ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, June 26, 2017

"As Is" Clauses Don't Grant You Immunity If You Commit Fraud -- and Parol Evidence Can Help Prove It

A recent case out of South Dakota, Oxton v. Rudland, #28070 (behind paywall), is another case involving alleged fraud during the sale and purchase of a house, this one with an explicit parol evidence debate. 

As in the previous case I blogged about on this topic, the contract for the house contained an "as is" clause. The Oxtons agreed that the contract with this "as is" clause was unambiguous and fully integrated. However, they argued that the parol evidence rule never applies when a party is alleging fraud. Because they were alleging fraud, they wanted to be able to bring in parol evidence regarding that fraud. 

The court agreed that the parol evidence rule does not apply in cases of fraud, which cannot be avoided by disclaimers in the contract. Therefore, the court looked at the Oxtons' evidence of fraud, which consisted of the fact that the Rudlands who sold them the house had just bought it a few months before and in the course of buying it had been told about "major settling" of the house (the problem at issue). The Rudlands, however, did not disclose that "major settling" when they sold to the Oxtons months later. The Rudlands countered that the disclosure statement that did not contain any language about "major settling" was largely irrelevant, and that the Oxtons were well aware they were purchasing the home "as is" and had the opportunity to obtain an inspection before finalizing the contract. 

The court found that it could not resolve these questions of fact but that there was enough evidence to possibly support the Oxtons' fraud claim, such that summary dismissal of that claim was inappropriate. The court allowed the parol evidence to support the claim, and also explicitly pointed out that "as is" clauses do not provide "general immunity from liability for fraud." Therefore, the Rudlands could not rely on the "as is" clause alone as blanket protection for all of their behavior and statement, and the litigation over the alleged fraudulent inducement should continue. 

It's interesting to contrast this with the Texas case I just blogged. There, the court held that getting an inspection was enough to prove that you were not relying on the sellers' statements. The Oxtons did obtain an inspection in this case but little attention is given to that fact. I wonder if it will gain more prominence as the debate over the alleged fraud goes forward, as at the moment the case was pretty focused on the parol evidence rule and the operation of the "as is" clause, not on the effect of the inspection. 

June 26, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Trade Usage vs. Express Terms in Lawsuit Against Hardware Stores

Two by FourWhen I teach "usage of trade" (UCC § 1-303) in Contracts or in Sales, I inevitably bring up the example of  "two-by-four" lumber. The example is a good one in that most students either already know first hand that a two-by-four board is smaller than two inches by four inches, or else they readily grasp the concept that terms in a contract can come from a widespread meaning that is at variance with its literal meaning. For years, I thought the point of the example was non-controversial--or at least less convoluted than more famous interpretive questions like, "What is 'chicken'?" or "Is a burrito a 'sandwich'?"

At least one litigant would disagree with my characterization of the lumber example as being obvious. This story in the Des Moines Register describes a lawsuit in which hardware chains Home Depot and Menards are accused of deceiving buyers by selling "four-by-four" lumber that is not four inches by four inches in dimension:

HomeDepot_svgThe retailers say the allegations are bogus. It is common knowledge and longstanding industry practice, they say, that names such as two-by-four or four-by-four do not describe the width and thickness of those pieces of lumber.

 Rather, the retailers say, those are “nominal” designations accepted in government-approved industry standards, which also specify actual minimum dimensions — 1½ inches by 3½ inches for a two-by-four, for example, and 3½ inches by 3½ inches for a four-by-four.

“Anybody who’s in the trades or construction knows that,” said Tim Stich, a carpentry instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

True enough, said Yevgeniy (Eugene) Turin of McGuire Law, the firm that represents the plaintiffs in both cases.

However, Turin and his clients dispute that the differences between nominal descriptions and actual dimensions are common knowledge.

 

“It’s difficult to say that for a reasonable consumer, when they walk into a store and they see a label that says four-by-four, that that’s simply — quote unquote — a trade name,” Turin said in an interview.

Turin said his clients don’t argue that the retailers’ four-by-fours (and, in the Menards’ case, a one-by-six board as well) are not the correct size under the standards published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The product labels, however, should disclose that those are “nominal” designations and not actual sizes, Turin said.

With some of Menards’ lumber products, both the nominal and actual size are shown, a document Turin filed in the case against Menards says. But the lumber in question is labeled only with a nominal size — "4 x 4 — 10’," for example — that consists of numbers “arranged in a way to represent the dimensions of the products,” the document says. That leaves the “average consumer” to conclude that the pieces measure four inches by four inches, Turin said.

Some Menards customers aren’t buying it.

“They haven’t measured four inches by four inches since the ‘50s,” said Scott Sunila after loading purchases into his pickup.

“My God, that’s crazy,” the 60-year-old bulldozer operator said of the lawsuits. “Let me on the jury. They ain’t winning. And they’re gonna pay me extra for my time.”

