ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Enforceability of Liability Releases for Negligence in Colorado

When I was in law school, I remember starting to be really struck by how often I had to sign liability releases: going to play paintball, renting skis, etc. A recent case out of the Tenth Circuit, Espinoza v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, had to deal with just such a release in the context of a tragic whitewater rafting accident. 

The plaintiff's mother drowned when her raft capsized during a rafting trip organized by the defendant. She had signed a contract that released the defendant from liability for negligence. The plaintiff agreed that his mother had signed the release but tried to argue that the release was unenforceable. As a matter of Colorado law, though, he lost. The court found the release enforceable both as a matter of public policy and under the particular circumstances of the mother's signing. 

The court explained that Colorado uses four facts to determine whether a release of liability for negligence is enforceable: 

(1) the existence [or nonexistence] of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The court concluded that, while other states were free to disagree on this, Colorado had decided that corporations providing recreational activities are allowed to protect themselves from liability for negligence. The court stated that this is a valid policy choice for Colorado to make because it arguably encourages the active, outdoorsy lifestyle that the state of Colorado cherishes and wants to protect and promote. Without such ability to protect themselves, companies might be discouraged from offering recreational activities like horseback riding, snowboarding, or whitewater rafting. And in fact other courts in Colorado had explicitly found that companies offering whitewater rafting trips can protect themselves from liability for negligence using a contractual release. The court stated that the Colorado legislature was free to introduce a statute that would change this legal precedent, but, as it stood, the court was bound to follow the precedent. 

Having decided that the release was not against public policy according to the first two factors of the balancing test, the court then further decided that the plaintiff's mother had fairly entered into the contract with full knowledge of the risks at stake. The court dismissed the plaintiff's expert testimony that the rapids his mother was exposed to were too advanced for a beginner (in contrast to what the defendant had assured her) by pointing to the fact that the defendant had expert testimony that the rapids were suitable for beginners. Finally, the court noted that the release had the typical all-caps language that you see on these sorts of contracts. You know:  "HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH" and "THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS." The truth is, seldom does any consumer seeing that stuff really take it a serious communication of a great risk of death, I think. Especially not when there was some evidence that the consumer has been assured the trip in question was suitable for families with children. Nonetheless, the court found that the language of the release unambiguously informed the plaintiff's mother of the risks of the activity and the fact that she was releasing the defendant from liability should those risks come to pass. 

There was a dissent in this case, however, who agreed that the release wasn't against public policy but disagreed on the conclusion that the contract had been fairly entered into. In the dissent's view, the contradictory testimony about the level of difficulty of the rapids meant that the question should have gone to the jury. 

I don't spend a lot of time in my Contracts class talking in detail about liability releases for negligence, but this case made me think that I should talk about them more, because they really do seem to arise in the context of so many activities. 

January 20, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Sports, Teaching, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, January 18, 2016

What Happens If Your YouTube Channel Suddenly Disappears?

 Logo YouTube

A recent case out of California, Lewis v. YouTube, continues on my terms and conditions theme from earlier

The plaintiff in this case had a bunch of videos on YouTube. One day, she found that YouTube had deleted them. The videos had had close to 500,000 views at the time YouTube deleted them. The plaintiff claimed that she spent a lot of time and money promoting them but there was no commercial aspect to the videos; she didn't make any money off of them. 

Upon realizing YouTube had deleted her videos, she sent YouTube an e-mail asking what had happened and if her videos could be restored. She received in response what appeared to be a form e-mail informing her that she'd violated YouTube's terms and conditions but not giving any truly specific information. The best that I can discern is that YouTube thought she was a spammer. 

The plaintiff replied to the e-mail from YouTube saying that she had not engaged in any behavior violating the terms and conditions. She received another response from YouTube identical to the first. She filed a formal appeal with YouTube, and received another identical response. 

So that brings us to the lawsuit in question, in which the plaintiff was alleging that YouTube violated the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implicit in its terms and conditions when it deleted her videos unjustifiably and without any notice. 

To be honest, I see the plaintiff's point and I'm kind of on her side. It's frustrating when you have no idea what you've done wrong and you can't get a website to explain anything to you and you just feel kind of powerless. The good news is that at some point she did get YouTube's attention enough that it did restore her videos. I don't know if that happened before or after the lawsuit was filed.

It seems, therefore, like the plaintiff got what she wanted, which was restoration of her videos. The lawsuit appears to have really been about trying to get damages, but the court pointed out that YouTube's terms and conditions (which, let's face it, none of us reads) contained a limitation of liability clause that is valid in California, so the plaintiff couldn't seek any damages. 

I think this is a situation where the court just thought that plaintiff had what she wanted and was just being greedy. I would be curious to see another case challenging the limitation of liability clause where the plaintiff could prove actual damages that might sway a sympathetic judge. But, for now, YouTube's terms and conditions do act to protect YouTube from having to pay out damages. If you find yourself a victim of YouTube's apparently aggressive anti-spamming patrol, you might just have to settle in for a bit of a fight in getting YouTube's attention, without much hope of compensation for any of that time and effort. 

January 18, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Very, Very Frequent Flyers Do Not Have Separate Contracts with Airlines

If a customer belongs to an airline’s frequent flyer program, but flies so often that one obtains an elevated status under that program, is the customer then also by implication governed by a separate contract with the airline and not just the “basic” version of the frequent flyer rules?

No, according to a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in Hammarquist v. United Continental Holdings, Inc. (Nos. 15-1836 and 15-1845).

In the class action lawsuit against beleaguered United Airlines, plaintiffs were members of the airline’s “MileagePlus” program. Condition no. 1 of the program rules stated that the airline had the “right to change the Program Rules, regulations, benefits, conditions of participation or mileage levels … at any time, with or without notice ….” Plaintiffs, who had obtained “Premier” status argued that under the Premier Program, an alternative modification provision prohibited United from changing the benefits that had already been earned, but which could, per airline tradition and the basic program rules, only be enjoyed the following year. The court made short shrift of that: The plaintiffs did not dispute that the parties’ contractual relationship was governed by the Program Rules that, under precedent established in Lagen v. United Continental Holdings, the elevated status of some frequent flyers does not result in a free-standing contracts separate from the underlying frequent flyer program being established. United Airlines had not made any contractual representations that would render it unable to change the benefits under the basic contract.

Plaintiffs also argued that at the most, United Airlines should only be allowed to change the benefits once a year and not, as had apparently been the case, in the
middle of the year. Plaintiffs relied on the airline’s website, which had stated th That changes were possible “from year to year,” but also that “unless otherwise stated,” the basic Program Rules applied to the Premier Program. That, according to the plaintiffs, meant that the airline could not change the benefits “at any time” as had been stated in the frequent flyer rules. The court found that United Airlines had never “stated” that Condition no. 1 did not also apply to its very frequent flyers, and that the airline had never contractually promised that changes could only be implemented only from year to year.

