-05100-BLF (behind paywall), are fascinating. Basically, Consumer Opinion owned a consumer review website and alleged that Defendants provided "reputation management" services by which Defendants copied the contents of Consumer Opinion's website, back-dated these contents so that it would look like Defendants' site pre-dated the Consumer Opinion website posting, and then asserted that the Consumer Opinion website was infringing their copyright. Such, at least, were the allegations in the complaint. (You can read the complaint here. You can also read the order on Consumer Opinion's TRO motion here and the order on Consumer Opinion's motion for early discovery here.)
The parties had discussed settlement, and in the current motion Consumer Opinion moved to enforce a settlement agreement between it and Defendant Profit Marketing, Inc. The problem? They never reached any such agreement. First Consumer Opinion tried to argue that Profit Marketing agreed to settle for $50,000 but Profit Marketing's lawyer's last communication on the matter read, "Well I can't agree without my clients consent but that sounds fine to me. I'll get their approval when I talk to them today." As I've been teaching my students as we walk through offer and acceptance, this statement betrayed a lack of authority to enter into a present commitment ("I can't agree without my client's consent.").
Consumer Opinion then tried to argue that Profit Marketing agreed to settle for $35,000. However, its proof of this was a general e-mail whereby one of Profit Marketing's other attorneys expressed openness to pursuing settlement, followed by several replies by Consumer Opinion that were never responded to. Eventually, in the face of the continuing silence from Profit Marketing's attorney, Consumer Opinion asserted that if it got no response by 5 pm, it would move to enforce the settlement agreement. It got no response, and this motion followed.
The court refused to read Profit Marketing's attorney's silence as acceptance of Consumer Opinion's settlement offer. Rather, Profit Marketing's lack of response indicated that it never accepted the offer, and so there was no binding settlement agreement between the parties.
Friday, September 29, 2017
"You can stay here until we come to an agreement!" Watch out for what happens if you never reach an agreement!
One of the thorniest issues I find to teach students is when an agreement is enforceable vs. when it is merely an agreement to agree. A recent case out of Wisconsin, Adrikos Real Estate Holding LLC v. Murphy, Appeal No. 2016AP1313, addresses this very issue. The document in question read,
The seller, Murphy, shall retain the right to occupy the Property for a period of 15 days following the closing date of the agreement . . . . Thereafter, the seller, Murphy, shall retain the right to occupy the Property until such date that parties reach an agreement for the purchase and sale . . . .
The parties never reached an agreement for the purchase and sale. Instead, Adrikos sought to evict Murphy. Murphy, however, argued that the contract gave him the right to stay on the property until they reached agreement for the purchase and sale--which they hadn't.
The lower court found the agreement to be unenforceable as merely an agreement to agree. This court disagreed. The agreement explicitly granted Murphy the right to occupy the property until a purchase and sale agreement was reached. This didn't render the contract an agreement to agree; rather, it made a future agreement a "triggering condition" of the presently enforceable first agreement.
Having found the agreement enforceable, the court then considered if, because it didn't have a particular end date, it was terminable at will and Adrikos could evict Murphy at any time. The court found that the agreement did have an end date, though: the agreement for the purchase and sale. The court found, though, that, depending on the circumstances, this could convert the contract into a perpetual lease, which was disfavored under Wisconsin law, and if so, the court should read in a reasonable duration for the occupancy right. It remanded for further determination on this question.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Betty, Inc. v. Pepsico, Inc., No. 16-CV-4215 (KMK) (behind paywall), tackles a fairly common issue: Often people make pitches based on ideas they have. Ideas aren't copyrightable, so often the only protection people have is contract-based. But, also often, they don't actually have a written contract, so they have to rely on an implied-in-fact contract theory. However, as this case reiterates, an implied-in-fact contract is more than just a conclusory allegation that "oh, we had an agreement that they'd pay me something for my pitch."
The case in question involves an advertising agency, Betty, who pitched a commercial to Pepsi for use in the Super Bowl. Pepsi invited Betty to participate in a telephone pitch meeting, during which Pepsi provided the "general outline of what it envisioned for the Super Bowl commercial," followed by a more formal face-to-face presentation. At the presentation, Betty presented eight different ideas and provided Pepsi with a USB drive with some concepts contained on it. Pepsi allegedly reacted favorably and asked for more details about some of the concepts.
