ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

No Substitution of Arbitrators by Courts when One Institution Becomes Legally Unavailable

There is split authority on the issue of whether courts can appoint a substitute for an arbitral institution that becomes unavailable after the execution of an arbitration agreement. In the Second Circuit, no such substitution is possible.

In the case, Deborah Moss applied for three payday loans through SFS, an online lender. SFS relied on First Premier Bank serving as the “middleman” in order to debit Moss’ account. The loan application documents with SPS included an arbitration clause listing the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”) as the arbitral institution.

After receiving the three loans, Moss filed a class action suit against First Premier Bank and Bay Cities Bank alleging violations under the RICO Act by “facilitate[ing] high-interest payday loans that have been outlawed in some states.” The banks moved to compel arbitration arguing they were entitled to enforce the terms that Moss agreed to when she applied for the loans. The district court agreed and granted the motion.

Moss then sent a letter to the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”) indicating her intent to proceed with arbitration. NAF refused the case stating “it was unable to accept Moss’s dispute pursuant to a consent judgment” it had entered into with the Minnesota Attorney General pursuant to which NAF would no longer accept consumer arbitrations such as Moss’s.

Moss then tried to vacate the district court’s motion to compel arbitration, arguing that she could not arbitrate her claims at all since NAF declined her case. The district court granted this motion, finding that the court could not appoint a substitute arbitrator because the parties had specifically designated NAF and because there was no “lapse in time in the naming of the arbitrator or … some other mechanical breakdown in the arbitrator selection process” under Section 5 of the FAA. The banks appealed, seeking to have the appellate court compel Moss to arbitrate before a different arbitrator.

The Second Circuit found that because the parties had designated an “exclusive arbitral forum, the district court cannot circumvent the intent of the parties nor can it appoint a substitute arbitrator.” Therefore, the Second Circuit held that the district court property declined to compel Moss to arbitrate in a “forum to which she did not agree.”

The case is Moss v. First Premier Bank, 15-2513 (2d Cir. 2016).

January 25, 2017 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Equitable Estoppel Saves Statute of Frauds Issue in an Agreement Between Father and Daughter

This is a point I teach in class and I was happy to see it illustrated in a recent case out of Connecticut, Fitzgerald Management, LLC v. Fitzgerald, FBTCV166056848S (behind paywall). In the case, the defendant alleged that her father had promised multiple times to give her title to her residence if she took care of her grandmother and maintained other properties. Unfortunately, this alleged agreement between the defendant and her father was entirely oral and never committed to paper, in contravention of the statute of frauds admonition that contracts regarding real estate be in writing. 

Whenever I teach equitable estoppel in connection with the statute of frauds, I note that one of the situations where you see it come up most often is in family situations, where people might not think to enter into formal written contracts or, if they think about it, might be reluctant to insist upon it because it might be perceived as implying a lack of trust. This situation, about an agreement between a father and a daughter, fits that mold. The daughter alleged that, in reliance on her father's promise, she performed substantial improvements on the property at issue. The court found that this reliance on the daughter's part was reasonable. The daughter took care of her grandmother and maintained the requested properties, thus fulfilling her part of the bargain. At this stage of the litigation, the court found that this could entitle the daughter to equitable estoppel preventing the invocation of the statute of frauds against the agreement with her father. 

January 25, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Misunderstanding a Question Won't Save You If the Question Wasn't Ambiguous

A recent case out of the Middle District of Georgia, Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Queen, Case No. 3:15-CV-123 (CDL) (behind paywall), serves as an example of a case where the insured claimed the insurance policy at issue was ambiguous and the court disagreed.

In the case, Queen, the insured, owned a home with several outbuildings. While Queen's home and outbuildings were on an eight-acre parcel of land, Queen answered "no" to the question on the Great Lakes homeowners' insurance policy that asked if the property to be insured was on more than five acres. When one of Queen's outbuildings was destroyed in a fire, he sought to recover under the insurance policy. Great Lakes, however, upon learning that Queen's parcel of land encompassed eight acres, denied coverage, alleging that it would not have issued the policy had Queen not misrepresented the size of the parcel of the land. 

Queen argued that he had not made a misrepresentation on the insurance application. He argued that, while the parcel of land he owned totaled eight acres, it had been divided into four tracts, each of which was less than five acres. Queen's home and outbuildings were located on a particular "tract" of the larger parcel that was smaller than five acres, and so Queen had answered "no" to the question. 

