Monday, December 5, 2016
One of the things I find students struggle with when it comes to parol evidence is determining for what purpose they are considering the evidence. A recent case out of Maryland, Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners v. Community Homes Housing, Inc., No. 0642 September Term 2015 (behind paywall), has a nice discussion on this.
In the case, the parties both signed a document that was called "Agreement to Redevelop and Preserve Affordable Housing." The contract contained an integration clause. Both parties also admitted later that they had signed the document because it was required to obtain financing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"), which the parties had both desired. HUD, however, refused to guarantee any financing for the project. Community Homes then took the position that there was no contract with Wiencek because the contract was not to take effect unless HUD financing was received. Wiencek disagreed and sued Community Homes for breach of contract.
The trial court considered parol evidence to determine whether the contract between the parties was enforceable. Wiencek argued this was improper because of the contract's integration clause. But Community Homes noted that the parol evidence was not being considered to add a term to the contract; rather, it was being considered to determine if the contract even existed in the first place, and therefore was permissible. The court agreed with Community Homes that considering parol evidence was perfectly acceptable in this situation. The court noted that it could not enforce the contract's integration clause when what it was trying to determine was whether the contract containing the integration clause even existed.
The parties here had agreed orally that the contract would not come into effect unless HUD guaranteed financing. Although there was nothing in the contract about that, the parol evidence admitted as to the intent of the parties was clear. The contract was only signed in order to try to obtain the HUD financing; once that objective had failed, the parties did not intend the contract to be enforceable any longer.
Wiencek tried to make an argument that the law should have a policy to deter "fictitious" contracts. In effect, Wiencek claimed that the court was allowing the parties to "pretend" to have entered into a contract to try to "trick" HUD into providing financing, with no intention of actually entering into a contract with each other. The court, however, did not see any reason to enforce the contract between the parties in this circumstance. It was the court's view that, if HUD felt it had been harmed by the representation that there had been a contract between the parties (even though the court did not decide one way or the other whether that representation was incorrect), HUD should seek a remedy from the court for the harm, not Wiencek.
A California Court of Appeals recently answered yes to this question, although finding that in the case at issue, the facts didn’t warrant a finding of actual elder abuse.
At bottom, the facts were as follows: an elderly couple – the wife was in her 80s – suffered rain damage to their house and claimed repair benefits under an insurance policy. The insurance company initiated investigations as to whether the damage was covered. The investigations were, among other things, hampered by the couple having discarded debris from the damaged room although the insurance company had requested an immediate investigation and announced its arrival two days later.
The couple first claimed bad faith in the insurance company subsequently denying part of the insurance claim. The court granted the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment in this respect, finding that a mere incorrect denial of insurance policy benefits does not constitute bad faith. Said the court: “[A]n insurer denying or delaying the payment of policy benefits due to the existence of a genuine dispute with its insured as to the existence of coverage liability or the amount of the insured's coverage claim is not liable in bad faith even though it might be liable for breach of contract.”
The bad faith issue also came up in another case where a husband died from a lethal dose of a prescription drug, the insurer assigned an investigator, who unsuccessfully attempted to obtain information from the plaintiff wife regarding the husband's state of mind before his death and the source of the fatal drugs. Where the insurer simply tried to “do all it reasonably could” to determine the cause of death, no bad faith was at issue in simply denying benefits.
California law broadly defines financial abuse of an elder as “occurring when a person or entity takes, secretes, appropriates, obtains, or retains real or personal property of an elder for a wrongful use or with intent to defraud, or both,” as well as “by undue influence.” See Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 15610.30, subds. (a)(1), (a)(3).)). Additionally, the wrongdoer must have known or should have known that the conduct was likely to be harmful to the elder. In this case, however, the improper conduct was missing: there was no evidence that the insurance company acted in subjective bad faith or unreasonably denied policy benefits. This stands in contrast to cases where, for example, insurance companies have employed deceptive practices in executing contract such as annuity agreements with senior citizens.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
I am always saying to my students that if they care about something, they should put it in their contract, and they should be specific about what it is they want. I think sometimes people might think there's something to gain strategically by being vague, but introducing ambiguity into a contract can work out very poorly (and also takes control out of the hands of the parties). A recent case out of Florida, Boardwalk at Daytona Development, LLC v. Paspalakis, Case No. 5D15-1944, is a case where the court, faced with an ambiguous description of the land at issue in a contract, just threw up its hands in frustration.
