Wednesday, November 30, 2016
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.
Monday, November 28, 2016
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.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
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.
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.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
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. :-)
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
I'm happy to report that my new book, The Fundamentals of Contract Law and Clauses, is now available. The book is intended to give students a working knowledge of contract law, meaning that they learn the meaning of contract clauses and how they are shaped and affected by doctrine. It's a textbook but it's not a casebook - it's intended to be used as a supplement in a first year contracts course or a primary text in a business school or undergraduate contracts law course. (There's a Teacher's Manual which is available to instructors adopting the book which contains discussion points and exercises).
It always seemed a bit strange to me to teach contracts law solely by using cases - this emphasizes how to win disputes rather than how to avoid them. This makes sense for litigators, but transactional attorneys (which I was for a decade) have a different role. As Mark Burge has pointed out on this blog, contracts is a good gateway to transactional skills but it's not easy to figure out how to do that seamlessly. Hopefully, this book will be an easy way to incorporate some "transactional skills" into a first year contracts course.
Monday, October 17, 2016
I was listening to the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish (highly recommended) when I learned that Einstein used his Nobel Prize money as a divorce settlement to his first wife...the only catch being that he divorced her in 1919 and won the Nobel Prize in 1921. The podcast characterized this as: "If I win the Nobel Prize, I'll give you the money." Amazing! Imagine being so confident in your Nobel Prize chances! (I guess if you are Einstein, you would be that confident.)
I know I just found a new go-to hypo to use in class.
Friday, October 14, 2016
This week, while teaching parol evidence, I taught the case of Mitchill v. Lath, which involves an oral agreement between the parties to tear down an ice house on land to the land their sales agreement was about. A student asked what the deal was with the guy who owned the land the ice house was on, and I admit I didn't know the deal, so I went and looked it up, and here's the deal:
He was George Richard Lunn, a clergyman who was born in Iowa but settled in Schenectady, where he was elected mayor on a Socialist ticket and later served in the House of Representatives and as Lieutenant Governor of New York. I had no idea who Lunn was and thought it was interesting that he turned out to have a Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page doesn't mention his role in Mitchill v. Lath but his Prabook entry does.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
We are just about to start discussing damages in my Contracts class, so this recent case out of the District Court for the District of Columbia, Parham v. Cih Properties, Inc., Case No. 14-cv-1613 (GMH) (behind paywall), caught my eye. And then I realized that, wait a second, these are the same parties from one of my very first cases I ever blogged! Small world! They're still fighting with each other!
And the plaintiff is still looking for a real win, because even though she wins here, she only wins nominal damages of $1.00.
The plaintiff alleged that water leaked into her apartment and damaged a number of items, including a mink coat, a cape with mink tassels, five designer bags, a leather trench coat, two suede suits, snakeskin boots, a box of ivory china, and various other clothes, accessories, and glassware. The court agreed with the plaintiff that the leak had occurred and found that the defendant landlord had breached the warranty of habitability. However, the court found that the plaintiff had failed to provide the court with any reasonable basis on which to base a damages award. The court noted that the plaintiff asserted the loss of a number of unique, designer items that required some sort of expert testimony (not provided) to settle the value. The court further noted that, even for the non-unique items, the plaintiff's testimony as to their value was the only piece of evidence she provided. She had no receipts, appraisals, or even surveys of prices of comparable items, and the court found her personal estimates unpersuasive because she was "an easily confused witness" whose estimated values of the items (if she provided them) were inconsistent and sometimes appeared to be "conjur[ed] out of thin air." Even plaintiff's counsel said in court, "I don't think we really proved damages."
The court agreed with this assessment, finding that the plaintiff provided no reasonable basis for the court to determine damages. The court did, however, agree that she was entitled to nominal damages, given that the landlord had breached the warranty, and so awarded her $1.00.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
I really like this Eastern District of Pennsylvania case, Ionata v. Allstate Insurance Company, Civil Action No. 15-6561, because I think it illustrates really nicely the contractual ambiguity at issue and the consequences of that ambiguity. I might use it as an example in class.
Ionata and her then-husband bought the property at issue together and it was insured with a standard Allstate Homeowner's Policy, which Ionata kept current through the relevant time period. In 2011, Ionata and her husband divorced. Ionata continued to use the house as her mailing address and also continued to keep her stuff there but seems to have slept on a nightly basis somewhere else. In 2014, Ionata had allowed a close family friend to live in the house. During this time period, the house was destroyed by a fire.