The court conceded that Queen may have misunderstood the question on the insurance policy, but asserted that the question was nevertheless not ambiguous. The question asked if "the property" to be insured was situated on more than five acres. In this case, Queen provided an address as "the property" to be insured, and the amount of property associated with that address was eight acres, as even Queen conceded. Queen may have subjectively intended only to insure a particular tract of land inside that parcel, and may have had no intention to mislead Great Lakes, but that didn't change the court's conclusion that it was unambiguous--and in fact undisputed--that the property to be insured--the address provided to Great Lakes by Queen--was situated on more than five acres.

Queen next tried to argue that his misrepresentation was not material. Great Lakes submitted an affidavit that it would not have insured the property had it known that it was situated on more than five acres. The court questioned the business justification for this, asserting that the affidavit provided no explanation for how Great Lakes's risk would have increased, given that Queen's house and outbuildings sat on less than five acres. However, Queen provided no evidence rebutting Great Lakes's affidavit. Without any contrary evidence, the court had no choice but to accept Great Lakes's affidavit at face value and conclude that there was no genuine fact dispute on the question of the materiality of Queen's misrepresentation.

In the end, the court found that Great Lakes was entitled to rescind the insurance policy and granted Great Lakes summary judgment. You get the feeling that the court felt badly for Queen but also felt that it could not reach any other conclusion. 

January 24, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Defendant's "Brain Fog" May Have Made Him Incompetent to Enter into a Contract

I don't come across a lot of cases revolving around competence, but here's a recent one out of New York, Gray v. Jung, No. 62996 (behind paywall). The case, at the summary judgment stage, revolves around plaintiff's seeking of specific performance on a real estate contract. The court found that the plaintiff met his burden regarding the appropriateness of specific performance as a remedy, but the defendant raised sufficient evidence of lack of competency to defeat the plaintiff's motion. The defendant submitted "a considerable amount of medical records" indicating that he suffered from "brain fog" that prevented him from fully understanding the real estate contract at issue. Plaintiff had his own evidence that the defendant was indeed competent to enter into the contract and that his subsequent regret at entering into the contract shouldn't render it unenforceable. However, the court found that there was a genuine dispute of material fact on the question of the defendant's competence that defeated summary judgment. 

January 19, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reminder: Contracts Mean What They Say. And External Grants Aren't Non-Tenure Track Positions

Frequently when I teach Contracts I find myself telling the students to just put in the contract exactly what they want it to say, because so often I feel like cases revolve around parties saying, "I know what it said, but I thought that meant something else entirely." Although, often, of course, these might be ex post facto proclamations when a situation turns out to not be exactly what the party thought it was going to be. 

A recent case out of Maryland, Norman v. Morgan State University, No. 1926 September Term 2015 (behind paywall), is another illustration of a party claiming that a contract means what a court finds it does not mean. In that case, Norman had sued Morgan State after he was denied tenure there. The parties entered into a settlement agreement under which Norman was permitted to apply for "any non-tenure track position at [Morgan State] for which he was qualified." The current lawsuit is the result of Norman's allegation that Morgan State prevented him from applying for an external research grant that that would have funded a future position at the school for him. 

The court, however, found that the contract clearly stated that Norman could apply for "any non-tenure track position." It said nothing about external grants and external grants are not non-tenure track positions. Therefore the settlement agreement did not require Morgan State to permit Norman to seek the external grant. Norman tried to argue that he would not have agreed to the settlement agreement had he known it allowed Morgan State to block applications for external grants, but the court dismissed that argument based on the plain and unambiguous language of the contract. 

January 13, 2017 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

City Can't Delegate Duties as Owner of Apartment Units

If you're looking for an example of duties unable to be delegated, a recent case out of the Middle District of Florida, Floyd v. City of Sanibel, Case No. 2:15-cv-00795-SPC-CM, has one for you. In the case, the Floyds live in a housing unit owned by the City of Sanibel. The City claimed to have delegated its housing duties to Community Housing & Resources ("CHR"), with whom the Floyds entered into a lease that named CHR as its landlord. However, the City was heavily involved with both funding CHR and making decisions on everyday operations for CHR's properties, undermining the assertion that it wasn't involved with the contract at issue. Even without that involvement, though, Florida law dictates that property owners cannot delegate their duties to provide reasonably safe premises by hiring another entity to operate and maintain the property. Therefore, the court allowed the Floyds' claims against the City to stand, holding the City to the lease as CHR's principal. 

January 11, 2017 in Government Contracting, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Non-Compete Earns a Preliminary Injunction in Case Involving a Community Publication

I started reading this case because the first party's name was "Our Town" and I have fondness for that play...but it turned out to be a really interesting dispute over a non-compete provision that resulted in a preliminary injunction.