But an unscientific survey of 18 Menards shoppers found that about a third were unaware that "four-by-four" doesn’t represent actual dimensions of that piece of lumber.

The problem with defining terms by usage of trade is that the term usage must have "such regularity of observance in a place, vocation, or trade as to justify an expectation that it will be observed with respect to the transaction in question." UCC § 1-303(c). The existence of the trade usage is not a question of law, but a question of fact when (as here) it is not embodied in a trade code, such codes rarely being applicable to or ratified by consumers. If a party cannot establish the existence of trade usage terminology, then express terms will typically prevail over trade usage. UCC § 1-303(e).

My initial take was that this lawsuit was a clear loser, but the fact that the burden of proof lies with the hardware stores suggests that the plaintiffs at least have a chance. Now, would I take this case on a contingent fee basis?  Er... no.

June 23, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Grammatical Rules Shed Little Light on Contract Provision

More fun with ambiguity! I like this recent case out of Pennsylvania, BL Partners Group, L.P. v. Interbroad, LLC, No. 465 EDA 2016, because it really delves into grammatical rules in a way that pleases the 13-year-old me who enjoyed learning how to diagram sentences. (I did. I can't help it. I admit it publicly here.)

The appellant leased billboard space on the rooftop of a building owned by the appellee. The appellee decided to demolish the building and sent the appellant a termination notice. The appellant argued that the termination notice was invalid under the terms of the lease and that it would not vacate the premises. The provision in question was: 

"In the event that Lessor's building is damaged by fire or other casualty and Lessor elects not to restore such building, or Lessor elects to demolish the building, Lessor may terminate the Lease . . . ."

The trial court found that this provision gave the appellee the right to demolish the building for any reason, finding that the comma preceding the "or" indicated that it was an independent basis for termination and was not dependent upon the building first being damaged by fire or other casualty. This appeal followed. 

The appellate court began its analysis by looking to the dictionary definition of the word "or," and then finding that the placement of a comma before the word "or" joins two independent clauses. Nonrestrictive phrases separated by commas are construed as parentheticals, "supplemental to the main clause." The appellate court then concluded that the intent of the contracting parties was not clear. The appellate court said that the trial court's reading actually read words into the contract, i.e., "In the event that Lessor's building is damaged by fire or other casualty and Lessor elects not to restore such building, or in the event that Lessor elects to demolish the building, Lessor may terminate the Lease . . . ." The appellate court said it was unclear if that reading was correct, or if in fact the clause should be read in conjunction with the previous clause, and therefore the meaning could not "be determined definitively from the particular terms, grammar, or structure" of the provision. Both parties offered reasonable interpretations, and therefore extrinsic evidence had to be examined for the true meaning of the provision. 

June 21, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 19, 2017

David Mamet's Last-Minute License Term

 

Puyallup High School Auditorium.jpg
Public Domain, Link

This story is a few weeks old, but I think it's an interesting one still deserving of discussion. Apparently, one of the terms of licensing one of David Mamet's plays to perform is that the theater not host any "talk backs" within two hours of the show. It's interesting to me first because talk backs are fairly common within the theater industry, and I'm not sure most theater companies would assume there were restrictions around them. This makes me wonder if other playwrights have similar policies and how much theater companies check into those specific terms. 

Another thing that struck me about this, though, was that apparently this talk-back-prohibiting term was not in the original terms of the license. The theater company detailed in the article received a new contract with the new licensing term just four hours before the show opened. Do we think that was a valid modification of the original license terms? There is no discussion of this in the article, but do you think that the theater company, threatened with fines of $25,000, felt compelled to agree to the new term after having sold tickets and invested time in rehearsing the play? Was the new term in that license enforceable? 

Finally, apparently Mamet's agent will ensure that the clause is included in license terms from this point on. Generally, parties can enter into any contractual terms they wish (within certain bounds of reason). Presumably if Mamet's no-talk-back provision is disliked by theater companies, Mamet's plays could fall out of fashion and the market could handle the situation. However, if other playwrights start demanding similar terms, then there might not be as much pushback from the theater companies. So far it seems that Mamet's clause just prohibits discussion within two hours of completion of the play, so that could allow an enterprising theater company to just hold a talk back two and a half hours later. It could be interesting to see what effect, if any, this situation has on theater talk backs going forward. Anyway, it was an interesting little contract story, so I thought I'd pass it along. 

(h/t to Rebecca for bringing the article to my attention!)

June 19, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Disclaimer Saves a Faculty Handbook from Being Considered a Contract

I've blogged before about whether a faculty handbook creates a binding contract between a university and its faculty. A recent case out of Indiana, Dodson v. Board of Trustees of Indiana University, Court of Appeals Case No. 45A03-1611-CT-2703, found that disclaimers contained within the faculty handbook can protect it from being considered a binding contract. 

