ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, March 27, 2017

NDAs in the Sexual Assault Context

I've blogged a lot about NDAs on this blog, including in the context of allegations of domestic violence. So when I saw this recent essay on Inside Higher Ed discussing NDAs in the context of sexual assault investigations on university campuses, I thought it would be interesting to link to. Confidentiality provisions show up everywhere, and I think the essay is a thoughtful and important rumination on the effect they can have in some situations. 

March 27, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Law Schools, True Contracts, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 17, 2017

No Lawsuit for Selling Suboptimally Sized Product

A group of plaintiffs suffering from glaucoma bought eye drops manufactured by six pharmaceutical companies. They claimed that the eye drops were unnecessarily large (no, let’s not go there this time): all drops sold by these manufacturers were larger than 16 microliters (equal to 10% of a tablespoon). The plaintiffs claim that unnecessarily large eye drops are wasteful because the human eye can only contain so much fluid. Anything in excess of that will simply overflow and be wasted, which is a waste of money.

The amount of fluid that the human eye can contain without overflowing varies from person to person. The defendants asserted that the amount often exceeds 16 microliters. Further, the active ingredient in each drop is only about 1% of the drop. The smaller the drop, the less therapeutic effect, they claimed (without explaining why, for example, two drops could not simply be applied by those with larger eyes…). Defendants also claimed that larger drops helps those with unsteady hands, such as the elderly, because “the smaller the drop, the likelier they are to miss.” Now, at least that makes sense… (not!).

As was said on the listserv, this is arguably not even a contract law case at all, especially because no allegation of misrepresentation, breach of contract, or the like was asserted. In the words of opinion author Judge Posner, this is merely a case of “you can do better by us” asserted by plaintiff consumers. “That is all they are arguing.” However, said Posner, “[o]ne cannot bring a suit in federal court without pleading that one has been injured in some way (physically, financially—whatever) by the defendant. That's what's required for standing. The fact that a seller does not sell the product that you want, or at the price you'd like to pay, is not an actionable injury; it is just a regret or disappointment—which is all we have here, the class having failed to allege ‘an invasion of a legally protected interest.’”

So, what do we have here? No contracts violation, perhaps. Consumer fraud under the respective state acts? Apparently not. What we seem to have, however, is another instance of Corporate America taking advantage of consumers with the consent of even the federal judicial appellate system. Of course any product that is larger than what is needed per “portion” is wasteful and thus arguably taking unnecessary advantage of consumers. Whether or not that can be framed as an actionable legal issue in our system is another story altogether, sadly. Even worse: companies do apparently not want to do right by their own customers, in this case often elderly folks going blind! Episode32

This is, of course, not the only instance of needless and blatant consumer fraud (for that is what these instances are, at least in the common, if not the legal, sense of the word). More examples:

  • When you buy lotion, it is next to impossible to get the last, oh, 20% out of those pump-type containers unless you unscrew the pump and pour out the lotion.
  • Almost all perishable food items are sold in much larger portions than what is needed for most of us – think cottage cheese, yoghurt, lunch meats (OK, apart from those itty bitty bags, those are great), milk, you name it. People needing more could just buy two items! (That’s how it’s done with great success in many European countries, but heaven forbid that we ever learn anything from other countries.) The rest of us often have to throw out much of the food as it doesn’t last that long.
  • How about packaging? Huge bags of chips that are only 1/2 full? Same for cereal boxes? Sun screen spray bottles that are also only 1/3 full?
  • OK, I’m in a crappy mood about companies and organizations today, I admit. Of course the capitalist model is the best one, etc. etc. But it would be nice if more companies would focus more on decency, less waste in packaging and eventual product usage, and consumer needs. This eye drop story really is one of forcing consumers to waste product and thus money. Let’s just call a spade a spade.

