Monday, July 18, 2016
By Mario Sarto - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1015397
Here's a case with some interesting facts: Jacobsen Diamond Center, LLC v. ADT Security Services, Inc., Docket No. A-1578-14T1, out of New Jersey.
The plaintiff in the case is a jeweler, who suffered two consecutive thefts on Super Bowl weekends in 2010 and 2011. The first Super Bowl theft involved cutting through the wall that bordered a retail store next door and removing a safe positioned against the wall. Because the thieves cut through the wall, they didn't set off the ADT alarm system linked to the jeweler's doors.
After this robbery, the jeweler then moved its safes to the middle of the store, away from the walls. The second Super Bowl theft (perhaps by the same people, emboldened by their previous success?) involved the disabling of the ADT security system in place.
The Super Bowl thieves have never been apprehended, and the jeweler did not have any insurance on the stolen jewels, so the jeweler has sued ADT and a number of other companies that were involved with the jeweler's security systems, alleging various misrepresentations about the security, fraud, negligence, and breaches of contract. The jeweler lost on all of its claims, either by summary judgment or by jury verdict, and the jeweler now appeals.
Of special interest to this contracts law blog is the ruling on the limitation of liability clause in ADT's contract with the jeweler. This was a standard form contract used by ADT that limited its liability to $1,000 (far below the alleged worth of the stolen jewels). These limitations of liability clauses are enforceable and reasonable; the policy behind this stance is supposed to encourage the purchaser of the security system to maintain insurance coverage of its valuables, as it is the purchaser in the best position to know what the value is of the things it is seeking to protect. The court found that the jeweler knew it should have had insurance and it was not ADT's fault that the jeweler failed to obtain such insurance; therefore, ADT should not be held responsible for the jeweler's failure.
Friday, July 15, 2016
At least where the internal investigation concerns actions you took within the scope of your employment that are exposing your employer to possible criminal liability.
This recent case out of the Second Circuit, Gilman v. Marsh & McLennan Cos., Docket No. 15-0603-cv(L), is the latest chapter in a long saga. The plaintiffs were employees of Marsh & McLennan who were executives being investigated for criminal charges by then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The employees were eventually indicted and convicted of some of the charges but the convictions were thrown out because of "newly discovered contradictory evidence."
As you might have anticipated, this chain of events led to a number of lawsuits by the accused employees, including this one against former employer Marsh & McLennan, who had terminated the employees after they refused to submit to internal interviews about the allegations in Spitzer's criminal investigation.
The employees had brought claims for abuse of process against Marsh & McLennan but those had been dismissed. The employees were no more successful with their breach of contract claims against Marsh & McLennan. The court found that the employees' employment contracts with Marsh & McLennan were governed by Delaware law, which finds proper cause for termination where the employee refuses a direct and reasonable order by the employer. In this case, the court found that Marsh & McLennan's order that the employees sit for internal interviews to discuss allegations that implicated criminal liability for Marsh & McLennan and regarded the employees' actions during the scope of their employment was a reasonable request. Marsh & McLennan needed to take such measures to protect itself, and, indeed, had a duty to its shareholders to investigate any potential criminal conduct that could have harmed the company. In fact, the court terms Marsh & McLennan's behavior here as "unassailable, even routine." The employees were personally free to refuse to be interviewed, but, in so doing, they provided Marsh & McLennan with proper cause for termination under their employment contracts.
Monday, July 11, 2016
The circumstances surrounding this lawsuit, LMNO Cable Group, Inc. v. Discovery Communications LLC, Case No. 2:16-cv-4543 (behind paywall), in the Central District of California, could be a television show in its own right.
LMNO, a producer of a number of reality television shows (most importantly for this case "The Little Couple"), allegedly found itself the victim of embezzlement by its accountant, who then later, according to the complaint, threatened to destroy LMNO's professional relationships unless LMNO kept quiet about the alleged embezzler and gave him $800,000. LMNO apparently refused to comply with this request, instead reporting the alleged embezzler to the authorities.
In the meantime, however, the accountant had evidently been in contact with Discovery Communications, whose station broadcasts "The Little Couple." LMNO alleges in this lawsuit that Discovery used the accountant's help to try to drive LMNO out of business by stealing "The Little Couple" from LMNO.
The alleged stealing of "The Little Couple" involved the alleged breach of a number of contracts between LMNO and Discovery about "The Little Couple." As usual with entertainment contracts, they're complicated, consisting of many amendments, and there's an implied contract angle as well. And, predictably, there are copyright and trademark implications, too.