Dodson had alleged that she had been denied tenure in contravention of the faculty handbook, and that this constituted a breach of contract on behalf of the university. The university, however, pointed out that the handbook had a disclaimer that it was not be a construed as a contract, and as a result Dodson's claim failed. The disclaimer was evidence that the university never intended the handbook to be part of its contract with Dodson. 

June 15, 2017 in Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

5-hour ENERGY + 3-year delay could = laches

5-hour ENERGY is one of those products that I feel like an entire class could be built around. I already teach a couple of 5-hour ENERGY cases in trademark, and here's a contracts case (that seems to also have patent and trade secret implications). The case is Innovation Ventures, LLC v. Custom Nutrition Laboratories, LLC, Case No. 12-13850 (behind paywall), out of the Eastern District of Michigan. 

The heart of the allegations currently at issue in this most recent litigation revolve around a previous settlement agreement between the parties, under which the defendant agreed not to use certain 5-hour ENERGY ingredients in any formulas for other energy shots. The defendant didn't deny that it did in fact use those prohibited ingredients. However, it raised a laches defense to try to shield it from liability, alleging that the plaintiff delayed filing the lawsuit for three years, during which the defendant was openly using the ingredients at issue, with the plaintiff's knowledge. During the time period that the plaintiff delayed suit, the defendant alleged that it developed and sold other products that it would have developed differently had the plaintiff indicated that it had an issue with the defendant's activities. The plaintiff's response, however, was that, because it brought suit within the applicable statute of limitations, laches can't apply. 

The plaintiff's argument was unavailing. The court noted that Michigan had again and again reiterated that statute of limitations not having run alone cannot be enough to defeat a valid laches defense. The defendant alleged that the plaintiff knew that the defendant was selling products with the prohibited ingredients and sat back and waited for more products to be developed and further damages to accrue before bringing suit. This behavior, if true, could support a finding of laches. 

(There were lots of other issues, allegations, and defenses in this litigation. I've focused on this one small piece.)

June 13, 2017 in Food and Drink, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Looking for Some Unambiguous Insurance Policy Language? Here's Some

Insurance contracts often provoke disputes over language interpretation. A recent case out of West Virginia, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Co. v. Chaber, No. 16-0490, overturns on appeal the lower court's finding of ambiguity, declaring that the language at issue was in fact unambiguous.

The Chabers had an insurance policy that excluded "earth movement," which was defined as including "landslide . . . whether . . . caused by an act of nature or . . . otherwise caused." Soil and rock slid down a hill behind the Chabers' property and damaged it. The insurance company refused to pay out, pointing to the exclusion of landslides. The Chabers alleged that the landslide was caused by improper excavation, not natural causes, and thus shouldn't have been excluded under the policy. The lower court found that the insurance policy was ambiguous, and that the Chabers might have expected that landslides caused by actions of humans were covered. The appellate court, however, disagreed. 

The appellate court found that previous cases had found ambiguity in insurance policies that excluded events arising "from natural or external forces." In contrast, the Chabers' insurance policy language was the much more general "act of nature or . . . otherwise caused," losing the word "external" that had been considered ambiguous. The language in the Chabers' policy was relatively new but the few courts that had considered it had found it to be unambiguous. Therefore, the appellate court found the policy was unambiguous and covered landslides, whether human-triggered or naturally occurring. 

I always find it interesting when courts disagree regarding ambiguity, because the very fact of courts disagreeing seems to indicate ambiguity! However, this policy does seem to be unambiguous in its breadth of exclusions. Possibly the lower court just felt bad for the Chabers. 

June 7, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Prince's Music: More Contract Disputes

I've already blogged about the contractual disputes around the music that the late artist Prince left behind when he died unexpectedly. They continue with another case in the District of Minnesota, Paisley Park Enterprises, Inc. v. Boxill, Case No. 17-cv-1212 (WMW/TNL). In this dispute, Boxill, a consultant and sound engineer who worked with Prince, had announced that he would release five Prince recordings in his possession on the anniversary of Prince's death. Prince's estate sued, seeking a preliminary injunction against the release, which the court granted. One of the causes of action revolved around the Confidentiality Agreement that Boxill had entered into with Prince. Under the terms of the agreement, Boxill was allowed to enter Prince's home and work with Prince and disclaimed any property interest connected with this work. Yet when Prince's estate demanded return of the recordings in Boxill's possession, he refused to turn them over. This was sufficient to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits for breach of the contract. 