The policy covered a "Dwelling," defined as a building "where you reside."Allstate argued that residence required "physical occupation" of the house by the policyholder. Therefore, it argued, the house was no longer covered by the homeowner's policy because Ionata was no longer "residing" in it.
The court noted that Allstate's argument made perfect sense in isolation, but it was inconsistent with other clauses within the policy. So, for instance, the policy contained a clause that permitted the house to "be vacant or unoccupied." As the court succinctly put it, "Logically, it is difficult to reconcile Allstate's position that the policyholder must be living on the premises with a clause that provides the Property may be vacant or unoccupied for any length of time."
Nor was this the only clause that raised the ambiguity. There was another clause that explicitly permitted the occasional renting of the entire property for residential purposes. If a policyholder was allowed to rent the entire property to others, then the policyholder couldn't simultaneously be required to live in the property herself.
The court therefore denied Allstate's motion for summary judgment, calling out "the artificial and often arcane structure and language of insurance policies" in making the decision.
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!
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
A recent case out of New Jersey, Zelnick v. Morristown-Beard School, Docket No. L-1947-13, had some interesting things to say about the contractual relationship between a private high school and the students enrolled (and parents of those students).
The case arose out of an alleged inappropriate sexual relationship between the plaintiffs' daughter, then a student at the school, and her teacher. The plaintiffs' daughter was a minor throughout the alleged sexual relationship; at present, however, the plaintiffs' daughter is an adult who is estranged from her parents and took no part in the case brought here.
The court refused to get into the details of the relationship between the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher, finding that the details were mostly irrelevant. It was sufficient to state that there seemed to be some knowledge on the part of the school of inappropriate behavior with other female students on the part of the teacher for a few months before a fateful school trip to Greece, which many of the accusations surrounded. At the time of the school trip, although the teacher violated the school's policy during the trip, the plaintiffs actually spoke up on his behalf, praising his assistance when their daughter fell ill on the trip. Apparently, it later was learned, at least part of the illness was faked, orchestrating "alone time" for the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher apparently, and the plaintiffs did not know of the inappropriate relationship between their daughter and the teacher at the time that they spoke up on his behalf.
Shortly after the Greece trip, the school was informed by multiple sources that the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher had engaged in inappropriate conduct during the trip. The school delayed for months contacting the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the "DCPP") regarding the persistent rumors surrounding the teacher. It's unclear how the DCPP got involved, although once they did, the teacher fled the country during the investigation into his behavior. At the time, the plaintiffs' daughter was in her senior year at the school, although she was not attending school physically due to assessment by a psychologist that the persistent rumors about her relationship with the teacher were causing her to suffer too much stress.
Among other claims, the plaintiffs raised a breach of contract claim based on their daughter's enrollment contract with the school. The school argued that the terms of the contract were that they would provide the plaintiffs' daughter with an education in exchange for tuition. The plaintiffs argued that the contract implied that the learning environment provided to their daughter would be safe; the school rebutted that. The court agreed with the school: There was no "safe learning environment" requirement implied in the contract with the school. The plaintiffs' attempt to create one, the court said, was an attempt to convert tort claims into contract claims.
This is an interesting ruling to me because, on the one hand, I think all of us would hope that the schools we send our children to are striving to provide a safe learning environment. Very few of us would agree to enter into bargains with schools without a belief that the students' best interests must be at the school's heart. On the other hand, while this isn't a school shooting case, I can see this being a complicated promise in an age where this country has grown to expect that our schools are basically under attack.
It does seem to me that, in the court's recitation of the facts, the school behaved poorly here. The school had notice of persistent reports from multiple sources, including other students, other parents, and other school employees, that the teacher's behavior had been personally witnessed to be inappropriate, and for months the school seems to have taken no action and, indeed, to have allowed the teacher in question to act as one of a few chaperones on an international trip. It reminded me of the case Myanna wrote up a few days ago about the contractual duty of good faith in Texas and the lack of fiduciary relationship between universities and students. Maybe we (or just me) place more trust in other people and entities' obligations toward us/me than we/I should.
