Monday, June 13, 2016
Why? Because a court is probably going to hold you to it.
This case, Frick Joint Venture v. Village Super Market, Inc., Docket No. A-1441-15T1, out of New Jersey, is a complicated case with a lot of history between the parties which no doubt colors the court's decision but it's also a case that just makes logical sense.
Village Super Market was the anchor tenant of Frick Joint Venture's shopping center. By the terms of the lease, Village had the right to approve certain changes to the shopping center. One of the changes involved a gas station that had gone out of business. Frick desired to set up a Starbucks in the footprint that had been occupied by the gas station; Village refused to provide its consent.
The parties went back and forth trying to resolve the issue, but eventually Frick requested AAA arbitration pursuant to the lease agreement. Through respective counsel, Village responded requesting the choosing of a private arbitrator instead, to avoid AAA fees. The parties agreed on a succession of private arbitrators, and, eventually, to a mediator instead, over the course of several months. However, Village never provided Frick with any dates for the arbitration (later mediation), despite repeated requests on Frick's part to get the thing scheduled. Eventually, ten months after first discussing arbitration with Village, Frick contacted AAA to demand arbitration. AAA contacted Village to set dates, and at that point Village contended that it was not required to go to arbitration under the terms of the lease and thus rejected the arbitration demand.
The court thought that the relevant portion of the contract was "not a model of clarity" but was also comfortable in making its decision regardless of what the lease agreement required, because there had been multiple communications over the course of many months in which Village agreed to arbitration. Therefore, the lease agreement's terms was unimportant in the fact of this ongoing agreement by Village. Even if these communications didn't rise to the level of a contract, Village was estopped from arguing otherwise because Frick had relied on Village's representations about arbitration to its detriment: During the delay in making the arbitration demand, the gas station portion of the shopping center continued to sit vacant.
The court finally concluded that Village's behavior from the very beginning appeared to indicate that it understood the matter should be arbitrated, and so Frick was permitted to demand arbitration.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
Relying on the win-a-car-for-a-hole-in-one case where a Pennsylvania court found that a car dealership was obligated to honor its offer for a unilateral contract posted at the ninth tee when a golfer finally aced a hole-in-one despite the dealership’s subjective intent to end the promotional offer two days earlier, a Third Circuit Court of Appeals court found a unilateral contract to exist under the following circumstances.
A brochure distributed to the customers of Giant Eagle – a chain of retail supermarkets, gas stations, etc. – promised its customers that they could “Earn free gas – it’s easy!” and “You may never pay for gas again!” as long as they spent $50 on supermarket purchases. (See the true images posted here in this blog). The brochure, however, also included fine print provided, among other things, that “discounted fuel cannot exceed 30 gallons and discounts must be used in full on one vehicle in one transaction,” “the promotion is valid for a limited time and may end at any time without prior notice,” and “fuelperks! discounts expire 3 months after the last day of the month in which they’re earned.” However, the court found that none of the published program parameters suggested that Giant Eagle reserved the right to retract rewards that customers had already accrued. In fact, in the entire history of the Giant Eagle fuel program, no such retroactive termination ever occurred.
Said the court, “[l]ike the golfer who teed off with a promise of reward in mind, a customer anticipated the promised fuel discounts when deciding to shop at Giant Eagle in the first place—and thus deciding not to shop at a different store. Because she was then aware that she could apply the discounts as advertised if she spent fifty dollars on supermarket purchases using her Advantage Card, she was indeed a party to a unilateral contract with Giant Eagle. Liability therefore attached upon her performance, i.e., at checkout.”
A fair win for consumers, it seems.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Words are tricky things, as contracts remind us every day. When I teach contract ambiguity, a lot of the cases seem to revolve around insurance contracts, with the doctrine of contra proferentem coming into play. A recent case out of Michigan, Atlantic Casualty Insurance Co. v. Gustfason, No. 325739, provides another example.
Gustafson operated a landscaping business. While one of his employees was clearing brush on a homeowner's property, the homeowner was watching off to the side and was struck with debris and injured. The homeowner sued Gustafson, and Gustafson contacted his insurance agent. Atlantic Casualty reported that the loss to the homeowner was excluded from the insurance policy, so Gustafson sued Atlantic Casualty, contending that the loss was covered by the policy.
The relevant clause in the policy stated that it didn't apply to bodily injury to any "contractor," and then defined "contractor" using a long string of examples: including but not limited to
any independent contractor or subcontractor of any insured, any general contractor, any developer, any property owner, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any general contractor, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any general developer, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any property owner and any and all persons providing services or materials.
The emphasis there is added, because Atlantic Casualty sought to exclude the homeowner's injuries by asserting that he was "any property owner."
The court pointed out that the phrase "any property owner" was extraordinarily broad and would include almost everyone in the world "except perhaps for a newborn baby," because most people can be found to at least own the clothes they're wearing, which would make that person a property owner. Such a broad reading, excluding virtually the entire planet, would render the policy illusory.
Atlantic Casualty apparently acknowledged that the phrase was broad as written and instead argued that what it really meant was "the owner of the real property upon which the insured is performing work." The court, however, found that it made sense, given the other items in the list, to interpret "any property owner" to mean "those who are being compensated, or who otherwise have a commercial interest, for being on the job site." In that case, "any property owner" would cover not the real property owners whose land was being worked on but owners of any equipment being used (possibly rented) to work on the real property.