The dispute between these two parties has been long and contentious. According to this article, it's dragged on for over a decade. It was originally rooted in an eminent domain proceeding in which Boardwalk at Daytona ("BDD")'s predecessor obtained property belonging to Paspalakis and the other appellees. The appellees contested BDD's acquisition of their land and eventually that lawsuit was settled. The settlement agreement provided the appellees with an option to purchase and operate 7500 square feet of retail space on the Daytona Boardwalk. The agreement contained no legal description or street address for the property at issue. The agreement said that the land would: (1) be adjacent to another particular business; (2) have a minimum of 50 boardwalk frontage feet; and (3) have sufficient land to build a 7500-square-foot, one-story building. Unfortunately for the appellees, there were at least three parcels of land that met this description, and they ranged drastically in size from around 7700 square feet to over 17,000 square feet.
The problem with the description of the land in the settlement agreement was exposed when the appellees tried to operate their option. BDD offered a piece of property that met all three criteria set forth in the settlement agreement. However, the property required unusual structural design features that troubled the appellees and also came with a negative easement for light, air, and unobstructed view that benefitted the BDD property next door. The appellees therefore objected to this plot of land and asked for another one.
BDD sought a declaratory judgment that the plot of land it proposed was sufficient under the settlement agreement and that it did not have to provide another plot of land. The appellees, in response, sought specific performance that BDD provide a plot of land fitting the description in the settlement agreement, without the restrictions of the land BDD had offered. In the face of the counterclaim, BDD shifted stance and argued that the settlement agreement was too ambiguous to be enforced.
The trial court sided with the appellees and ordered BDD to convey the largest possible plot of land to the appellees. BDD appealed, and this court agreed with BDD. The court noted that a description of the land in question is usually considered an essential part of any land purchase agreement, and that without any such description there are serious doubts whether the parties reached a meeting of the minds. The description of the land in the settlement agreement here was ambiguous. The trial court correctly examined parol evidence to try to resolve the ambiguity, but it didn't help. The contract terms at issue here simply could have been fulfilled by any of three very different parcels of land. To this court, there was no contractual way to choose between them and no parol evidence that shed light on which parcel of land the parties had in mind. Indeed, the court was skeptical the parties ever really agreed on which parcel of land would be conveyed, and so the parties never reached a meeting of the minds that could be enforced. Therefore, the court reversed the order of specific performance and entered judgment for BDD instead.
A bitter pill here for the appellees, who doubtless thought that they were getting something of value in the settlement agreement they struck and end up with nothing to show for it. But it does seem like there was considerable confusion about which land was affected by the situation here. I guess it's a lesson to all of us: try to be as specific as possible. I tell my students drafting contracts is frequently like playing a game of what-if with yourself. What if BDD offers this parcel of land instead of that parcel of land? If the answer to that question is that you would prefer one parcel of land over the other, best to be specific in the contract.
Monday, November 28, 2016
If you are looking for a case with a nice analysis of procedural and substantive unconscionability, a recent case out of Ohio, Christ Holdings, LLC v. Schleappi, Case No. 15 NO 0427, has one.
The case involved a right of first refusal that the defendants claimed was unconscionable. The trial court agreed with the defendants, but this court reversed the finding. The court started by looking at procedural unconscionability and noting that it requires consideration of "age, education, intelligence, business acumen and experience," etc. The court then presented in some amount of detail the education and employment history of both parties, concluding that their educational level is roughly equivalent but that the plaintiff did have more business acumen and experience than the defendant.
However, importantly for this decision, the court noted that the parties actually had a history of conducting real estate transactions between them without the aid of any attorneys, negotiating several times over the course of several years. To the court, this was an indication that both parties were knowledgeable in the particular type of real estate transaction at issue here, even if the plaintiff had more general business acumen.
The trial court had also been very concerned about the fact that the defendant had been operating under time constraints. But this court noted that the time constraints were not the plaintiff's fault: he gave no indication that he wouldn't have given her time to read the contract over if she had requested it (which she did not).
