ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Any Property Owner" Could Be Almost Anyone in the World

Words are tricky things, as contracts remind us every day. When I teach contract ambiguity, a lot of the cases seem to revolve around insurance contracts, with the doctrine of contra proferentem coming into play. A recent case out of Michigan, Atlantic Casualty Insurance Co. v. Gustfason, No. 325739, provides another example. 

Gustafson operated a landscaping business. While one of his employees was clearing brush on a homeowner's property, the homeowner was watching off to the side and was struck with debris and injured. The homeowner sued Gustafson, and Gustafson contacted his insurance agent. Atlantic Casualty reported that the loss to the homeowner was excluded from the insurance policy, so Gustafson sued Atlantic Casualty, contending that the loss was covered by the policy. 

The relevant clause in the policy stated that it didn't apply to bodily injury to any "contractor," and then defined "contractor" using a long string of examples: including but not limited to

any independent contractor or subcontractor of any insured, any general contractor, any developer, any property owner, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any general contractor, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any general developer, any independent contractor or subcontractor of any property owner and any and all persons providing services or materials.

The emphasis there is added, because Atlantic Casualty sought to exclude the homeowner's injuries by asserting that he was "any property owner."

The court pointed out that the phrase "any property owner" was extraordinarily broad and would include almost everyone in the world "except perhaps for a newborn baby," because most people can be found to at least own the clothes they're wearing, which would make that person a property owner. Such a broad reading, excluding virtually the entire planet, would render the policy illusory. 

Atlantic Casualty apparently acknowledged that the phrase was broad as written and instead argued that what it really meant was "the owner of the real property upon which the insured is performing work." The court, however, found that it made sense, given the other items in the list, to interpret "any property owner" to mean "those who are being compensated, or who otherwise have a commercial interest, for being on the job site." In that case, "any property owner" would cover not the real property owners whose land was being worked on but owners of any equipment being used (possibly rented) to work on the real property. 

Because "any property owner" is an ambiguous term and the court found itself with two reasonable interpretations, it employed contra proferentem and interpreted the contract against Atlantic Casualty, who had drafted the contract. Therefore, it stated that "any property owner" did not include those "without a commercial interest in the project," and therefore did not include the residential homeowners, which meant the policy covered the homeowner. 

While I generally like the court's reasoning and interpretation in this case, I do find it slightly odd to decide that a property owner doesn't have a commercial interest in the project being performed on his own land. Presumably he is paying for the work and therefore does have a commercial interest in making sure that the work is being done properly. Even if he's not paying for it, the improvement to his land will likely increase its value, also giving him a commercial interest in what's happening. I think the better phrasing is to interpret it as someone who is being compensated for their presence on the job site. 

June 8, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

This One Again: Handwritten Contracts Really Are Binding (but Mediation Transcripts Are Highly Recommended)

The Seventh Circuit just reconfirmed the fact that handwritten contracts are enforceable as long as they contain all the material terms of the contract.

In the relevant case,Martina Beverly brought suit against her former employer, Abbott Laboratories, for discrimination and retaliation against her because of her German nationality (not a lot of anti-German discrimination going on in this country these days, one might think, but that was nonetheless the allegation) as well as on the basis of her disabilities. The case went to mediation. A day before the mediation took place, Abbott’s attorney sent Beverly’s attorney a “template settlement agreement in order to avoid any surprises in the event that [the parties] are able to resolve the matter.” That document also stated that Beverly had twenty one days to review it and seven days to revoke any possible acceptance.

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During the fourteen-hour mediation session the next day, both parties were represented by counsel. At the end of the session, both parties and their counsel signed a very brief handwritten agreement that, at bottom, stated that Abbott would pay the cost of mediation and “$200,000+” with Beverly demanding $210,000. The parties were probably and understandably tired after such a long session, but still: a quarter million-dollar settlement, and no one had the energy or took the time to type up one measly paragraph?...

Next day, Abbott emailed a typed agreement to Beverly’s specifying the amounts to be paid ($46,000 to Beverly and a relatively whopping $164,000 to her attorneys!). The emailed response from Beverly’s attorneys: “Oh happy days!.. You are a gem.”

Soon after that, Beverly – perhaps for good reason – got cold feet and sought to rescind from the deal, arguing that additional terms were needed for a contract to have been formed, that the twenty one days mentioned in the pre-meeting template (which was never used in its original form) were applicable to her settlement offer, and that a “more formal future writing” was anticipated.

The appellate court struck down each of these arguments. First, additional terms such as any future cooperation between the parties and Beverly’s future employment with the company were nonessential details. The language in the original template pertaining to a cool-down period was never actually used. The fact that parties anticipate a more formal writing does not nullify an otherwise binding agreement.  The court found the happy exclamation by Beverly’s attorney dispositive of the parties’ intent to enter into a contract when they did (one might also say it was simply an indication of the attorneys’ happiness with a large payment, not their clients’ mood).

Perhaps most importantly, the court pointed out that “[i]t bears mentioning that a transcript (or some other recording) of the private mediation session here may have provided important clarity regarding the parties’ beliefs and intentions relating to the handwritten agreement and the draft proposal. We encourage future litigants to record any communications that directly relate to final settlement agreements.”