Because "any property owner" is an ambiguous term and the court found itself with two reasonable interpretations, it employed contra proferentem and interpreted the contract against Atlantic Casualty, who had drafted the contract. Therefore, it stated that "any property owner" did not include those "without a commercial interest in the project," and therefore did not include the residential homeowners, which meant the policy covered the homeowner.
While I generally like the court's reasoning and interpretation in this case, I do find it slightly odd to decide that a property owner doesn't have a commercial interest in the project being performed on his own land. Presumably he is paying for the work and therefore does have a commercial interest in making sure that the work is being done properly. Even if he's not paying for it, the improvement to his land will likely increase its value, also giving him a commercial interest in what's happening. I think the better phrasing is to interpret it as someone who is being compensated for their presence on the job site.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
Donald Trump is currently attacked on many fronts, one of which for the potential re-launch as President of his now-defunct for-profit real estate training classes. The “playbook” used by the corporate recruiters for the business unit required them, among other things, to use such arguably despicable and potentially fraudulent recruiting language as the following:
“As one of your mentors for the last three days, it’s time for me to push you out of your comfort zone. It’s time for you to be 100% honest with yourself. You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals. I’m looking at your profile and you’re not even close to where you need to be, much less where you want to be. It’s time you fix your broken plan, bring in Mr. Trump’s top instructors and certified millionaire mentors and allow us to put you and keep you on the right track. Your plan is BROKEN and WE WILL help you fix it. Remember you have to be 100% honest with yourself!”
“Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”
(Can you imagine reading those statements allowed for a living?)
Does promising potential students too much constitute fraud in the inducement? In a not entirely dissimilar case in our own field, law student Anna Alaburda recently lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Ms. Alaburda had argued that the law school had committed fraud by publishing deceptive post-graduation employment statistics and salary data in order to bait new students into enrolling. Alaburda claimed that despite graduating at the top of her class and passing the California bar exam, she was unable to find suitable legal employment, and had racked up more than $150,000 in student loan debt. An attorney for the school rejected the claims and said Alaburda never proved them. The attorney also reminded jurors that she had turned down a job offer, and that many Thomas Jefferson alumni have had successful careers. The verdict in that case was 9-3 in favor of Thomas Jefferson.
The cases are of course not similar, yet similar enough to remind us of the importance of not promising too much in the for-profit educational field (in Thomas Jefferson’s case, the school won, but a dozen other lawsuits have allegedly been filed against other schools). This makes sense from both an ethical and business risk-avoidance angle.
What about the use of the very word “University”? The media seems to stubbornly – probably for “sound bite” reasons – continue using the phrase even though the business was, in effect, forced to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after government pressure around 2010. The business was just that, and not a certified university.
If Trump decides to start up the business again, does the media not help him do so again by using a much too favorable term? It seems like it. Linguistics matter in the law and beyond. May media PR inadvertently (or not) contribute to a potential fraud? Comment below!
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
I just blogged about a settlement agreement that the court found unenforceable because there was no meeting of the minds. As always, these cases revolve around the particular circumstances, as an opposite conclusion in a recent case out of the Eastern District of Tennessee, Hira v. New York Life Insurance Company, No. 3:13-cv-527 (behind paywall), illustrates.
In that case, the attorneys had agreed on the basic terms of the settlement (money in exchange for a release and waiver). Defendant's counsel sent a draft agreement to plaintiffs' counsel, and over the next few months counsel continued to correspond about the agreement. Eventually, plaintiffs' counsel informed defendant's counsel that one of the plaintiffs had traveled to India, fallen "gravely ill," was in no state to sign any settlement agreement, and had left no power of attorney to permit anyone else to sign the settlement agreement on his behalf. Defendant asked the court to enforce the settlement agreement, notwithstanding plaintiff's lack of signature.
And the court agreed. It found that there was no dispute regarding the settlement agreement and it did not matter that plaintiff had never signed the draft document. Therefore, the court ordered that the settlement agreement be enforced.
Monday, May 30, 2016
Watching terms and conditions litigations continue to play out is an interesting exercise. One of the things we learn is that the terms and conditions mean what they say, which should be obvious, but of course ignores the fact that basically nobody reads what they say. Consumers seem to be consistently caught off-guard by some of the terms. A recent Ninth Circuit decision, Geier v. M-Qube Inc., No. 13-36080, reinforces this (you can watch the oral argument here).
Geier sued m-Qube based on a mobile game it marketed called Bid and Win. m-Qube was not the provider of the game; rather m-Qube merely marketed the game. The other defendants in the case were all similarly removed from the actual content of the game, serving as "intermediaries" and "gateways." The game's actual content provider, Pow! Mobile, was not sued by Geier.
The dispute in the case was over whether m-Qube and the other defendants were third-party beneficiaries of the terms and conditions of the game. Allegedly, when signing up for the game, subscribers, under the terms and conditions, waived all claims against Pow! Mobile's "suppliers." Despite this clause, Geier was attempting to sue m-Qube, et al., over text message abuses in violation of Washington law. (Geier, incidentally, was not alone in suing over this. A class action in the District of Nebraska was complaining about the same behavior.)