After finding no procedural unconscionability, the court then turned to substantive unconscionability. The trial court had found substantive unconscionability for a number of reasons, most notably, though, because this right of first refusal involved the licensing of mineral rights. The trial court asserted that rights of first refusal should be limited to real estate purchases, not to the leasing or licensing of real estate as was at issue here. The trial court seemed to think that rights of first refusal to license were unconscionable in and of themselves, without further inquiry into their terms. This court, however, said that there was no reason to so narrowly restrict the ability of the parties' to use rights of first refusal in their agreements. It found the right of first refusal to be enforceable and remanded for further proceedings.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
A recent case out of West Virginia, Stiles Family Limited Partnership v. Riggs and Stiles, Inc., No. 16-0220, does a nice job analyzing the fact that an anticipatory breach must be unequivocal. The fairly straightforward facts could be a useful way of helping to illustrate this topic the next time you teach it.
The parties (all members of the same family) entered into a lease under which Riggs and Stiles agreed to farm the property at issue. The lease has been in effect since 2006 without dispute until 2013, when Riggs and Stiles allowed a production company to file an application for a permit to hold a music festival on the farm property. When Stiles Family Limited Partnership learned of the application, they objected; the following month, when they failed to convince the Partnership to allow them to hold the music festival, Riggs and Stiles withdrew the application, and no music festival was ever held on the property. However, the Partnership tried to terminate the lease, arguing that Riggs and Stiles had anticipatorily repudiated the lease when it permitted the filing of the application. The Partnership claimed that this permission by Riggs and Stiles demonstrated an unequivocal intent on their part to use the land for something other than farming, in violation of the terms of the lease, and it made sense to treat the lease as breached as the moment of application rather than having to wait for the music festival to actually take place.
The court disagreed, however. It was undisputed that Riggs and Stiles had at all times farmed on the land, never stopping and continuing to farm on the land even after the filing of the application. The application alone was not a breach of the promise to use the land only for farming, as it was undisputed that it was all Riggs and Stiles ever did. And continuing to farm the land was not consistent with an unequivocal repudiation of the lease, because it was actually what Riggs and Stiles was required to do under the lease. Performing consistent with the lease couldn't be considered an unequivocal repudiation of the lease. Moreover, when the Partnership informed Riggs and Stiles that it didn't agree to the music festival being held on the land, Riggs and Stiles withdrew the application for the permit. Rather than being an unequivocal intent to breach the contract, that displayed equivocation on the part of Riggs and Stiles: they sought to take actions to not breach the contract.
Monday, November 21, 2016
My love for the British car show "Top Gear" over the past few years was deep and abiding, despite the fact that I am not interested in cars at all. Like most of the people I know, I watched Top Gear for the hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May--a trio of men whose friendly and hilarious chemistry was, I thought, a little like capturing lightning in a bottle; it comes around so infrequently that it's striking when it does.
For a taste of what this version of Top Gear was like, please enjoy my personal favorite, one of the caravan episodes:
Or maybe you would prefer one of the boat-car episodes:
The Top Gear Wikipedia entry details that the show's popularity resulted in consistently high ratings, a waiting list for tickets to the stage-filmed portion of the show that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and a Guinness World Record for the world's most widely watched factual television show.
There have been a number of high-profile Top Gear events over the years that I could document here, from Richard Hammond's terrifying crash while filming the show to the fascinating contractual dispute over the Stig, the show's famously anonymous racing driver, revealing his true identity.
But what I'm really focusing on in this entry is the fact that the Top Gear hosts have a new show, "The Grand Tour," that looks a whole lot like their old show, and it made me wonder what their contracts looked like.
The hosts left Top Gear over controversially. The BBC declined to renew Jeremy Clarkson's contract in March 2015, following an attack by Clarkson on one of the producers on the show (later the subject of a lawsuit that Clarkson settled for a hundred thousand pounds and a formal apology). The other two presenters, Hammond and May, also had contracts up for renewal and chose not to re-sign with the BBC, instead following Clarkson to Amazon, where the trio have launched a show called The Grand Tour.
I didn't know what to expect from The Grand Tour but it turns out to be Top Gear by a different name. Where Top Gear had a Stig, The Grand Tour has "the American" -- and they tell us who he is right off the bat, rather than get embroiled in that kind of controversy again. Top Gear had a segment called, simply, "The News"; The Grand Tour launched a similar segment called "Conversation Street." Top Gear had a segment called "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car"; The Grand Tour...well, you should watch the show for its take on that segment. This review does a nice job running down all the similarities between the old show and the new.