The plaintiffs, of course, did have tort claims here--gross negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress--but the court ruled they did not have standing to pursue them. Those claims seem to have belonged to the plaintiffs' daughter, who, unfortunately, was no longer speaking to her parents, allegedly because of the parents' disapproval of her relationship with her teacher.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
In spite of most jurisdictions reading a duty of good faith and fair dealing into all contracts, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is unlikely that the Texas Supreme Court would find such a duty to exist in Texas. Wow. Additionally, the court found that no fiduciary relationship between a university student and his/her university faculty and other representatives.
Section 205 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts states that “[e]very contract imposes upon each party a duty of good faith and fair dealing in its performance and enforcement.” See also Farnsworth, “Good Faith Performance and Commercial Reasonableness under the Uniform Commercial Code,” 30 U.Chi.L.Rev. 666, 670 (1963).
The seminal case in this area is Market Street Associates v. Frey, 941 F.2d 599 (7th Cir. 1991). In that case, Judge Posner held that in spite of the somewhat “moralistic overtones of good faith,” not every contract signatory is expected to be his “brother’s keeper.” Nonetheless, “the essentials of the modern doctrine [are] well established in nineteenth-century cases.” “This duty is … halfway between a fiduciary duty (the duty of utmost good faith) and the duty merely to refrain from active fraud. Despite its moralistic overtones it is no more the injection of moral principles into contract law than the fiduciary concept itself is.” “The office of the doctrine of good faith is to forbid the kinds of opportunistic behavior that a mutually dependent, cooperative relationship might enable in the absence of rule. “
In the new Texas case involving a student at SMU who got fired from his part-time job as a Community Adviser for misconduct toward students and faculty, the circuit court held that “Texas law does not impose a generalized duty of good faith and fair dealing and, in fact, rejects it” in all circumstances apart from when 1) a formal fiduciary relationships exists or 2) a “special or confidential relationship” exists. Examples of the former are attorney-clients, trustee-beneficiary, and principal-agents. In Texas, the latter apparently only includes the relationship between an insurer and an insured. That’s it! Texas courts have, found this panel, refused to impose the duty on, for example, employer-employees (not too surprising), lender-borrowers, medical provider-patients (double wow!), mortgagor-mortgagees, and franchisor-franchisees. The court in the described case also said that an “ordinary student-professor relationship is no different;” in other words, there is no fiduciary or even “confidential” or “special” relationship between students and faculty in Texas.
The case does not show how the student’s allegation that a duty of good faith existed between SMU and the student would really have helped the student on the merits. SMU seemed to have a very good case for firing the student from his job. Nonetheless, it is surprising that the court would so categorically reject that such a duty even exists apart from in traditional fiduciary relationships. While it may make sense that “a purely unilateral, subjective” sense of trust in one’s contractual counterpart and that the other party will have one’s interests at heart is not enough to create a fiduciary relationship, there is a vast difference between that and reading out the duty of good faith and fair dealings from most contracts law in general in Texas. Of course, as contracts law is state law, it is true that it is the Texas courts who must change this line of thinking, but doing so seems to be highly warranted given how courts in other parts of the nation rule on the issue.
The case discussed is Hux v. Southern Methodist University, 2016 WL 1621720 (no free online copy available yet).
Monday, April 4, 2016
CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39855 (Harvard Science Center)
It's a very common thing, to be provided with a "policy" as opposed to a "contract." A recent case out of the District of Massachusetts, Charest v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Civil Action No. 13-11556-DPW, addresses that exact issue, and concludes, as you might expect, that what you call something isn't as important as how you behave.
Dr. Mark Charest was a chemistry graduate student at Harvard University. While he was there, he and his supervisor (also a defendant in this lawsuit) and other scientists developed a "novel and valuable method for creating synthetic tetracyclines," important for commercial antibiotics. Universities have lots of valuable things being created by their employees and students, so it's not surprising that Harvard had a policy in place for this sort of situation. Harvard had Dr. Charest, as a student, sign the Harvard University Participation Agreement, which contained a clause that Dr. Charest "ha[d] read and  under[stood] and agree[d] to be bound by the terms of the 'Statement of Policy in Regard to Inventions, Patents, and Copyrights,'" referred to in this case as the IP Policy. A lot of things happen from that point on, but the important thing to know for purposes of this blog entry is that Dr. Charest maintained that Harvard had breached the IP Policy. Harvard, in response, maintained (among other things) that the IP Policy was not a contract.