The plaintiff in the case out of Pennsylvania, Our Town v. Rousseau, No. 3:16-CV-2484 (behind paywall), operates a community publication called "Our Town." The defendants in the case entered into a contract to franchise the "Our Town" brand in a county in New Jersey. The franchise contract contained a non-compete provision prohibiting the defendants from operating any similar business within fifty miles of the franchise location or other "Our Town" publications for a period of three years. 

After a series of political editorials, the defendants decided to terminate the franchise relationship, alleging that "Our Town" was no longer viable in the franchise location and they wished to launch a more "family friendly publication." On the day that defendants notified the plaintiff they were terminating the agreement, the plaintiff learned that the defendants were operating a similar publication called "Home Town" in the franchise location. The plaintiff, alleging that this was a violation of the non-compete, sought a preliminary injunction. 

The court granted the injunction. The court found that the plaintiff was likely to succeed on the merits of the case. The parties behaved as if they were bound by the franchise agreement, and the non-compete in the agreement was enforceable. The court found it was supported by valid consideration, that fifty miles has been found to be a reasonable geographic restriction, and that three years have been found to be a reasonable time period. Plus, the court found that the non-compete protected the plaintiff's legitimate business interests and so the plaintiff would be irreparably harmed without the injunction. 

The defendants tried to argue that the injunction would harm them because they would be unable to make a living if the non-compete was enforced. The court noted, however, that this harm was of the defendants' own making. 

January 4, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reminder: Moral Obligations Do Not Equal Legal Obligations

A recent case out of Arkansas, Baxter v. Wing, No. CV-16-21 (behind paywall), has a nice discussion of the difference between moral obligation and legal obligation. In the case, a man named one of his four stepchildren, Susannah, as the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy and asked her to share it with her three siblings.

Nobody disputed that it was the deceased man's wish that Susannah share the money with her siblings. The problem, though, was that her obligation to comply with his wishes was merely moral, not legal, and the court could do nothing to force her to comply with it. The deceased man gave Susannah instructions, but he did not make her any promise, nor did Susannah make any promise in exchange. There was no deal along the lines of, "I promise to make you the sole beneficiary if you promise in exchange to share the proceeds with your siblings." The deceased man gave Susannah instructions, which did not rise to the level of an enforceable contract. 

Cases like this are valuable when you're teaching consideration but they always make me sad, because consideration cases so frequently seem to be about families feuding on a level so rancorous that they turn to the court system. Tough cases to get through. 

December 15, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 12, 2016

In Which Messy Handwriting Renders a Contract Ambiguous

Competition swimming pool block

If you've ever been in charge of taking care of a swimming pool, you know that it has a lot of moving parts and requires a working knowledge of chemistry and an adroitness at mathematics that is often lacked by those who become lawyers.* So I started reading this case because the first sentence told me it was about a swimming pool, but it's an interesting and fairly straightforward situation of contract ambiguity being resolved by extrinsic evidence. If you're looking for a recent case for your students to see this in action, this one might be it. 

The case is Horizon Pools & Landscapes, Inc. v. Sucarichi, No. 01-15-01079-CV, out of Texas. Sucarichi entered into a contract with Horizon to install a swimming pool and spa. The dispute centered around the number of lights Horizon was supposed to install. Sucarichi alleged that Horizon was supposed to install three lights total: two in the swimming pool and one in the spa. Horizon maintained that it was supposed to install two lights total: one in the swimming pool and one in the spa. 

The contract was ambiguous on this point. The contract was divided into many different sections. The relevant ones were as follows: 

  • A section reading "Lights(s)" [sic] with the handwritten notation "(2) L.E.D."
  • A section reading "Pool Light" with a handwritten notation that was illegible
  • A section concerning the spa reading "Light 100 watt." 

The court found that it was equally plausible that the contract here required three lights total, with the first general light section referring to two in the swimming pool and the spa section referring to one, or that the contract required two lights total, with the first general light section giving just the total of lights to be installed between the swimming pool and the spa. The illegibility of the "Pool Light" section made this question impossible to resolve without looking to extrinsic evidence. 

Horizon admitted that its salesman filled out the contract (including the illegible notation). Horizon also did not contest that its salesman told Sucarichi he needed to have two lights installed in his swimming pool. Sucarichi testified that he thought the contract provided for two lights in the swimming pool, based on the Horizon salesman's recommendation, and one light in the spa, for three total. He wrote as much in a letter to Horizon prior to the beginning of the court case, when he was trying to get Horizon to add the second light. Therefore, the court thought there was sufficient proof that the parties had agreed to install a total of three lights, with two in the swimming pool and one in the spa. 

One of the lessons to take away: Make sure your contracts are legible! 

*gross overgeneralization based on me and my frequent intense confusion when I try to take care of our family swimming pool. My talents lie elsewhere!

