Friday, August 18, 2017
Having disappeared for a couple of weeks into frantic preparation for the new semester, I thought I would re-emerge by sharing a hypo that I do with my students on the first day of class, based on Conan O'Brien's contract dispute with NBC from a few years ago. The hypo goes something like this:
Brian O’Conan is a comedic host who has helmed a show on CBN, Later at Night, for sixteen years. Later at Night airs at 12:30, and Brian has always wanted to “move up” in the world of late night hosts to host a show at the earlier time of 11:30. Five years ago, in order to keep Brian at the network, CBN promised to give Brian hosting duties for its legendary 11:30 show, Somewhat Late at Night, as soon as Len Jayo’s current contract was up. Somewhat Late at Night is a flagship show that has aired in its time slot on CBN for 43 years; prior to that, it started at 11:15 for 14 years. For its entire 57-year existence, Somewhat Late at Night has begun directly after the late local news.
Brian and CBN enter into a contract with the following terms:
- Brian is guaranteed that he will be the host of Somewhat Late at Night.
- Both Brian and CBN promise to act in good faith in executing the contract.
- Both parties will mitigate any damages caused by a breach of contract, but CBN agrees that it will pay Brian $40 million if it breaches the contract.
- Brian is prohibited from being a late-night host on any other network in the event of a breach of the contract.
As promised by the contract, Brian becomes host of Somewhat Late at Night. After a strong start, Brian’s ratings trail off. Six months into Brian’s stint as host, CBN makes a public announcement that Somewhat Late at Night will be moved to start at midnight. It will use the 11:30 time slot for a new late-night show with old Somewhat Late at Night host Len Jayo.
Brian, learning all of this for the first time from the public announcement, tells CBN it has breached the contract, demands payment of $40 million, and also opens discussions with a competing network, Wolf, to host a new late night show at 11:30.
I like this hypo because, even though it was several years ago now, most students recognize the real-life situation this problem was based on and so feel somewhat engaged with it. In addition, even though I have taught them literally nothing about contract law at this point, I think they gain a lot of confidence from being able to examine the problem and come up with ideas for how the analysis should begin. I usually split them up and assign them a side to represent and have them make arguments on their client's behalf, and then allow them time for rebuttal. Along with discussing the contract's terms around the show itself, the students get into discussions about good faith, mitigation of damages, and just basic fairness. When we're done with the discussion, I then ask them how they felt about the side they had been assigned to, and if any of them had wished they'd had the other side. I think it is a good basic introduction to the task of being lawyers that I find relaxes them a little on the first day: If they can already talk about this problem on the first day, imagine how much better they'll be once they know some law!
If you're starting school years like I am, good luck!
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
In times when it seems that employers often not only attempt to, but also often get away with, unreasonable demotion and/or termination attempts, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the rights of employees not to be forced into unreasonable demotion “agreements.”
The crucial facts of the case are as follows: In 2011, Timothy Gilkerson was hired by Nebraska Colocation Centers (“NCC”) as a Vice President and General Manager in an IT function that also included Gilkerson’s expanding the company’s customer base. Among other things, the employment contract stated that Mr. Gilkerson could only be fired for cause defined as the “willful misconduct in carrying out Executive’s duties which causes economic harm” to NCC or the “persistent failure to perform the duties and responsibilities of his employment hereunder….” The contract also specified various generous sales and retirement bonuses.
NCC subsequently became dissatisfied with Gilkerson’s sales-related performance. Gilkerson received an employee performance review with an “Unsatisfactory” rating for “Achieved Sales Goals” and “Fulfills the terms of his contract.” Gilkerson signed the review document, but noted his dissatisfaction with the sales goal rating. NCC ultimately determined that Gilkerson was not “effective” in his role, announced the hiring of a new Vice President and, the same day, told Gilkerson that 1) the new employee would be moving into Gilkerson’s office and 2) that Gilkerson’s job ti
tle was changed to something less desirable from his point of view.