Nice try, but in this case, a contractually fair enough outcome, it seems. United Airlines “cannot be liable for breaching a contract that it did not make.”

January 15, 2016 in Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Tricky Question of Whether Minds Met

Ourasi

A recent case out of Ohio, Oryann, Ltd. v. SL & MB, LLC, highlights how complicated it can be to determine whether a contract ever existed in the first place. 

This case involved the sale and purchase of a horse farm that was being operated as a horse-boarding business. The parties agreed on a price of $640,000, and in all of their communications back and forth, that price was always stated as being the price for the real estate of the farm. There was no written reference to purchase of the business and its assets until the parties were through with their negotiations and signing the final papers. Those final papers indicated that the buyer was buying real estate for $350,000 and the business for $290,000. The business sale contract referenced "Exhibit A" as listing the assets that were being transferred, but Exhibit A was never completed.  

A disagreement arose between the parties, and the trial court found that there was never any meeting of the minds with respect to the sale of the business and it was illusory because it didn't have enough specificity to show that anyone was bound to do anything due to the fact that there was never any enumeration of the assets to be transferred (given the blank Exhibit A). While the trial court enforced the real estate contract in the amount of $350,000, it threw the business sale contract out as unenforceable. 

The appellate court, however, disagreed with the trial court's conclusion. To the appellate court, it was obvious from the language of the contracts and the behavior of the parties that there was a meeting of the minds with respect to the sale of the business and that the parties were bound by the contract. The appellate court noted that the two contracts were intended to be read as one entire deal, not two separate deals the way the trial court was reading it. The appellate court thought that if the parties intended to be bound by the real estate contract (as the trial court had found), then it had to follow that they intended to be bound by the business sale contract as well, as the contracts' language expressly referenced each other and the fact that they were one deal. And, as the appellate court noted, the trial court's ruling on the contracts meant that the trial court was ignoring was ignoring the fact that, at all times, the amount of money the parties were discussing was $640,000. It didn't make sense to then pretend that the parties had only intended to pay half of that. 

The appellate court was untroubled by the blank Exhibit A. The business sale contract's language explicitly stated that "all" of the business would be transferred; the purchasing party took possession and ran the business for over a year without complaining about a lack of specificity in the contract because of the missing Exhibit A; and the evidence showed that the parties did indeed transfer over their business assets. The appellate court thought it was therefore clear from the parties' behavior that they understood what the business sale contract achieved, even without the Exhibit A. 

So, where the trial court had seen questionable conduct, the appellate court found an enforceable contract. 

The key to the trial court's ruling might actually be in the parties' testimony as to why they ended up executing two separate contracts: They wished to lessen the amount of real estate tax paid in the transaction. I think the trial court thought that the parties clearly thought the real estate was worth $640,000, didn't want to pay the taxes owed on that, and so pretended the real estate was only worth $350,000 in order to avoid those taxes. In fact, it appears from the parties' testimony that that's exactly what they did. I think the trial court disapproved of that and that its ruling probably reflects its unwillingness to endorse the parties' behavior. 

January 13, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Beware Insurance Policy Exclusions: Liquid Nitrogen Cocktails and Precious Metal Air Conditioning Units Edition

A pair of cases, Evanston Ins. Co. v. Haven South Beach, out of the Southern District of Florida, and Celebration Church v. United National Insurance Co., out of the Eastern District of Louisiana, reminds us that insurance policies can be tricky things. 

In Evanston, Barbara Kaufman went to the Ninth Annual Taste of the Garden at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Haven South Beach, one of the vendors there, sold her a drink containing liquid nitrogen. Mrs. Kaufman became ill after consuming the drink and sued Haven. Haven, in turn, tried to involve Evanston under its insurance policy. However, the insurance policy contained a clause stating that it didn't apply to situations involving the "dispersal" of "pollutants." So the debate, of course, was over whether the presence of the liquid nitrogen in the drink, added to give the drink a "smoking" appearance, was the introduction of a pollutant that disqualified the insurance policy from applying. The policy described a "pollutant" as, among other things, an "irritant," and the court concluded that the liquid nitrogen was an irritant, as a dangerous and hazardous chemical likely to cause at least some irritation. Therefore, its dispersal into the drink was a circumstance that excluded Mrs. Kaufman's injury from insurance coverage under the policy. 

In Celebration Church, the insurance policy in question excluded coverage for theft of precious metals. Celebration Church had a number of rooftop air conditioning units whose condensers were stolen. The condensers each contained coils made of one of the precious metals excluded from the insurance policy. Therefore, the insurance company refused to pay out under the policy. The court found the insurance company was justified in its reading of the contract. Although the theft of the air conditioning units extended to thievery beyond just a "precious metal," the court concluded that the only common sense reading of the clause was that the insurance policy did not apply to any damage caused by a theft of precious metals, and the court further concluded that the theft of the air conditioning condensers was to obtain the precious metal inside, so their entire theft was excluded. 

The lesson is clear: Those insurance policy exclusions can really come back to haunt you. 

(Also, avoid liquid nitrogen in your cocktails, I think.)

January 11, 2016 in Food and Drink, Recent Cases, Religion, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Apple, Publishers, E-book Price Fixing -- and Effective Assignments of Claims

Apple Headquarters Sign ByDay

The antitrust ruling finding Apple engaged in anticompetitive behavior with regard to the e-book industry has resulted in a number of follow-up suits by parties allegedly harmed by Apple and its co-conspirator publishers' price-fixing scheme. Now, one of the first cases to be filed has reached the end of its line, derailed by the lack of an assignment clause with sufficiently explicit wording.  

In the Southern District of New York, DNAML Pty, Ltd. v. Apple Inc., 13cv6516 (DLC) (behind a paywall), the plaintiff's claims were rooted in antitrust, but it was ultimately contract law that decided the case. The problem arose because the DNAML who sued Apple and the publishers here is actually "new" DNAML. "New" DNAML is not the same entity that was damaged by the anticompetitive conduct here; that was "old" DNAML.  

In 2010, "old" DNAML entered into the agency agreement with the publisher Hachette that gave rise to the cause of action here. That agency agreement, according to the allegations, was disastrous for "old" DNAML, as the anticompetitive measures adopted by Apple and the publishers did their job and eliminated "old" DNAML's ability to effectively compete by requiring that Hachette strictly control all e-book pricing. Consequently deprived of distinguishing itself from all of the other sellers of e-books in any way, "old" DNAML got out of the e-book business a few months after signing the agreement, in September 2010. 