December 12, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Prince's Complicated Legal Legacy Continues

When the legendary musician Prince died suddenly, he left behind an enormous volume of music and no will. The courts have already been dealing with how to distribute Prince's assets to a complicated and squabbling cadre of potential heirs. The rights to all of his music have raised their own complicated issues that have most recently manifested themselves in a lawsuit in the District of Minnesota, NPG Records, Inc. v. Roc Nation LLC, Case No. 16-cv-03909

The case revolves around Roc Nation's streaming of Prince's music on its streaming service Tidal, and whether or not it had the contractual rights to do so. Roc Nation alleges yes, based on what it terms both written and oral agreements that it struck with Prince before his death. Commentators have tried to draw conclusions about these agreements based on Prince's statements and other behavior before his death. NPG, meanwhile, claims that there was a single contract between Prince and Roc Nation and that it only allowed Roc Nation to stream a very limited number of songs, which Roc Nation has now violated in streaming a much wider variety of Prince's song catalog. The case has been reported on in multiple places, including here and here and here and here.

If this case progresses, it seems like it's going to require an untangling of written contracts between the parties, whatever oral statements Prince will allege to have been made, and the interaction between the two. It adds an interesting layer to consider that Prince was notorious for fighting for artists' rights to their music and had a fraught relationship with online streaming of music. He does seem to have favored Tidal above the other Internet services. In any case, although NPG claims that there was never any such license and Tidal has been infringing the songs' copyright since it began streaming them, NPG has already proactively sought to cancel any license that Prince may have granted to Roc Nation to stream the music in question. 

(I'd post something Prince-related from YouTube, but Prince didn't like his music to be on YouTube. And, in fact, Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., the recent case that wended its way through the Ninth Circuit and is currently on petition to the Supreme Court, involves a Prince song in a YouTube video.)

December 7, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Music, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Considering Parol Evidence to Decide If There Was Ever a Contract

One of the things I find students struggle with when it comes to parol evidence is determining for what purpose they are considering the evidence. A recent case out of Maryland, Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners v. Community Homes Housing, Inc., No. 0642 September Term 2015 (behind paywall), has a nice discussion on this. 

In the case, the parties both signed a document that was called "Agreement to Redevelop and Preserve Affordable Housing." The contract contained an integration clause. Both parties also admitted later that they had signed the document because it was required to obtain financing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"), which the parties had both desired. HUD, however, refused to guarantee any financing for the project. Community Homes then took the position that there was no contract with Wiencek because the contract was not to take effect unless HUD financing was received. Wiencek disagreed and sued Community Homes for breach of contract.

The trial court considered parol evidence to determine whether the contract between the parties was enforceable. Wiencek argued this was improper because of the contract's integration clause. But Community Homes noted that the parol evidence was not being considered to add a term to the contract; rather,  it was being considered to determine if the contract even existed in the first place, and therefore was permissible. The court agreed with Community Homes that considering parol evidence was perfectly acceptable in this situation. The court noted that it could not enforce the contract's integration clause when what it was trying to determine was whether the contract containing the integration clause even existed. 

The parties here had agreed orally that the contract would not come into effect unless HUD guaranteed financing. Although there was nothing in the contract about that, the parol evidence admitted as to the intent of the parties was clear. The contract was only signed in order to try to obtain the HUD financing; once that objective had failed, the parties did not intend the contract to be enforceable any longer. 

Wiencek tried to make an argument that the law should have a policy to deter "fictitious" contracts. In effect, Wiencek claimed that the court was allowing the parties to "pretend" to have entered into a contract to try to "trick" HUD into providing financing, with no intention of actually entering into a contract with each other. The court, however, did not see any reason to enforce the contract between the parties in this circumstance. It was the court's view that, if HUD felt it had been harmed by the representation that there had been a contract between the parties (even though the court did not decide one way or the other whether that representation was incorrect), HUD should seek a remedy from the court for the harm, not Wiencek. 

December 5, 2016 in Government Contracting, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Settlement Agreement That's Too Vague Doesn't Settle Much At All

I am always saying to my students that if they care about something, they should put it in their contract, and they should be specific about what it is they want. I think sometimes people might think there's something to gain strategically by being vague, but introducing ambiguity into a contract can work out very poorly (and also takes control out of the hands of the parties). A recent case out of Florida, Boardwalk at Daytona Development, LLC v. Paspalakis, Case No. 5D15-1944, is a case where the court, faced with an ambiguous description of the land at issue in a contract, just threw up its hands in frustration. 