Sound advice in days of, apparently, little or no secretarial assistance even when relatively large sums of money are at stake. An assistant could have typed up the agreement in less than one minute. So could an attorney. In the end, though, the handwriting argument did not prevail, but having something in writing or at least an audio recording would have precluded even more costly lawyering.

June 7, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 6, 2016

"Facebook Addendums": Does Your Landlord Want to Be Your Friend?

I'm one of those apparently rare people who doesn't really use Facebook. But Facebook was evidently very important to City Park Apartments in Salt Lake City, whose management company presented all of the tenants with a "Facebook addendum" to their lease. The addendum allegedly stated that all residents had to befriend the complex on Facebook or be found in breach of their lease agreement. 

This seems like an alarming development that I hope is going to be very limited. Is a Facebook account going to start being like a telephone number or an e-mail address, something it's assumed by everyone that you have and should hand over access to in exchange for goods or services? The reason I stopped using Facebook was because of privacy concerns. I wouldn't be thrilled about being told that I'm required by my lease to make sure my landlord can watch my Facebook activities (which often correspond, as we all know, to our real-life activities; if your landlord asked to follow you around through your daily life, or to get e-mailed your vacation photos, I would think many people would consider that a weird request).

And, since I don't do anything on Facebook, does that mean that I wouldn't be allowed to rent an apartment there unless I opened an account? Many people have legitimate, important, in some cases necessary reasons to limit their online presence. Let's hope "Facebook addendums" don't start sweeping the nation. 

June 6, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Settlement Agreements: On the Other Hand...

I just blogged about a settlement agreement that the court found unenforceable because there was no meeting of the minds. As always, these cases revolve around the particular circumstances, as an opposite conclusion in a recent case out of the Eastern District of Tennessee, Hira v. New York Life Insurance Company, No. 3:13-cv-527 (behind paywall), illustrates.

In that case, the attorneys had agreed on the basic terms of the settlement (money in exchange for a release and waiver). Defendant's counsel sent a draft agreement to plaintiffs' counsel, and over the next few months counsel continued to correspond about the agreement. Eventually, plaintiffs' counsel informed defendant's counsel that one of the plaintiffs had traveled to India, fallen "gravely ill," was in no state to sign any settlement agreement, and had left no power of attorney to permit anyone else to sign the settlement agreement on his behalf. Defendant asked the court to enforce the settlement agreement, notwithstanding plaintiff's lack of signature. 

And the court agreed. It found that there was no dispute regarding the settlement agreement and it did not matter that plaintiff had never signed the draft document. Therefore, the court ordered that the settlement agreement be enforced. 

June 1, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Terms and Conditions: You Agree to What You've Agreed To

Watching terms and conditions litigations continue to play out is an interesting exercise. One of the things we learn is that the terms and conditions mean what they say, which should be obvious, but of course ignores the fact that basically nobody reads what they say. Consumers seem to be consistently caught off-guard by some of the terms. A recent Ninth Circuit decision, Geier v. M-Qube Inc., No. 13-36080, reinforces this (you can watch the oral argument here).

Geier sued m-Qube based on a mobile game it marketed called Bid and Win. m-Qube was not the provider of the game; rather m-Qube merely marketed the game. The other defendants in the case were all similarly removed from the actual content of the game, serving as "intermediaries" and "gateways." The game's actual content provider, Pow! Mobile, was not sued by Geier. 

The dispute in the case was over whether m-Qube and the other defendants were third-party beneficiaries of the terms and conditions of the game. Allegedly, when signing up for the game, subscribers, under the terms and conditions, waived all claims against Pow! Mobile's "suppliers." Despite this clause, Geier was attempting to sue m-Qube, et al., over text message abuses in violation of Washington law. (Geier, incidentally, was not alone in suing over this. A class action in the District of Nebraska was complaining about the same behavior.)

The Ninth Circuit's decision in this case is a matter of straightforward contract law: If you are an intended third-party beneficiary of the contract, you can enforce the contract. There is no real surprise there, except maybe to the consumer here, because it may sink Geier's entire case, which now hinges on whether m-Qube and the other defendants are Pow! Mobile's "suppliers." If they are, then they are intended third-party beneficiaries of the terms and conditions' waiver clause and can seek to enforce it. We may not be reading those terms and conditions, but we may be waiving lots of our rights nonetheless.  

May 30, 2016 in E-commerce, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

No Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose With Regard to Architectural and Design Services in Michigan...for Now

A recent case out of the Court of Appeals of Michigan, Albion College v. Stockade Buildings Inc., No. 322917 (behind paywall), gives us an example of a case where precedent was obeyed but one of the judges worried the precedent might provide the wrong result, setting up the potential for further examination by Michigan's Supreme Court. 

Plaintiff hired Defendant to build an equestrian facility. Defendant allegedly informed Plaintiff that it had "the necessary experience and expertise" to build the facility that Plaintiff required and promised it would be backed by a warranty. 

Because this is a case I'm writing up here, we all know that the story of this equestrian center does not go smoothly. The roof leaked badly. The problem was evident during construction and theoretically repaired but the roof continued to leak badly even after construction was completed. Reviews of the structure blamed the persistent problem on poor design of the facility by Defendant. 

The crux of the case was whether the agreement between Plaintiff and Defendant contained an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. In Michigan, such an implied warranty is found in sales of goods governed by the UCC and sales of electricity. The court was reluctant to extend such a warranty to the architectural and design services at issue here. 