This all fascinated me from a contract perspective. I knew that Clarkson had previously co-owned the commercial rights to Top Gear. He sold them to the BBC in 2012 for fourteen million pounds. So, having given up those rights and left the BBC, Clarkson clearly couldn't keep making "Top Gear." But he is making a motoring show that is almost identical in every cheeky winking respect to the one he left behind (right down to a simple title highlighting a prominent "T" and "G").
I do think, from an IP point of view, the new show seems safe: they've been careful to avoid any trademarks and only seem to resemble Top Gear in the uncopyrightable idea level, i.e., being a playful show about cars. But I assumed that Clarkson, Hammond, and May had to have had a non-compete with the BBC, so I went looking for it, and I did find evidence that there was one. It apparently prohibited the three from presenting a competing car program for a period of two years. The two years aren't up yet, leaving lawyers to speculate that a conclusion was drawn that the non-compete only applied to terrestrial broadcast stations and not to Amazon's streaming Internet television. The entertainment industry is changing so quickly, it doesn't surprise me that the contracts are having trouble keeping up.
Surely the BBC would have preferred to keep Clarkson, Hammond, and May from kicking a rival car show into production so quickly, especially while the BBC's relaunched Top Gear has reportedly struggled. But apparently their contracts failed to give them sufficient protection to save them from the result.
I will leave for another day the issues of contracts made during the filming of Top Gear itself; like, for instance, the time Clarkson offered to save Hammond from a sinking boat in exchange for a bucket...that turned out to have holes.
And instead I will leave this entry with an acknowledgment that Jeremy Clarkson is a problematic and controversial figure who is not a stranger to making offensive statement. That's beyond the scope of this article about the BBC's contracts, but this review, I think, does a decent job of capturing the internal tension of a former Top Gear fan contemplating the new Grand Tour.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
A recent case out of the Eastern District of Michigan, Bucciarelli v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, No. 15-13900, is an illustration of the confusion that can sometimes occur when two parties talk past each other and never really understand each other. The result is that there is no enforceable contract between these parties who never seem to be on the same page.
This is a mortgage foreclosure case in which settlement was attempted but complicated by the fact that there was a lawyer on one side and a pro se plaintiff on the other and they never seemed to be speaking the same language. The defendant's counsel tried to settle the case by by proposing a "routine" settlement to the plaintiff of $500. The plaintiff responded to the proposal by calling the defendant's counsel leaving the following message:
I don't know where it stands but I got it couple days ago regarding the settlement offer of $500 from Countrywide. We can go ahead and do that. So if you wanna give me a call back. My number is . I do have a lot of mistakes in the Countrywide financial [unclear]. Of those funds that were applied and misapplied to my account but my main focus is Wells Fargo who purchased the loans from Countrywide after Countrywide made some substantial mistakes. Give me a call back. Mary. Thanks bye.
The defendant focused on the "We can go ahead and do that," but the court pointed out that the plaintiff went on after that statement to make allegations regarding Countrywide's mistaken behavior toward her. The court characterized this voicemail as "ambiguous as to her acceptance of all the proposed terms" of the settlement agreement, especially considering that, once the plaintiff received an actual draft of the entire settlement agreement, she refused to execute it. When the defendant moved to enforce the settlement agreement on the basis of the voice message (and subsequent other telephone calls whose contents seem to be disputed), the plaintiff countered that there was no agreement to settle the case.
In this situation, the court said that it did not feel that the parties had ever agreed on all of the material terms of the settlement. There was no mutual understanding between the parties. The court concluded that each party "heard only what it wanted to hear," and pushed back on defendant's characterization of the settlement offer as "routine": "[I]t must be remembered that Ms. Bucciarelli is appearing pro se, and therefore it is likely that nothing in this litigation is 'routine' to her."
Monday, November 14, 2016
I just wrote up a promissory estoppel case last week, and here's another one out of Connecticut, Sorrentino v. Rizza, Docket Number CV156013599 (behind paywall). In this case, the plaintiff failed to allege specific enough statements to form the foundation of her promissory estoppel claim. The case is a dispute over a promise of employment, and the relevant part of the complaint alleged that the defendant had promised the plaintiff "on several occasions" that she would be given "a similar position" with the defendant's company as the plaintiff already held in another company, with "a salary plus a percentage of any advertisement revenue she generated."
