ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The University of the Cumberlands Fights Its Former President over Consideration

 University of the Cumberlands Welcome Sign

A recent case out of the Eastern District of Kentucky, Taylor v. University of the Cumberlands, Civil No: 6:16-cv-109-GFVT (behind paywall), has lots of causes of action, including an interesting dispute over whether an agreement between the university and its former President and Chancellor was supported by consideration. 

While the decision itself, granting in part and denying in part the university's motion to dismiss, is behind a paywall, the dispute has been reported and described in the press. Dr. Taylor served as the President of the university for 35 years. He alleged that the school had agreed to pay him and his wife almost $400,000 annually after his retirement until they were both dead. The school disputed the validity of that agreement. The Taylors then brought several claims against the university, including breach of contract. 

On the motion to dismiss, the main contract argument involved consideration. The university argued that the contract was given in recognition of the Taylors' successful fundraising efforts and service to the school, which had already occurred. This, the university contended, meant it was past consideration and rendered the agreement unenforceable. 

The court acknowledged that the agreement discussed the Taylors' past behavior. However, the court also identified five current promises the Taylors made under the agreement: to continue to serve as president until he decided to retire; to accept the role of Chancellor until he decided to retire; to serve as an Ambassador of the university; to serve the university in any capacity requested; and to continue to fundraise for the university. Therefore, there was consideration. 

The university then argued that the agreement had no definite end date, which would mean it was terminable at will. However, the court noted that that rule applies to contracts that would otherwise run forever. In such a circumstance, the right to terminate at will can be considered appropriate. In this case, the contract would terminate once both of the Taylors were dead. No one knew when that date would be, but presumably the Taylors will not live forever and therefore the contract will not run forever. Therefore, the contract was not terminable at will, and the Taylors lived to fight another day on their breach of contract claim (although the court noted that there were significant disputes surrounding the execution of the agreement and its proper interpretation). 

February 12, 2017 in In the News, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Holiday Decoration Lawsuit!

The holiday season feels like it happened so long ago, but, if you make yourself think way back to that distant era of our history, you may recall that suddenly spotlights that broadcast dancing snowflakes or other festive decorations onto houses were everywhere. 

Now they're in court, too. A case recently removed to the District of New Jersey, Closeout Surplus & Salvage CSS, Inc. v. Sears Outlet, LLC, Docket No. 2:17-cv-00104-KSH-CLW (behind paywall), involves the "Glow Bright" version of these lights. Here's a video of Glow Bright laser light show, to refresh your recollection and also maybe revive a little holiday spirit. 

The plaintiff, Closeout, alleged that it had an exclusive right to sell the Glow Bright with tripod and remote and began selling and advertising the product online. The plaintiff alleges that Sears, the defendant, appropriated the plaintiff's advertising and began advertising that it, too, was selling the Glow Bright with tripod and remote. However, the plaintiff alleges that only it had the right, via contract, to sell the Glow Bright with tripod and remote. It appears from the allegations that Sears was only selling the Glow Bright alone but, in appropriating plaintiff's advertisements, it looked to consumers like Sears was selling the Glow Bright with the tripod and remote.  

The plaintiff has therefore sued Sears for tortious interference with contractual relationship and/or prospective economic benefits and unfair trade practices and unfair competition. The suit was just removed to federal court at the beginning of January and Sears has not yet answered the complaint, but I'll keep an eye on it to give you the latest updates in holiday decoration law. 

February 5, 2017 in Film Clips, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Providing "Retirement Benefits" Isn't the Same as Providing Health Insurance Coverage

A recent case out of New York, Wilson v. New York State Thruway Authority, 931-16, deals with the collective bargaining agreement between the New York State Thruway Authority and its retirees over whether the Thruway Authority was contractually bound to provide health insurance coverage to the retirees at no cost. The retirees had enjoyed free health insurance until April 1, 2016, when the Thruway Authority required them to start paying six percent of their premiums. The retirees wanted to introduce evidence that the parties understood that the Thruway Authority was going to pay all of their health insurance premiums, pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 

The problem was that the contract between the parties contained no such obligation and the court found that the contract was unambiguous on its face. All that the contract stated was that the Thruway Authority should provide "retirement benefits" made available by New York statutes the contract went on to enumerate. None of those statutes contained provisions requiring the Thruway Authority to provide health insurance coverage. In fact, health care benefits were governed by different New York statutes, not the ones enumerated, and New York state courts had long pointed out that "retirement benefits" and "health care benefits" were two different things governed by two different statutes under New York law. Given that, the court concluded that "retirement benefits" was an unambiguous term of art that the parties knew the definition of, given their particular citation of New York statutes to define it. The court refused to allow extrinsic evidence in the face of this lack of ambiguity. If the retirees had wished the Thruway Authority to pay for their health insurance premiums, they should have included an express provision saying that in the collective bargaining agreement, as many other collective bargaining agreements construed under New York law had done. 