Boxill's main argument was that the Confidentiality Agreement only covered his work consulting on the remodel of Prince's music studio; the Confidentiality Agreement did not cover Boxill's work as a sound engineer recording music with Prince. Boxill's reasoning on this was that the Confidentiality Agreement prohibited him recording any of Prince's performances, but he was required to do so when he was working with Prince as a sound engineer. The Prince estate's response to this was that it had waived the recording portion of the Confidentiality Agreement but the rest stayed in force and covered all of Boxill's activities. The Court concluded that either interpretation was plausible, and that Prince's estate had a "fair chance" of prevailing on the merits. 

A motion to dismiss is currently pending in the case, so we'll see what happens!

June 5, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Alleging Medical Necessity Under a Health Insurance Contract

We are by now probably all familiar with the modern phenomenon of GoFundMes to cover medical care. Those funds likely aren't just to cover situations where the parties didn't have health insurance, but also situations where the parties did have health insurance and the health insurance refused to pay. Sometimes because of the terms of the particular health insurance policy, but also sometimes without adequate justification. A recent case out of the Southern District of Florida, Grewal v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., Case No. 17-cv-80318-MIDDLEBROOKS (behind paywall), seems like the latter situation, based on the allegations of the complaint. 

Grewal, who had Aetna health insurance, also had a six-year-old son, A., who became seriously and unexpectedly ill. He was eventually diagnosed with a rare and very dangerous condition that required long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation. A.'s doctors determined that he should be transferred to a different hospital that could properly treat A. The hospital where A. had been was unable to handle the specialized care A.'s condition required. (In fact, there were allegations the hospital had allowed A. to lay in his own vomit for long periods of time, which seems...alarming???)

Aetna refused to clear A.'s flight transfer, finding that it was not medically necessary, but A.'s condition grew increasingly serious, so A.'s father decided to go through with the flight. He then filed a claim with Aetna to pay for the flight, which Aetna refused within days, without examining A. or the hospitals in question. This refusal left A.'s father with a bill over $300,000. 

Aetna's motion to dismiss required the court to determine if the complaint had sufficient allegations that A.'s flight between hospitals was indeed "medically necessary." And the court determined that it did. The complaint alleged that, at the time that A. was transferred, ground transportation was unsafe because of the seriousness of A.'s condition. Therefore, if A. had to be transported, it had to be by flight. And the complaint further alleged that A.'s current hospital was so inadequate to treat A. that it was a life-threatening situation for A. Finally, the complaint alleged that A.'s doctors, those medical professionals most familiar with A.'s condition, recommended the flight transfer. Those allegations were all sufficient to establish that the transfer was "medically necessary" and thus covered by the health insurance policy. Therefore, taking the facts in the complaint as true, a breach of contract was alleged. 

We'll see how this case plays out, but I can't help but feel intense sympathy for A.'s father, having to make this decision. Imagine your six-year-old son being suddenly, unexpectedly, very seriously sick, and your son's doctors saying he needed to be transferred to have any chance at recovery. How rational do you think you would be dealing with your insurance company in your situation? Would you really consider it time to have a debate over contractual language? 

May 31, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Your Mother-in-Law Pays Off Your Student Loans, Then You Divorce Her Son. Now What?

Here's another case for the "it's always better to get it in writing" file. Although here the failure to get the contract in writing doesn't doom recovery, it does just add an extra layer of analysis that might otherwise have been avoidable. 

The case, out of Alabama, is Julie Gerstenecker v. Janice Gerstenecker, 1160144, and you can probably guess immediately from the shared last name that doubtless the reason the contract wasn't in writing was because of the familial relationship between the parties. In fact, Julie was Janice's daughter-in-law. Janice, concerned about the interest rate on Julie's student loan, claimed to offer to pay off the loans in their entirety, in exchange for Julie paying her back interest-free at a rate of $700 a month (later to raise to $1,000 a month). Julie sent Janice an e-mail with the student loan information (including specific instructions as to how Janice could pay them off) and Janice thereafter paid the student loans off. Julie then paid Janice, as allegedly agreed, for four consecutive months. However, after that Julie and Janice's son divorced and Julie stopped making any further payments. Janice sued for breach of contract. 

Julie denied there had been any contract, although I think her credibility was undermined by her testimony in response to why, if there had been no contract, she had written the checks to Janice: Julie claimed not to be able to remember why she had written the checks at issue to Janice. At any rate, she tried to raise a statute of frauds defense, asserting that the contract could not have been completed in a year and that therefore it should have been in writing (which it was not). However, she raised the defense so late in the case that the court basically deemed she had waived it. 

The court then went on to address Julie's argument that there was not enough evidence of mutual assent. Julie agreed that she did e-mail Janice her student loan information and that she did give Janice the checks at issue, but argued that evidence was ambiguous and did not indicate that she had accepted Janice's offer. The court disagreed. Julie provided Janice with all of the information Janice needed to pay off the student loans, and then Julie began her performance in response by beginning to pay Janice (no other explanation for the checks, after all, had ever been offered). That was enough evidence that a contract had existed. 