This was, in the court's view, "nebulous at best." No specific dates or locations were given for the promises in question, there was no explanation of the salary that was discussed, and there were no details about what percentage of revenues the plaintiff had been promised. The plaintiff's allegations were about indefinite statements that seemed to lack any material terms. The court said those could not be construed as any "clear and definite promise" that could the plaintiff could reasonably have relied on.
So if you think you have a promissory estoppel claim, the lesson from this case is to make sure you are very specific in relaying to the court exactly what was said and when.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Allow me to highlight my most recent article, An “Act of God”? Rethinking Contractual Force Majeure in an Era of Anthropogenic Climate Change.
Given anthropogenic climate change, what were previously considered to be inexplicable and unpredictable “acts of God” cannot reasonably be said to be so anymore. They are acts of man. “Extreme” weather events have become the new normal. Accordingly, the contractual force majeure defense, which largely rests on the notion that contractual parties may be exculpated from liability for failed or delayed performances if supervening unforeseen events that the party could not reasonably control or foresee have made a performance impracticable, is becoming outdated in the weather context. It makes little sense to allow contractual parties to escape contractual performance liability for events that are highly foreseeable given today’s knowledge about climate change. Parties can and should take reasonable steps to contractually assess and allocate the risks of severe weather events much more accurately than ever before. Further, they should be better prepared to take reasonable steps to alleviate the effects of severe weather on their contractual performances instead of seeking to avoid liability at the litigation stage.
Time has come for the judiciary to rethink the availability of the impracticability defense based on “extreme” weather for public policy purposes. Perhaps most importantly, by taking a hard look at the doctrine and modernizing it to reflect current on-the-ground reality, the judiciary may help instigate a broader awareness of the underlying pollution problem and need for action at many scales. Meanwhile, a more equitable risk-sharing framework that might become known as “comparative risk sharing” and which would resemble the notion of comparative negligence in torts could be introduced where parties have failed to reach a sufficiently detailed antecedent agreement on the issue. This is surprisingly often the case. Parties often use mere boilerplate phrases that do not reflect today’s highly volatile weather and appurtenant risks.
The law is never static. It must reflect real world phenomena. Climate change is a super-wicked problem that requires attention and legal solutions at many fronts to many problems, including contractual ones. The general public is often said to have lost faith in the judiciary. Given this perception, courts could regain some of that faith in the context of contracts law and force majeure caused by events for which no “God,” other supernatural power, or even nature can be blamed.
The article can be downloaded here.
I apologize that I have not been able to post very many blogs recently and that I will, for family and work reasons, also not be able to do so until January. I trust it that my lovely assistant Ashley and my co-bloggers will keep you intrigues until then!
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Here's a Nice Case to Use to Review Contract Formation, Conditions Precedent, and Promissory Estoppel
As we reach the end of the semester, I keep trying to remind my students of what we learned at the beginning of the semester, which was only a few weeks ago but feels like several lifetimes ago. As we turn our attention to our last topic of third-party rights, I don't want the students to forget the basics of contract formation. I want them to realize that contracts law builds on itself and is self-referential and so they can't just forget about the stuff that came first.
Anyway, I say all of that to lead into this nice recent case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Killian v. Ricchetti, Civil Action No. 16-2874, that deals with issues of contract formation, and then turns to promissory estoppel. Exactly as I keep trying to remind my students to do! So I couldn't resist writing this case up for the blog. It serves as a nice review of a lot of what we've learned and I think I may actually use it in class.
The alleged contract was a series of e-mails exchanged between two friends. The first e-mail set out a bunch of terms and ended with "there are more little details...it's a start." The response to the e-mail added a few additional terms. This, the court found, did not form a contract, because the response was not an acceptance but rather a counteroffer, due to the fact that it added terms. There was never any reply to that particular e-mail, so the counteroffer was never accepted.
After these initial e-mails, there were further e-mails between the two regarding the real estate transactions at the heart of the alleged agreement. Those e-mails were enough to form a contract as follows: The first e-mail read, "[W]hen the Pine [Street property] is clear title we form an LLC with an equal partnership of 50% . . . ." with some further details given. The reply to the e-mail was "OF COURSE," which constituted an acceptance. However, there was a condition precedent to this contract: that the parties receive clear title on the Pine Street property in question. Due to no fault of the parties themselves, they never received this clear title, so the condition precedent never occurred, so no duties to perform under the contract ever arose.