The dispute between these two parties has been long and contentious. According to this article, it's dragged on for over a decade. It was originally rooted in an eminent domain proceeding in which Boardwalk at Daytona ("BDD")'s predecessor obtained property belonging to Paspalakis and the other appellees. The appellees contested BDD's acquisition of their land and eventually that lawsuit was settled. The settlement agreement provided the appellees with an option to purchase and operate 7500 square feet of retail space on the Daytona Boardwalk. The agreement contained no legal description or street address for the property at issue. The agreement said that the land would: (1) be adjacent to another particular business; (2) have a minimum of 50 boardwalk frontage feet; and (3) have sufficient land to build a 7500-square-foot, one-story building. Unfortunately for the appellees, there were at least three parcels of land that met this description, and they ranged drastically in size from around 7700 square feet to over 17,000 square feet. 

The problem with the description of the land in the settlement agreement was exposed when the appellees tried to operate their option. BDD offered a piece of property that met all three criteria set forth in the settlement agreement. However, the property required unusual structural design features that troubled the appellees and also came with a negative easement for light, air, and unobstructed view that benefitted the BDD property next door. The appellees therefore objected to this plot of land and asked for another one. 

BDD sought a declaratory judgment that the plot of land it proposed was sufficient under the settlement agreement and that it did not have to provide another plot of land. The appellees, in response, sought specific performance that BDD provide  a plot of land fitting the description in the settlement agreement, without the restrictions of the land BDD had offered. In the face of the counterclaim, BDD shifted stance and argued that the settlement agreement was too ambiguous to be enforced. 

The trial court sided with the appellees and ordered BDD to convey the largest possible plot of land to the appellees. BDD appealed, and this court agreed with BDD. The court noted that a description of the land in question is usually considered an essential part of any land purchase agreement, and that without any such description there are serious doubts whether the parties reached a meeting of the minds. The description of the land in the settlement agreement here was ambiguous. The trial court correctly examined parol evidence to try to resolve the ambiguity, but it didn't help. The contract terms at issue here simply could have been fulfilled by any of three very different parcels of land.  To this court, there was no contractual way to choose between them and no parol evidence that shed light on which parcel of land the parties had in mind. Indeed, the court was skeptical the parties ever really agreed on which parcel of land would be conveyed, and so the parties never reached a meeting of the minds that could be enforced. Therefore, the court reversed the order of specific performance and entered judgment for BDD instead. 

A bitter pill here for the appellees, who doubtless thought that they were getting something of value in the settlement agreement they struck and end up with nothing to show for it. But it does seem like there was considerable confusion about which land was affected by the situation here. I guess it's a lesson to all of us: try to be as specific as possible. I tell my students drafting contracts is frequently like playing a game of what-if with yourself. What if BDD offers this parcel of land instead of that parcel of land? If the answer to that question is that you would prefer one parcel of land over the other, best to be specific in the contract. 

November 30, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Rights of First Refusal to License Mineral Rights and Unconscionability

If you are looking for a case with a nice analysis of procedural and substantive unconscionability, a recent case out of Ohio, Christ Holdings, LLC v. Schleappi, Case No. 15 NO 0427, has one. 

The case involved a right of first refusal that the defendants claimed was unconscionable. The trial court agreed with the defendants, but this court reversed the finding. The court started by looking at procedural unconscionability and noting that it requires consideration of "age, education, intelligence,  business acumen and experience," etc. The court then presented in some amount of detail the education and employment history of both parties, concluding that their educational level is roughly equivalent but that the plaintiff did have more business acumen and experience than the defendant. 

However, importantly for this decision, the court noted that the parties actually had a history of conducting real estate transactions between them without the aid of any attorneys, negotiating several times over the course of several years. To the court, this was an indication that both parties were knowledgeable in the particular type of real estate transaction at issue here, even if the plaintiff had more general business acumen. 

The trial court had also been very concerned about the fact that the defendant had been operating under time constraints. But this court noted that the time constraints were not the plaintiff's fault: he gave no indication that he wouldn't have given her time to read the contract over if she had requested it (which she did not). 

After finding no procedural unconscionability, the court then turned to substantive unconscionability. The trial court had found substantive unconscionability for a number of reasons, most notably, though, because this right of first refusal involved the licensing of mineral rights. The trial court asserted that rights of first refusal should be limited to real estate purchases, not to the leasing or licensing of real estate as was at issue here. The trial court seemed to think that rights of first refusal to license were unconscionable in and of themselves, without further inquiry into their terms. This court, however, said that there was no reason to so narrowly restrict the ability of the parties' to use rights of first refusal in their agreements. It found the right of first refusal to be enforceable and remanded for further proceedings. 