Over a year later, on December 23, 2011, "old" DNAML executed a contract under which it transferred all of its assets to "new" DNAML. Under the agreement, "new" DNAML purchased the "Business and Assets" of "old" DNAML. "Business" was defined as "the business carried on" by "old" DNAML, "being the business of owning and operating eBook technologies, including the sale of eBooks." "Assets" was defined as "all of the assets" owned by "old" DNAML and "used in connection" with its business, "including its cash, the Book Debts, the DNAML UK Shares, the Business Agreements, Leasehold Property interest, Equipment, Intellectual Property, and the Goodwill." After the execution of the agreement, "old" DNAML allegedly still existed but had no active business. 

In July 2013, Apple was found liable for antitrust violations in the e-book market. In September 2013, DNAML filed this lawsuit. Apple and the publishers argued that summary judgment should be entered in their favor because "new" DNAML lacked the standing to pursue the antitrust claims, which were inflicted upon "old" DNAML. The court agreed. 

"New" DNAML agreed that it could not sue Apple and the publishers absent an assignment of the antitrust claims from "old" DNAML. The court found that the antitrust claims could have been assigned, but that the agreement here failed to do so: 

To effect a transfer of the right to bring an antitrust claim, the transferee must expressly assign the right to bring that cause of action, either by making specific reference to the antitrust claim or by making an unambiguous assignment of causes of action in a manner that would clearly encompass the antitrust claim.

No such express assignment existed here, either of antitrust claims or of claims in general. The definitions of "Business" and "Assets" did not include claims. A transfer merely of assets is not sufficient to act as an assignment of antitrust claims.

"New" DNAML tried to argue that the purchase of "old" DNAML's "Business" "unambiguous[ly]" included an assignment of the antitrust claims because of the reference to "old" DNAML's sale of e-books. "New" DNAML argued that should be read to include any claims arising out of that business. But the court stated that was not the express assignment of claims that the law requires. 

"New" DNAML also tried to introduce extrinsic evidence to support its argument that the agreement was intended to include antitrust claims, but the court, having found the agreement unambiguous on its face, refused to use extrinsic evidence to alter its interpretation.

As a result, "new" DNAML never acquired "old" DNAML's standing to bring the suit, and the court dismissed DNAML's claims with prejudice.  

The moral of the story: Mention "claims" explicitly in your asset purchase agreements.  

January 4, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Legal Rights to Give up Your Travel Tickets

Exactly one year ago, I blogged here about United Airlines and Orbitz suing a 22-year old creator of a website that lets travelers find the cheapest airfare possible between two desired cities. Travelers would buy tickets to a cheaper end destination, but get off at stopover point to which a ticket would have been more expensive. For example, if you want to travel from New York to Chicago, it may be cheaper to buy one-way airfare all the way to San Francisco, not check any luggage, and simply get off in Chicago.

The problem with that, according to the airline industry: that is “unfair competition” and “deceptive behavior.” (Yes, the _airline industry_ truly alleged that.) Additionally, the plaintiffs claimed that the website promoted “strictly prohibited” travel; a breach of contracts cause of action under the airlines’ contract of carriage.

It seems that the United Airlines attorneys may not have remembered their 1L Contracts course well enough, for a contracts cause of action must, of course, be between the parties themselves or intended third party beneficiaries. The website in question was simply a third party with only incidental effects and benefits under the circumstances. Without more, such a party cannot be sued under contract law. (This may also be a free speech issue.)

Orbitz has since settled the suit.  Recently, a federal lawsuit was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction over the now 23-year old website inventor. United Airlines has not indicated whether it plans further legal action.  

Along these lines, cruise ship passengers are similarly not allowed to get off a cruise ship in a domestic port if embarking in another domestic port unless the cruise ship is built in the United States and owned by U.S. citizens. This is because the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1866 – enacted to support American shipping – requires passengers sailing exclusively between U.S. ports to travel in ships built in this country and owned by American owners. Thus, cruise ships traveling from, for example, San Diego to Alaska and back will often stop in Canada in order not to break the law. But if the vessel also stops in, for example, San Francisco and you want to get off, you will be subject to a $300 fine which, under cruise ship contracts of carriages, will be passed on to the passenger. See 19 CFR 4.80A and a government handbook here.

Convoluted, right? Indeed. Necessary? In this day and age: not in my opinion. As I wrote in my initial blogs on the issue, if one has a contract for a given product or service, pays it in full, and does not do anything that will harm the seller’s business situation, there should be no contractual or regulatory prohibitions against simply deciding not to actually consume the product or use the service one has bought. Again: if you buy a loaf of bread, there is also nothing that says that you actually have to eat it. You don’t have to sit and watch all sorts of TV channels simply because you bought the channel line-up. In my opinion, United Airlines and Orbitz were trying to hinder healthy competition and understandable consumer conduct. What is still rather incomprehensible to me in this context is why in the world airlines would have anything against passengers getting off at a midway point. It’s less work for them to perform and it gives them a chance to, if they allowed the conduct openly, resell the same seat twice. A win-win-win situation, it seems, for the original passenger, the airline, and the passenger that might want to buy the second leg at a potentially later point in time at whatever price then would be applicable. The same goes for the typically unaffordable “change fees” applied by most airlines: if they charged less (a change can very easily be done by travelers on a website with no airline interaction) and the consumer was willing to pay the then-applicable rate for the new date (prices typically go up, not down, as the departure dates approach), the airlines might actually benefit from being able to sell the given-up seat. Of course, they don’t see it that way… yet.

In many ways, traveling in this country seems to be going full circle in that it is becoming an expensive luxury. Thankfully, new low-cost airlines also appear on the market to provide much needed competition in this close-knit industry that, in the United States, seems to be able to carefully skirt around anti-trust rules without too many legal allegations of wrongdoing. (See here for allegations against United, American, Delta and Southwest Airlines for controlling capacity in order to keep airline prices up).

Happy New Year and safe travels!

January 3, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Is Tenure a Contract?

Budapesti Corvinus Egyetem - 2014.06.12 (20)Here's one for all the professors out there: Smith v. Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System, Civil Action Case No. 13-5505 Section: "G" (3), out of the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Steven Smith was a tenured professor at the University of New Orleans ("UNO"). Smith alleged a series of disagreements / misunderstandings that eventually led to Smith being committed to teaching the spring 2012 semester at both UNO and a Brazilian university, the Federal University of Bahia ("UFBA"). Smith attempted to resolve the conflict by pushing his start date at UFBA to the last two weeks of his semester at UNO. He had his students at UNO use the final two weeks to work on final projects, which would be submitted to him electronically while he was in Brazil at UFBA. Smith alleged that there was further miscommunication between him and UNO administration about Smith's schedule and whether or not it was acceptable. As a result, Smith stated that he was threatened numerous times with termination. Eventually, he was encouraged to resign and did so.