According to the complaint, Discovery directly employs the actors in "The Little Couple," but the contract has a clause preventing Discovery from using these actors to produce shows without LMNO. Allegedly, that is exactly what Discovery is now attempting to do. Specifically, Discovery and LMNO had discussed making a special episode of "The Little Couple" set in Scotland and England. LMNO alleges that Discovery went ahead and filmed the episode without LMNO's involvement, in violation of an additional implied contract between them with regard to that particular episode. In addition, LMNO is alleging that Discovery's actions have breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and interfered with LMNO's abilities to obtain all of its benefits under the contracts.
Saturday, July 9, 2016
In this case, the plaintiffs had purchased Gogo's in-flight Internet access multiple times. They claimed that the Internet access didn't work as advertised, with allegations that it was incredibly slow, crashed frequently, or sometimes didn't work at all. (Anecdotally, I have heard people around me on flights complain about this, although I don't know if Gogo was at issue there or if in-flight Wi-Fi is simply fraught with complications.) Despite these alleged ongoing issues, the plaintiffs kept buying Gogo's Wi-Fi, perhaps in eternal hope that it would someday work properly? At any rate, this all culminated in plaintiffs' lawsuit here.
How to click on a hyperlink, yes, most Internet users know how to do; whether or not the average Internet user necessarily understands all of the legalese found at that hyperlink is another question entirely, of course, but not one addressed in this case. Possibly because the court assumes that all laypersons understand the difference between litigation and arbitration, although in my experience I am not entirely sure that's true. At any rate, the court here held this arbitration clause to be binding.
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Everyone else is talking about Donald Trump, so I guess why shouldn't we hop in, right?
This recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece introduced me to an ongoing contract dispute involving Trump that I hadn't been paying attention to, even though now I see it's been widely reported by various news outlets, including food blogs, because it involves restaurants. So if you don't normally like to read political stuff but you consider yourself a foodie, this blog entry is also for you!
It turns out that Trump is embroiled in breach of contract lawsuits with a couple of famous chefs who pulled out of commitments to put restaurants into one of Trump's new developments. According to the reports, the impetus for pulling out of the business deal was Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric during his presidential campaign. Jose Andres, himself an immigrant, was not too happy about Trump's statements. As seems to be the case with Trump, his business concerns don't necessarily track his political rhetoric when the bottom line is at issue. Faced with an immigrant refusing him rather than the other way around, Trump sued Andres for breach of contract. Andres counter-sued, alleging that Trump's many derogatory remarks about Hispanics rendered Andres's proposed Spanish restaurant "extraordinarily risky."
The chefs sought partial summary judgment, which a court recently denied, finding that material facts were still in dispute.
The crux of this lawsuit revolves around the covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Did Trump breach that covenant when he made his remarks, which would make him the one in breach of contract? Or were Trump's remarks not a breach of the covenant, either because they're not relevant to the contract or because they did not harm the prospects for success of Andres's restaurant? I don't know if the parties will continue to litigate this question but I'm curious what the result would be. In the current climate where rhetoric is frequently extremely inflammatory, could there be contract implications to such statements? How far, policy-wise, do we want the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to extend?
The case is Trump Old Post Office LLC v. Topo Atrio LLC, 2015 CA 006624 B (behind paywall), in District of Columbia Superior Court.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
In Walker v. Trailer Transit, Judge Easterbrook finds that in addition to “recover costs,” the word “reimburse” could just as easily mean to broadly “compensate” (at a profit) or “pay” even given a seemingly contradictory context.
In the case, one thousand truck drivers filed a class action lawsuit against their “gig” employer, Trailer Transit. The drivers contracted to earn 71% of Trailer Transit’s contracts with its end clients. Trailer Transit owned the trucks; the drivers drove them. Among other things, the contract between the drivers and Trailer Transit stated that
[t]he parties mutually agree that [Trailer Transit] shall pay to [Driver] … a sum equal to seventy one percent (71%) of the gross revenues derived from use of the equipment leased herein (less any insurance related surcharge and all items intended to reimburse [Trailer Transit] for special services, such as permits, escort service and other special administrative costs including, but not limited to, Item 889).
The drivers (perhaps inartfully) claimed that Trailer Transit cheated them out of earnings by labeling income “special services” whereby Trailer Transit could claim it was simply getting “reimbursed” and thus deduct certain amounts from the equation before compensating its drivers. Trailer Transit claimed that the drivers were only entitled to 71% of whatever was listed as the “gross charges” for the driving services, end of story.
How would you interpret the provision in question?