Crucially to the case, Gilkerson was presented with a “Mutual Rescission” to rescind the employment contract and a “Term Sheet” which set forth new and much less desirable terms of Gilkerson’s employment. In other words” NCC sought to demote Gilkerson. Importantly, the “mutual rescission” sought to convert Gilkerson’s contractual status to be an at-will employee. Gilkerson smartly consulted with an attorney who told him not to sign the Mutual Rescission. At a subsequent meeting with the NCC president, Gilkerson was told he had two choices: Accept the rescission and term sheet or be fired for cause; an obvious Hobson’s choice. Gilkerson signed. You guessed it: he was then also fired.
Gilkerson filed suit, claiming contractual duress which, in Nebraska, involves a two-part test: First, the agreement obtained must have been obtained by means of pressure. Second, the agreement itself must be unjust, unconscionable, or illegal. Whether particular facts are sufficient to constitute duress is, in Nebraska, a matter of law.
The duress test sounds like a high standard to meet. Sure enough: on a motion for summary judgment, the trial court found that “had the revised terms … been given to a newly-hired employee, they would certainly have been seen as fair, or even generous.” However, as the Court of Appeals pointed out: Gilkerson was not a new employee. It was just wrong for the employer and court to treat him as such. The Court found the new “term sheet” unjust because, after analyzing case precedent, there was no economic justification for requiring Gilkerson to accept an at-will employment agreement, other than “it allowed NCC to avoid the provisions of the Contract that were most favorable to Gilkerson.” No kidding. The court also specifically took issue with the provision that made Gilkerson an at-will employee after having served in a contractually better position for quite some time. The appellate court thus found duress to lie.
Contracts are, of course, negotiable at the outset. However, in times of fierce competition in many job markets, it is good to see that courts standing up for employees presented with clearly unreasonable employment “choices” and decisions by employers well into an employment situation. It is one thing if an employee is at working will. It is quite another if he/she is not, as this case clearly demonstrates. Contracts must be performed in good faith by both parties. That, of course, includes the employer as well. In times when unemployment rates are dropping, hopefully employees will obtain stronger bargaining positions both at the outset of and during the employment relationship. Nonetheless, presenting employees with unreasonable “choices” such as the above. Of course, employees should rise to the reasonable expectations of employers. But employers do not and should not have carte blanche to do whatever they wish to contractually bound employees. This can hardly come as a surprise to any reasonable employer.
The case is Gilkerson v. Nebraska Colocation Centers LLC., 2017 WL 2656073.
Thursday, August 3, 2017
I'm just going to start a little subset of cases involving misrepresentations in the context of real estate transactions. This latest case is out of Tennessee, Hall v. Eagle Rock Development, LLC, No. E2015-01487-COA-R3-CV (you can listen to the oral arguments here). In this case, the Halls won rescission of the purchase contract and a refund of the money they paid, based on misrepresentations regarding the lot's access to public sewage disposal. While there was a dispute as to whether they were specifically told by the development's broker that the lot had access to public sewage, the court found the broker had not been "forthcoming" about the sewage situation, and the other documents involved in the transactions represented at several points that public sewage access would be possible, including the MLS brief and the real estate listings that contained public sewage as a product feature. The website for the development stated that the lots would have public sewage access, and nowhere qualified the statement as being contingent on certain funding requirements. Plus, there was a sewer manhole directly in front of the lot.
The first time the Halls were provided with a disclosure statement indicating they would not have public sewage access was actually the day the sales contract was executed, despite the fact that the sellers had prepared this document months earlier and so could have shared it well in advance. The fact that the Halls signed the disclosure statement while executing the sales contract did not bar their recovery. (Nor did the fact that the Halls' contract stated that they were purchasing the property "as is.")