On an unrelated note: I apologize for being so inactive on this blog for so long. I have had a disappointing contractual work experience that has drained me and continues to do so, frankly. I am trying the hardest I can to find interesting cases to blog about. Should you hear of any, I’d be delighted to be notified. I also invite guest bloggers to blog here with us. As always: thanks to my co-bloggers for their hard and excellent work!

The case described above is Eike, et al. v. Allergan, et al., No. 16-3334 (Seventh Cir. 2017).

Hat tip to my colleagues on the Contracts listserv for discussing this case.

March 17, 2017 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Offers, Counteroffers, Conditions Precedent

A recent case out of Ohio, Sabatine BK Development v. Fitzpatrick Enterprises, Case No. 2016CA00116, is a nice case for offer-counteroffer problems as well as condition precedent situations. In the case, Sabatine sent a purchase offer to Fitzpatrick for a piece of land "as depicted on Exhibit A." However, Sabatine never sent an Exhibit A. Fitzpatrick made his own Exhibit A and sent it to Sabatine along with some other changes. The court found that this was a counteroffer, not an acceptance. Fitzpatrick's new Exhibit A was a material modification of Sabatine's offer, which had contained no Exhibit A at all and therefore never defined the land that was being discussed. Sabatine needed to accept this counteroffer. However, Sabatine actually rejected the counteroffer. So there was never any contract. 

Alternatively, the parties were excused from performing because the contract contained a condition precedent that never occurred. The contract read that the contract was "subject to a mutually agreeable replat of the property." "Subject to" is classic condition precedent language, and the parties never agreed on a replat of the property, so it was never fulfilled, and so neither of the parties had to perform. 

March 16, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pineapples Don't Merit Injunctive Relief

 

Ananas comosus dsc07804.jpg
By David Monniaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I just listened to a podcast about the fledgling pineapple industry in Hawaii in the 19th century, and then a case about pineapple crossed my inbox. (It's a snowy day on the East Coast, so thinking about pineapples is welcome.) It's a case out of the Southern District of Florida, Del Monte International v. Ticofrut, Case No. 16-23894-CIV-MARTINEZ/GOODMAN (behind paywall), and it involves Costa Rican pineapples. It's an interesting case revolving around Del Monte's quest for a preliminary injunction to stop Ticofrut from selling pineapples to third parties. Del Monte had consented to these third party sales when Del Monte and Ticofrut were in a contract together. However, once the contract ended and the negotiations between the parties didn't lead to a new contract, Del Monte objected to the third party sales as violating restrictive covenants in the old contract that survived its termination. 

The court doesn't really doubt that Ticofrut's sales are in violation of the restrictive covenants, but the court doesn't think that these violations are resulting in irreparable harm to Del Monte, and largely that's because Del Monte had previously allowed the third party sales. The court thinks it's absurd for Del Monte to argue it's being irreparably harmed by conduct that it previously had no problem with. The court sums up Del Monte's position as "it cannot be harmed by conduct it agreed to but can be harmed by that same conduct if it did not agree to it," which it finds "fundamentally faulty." The court basically says that either Del Monte permitted itself to be irreparably harmed before or the conduct doesn't irreparably harm Del Monte at all; it thinks the latter is more likely. 

The court also concludes that Del Monte's injuries here aren't unique or difficult to quantify. Pineapples can be valued pretty easily, so the court says that, unlike in other cases involving non-competes, it's not difficult to compensate Del Monte with monetary damages instead of injunctive relief. 

March 14, 2017 in Food and Drink, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Company's Pledge to Donate to a Charity Did Not Create a Contract

A recent case out of the Second Circuit, McCabe v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 16-3301-cv, adds to the jurisprudence on promotions and offers and unilateral contracts. 

ConAgra ran an annual promotion whereby it pledged to donate to a charity every time a certain code from its packaging was entered on its website, up to a certain maximum amount. McCabe alleged that this promotion created a contract and alleged that ConAgra breached the contract. A promotion is generally not considered an offer to enter into a contract unless it is clear, definite, and explicit, leaving nothing left to negotiate. ConAgra's promotion did not rise to that level, not least because the promotion was clearly limited to a certain maximum amount. For that reason, a person entering the code into ConAgra's website would never have any way of knowing if its code would trigger a donation on ConAgra's part, because the maximum donation amount might have already been achieved. ConAgra's promotion was not an offer, and McCabe could not accept it. 