The court then turns to the promissory estoppel question, though. The court found here there were genuine issues of material fact whether there was a promise made and whether the other party acted in reliance on that promise. Similar issues of material fact existed for the unjust enrichment and qunatium meruit claims. Therefore, although the court granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claims, it denied summary judgment on the remaining claims.
Monday, November 7, 2016
I was struck by this ad that Liberty Mutual Insurance is now running:
Because what it boils down to is a call for greater clarity in contracts so that they can be more easily understood by consumers. (I appreciate the lawyer shout-out but not even all lawyers read all 22 pages!) But, in the midst of trying to simplify things, the small print on the commercial takes care to explain that "Not all of your coverages are shown in Coverage Compass(TM). For complete explanation of your coverages, please consult your Liberty Mutual sales representative and your policy" (emphasis added). You can try to streamline things, but there's no avoiding that 22-page policy in the end!
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Thanks to InsideHigherEd, I became aware of this recent case out of the First Circuit, Walker v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 15-1154, and seeing as it involved JOLT, the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology that I was an executive editor of when I was in law school there, I couldn't resist digging into the case.
And I'm glad I did, because it's a really interesting case about the lingering effect of honor code violations and the wording of school academic policies.
The plaintiff graduated from Harvard Law School in 2009. During her time at Harvard, she was a member of JOLT. In that capacity, she drafted a student note. However, when she sent the note to senior editors at JOLT, they became concerned about plagiarism issues and referred the note to the HLS Administrative Board. The Board concluded that the plaintiff's note contained plagiarism that violated the school's Handbook of Academic Policies and a notation was placed on her transcript. The plaintiff still graduated from HLS but had a "lucrative" offer of employment withdrawn after the notation was placed on her transcript. So the plaintiff sued to have the notation on her transcript removed. HLS won summary judgment at the district court level and this appeal followed.
The court affirmed the judgment of the district court. The parties agreed that the Student Handbook constituted a contract between the plaintiff and HLS. (The court noted that this was not actually obvious under Massachusetts law but that it would treat the handbook as a contract because the parties did not dispute it.) Therefore, the court focused its review on whether the plaintiff's behavior violated the stated plagiarism policy in a way that the plaintiff should have reasonably expected.
The Handbook stated: "All work submitted by a student for any academic or non-academic exercise is expected to be the student's own work." The plaintiff's main argument was that the student note she sent to the JOLT editors was just a draft that she planned to edit in the future, and the Handbook policy should be read as only applying to completed work that was not expected to undergo further editing. The court disagreed, however. The wording of the Handbook was extremely broad, referring to "all work." A student in the plaintiff's position should reasonably have expected that any student note submitted to the editors, whether a draft or in final form, would be held to the standards of the policy. Nothing about "all work" would make a student think that drafts were omitted from the definition, according to the court.
Monday, October 31, 2016
A recent case out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Douglas v. University of Pittsburgh, Civil Action No. 15-938 (behind paywall), found that there were factual disputes precluding summary judgment regarding whether or not a contract was in place between the plaintiff, an assistant football coach, and the University.
The plaintiff alleged that he was orally told by Pittsburgh's head football coach when he was offered the job that it would be a two-year-contract with $225,000 in the first year and $240,000 in the second year, with other perks. The plaintiff accepted the terms and began the job immediately upon receiving this alleged oral offer from the head coach.
A little more than a week later, the plaintiff received a proposed Employment Contract. The contract had his second-year salary as $235,000 instead of $240,000 and also stated that the University could terminate the plaintiff's employment if the head coach left the school. The plaintiff had concerns about these clauses and other parts of the contract and brought these concerns to the head coach, who allegedly told the plaintiff that he would take care of the issues.
A few months later, the plaintiff moved his wife and children to join him in Pittsburgh. Over the course of the next few months, the plaintiff claims to have periodically raised the issue that he had never signed a contract and was allegedly told by various people not to worry about it.
Less than a year after the plaintiff started the assistant coach job, the head coach left Pittsburgh to take a job at the University of Wisconsin. Pittsburgh then subsequently terminated the plaintiff and all of the other assistant football coaches. The University informed the plaintiff that, because he had never signed the Employment Contract, he was an "at-will" employee. The plaintiff, in the wake of losing his job, took a job at Florida State for $40,000 per year, necessitating more moving costs.