About a month later, Pepsi informed Betty that it had decided to go in another direction with the commercial. However, when Betty saw the commercial during the Super Bowl, it thought it was substantially similar to one of the concepts it had pitched to Pepsi. The decision itself is behind a paywall but the lawsuit's filing was reported in some outlets.
This lawsuit followed, alleging copyright claims as well as a variety of contract-based claims. The breach of contract claim faltered, though. In the complaint, it consisted of just three paragraphs of conclusory allegations that didn't appear to rise to the level of an agreement. In the most generous reading, it sounded like an "agreement to agree" that can't be enforced. The complaint contained absolutely no terms of the contract. The fact that the contract was an implied-in-fact contract didn't excuse the plaintiff from having to allege facts sufficient to allow the court to draw an inference that the parties had entered into a contract based on their conduct and the surrounding facts and circumstances. That didn't happen here. Therefore, the court dismissed the breach of contract claims.
The copyright infringement claim, though, survived, and the court granted leave to amend on the breach of contract claim, so the plaintiff does live to fight another day.
(This post has been edited to correct a typo in the previous version. Pepsi provided the "general outline" over the phone, not Betty.)
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
I have actually seen a bunch of cases lately where people have either sued the wrong company in a complicated corporate structure (understandable) or where they have brought suit on behalf of the wrong company, which seems less understandable to me since you should presumably know your own corporate structure and which companies are bound by which contracts. But, as a recent case out of the District Court for the District of Columbia, Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Inc. v. Clark Nexsen, Inc., Case No. 15-cv-02254 (APM), shows: not always.
The parties entered into an agreement where Clark Nexsen would design a tennis and education facility. About a year after entering into this agreement, Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, Inc. ("WTEF") assigned "all of [it]s right, title and interest" in the contract to Washington Tennis & Education Foundation East, Inc. ("WTEF East"), a related company that was not a party to this lawsuit. After growing dissatisfied with Clark Nexsen's performance under the agreement, WTEF sued for breach of contract. Clark Nexsen moved for summary judgment that WTEF lacked standing to sue because all of its contractual rights now belonged to WTEF East by virtue of the assignment.
The court agreed with Clark Nexsen. WTEF and WTEF East were two separate and distinct legal entities. It was true that they were related but they had separate boards of directors and separate records, etc. WTEF was not entitled to bring claims on WTEF East's behalf. Once WTEF assigned the contract to WTEF East, it became a "stranger" to the agreement and could not enforce it.
WTEF tried to argue that it and WTEF East were, for all intents and purposes, the same. However, the court pointed out that WTEF created WTEF East in order to put itself in a position to secure extra financing. The court said that WTEF couldn't have its cake and eat it, too: If it wanted to have separate entities when it was advantageous for it to do so, then the court was going to treat them as separate entities even when it became disadvantageous.
WTEF also tried to argue that it was a third-party beneficiary of the contract at issue, but there was nothing about the contract that indicated WTEF should be treated as a third-party beneficiary, and in fact the contract explicitly disclaimed that the contract should be construed to have any third-party beneficiaries. Nor was there anything in the assignment agreement indicating WTEF should now be treated as a third-party beneficiary of the original contract. In fact, the assignment agreement named Clark Nexsen as a third-party beneficiary to it, so it was clear the parties had thought about third-party beneficiary issues and had not given such status to WTEF.
The court ended up dismissing all of WTEF's claims but maintaining jurisdiction over Clark Nexsen's counterclaim moving forward. Not a good outcome for WTEF. Double-check your corporate structure before deciding which entity needs to sue on a contract.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held that retail stores, including online vendors, are free to advertise “before” prices that might in reality never have been used.
Although the particular plaintiff’s factual arguments are somewhat unappealing and unpersuasive, the case still shows a willingness by courts, even appellate courts, to ignore falsities just to entice a sale.
Max Gerboc bought a pair of speakers from www.wish.com for $27. A “before” price of $300 was juxtaposed and crossed out next to the “sale” price of $27. There was also a promise of a 90% markdown. However, the speakers had apparently never been sold for $300, thus leading Mr. Gerboc to argue that he was entitled to 90% back of the $27 that he actually paid for the speakers. Mr. Gerboc argued unjust enrichment and a violation of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (“OCSPA”).