The Halls maintained that they would never have bought the lot had they known it didn't have public sewage access, not least because it restricted the size of the house they could build on the lot. Accordingly, the court ordered the contract rescinded and the purchase price be refunded, which was exactly the remedy that the Halls were seeking.
The sellers pointed out that it actually took the Halls three years to figure out public sewage access was not possible. They claimed that the problem here was the Halls' failure to fully investigate the property or fully read the documents they signed at closing. However, the court found that the weight of all the contrary representations the Halls had been given outweighed this.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
You, like me, might often resort to Snopes to weed through what's true and what's not in the avalanche of information we're exposed to every day. (My most recent Snopes search: can a gift shop upcharge federal postage stamps? The answer is yes!) Recently Snopes turned to its constituents on the Internet to help provide funding to keep the website alive, precipitated by a lawsuit stemming from several contracts between the parties at issue. The whole thing is a matter of messy corporate structure that really seems like it's going to depend on the court's reading of the stock purchase agreement between the parties. Vox has a rundown of the whole situation here (that I'm quoted in).
Friday, July 28, 2017
Our friend and esteemed colleague, Professor Charles Calleros, has kindly sent the following as a guest contribution to the ContractsProf Blog. Enjoy!
Recently Val Ricks has collected a number of essays from colleagues on best and worst cases for the development or application of contract law. In addition to participating in that project, Charles Calleros invites faculty to upload and post links to essays about their favorite cases as teaching tools (regardless whether the cases advance the law in an important way). He starts the ball rolling with this Introduction to his essay on "Why Pyeatte v. Pyeatte Might be the Best Teaching Tool in the Contracts Casebook":
Pyeatte v. Pyeatte, a 1983 decision of the Arizona Court of Appeals, did not break new ground in the field of contracts. Nonetheless, I assert that it is one of the best pedagogic tools in the Contracts casebook, for several reasons:
- * The facts are sure to grab the attention of first-semester law students: A law grad reneges on a promise to support his ex-wife through graduate school after she supported him through law school during their marriage;
* This 1980’s opinion is written in modern plain English, allowing students to focus on substance, while also learning a few necessary legal terms of art.
* After their immersion in a cold and rather unforgiving bath of consideration and mutual assent, students can finally warm up to a tool for addressing injustice: quasi-contract;
* The opinion’s presentation of background information on quasi-contract provides an opportunity to discuss the difference between an express contract, an implied-in-fact contract, and an implied-in-law contract;
* Although the wife’s act of supporting her husband through law school seems to beg for reciprocation or restitution, students must confront judicial reticence to render an accounting for benefits conferred between partners in a marriage, exposing students to overlap between contract law and domestic relations law;
* The appellate ruling of indefiniteness of the husband’s promise – presented in a later chapter in my casebook, but looming vaguely in the background of the discussion of quasi-contract – invites critique and perhaps even speculation that the appellate panel felt comfortable denying enforcement of the promise precisely because it knew it could grant restitution under quasi-contract; and
* The court’s admonition that expectation interest forms a ceiling for the calculation of restitution reveals a fascinating conundrum that brings us back to the court’s ruling on indefiniteness. . . .
You can find the whole essay here.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
Recently, Procter & Gamble has been sued for copyright infringement based on its use of photographs on packaging. It's not that P&G didn't have a license; it's that P&G allegedly violated the scope of the license. The allegations claim that P&G, trying to keep costs down, negotiated for fairly narrow rights. It makes a ton of sense to do that if that's all you want the photos for. After all, why pay for rights that you're probably not going to utilize? However, the caveat with that is to be sure that you won't want to use the photos beyond what you're negotiating. That's allegedly what P&G did, and why it finds itself the subject of a lawsuit.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
This recent case out of the Central District of California, Perez v. DirecTV Group Holdings, LLC, Case No. 8:16-cv-1440-JLS-DFMx, has some interesting allegations. The plaintiff claims that DirecTV contacted her, unsolicited, at her place of business and sold her a promotional deal there for satellite cable. After the plaintiff agreed to the deal, DirecTV installed the equipment that same day and then asked the plaintiff to sign an Equipment Lease Agreement (ELA). The ELA was entirely in English, even though all communications up to that point had taken place in Spanish (and even though DirecTV apparently had a Spanish-language version of the ELA). The plaintiff signed the ELA, even though she couldn't understand it and it wasn't translated for her, and gave it to the DirecTV representative. She was not given a copy to keep for herself.