The Ninth Circuit's decision in this case is a matter of straightforward contract law: If you are an intended third-party beneficiary of the contract, you can enforce the contract. There is no real surprise there, except maybe to the consumer here, because it may sink Geier's entire case, which now hinges on whether m-Qube and the other defendants are Pow! Mobile's "suppliers." If they are, then they are intended third-party beneficiaries of the terms and conditions' waiver clause and can seek to enforce it. We may not be reading those terms and conditions, but we may be waiving lots of our rights nonetheless.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
No Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose With Regard to Architectural and Design Services in Michigan...for Now
A recent case out of the Court of Appeals of Michigan, Albion College v. Stockade Buildings Inc., No. 322917 (behind paywall), gives us an example of a case where precedent was obeyed but one of the judges worried the precedent might provide the wrong result, setting up the potential for further examination by Michigan's Supreme Court.
Plaintiff hired Defendant to build an equestrian facility. Defendant allegedly informed Plaintiff that it had "the necessary experience and expertise" to build the facility that Plaintiff required and promised it would be backed by a warranty.
Because this is a case I'm writing up here, we all know that the story of this equestrian center does not go smoothly. The roof leaked badly. The problem was evident during construction and theoretically repaired but the roof continued to leak badly even after construction was completed. Reviews of the structure blamed the persistent problem on poor design of the facility by Defendant.
The crux of the case was whether the agreement between Plaintiff and Defendant contained an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. In Michigan, such an implied warranty is found in sales of goods governed by the UCC and sales of electricity. The court was reluctant to extend such a warranty to the architectural and design services at issue here.
A concurrence, however, expressed hesitation with the conclusion. While reasonably correct as a matter of simple legal precedent, the concurrence had policy concerns and thought that Michigan's supreme court should review the case and extend the warranty to this situation because of the "egregious facts" of this case. Stay tuned for what happens next!
Monday, May 23, 2016
From a Colonial Cemetery to a World War II Factory to Condos and a Spa: Environmental Concerns, Contract Releases, and Secret Underground Containers Are Just the Latest Chapter
(Photo from northjersey.com)
I use a lot of hypos in my class based on undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards, and I feel like sometimes my students wonder if this is a thing that actually happens. Unfortunately, yes, as a recent case out of New Jersey, North River Mews Associates v. Alcoa Corp., Civil Action No. 14-8129, proves.
The case centers around a piece of land on which Alcoa had operated a manufacturing facility from 1917 to 1968, a facility once so central to East Coast industry that it had actually been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The piece of land had been vacant since 1978 and became a popular site for people looking to photograph "modern ruins." It was eventually sold to North River Mews Associates and 38 COAH Associates (the Plaintiffs). Twenty years ago, the New York Times reported optimistically that the development deal would be a "win-win" the would help clean up the Hudson River shoreline. The site, however, has been plagued by a number of challenges and tragedies (several fires, workman injuries from freak accidents, etc.) that have led some people to talk about curses. (Well, it apparently had been built on an old graveyard dating back to colonial times.) The latest obstacle has now emerged in the form of, yes, previously undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards.
The parties were well aware that the land would have environmental contamination, as the Times article makes clear. But the Plaintiffs had worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and believed that the property had been remediated. In 2013, however, the Plaintiffs discovered two previously unknown underground storage tanks filled with hazardous materials. The property around the tanks seemed to indicate that at one point the tanks had attempted to be burned instead of properly disposed of. The presence of these tanks, needless to say, was never disclosed by Alcoa to the Plaintiffs.
Alcoa's stance, however, is that the purchase contracts for the land released them from liability for various claims brought against them. The court disagreed at this motion to dismiss stage, finding that the language was ambiguous. The release in the contract stated that the Plaintiffs waived the rights "to seek contribution from [Alcoa] for any response costs or claims." The court said that it was unclear whether the contribution language modified only response costs or whether it modified both response costs and claims. Was this a blanket release of all claims, or only a release of the right to seek contribution? This question, the court concluded, could not be determined on a motion to dismiss.
At any rate, the Plaintiffs also alleged that Alcoa concealed the presence of the underground tanks, fraudulently inducing them to enter into the contracts, and the court concluded that, if true, that would be grounds for the release to be vitiated.
This case is a great example of how long environmental issues, development deals, and contractual disputes can drag on. In 1997, the parties signed the purchase contract. Today, the parties are still trying to clean up the site and fighting over which of them ought to pay for it, with language drafted twenty years ago taking center stage. As the case continues, it will of course likely become relevant who knew about the storage tanks and when, and I am curious to see if the tanks can be dated. Since Alcoa apparently ceased using the site for manufacture in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how much knowledge from that time period still exists. It's the latest chapter in the history of a plot of land that seems to have been a busy place for centuries.
Friday, May 20, 2016
Implied Warranties of Habitability on Houses Do Not Apply to Second Buyers If the First Buyers Waived Them
A recent case out of Illinois, Fattah v. Bim, Docket No. 119365 (behind paywall), allowed the court to clarify whether an initial home buyer's waiver of the implied warranty of the house's habitability applied to subsequent buyers, or whether the second purchaser of the house could nevertheless assert a breach of warranty claim against the builder of the home. The Supreme Court of Illinois concluded that a waiver of the warranty on the part of the first buyer eliminated the second buyer's ability to exert such a claim, overturning an appellate court decision that had sent reactionary ripples through the home-building blogosphere.