 

November 28, 2016 in Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Here's a Nice Anticipatory Repudiation Case for the Next Time You Teach That

A recent case out of West Virginia, Stiles Family Limited Partnership v. Riggs and Stiles, Inc., No. 16-0220, does a nice job analyzing the fact that an anticipatory breach must be unequivocal. The fairly straightforward facts could be a useful way of helping to illustrate this topic the next time you teach it. 

The parties (all members of the same family) entered into a lease under which Riggs and Stiles agreed to farm the property at issue. The lease has been in effect since 2006 without dispute until 2013, when Riggs and Stiles allowed a production company to file an application for a permit to hold a music festival on the farm property. When Stiles Family Limited Partnership learned of the application, they objected; the following month, when they failed to convince the Partnership to allow them to hold the music festival, Riggs and Stiles withdrew the application, and no music festival was ever held on the property. However, the Partnership tried to terminate the lease, arguing that Riggs and Stiles had anticipatorily repudiated the lease when it permitted the filing of the application.  The Partnership claimed that this permission by Riggs and Stiles demonstrated an unequivocal intent on their part to use the land for something other than farming, in violation of the terms of the lease, and it made sense to treat the lease as breached as the moment of application rather than having to wait for the music festival to actually take place.  

The court disagreed, however. It was undisputed that Riggs and Stiles had at all times farmed on the land, never stopping and continuing to farm on the land even after the filing of the application. The application alone was not a breach of the promise to use the land only for farming, as it was undisputed that it was all Riggs and Stiles ever did. And continuing to farm the land was not consistent with an unequivocal repudiation of the lease, because it was actually what Riggs and Stiles was required to do under the lease. Performing consistent with the lease couldn't be considered an unequivocal repudiation of the lease. Moreover, when the Partnership informed Riggs and Stiles that it didn't agree to the music festival being held on the land, Riggs and Stiles withdrew the application for the permit. Rather than being an unequivocal intent to breach the contract, that displayed equivocation on the part of Riggs and Stiles: they sought to take actions to not breach the contract.  

November 23, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Remember: Things That Are "Routine" to Lawyers Can Be Confusing to Pro Se Plaintiffs

A recent case out of the Eastern District of Michigan, Bucciarelli v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, No. 15-13900, is an illustration of the confusion that can sometimes occur when two parties talk past each other and never really understand each other. The result is that there is no enforceable contract between these parties who never seem to be on the same page.

This is a mortgage foreclosure case in which settlement was attempted but complicated by the fact that there was a lawyer on one side and a pro se plaintiff on the other and they never seemed to be speaking the same language. The defendant's counsel tried to settle the case by by proposing a "routine" settlement to the plaintiff of $500. The plaintiff responded to the proposal by calling the defendant's counsel leaving the following message:

I don't know where it stands but I got it couple days ago regarding the settlement offer of $500 from Countrywide. We can go ahead and do that. So if you wanna give me a call back. My number is []. I do have a lot of mistakes in the Countrywide financial [unclear]. Of those funds that were applied and misapplied to my account but my main focus is Wells Fargo who purchased the loans from Countrywide after Countrywide made some substantial mistakes. Give me a call back. Mary. Thanks bye.

The defendant focused on the "We can go ahead and do that," but the court pointed out that the plaintiff went on after that statement to make allegations regarding Countrywide's mistaken behavior toward her. The court characterized this voicemail as "ambiguous as to her acceptance of all the proposed terms" of the settlement agreement, especially considering that, once the plaintiff received an actual draft of the entire settlement agreement, she refused to execute it. When the defendant moved to enforce the settlement agreement on the basis of the voice message (and subsequent other telephone calls whose contents seem to be disputed), the plaintiff countered that there was no agreement to settle the case. 

In this situation, the court said that it did not feel that the parties had ever agreed on all of the material terms of the settlement. There was no mutual understanding between the parties. The court concluded that each party "heard only what it wanted to hear," and pushed back on defendant's characterization of the settlement offer as "routine": "[I]t must be remembered that Ms. Bucciarelli is appearing pro se, and therefore it is likely that nothing in this litigation is 'routine' to her." 

November 16, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 14, 2016

If You're Going to Plead Promissory Estoppel, Be Specific!

I just wrote up a promissory estoppel case last week, and here's another one out of Connecticut, Sorrentino v. Rizza, Docket Number CV156013599 (behind paywall). In this case, the plaintiff failed to allege specific enough statements to form the foundation of her promissory estoppel claim. The case is a dispute over a promise of employment, and the relevant part of the complaint alleged that the defendant had promised the plaintiff "on several occasions" that she would be given "a similar position" with the defendant's company as the plaintiff already held in another company, with "a salary plus a percentage of any advertisement revenue she generated." 