Later, after selling her the satellite cable, DirecTV then contacted the plaintiff to say that she didn't have permission to display the cable, since she was displaying it in a business. It demanded settlement of the purported illegal reception and display. The reception and display DirecTV complained about was the same equipment that DirecTV had just installed. DirecTV demanded $5,000 from the plaintiff to settle the claim. The plaintiff brought this class action, alleging that this was part of a scheme DirecTV had to target selling its services to small business owners (especially minority business owners) and then immediately turn around and accuse those small business owners of having purchased the wrong type of DirecTV for their businesses.
DirecTV moved to compel arbitration. The ELA did have an arbitration provision, and the plaintiff did sign it. However, the ELA referenced the Customer Agreement, which she did not receive until it was sent to her by mail later, and therefore the ELA's terms were actually ambiguous, meaning there was no clear agreement to arbitrate.
DirecTV therefore argued that the plaintiff consented to arbitration when she received the Customer Agreement in the mail, with its full and thorough arbitration provision, and didn't cancel DirecTV's service. However, silence alone does not ordinarily represent acceptance. And the offer and acceptance on the contract between the plaintiff and DirecTV had already happened, on the day of installation. There was nothing in the ELA that indicated that the terms of the contract would change in the future when she received the Customer Agreement and that by keeping the Customer Agreement she was consenting to those changes.
Other courts have enforced DirecTV's arbitration provision but those cases were distinguishable because those customers were given the Customer Agreement before installation. In at least one other case, a court enforced the Customer Agreement when it was provided after installation because of "practical business realities." This court, however, expressed skepticism that "business practicalities" were a valid justification, and, at any rate, there was no such business practicality at issue here. DirecTV could easily have provided the plaintiff with the Customer Agreement when service was installed.
At any rate, even if the arbitration provision were enforceable, it excepted any dispute regarding "theft of service," which the case at issue concerns. DirecTV alleged that it was not required to arbitrate these disputes, but its customers were. This one-sided interpretation of this provision raised issues of unconscionability, especially paired with the plaintiff's powerlessness to negotiate the contract at all, which was not in a language she spoke, and which she did not receive until after she was in a position where to refuse the terms would have resulted in a contractual penalty of a cancellation fee of several hundred dollars. Therefore, the court refused to compel arbitration.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I started reading this case out of the Northern District of Alabama, ProctorU, Inc. v. TM3 Software GMBH, Civil Action Number 2:17-cv-00926-AKK (behind paywall), because it involves exam proctoring software, which of course is a type of software I am interested in. It ends up really being a case about forum selection and German law vs. American law.
ProctorU alleged that TM3 was contractually obligated to provide software that could "accurately identify test-takers" within 140 characters. Instead, TM3 provided software that ProctorU claimed could not accurately identify test-takers, even after 280 characters. (I'm not sure how this works technologically; the opinion doesn't get into it beyond this, although I found the website for the software here.) ProctorU therefore sued in the Northern District of Alabama. TM3 moved to dismiss based on a forum selection clause in their contract that required cases to be brought in Germany.
ProctorU tried to argue that the forum selection clause was unenforceable because of the differences between German and American law. For instance, a jury trial wouldn't be available to ProctorU, it wouldn't be able to recover punitive damages, and discovery would be much more limited than American discovery. The court, however, found that nothing about those differences indicated that ProctorU would be unable to prove its case in Germany.