Not happy about how this all played out, the plaintiff sued the University of Pittsburgh. The plaintiff's allegation was that he was orally offered a contract for two years of employment that he accepted, and that the University breached that oral contract. The University responded that the conversation between the plaintiff and the head coach on which the plaintiff pins his hopes did not have enough essential terms to be considered a contract and that the essential terms were in the Employment Contract. Although the plaintiff refused to sign that written contract, the University maintained that he accepted the terms of the written contract when he continued to work for the University. The plaintiff, however, argued that the head coach's offer of employment was specific enough, giving job duties, term, and salary, to constitute a binding contract between the parties, and the plaintiff stated that he resigned from his job and moved his family in reliance on this.
The University moved for summary judgment but the court found that there was enough evidence that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff and the University had agreed to enough essential terms to form a contract. However, the court dismissed the plaintiff's claims for fraud in the inducement and negligent misrepresentation as merely duplicating the surviving breach of contract claim. I'll keep you posted on what happens!
Law360 has an article about the filing of this lawsuit here.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
We've been talking about contract interpretation in my Contracts class lately and I'm always struck by how many cases involve a lower court ruling of ambiguity and then an appellate court reversal of that ruling, because it always strikes me as such a funny thing. The very definition of ambiguity would seem to be "multiple people disagreeing on the meaning of the word," but the appellate court decisions in those cases necessarily have to dismiss the reasonableness of the lower court's understanding of the meaning in order to assert that the meaning is SO OBVIOUS. This always makes these cases feel a little more...condescending? Than the typical reversal. Like, "We don't know what you were so confused about, lower court, this is OBVIOUS."
A recent case out of California, Borgwat v. Shasta Union Elementary School District, No. C078692, is another example of this. The plaintiff, upon retiring from the defendant, was entitled to a monthly post-retirement contribution toward her "medical insurance coverage." For a couple of years, the defendant paid the contribution toward the plaintiff's dental and vision coverage. But then the defendant concluded that dental and vision insurance was not included in "medical insurance coverage" and ceased paying the contribution. This lawsuit resulted.
The lower court found the phrase "medical insurance coverage" to be ambiguous and allowed extrinsic evidence to illuminate its definition, including the fact that the defendant had initially paid the plaintiff the contribution for a few years. Therefore, the lower court endorsed the plaintiff's interpretation that "medical insurance coverage" included dental and vision insurance.
The appellate court here reversed, though, saying that "medical insurance coverage" was not an ambiguous term. The relevant section of the contract was Section 5.7 but the appellate court looked to Section 5.2, which dealt with benefits during the course of employment. In that section, the defendant had agreed to pay sums "toward the cost of medical, dental and vision benefit coverage." The fact that dental and vision were considered independent from medical insurance in Section 5.2 rendered the use of "medical insurance" in Section 5.7 unambiguous: It can't include dental and vision insurance, because the parties in Section 5.2 revealed that they didn't understand medical to include dental and vision insurance when they felt it necessary to list all three. For this reason, the appellate court refused to allow any extrinsic evidence, because the defendant's mistake in paying for the dental and vision insurance could not change the unambiguous terms of the contract.
So there you have it. OBVIOUSLY. :-)
Monday, October 24, 2016
I have never been to a trampoline park but doing this blog has given me the impression that they're dangerous! I've already blogged about one in New York, in which the court refused to enforce a waiver of liability for negligence. Now, in this recent case out of Louisiana, Duhon v. Activelaf, No. 2016-CC-0818, a court again finds against another trampoline park's enforceability of its contract terms. This time the term at issue is the contract's arbitration provision.
The plaintiff was injured at the trampoline park and filed suit seeking damages. The trampoline park responded seeking to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement that the plaintiff was required to sign before entering the trampoline park.
However, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the plaintiff did not consent to the arbitration clause. It noted that the clause was buried in the rest of the fairly lengthy agreement in such a way as to be concealed from the plaintiff. Specifically, it was found in the eleventh line of the third paragraph, a paragraph that also meandered through topics such as: the customer's physical ability to partake of the trampoline park, assumption of risks, agreement to follow the trampoline park's rules, and certification that customers would explain those rules to any children accompanying them. To the court, this hodge-podge, catch-all paragraph drowned the arbitration clause in the middle of unrelated information. This was extra-noteworthy because the rest of the agreement was divided into short one-topic paragraphs, save the relevant one containing the arbitration language. The court refers to it as being "camouflaged" within an eleven-sentence paragraph, nine sentences of which had nothing to do with arbitration. Because of this, the court found that the plaintiff did not truly consent to the arbitration provision.