Smith sued asserting several causes of action, including breach of contract. The Board responded by arguing that Smith and the Board never entered into a contract at all.

Smith first pointed to the faculty handbook and UNO bylaws as the contract between himself and the Board. However, the faculty handbook explicitly stated that it "should not be construed as a formal contractual agreement between the University and its faculty." The court therefore found that the handbook did not constitute a contract.

That was not the end of Smith's contract claims, however, and that's where the tenure issue comes in. Smith argued that his tenure provided him with "a contractual right to continued employment." To support his argument, Smith pointed to the definition of "tenure" in Black's Law Dictionary as well as a number of statements made to Smith when he was granted tenure. The Board made no argument in opposition, leading the court to conclude that, "[a]lthough there was no specific written tenure contract, the parties appear to agree that Smith's achieving tenure meant that he was no longer an at-will employee." Accordingly, the court found that tenure was a contract between Smith and the Board. Whether or not this contract had been breached was a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.

December 30, 2015 in Labor Contracts, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Parking Sagas, Part II

I'm probably going to develop a personal expertise in the limited field of Parking Sagas; be forewarned. 

24 Hour Fitness Super-Sport, San Mateo

This case, Gietzen v. Goveia, B255925, out of the Second Appellate District of the Court of Appeal of California, concerned a shopping center that leased spaces to several businesses. One of these businesses was a restaurant called Yolanda's and another of these businesses was a gym called 24 Hour Fitness. When Gietzen, the owner of Yolanda's, entered into negotiations with the developers of the shopping center, he asked who the other tenants of the shopping center were going to be. Apparently, Amy Williams, one of the developers' agents, told him that the anchor tenant was likely to be a marine hardware company. In fact, negotiations with the hardware company eventually fell through and the anchor tenant ended up being 24 Hour Fitness. 

Apparently, in California at least, it is fairly well known among real estate-related business people that gyms can "cause major parking congestion problems." Here is where I betray that I do not belong to a gym, so I have no first-hand experience of this. But apparently very many people are much more dedicated to working out than I realized, because the gym in this case ended up utilizing around 95% of the available parking spaces. Williams had apparently known this was likely to happen based on previous similar experiences with gyms in shopping centers she'd helped develop, and Gietzen also said that he knew gyms caused such issues and would never have leased space in the shopping center if he'd known a gym was going to be an anchor tenant. 

Amid evidence that potential Yolanda's patrons were actually eating at other restaurants because they didn't want to deal with the lack of parking at the Yolanda's shopping center, Gietzen complained, as did other tenants having similar problems. Eventually, several solutions were attempted, but the parking lot still remained almost entirely full of gym patrons to the detriment of the other tenants. So, eventually, Gietzen sued, alleging, among other things, breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. 

The relevant clause of the contract was Article 9.1: "The Common Area shall be available for the nonexclusive use of Tenant during the full term of this Lease or any extension of the term hereof . . . ." The Common Area included the parking lot. The court interpreted that clause to mean that the common area had to actually be available for the tenant to use; the availability could not be hypothetical. Because 95% of the common area was being monopolized by the anchor tenant gym, the court found that Gietzen had been denied use of the common area in breach of the contract. The shopping center developers tried to argue that this interpretation implied that gyms can never be allowed to be shopping center tenants because of their propensity to take up so many parking spaces at all times. The court found, however, that no such implication was required. 

As far as the breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the shopping center developers pointed to a clause in the lease that said no covenants were implied. But the court said that good faith is required of all contracts, and that courts would not allow a contract to permit a party to act in bad faith based on a statement as vague as the one this contract contained: "The good faith of the parties is essential to all contracts. No agreement, no matter how finely crafted, will protect a party if the other party is not acting in good faith. If indeed [the developer] is contending that the lease allows it to act in bad faith, it must point to a clause more specific than a general clause against implied covenants."

Mainly I felt like I had to share this case so that I can spread around my guilt over not being one of those many people parked at the gym. 

December 23, 2015 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 21, 2015

In Which I Freak Out About Parking and Towing (But It's Case-Related, I Swear)

Fortreno de aŭtoj, DE FR, 2

Once, when I lived in a city, my car got towed. I was properly, legally parked at the time I parked the car. Unfortunately, after I parked the car, the city came by and put up a sign saying they were cutting down a tree the next day and my car needed to be moved. Unfortunately, the car wasn't parked on the street where I lived (that's city living for you) and also unfortunately, I didn't go back to my car for a few days (also city living for you). When I went to retrieve my car for a driving errand and found it missing, I had a moment of utter panic that it had been stolen. Then I noticed the bedraggled sign and realized it must have been towed. Thus commenced a long, involved saga. My license plate number was not reported online as having been towed, so I had to take two separate buses across the length of the city to a police station, where I waited in a very long line of people doing various police business to be told yes, it had been towed, but no, it wasn't in the system, and I had to go another opposite side of the city (I was making a triangle) to retrieve it and I had to BRING CASH (I was told this many times, in oral all-caps). Which meant that first I had to locate an ATM in an area of the city with which I was unfamiliar, and then take more buses to the tow company location. This entire ordeal (which I maintain wasn't entirely my fault, considering I think it was unrealistic of the city to provide so little notice of the tree issue, because the vast majority of us city-dwellers don't go to our cars on a daily basis) took the better part of my day and cost hundreds of dollars but, at the end of it, at least I got my car back (and then afterward I had to keep making out-of-my-way trips on a daily basis to make sure that my car hadn't become subject to any weird new towing orders). 

I tell all of you this saga because when I started reading the fact pattern of Parham v. Cih Properties, Civil Case No. 14-1706 (RJL), out of the District Court for the District of Columbia, I had flashbacks. In that case, the plaintiff lived in an apartment complex that had a parking lot. (There is a prior Parham v. Cih Properties case, involving a plaintiff with a different first name, possibly the plaintiff's mother.) She alleged that her car was towed from the lot. After allegedly having to engage in a complicated search, the plaintiff determined that the car had been ticketed for having "dead tags" and had been sent "to be crushed for scrap metal." The plaintiff alleged that her car did not have dead tags and also that the tag number she was given on the ticket wasn't even the tag number of her car. At any rate, the plaintiff has never actually been able to locate the man who allegedly towed the car and so has never actually located her car and so never received her car back. So, she's sued. 