ProctorU also tried to argue that it had agreed to the forum selection clause based on misrepresentations by TM3, and that, having been induced by fraud, it should therefore be unenforceable. ProctorU alleged that TM3 told ProctorU its investor was the state of Bavaria, who would not agree to any forum selection clause that was not German. It turned out that Bavaria had only an indirect minority interest in TM3. ProctorU claimed had it known how minor the state of Bavaria's interest was, it would not have agreed to the German provision. However, the court found that the statement that the state of Bavaria was an investor was true; TM3 had not told ProctorU that the state of Bavaria was a majority investor. Furthermore, it was ProctorU's obligation to conduct due diligence before accepting the contract terms, which should have revealed who TM3's investors were.
Therefore, the court dismissed the case based on the forum selection clause.
Monday, July 17, 2017
A recent case out of Texas, Carnegie Homes & Construction, LLC v. Sahin, No. 01-16-00733-CV, brings up no fewer than three golden discussion topics of contracts law courses: conditions precedent, specific performance, and unclean hands.
The dispute is actually a pretty run-of-the-mill disagreement over a real estate purchase. It just happens to contain a lot of arguments.
First, Carnegie Homes, the buyer, attempted to argue that a number of conditions precedent had never been fulfilled, and therefore none of its obligations to buy the property had been triggered. The contract in question did read it "shall only be effective upon performance of the conditions set forth in Section E of this agreement." But despite calling the contents of Section E "conditions," the court read them and found them to be covenants, not conditions, dictating when and how much Carnegie Homes would pay and how much their respective obligations would be. Rather than conditions, Section E contained mutual promises, and indeed, Section E was called "Terms" instead of conditions. Therefore, the reference to conditions was a mistaken one.
Second, specific performance was deemed to be the proper remedy, because the contract was for the sale of a unique property. Carnegie Homes tried to argue that specific performance was not usually made available to the seller of a piece of property, only to the buyer of that property. However, the court said that specific performance was not so limited and that sellers have the right to seek and be rewarded specific performance just as much as buyers.
Finally, Carnegie Homes tried to argue that unclean hands prevented the seller, Sahin, from receiving relief. The conduct Carnegie Homes complained of concerned Sahin's service of a supplemental petition that alleged Carnegie Homes committed fraud. Sahin served the petition but never filed it. Carnegie Homes, however, was required to disclose it in a loan application, which allegedly caused it to be refused financing, leading to Carnegie Homes's difficulty in fulfilling its obligation to buy the property. The court, however, found that the disclosure to one lender did not block Carnegie Homes from performing the rest of its obligations, and did not act as unclean hands on Sahin's part. The contract did not require Sahin to help Carnegie Homes obtain financing, nor did it condition Carnegie Homes's obligation to pay on the receipt of financing. Therefore, Carnegie Homes was not excused from its obligations and Sahin was entitled to relief.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
I'm blogging this case because I had a whole conversation with non-lawyer friends about what the term "renovate" means, and I think maybe they changed my mind about what "renovate" means. I don't know. Upon first reading this case, I spent a lot of time reflecting on all the episode of "House Hunters Renovations" I've watched and what actually happens in them.
Anyway, if you want to go away and watch a marathon of "House Hunters Renovation" at this point, it's okay. I understand. This blog post will still be here for you to contemplate afterward.
The case in question (there is an actual case) is a recent case out of Pennsylvania, Blackburn v. King Investment Group, No. 2409 EDA 2016, and, as you may have guessed, the debate in the case was over the meaning of the word "renovate" in the contract. One party maintained that the term was ambiguous, because it could have required them to demolish the bathrooms at issue or merely to do what was necessary to bring them up to modern standards (which was less than full demolition). The other party argued that it was not an ambiguous term and clearly required demolition.