The only thing left to debate was the measure of damages. The trial court had awarded Janice the entire repayment amount. However, the appellate court concluded that was incorrect because there was no evidence that the contract contained an acceleration clause. Therefore, Janice could only receive a judgment for the amount of money Julie already owed in missed payments. 

May 29, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ancestry.com Doesn't Want Your DNA Forever (At Least, Not Anymore)

Earlier this week, Stacey Lantagne wrote a post about Ancestry.com’s Terms and Conditions. Among other things, it gives Ancestry.com a perpetual license to use its customers' DNA for…well, pretty much anything.  Attorney Joel Winston wrote about the terms here and his post quickly went viral. The social media backlash was fast and furious – and Ancestry.com now claims that it didn’t really mean what it said in its terms. They also say that they will take out that provision (although as of this writing, it is still there). It seems that nobody reads wrap contracts – even the companies that draft them.

This is another example of how consumers often do care what’s in the TOS, even if they don’t read them. Not reading (and so not knowing what’s in the terms) is not the same as not caring that the terms apply. It’s also another encouraging example of a company responding to market demand for different contract terms. Shades of General Mills….

May 26, 2017 in Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In Arizona, a Breach of Good Will Does Not Require Spite

A recent case out of Arizona, Russo and Steele, LLC v. Tri-Rentals, Inc., No. 1 CA-CV 16-0042, deals with breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which is read into every Arizona contract. In the case at issue, though, Tri-Rentals's behavior was not "self-dealing," and Tri-Rentals argued that self-dealing, or spite, or ill will was required to breach the covenant. Not so in Arizona, though. Arizona does not require self-dealing conduct. Rather, the covenant is breached if you prevent the other party from receiving the benefit of the bargain, whether or not you do so out of spite or some advantage to yourself. 

(The case itself is an interesting one, stemming out of collapsed tents at a car show that resulted in damage to several classic vehicles.)

May 25, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

He Who Breaches First, Etc.

Here is just a quick straightforward case out of the Eastern District of Michigan, Pittman v. Pacifica Loan Pool, LLC, Case No. 15-13877 (behind paywall), about the effect of a breach of contract on the other party to the contract. In the case, Pittman alleged that Pacifica breached the agreement by failing to pay the required property taxes. However, Pacifica countered that Pittman breached the agreement first by failing to make his required monthly payments. The court noted that the party who commits the first substantial breach of contract cannot sue the other party for failing to perform. Pittman's failure to make his required payments was a substantial breach on his part, and predated Pacifica's behavior. Therefore, he could not maintain this cause of action.  

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

If You Hire a Home Inspector, Listen to the Inspector, Not the Sellers

A recent case out of Texas, Naquin v. Cellio, No. 14-04054-431, deals with "as-is" clauses and fraudulent inducement in the context of a real estate transaction. 

Naquin bought a home in 2012. The home purchase contract stated that she was buying the home "in its present condition." Naquin hired an inspector to look the home over, received a report, and decided to buy the house. Naquin then claims to have discovered, inter alia, plumbing issues caused by a toilet that had been added to a pool house on the grounds, and claims that she had been fraudulently induced to buy the house by the Cellios' misrepresentations. 

The court upheld the enforceability of the "as-is" clause. There was no disparity of bargaining power between the parties, and both parties were represented by real estate agents in the transaction. The parties specifically negotiated over the "as-is" clause and agreed to give Naquin the right to complete an inspection of the property before closing the transaction (which Naquin did). 

However, the "as-is" clause would not be enforceable of the Cellios made a fraudulent misrepresentation. It was true that the Cellios executed statements saying they were unaware of any issues with the plumbing and that they had not done anything to the home without the necessary permitting (although it also appeared to be true that the Cellios thought this statement was true when they made it). But, at any rate, it was also true that Naquin knew that there were plumbing issues and structural defects because those had come up in the inspection. The inspection report, the court held, should have trumped the Cellios' representations, and Naquin should have relied on that. In fact, when Naquin hired the inspector, it was an indication that she was not relying on the Cellios' word. Therefore, she couldn't prove that she had been fraudulently induced. 

May 23, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Terms and Conditions on Your DNA: How Complicated Can It Get?

This is a long one, that I didn't expect to be long, but I decided the point is how long this is, and the questions it raises about all of those terms and conditions on websites. 

A friend of mine asked me recently about the terms and conditions of the Ancestry.com DNA service. The service, if you're not familiar with it, takes your DNA and breaks it down into ethnic backgrounds for you, based on analysis of genetic markers. Here's a video that talks about it some: 

So if you're using the DNA service, you're handing your DNA over to Ancestry.com, and maybe we should think: what does that mean? After all, who does our DNA belong to, and what can it be used to? The Supreme Court looked at this in the context of patents a few years ago, finding that DNA cannot be patented. So we know that no one can own a patent on your DNA. But that's not really what's at issue in the DNA service site. No one is trying to patent the DNA, but Ancestry.com is still using the DNA in certain ways.