Why, you might wonder, am I talking about all these parking sagas in the ContractsProf Blog? Well, there was a breach of contract aspect to this case, in that she alleged that she had a contract with the apartment complex that the complex breached when it authorized the towing of her car. However, the only contract between the plaintiff and the apartment complex was a thirty-year-old lease agreement that explicitly stated that parking was not covered by the agreement. Therefore, the court found there was no breach of any contract.

CARS WERE JAMMED INTO EVERY SPARE SPACE AT A DOWNTOWN COMMERCIAL PARKING LOT DURING A BUS STRIKE IN WASHINGTON... - NARA - 556721

I understand the court's analysis but I'm incredibly perplexed and wish I had more information. Was there never any updating of the lease agreement in the ensuing thirty years? Surely the rent had been increased, at least? And, honestly, under what authority was she parking in the parking lot? Whenever I have had parking in a city lot, it came with tags or cards or permits or something, so that the parking could be managed. And never, in a city situation, has the parking been free. The parking here was apparently located in Washington, D.C. (see above photo for an only-slightly-out-of-date depiction of parking in Washington, D.C.), so I wish knew more about the circumstances under which the parking lot was being governed. I just find it difficult to believe that there wasn't some sort of agreement somewhere between the plaintiff and someone about what the parking situation was, even if the agreement was only oral in nature, or even if we had to turn to promissory estoppel to get there. But am I thinking about this from a completely wrong angle somehow? 

The plaintiff in this case was proceeding pro se, which might have contributed to the fact that there wasn't enough evidence for the plaintiff to survive summary judgment. Indeed, none of the plaintiff's claims (which included fraud and consumer protection claims) survived summary judgment. 

This case made me think of my own parking saga because, well, what would I have done if I'd just never been able to locate my car again? Even though I thought it was unfair that I was forced to inconveniently traipse all over the city and produce hundreds of dollars in cash based on what I considered a "surprise" towing sign, I think I also vaguely thought that probably one of the "terms" of my agreement with the city under which it had given me a street parking permit was that I would check on the car at least every twenty-four hours. So, although I was annoyed during my saga, I put most of the blame on myself. I have no idea what I would have done if I'd never found my car, though. 

December 21, 2015 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

So You Want to Write a Best-Selling Video Game, Huh?

If so, it's always better to be precise in your negotiations. 

Of course, the flip side of this is that you frequently don't feel like you have the power to demand precision. 

In Bubble Pony v. Facepunch Studios, Civil No. 15-601(DSD/FLN) (sorry, I can only find versions behind paywalls for now), out of the District of Minnesota, Patrick Glynn was a computer programmer in need of a job. He e-mailed Facepunch looking for one, highlighting his abilities (as one does when job-hunting). Facepunch's majority owner, Garry Newman, responded to Glynn's e-mail positively, describing what he was looking for in a new employee and adding:

I want to eventually be in a position where you'd be making games for Facepunch Studios, which we'd sell on Steam, or the apple appstore, or whatever, but once that game makes what we've paid you so far back, you'd get something like a 60% cut of all the profits (probably more, that's kind of TBD). So we'd kind of be investing in your, kind of.

Does that sounds [sic] like the kind of situation you'd like to be in?

Glynn replied that yes, he was interested, and that his "only concerns" were "making rent, paying bills, and buying groceries." Eventually, the parties agreed on compensation of $1,900 per month, to be increased by $100 per month until they reached $3,000. At the time, Glynn's responsibilities were going to be things like fixing bugs and otherwise optimizing Facepunch's existing code. The parties did not further negotiate what would happen if/when Glynn started creating games for Facepunch. They did, however, agree that Glynn was an independent contractor and not an employee. 

Eventually, Glynn began creating games for Facepunch, producing more than 75% of the source code for a game called RUST. RUST was a huge success that "has generated at least $46 million in sales." Facepunch paid Glynn bonuses totaling around $700,000. Facepunch also asked Glynn, after RUST's major success had been established, to draft a document explaining how the RUST programming worked. Once it received the document, Facepunch terminated its relationship with Glynn, pulled RUST off the market, and announced a new "experimental game" based on RUST. 

As you might imagine, Glynn has sued for a number of causes of action, and there are other issues in this case, including an issue of personal jurisdiction, because Facepunch and Newman are both British (the court found personal jurisdiction to exist). However, to focus on the contract issue, the court found that the parties' e-mails on the subject of 60% of the profits if Glynn started developing games never rose to the level of an agreement. The court said that the terms about the compensation were "vague and indefinite," pointing to the words "eventually" and "something like 60%" and "TBD." Therefore, Glynn's breach of contract claims here were dismissed. The court also dismissed his promissory estoppel claims, finding that Newman's e-mail statements were too "vague and indefinite" to constitute promises. 

Glynn should have been sure to clarify his compensation before embarking on developing games for Facepunch. Of course, from Glynn's perspective, he was probably happy just to get a job, and, by the time he started developing games, he might have developed enough of a relationship with Facepunch that he didn't feel it necessary to rock the boat, so to speak. 

Glynn isn't completely out of luck, however. Although the court dismissed most of his claims, the lack of definite terms actually works in his favor in the copyright context. Because the parties were allegedly clear that Glynn was an independent contractor and not an employee, and because there was allegedly no agreement anywhere otherwise (so far, at this early stage), Glynn's claim for joint copyright ownership of RUST (and its associated causes of action) survived the motion to dismiss. So to be continued on the copyright question...

December 16, 2015 in Games, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2015

DirectTV v. Imburgia - FAA Preemption Über Alles

On DeceDarth vader thumbs-upmber 14, the United States Supreme Court decided DirecTV v. Imburgia, the latest chapter in an expansion of the Federal Arbitration Act to pre-empt state law well beyond anything Congress in the 1920s could plausibly have imagined. Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of the Court's FAA jurisprudence.

The Court once again purports to place arbitration agreements "on equal footing with all other contracts," while at the same time giving arbitration clauses a force that even a Sith would have to admire.  Don't underestimate the power of arbitration clauses over all other terms in a contract.  Professor Imre Stephen Szalai (Loyola - New Orleans) may have said it best in an e-mail that made the rounds on ADR, CivPro, and Contracts Prof listervs and that is especially appropriate for this blog:

"Nothing can stand in the way of FAA preemption, not even the parties' contract."