In 2005, Masterklad built a house that contained a brick patio. In 2007, Masterklad sold the house to Beth Lubeck. The sale of the house included a "Waiver and Disclaimer of Implied Warranty of Habitability" in which Lubeck "knowingly, voluntarily, fully and forever" waived the implied warranty of habitability that the State of Illinois reads into all contracts involving newly constructed houses. In exchange for the waiver of the implied warranty, Masterklad provided Lubeck with an express warranty on the house. The express warranty was limited to a one-year term. There was no allegation in the case that Lubeck's waiver of the implied warranty wasn't effective and enforceable, and there were also no allegations that Masterklad hadn't complied fully with the terms of the express warranty.
In 2010, a couple of years after the expiration of Masterklad's express warranty on the house, Lubeck sold the house to John Fattah. The sale of the house stated that it was "as is." A few months later, the brick patio that Masterklad had installed collapsed. Fattah sued Masterklad, alleging that the patio had had latent defects that violated the implied warranty of habitability.
At the trial court level, Fattah lost, with the court concluding that the policy that permitted knowing waivers of the implied warranty would be frustrated if subsequent buyers could resurrect the claims. The appellate court, as has been mentioned, reversed, though, finding that Fattah could assert breach of the implied warranty.
Illinois' Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court's decision. While Illinois has previously determined that the implied warranty extends to subsequent purchasers of a house where the first purchaser has not waived the warranty, this was a different situation: Fattah was seeking to recover damages that the first buyer would not have been entitled to. Allowing Fattah to do this alters Masterklad's risk exposure in an unfair way. Masterklad sought to manage its level of financial risk by providing an express warranty with a clear termination date, as it was permitted to do under Illinois precedent. It was unfair to switch everything up on Masterklad at this late date. In fact, allowing Fattah to bring this claim would effectively mean that the implied warranty of habitability could never be waived, as it could be resurrected by any subsequent buyer--which was the opposite of what Illinois had decided when it concluded that the implied warranty could be waived.
The disagreements within the Illinois court system about this come down very explicitly to a policy decision. The appellate court seemed uneasy with waivers of the implied warranty because of public policy concerns, and one can see its point: You like to assume the houses you buy can generally be lived in. But the supreme court's point here also makes sense: If you buy a house "as is," you've usually gotten some kind of discount. If your gamble doesn't pay off, the courts are reluctant to revive arguments you bargained away. This might boil down to, much of the time, the maxim that a deal that seems too good to be true might, indeed, be untrue, and wariness should be employed.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Negotiating a settlement can be a tricky business, with drafts going back and forth and language tweaking continually occurring. All of that document tweaking means that there's plenty of opportunity for the whole thing to fall apart, as a recent case out of Connecticut, AREH Windsor Locks, LLC v. Tops Markets, LLC, Docket Number HDSP172841 (behind paywall), reminds us.
In the case, the parties had reached a settlement agreement "in principle," in the words used in an e-mail by one of the defendants' attorneys. The "in principle" language underlined the fact that, in fact, no true meeting of the minds had ever actually occurred. Defendants' attorneys' e-mails had warned of additional changes that would be made to the settlement agreement draft--even if those e-mails did characterize those changes as "a few" and "very minor." The last e-mail sent by defendants' attorneys before the agreement fell apart referred to the draft as "final" but explicitly noted that it was subject to the plaintiff's approval and that it needed the plaintiff's "green light."
The court concluded that the defendants never received the requested "green light." So, although the defendants' attorneys seemed to view the agreement as "final," there had in fact never been a final agreement between the party. The defendants, it turns out, may have been counting the settlement chickens before they hatched.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Jury instructions that cause a jury to answer questions indicating that a defendant has made a negligent misrepresentation, that the plaintiff reasonably relied on this statement, but that this did not cause harm to plaintiff are not so “hopelessly irreconcilable” as to be inconsistent under at least California law.
In a breach of contracts case with a cross-complaint, the jury answered “yes” to whether a cross-defendant had negligently misled cross-plaintiff, further found that the misrepresentation was indeed material and that the cross-plaintiff had reasonably relied on the statements pertaining to incentive agreements and construction permits inducing the cross-plaintiff to enter into a gas station purchase and related agreements. However, the jury also found that the misrepresentation did not “substantially” influence the buyer to buy the gas station in the first place. Cross-defendant seller appealed, seeing to have the jury verdict set aside for inconsistency.
The court did not agree that the jury verdict was inconsistent to the point of being hopelessly irreconcilable. “Reliance and causation are intertwined concepts … Reliance must be thought of as the mechanism of causation in an action for breach.” However, by answering “no” to the question of whether the representations were “substantial factors” in causing harm to the cross-defendant, the jury “clearly must not have believed this to be the case,” said the court. Thus, no causation was found in spite of reliance on a fraud. In other words, the jury must have thought that the buyers would enter into the agreement anyway despite the misrepresentations.
Of course, clearer jury instructions would resolve a matter such as this in a more satisfactory way for clients than having courts of appeals second-guess what the jury must have thought. This case again shows the importance of careful linguistic drafting in the contracts context. Easier said than done, apparently…
The case also shows that contracts for pre-specified amounts of gas still exist.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
A recent case out of New Jersey, Zelnick v. Morristown-Beard School, Docket No. L-1947-13, had some interesting things to say about the contractual relationship between a private high school and the students enrolled (and parents of those students).