A concurrence, however, expressed hesitation with the conclusion. While reasonably correct as a matter of simple legal precedent, the concurrence had policy concerns and thought that Michigan's supreme court should review the case and extend the warranty to this situation because of the "egregious facts" of this case.  Stay tuned for what happens next!

May 25, 2016 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How Bad Can a New Law Graduate’s Representation Be?

Pretty darned bad! Imagine this: A law student starts giving professional legal advice while still in law school. The advice is rendered to a 78-year-old Chinese-American with limited English skills and experience with the American legal system. The student renders the advice in person, over the phone, and in extensive e-mail exchanges. He even persuades the client to “assign” the lawsuit to the student so that the student would be “better able to control the suit and properly advise” the client. In doing so, the student promises to “minimize any legal costs to [the client] before [the student] getting [sic] his license by doing all the work he can carry on for said case.” The students subsequently graduates (from a California law school not accredited by the ABA, according to the website of the State Bar of California), passes the bar, and becomes the formally retained lawyer for the client.

The new graduate sues a party on behalf of his client. The graduate also names his own client on a lawsuit for an unrelated matter “only as a matter of legal procedure.” Additionally, the graduate sues his client’s defendants! The advice he renders is thought to be legally incorrect by a mediator. The client thus fires the graduate. The State Bar of California brings disciplinary proceedings against the new graduate for conflict of interest matters as well as the unauthorized practice of law. The graduate stipulates to the charges and is suspended for some time.  Trial is brought against the graduate by his former client for professional negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, unlawful business practice, breach of contract, and fraud. The client wins a judgment of $552,412.

You guessed it! The graduate does not pay. Rather, he appears in some subsequent judgment debtor proceedings, but disputes the court’s personal jurisdictions (that argument is waived once an appearance has been made, by the way). He submits briefs to the court misciting passages from outdated Matthew Bender Civil Procedure practice treaties. He refuses to produce tax returns to show his income. The court has to order him to do so. He goes bankrupt, and produces a “myriad” of inconsistent stories in the case. As the court said, “a few examples should suffice:

  • Yan testified he sold his membership in an LLC to two persons for $650,000, but could not remember their names.
  • Yan testified that his mother provided him checks, but could not remember: whether the checks numbered more than a hundred; when the most recent check was received; or when his mother last worked or her last job.
  • Yan testified that he was the sole support for his children, supported solely by his income, which for 2014 was “less than [$]10,000.” The support included rent, which included $8,400 in 2014, but he refused to provide the identity of the person to whom the rent was paid. Yan was asked the source of the money to pay his children's rent, and he said it was from his “income.” Asked if that was from legal fees, Yan said, “I don't know.”
  • Enough is enough.”

The monetary judgment against the graduate was affirmed. Years later, at least one other disciplinary matter has been brought against the graduate.

The question is: is this just one example of an unusually rotten apple? Or does this point to the assertion made by many that California really does not need a number of unaccredited law schools on top of the already large amount of ABA-accredited ones? (But note too that even the trial court record contains “no evidence of anything, only assertions as to what occurred, though [the plaintiff’s] assertions are supported by various exhibits” and not disputed by the defendant. There were, for example, “no reporter’s transcript, nor any real evidence – that is, sworn evidence….”

Comment below! The case Th is Charles Li v. Demas Yan, 2016 WL 1757283.

May 24, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Wait a Minute, George Zimmerman is Not a Man of His Words?

Is it unthinkable to you that George Zimmerman would seek to profit from killing Trayvon Martin? No? How about reneging on one contract if he were to get an even more lucrative one?

The latter has recently been shown to be the case. The former Florida neighborhood watchman who shot the unarmed teenager in 2012 has confirmed that he has accepted an auction bid for $250,000 for the gun with which he killed Mr. Martin. Before that, he had accepted a bid for $150,000 from a Florida bar owner for the same gun, but backed out of that deal when he got a better one. Says the bar owner, “I thought [Mr. Zimmerman] was a man of his word.”

The sale drew heavy criticism from people claiming that Mr. Zimmerman was seeking to profit from the sale. Gun rights advocates claim that Mr. Zimmerman is simply exercising his legal rights under the law.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zimmerman has displayed his apparent usual lack of social skills by accusing one gun auction website that refused to sell the gun of being “Nazi loving liberal liars Unknown” (Huh? How would that work?). At least he promises to give some of the proceeds of the sale to “fight Black Lives Matter violence against law enforcement officers”…

No further comments are needed for this story.

 

May 23, 2016 in Commentary, In the News, True Contracts | Permalink

From a Colonial Cemetery to a World War II Factory to Condos and a Spa: Environmental Concerns, Contract Releases, and Secret Underground Containers Are Just the Latest Chapter

North Jersey

(Photo from northjersey.com)

I use a lot of hypos in my class based on undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards, and I feel like sometimes my students wonder if this is a thing that actually happens. Unfortunately, yes, as a recent case out of New Jersey, North River Mews Associates v. Alcoa Corp., Civil Action No. 14-8129, proves. 