This was, in the court's view, "nebulous at best." No specific dates or locations were given for the promises in question, there was no explanation of the salary that was discussed, and there were no details about what percentage of revenues the plaintiff had been promised. The plaintiff's allegations were about indefinite statements that seemed to lack any material terms. The court said those could not be construed as any "clear and definite promise" that could the plaintiff could reasonably have relied on. 

So if you think you have a promissory estoppel claim, the lesson from this case is to make sure you are very specific in relaying to the court exactly what was said and when. 

November 14, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Here's a Nice Case to Use to Review Contract Formation, Conditions Precedent, and Promissory Estoppel

As we reach the end of the semester, I keep trying to remind my students of what we learned at the beginning of the semester, which was only a few weeks ago but feels like several lifetimes ago. As we turn our attention to our last topic of third-party rights, I don't want the students to forget the basics of contract formation. I want them to realize that contracts law builds on itself and is self-referential and so they can't just forget about the stuff that came first. 

Anyway, I say all of that to lead into this nice recent case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Killian v. Ricchetti, Civil Action No. 16-2874, that deals with issues of contract formation, and then turns to promissory estoppel. Exactly as I keep trying to remind my students to do! So I couldn't resist writing this case up for the blog. It serves as a nice review of a lot of what we've learned and I think I may actually use it in class. 

The alleged contract was a series of e-mails exchanged between two friends. The first e-mail set out a bunch of terms and ended with "there are more little details...it's a start." The response to the e-mail added a few additional terms. This, the court found, did not form a contract, because the response was not an acceptance but rather a counteroffer, due to the fact that it added terms. There was never any reply to that particular e-mail, so the counteroffer was never accepted. 

After these initial e-mails, there were further e-mails between the two regarding the real estate transactions at the heart of the alleged agreement. Those e-mails were enough to form a contract as follows: The first e-mail read, "[W]hen the Pine [Street property] is clear title we form an LLC with an equal partnership of 50% . . . ." with some further details given. The reply to the e-mail was "OF COURSE," which constituted an acceptance. However, there was a condition precedent to this contract: that the parties receive clear title on the Pine Street property in question. Due to no fault of the parties themselves, they never received this clear title, so the condition precedent never occurred, so no duties to perform under the contract ever arose. 

The court then turns to the promissory estoppel question, though. The court found here there were genuine issues of material fact whether there was a promise made and whether the other party acted in reliance on that promise. Similar issues of material fact existed for the unjust enrichment and qunatium meruit claims. Therefore, although the court granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claims, it denied summary judgment on the remaining claims. 

November 9, 2016 in Commentary, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Student Plagiarism Contract Case

Thanks to InsideHigherEd, I became aware of this recent case out of the First Circuit, Walker v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 15-1154, and seeing as it involved JOLT, the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology that I was an executive editor of when I was in law school there, I couldn't resist digging into the case. 

And I'm glad I did, because it's a really interesting case about the lingering effect of honor code violations and the wording of school academic policies. 

The plaintiff graduated from Harvard Law School in 2009. During her time at Harvard, she was a member of JOLT. In that capacity, she drafted a student note. However, when she sent the note to senior editors at JOLT, they became concerned about plagiarism issues and referred the note to the HLS Administrative Board. The Board concluded that the plaintiff's note contained plagiarism that violated the school's Handbook of Academic Policies and a notation was placed on her transcript. The plaintiff still graduated from HLS but had a "lucrative" offer of employment withdrawn after the notation was placed on her transcript. So the plaintiff sued to have the notation on her transcript removed. HLS won summary judgment at the district court level and this appeal followed. 

The court affirmed the judgment of the district court. The parties agreed that the Student Handbook constituted a contract between the plaintiff and HLS. (The court noted that this was not actually obvious under Massachusetts law but that it would treat the handbook as a contract because the parties did not dispute it.) Therefore, the court focused its review on whether the plaintiff's behavior violated the stated plagiarism policy in a way that the plaintiff should have reasonably expected.

The Handbook stated: "All work submitted by a student for any academic or non-academic exercise is expected to be the student's own work." The plaintiff's main argument was that the student note she sent to the JOLT editors was just a draft that she planned to edit in the future, and the Handbook policy should be read as only applying to completed work that was not expected to undergo further editing. The court disagreed, however. The wording of the Handbook was extremely broad, referring to "all work." A student in the plaintiff's position should reasonably have expected that any student note submitted to the editors, whether a draft or in final form, would be held to the standards of the policy. Nothing about "all work" would make a student think that drafts were omitted from the definition, according to the court. 

November 2, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Tale of a University and a Football Coach

A recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Douglas v. University of Pittsburgh, Civil Action No. 15-938 (behind paywall), found that there were factual disputes precluding summary judgment regarding whether or not a contract was in place between the plaintiff, an assistant football coach, and the University. 