Looking into the terms and conditions initially seemed to me like it would be straightforward. Several hours later...

I started with the actual terms and conditions (makes sense, right?). It has a license provision:  

"By submitting DNA to AncestryDNA, you grant AncestryDNA and the Ancestry Group Companies a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA, and any DNA you submit for any person from whom you obtained legal authorization as described in this Agreement, and to use, host, sublicense and distribute the resulting analysis to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered."

That "we deem appropriate" language seems very broad to me. Appropriate for what? There isn't a lot of limitation there, and a lot of trust seems to be placed that your definition of "appropriate" will be the same as Ancestry's (and how likely is that, really?). I looked at some social media terms to compare (Facebook, TumblrTwitter), and none of their license grants had "we deem appropriate" language (and, in fact, Tumblr's license in particular was fairly narrow in its grant). Keep in mind, Ancestry has your DNA, not a random tweet about making a cup of tea in the morning. Also a point to think about: the social media is free, and I think we kind of expect that there's a trade-off for that. Ancestry costs money AND also takes a broad license grant in exchange. 

The terms and conditions also go on:

"You hereby release AncestryDNA from any and all claims, liens, demands, actions or suits in connection with the DNA sample, the test or results thereof, including, without limitation, errors, omissions, claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, right of publicity, emotional distress or economic loss. This license continues even if you stop using the Website or the Service."

So they can do whatever they deem appropriate, and you release them from any lawsuits in connection with it. 

Now, adding a complicating layer to all of this, though, is that the terms and conditions are supposed to be read in conjunction with the privacy statement, on a completely different webpage, that does appear to limit what they're doing with the DNA, I think, and also appears to give you the opportunity to cancel the service, although how that affects the license, which says that it survives termination of the service, is unclear to me. And in addition to that, there is another completely different webpage, called the Consent Agreement. I don't know when this comes up in the DNA process, because I didn't want to input my credit card, and before that point I only saw the terms and conditions and privacy statement referenced. But the Consent Agreement has to do with participation in scientific research, which seems cool, except that when you read further down into it, it says stuff like this: 

"If Data are obtained through these methods, it is possible that information about you or a genetic relative could be revealed, such as that you or a relative are carriers of a particular disease. That information could be used by insurers to deny you insurance coverage, by law enforcement agencies to identify you or your relatives, and in some places, the data could be used by employers to deny employment.

In the United States, a federal law called the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) generally makes it illegal for health insurance companies, group health plans, and most employers to seek your genetic information without your consent, and to discriminate against you based on your genetic information. GINA does not protect you from discrimination with regard to life insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, or military service. There may be state laws and laws outside the United States that prohibit discrimination against you based on genetic data."

Tl;dr: What I just want to say is that's the point. I spent all morning trying to piece together all the different clauses of all these different documents, and I'm still confused, and I'm an actual lawyer (theoretically). And then I wrote a blog entry about it that was also too long! How confused do you think consumers are? And how many of them do you think actually spent the amount of time I did to try to get through all of that? 

May 22, 2017 in Commentary, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Show Cars, Wavering Owners, and Oral Contracts

We all know the importance of “getting it in writing.” At the same time, we also all know how hard it can be to actually implement that, especially when it comes to a party you trust. An appellate case out of California shows how even simple emails could probably have saved the parties a lot of agony, especially in a non-commercial context where tempers may flare.

Bf38f9f060da0c44b1b1b4ee2cc4b4a3--vw-t1-volkswagen-bus

In 2010, Richard Grace bought a classic 1967 VW bus from Drew Colome, who also specialized in restoring older vehicles to show standards. Indeed, Grace stated to Colome that he wanted the bus to be restored to become an “excellent to outstanding” bus that he could show or, no less, “the best bus in the world” (yes, alarm bells should be going off by now by anyone dealing with such a purchaser). Grace also sent an email to Colome asking for the “BEST original and correct bus in the world,” stating that he would like to enter the bus in “two or three of the BEST [car] shows.” Colome understood that to mean a car show in Irvine, California, where show cars are allowed to feature non-original car parts. Discussions had also included the Pebble Beach car show in which only original car parts can be used. Restoring a car to Pebble Beach standards can take three years or more. Colome testified that since Grace already knew a great deal about classic cars and car shows, he (Grace) would also understand the timelines involved in the restoration project.