The case centers around a piece of land on which Alcoa had operated a manufacturing facility from 1917 to 1968, a facility once so central to East Coast industry that it had actually been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The piece of land had been vacant since 1978 and became a popular site for people looking to photograph "modern ruins." It was eventually sold to North River Mews Associates and 38 COAH Associates (the Plaintiffs). Twenty years ago, the New York Times reported optimistically that the development deal would be a "win-win" the would help clean up the Hudson River shoreline. The site, however, has been plagued by a number of challenges and tragedies (several fires, workman injuries from freak accidents, etc.) that have led some people to talk about curses. (Well, it apparently had been built on an old graveyard dating back to colonial times.) The latest obstacle has now emerged in the form of, yes, previously undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards.  

The parties were well aware that the land would have environmental contamination, as the Times article makes clear. But the Plaintiffs had worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and believed that the property had been remediated. In 2013, however, the Plaintiffs discovered two previously unknown underground storage tanks filled with hazardous materials. The property around the tanks seemed to indicate that at one point the tanks had attempted to be burned instead of properly disposed of. The presence of these tanks, needless to say, was never disclosed by Alcoa to the Plaintiffs. 

Alcoa's stance, however, is that the purchase contracts for the land released them from liability for various claims brought against them. The court disagreed at this motion to dismiss stage, finding that the language was ambiguous. The release in the contract stated that the Plaintiffs waived the rights "to seek contribution from [Alcoa] for any response costs or claims." The court said that it was unclear whether the contribution language modified only response costs or whether it modified both response costs and claims. Was this a blanket release of all claims, or only a release of the right to seek contribution? This question, the court concluded, could not be determined on a motion to dismiss. 

At any rate, the Plaintiffs also alleged that Alcoa concealed the presence of the underground tanks, fraudulently inducing them to enter into the contracts, and the court concluded that, if true, that would be grounds for the release to be vitiated. 

This case is a great example of how long environmental issues, development deals, and contractual disputes can drag on. In 1997, the parties signed the purchase contract. Today, the parties are still trying to clean up the site and fighting over which of them ought to pay for it, with language drafted twenty years ago taking center stage. As the case continues, it will of course likely become relevant who knew about the storage tanks and when, and I am curious to see if the tanks can be dated. Since Alcoa apparently ceased using the site for manufacture in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how much knowledge from that time period still exists. It's the latest chapter in the history of a plot of land that seems to have been a busy place for centuries. 

May 23, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Attempt to Pass on the Hot Potato Nixed

In a perhaps somewhat unsurprising but good holding, the Seventh Circuit has nixed a company’s attempt to not live up to its contractual promises regarding the technical functions and warranties of one of its products.

The plaintiff bought an industrial refrigeration system. The contract provided that if the system “does not meet the [contractually stipulated] requirements, defendants shall immediately, upon notice, replace or repair same or remedy any deficiency without expense to [plaintiffs].” When it came to living up to that promise, however, defendants produced a slew of other excuses for the problem such as installation errors, problems with the conditions at the facility where the system was installed, flawed wiring performed by other parties, etc.

The court found that even though defendant had presented evidence of a number of equally plausible causes, it had not provided proof that those alternative causes in fact caused the problem. Defendant, said the court, had promised to “meet requirements [sic] of plan and specifications.” Since the system did not work, defendants were liable for fixing the problem under the plain language of the contract.

It’s nice to see that at least some courts do not let contractual parties get away with such attempted, after-the-fact shirking of responsibility after the fact. A contractual promise is a promise. Surely, major industrial companies have internalized the costs of potentially having to do an odd repair here and there that they don’t believe is their fault (if that truly were the case here…). It’s somewhat amazing to see the lengths some companies will go to in order not to live up to their ends of the bargain. In this case, that attempt was nixed.

The case is Dual Temp of Illinois v. Hench Control, Inc., 2016 WL 2642030.

May 20, 2016 in True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Implied Warranties of Habitability on Houses Do Not Apply to Second Buyers If the First Buyers Waived Them

A recent case out of Illinois, Fattah v. Bim, Docket No. 119365 (behind paywall), allowed the court to clarify whether an initial home buyer's waiver of the implied warranty of the house's habitability applied to subsequent buyers, or whether the second purchaser of the house could nevertheless assert a breach of warranty claim against the builder of the home. The Supreme Court of Illinois concluded that a waiver of the warranty on the part of the first buyer eliminated the second buyer's ability to exert such a claim, overturning an appellate court decision that had sent reactionary ripples through the home-building blogosphere.

In 2005, Masterklad built a house that contained a brick patio. In 2007, Masterklad sold the house to Beth Lubeck. The sale of the house included a "Waiver and Disclaimer of Implied Warranty of Habitability" in which Lubeck "knowingly, voluntarily, fully and forever" waived the implied warranty of habitability that the State of Illinois reads into all contracts involving newly constructed houses. In exchange for the waiver of the implied warranty, Masterklad provided Lubeck with an express warranty on the house. The express warranty was limited to a one-year term. There was no allegation in the case that Lubeck's waiver of the implied warranty wasn't effective and enforceable, and there were also no allegations that Masterklad hadn't complied fully with the terms of the express warranty. 

In 2010, a couple of years after the expiration of Masterklad's express warranty on the house, Lubeck sold the house to John Fattah. The sale of the house stated that it was "as is." A few months later, the brick patio that Masterklad had installed collapsed. Fattah sued Masterklad, alleging that the patio had had latent defects that violated the implied warranty of habitability. 