The plaintiff alleged that he was orally told by Pittsburgh's head football coach when he was offered the job that it would be a two-year-contract with $225,000 in the first year and $240,000 in the second year, with other perks. The plaintiff accepted the terms and began the job immediately upon receiving this alleged oral offer from the head coach. 

A little more than a week later, the plaintiff received a proposed Employment Contract. The contract had his second-year salary as $235,000 instead of $240,000 and also stated that the University could terminate the plaintiff's employment if the head coach left the school. The plaintiff had concerns about these clauses and other parts of the contract and brought these concerns to the head coach, who allegedly told the plaintiff that he would take care of the issues. 

A few months later, the plaintiff moved his wife and children to join him in Pittsburgh. Over the course of the next few months, the plaintiff claims to have periodically raised the issue that he had never signed a contract and was allegedly told by various people not to worry about it. 

Less than a year after the plaintiff started the assistant coach job, the head coach left Pittsburgh to take a job at the University of Wisconsin. Pittsburgh then subsequently terminated the plaintiff and all of the other assistant football coaches. The University informed the plaintiff that, because he had never signed the Employment Contract, he was an "at-will" employee. The plaintiff, in the wake of losing his job, took a job at Florida State for $40,000 per year, necessitating more moving costs. 

Not happy about how this all played out, the plaintiff sued the University of Pittsburgh. The plaintiff's allegation was that he was orally offered a contract for two years of employment that he accepted, and that the University breached that oral contract. The University responded that the conversation between the plaintiff and the head coach on which the plaintiff pins his hopes did not have enough essential terms to be considered a contract and that the essential terms were in the Employment Contract. Although the plaintiff refused to sign that written contract, the University maintained that he accepted the terms of the written contract when he continued to work for the University. The plaintiff, however, argued that the head coach's offer of employment was specific enough, giving job duties, term, and salary, to constitute a binding contract between the parties, and the plaintiff stated that he resigned from his job and moved his family in reliance on this. 

The University moved for summary judgment but the court found that there was enough evidence that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff and the University had agreed to enough essential terms to form a contract. However, the court dismissed the plaintiff's claims for fraud in the inducement and negligent misrepresentation as merely duplicating the surviving breach of contract claim. I'll keep you posted on what happens!

Law360 has an article about the filing of this lawsuit here

 

October 31, 2016 in Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, Sports, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Judicial Disagreement Over Contract Ambiguity: When Are Things OBVIOUS?

We've been talking about contract interpretation in my Contracts class lately and I'm always struck by how many cases involve a lower court ruling of ambiguity and then an appellate court reversal of that ruling, because it always strikes me as such a funny thing. The very definition of ambiguity would seem to be "multiple people disagreeing on the meaning of the word," but the appellate court decisions in those cases necessarily have to dismiss the reasonableness of the lower court's understanding of the meaning in order to assert that the meaning is SO OBVIOUS. This always makes these cases feel a little more...condescending? Than the typical reversal. Like, "We don't know what you were so confused about, lower court, this is OBVIOUS." 

A recent case out of California, Borgwat v. Shasta Union Elementary School District, No. C078692, is another example of this. The plaintiff, upon retiring from the defendant, was entitled to a monthly post-retirement contribution toward her "medical insurance coverage." For a couple of years, the defendant paid the contribution toward the plaintiff's dental and vision coverage. But then the defendant concluded that dental and vision insurance was not included in "medical insurance coverage" and ceased paying the contribution. This lawsuit resulted. 

The lower court found the phrase "medical insurance coverage" to be ambiguous and allowed extrinsic evidence to illuminate its definition, including the fact that the defendant had initially paid the plaintiff the contribution for a few years. Therefore, the lower court endorsed the plaintiff's interpretation that "medical insurance coverage" included dental and vision insurance. 

The appellate court here reversed, though, saying that "medical insurance coverage" was not an ambiguous term. The relevant section of the contract was Section 5.7 but the appellate court looked to Section 5.2, which dealt with benefits during the course of employment. In that section, the defendant had agreed to pay sums "toward the cost of medical, dental and vision benefit coverage." The fact that dental and vision were considered independent from medical insurance in Section 5.2 rendered the use of "medical insurance" in Section 5.7 unambiguous: It can't include dental and vision insurance, because the parties in Section 5.2 revealed that they didn't understand medical to include dental and vision insurance when they felt it necessary to list all three. For this reason, the appellate court refused to allow any extrinsic evidence, because the defendant's mistake in paying for the dental and vision insurance could not change the unambiguous terms of the contract. 

So there you have it. OBVIOUSLY. :-)

October 26, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)