A year and half into the project, Grace again stated in an email to Colome that Grace wanted “THE BEST” and did not want to rush the job. At that point in time, Grace apparently thought that the final restoration would take no more than two further months. Colome testified that it would take at least seven months longer. Half a year later, Grace told Colome that he wanted “to terminate the project” and would take the bus “regardless of where we [are] or what condition the bus was in.” At some point in time, Grace also mentioned the fact that he had hoped to have the restored bus in time for his birthday.

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Colome then delivered the bus to Grace in a winery parking lot (yes, really), believing that Grace would not try to drive the bus and later testifying that the bus was in fact “ not safe to drive.” Grace did, however, drive the bus, but found it difficult to steer and the bakes to not function properly. Grace subsequently paid another mechanic $12,500 to put the bus in working condition and sold it for $98,000.

Grace then filed suit against Colome for breach of oral contract. Grace alleged that Colome breached the parties' contract by "[f]ailing to restore [Grace's] 1967 21-Window VW Bus to show condition." After a bench trial, the court entered judgment in favor of Colome on all issues. Among other things, the court found that Grace failed to establish that he contracted with Colome in June 2010 for the restoration of the bus to the standards of Pebble Beach, that Colome did not breach the agreement because Grace prevented his performance when he retrieved the bus in August 2012, that Grace did not reasonably communicate his intention to drive the bus upon retrieval, and that Grace failed to establish that Colome's failure to complete the restoration of the bus was a breach of reasonable expectations under the contract because no time for completion was specified in the contract and a reasonable time would have been approximately three years.

With this case, you have to ask yourself why Colome did not, especially with a buyer like this, make sure to at least send an email stating the details of the deal as he understood them. A simple “reply” with some details and questions as to the expectations of the buyer would have worked wonders, it seems. Of course, Colome won the case anyway, but is it really reasonable, as here, to expect that a private buyer has all the knowledge about timelines, etc., involved in a specialty project such as this when you consider the fact that Colome was the expert who had restored between 90 and 120 VW buses? Why in the world would the parties not have gotten this in some sort of writing? Why would Colome, with a seemingly hot-tempered buyer like this, not have communicated more details in a deal such as this in at least an email? This seems unusual, especially given the fact that car mechanics always seem to issue “estimates” or “contracts” when I take my cars in for repair.

It seems that there were several miscommunications of intent and misunderstandings in this case. Of course, the case is more unique than a regular car repair job because of the special purposes of the car. On balance, the outcome of the case does seem fair both legally and factually. But it does, I think, raise some questions about the reasonable expectations of parties and why the parol evidence rule was not raised given the long time horizon of this job (three years). At a minimum, it again shows the importance of “getting it in writing,” even if that “just” takes the form of emailed communications.

May 21, 2017 in Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Doing Your Job Well to Benefit Your Employer Doesn't Result in Unjust Enrichment

In a recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Argue v. Triton Digital, Inc., Civil Action No. 16-133 (behind paywall), Argue, an engineer, brought suit alleging that his employer had been unjustly enriched by Argue's efforts. It's an interesting allegation. The court pointed out that what Argue was characterizing as "unjust enrichment" was really just him performing his job. He received a salary in exchange for his work, which included inventions, and his employer took that work and those inventions and used them to increase the value of its business. That wasn't unjust enrichment; the employer was entitled to do exactly what it did.  

Complicating this further? Argue had an employment agreement. The court pointed out that unjust enrichment is a doctrine that's supposed to be used only when no contract exists between the parties. Here there was a written agreement that provided Argue's employer with the right to Argue's inventions on the job. He could not, therefore, argue unjust enrichment at all. 

May 10, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Enforcing a Non-Solicitation Agreement Regarding Personal Client Relationships

In a recent case out of the District of New Jersey, Saturn Wireless Consulting, LLC v. Aversa, Civ. No. 17-1637 (KM/JBC) (behind paywall), the court took a (light) "blue pencil" to a non-solicitation covenant in the parties' contract. 

Saturn hired Aversa and they entered into a non-solicitation clause that prohibited Aversa from contact with any entity connected with Saturn, for the purpose of diverting work from Saturn, for a period of one year following Aversa ceasing to work for Saturn. Aversa resigned from Saturn and set up his own business that was partly in competition with Saturn. Saturn sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting Aversa from these activities based on the non-solicitation clause of the employment contract. 

The court carefully interpreted the non-solicitation clause, noting that Aversa was restrained from doing some business with Saturn's customers but not restrained from doing any business with them. Rather, the non-solicitation said that the prohibited activities had to be "for the purpose of diverting work or business." If Aversa was working with some entities in some areas where Saturn was not operating--as he was--then those activities were permitted under the agreement. 

The court did not, however, buy Aversa's argument that he did not run afoul of the non-solicitation clause because he did not contact the customer; the customer contacted him. The court noted that the clause had been expansively worded to include any "contact," not just solicitation, and therefore Aversa's returning of the customer's phone calls qualified. 