The appellate court’s opinion is rife with sarcasm and gives short shrift to Mr. Gerboc’s arguments. Among other things, the court writes that although the seller was enriched by the sale, “making money is still allowed” and that the plaintiff got what he paid for, a pair of $27 speakers that worked. He thus did not unjustly enrich the seller, found the court. (Besides, as the court noted, unjust enrichment is a quasi-contractual remedy that allows for restitution in lieu of a contractual remedy, but here, the parties did have a contract with each other).
Interestingly, the court cited to “common sense” and the use of “tricks,” as the court even calls them, such as crossed out prices to entice buyers. “Deeming this tactic inequitable would change the nature of online, and even in-store, sales dramatically.”
So?! Where are we when a federal appellate court condones the use of trickery, even if a large amount of other large vendors such as Nordstrom and Amazon also use the same “tactic”? Is this acceptable simply because “shoppers get what they pay for”? This panel apparently thought so.
Of course, Mr. Gerboc would disagree. He cited to “superior equity” under both California case law and OCSPA. The court again merely cited to its argument that Mr. Gerboc had suffered no “actual damages” that were “real, substantial, and just.”
I find this line of reasoning troublesome. Sure, most of us know about this retail tactic, but does that make it warranted under contract and consumer regulatory law? If a vendor has truly never sold items at a certain “before” price, courts in effect condone outright lies, i.e. misrepresentation, in these cases just because no actual damages were suffered. This court said that Mr. Gerboc “at most … bargained for the right to have the speakers for 90% less than $300.” But if the speakers were indeed never sold at that price, is that not a false bargain? And where do we draw the lines between fairly obvious “tricks” such as this and those that may be less obvious such as anything pertaining to the quality and durability of goods, fine print rules, payment terms, etc.? Are we as a society not allowing ourselves to suffer damages from allowing this kind of business conduct? Or has this just become so commonplace that virtually everyone is on notice? Does the latter really matter?
I personally think courts should reverse their own trend of approving what at bottom is false advertising (used in the common sense of the word). Of course it is still legal to make money. But no court would allow consumer buyers to “trick” the online or department store vendors. Why should the opposite be true? The more sophisticated parties – the vendors – can and should figure out how to make a profit without resorting to cheating their customers simply because everyone else does it too. Statements about facts of a product should be true. Allowing businesses to undertake this type of conduct is, I think, a slippery slope on which we don’t need to find outselves.
The case is Max Gerboc v. Contextlogic, Inc., 867 F. 675 (2017).
Monday, September 18, 2017
If you, like me, just taught about letters of intent and also promissory estoppel, then here's a case with both for you, out of the District of Minnesota, City Center Realty Partners v. Macy's Retail Holdings, Civil No. 17-CV-528 (SRN/TNL). (The decision is behind a paywall, but you can read about the background of the lawsuit here.)
The parties were negotiating a sale of Macy's property in Minneapolis and had executed a Letter of Intent before (predictably, since we're in court) the deal fell apart. City Center brought claims against Macy's, including breach of contract based on the letter of intent. However, Macy's argued that the letter of intent was not binding, and the court agreed. The clauses in the letter of intent referred to a future purchase agreement that was never executed, and so, absent this purchase agreement, the letter of intent only bound the parties in very limited ways.
City Center also brought a claim that Macy's breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in delaying the finalizing of the transaction. However, the actions that City Center complained about were not things that Macy's was obligated to do. Macy's fulfilled its obligations under the letter of intent and City Center's other allegations of delay and obstruction on Macy's part were not actionable.
Finally, City Center brought promissory estoppel allegations based on oral statements Macy's made in the context of the parties' negotiations. But the court pointed out that the letter of intent represented the parties' agreements about their negotiations. City Center could not use promissory estoppel to alter the terms of the written contract. And, to the extent that City Center alleged other terms had been agreed upon not written in the letter of intent, the court refused to use promissory estoppel to save the statute of frauds problem (since this was a contract for the sale of land). Under the circumstances here, City Center knew that it and Macy's were engaged in ongoing negotiations that might not pan out. If City Center wanted assurance that Macy's would keep certain promises, it should have had those put in the letter of intent in a binding way. This was not a situation where Macy's had committed some kind of fraud where justice would require the enforcement of Macy's oral statements; it was just a situation where negotiations fell apart in a way that City Center didn't like. That didn't justify the application of promissory estoppel.