The most obvious and reasonable reading of the contract seems to me to be as follows: If, for example, Trailer Transit enters into a contract with an end client for $1,000 plus $100 for also arranging for special services in the form of, for example, an escort vehicle (e.g. a “Wide Load” car), its drivers would earn $710, Trailer transit $290 in profits ($1,000 – 71% to the drivers), but bill the end client $1,100.
But what if, hypothetically speaking, the company was to seek to maximize its profits out of the total sum of $1,100 to be billed to the end client? It could then, for example, label $600 as “special services” to be “reimbursed” to it, thus reducing the amount to be paid to the drivers to $355 (71% of ($1,100-600)). That would increase its profits from the above $290 to $645 (($500-355) plus $500 (with the escort service at $100). Do you think that the contract was meant to be interpreted that way? Judge Easterbook (yes, of “bubble wrap fame”) does. Among other things, he found that
[d]rivers are entitled to 71% of the gross charge for “use of the equipment” (that is, the Drivers’ rigs), but the contract does not provide for a share of Trailer Transit’s net profit on any other part of the bill. It would be possible to write such a contract, but the parties didn’t … [T]he Drivers do not invoke any principle of  law that turns “71% of gross on X and nothing on Y” into “71% of gross on X plus 71% of net on Y.”
Judge Easterbook also makes the unpersuasive and, in my opionion, ill-thought out example that if
Trailer Transit paid someone $1,000 to accompany an over-wide shipment and display a “WIDE LOAD” banner, and billed the shipper $1,250, then the Driver would be entitled to $887.50 for that escort service—and Trailer Transit would lose $637.50 ($1,250 less $1,000 less $887.50 equals $637.50).
This is unpersuasive as Trailer Transit would presumably not be as large and profitable as it is if it were so incompetent as to systematically incur the losses that Judge Easterbrook concocts here. Further, in his example, if the charge of $1,000 truly was for a cost of that amount, Trailer Transit would, per its own contract and intent, get to deduct that cost in full first. Nothing in the case indicates otherwise.
The meaning seems to hinge on two things: the meaning of “reimburse” and whether or not this was an example of the company taking opportunistic advantage of its contractual commitments, which the drivers had, for some reason, not argued (Easterbrook recognizes that such an argument might have changed the outcome of the case – note to our students: always consider that). As regards the meaning of “reimburse, Judge Easterbook argues
True enough, one standard meaning of “reimburse” is to recover costs. Someone who submits a voucher for expenses incurred on a business trip seeks reimbursement of actual outlays rather than a profit. But this is not the only possible meaning of “reimburse.” The word also is used to mean “compensate” or “pay.” If the contract had said “reimburse the expense of special services,” that would limit the word’s meaning to recovery of actual costs. But those italicized words aren’t in the contract.
No, but that intent seems to be clear here. Contracts are usually interpreted in accordance with both the plain meaning of the contract and the intent of the parties (not after-the-fact intent of one party).
What do you think the word “reimburse” means here? The word is defined by various sources as follows (my emphasis):
Black’s Law Dictionary:
- to pay someone an amount of money equal to an amount that person has spent;
- to pay someone back;
- to make restoration or payment of an equivalent to an amount that person has spent
- to make repayment to for expense or loss incurred;
- to pay back; refund; repay.
- pay someone back for some expense incurred;
- reimburse or compensate (someone) as for a loss
Third Circuit Court of Appeals:
"To pay back, to make restoration, to repay that expended; to indemnify, or make whole." United States v. Konrad, 730 F.3d 343, 353 ( 3d Cir. 2013).
To me, all these sources indicate that the word means what we probably all think it means: money back for an outlay. But apparently, that is not the case in the Seventh Circuit.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
This seems like it should be obvious but a recent case out of Indiana, Pinnacle Properties Development Group, LLC v. Gales, Court of Appeals Case No. 10A01-1512-SC-2271, was still being fought at the appellate court phase.
Gales rented an apartment from Pinnacle. She was told that she could not view the apartment until the day of her move-in. On the date of the move-in, Gales signed the lease and was then shown the apartment. At that point, Gales realized that the apartment had a shattered sliding door, a toilet that flooded and soaked the carpet, and no electricity (and apparently could not be made to get electricity because the meter had been removed). Gales told the leasing agent that the apartment was unacceptable and, as there was no other apartment of that floor plan available and as there was going to be a delay of at least several days before the apartment could be inhabited, she wanted the lease canceled and her money back.