McCabe then tried to characterize the promotion as an invitation for offers, with people "offering" when they input the code onto ConAgra's website, and ConAgra "accepting" when it acknowledged receipt of the code. However, the promotion was too indefinite to set any terms for the "offer," and the code entry itself did not clarify any of the terms further. 

At any rate, even if there had been a contract, the court found that there weren't sufficient allegations ConAgra had breached it. There was no allegation that ConAgra did not donate to the charity every time it received the code, up to the maximum amount. McCabe's disagreement was really with the charity's own methodology, which was not ConAgra's issue. 

You can listen to the oral argument in this case here

March 8, 2017 in E-commerce, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fire Brings Us Another Impossibility Case

Here's one for when you teach impossibility: 

The plaintiff is a travel company. The defendant operates a resort. They had a multi-year contract whereby the plaintiff would rent out the resort for Passover each year. The resort burned down and the guests could no longer go to it. The resort, however, sought to keep the plaintiff's down payment. This lawsuit in New York, Leisure Time Travel, Inc. v. Villa Roma Resort and Conference Center, Inc., 32504/09 (behind paywall), resulted. 

The court found that the fire "undoubtedly" rendered the resort's performance impossible, but the resort could not unjustly enrich itself by keeping the travel company's deposit. Therefore, the resort had to give the deposit back to the travel company. 

The court also contemplated whether, once the resort was rebuilt, it was required to permit the travel company to rent it out for Passover. The court found that it had been uncertain at the time of the fire whether or not the resort would ever be rebuilt, and it indeed took years for it to be rebuilt. Therefore, it considered the contract to have been rescinded at the point that the fire rendered the resort's performance impossible, with neither party under any obligation to perform anymore. 

(The resort, weirdly, sought payment from the travel company for the years when the resort was not operational and could not be rented out. The court classifies this claim as "incredible" and denies it. The same fire that rendered the resort's performance impossible also freed the travel company from having to pay for a benefit it was no longer receiving.)

March 6, 2017 in Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inmates Didn't Consent to Be Bound to a Contract Every Time They Used the Telephone

Myanna has already blogged about the problem of inmate telephone rates being set unreasonably high. Myanna's blog post was about a dispute in California but a recent decision out of the Western District of Arkansas, In re Global Tel*Link Corporation ICS Litigation, Case No. 5:14-CV-5275 (behind paywall), deals with the same issue. (There are several of these litigations, as well as other government debates about regulation of these rates.) In the Arkansas decision, the court refuses to compel arbitration. 

Global Tel*Link's allegation was that the inmates consented to the terms of use when they funded their accounts to enable them to make phone calls, and the terms of use contained an arbitration clause. Every time the inmates put money on their accounts with Global Tel*Link, they heard a message similar to the following: 

Please note that your account, and any transactions you complete with GTL or any of its affiliates, are governed by the terms of use and the privacy statement posted at www.connectnetwork.com . The terms of use and the privacy statement were most recently revised on March 30, 2015.

The court determined, however, that a reasonable person would not have understood this message as referring to a contract and as constituting consent to be bound by that contract, since it never used any contract buzzwords like "contract," "consent," "agree," "assent," "offer," "accept," etc. The court said that, as far as the inmate listening to the message was concerned, the terms of use and privacy statements could have been just generally applicable legal rights imposed by regulators. The court characterized Global Tel*Link's behavior as basically hiding the contract ball: Global Tel*Link could have straightforwardly said the inmates were entering into a contract but instead "invite[d] [them] to visit a website where [they] might accidentally stumble across this fact." (I went to connectnetwork.com. The terms of use are located at the bottom of the page and required me to scroll to find them, and I just blogged about a case where the persistent location of the terms of use hyperlink at the bottom of the page didn't constitute enough notice.)