The court agreed that it was a clear and unambiguous term that required demolition and replacement, and this was what got me to thinking: Do I think that renovation requires demolition? At first my kneejerk reaction was like, "I don't know, I don't think it does." But after conversations with people, I decided maybe it does mean demolition? That doing something less than demolition wouldn't be called renovation but just updating? If you say you're going to renovate your kitchen, does that always imply that you're demolishing the entire kitchen? If you do less than that, is saying you renovated your kitchen misleading?
My struggling with the word leads me to believe maybe it's not clear and unambiguous but I often feel that way with these types of cases. What I find extra-striking about this case is that, while the court proclaimed the term "clear and unambiguous," it did so by relying entirely on parol evidence, and this parol evidence, in my view, just determined what the parties understood "renovation" to mean. I think finding what renovation meant in the context of this contract to these parties makes a lot more sense than declaring it to be a clear and unambiguous term generally.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Will an associate who makes a $1.5 billion (yes, with a “b”) clerical error still make partner?... Do law firms owe a duty of care to clients of opposing party’s law firm? The answers, as you can guess: very likely not and no! The case goes like this:
General Motors (“GM”), represented by law firm Mayer Brown, takes out a 2001 loan for $300 million and a 2006 loan for $1.5 billion secured by different real estate properties. JP Morgan acts as agent for the two different groups of lenders. GM pays off the first loan, but encounters severe financial troubles and enters into bankruptcy proceedings before paying off the big 2006 loan. GM continues to follow the terms on that loan, and the bankruptcy court also treats the lenders as if they were still secured.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? When Mayer Brown prepared and filed the UCC-3 termination statement for the 2001 loan, the firm also released the 2006 loan by mistake. The lenders of that were thus not secured under the law any longer even though both GM itself and the bankruptcy court treated them as such. The big loan was simply been converted from a secured transaction into a lending contract. Yikes.
How did this happen? The following is too good to be true, if you are in an irritable or easily amused summer mode, so I cite from the case:
“The plaintiffs' complaint offers the following autopsy of the error: a senior Mayer Brown partner was responsible for supervising the work on the closing. He instructed an associate to prepare the closing checklist. The associate, in turn, relied on a paralegal to identify the relevant UCC-1 financing statements. As a cost-saving measure, the paralegal used an old UCC search on General Motors and included the 2006 Term Loan. Another paralegal tasked with preparing the termination statements recognized that the 2006 Term Loan had been included by mistake and informed the associate of the problem, but he ignored the discrepancy. The erroneous checklist and documents were then sent to [JP Morgan’s law firm] Simpson Thacher for review. The supervising partner at Mayer Brown never caught the error, nor did anyone else. With JP Morgan's authorization, the 2001 Synthetic Lease payoff closed on October 30, 2008 … We must also note that, when provided an opportunity to review the Mayer Brown drafts, a Simpson Thacher attorney replied, ‘Nice job on the documents.’”
The lenders represented by JP Morgan sued not Simpson Thacher or JP Morgan, but… Mayer Brown; counsel for the opposing party, arguing that the law firm owed a duty to them not because Mayer Brown represented them or their agent, JP Morgan, in connection with these loans, but rather because, plaintiffs argued, Mayer Brown owed JP Morgan – not the plaintiffs directly – a duty of care as a client in other unrelated matters! As the court said, an astonishing claim.
A law firm or a party directly must always prepare a first draft of any document. “By preparing a first draft, an attorney does not undertake a professional duty to all other parties in the deal.” In sum, said the court, “there is no exception to the Pelham primary purpose rule, and there is no plausible allegation that Mayer Brown voluntarily assumed a duty to plaintiffs by providing drafts to Simpson Thacher for review.”