Friday, September 15, 2017
A recent case out of California, Pimpo v. Fitness International, LLC, D071140 (behind paywall), finds an arbitration clause in a contract unenforceable due to unconscionability.
In the case, Pimpo worked at one of Fitness International's fitness centers, where another employee sexually harassed her. Pimpo made several reports about the other employee's behavior and ultimately ended up suing over the sexual harassment. Fitness International responded by moving to compel arbitration based on a contract Pimpo electronically signed when she submitted her application for employment with Fitness International. However, the very terms of that agreement said it was only effective for 45 days, so it had expired by the time Pimpo filed suit. Fitness International tried to argue that Pimpo had signed a different arbitration agreement upon accepting employment but the trial court found no evidence of such agreement and the appellate court said that Fitness International's statement that it moved to compel arbitration based on this other agreement for which there was no evidence "border[ed] on a misrepresentation to this court."
So the appellate court already wasn't too happy with Fitness International as it began its unconscionability analysis, which it turned to in the interest of thoroughness. The arbitration clause that Pimpo signed when she applied for employment, the court concluded, was unenforceable due to unconscionability. Because the contract was a contract of adhesion presented to Pimpo on a take-it-of-leave-it basis, the court found that it was "by definition procedurally unconscionable." The court then went on to note, though, that Pimpo was in the usual position of someone applying for a job: She needed money to survive and did not have the resources to hire an attorney to look over the contracts for every application that she submitted.
The court also found substantive unconscionability because the clause was drafted to be breathtakingly broad. It explicitly required Pimpo to give up her right to a jury trial on all claims, "even those unrelated to the application or her employment," against Fitness International and "its officers, directors, employees, agent, affiliates, entities, and successors," forever. The court noted that this language meant that if Pimpo got into a car accident with a Fitness International employee, it was covered by this arbitration clause. Fitness International tried to argue that the clause should be read more narrowly than that but the court noted that that was not how it was drafted (and Fitness International had drafted it). In addition, the discovery procedure that the arbitration clause allowed for placed Pimpo at such a disadvantage that the court agreed that was substantivaly unconscionable, too.
Beware of drafting your clauses too broadly. Such can be the outcome. Even arbitration clauses can have their limits.
On Sept. 12, 2017, Senate Bill 33 was approved by the California Senate and now awaits Governor Brown’s approval before becoming law.
The legislation was designed after the Wells Fargo scandal to block legal the legal tactic of keeping disputes over unauthorized bank accounts out of public court proceedings an favor of private arbitration.
Said the law’s author, Sen. Dodd (D-Napa): “The idea that consumers can be blocked from our public courts when their bank commits fraud and identity theft against them is simply un-American.” It is also clearly unethical and, once again, emphasized how difficult it can be in modern times to strike a fair contractual bargain with a party that has much greater bargaining power than individuals and that uses lengthy and often complex boilerplate contracts with terms few read and understand.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to deny Uber’s move to compel arbitration in a contract with one of its passengers, Spencer Meyers.
The district court had found that Meyer did not have reasonably conspicuous notice of Uber’s terms of service (which contained the arbitration clause) when he registered a user, that Meyer did not unambiguously assent to the terms of service, and that Meyer was not bound by the mandatory arbitration provision contained in the terms of service.
The Second Circuit summed up the usual difference between clickwrap agreements, which require a user to affirmatively click on a button saying “I agree” and which are typically upheld by courts, and browsewrap agreements, which simply post terms via a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen and which are generally found unenforceable because no affirmative action is required to agree to the terms.
In the case, Meyer had been required to click on a radio button stating “Register,” not “I agree.” But in contrast to browsewrap agremeents, Uber also informed Meyer and other users that by creating an account, they were bound to its terms. Uber did so via a hyperlink to the terms on the payment screen.
Meyer nonetheless claimed that he had not noticed or read the terms. The Court thus analyzed whether he was at least on inquiry notice of the arbitration clause because of the hyperlink to the terms. This was the case, found the court, because the payment screen was uncluttered with only fields for the user to enter his or her payment details, buttons to register for a user account, and the warning and related hyperlink. Further, the entire screen was visible at once and the text was in dark blue print on a bright white background. Thus, the fact that the font size was small was not so important.