The case arose out of an alleged inappropriate sexual relationship between the plaintiffs' daughter, then a student at the school, and her teacher. The plaintiffs' daughter was a minor throughout the alleged sexual relationship; at present, however, the plaintiffs' daughter is an adult who is estranged from her parents and took no part in the case brought here.
The court refused to get into the details of the relationship between the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher, finding that the details were mostly irrelevant. It was sufficient to state that there seemed to be some knowledge on the part of the school of inappropriate behavior with other female students on the part of the teacher for a few months before a fateful school trip to Greece, which many of the accusations surrounded. At the time of the school trip, although the teacher violated the school's policy during the trip, the plaintiffs actually spoke up on his behalf, praising his assistance when their daughter fell ill on the trip. Apparently, it later was learned, at least part of the illness was faked, orchestrating "alone time" for the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher apparently, and the plaintiffs did not know of the inappropriate relationship between their daughter and the teacher at the time that they spoke up on his behalf.
Shortly after the Greece trip, the school was informed by multiple sources that the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher had engaged in inappropriate conduct during the trip. The school delayed for months contacting the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the "DCPP") regarding the persistent rumors surrounding the teacher. It's unclear how the DCPP got involved, although once they did, the teacher fled the country during the investigation into his behavior. At the time, the plaintiffs' daughter was in her senior year at the school, although she was not attending school physically due to assessment by a psychologist that the persistent rumors about her relationship with the teacher were causing her to suffer too much stress.
Among other claims, the plaintiffs raised a breach of contract claim based on their daughter's enrollment contract with the school. The school argued that the terms of the contract were that they would provide the plaintiffs' daughter with an education in exchange for tuition. The plaintiffs argued that the contract implied that the learning environment provided to their daughter would be safe; the school rebutted that. The court agreed with the school: There was no "safe learning environment" requirement implied in the contract with the school. The plaintiffs' attempt to create one, the court said, was an attempt to convert tort claims into contract claims.
This is an interesting ruling to me because, on the one hand, I think all of us would hope that the schools we send our children to are striving to provide a safe learning environment. Very few of us would agree to enter into bargains with schools without a belief that the students' best interests must be at the school's heart. On the other hand, while this isn't a school shooting case, I can see this being a complicated promise in an age where this country has grown to expect that our schools are basically under attack.
It does seem to me that, in the court's recitation of the facts, the school behaved poorly here. The school had notice of persistent reports from multiple sources, including other students, other parents, and other school employees, that the teacher's behavior had been personally witnessed to be inappropriate, and for months the school seems to have taken no action and, indeed, to have allowed the teacher in question to act as one of a few chaperones on an international trip. It reminded me of the case Myanna wrote up a few days ago about the contractual duty of good faith in Texas and the lack of fiduciary relationship between universities and students. Maybe we (or just me) place more trust in other people and entities' obligations toward us/me than we/I should.
The plaintiffs, of course, did have tort claims here--gross negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress--but the court ruled they did not have standing to pursue them. Those claims seem to have belonged to the plaintiffs' daughter, who, unfortunately, was no longer speaking to her parents, allegedly because of the parents' disapproval of her relationship with her teacher.
Monday, May 9, 2016
The situation in this recent case out of the District of Nebraska, Kermeen v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 8:14-CV-416 (behind paywall), was possibly the result of lack of communication between departments at a large insurance company. But, even if the error was entirely innocent, it had very real consequences. Maybe a court might save you from clerical errors, but this alleged administrative mistake on the part of State Farm didn't win the court's sympathy at all.
The Kermeens had a homeowner's insurance policy from State Farm. In March 2014, during the term of the policy, a fire damaged the Kermeens' house and they made a claim for their losses. State Farm claimed to have sent the Kermeens a letter the following month asserting that it appeared that the fire had been set on purpose and that such activity on the part of the Kermeens would void the policy as of the date of the fire.
In June 2014, a couple of months later, a hail storm damaged some of the Kermeens' property. The Kermeens filed another claim with State Farm. State Farm never paid for the hail claim and instead continued investigating the circumstances of the fire. Finally, in November 2014, the Kermeens filed suit alleging that State Farm breached the homeowners policy by failing to pay the hail claim. State Farm responded in an answer in January 2015 that the Kermeens had intentionally set the March fire and that therefore the policy was void as of March 2014 and so didn't cover the hail damage in June. State Farm didn't formally reject either the fire or the hail claim until July 2015.
The problematic thing for State Farm, however, was that it had been accepting premiums from the Kermeens on the homeowners policy this entire time. Even when State Farm finally formally declared the policy void as of March 2014, it failed to refund any of the premiums that the Kermeens had paid between March 2014 and July 2015. State Farm stated that it fully intended to refund those premiums in July when it denied the Kermeens' claims, and that its failure to do was "an administrative mistake." State Farm also continued to accept premiums on the homeowners' policy from the Kermeens after July, another thing that State Farm claimed was "an administrative mistake." So, altogether, State Farm accepted nearly two years' worth of premiums from the Kermeens before it finally refunded them in February 2016--after the summary judgment motion in question in this case had been filed, arguing that State Farm had waived its ability to rely on voidness due to its failure to refund the premiums.
State Farm tried to argue that, by refunding the premiums eventually, it indicated that it was not waiving the voidness defense. State Farm also asserted that its other statements to the Kermeens, including telling the Kermeens in communications several times that the policy would be void as of the date of the fire and its answer filed in this case, further indicated that it had not waived the voidness defense.