At the trial court level, Fattah lost, with the court concluding that the policy that permitted knowing waivers of the implied warranty would be frustrated if subsequent buyers could resurrect the claims. The appellate court, as has been mentioned, reversed, though, finding that Fattah could assert breach of the implied warranty. 

Illinois' Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court's decision. While Illinois has previously determined that the implied warranty extends to subsequent purchasers of a house where the first purchaser has not waived the warranty, this was a different situation: Fattah was seeking to recover damages that the first buyer would not have been entitled to. Allowing Fattah to do this alters Masterklad's risk exposure in an unfair way. Masterklad sought to manage its level of financial risk by providing an express warranty with a clear termination date, as it was permitted to do under Illinois precedent. It was unfair to switch everything up on Masterklad at this late date. In fact, allowing Fattah to bring this claim would effectively mean that the implied warranty of habitability could never be waived, as it could be resurrected by any subsequent buyer--which was the opposite of what Illinois had decided when it concluded that the implied warranty could be waived. 

The disagreements within the Illinois court system about this come down very explicitly to a policy decision. The appellate court seemed uneasy with waivers of the implied warranty because of public policy concerns, and one can see its point: You like to assume the houses you buy can generally be lived in. But the supreme court's point here also makes sense: If you buy a house "as is," you've usually gotten some kind of discount. If your gamble doesn't pay off, the courts are reluctant to revive arguments you bargained away. This might boil down to, much of the time, the maxim that a deal that seems too good to be true might, indeed, be untrue, and wariness should be employed.  

May 20, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Settlement Agreements "in Principle" Are Not Enforceable Settlement Agreements

Negotiating a settlement can be a tricky business, with drafts going back and forth and language tweaking continually occurring. All of that document tweaking means that there's plenty of opportunity for the whole thing to fall apart, as a recent case out of Connecticut, AREH Windsor Locks, LLC v. Tops Markets, LLC, Docket Number HDSP172841 (behind paywall), reminds us. 

In the case, the parties had reached a settlement agreement "in principle," in the words used in an e-mail by one of the defendants' attorneys. The "in principle" language underlined the fact that, in fact, no true meeting of the minds had ever actually occurred. Defendants' attorneys' e-mails had warned of additional changes that would be made to the settlement agreement draft--even if those e-mails did characterize those changes as "a few" and "very minor." The last e-mail sent by defendants' attorneys before the agreement fell apart referred to the draft as "final" but explicitly noted that it was subject to the plaintiff's approval and that it needed the plaintiff's "green light." 

The court concluded that the defendants never received the requested "green light." So, although the defendants' attorneys seemed to view the agreement as "final," there had in fact never been a final agreement between the party. The defendants, it turns out, may have been counting the settlement chickens before they hatched. 

May 19, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Materiality, Reliance and Causation All Intertwined Elements of Fraud

Jury instructions that cause a jury to answer questions indicating that a defendant has made a negligent misrepresentation, that the plaintiff reasonably relied on this statement, but that this did not cause harm to plaintiff are not so “hopelessly irreconcilable” as to be inconsistent under at least California law.

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In a breach of contracts case with a cross-complaint, the jury answered “yes” to whether a cross-defendant had negligently misled cross-plaintiff, further found that the misrepresentation was indeed material and that the cross-plaintiff had reasonably relied on the statements pertaining to incentive agreements and construction permits inducing the cross-plaintiff to enter into a gas station purchase and related agreements. However, the jury also found that the misrepresentation did not “substantially” influence the buyer to buy the gas station in the first place. Cross-defendant seller appealed, seeing to have the jury verdict set aside for inconsistency.

The court did not agree that the jury verdict was inconsistent to the point of being hopelessly irreconcilable. “Reliance and causation are intertwined concepts … Reliance must be thought of as the mechanism of causation in an action for breach.” However, by answering “no” to the question of whether the representations were “substantial factors” in causing harm to the cross-defendant, the jury “clearly must not have believed this to be the case,” said the court. Thus, no causation was found in spite of reliance on a fraud. In other words, the jury must have thought that the buyers would enter into the agreement anyway despite the misrepresentations.

Of course, clearer jury instructions would resolve a matter such as this in a more satisfactory way for clients than having courts of appeals second-guess what the jury must have thought. This case again shows the importance of careful linguistic drafting in the contracts context. Easier said than done, apparently…

The case also shows that contracts for pre-specified amounts of gas still exist.

The case is Anabi Oil Corporation v. fry’s 57 Freeway Investment LLC, 2016 WL 1749459.

May 17, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Removing Confidential E-Files When Quitting: Not a Good Idea

If you and I worked in an industry with highly sensitive information (assuming that we do not), it might be one thing if we thought we could email confidential information to our private email accounts and copy such information to a memory stick without finding out. But if a C-level employee at a high-tech company does so, does such conduct not rise to an entirely different level of at least naivety, if not deliberate contractual and employment misconduct?

A court will soon have to answer that question. Louis Attanasio, former head of global sales for an IBM cloud computing unit has been sued Seasonal-celebrations-lose-lost_property-name-identity-father_christmas-jdon16_low by IBM for breach of a contractual confidentiality clause, misappropriation of trade secrets, and violation of a non-compete agreement when he left – information in hand – to work for direct competitor Informatica.