Other than being called a "policy," you might think this an odd argument for Harvard to try to make, considering that having Dr. Charest sign an agreement to be bound by the IP Policy sounds pretty contract-y. A 1988 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, Jackson v. Action for Boston Community Development, had held that an employer's personnel manual was not a contract, and so Harvard relied heavily on that precedent, trying to cast its IP Policy as similar to the personnel manual in that case.
Jackson established a number of factors for its decision, and, while some of those factors did weigh in favor of Harvard, others weighed in favor of Dr. Charest. For instance, Harvard maintained the ability to unilaterally modify the IP Policy and there were no negotiations between Harvard and Dr. Charest over the IP Policy, two factors Jackson said support a conclusion that the IP Policy does not impose contractual obligations. However, Harvard called special attention to the IP Policy and Dr. Charest's agreement to it, required Dr. Charest's signature acknowledging the IP Policy, and the IP Policy spoke in mandatory terms rather than suggestive terms, all of which made it seem more like a binding contract.
In the end, the court found that, as the Jackson precedent has developed, the really important thing is whether Dr. Charest understood himself to have to agree to the terms of the IP Policy in order to continue as a student researcher at Harvard, and that Harvard was likewise agreeing to be bound. The court concludes that yes, this was true. The IP Policy sounded as if it was being very clear about Harvard's obligations, because of its unambiguous language. Harvard itself consistently referenced the IP Policy as governing its actions when questioned by Dr. Charest and when communicating with its students. Therefore, Harvard could not pretend now that it had not been behaving as if it was bound by the terms of the IP Policy.
(Nevertheless, the court went on to dismiss most--but not all--of Dr. Charest's claims. The facts are too complicated to get into in the scope of this blog entry, but if you're interested in the relationship between research universities and their graduate students, it's an interesting read.)
UPDATE: This case has now settled. Dr. Charest released the following statement:
"Harvard University and I have settled our ongoing litigation regarding the allocation of royalties related to the license with Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals on mutually agreeable terms. In light of my claims and goals in bringing this litigation, I am very pleased to accept terms I view as equitable.”
You can read more here.
(Thanks to Brian O'Reilly at www.oreillyip.com for the update!)
Friday, March 4, 2016
I am pleased to be able to post the following from guest blogger Creola Johnson of the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law:
“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” said Mitt Romney during a speech denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. This statement has prompted additional inquiries into lawsuits filed against Trump University by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and others. (See Petition from New York v. The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative LLC.)
In a class-action lawsuit, many attendees of Trump University alleged that they paid as much as $35,000 to be personally mentored in learning how to earn millions investing in real estate. Despite numerous attempts by lawyers for the Trump defendants to get these lawsuits to dismiss, courts have given the green light for the lawsuits to continue against the Trump defendants. See, e.g., Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, No. 10-CV-940-IEG (WVG), 2010 WL 3988684 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 12, 2010) (refusing to dismiss claims against the for-profit Trump program on educational malpractice grounds because the court was not convinced “Trump University” was “an educational institution to which this doctrine applies.”). For the most recent decision permitting Mr. Schneiderman’s case to proceed, go to: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/AD1/calendar/appsmots/2016/March/2016_03_01_dec.pdf.
What can we say for sure at this juncture about the lawsuits? First, “Trump University” was not a university. There are numerous educational standards and laws that must be complied with for an institution to legitimately claim to be a university. The question then becomes: did the people running Trump’s real estate program (the Trump Program) make promises that arose to level of being a contract. For example, the consumer-plaintiffs alleged that the Trump Program promised that the instructors and mentors running the program would be “hand-picked by Donald Trump.” However, this promise was allegedly breached because most of the instructors and mentors were unknown to Mr. Trump and that they didn’t actually teach any real estate techniques.
We’ll have to wait for a court or jury’s finding regarding what promises were actually made by Donald Trump and the people running the Trump Program. The good news for the plaintiffs and Mr. Schneidermann is that they do not have to prove the existence of a contract. New York, along with every state, has laws that prohibit businesses from engaging in deceptive and unfair business practices.
Consumers should be leery of any language that appears to promise an educational outcome—e.g., “you will earn a six-figure salary after graduation.” While a state’s attorney general, such as Mr. Schneiderman, has the authority to make businesses stop deceptive practices, the attorney general may not be able to get back the money consumers have lost. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! For an in-depth discussion of deceptive degrees, see my article, Degrees of Deception: Are Consumers and Employers Being Duped by Online Universities and Diploma Mills?