The court disagreed with State Farm. In contrast to the clerical error that was forgiven in the CitiMortgage case, the court wasn't inclined to overlook State Farm's "administrative mistake" here. The court stated that State Farm knew that it was going to declare the policy void as early as January 2015 when it answered the complaint and still failed to refund any premiums to the Kermeens for over a year. This failure to return any of the premiums was inconsistent with a stance that the policy was void and thus constituted a waiver of State Farm's ability to raise voidness as a defense. It didn't matter that State Farm may have repeatedly declared the policy void to the Kermeens if State Farm continued to retain the premiums under that policy--and, indeed, continued to accept further premiums. Therefore, the Kermeens were entitled summary judgment for the damages caused by the hail storm.
Friday, May 6, 2016
Nevertheless, the court refused to enforce the provision. The court noted that part of the test in evaluating whether to enforce a choice-of-law provision is to consider whether California's law would be contrary to the "fundamental policy" of Illinois's law and, if so, whether Illinois would therefore have a "materially greater interest" than California in the case at issue. Here, Illinois is one of only a few states with a statute concerning biometrics; California has no such statute. The court found that Illinois's BIPA represented a fundamental policy of Illinois to protect its residents from unauthorized use of their biometrics, and that applying California law here instead of Illinois law would interfere with Illinois's policy. In fact, the court noted, enforcing the choice-of-law provision would effectively eliminate any effectiveness of BIPA whatsoever, because there would be no ability for Illinois residents to protect themselves against national corporations like Facebook. Therefore, the court found, Facebook has to deal with Illinois's BIPA, regardless of Facebook's attempts to limit the relevant laws of its service to only California's laws.
This all leaves for another day whether the Tag Suggestions program actually does violate BIPA.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
An Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case demonstrates the importance - even to health care services providers – of carefully scrutinizing contractual provisions in contracts with health insurance companies. In spite of some contractual interpretation difficulties, the Eighth Circuit has found that the contractual language binds. It favored the insurance companies, even on a motion for summary judgment. The case is 32nd Street Surgery Center (“32nd Street”) v. Right Choice Managed Care (“insurer”), No. 15-1727. https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/3197844/32nd-street-surgery-center-v-right-choice-managed-care/
In this case, the health care provider 32nd Street contracted with the insurer to become a network provider, which ensures increased patient volume as well as marketing and promotion by the insurer. In exchange for these benefits, a network provider generally agrees to receive discounted reimbursement rates. The disputed contract stipulated that a network provider is one “designated to participate in one or more [of insurer’s] Networks.” Another contractual stipulation stated, in much legalese, that if 32nd Street’s participation was limited to a certain plan, which it was, it would only receive the discounted in-network reimbursement rates for services in relation to other plans of which it was not a member. In other words, even though 32nd Street had contracted for only one certain “stick” in the insurance provider’s overall bundle, the entire lower insurance bundle pricing applied to 32nd Street.
This is boiled down from many gobbledygook contractual stipulations that, to me, seemed to indicate at least some reasonable factual doubt and thus at a minimum not to be suitable for summary judgment. But the court found the contract provisions sufficiently clear for that standard. Claims of unjust enrichment and quantum meruit were also rejected because they sound in quasi-contract whereas Missouri law does not allow such remedies when an express contract exists.
In today’s health insurance company apparent strong-arming tactics and power grabs, this case again demonstrates the importance of making sure that one has read and truly understands all the contractual provisions in the health care context. However, that is, as this case and others demonstrate, difficult enough to do for corporations with, presumably, sufficient assistance of counsel. But where does such law and precedent leave private individuals encountering similar problems? Not in a good place. This area is ripe for abuse by the stronger contractual party, which in this context always seems to be the health care insurance company. Arguments of good faith and fair dealing are, as this case demonstrates, largely or entirely ignored. The court did in this case. Good luck to future patients encountering problems of this nature. Further regulations truly seem to be in order in the health care field.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
According to a recent Eleventh Circuit case, Patterson v. CitiMortgage, Inc., No. 14-14636, the answer is no.
Toby Breedlove (an additional plaintiff in the suit) had bought a house with a CitiMortgage loan. After falling behind in his payments and hoping to avoid a foreclosure, Breedlove sought to sell the house to Patterson in a short sale. Patterson and CitiMortgage negotiated over a price. Patterson offered $371,000, which was rejected; then $412,000, which was rejected; then $444,000. It is the response to the offer of $444,000 that is at issue here.
CitiMortgage sent Patterson a letter that stated that it wished to receive a payoff of $113,968.45. This was not what CitiMortgage meant to communicate. That amount is clearly much lower than the amounts which the parties had been discussing. Nevertheless, Patterson received the letter and immediately agreed to go forward with the deal. Patterson did not confirm the amount of the deal; neither did CitiMortgage. On the date of closing, CitiMortgage received the payment of $113,968.45 and at that point realized its mistake. It contacted the closing attorney's assistant and stated that it was rejecting the funds and would be returning them. CitiMortgage then contacted Patterson and informed him that it had meant to accept the $444,000 offer, with a few tweaks. Patterson, however, demanded that CitiMortgage accept the $113,968.45 for the house, since that had been the amount stated in CitiMortgage's letter.
For reasons that are never made clear, two years went by before CitiMortgage took any further action, moving to foreclose on Breedlove's house. That resulted in this lawsuit seeking to enforce the sale of the house for $113,968.45.