In 2016, Attanasio allegedly started sending confidential information to his private email account, including draft settlement agreements between other IBM employees who had left to work for competitors. Before leaving IBM, Attanasio was asked to return a laptop to the company, which claims that he cpied files to a USB storage device.

Once again, the extent of the traceability of our electronic actions at work has become apparent. I continually remind my students of this to help them avoid “traps” such as the above or, frankly, simply to remind them that they should not spend much, if any, time on their computers not working (most seem to use their own electronic devices anyway these days, but still… and doing so is also very visual in an office setting.). Employers frequently complain about the work ethics of new college graduates, so it might be worthwhile to remind our students of what seems obvious to us.

May 12, 2016 in E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Banks and Class Action Prohibitions as “Contract Gotchas”

Contracts preventing consumers from filing class-action lawsuits against banks may soon be illegal if a proposed ruling by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau takes effect. A hearing on the ruling will be held on Thursday, May 12, 2016.

For quite some time, clauses requiring consumers to arbitrate disputes with banks and banning class action lawsuits against banks in cases of disputes have been common. According to a prominent attorney to testify at Thursday’s hearing, one of the effects of required arbitration has been to make class action lawsuit highly unlikely.  Of course, a contractual clause outright prohibiting class action suits means that if a consumer wants to litigate the dispute and arbitration, he or she would have to do so in an individualized suit. Because of the low amounts typical at issue in bank-v-consumer disputes, such clauses have had the effect of preventing litigation. Even if it comes to litigation between banks and consumers, “consumers can easily be outgunned” by savvy banks who additionally are said to “like to drag things out,” a problem when consumers at the same time have to take time off from work to litigate.

The proposed rule would not ban arbitration clauses. Rather, it would prevent contract clauses from including language that bans consumers from joining class-action cases. Such bans are common, and they have become more widely enforced since the United States Supreme Court in 2011 held that the FAA requires state courts to honor bans even if state law prohibits them.

According to Consumer Bureau Director Richard Cordray, "signing up for a credit card or opening a bank account can often mean signing away your right to take the company to court if things go wrong." Cordray also calls the current practice a "contract gotcha that effectively denies groups of consumers the right to seek justice and relief for wrongdoing."  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness calls the proposed rules a “backdoor ban” on arbitration clauses, said to provide individual consumers the chance for “more financial relief than a class-action suit.” The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Consumer Banking Project states that it is probably true that banks will ditch arbitration clauses if the CFPB’s rules take effect, but “consumers will probably be just fine.”

May 11, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

No "Safe Learning Environment" Term Implied in Enrollment Contract with a Private High School

A recent case out of New Jersey, Zelnick v. Morristown-Beard School, Docket No. L-1947-13, had some interesting things to say about the contractual relationship between a private high school and the students enrolled (and parents of those students). 

The case arose out of an alleged inappropriate sexual relationship between the plaintiffs' daughter, then a student at the school, and her teacher. The plaintiffs' daughter was a minor throughout the alleged sexual relationship; at present, however, the plaintiffs' daughter is an adult who is estranged from her parents and took no part in the case brought here. 

The court refused to get into the details of the relationship between the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher, finding that the details were mostly irrelevant. It was sufficient to state that there seemed to be some knowledge on the part of the school of inappropriate behavior with other female students on the part of the teacher for a few months before a fateful school trip to Greece, which many of the accusations surrounded. At the time of the school trip, although the teacher violated the school's policy during the trip, the plaintiffs actually spoke up on his behalf, praising his assistance when their daughter fell ill on the trip. Apparently, it later was learned, at least part of the illness was faked, orchestrating "alone time" for the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher apparently, and the plaintiffs did not know of the inappropriate relationship between their daughter and the teacher at the time that they spoke up on his behalf. 

Shortly after the Greece trip, the school was informed by multiple sources that the plaintiffs' daughter and the teacher had engaged in inappropriate conduct during the trip. The school delayed for months contacting the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the "DCPP") regarding the persistent rumors surrounding the teacher. It's unclear how the DCPP got involved, although once they did, the teacher fled the country during the investigation into his behavior. At the time, the plaintiffs' daughter was in her senior year at the school, although she was not attending school physically due to assessment by a psychologist that the persistent rumors about her relationship with the teacher were causing her to suffer too much stress. 

Among other claims, the plaintiffs raised a breach of contract claim based on their daughter's enrollment contract with the school. The school argued that the terms of the contract were that they would provide the plaintiffs' daughter with an education in exchange for tuition. The plaintiffs argued that the contract implied that the learning environment provided to their daughter would be safe; the school rebutted that. The court agreed with the school: There was no "safe learning environment" requirement implied in the contract with the school. The plaintiffs' attempt to create one, the court said, was an attempt to convert tort claims into contract claims. 

This is an interesting ruling to me because, on the one hand, I think all of us would hope that the schools we send our children to are striving to provide a safe learning environment. Very few of us would agree to enter into bargains with schools without a belief that the students' best interests must be at the school's heart. On the other hand, while this isn't a school shooting case, I can see this being a complicated promise in an age where this country has grown to expect that our schools are basically under attack.