Mayer was bound to the arbitration clause because he had assented to that term after getting “reasonably objective notice.”
Friday, September 8, 2017
In my head it's still the beginning of the school year, even though at my school we just finished our third week of classes already. This means that, because we only have a one-semester Contracts course, I'm just finishing up contract formation and moving on, and this case is kind of a nice little reminder review about the principles surrounding offers.
The case out of New Jersey, Kristine Deer, Inc. v. Booth, No. C-29-16 (behind paywall), involved a luxury active wear company, K-DEER, for which the defendant, Booth, worked. Booth had several conversations over the course of her employment with K-DEER's sole shareholder, Kristine Deer, about Booth receiving possible equity interest in the company. However, every one of those conversations was fairly vague. Deer seemed to always finish the conversations with some kind of demurral: that she had to "think about" it more, or that she wasn't "ready to have the conversation." Eventually, Booth resigned with an e-mail that read "If you are not willing to pursue an active dialog about ownership I am not interested in working at K-DEER."
The parties are now involved in litigation, which included, among other things, Booth's counterclaim for breach of contract. She alleged that "Deer led [her] to believe she was a partner and had a right to equity in K-DEER," because she "did not explicitly deny her requests for equity" and called her a "partner" at times. However, the court quoted at length from Booth's deposition, where she admitted that Deer did not offer her any equity and that, in fact, her unwillingness to do so was why she resigned. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to find an offer from Deer to Booth. There was no expression of commitment on Deer's part. In fact, all of Deer's statements seemed to evince the opposite. So the court found no contract existed between the parties.
As I am teaching my students to do now, the court then moved on, examining Booth's claim for quantum meruit. However, Booth never alleged that she wasn't adequately compensated, just that she would have left K-DEER earlier had she realized Deer wasn't going to give her equity. That did not justify quantum meruit. The court found that Booth had been compensated for all the work she had performed, so there was no unjust enrichment on K-DEER's part.
Saturday, September 2, 2017
There's an interesting case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, The Dille Family Trust v. The Nowlan Family Trust, Civil Action No. 15-6231, dealing with issues around the trademark BUCK ROGERS. But it also has a breach of contract angle that requires us to learn the history of Buck Rogers. So let's dive in!
Philip Nowlan wrote a story called Armageddon 2419 A.D. that appeared in August 1928, starring a character named Anthony Rogers. In 1929, Nowlan wrote a sequel to the story, also starring Rogers. Nowlan, identified as the "creator of . . . 'Buck' Rogers," entered into a contract in 1929 with a newspaper service owned by John F. Dille to syndicate the comic strip "Buck Rogers." This contractual relationship seemed to survive through the 1930s, until Nowlan died in 1940. Nowlan's widow, Theresa Nowlan, then sued the newspaper service alleging underpayment under the contracts. The parties settled in 1942, which is where the breach of contract claim in the current case arises from. The agreement provided that Theresa Nowlan and her "heirs, executors, or administrators" released all claims against the newspaper service related to Buck Rogers and also conveyed all intellectual property interest in Buck Rogers to Dille.
Neither the Dille Family Trust nor the Nowlan Family Trust were parties to this settlement agreement. They were not even in existence until decades after it was signed. However, the Dille Family Trust asserted that it is the successor in interest to John Dille and that the Nowlan Family Trust is the successor in interest to Theresa Nowlan. Therefore, it contends that it can sue the Nowlan Family Trust for breach of the 1942 settlement agreement.
The court, however, disagreed. While there was no dispute that the trustee and beneficiaries of the Nowlan Family Trust were descendants of Theresa Nowlan, that was not enough to establish that the Nowlan Family Trust was an "heir, executor, or administrator" or otherwise a successor in interest to Nowlan's obligations under the 1942 settlement agreement. The Dille Family Trust did not show any sort of transfer of the agreement to the Nowlan Family Trust, nor did it introduce any other document (such as Theresa Nowlan's will) that might have indicated that the rights and obligations of the 1942 settlement agreement passed to the descendants in question. Therefore, the Dille Family Trust could not maintain a breach of contract action against the Nowlan Family Trust based on the 1942 settlement agreement.