The question in this case was whether CitiMortgage's unilateral clerical error in the letter to Patterson prevented the parties from forming a valid contract. Georgia courts (the law that applied) often do not save contracting parties from their own mistakes if due diligence would have prevented the error. However, Georgia courts also refuse to allow parties to take advantage of obvious mistakes made by the other side. When the other party should have known that there was a mistake involved, then that can be grounds for rescinding the contract. And here, CitiMortgage's mistake should have been obvious to Patterson. They had been discussing numbers in the $400,000s; he should have realized that a number in the $100,000s had to be a typo. Therefore, there was no contract between the parties.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
We all know about arbitration clauses but a recent case out of California, East Coast Foods v. Kelly, Lowry & Kelley, LLP, No. B262679, had something to say about arbitration specifically in the case of legal fee disputes. Is the arbitration clause in an engagement agreement between lawyer and client enforceable? In this case, yes.
East Coast Foods is perhaps best known through one of its businesses, Roscoe's House of Chicken 'N Waffles. There was a copyright dispute raised by ASCAP over allegedly unlicensed public performance of music. After being sued by ASCAP, East Coast Foods sought to retain counsel. After discussions, Kelly sent East Coast's general counsel a fee agreement. The fee agreement was three pages long and had eleven paragraphs. Paragraph 7 was an arbitration clause. Although there was disagreement over exactly when East Coast's president Herbert Hudson signed the fee agreement, it was undisputed that he did sign and return it to Kelly.
Kelly represented East Coast throughout the course of the copyright litigation, which lasted three years and included an appeal to the Ninth Circuit. At the end of the litigation, which ended in a judgment for ASCAP, East Coast stopped paying Kelly for the legal fees incurred, even though Kelly alleged that East Coast still owed over $81,000.
A few months after the end of the litigation, East Coast sued Kelly for malpractice. Kelly answered the complaint by asserting that the fee dispute was subject to mandatory binding arbitration pursuant to the terms of the fee agreement. East Coast, however, argued that the arbitration clause was unenforceable because it had not been adequately disclosed or explained to East Coast.
While it's true that an attorney-client relationship is full of fiduciary obligations and ethical responsibilities, the court here found that that relationship does not relieve a party of its responsibility to read a contract before signing it. The fee agreement represents a negotiation of employment, basically, which a lawyer is allowed to treat as an arm's-length negotiation. Here, the arbitration provision was clear and conspicuous. The agreement was not a long one, and the provision was not buried in legalese. Indeed, the fee agreement was initially sent to East Coast's general counsel to review, so it wasn't as if East Coast didn't have an opportunity to have the agreement reviewed by an attorney. There was no indication that East Coast couldn't have asked questions or even attempted to negotiate the fee agreement's terms. The circumstances here raised no red flags of fraud or unconscionability.
Therefore, this appellate court found, the trial court was correct in compelling arbitration and in confirming the arbitrator's award, which found in favor of Kelly to the tune of over $400,000.
Monday, May 2, 2016
You Might Think City Buses Don't Have a System, But They Totally Do! (it just might be copyright infringing)
Entities and people come together, do business, have disagreements, go their separate ways. It happens all the time. But nowadays, since so many things have embedded software, these break-ups of business relationships have copyright implications. If you don't have a license to continue using the embedded software, when you break up with another business, that means you have to stop using whatever contains the software, too. Theoretically.
A recent case out of the Middle District of Tennessee, ACS Transport Solutions, Inc. v. Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, 3:13-CV-01137, dealt with this issue. The Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority ("MTA") had contracted with ACS to develop a system for MTA to manage its buses. The system ACS created contained copyrighted software that ACS expressly licensed to MTA. A few years after the development of the system, MTA discontinued its relationship with ACS, but it continued to use the system that contained the embedded software. ACS contacted MTA and told it that it was using the software without a license and infringing ACS's copyright. Nevertheless, MTA continued to use the system with the embedded software, and so ACS eventually brought this lawsuit.
MTA argued that, when it terminated its relationship with ACS, it did not terminate the license to use the software, and so it was still properly licensed. However, MTA's relationship with ACS was governed by a contract, within which was the software license. Terminating the relationship set forth by that contract, the court found, necessarily terminated the software license also found in that contract.
MTA additionally argued that it had paid for the system and that therefore it should be entitled to use the software within the system indefinitely. ACS did agree that MTA had paid for the system and would not have owed ACS any further payments...if ACS and MTA had fulfilled the rest of their contractual obligations. Instead, ACS argued, MTA breached its obligations. Therefore, ACS rescinded MTA's license to use the software.
There was some slim hope for MTA. MTA argued that it had an implied license to use the software for a "reasonable" period of time while it transitioned to the new software of the company it hired to replace ACS. The court seemed skeptical that the length of time MTA had used ACS's software after terminating ACS (it ended up using the software for more than two years after terminating ACS) was reasonable; the court implied that, even if MTA had had an implied license to use the software while it transitioned, MTA's use had exceeded that implied license's scope. However, the court found this to be a material fact in dispute and so inappropriate to resolve at the summary judgment stage.