Many commentators will write many words about many aspects of the DirecTV case in the upcoming days and weeks, such as the eloquent dissent by Justice Ginsburg addressing economic imbalances of power in consumer contracts. I want to take a moment here, however, to praise the short and lonely dissent by Justice Thomas, espousing a view on which he has been unwaivering for more than two decades: "I remain of the view that the Federal Arbitration Act does not apply to proceedings in state courts."

While that solo dissent--and five dollars--will get you a café mocha at Starbucks, he has Congressional intent right.  A pre-Erie statute intended to overcome federal courts' traditional hostility to arbitration was never intended to become a federal preemption juggernaut capable of divesting states of huge swaths of jurisdiction over state contract law.

Federal Arbitration Act rant now complete. Thank you for listening.

 

 

 

December 14, 2015 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (3)

Mineral Leases and Contract Length

I find that my students are very fond of posing hypothetical questions to me that touch upon unconscionability, even before we get to the doctrine, so I always love to see unconscionability cases in action.

This one, Roberts v. Unimin Corp., No. 1:15CV00071 JLH, from the Eastern District of Arkansas, involved a mineral lease that was entered into in 1961. Now, in 2015, the successors in interest are seeking to get out of the contract, arguing that it's either terminable at will or unconscionable and also alleging that they are owed over $75,000 as a result of unjust enrichment. The court concluded that the plaintiffs alleged enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The parties alleged that the lease was for an indefinite term and therefore terminable at will. The lease's term was "as long thereafter as mining and/or mining operations are prosecuted." The court stated it was "plausible" that this term was so indefinite as to render the lease terminable at will.

Turning to unconscionability, the court noted the fact that the lease was negotiated shortly after the death of the father to whom the land had belonged, with children who were still reeling from the death and had had no experience negotiating mineral leases. The children therefore relied upon the defendant's predecessor-in-interest during the negotiation, according to the complaint, and that trust was taken advantage of by the insertion of a royalty price far below market value. This was enough to survive the motion to dismiss. I wonder if this case will continue and have further pleadings, because I'm curious as to how this unconscionability argument develops.

December 14, 2015 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

The UCC and "ASAP" T-shirt Delivery

A recent case out of New York, Summit Apparel v. Promo Nation, 2014-795 Q C, strikes me as being a lovely demonstration of the UCC in action. 

My favorite part of this case is the court's little aside that "ASAP" written on the order form for the T-shirts meant "as soon as possible." It's just a reminder that the things we often think are crystal-clear in our communication do sometimes need a translating step that happens so quickly in our brains that we seldom stop to acknowledge it. 

Anyway, the meaning of "ASAP" is important to this case, because the parties are having a disagreement over whether the T-shirts were, in fact, delivered ASAP. On August 13, the defendant ordered 38,640 T-shirts from the plaintiff, to be delivered "ASAP." By September 8, 16,800 of these T-shirts had been shipped. The plaintiff told the defendant the remainder of the order would be shipped by September 20, provided that payment was received before that. In fact, the defendant didn't provide payment until November 17, when it paid the balance less $10,000. The plaintiff delivered the remainder of the order the following day, November 18. However, the defendant never paid the remaining $10,000 due and the plaintiff sued. The defendant counterclaimed, saying that the November delivery was untimely and caused the defendant to lose a customer, with all attendant future business opportunities and profits, which the defendant estimated as $750,000. The defendant pointed to the fact that the inscription of "ASAP" on the order form meant that time was of the essence and yet the plaintiff nevertheless delayed fulfilling the order. 

The court turned to the UCC to analyze whether the defendant's actions permitted it to seek the $750,000 in damages. The court noted that the defendant could have rejected the T-shirts as non-conforming because of their alleged untimely delivery. Instead, however, examination of the course of performance between the parties indicated that the defendant accepted the T-shirts without raising any objection as to their timeliness at all. In fact, the timeliness was never raised by the defendant until several years later, when it was first raised by the defendant's counsel in connection with the plaintiff's attempt to collect the $10,000 balance. (Additionally, it was the defendant's own delay in payment that actually caused the delay in the delivery of the T-shirts in the first place.) 

Of course, the UCC allows that acceptance of non-conforming goods did not necessarily impair the defendant's ability to seek other remedies. However, the right to seek other remedies under the UCC is preserved as long as the defendant notifies the plaintiff of the non-conforming nature of the goods within a reasonable time after discovering it. The defendant failed to notify the plaintiff, as stated above, until several years had gone by. Therefore, the court concluded, the defendant was barred from seeking other remedies. 

The court made one last note that even if the defendant could somehow prove it had notified the plaintiff that it considered the goods non-conforming within a reasonable time, the defendant's lost profits and business opportunities were "purely speculative." 

This is a fairly brief and relatively straightforward opinion, which I sometimes think it's nice to remind ourselves exists out there. 

December 14, 2015 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fruit of the Loom's Non-Compete Provision

I am always fascinated by covenants not to compete. The facts surrounding them and their analysis are always so interesting. 

A recent decision out of the Western District of Kentucky, Fruit of the Loom, Inc. v. Zumwalt, Civil Action No. 1:15CV-131-JHM, found Fruit of the Loom's non-competition clause valid and enforceable and prohibited the employee, Zumwalt, from competing against Fruit of the Loom or soliciting any customers for a period of twelve months.

After a bit of a dispute over which state's law should apply, the court concluded that Zumwalt was violating the terms of his contract with Fruit of the Loom in having gone to work for a competitor (specifically identified in the employment contract) in a capacity that uses knowledge and experience Zumwalt gained at Fruit of the Loom. The court noted that Zumwalt was the only salesperson Fruit of the Loom had had in the Oklahoma and eastern Kansas region and had access to a considerable amount of confidential information, including pricing, sales strategies, and customer lists. The court also found that, under Kentucky law, twelve months was a reasonable period of time for competition to be restricted. The non-compete provision doesn't appear to have had a specific limitation on geographic area, but it did limit its application, the court said, to nine specific competitors, so that that set out what the geographic scope would be. 

The court also found that there was a likelihood of irreparable harm to Fruit of the Loom. There was evidence that confidential customer lists had already been provided by Zumwalt to the competitor, in violation of the agreement, and the court seems to endorse an inevitable disclosure theory: "[i]t is entirely unreasonable to expect [Zumwalt] to work for a direct competitor in a position similar to that which he held with [Fruit of the Loom], and forego the use of the intimate knowledge of [Fruit of the Loom's] business operations."

Zumwalt tried to argue that enforcement of the noncompetition agreement would result in substantial harm to him because he would be deprived of income, but the court stated that Zumwalt signed the agreement knowing that this would be the result, so that his damage "was foreseeable and avoidable." 