It does seem to me that, in the court's recitation of the facts, the school behaved poorly here. The school had notice of persistent reports from multiple sources, including other students, other parents, and other school employees, that the teacher's behavior had been personally witnessed to be inappropriate, and for months the school seems to have taken no action and, indeed, to have allowed the teacher in question to act as one of a few chaperones on an international trip. It reminded me of the case Myanna wrote up a few days ago about the contractual duty of good faith in Texas and the lack of fiduciary relationship between universities and students. Maybe we (or just me) place more trust in other people and entities' obligations toward us/me than we/I should. 

The plaintiffs, of course, did have tort claims here--gross negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress--but the court ruled they did not have standing to pursue them. Those claims seem to have belonged to the plaintiffs' daughter, who, unfortunately, was no longer speaking to her parents, allegedly because of the parents' disapproval of her relationship with her teacher. 

May 10, 2016 in Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 9, 2016

An "Administrative Mistake," or a Waiver of a Defense? (hint: it's a waiver)

 The situation in this recent case out of the District of Nebraska, Kermeen v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 8:14-CV-416 (behind paywall), was possibly the result of lack of communication between departments at a large insurance company. But, even if the error was entirely innocent, it had very real consequences. Maybe a court might save you from clerical errors, but this alleged administrative mistake on the part of State Farm didn't win the court's sympathy at all. 

The Kermeens had a homeowner's insurance policy from State Farm. In March 2014, during the term of the policy, a fire damaged the Kermeens' house and they made a claim for their losses. State Farm claimed to have sent the Kermeens a letter the following month asserting that it appeared that the fire had been set on purpose and that such activity on the part of the Kermeens would void the policy as of the date of the fire. 

In June 2014, a couple of months later, a hail storm damaged some of the Kermeens' property. The Kermeens filed another claim with State Farm. State Farm never paid for the hail claim and instead continued investigating the circumstances of the fire. Finally, in November 2014, the Kermeens filed suit alleging that State Farm breached the homeowners policy by failing to pay the hail claim. State Farm responded in an answer in January 2015 that the Kermeens had intentionally set the March fire and that therefore the policy was void as of March 2014 and so didn't cover the hail damage in June. State Farm didn't formally reject either the fire or the hail claim until July 2015. 

The problematic thing for State Farm, however, was that it had been accepting premiums from the Kermeens on the homeowners policy this entire time. Even when State Farm finally formally declared the policy void as of March 2014, it failed to refund any of the premiums that the Kermeens had paid between March 2014 and July 2015. State Farm stated that it fully intended to refund those premiums in July when it denied the Kermeens' claims, and that its failure to do was "an administrative mistake." State Farm also continued to accept premiums on the homeowners' policy from the Kermeens after July, another thing that State Farm claimed was "an administrative mistake." So, altogether, State Farm accepted nearly two years' worth of premiums from the Kermeens before it finally refunded them in February 2016--after the summary judgment motion in question in this case had been filed, arguing that State Farm had waived its ability to rely on voidness due to its failure to refund the premiums. 

State Farm tried to argue that, by refunding the premiums eventually, it indicated that it was not waiving the voidness defense. State Farm also asserted that its other statements to the Kermeens, including telling the Kermeens in communications several times that the policy would be void as of the date of the fire and its answer filed in this case, further indicated that it had not waived the voidness defense. 

The court disagreed with State Farm. In contrast to the clerical error that was forgiven in the CitiMortgage case, the court wasn't inclined to overlook State Farm's "administrative mistake" here. The court stated that State Farm knew that it was going to declare the policy void as early as January 2015 when it answered the complaint and still failed to refund any premiums to the Kermeens for over a year. This failure to return any of the premiums was inconsistent with a stance that the policy was void and thus constituted a waiver of State Farm's ability to raise voidness as a defense. It didn't matter that State Farm may have repeatedly declared the policy void to the Kermeens if State Farm continued to retain the premiums under that policy--and, indeed, continued to accept further premiums. Therefore, the Kermeens were entitled summary judgment for the damages caused by the hail storm. 

May 9, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Facebook Has to Face Illinois's Biometric Information Privacy Act

 Facebook in Laptop

Facebook was sued recently by a number of Illinois residents for its "Tag Suggestions" program. The complaint alleges that Facebook's facial recognition technology, employed to suggest to its users who they should be tagging in their uploaded photos, collected users' biometric data derived from their faces, secretly and without procuring informed consent, in violation of Illinois's Biometric Information Privacy Act ("BIPA"). Facebook moved to dismiss the complaint, in part on the fact that its Terms of Use require disputes with users to be governed by California law and therefore Illinois' BIPA was not applicable. But the recent decision by the Northern District of California in In re Facebook Biometric Information Privacy Litigation, Case No. 15-cv-03747-JD (behind paywall), found that Facebook has to contend with Illinois's BIPA. 

The court performed an analysis of whether or not Facebook's Terms of Use was a binding contract on the user plaintiffs. Before registration, each of the users was required to click a box or a button that clearly indicated that by doing so, they were stating that they had read and agreed to the Terms of Use. Therefore, the court found that the Terms of Use were binding on the users. In addition, every time Facebook updated its Terms of Use, it sent each user an e-mail informing them of modifications, as well as placed a "jewel notification" on their Facebook feeds. Therefore, there was no real dispute that each user had agreed to the current Terms of Use. There was also no dispute that the Terms of Use contained a California choice-of-law provision. 