This decision is fairly straightforward as a matter of the law: finding that the term was unambiguous (and indeed basically defined within the document through the statutory citations) and so therefore extrinsic evidence was unnecessary to decide the breach of contract action (the court here concluded that, with no obligation to pay the health insurance premiums, the Thruway Authority had not breached the contract). However, it is a legal dispute that we might see more and more of, as deals with retirees are reevaluated and altered in an age of shrinking budgets. 

February 4, 2017 in Commentary, Government Contracting, Labor Contracts, Legislation, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 3, 2017

No Class Actions For Investment Fraud Claims in the Eighth Circuit

In Holtz v. JPMorgan Chase Bank (the “Bank”), Judge Easterbook recently held that litigants may pursue state law contracts or fiduciary duty claims in an individualized manner, but not in the form of class action law suits under the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“the Litigation Act,” 15 U.S.C. § 78bb (F)).

In the case, the plaintiffs alleged that the Bank gave its employees incentives to place clients’ money on the Bank’s own mutual funds, even when those funds have higher fees or lower returns than competing funds sponsored by third parties. The Bank allegedly failed to inform the clients of this conflict of interest or lied about it. Plaintiffs also argued that banks have fiduciary duty that they simply cannot contract out of under state contract law. J. Easterbrook recognizes that contract claims survive federal statutory pre-emption standards. Here, the Litigation Act is on point. However, to plead misrepresentations or omissions under the Act, the contract claims must not be “material.” (An omission is “material” when a reasonable investor would deem it significant to an investment decision.) In other words, the gravamen of litigation under the Act must, it seems, be statutory, and not purely contractual, issues. If the contractual issues are material, they must be litigated in the form of state law claims.

Per Easterbrook, “there are plenty of ways to bring wrongdoers to account – but a class action that springs from lies or material omissions in connection with federally regulated securities is not among them … If [the plaintiff] wants to pursue a contract or fiduciary-duty claim under state law, she has only to proceed in the usual way: one litigant against another.”

Another win in the “war” against class actions, it seems.

February 3, 2017 in Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 27, 2017

This Is a Case About Copyright, Forum Selection Clauses, and Porn

Here's a case about porn. 

I thought all of us could use a brief break from the news, and porn always raises such interesting legal issues. This recent case out of the District of Arizona, AMA Multimedia LLC v. Sagan Limited, No. CV-16-01269-PHX-DGC, deals with the application of a forum selection clause to a copyright infringement case. You can read the complaint from the case here, and a couple of earlier orders from the case here and here. (Thanks to Eric Goldman for passing along the order link!)

The plaintiff, AMA, is a producer of pornographic material who entered into a contract with Porn.com, owned and operated by defendants (nice straightforward--and I would imagine valuable--URL there). Under the contract, AMA granted a license for the use of certain content. AMA became aware that Porn.com was displaying many copyrighted works which AMA had not granted a license to and sued for copyright infringement. The defendants responded that this lawsuit is governed by the contract between them, which has a forum selection clause requiring legal actions "arising out of or relating to" the contract to take place in Barbados. 

AMA's main argument was that the forum selection clause didn't apply because this is a case about copyright infringement, not about any issues arising from the contract. However, the court pointed out that the contract was entirely about the proper use of copyrighted works. AMA's copyright infringement case was really a case about the defendants using works in a way that violated the contract between them. The court would necessarily have to interpret the contract to decide if the defendants' behavior was in fact infringing. Therefore, the forum selection clause applied.

AMA next tried to argue that the forum selection clause should be found unenforceable because it would force AMA to litigate in a jurisdiction where discovery would be difficult and costly, and was therefore designed to discourage AMA from bringing suit at all. However, the court found that AMA provided no evidence for its assertions regarding litigation in Barbados being difficult and expensive, and that the mere inconvenience of the jurisdiction was not enough to negate the forum selection clause. 

January 27, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

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

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

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

Friday, January 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

City Can't Delegate Duties as Owner of Apartment Units

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

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

When the Break-Up of a Marriage Is Also a Breach of Contract

HGTV

Photo Source: hgtv.com

The main reason I have cable these days, honestly, is because of my HGTV addiction. I like that the shows are so predictable and formulaic, which makes them low-stress. It's a habit I started years ago as a stressed-out lawyer in a law firm, when I needed to come home and watch something that didn't require thought, and it's kept me company as I transitioned into academia. And I'm apparently not alone in using it as comfort television

I use HGTV a lot in my Contracts class as the foundation of hypotheticals (so much that I'm contributing a chapter to a book detailing how I use it) and so I'm always interested when there is a real-life HGTV contract problem...such as is happening right now with "Flip or Flop." 

You might not be anxiously following HGTV shows, so let me tell you that the world was recently rocked (well, a small corner of the world) by the revelation that Christina and Tarek, the married couple with two young children at the center of the house-flipping show "Flip or Flop," were separated and/or getting divorced. And now come reports that HGTV has threatened them with a breach of contract action if their ongoing marital problems affect the filming of the show.