Pinnacle's main argument was that Gales signed the lease, it was binding, and so Gales shouldn't be let out of it. The court, however, disagreed. Gales signed the lease, it found, with the understanding that she would received a habitable apartment. Since she didn't receive that habitable apartment, the lease was unenforceable, and she was entitled to her money back.
This seems like it should be a straightforward case. I can't imagine why it would be worth the money to continue fighting this.
Monday, June 27, 2016
As technology continues to evolve, so does the law, and a recent case out of Massachusetts, St. John's Holdings, LLC v. Two Electronics, LLC, MISC 16-000090, proves it. Addressing what the court termed a "novel" question in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court concluded that the text messages at issue in the case constituted writings for statutes of frauds purposes.
I have often thought that we communicate much more in writing these days than people did, say, twenty years ago. I know that it is now much more common for me to text the people I want to speak with than actually call them to speak orally. It will be interesting to see how the statute of frauds continues to develop.
(Thanks to Ben Cooper for sending this case my way!)
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Looking for an interesting new case on the statute of frauds, breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and constructive trust by a son against his father? Here’s one for you:
It is California. The year is 1994. Father Sardul allegedly promises son Paul that if he if he “stayed in school, was a good son, continued to work on the [family] ranches, and married an Indian girl, i.e., a Sikh girl, Sardul and [mother] Jitendra would take care of him financially.”
According to the court, this happened next: “In 1996, Sardul and Jitendra were looking for a wife for Paul. The family traveled to India for this purpose. While in India they conducted numerous interviews of the parents of potential brides. In the Sikh culture, the boy’s parents take responsibility for finding a suitable wife. If both sets of parents think a match looks promising, the boy and girl spend some time alone together. Thereafter, if the boy and girl are interested, the match will be pursued. Paul’s family and Rajneet’s family first met on February 21, 1996 and Paul and Rajneet were married on March 16, 1996.”
The couple lived in one of the family’s ranch houses without ever paying rent, never making a mortgage, and with father Sardul making certain other payments for the young couple. Paul did, however, work on the family grape ranches until 1999. At that time, he got a full-time job for other employers.
In 2002, grape growers in California encountered hard times financially. Sardul tells Paul that he (Sardul) needed to sell the ranch on which Paul and his wife lived as they risked otherwise being foreclosed on both on the ranch in question as well as others. One of the family’s properties had a “little bit of equity” on it. Paul and his wife sign a deed for that property. The couple later stated that the father had promised “to give them” the ranch on which they previously lived when “things got better financially.” The father never did so, but instead offered the couple a 99-year lease on the property in 2012. Paul subsequently filed suit, claiming breach of three separate contracts: 1) To be a good son and stay in school, work on the ranches, and marry an Indian girl, 2) to take care of his father, and 3) the transfer of the above-mentioned ranch.
The court concluded that it did not matter how many contracts were alleged because it was questionable whether “any contract was formed at any time.” The alleged promises to “be a good son and stay in school” were vague, the promise “to continue to work on the ranches” was unsupported by the evidence, and the “marry an Indian girl” term was illegal as a restraint on marriage. The alleged oral promise to transfer a ranch violated the statute of frauds.
Paul and his wife also argued equitable estoppel and that, accordingly, the contract was not barred by the statute of frauds. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s finding that neither Paul nor his wife Rajneet detrimentally relied on the alleged contract to transfer the ranch to them or suffered unconscionable injury. The court concluded that Paul did not forbear all other employment opportunities to work on the ranches. Rather, Paul began working full time for other employers in 1999 and was permitted to live rent free on the Elkhorn Ranch until 2012. The court noted that in 2012, Paul and wife Rajneet were able to purchase a $650,000 house and had saved enough money to make a $200,000 down payment.
But wait!! What about the wife? Did she not have any arguments? You bet: Rajneet appeared to claim unconscionable injury or detrimental reliance based on marrying Paul and moving to the United States in part because of Sardul's promise that they would be given a ranch. The court concluded that Rajneet did not prove her claims noting that Rajneet was still married to Paul, they both were employed with good jobs, and they were able to purchase a home after living rent free for many years.
Finally, Paul and Rajneet claimed that they partially performed when they bought the one ranch from the father in reliance on Sardul's promise to transfer another to them in exchange. Part performance of an oral agreement for the transfer of an interest in real property may, under certain circumstances, except the agreement from the statute of frauds. (Sutton v. Warner (1993) 12 Cal.App.4th 415, 422.) However, the trial court found that no Sardul’s testimony that no such promise was ever made to be credible. The appellate court supported this as issues of credibility are for the trial courts to decide.