Nevertheless, the court refused to enforce the provision. The court noted that part of the test in evaluating whether to enforce a choice-of-law provision is to consider whether California's law would be contrary to the "fundamental policy" of Illinois's law and, if so, whether Illinois would therefore have a "materially greater interest" than California in the case at issue. Here, Illinois is one of only a few states with a statute concerning biometrics; California has no such statute. The court found that Illinois's BIPA represented a fundamental policy of Illinois to protect its residents from unauthorized use of their biometrics, and that applying California law here instead of Illinois law would interfere with Illinois's policy. In fact, the court noted, enforcing the choice-of-law provision would effectively eliminate any effectiveness of BIPA whatsoever, because there would be no ability for Illinois residents to protect themselves against national corporations like Facebook. Therefore, the court found, Facebook has to deal with Illinois's BIPA, regardless of Facebook's attempts to limit the relevant laws of its service to only California's laws. 

This all leaves for another day whether the Tag Suggestions program actually does violate BIPA. 

May 6, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What Health Insurance Companies Write Binds Even In Spite of Interpretation Difficulties

An Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case demonstrates the importance - even to health care services providers – of carefully scrutinizing contractual provisions in contracts with health insurance companies. In spite of some contractual interpretation difficulties, the Eighth Circuit has found that the contractual language binds. It favored the insurance companies, even on a motion for summary judgment. The case is 32nd Street Surgery Center (“32nd Street”) v. Right Choice Managed Care (“insurer”), No. 15-1727. https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/3197844/32nd-street-surgery-center-v-right-choice-managed-care/

In this case, the health care provider 32nd Street contracted with the insurer to become a network provider, which ensures increased patient volume as well as marketing and promotion by the insurer. In exchange for these benefits, a network provider generally agrees to receive discounted reimbursement rates. The disputed contract stipulated that a network provider is one “designated to participate in one or more [of insurer’s] Networks.” Another contractual stipulation stated, in much legalese, that if 32nd Street’s participation was limited to a certain plan, which it was, it would only receive the discounted in-network reimbursement rates for services in relation to other plans of which it was not a member. In other words, even though 32nd Street had contracted for only one certain “stick” in the insurance provider’s overall bundle, the entire lower insurance bundle pricing applied to 32nd Street.

This is boiled down from many gobbledygook contractual stipulations that, to me, seemed to indicate at least some reasonable factual doubt and thus at a minimum not to be suitable for summary judgment. But the court found the contract provisions sufficiently clear for that standard. Claims of unjust enrichment and quantum meruit were also rejected because they sound in quasi-contract whereas Missouri law does not allow such remedies when an express contract exists.

In today’s health insurance company apparent strong-arming tactics and power grabs, this case again demonstrates the importance of making sure that one has read and truly understands all the contractual provisions in the health care context. However, that is, as this case and others demonstrate, difficult enough to do for corporations with, presumably, sufficient assistance of counsel. But where does such law and precedent leave private individuals encountering similar problems? Not in a good place. This area is ripe for abuse by the stronger contractual party, which in this context always seems to be the health care insurance company. Arguments of good faith and fair dealing are, as this case demonstrates, largely or entirely ignored. The court did in this case. Good luck to future patients encountering problems of this nature. Further regulations truly seem to be in order in the health care field.

May 5, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Oops! Will That Typo Cost You?

According to a recent Eleventh Circuit case, Patterson v. CitiMortgage, Inc., No. 14-14636, the answer is no. 

Toby Breedlove (an additional plaintiff in the suit) had bought a house with a CitiMortgage loan. After falling behind in his payments and hoping to avoid a foreclosure, Breedlove sought to sell the house to Patterson in a short sale. Patterson and CitiMortgage negotiated over a price. Patterson offered $371,000, which was rejected; then $412,000, which was rejected; then $444,000. It is the response to the offer of $444,000 that is at issue here. 

CitiMortgage sent Patterson a letter that stated that it wished to receive a payoff of $113,968.45. This was not what CitiMortgage meant to communicate. That amount is clearly much lower than the amounts which the parties had been discussing. Nevertheless, Patterson received the letter and immediately agreed to go forward with the deal. Patterson did not confirm the amount of the deal; neither did CitiMortgage. On the date of closing, CitiMortgage received the payment of $113,968.45 and at that point realized its mistake. It contacted the closing attorney's assistant and stated that it was rejecting the funds and would be returning them. CitiMortgage then contacted Patterson and informed him that it had meant to accept the $444,000 offer, with a few tweaks. Patterson, however, demanded that CitiMortgage accept the $113,968.45 for the house, since that had been the amount stated in CitiMortgage's letter. 

For reasons that are never made clear, two years went by before CitiMortgage took any further action, moving to foreclose on Breedlove's house. That resulted in this lawsuit seeking to enforce the sale of the house for $113,968.45. 

The question in this case was whether CitiMortgage's unilateral clerical error in the letter to Patterson prevented the parties from forming a valid contract. Georgia courts (the law that applied) often do not save contracting parties from their own mistakes if due diligence would have prevented the error. However, Georgia courts also refuse to allow parties to take advantage of obvious mistakes made by the other side. When the other party should have known that there was a mistake involved, then that can be grounds for rescinding the contract. And here, CitiMortgage's mistake should have been obvious to Patterson. They had been discussing numbers in the $400,000s; he should have realized that a number in the $100,000s had to be a typo. Therefore, there was no contract between the parties. 

May 4, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)