This is an example of the interesting issues that arise when your personal life becomes the equivalent of your contractually obligated professional life. Christina and Tarek no longer want to be married to each other, apparently, which is a stressful enough situation, without adding in the fact that their marriage is also the source of their livelihood. HGTV has a point that the show is less successful when you know that their personal life is a mess. The network was running a commercial pretty steadily through the holiday season where Christina and Tarek talked about their family Christmas, and every time I saw it I thought it was so weird and that they should pull the commercial. But that was clearly the advertising campaign HGTV had long planned for the show and it was probably costly for HGTV to change it at that point.

I am curious to see what the resolution of this is. I'm unclear how much longer Christina and Tarek were under contract for. They probably hoped to keep their separation quiet for as long as they could (they had, after all, kept it quiet for several months). But now that it's out in the open, we'll have to see how the parties recalibrate not just their personal but also their contractual relationships with each other. There is always a lot of talk about how "real" the shows on HGTV is. This situation is testing where our boundaries on "real" vs. "fake" actually lie. 

January 7, 2017 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Labor Contracts, Teaching, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Contractual Brouhaha in the Fashion World

There is major drama happening in the world of high fashion, and it all revolves around an alleged non-compete. Carolina Herrera has sued Oscar de la Renta to keep Laura Kim from working for the rival company. According to CH, Kim signed a non-compete with CH which gave it the option of paying Kim fifty percent of her salary and health benefits in exchange for Kim not competing against it for six months. The six months seems like a suitably short period of time in the fast-moving fashion industry, especially as it has important impacts on New York Fashion Week in February. 

The judge ordered a TRO which has since been lifted pending a preliminary injunction hearing in the new year. In the meantime, you should go to this article for all of the juicy details on what exactly went down between Kim and CH. 

December 28, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Faculty Handbook as Contract

Just a quick entry in advance of a weekend that is a holiday for many, but this post on Inside Higher Ed caught my eye, discussing an in-progress case against NYU. An appellate court allowed two professors' complaint to survive a motion to dismiss based on sufficient allegations that the faculty handbook was a formal binding contract. One to keep an eye on in the new year. 

However you plan to spend this upcoming weekend, I hope it's full of peace and joy. 

December 23, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Continuing Impact of Confidentiality Provisions

Confidentiality provisions are everywhere these days, especially in all of those arbitrations most contracts now require. I've blogged about them in connection with Donald Trump, and now they are playing a starring role in the very messy divorce between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, in which Depp is allegedly refusing to provide Heard's divorce settlement because he alleges she breached their agreement's confidentiality provision when she spoke out publicly against domestic violence. 

It's unclear to me what the wording of the confidentiality provision was and whether Heard's behavior really did violate it. What is clear to me is that the confidentiality provision is being used to prevent communications of encouragement and support to people who are victims of domestic violence. There is a dual tragedy here: Not only are words of encouragement being muffled, but victims of domestic violence are now receiving the message that those words of encouragement could lead to punishing consequences. 

Confidentiality provisions can make sense, and there are definitely situations where they are vital to a deal getting done. But there are also situations where they seem to be operating against public policy. 

December 19, 2016 in Commentary, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reminder: Moral Obligations Do Not Equal Legal Obligations

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

In Which Messy Handwriting Renders a Contract Ambiguous

Competition swimming pool block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Prince's Complicated Legal Legacy Continues

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

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

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

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

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

Air Force None?

Recently, Donald Trump famously tweeted that “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”  Trump has not said why he believes the planes will cost "more than $4 billion." Boeing says it currently has an Air Force One contract worth $170 million.

Air-force-one-3

This raises several contractual issues that could be used as an interesting issue-spotting practice for our students. At first blush, it seems like an impossible attempt at a breach of contract that would, conversely, at least give very reasonable grounds for insecurity if not constitute an anticipatory repudiation outright.

Needless to say, Trump’s remark that “[w]e want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money” finds no support in contract law. One contractual party has no control over how much money the other party should make. One would have thought that Trump – as a staunch “market forces” supporter – would have understood and embraced that idea, but that either was not the case or he is flip-flopping in that respect as well.

Digging deeper into the story, however, it turns out that “not even [Boeing] can estimate the cost of the program at this time, since the Pentagon has not even decided all the bells and whistles it wants on the new Air Force One." Further, “without knowing all the security features, it is hard to estimate the cost … and the Air Force isn't even sure whether it wants two or three of the planes.” Does a contract even exist at this point, then, when the essential terms have apparently not been mutually agreed upon, or is there simply an unenforceable agreement to agree? A valid argument cold be made for the latter, I think.

Mr. Trump has been accused of overestimating the cost of the planes. Does he, however, have a point? “So far[,] the Air Force has budgeted $2.9 billion through 2021 for two new Air Force Ones.” It is not inconceivable that the price tag may, in these circumstances, run higher than that. That circularity goes back to the essential terms – the price in this case – arguably not having been decided on yet.

There might, of course, be other issues in this that I have not seen in my admittedly hasty review of the story, but it is interesting how the media jumps at a legally related story without thoroughly or even superficially attempting to get the law right.

December 7, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)