Talk about a family relationship gone sour, and then only over money. What a shame!
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The Olympics are almost here, and as we all know, they're big business: lots of television ratings, lots of advertising, lots of endorsements.
Today the District of Oregon is hearing an argument on a preliminary injunction in a contract case with Olympic implications (or an Olympic case with contract implications), Nike USA, Inc. v. Berian, Docket No. 3:16-cv-00743 (behind paywall).
The dispute, which has been widely reported online, is based on Nike's endorsement contract with Boris Berian, a track and field competitor with Olympic hopes. The contract, according to the complaint, gave Nike the right to match any offers made to Berian during a particular period of time. During that time, Berian received an endorsement offer from New Balance. Nike claims in its complaint to have matched the offer, and that Berian breached his contract with Nike when he refused to continue his relationship with Nike.
Berian kept racing. And kept winning. While wearing New Balance gear. So Nike, to keep Berian from furthering his relationship with Nike's competitor New Balance, sued him, serving him with the lawsuit during a big track meet.
Nike's allegations have been countered by Berian, who claims that New Balance's offer to him did not contain a number of restrictions that Nike's offer did contain. However, Nike has countered that by arguing that Berian did not make that clear to Nike and that Nike would have dropped its restrictions if necessary. (Nike seems to have just assumed there had to be restrictions and that any statement otherwise couldn't possibly be true.)
Endorsements are big money, of course. The Nike and New Balance offers are $125,000 for the year. While he's embroiled in the legal dispute, Berian's agent asked for donations to Berian's legal fund.
The judge has already approved a TRO in the case, prohibiting Berian from racing with any equipment other than Nike's. The hearing for the preliminary injunction is today.
In Strumlauf et al. v. Starbucks Corp., No. 16-01306, a federal district court judge based in San Francisco just ruled that a class action lawsuit against Starbucks.The complaint alleges breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and violations of California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act, the California Unfair Competition Law, and the California False Advertising Law.
The company allegedly overcharged its customers by “systematically serving lattes that are 25% too small” in order to save milk. Baristas were allegedly required to use pitchers for heating milk with etched “fill to” lines that are too low. Further, they were told to leave ¼ inch of free space in drink cups. Said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson: "This is not a case where the alleged deception is simply implausible as a matter of law. The court finds it probable that a significant portion of the latte-consuming public could believe that a 'Grande' contains 16 ounces of fluid." Starbucks’ cups for “tall,” “grande,” and “venti” lattes are designed to hold exactly 12, 16 and 20 ounces.
Starbucks so far counters that “if a customer is not satisfied with how a beverage is prepared, we will gladly remake it.” Right, but how many customers would really complain that their drink is .25 inch (6 mm) too small?... And does it really matter? Much of what one pays for with a Starbucks drinks is, arguably, the knowledge of what the retail outlets offer, the ambience, convenience, “free” wifi, etc. Having said that, I am certainly not one to promote consumer fraud and recognize that little by little, the alleged milk-saving scheme could, of course, bring even more money into the coffers of already highly profitable Starbucks.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
I've seen a few cases now come across with people trying to sue their insurance companies after using the appraisal process in their policies to resolve a dispute, so I thought I'd blog about one of them. This one is Clark v. Pekin Insurance Co., Case No. 3:15CV2272 (behind paywall), out of the Northern District of Ohio.
The fact patterns for all these cases is basically the same: Plaintiff makes a claim under an insurance policy. The insurance policy pays less than the plaintiff desires. Plaintiff utilizes the appraisal process found in the insurance policy, in which each side chooses an appraiser and, if they can't agree, an independent umpire then makes a finding. Plaintiff wins the appraisal process and the insurance company promptly pays plaintiff the extra money owed.
However, plaintiff is not pleased--probably because of having had to go through a whole song-and-dance to get the money--and sues anyway. That's what happened in this case.
Breach of contract claims are tricky after the appraisal process has been invoked. Most insurance policies prohibit the insured from recovering damages beyond that awarded through the appraisal process, as the policy did here. Because Clark received what the umpire stated she was entitled to, exactly as required under the policy, the court found there was no breach of the contract.
However, the appraisal process doesn't bar tort claims, and Clark was still alleging that the insurance company had acted in bad faith toward her insurance claim. However, the court found that the insurance company had behaved in a timely fashion and that disagreement over the amount to be paid didn't constitute bad faith on its own, and there was no other evidence on the question, so Clark lost that claim as well. So the appraisal process might still leave you with tort claims, but they would be challenging to establish, I think.
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.