In conclusion, the court issued an injunction prohibiting Zumwalt from working for any of the named competitors or soliciting any of Fruit of the Loom's customers for a period of twelve months. 

I understand the enormity of the harm from Fruit of the Loom's perspective, especially given that Zumwalt was its only salesperson in the area, but I also admit to feeling a little bad for Zumwalt here, as this probably leaves him with not very many options for employment for the next year. Cases like this really feel like no-win situations. 

December 9, 2015 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seeking Damages of More than Just Peanuts!

(That was a terrible pun. Please let's forget that I wrote it.)

A recent opinion out of the Fourth Circuit, Severn Peanut Co., Inc. v. Industrial Fumigant Co., No. 15-1063, upheld a clause in the parties' contract limiting Industrial Fumigant's ("IFC") liability for consequential damages against arguments from Severn that the clause was unconscionable. 

The parties entered into a contract whereby IFC promised to fumigate Severn's peanut dome. (I didn't know what this was, so I looked it up. Here are my Google Image search results, but more importantly, it turns out the Severn Volunteer Fire Department has actually uploaded to Facebook video from the Severn peanut dome fire in this case. The Internet is a wondrous place. Oh -- spoiler alert -- as our story continues, there's going to be a fire in the peanut dome.) IFC agreed that it would use the pesticide in question "in a manner consistent with instructions . . . and precautions . . . ." Severn alleged that IFC threw around 49,000 tablets of the pesticide in one big pile, in a way contrary to the instructions of use and, indeed, heedless of warnings not to do this, and that, as a result (as you know if you watched the video), the tablets caught fire, smoldered despite all efforts to put them out, and eventually resulted in an explosion. Severn had an insurance policy under which it collected $19 million to cover the loss of the peanut dome, the peanuts inside it, and other various costs and lost income. 

Severn, together with its insurer, then sued IFC for breach of contract and negligence. But IFC pointed out that the contract it had with Severn expressly limited its liability for consequential damages. The contract was price was $8,604, and the contract contained a clause stating that that sum was not "sufficient to warrant IFC assuming any risk of incidental or consequential damages." The Fourth Circuit noted that such clauses are considered useful and efficient and parties are free to enter into agreements containing such clauses if they so desire. Severn tried to argue that the clause was unconscionable but the Fourth Circuit remarked that Severn and IFC were both sophisticated parties and that Severn had been free to try to negotiate that clause out of the bargain, if it so desired. The Fourth Circuit also noted that Severn had another option in the face of the limitation clause: procure insurance to cover itself in case something went awry, which Severn in fact did. The Fourth Circuit concluded: "We are not presently considering the plight of a vulnerable member of the public adrift among the variegated hazards of a complex commercial world. Instead, we are considering a rather typical agreement among two commercial entities, and we may hold them to the contract's terms."

The Fourth Circuit also did away with Severn's negligence claim, viewing it as an end run around the contract's limitation clause. Severn, the court said, could not obtain through a tort cause of action what it bargained away under contract. 

December 7, 2015 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Settlement Agreements, Third-Party Beneficiaries, and Conditions Precedent, Oh, My!

This is the latest chapter in a long saga that started with lawsuits in 1983 and has resulted in several disputes between clients and various attorneys. This particular opinion, Richardson v. Casher, 14-P-503 (requires a sign-in to Bloomberg Law), out of the Appeals Court of Massachusetts, deals with a $9 million settlement agreement that was negotiated by attorney Casher with Travelers Indemnity Company. After the settlement agreement was reached, Casher and his clients, the Picciotto parties, entered into an allocation agreement deciding how the settlement should be disbursed. The allocation agreement included disbursements from Casher's share to the Picciotto parties' former attorney, George Richardson, and UP, a charitable organization that donates legal services in insurance cases and helped the Picciotto parties out at one point in the 30-year court battle. The court found that both of these parties were third-party beneficiaries of the allocation agreement. 

Unfortunately for Richardson and UP, when presented with the allocation agreement, Travelers rejected it. The settlement agreement was therefore amended to permit Travelers to file an interpleader action and pay the vast majority of the settlement account into the court instead of disbursing it in the way the allocation agreement had contemplated. The interpleader action then dragged on for several years. Eventually, Casher received a bit more under the interpleader action than he had expected to receive under the allocation agreement. Richardson filed a complaint in the interpleader action and the judge found that Casher was required to pay Richardson and UP under the allocation agreement, with a slight increase to reflect the fact that Casher had actually received more than the allocation agreement would have given him. Casher and the Picciotto parties appealed. 

On appeal, the court concluded that the condition precedent to Casher's obligation to pay Richardson and UP under the allocation was never met, and so no duty had been triggered for Richardson and UP to seek to enforce. Casher and the Picciotto parties argued that the condition precedent to the disbursements under the allocation agreement was the immediate receipt of the sizable first installment of the settlement money (set at $5 million in the allocation agreement), which never happened because instead Traveler paid the money into the court. The appeals court agreed with this argument. To find otherwise, the court say, would make the allocation agreement nonsensical, as it was premised on the straightforward receipt of the majority of the settlement money. The fact that Casher and the Picciotto parties eventually received the money through the interpleader action didn't matter when it was clear from the face of the allocation agreement that none of the parties contemplated that the first distribution of the settlement money would be anything other than immediate. The court therefore concluded that the immediate distribution of at least the first part of the settlement funds was a condition precedent to Casher's duties to pay Richardson and UP. When that initial $5 million distribution never happened, the condition precedent was never fulfilled, and Casher never became obligated to pay Richardson and UP. 

The lesson here is, of course, to always play the what-if game as thoroughly as you can: "What if Travelers refuses to distribute the funds the way we've contemplated?" Asking that question may have caused the allocation agreement to be re-written in such a way as to protect Richardson and UP's interests. The bigger complicating wrinkle for both Richardson and UP, however, is that they were only third-party beneficiaries who actually had no part in the drafting of the allocation agreement (they didn't even know about it until much later), so they had no ability to protect their interests in the language. 

December 4, 2015 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink

Thursday, December 3, 2015

How Much Disability Insurance Is Too Much? Well, That's a Highly Fact-Specific Question

I feel like one of the lessons of my Contracts class (aside from, you know, all the contract law stuff) is that disability insurance is the type of insurance policy most likely to end up in a published opinion in a casebook someday. Proving my point is a new opinion out of the 8th Circuit, The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Weiher, No. 14-3098.