The case is Oakland Police & Fire Ret. Sys. v. Mayer Brown, LLP, States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Case No. 15 C 6742
Monday, July 10, 2017
When I teach my students rules of construction and we talk about contra proforentem, I feel like the standard examples I use with them are insurance contracts, where it's easy to identify who the drafter is. A recent case out of Indiana, Song v. Iatarola, Court of Appeals Case No. 64A03-1609-PL-2094 (thank to D.C. Toedt for the new non-paywall link!), involved an actual discussion of who was the "drafter" in a situation where both parties had input in the contract. The Iatarolas seemed to try to argue that Song should be considered the drafter and have the contract construed against him because he was the one who typed it into Microsoft Word. The court pointed out, though, that the rule of construction is about independent drafting, not a situation where both parties contributed to the contractual terms. Who physically types the contract up means nothing if both parties have helped to decide on the terms being typed up. I have never thought to discuss that with my students, but I think I might bring it up, just to be clear on what the rule is talking about.
Friday, July 7, 2017
If You Want to Hold Your Real Estate Development to Its Master Plan, Make Sure It's in Your Contract
A recent case out of Idaho, Swafford v. Huntsman Springs, Inc., Docket No. 44240, serves as a word of warning for those purchasing plots in real estate developments. As someone who recently purchased a plot of land in an in-progress real estate development, I read this case with interest.
The Swaffords bought a plot of land early on in the development's life, based on a master plan that they had viewed. Later, as the development continued underway, Huntsman Springs altered its plans, so that they way it turned out was not as it had been in the master plan the Swaffords had viewed. The Swaffords then sued for breach of contract.
The problem was that the "master plan" had never been part of the Swaffords' contract with Hunstman Springs. The contract did not incorporate the master plan and in fact the contract stated in several places that Huntsman Springs was bound by no other representations outside of the four corners of the contract and, in an integration clause, that the contract was the entire agreement. The contract was much less specific in Huntsman Springs's obligations to the Swaffords, but Huntsman Springs did comply with all of them. Therefore, there was no breach of contract.
Important lesson learned: If you want your developer bound by a master plan, make sure it's in your contract. (Of course, that's possibly easier said than done, depending on power differentials. But, if you allow for reasonable modifications of that master plan in some way, maybe you could accomplish it.)
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
A recent case out of New York, In re Estate of Edmund Felix Hennel, No. 78, explains when promissory estoppel will overcome the statute of frauds, and the answer is: not always. Sometimes unfairness may result from the failure to overcome the statute of frauds, but promissory estoppel only saves a party in cases of unconscionable injury.
In the case, Hennel's grandsons allegedly reached an agreement with him whereby they would assume maintenance for a particular property and eventually assume ownership, and their grandfather would pay off the property's mortgage in his will. A 2006 will seemed to have terms that supported this oral agreement. However, a 2008 will revoked all previous wills and did not include the same terms, although the grandsons claimed Hennel told them nothing had changed in their agreement. The grandsons assumed ownership of the property but the 2008 will failed to pay off the property's mortgage.
After Hennel's death, his grandsons sued to have the property's mortgage satisfied by their grandfather's estate, but they admitted that they could not satisfy the statute of frauds, since their agreement with their grandfather had been oral. Instead, the grandsons sought to rely on promissory estoppel. The court held, however, that even if they satisfied the elements of promissory estoppel, they would not suffer unconscionable injury if the statute of frauds was enforced, and unconscionable injury was required to allow promissory estoppel to trump the statute of frauds. Here, the grandsons had been able to pay the mortgage out of the rental income the property generated, and the grandsons did not have to expend any personal money to pay the mortgage. In such a case, there was no unconscionable injury.
The court noted that the grandsons could always sell the property if they wished to get out from under the mortgage, considering that the property had an estimated $150,000 worth of equity. The grandsons contended that, had the mortgage been paid as they had been promised, they would have received the full value of the property ($235,000) as equity. The court agreed this loss was unfair, but it was not unconscionable. In fact, the court stated, "cases where the party attempting to avoid the statute of frauds will suffer unconscionable injury will be rare."
Sunday, July 2, 2017
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.
Friday, June 23, 2017
When 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:
The 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.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
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.
Monday, June 19, 2017
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!)
Thursday, June 15, 2017
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.