Because the inmates never signed anything, never clicked or punched any button signifying acceptance of contract terms, never had an opportunity to review the terms of use prior to using Global Tel*Link's services, and would not reasonably have understood the message to be referring to contractual terms, the inmates did not assent to the contract and thus are not bound by the contract's arbitration provision. 

March 4, 2017 in Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 3, 2017

If You Disagree with Your Insurance Company's Claim Decision, Do It Promptly

A recent case out of the Southern District of Florida, Rodriguez v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company, Case Number 16-21926-CIV-MORENO (behind paywall), clarifies the statute of limitations on insurance claims. Rodriguez filed an insurance claim in 2005, to cover damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina. That same year, Liberty Mutual sent Rodriguez a check with a letter indicating that the claim had been completely reviewed. Rodriguez took the check and cashed it. Then, ten years later, in 2015, Rodriguez requested an appraisal of the claim, which Liberty Mutual denied. Rodriguez then brought suit, alleging that the statute of limitations should be measured from Liberty Mutual's denial of the appraisal request in 2015, rather than from the payment of the claim in 2005. 

The court disagreed with Rodriguez. Florida has a five-year statute of limitations on breach of property insurance contract claims. The statute of limitation runs from the breach of the policy. The complaint here alleged that Liberty Mutual breached the contract by failing to make full and adequate payment for the damage done in 2005. Liberty Mutual had informed Rodriguez in 2005 that it considered its review to be complete and Rodriguez made no indication to Liberty Mutual that it was dissatisfied with Liberty Mutual's decision until 2015. Rodriguez also gave no reason to try to justify the ten-year delay in notifying Liberty Mutual of a dispute. Therefore, the statute of limitations began accruing in 2005, not in 2015 when the appraisal request was denied. Otherwise, an insured could simply sit on rights an indefinite period of time, ask for an appraisal many years later, and never be barred by the statute of limitations, which the court thought could not be the right result. 

In addition, the court found that, even if the statute of limitations did not bar the action, Rodriguez breached the insurance policy by failing to provide "prompt notice" as required under the policy. In Florida, this failure to provide prompt notice can justify a denial of coverage. The court found that waiting ten years constituted late notice, and, in Florida, also raised a presumption that Liberty Mutual was prejudiced by the delay, which Rodriguez did not even attempt to overcome. Even without the presumption, the court held that Liberty Mutual had shown prejudice because evidence showed that the house had been damaged again in 2013, which would have made it difficult for Liberty Mutual to investigate the previous 2005 damage at issue in this case. 

March 3, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Terms and Conditions Hyperlink at Bottom of Page Not Conspicuous Enough to Be Binding on Users

We have blogged about arbitration clauses in contracts lots of times before, including in the Internet context, and including in the diet pill context. Now a recent case out of Florida, Vitacost.com, Inc. v. McCants, No. 4D16-3384, adds to the pile, in the Internet diet pill context. In this case, McCants sued Vitacost, from which he purchased dietary supplements that he alleged seriously damaged his liver. In response, Vitacost sought to compel arbitration based on the arbitration clause in the terms and conditions on its website. In Florida, the enforceability of Vitacost's "browsewrap" terms and conditions was a matter of first impression. 

Vitacost claimed that the hyperlink to its terms and conditions was located at the bottom of every page of its website and that that was sufficient to put McCants on notice of them. However, the court noted that the constant positioning of the hyperlink at the bottom of the page required every user to have to scroll to the bottom of the page to notice the terms and conditions. Even upon buying something and "checking out," the hyperlink remained positioned toward the bottom of the page. McCants alleged that he had not seen the terms and conditions, and the court found that the hyperlink's location was not conspicuous enough to put McCants on notice. 

February 26, 2017 in E-commerce, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

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)