President’s Club Professor of Law,
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
It's not a secret that some colleges and universities out there are really struggling. At Lake Superior State University in Michigan, where enrollment has been declining, two professors were recently denied tenure, as Josh Logue reported for InsideHigherEd. As required by the faculty association's agreement with the university, the denials set forth the reason tenure had been denied, and the reason given was the need for the university to reduce staffing in the face of the declining enrollment. The professors took issue with this reason for denial, however, because the agreement contained the following clause:
Recommendations for tenure shall be based on:
a) Careful review of the Tenure Application File [letters of support, CV, and evaluations].
b) Consideration of the faculty member’s collegiality in their relation to faculty, students, staff, and administration.
The professors are saying that that doesn't allow for denial of tenure based on another consideration, such as financial.
It's unclear whether there was a communication with the candidates beforehand that institutional need might impact the tenure decision. The contract doesn't seem to ever mention financial considerations impacting the faculty, or institutional need, or indeed any kind of catch-all, at first glance. It does, however, provide for an appeal of a tenure decision, so I'm curious if the denied candidates will take advantage of this, and what the eventual outcome will be.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
No, it's not legal-education-related, but rather real-estate-education-related. Which, according to the plaintiff, didn't actually teach her what it promised to teach her. So she sued. The defendant, however, noted that she'd signed a contract with an arbitration clause and so they shouldn't be in court. And the court agreed, in Kane v. Yancy, CIVIL ACTION NO. H-15-1861 (behind paywall), a recent case out of the Southern District of Texas.
Arbitration clauses are, of course, generally looked upon favorably by courts. In this case, there was no dispute that the contract contained an arbitration clause and that the plaintiff signed the contract. Rather, the plaintiff argued that the arbitration clause was unconscionable. The plaintiff claimed the arbitration clause was on the back of the piece of paper that she signed and she never saw it. She further claimed that the arbitration clause required each party to bear their own costs and attorneys' fees, which made the cost of arbitration unconscionably prohibitive for her.
All of the plaintiff's arguments failed. Texas precedent indicated that the question of whether the costs and attorneys' fees portion of the arbitration clause was enforceable was a question for the arbitrator to decide, not the court. At any rate, the court didn't feel that the fees were so exorbitant as to cause concern.
In addition, the court didn't really care about her allegation that she had never seen the arbitration clause because the plaintiff's signature was under a statement indicating that she had read everything on the back of the piece of paper she signed. As we all know, on virtually a daily basis we attest that we've read terms and conditions that we have maybe only barely glanced at, if that. Clearly, that's what the plaintiff in this case did, too. This court didn't care from a legal unconscionability standpoint.
The plaintiff made a couple of other interesting arguments. She tried to argue that, by answering her complaint in court, the defendant had waived its right to arbitration. The court, unsurprisingly, didn't buy it. She also tried to argue that the defendant's breach of the contract excused her from being bound by the arbitration clause. The court, however, noted that the defendant's alleged breach of the contract had nothing to do with the arbitration clause itself, and thus that clause was not excused by the defendant's alleged conduct.
The defendant actually moved for sanctions but the court said that the plaintiff's actions weren't frivolous or intended to harass. So the plaintiff may have lost everything else, but at least she didn't get sanctioned. Hashtag-finding-a-silver-lining.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
This relatively new and unknown funding idea is being tested by Purdue University in cooperation with financial services company Verno Education. The loans are called “Income-share Agreements” or “ISAs.” Investors lend money to students in return for a certain percentage of the student’s future income for a set number of years. A few companies and NGOs in the United States are offering contracts on a limited, pilot basis, although the idea itself is not new: Economist Milton Friedman introduced the idea in the 1950s.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels has touted the idea, claiming that the loans “shift the risk of career shortcomings from student to investor: if the graduate earns less than expected, it is the investors who are disappointed; if the student decides to go off … to Nepal instead of working, the loss is entirely on the funding providers….” Voila, truly “debt-free-college” according to Daniels.
Not so fast. First, most college students of course end up finding a job. They will thus have to repay something. That something could easily be very expensive. For example, if a student borrowed $10,000 via a contract to repay 5% of her income for five years after graduation and ends up getting a $60,000 job, she or he will have to pay back $15,000 without compounded interest.