Under the terms of its contract with ACS, MTA received only a non-exclusive, revocable license for the software. If MTA had wanted more protection, MTA should have negotiated better license terms. ACS, of course, might never have been amenable to granting better license terms. But let this case be a lesson: Many things are going to come with embedded software these days, and that software is copyrighted. You're going to need to dot your copyright i's and cross your copyright t's regarding this software; don't lose sight of that by focusing instead on the larger product you're buying. MTA may have thought of itself as buying a system, but it really needed to think of itself as buying the software within the system.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
In spite of most jurisdictions reading a duty of good faith and fair dealing into all contracts, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is unlikely that the Texas Supreme Court would find such a duty to exist in Texas. Wow. Additionally, the court found that no fiduciary relationship between a university student and his/her university faculty and other representatives.
Section 205 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts states that “[e]very contract imposes upon each party a duty of good faith and fair dealing in its performance and enforcement.” See also Farnsworth, “Good Faith Performance and Commercial Reasonableness under the Uniform Commercial Code,” 30 U.Chi.L.Rev. 666, 670 (1963).
The seminal case in this area is Market Street Associates v. Frey, 941 F.2d 599 (7th Cir. 1991). In that case, Judge Posner held that in spite of the somewhat “moralistic overtones of good faith,” not every contract signatory is expected to be his “brother’s keeper.” Nonetheless, “the essentials of the modern doctrine [are] well established in nineteenth-century cases.” “This duty is … halfway between a fiduciary duty (the duty of utmost good faith) and the duty merely to refrain from active fraud. Despite its moralistic overtones it is no more the injection of moral principles into contract law than the fiduciary concept itself is.” “The office of the doctrine of good faith is to forbid the kinds of opportunistic behavior that a mutually dependent, cooperative relationship might enable in the absence of rule. “
In the new Texas case involving a student at SMU who got fired from his part-time job as a Community Adviser for misconduct toward students and faculty, the circuit court held that “Texas law does not impose a generalized duty of good faith and fair dealing and, in fact, rejects it” in all circumstances apart from when 1) a formal fiduciary relationships exists or 2) a “special or confidential relationship” exists. Examples of the former are attorney-clients, trustee-beneficiary, and principal-agents. In Texas, the latter apparently only includes the relationship between an insurer and an insured. That’s it! Texas courts have, found this panel, refused to impose the duty on, for example, employer-employees (not too surprising), lender-borrowers, medical provider-patients (double wow!), mortgagor-mortgagees, and franchisor-franchisees. The court in the described case also said that an “ordinary student-professor relationship is no different;” in other words, there is no fiduciary or even “confidential” or “special” relationship between students and faculty in Texas.
The case does not show how the student’s allegation that a duty of good faith existed between SMU and the student would really have helped the student on the merits. SMU seemed to have a very good case for firing the student from his job. Nonetheless, it is surprising that the court would so categorically reject that such a duty even exists apart from in traditional fiduciary relationships. While it may make sense that “a purely unilateral, subjective” sense of trust in one’s contractual counterpart and that the other party will have one’s interests at heart is not enough to create a fiduciary relationship, there is a vast difference between that and reading out the duty of good faith and fair dealings from most contracts law in general in Texas. Of course, as contracts law is state law, it is true that it is the Texas courts who must change this line of thinking, but doing so seems to be highly warranted given how courts in other parts of the nation rule on the issue.
The case discussed is Hux v. Southern Methodist University, 2016 WL 1621720 (no free online copy available yet).
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
A recent case out of California, Clever Hospitality, Inc. v. Patel, B264921, sheds light on the limits of due diligence to serve as consideration when it comes to making an offered option irrevocable. In that case, the Patels, the owner of a hotel, gave Clever, a prospective buyer, a 60-day option to buy the hotel. During that time, Clever indicated it was going to conduct due diligence. If, at the conclusion of its due diligence, Clever was interested in buying the hotel, it was supposed to exercise the option by depositing $150,000 into escrow. Clever used the 60-day period to perform significant amounts of due diligence, so much that Clever asked for an extension of the 60-day period. The Patels eventually refused the request and indicated to Clever once the 60-day period was over that, because Clever never deposited $150,000, the option had lapsed. However, the Patels and Clever continued to have contact regarding the hotel, although the Patels also told Clever that they were speaking to other potential buyers as well. Eventually, a few months later, the Patels sold the hotel to another buyer. Clever then sued the Patels for breach of contract.
Clever's main argument was that its time, effort, and money invested in its due diligence acted as consideration to render the Patels' option irrevocable. The court, however, noted that the necessary consideration here had to be money or services that the Patels had bargained for. In this case, Clever's due diligence only benefited Clever, not the Patels. After all, the Patels would have been quite content if Clever had performed no due diligence at all and instead just bought the hotel.
Clever then argued that promissory estoppel should save it and render the option irrevocable. However, the court could find no evidence that the Patels ever made any promise to Clever that it would keep the option open. In fact, the evidence seemed to show that the Patels had indicated the opposite to Clever: that the option had expired and that they were talking to other buyers. Therefore, there was no promise for Clever to reasonably rely upon and promissory estoppel was inappropriate.
Clever never at any time placed any money in escrow the way it was supposed to under the terms of the option. It seems as if Clever assumed that the Patels had no other serious buyers and that maybe there would be plenty of time for Clever and the Patels to work out a deal, and so the lapsing of the option didn't seem to concern Clever all that much...until a sale to someone else had been consummated. This case serves as a warning: Due diligence alone might not be enough to save you from losing out on the object of that due diligence.