Aversa also tried to argue that Saturn had not alleged any trade secrets or confidential information that Aversa knew that Saturn was trying to protect. Rather, Saturn's allegations were more generally about Aversa's relationships with the customer at issue. Aversa stated that Saturn was therefore trying to prevent him from using his general skills and know-how, which it could not do. However, the court found that Saturn had a legitimate interest in protecting customer relationships to some extent, independent of any trade secrets or confidential information. The evidence showed that Saturn invested resources to help Aversa build business relationships on Saturn's behalf. Aversa could not then turn around and use that investment to harm Saturn. However, the court made clear that this prohibition applied only to Aversa working with the same people he'd personally worked with while at Saturn. Otherwise, Aversa would be subjected to undue hardship in his chosen career field. 

May 8, 2017 in Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 5, 2017

An "Egregious" Breach, But No Damages...

I haven't done a damages case in a while so here's one for you out of California, Wiring Connection, Inc. v. Amate, B264113

The parties entered into a lease totaling 65 months at $6,252 per month. After signing the lease, though, Amate leased the property to someone else and Wiring then had to lease a different property, under a three-year lease for $7,500 a month. Wiring sued for breach of contract and won. The court then had to determine damages. The lower court stated that the proper measure of damages would be the fair market value of Amate's property, less the amount Wiring had agreed to pay for it in the breached lease. Amate called an expert witness who testified that $6,252 had been the fair market value of Amate's property. The lower court was skeptical of this expert testimony, but Wiring did not call any expert witnesses of its own. Rather, Wiring argued that the proper measure of damages was the difference between what it would have paid in rent over 65 months at Amate's property and what it would pay in rent over the same time period at the property it had had to rent instead once Amate breached the lease.

The lower court said that, based on the evidence in front of it, it could not calculate any difference between the fair market value of Amate's property and the amount Wiring was going to pay under the lease, and found that it therefore could not award any damages to Wiring. The lower court said it was unhappy with the result, since Amate's breach had been "egregious," but it felt its hands were tied on the matter.

The appellate court agreed with the lower court. The lower court's statement of the measure of damages was the correct one, and Wiring failed to prove that there had been any difference between the fair market value and what was in the lease. Therefore, Wiring got nothing.  

I find this case a little curious because I find it difficult to believe that Wiring wasn't damaged in some way. Wiring is now paying substantially more for rent than it would have if the agreement had never been breached, after all. But it also seems like Wiring could have met its burden based on how much the new tenant was paying for Amate's property? I assume the new tenant was paying more (otherwise it would seem odd for Amate to breach, unless there was a personal relationship involved), and that that new tenant's monthly rate could be used to establish damages for Wiring. Probably not as high as the damages Wiring was seeking but at least something. But there is no discussion in the case of what the new tenant was paying, that I could see, so it either was less than Wiring was going to pay and so unhelpful to Wiring or Wiring simply ignored it in favor of putting all of their eggs in the basket of being compensated for the difference between their more expensive second lease. 

Either way, this is a painful damages case from Wiring's perspective. A welcome one, of course, from Amate's perspective! 

May 5, 2017 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Mistake Case Results in Rescission of a Contract

Sometimes rights can get passed along like a game of telephone. A recent case out of California, M.U.S.E. Picture Productions Holding Corp. v. Weinbach, B261146 (behind paywall), deals with a mistake that voids the original contract for those rights. 

Muse agreed to develop a film based on the book and screenplay "The Killer Inside Me," which Weinbach claimed to own the rights to. After about a decade during which Muse did not produce the film, Muse sold its rights to Windwings, and then Windwings sold its rights to Kim, who eventually produced a movie. In the meantime, Muse sued Weinbach for intentional misrepresentation during the original negotiation for the right, and Weinbach cross-claimed for breach of the agreement stemming from Kim's production of the movie. (Windwings and Kim were also involved in litigation with Weinbach, not relevant to this blog entry, but you can find a ruling from it here.)

Basically, Muse contended that Weinbach did not have the right to produce the film based on the novel at the time that he transferred those rights to Muse. Weinbach contended, however, that this was not a mistake of fact but rather one of judgment because it relied upon a later court interpretation of the extent of Weinbach's rights. The court agreed with Muse, however. Weinbach had repeatedly told Muse that he had the right to produce a movie from the book and never wavered from that, so it wasn't like Muse ever thought it was negotiating for a dubious right; Muse thought Weinbach had the right, because that's what Weinbach asserted. A later court ruling raised doubts, but Muse had had no reason to ever expect a later court ruling on the question. This mistake was material because Muse would not have entered into the contract if it had thought Weinbach didn't possess the right in question. And there was no evidence that Muse assumed the risk that Weinbach didn't have that right. Therefore, this mistake justified rescission of the contract. 

May 4, 2017 in Current Affairs, Film, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)