Student protections are currently poor. For example, there is no clarity as to whether the Fair Credit Reporting Act would apply. Further regulations of this area are necessary. Meanwhile, students will have to individually bargain these types of contracts very carefully.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
When I was in law school, I remember starting to be really struck by how often I had to sign liability releases: going to play paintball, renting skis, etc. A recent case out of the Tenth Circuit, Espinoza v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, had to deal with just such a release in the context of a tragic whitewater rafting accident.
The plaintiff's mother drowned when her raft capsized during a rafting trip organized by the defendant. She had signed a contract that released the defendant from liability for negligence. The plaintiff agreed that his mother had signed the release but tried to argue that the release was unenforceable. As a matter of Colorado law, though, he lost. The court found the release enforceable both as a matter of public policy and under the particular circumstances of the mother's signing.
The court explained that Colorado uses four facts to determine whether a release of liability for negligence is enforceable:
(1) the existence [or nonexistence] of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.
The court concluded that, while other states were free to disagree on this, Colorado had decided that corporations providing recreational activities are allowed to protect themselves from liability for negligence. The court stated that this is a valid policy choice for Colorado to make because it arguably encourages the active, outdoorsy lifestyle that the state of Colorado cherishes and wants to protect and promote. Without such ability to protect themselves, companies might be discouraged from offering recreational activities like horseback riding, snowboarding, or whitewater rafting. And in fact other courts in Colorado had explicitly found that companies offering whitewater rafting trips can protect themselves from liability for negligence using a contractual release. The court stated that the Colorado legislature was free to introduce a statute that would change this legal precedent, but, as it stood, the court was bound to follow the precedent.
Having decided that the release was not against public policy according to the first two factors of the balancing test, the court then further decided that the plaintiff's mother had fairly entered into the contract with full knowledge of the risks at stake. The court dismissed the plaintiff's expert testimony that the rapids his mother was exposed to were too advanced for a beginner (in contrast to what the defendant had assured her) by pointing to the fact that the defendant had expert testimony that the rapids were suitable for beginners. Finally, the court noted that the release had the typical all-caps language that you see on these sorts of contracts. You know: "HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH" and "THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS." The truth is, seldom does any consumer seeing that stuff really take it a serious communication of a great risk of death, I think. Especially not when there was some evidence that the consumer has been assured the trip in question was suitable for families with children. Nonetheless, the court found that the language of the release unambiguously informed the plaintiff's mother of the risks of the activity and the fact that she was releasing the defendant from liability should those risks come to pass.
There was a dissent in this case, however, who agreed that the release wasn't against public policy but disagreed on the conclusion that the contract had been fairly entered into. In the dissent's view, the contradictory testimony about the level of difficulty of the rapids meant that the question should have gone to the jury.
I don't spend a lot of time in my Contracts class talking in detail about liability releases for negligence, but this case made me think that I should talk about them more, because they really do seem to arise in the context of so many activities.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Do law students intending to practice in the areas of contracts and commercial law particularly need to consider the risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence? It wouldn't hurt.
At this month's AALS annual meeting, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minnow made some headlines with her comments that the threat to the jobs of human lawyers from artificial intelligence is overhyped:
Minow said she didn’t see computers having a role in matters that require subjective legal judgment. “Assessment and critique of justice and justice mechanisms, I don’t see AI taking that on. Nor do I see AI taking on ethics,” she said. “I don’t mean to suggest there is no relation between AI and ethical suggestions, but I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the human being. There will always be a need for human beings.”
Dean Minnow's points of optimism--that matters of justice and ethics will require a human component--seem substantially correct, but they highlight a particular problem in the contract and commercial law fields. Matters of human justice, like the administration of criminal penalties and the protection of civil rights, are a natural bulwark against the replacement of lawyers by computers in those fields. The values at stake are ones that we, as a society, would be (fortunately) fundamentally queasy about taking out of human hands. But what if the stakes are "mere" money, as is frequently the case with contracts? That is the kind of area where increased efficiencies and removal of the human element give less pause.
This sort of automation of transactional work is certainly underway, ranging from the drafting of basic transactional documents through websites like Legal Zoom to the intriguing use of smart contracts that can govern and enforce themselves, such as through application of Bitcoin-style blockchain technology. In short, teachers of Contracts are training students in a field with a high degree of risk of being automated out of existence.
Robolawyer is coming, so how do we prepare our Contracts students to become lawyers whose value-adding proposition is not susceptible to automation? This question has many answers, I suspect, but we won't reach any of them unless we start by recognizing the problem.