In this case, Weiher, a dentist, applied for a disability policy from Northwestern in which he "specifically agreed" that he would cancel his previously existing disability policy from Great-West. As you could probably predict from the fact that this ended up in litigation, Weiher never canceled the Great-West policy. When he became disabled to the point that he could no longer practice dentistry, he submitted claims to both Northwestern and Great-West. When Northwestern found out that Weiher had never terminated his Great-West policy, it rescinded its policy, claiming that it would never have issued the policy had it known that Weiher wasn't going to cancel the Great-West policy. So Northwestern sued claiming that Weiher's promise to cancel the Great-West policy was a misrepresentation on Weiher's part that entitled Northwestern to rescind the policy. Weiher counter-claimed. The District of Minnesota granted Northwestern summary judgment because Weiher's failure to fulfill his promise to cancel the Great-West policy exposed Northwestern to greater risk and allowed Northwestern to rescind the contract. Weiher appealed. 

Weiher wins his appeal, not because his vow to cancel the Great-West policy wasn't a promise (the 8th Circuit finds that it was) and not because he didn't fail to fulfill that promise (the 8th Circuit agrees that he didn't), but because Northwestern failed to show that Weiher's failure to fulfill his promise increased Northwestern's risk. Under the relevant Wisconsin statute, the court found, Northwestern's ability to rescind the policy had to turn on specific increased risk in connection with Weiher's particular policy, not just generalized increased risk. All of Northwestern's evidence stated that Northwestern's custom was not to provide disability insurance to people who already had existing disability insurance policies because the risk of over-insurance would encourage fraudulent claims. However, Northwestern had no evidence that insuring Weiher here resulted in over-insurance to Weiher. There was simply no indication that the level of insurance Weiher was carrying between the two policies was too much. Northwestern's testimony on the subject admitted that it didn't know the specifics of Weiher's situation and could only talk in generalities. Therefore, the 8th Circuit concluded that Northwestern couldn't be entitled to summary judgment because it hadn't met its burden with regard to Weiher's specific policy. The 8th Circuit further noted that there was a factual dispute over whether Weiher's representation to cancel the Great-West policy was made with the intent to deceive Northwestern or if, as Weiher contended, he had intended to cancel the Great-West policy and had just forgotten. 

If you feel bad for Northwestern here, there's a dissent on your side: According to Judge Loken, Weiher's promise to cancel the Great-West policy was a condition precedent to Northwestern's policy kicking in, based upon widely accepted underwriting standards that warned against over-insurance. Wisconsin precedent, Judge Loken said, indicated that conditions precedent to insurance coverage should be respected if clearly stated. Based on that, the dissent would have found that Northwestern's policy was not effective until the condition precedent of cancellation of the Great-West policy had occurred (which it never did). 

December 3, 2015 in Legislation, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Contract "Renewal" Must Have Same (or Nearly the Same) Terms, Says Third Circuit

Lloyd's_coffee_house_drawing
The First Marine Insurance Company

F & M Equipment, Ltd. (F&M) entered in to a ten-year insurance policy with Indian Harbor Insurance Company (Indian Harbor).  The policy included a promise from Indian Harbor that it would offer F&M the option to renew.  After ten years, Indian Harbor sent its "renewal policy" with substantially new terms.  F&M rejected these terms.  Indian Harbor sought a declaratory judgment that its new policy was a "renewal," and F&M counterclaimed for breach of contract.

The District Court ruled for Indian Harbor, but in Indian Harbor Insurance Co., v. F&M Equipment Ltd., the Third Circuit reversed, holding that "for a contract to be considered a renewal, it must contain the same, or nearly the same, terms as the original contract."  Sitting in diversity and applying Pennsylvania law, the Third Circuit noted that, because insurance contracts are construed against the drafter, the contract would "be interpreted in light of the insured’s reasonable expectations." With respect to unresolved ambiguities, the Court stated that "inferences should be drawn against the insurance company."

Indian Harbor pointed to case law that it claimed required only that it give notice of its intention to renew on new terms.  This reading of the contract, the Court held, would render Indian Harbor's promised renewal illusory.  Indian Harbor argued that the duty of good faith and fair dealing would prevent it from offering terms that radically differed from the original contract and calling the offer a "renewal."  That well may be, but it does not resolve the question of what constitutes a "renewal."  The Court determined that a renewal must contain the same or nearly the same terms, and the new contract that Indian Harbor proffered contained four significant changes.  The Court ordered Indian Harbor to offer F&M a genuine renewal of its policy.

Interestingly, Indian Harbor objected that doing so would mean including another promise of renewal, at which point the contract would become perpetual.  The Court was unmoved.  While not deciding the issue (because it did not have to), the Court essentially told Indian Harbor that it had made its bed and would have to sleep in it.

October 28, 2015 in Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Ninth Circuit Affirms: No Recovery in "Brasher Doubloon" Case

In Swoger v. Rare Coin Wholesalers, plaintiff William Swogen (Swogen) sued for recovery of a consulting fee in connection with a rare coin.  The Brasher Doubloons were minted in the 18th century in New York and were among the first coins minted in the United States.  The Brasher Doubloons, a $15 gold piece, feature an image of an eagle.  Ephraim Brasher punched his initials on the wing of the bird (see image).  However,  Defendants owned a Brasher Doubloon in which Brasher had punched his initials on the breast of the eagle.  The coin they owned (and subsequently sold) was exceedingly rare and thus exceedingly valuable.  Swoger offered to sell defendants information that he thought would prove his claim the "Punch the Breast" Brasher Doubloon was the first legal tender coin minted in the U.S.  

Brasher Doubloon

Defendants offered $250,000 for the information, but Swoger wanted $500,000.  The parties met at a numismatic trade show, and Swoger shared his information with defendants, which purported to show that their coin must have been minted pursuant to a federal act that specified the weight of gold coins.  Defendants refused to pay Swoger for the information he provided, and he sued, alleging breach of contract, quantum meruit and other non-contractual claims.

The district court dismissed Swoger's claims because he provided no evidence in support of them.  The federal act in question applied only to foreign coins, and so the Brasher Doubloon would not have been minted pursuant to it.  Swoger did not in fact provide defendants with any information in support of his theory that the Brasher Doubloon was the first legal tender coin minted in the United States.  Moreover, all of the information that Swoger provided was publicly available.  

On appeal, Swoger claimed that even if the Brasher Doubloon was not minted pursuant to the Act; it was minted in accordance with the Act, as it was the same weight as Spanish Doubloons and thus could circulate as having a certain value.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, because only Congress can recognize a coin as legal tender of the United States, and Swoger, even taking all of his factual allegations as true, did nothing to show that Congress did so with respect to the Brasher Doubloon.  

Too bad, but certainly a very interesting fact pattern.  And the coin has an undeniable rough beauty.

October 21, 2015 in Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)