This was reinforced by a lack of mutuality in the provision. The clause required all customers of the trampoline park to submit to arbitration, but there was no corresponding requirement on the trampoline park's part. In conclusion, the court found the arbitration clause to be unenforceable.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
A friend of mine asked me the other day about the ongoing controversy over all of that unaired Apprentice footage that is apparently sitting around somewhere. MGM and Mark Burnett have both claimed that they are not allowed to release the tapes due to confidentiality provisions in their contracts with Donald Trump. (Fortune has an article about this here, as does the New York Times.) My friend's question basically boiled down to this: Yeah, sure, maybe that deal made sense when the contract was signed with a New York self-professed billionaire but now he's running for President of the United States, and shouldn't that mean something?
Other people have raised this issue. What seems to me unique about the Donald Trump situation isn't necessarily the confidentiality provisions over the Apprentice tape, but how often, during this political campaign, we've been debating the secrecy Trump requires from all of those around him. The Apprentice contract is just the latest example of this. Over the summer, several news outlets reported on the unusually broad terms of the NDA Trump required his staffers to sign. To be fair, NDAs are not unusual during a Presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton has allegedly had her staffers sign them as well. But Trump's apparently are unusually broad, and he requires them even of volunteers who show up to make calls for Trump's campaign and presumably never even really meet Trump? What confidential information could these volunteers even know? Well, Trump is the one who gets to tell them that. And he's not afraid to sue on the NDAs: We know of at least one arbitration filed against a former staffer, alleging damages of $10 million.
Two things I take away from this:
(1) Donald Trump seems to be obsessed with controlling his image, which makes total sense, as he's made an entire career out of Being Donald Trump and it could even make him President. Trump is so fond of restricting what those around him can say about him that he's even said he'll make his federal employees sign NDAs if he does become President. At the same time, of course, Trump himself doesn't appear to feel restrained in any way to say any thought that comes into his head. So we seem to have a situation where part of the advantage of being rich is being able to say absolutely anything you want and also control to some degree what the people around you get to say, even once your relationship with them has been terminated.
(2) Despite this, however, we all know more about Donald Trump than I think he wants us to know. In the relentless glare of a Presidential campaign, no matter how many NDAs you leave in your wake, is it just impossible to keep secrets forever? And, maybe, is there something comforting about that? My friend wants to see the Apprentice tapes, but we don't know what's in the Apprentice tapes, and we don't know who even has time to review them. But we do know a great deal, maybe not Apprentice-related, but maybe enough?
P.S. This is not the first time I've blogged about Donald Trump's contracts. If you're curious, that case hasn't really progressed since that blog entry.
Monday, October 17, 2016
I was listening to the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish (highly recommended) when I learned that Einstein used his Nobel Prize money as a divorce settlement to his first wife...the only catch being that he divorced her in 1919 and won the Nobel Prize in 1921. The podcast characterized this as: "If I win the Nobel Prize, I'll give you the money." Amazing! Imagine being so confident in your Nobel Prize chances! (I guess if you are Einstein, you would be that confident.)
I know I just found a new go-to hypo to use in class.
Friday, October 14, 2016
This week, while teaching parol evidence, I taught the case of Mitchill v. Lath, which involves an oral agreement between the parties to tear down an ice house on land to the land their sales agreement was about. A student asked what the deal was with the guy who owned the land the ice house was on, and I admit I didn't know the deal, so I went and looked it up, and here's the deal:
He was George Richard Lunn, a clergyman who was born in Iowa but settled in Schenectady, where he was elected mayor on a Socialist ticket and later served in the House of Representatives and as Lieutenant Governor of New York. I had no idea who Lunn was and thought it was interesting that he turned out to have a Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page doesn't mention his role in Mitchill v. Lath but his Prabook entry does.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
'Tis the season!
No, not that season--yet--although last week I was shopping and noticed that the shelves are full of Christmas merchandise already so maybe it is that season.
But the real season is Halloween! Now I enjoy Halloween well enough but I'm not much of a haunted house person (or even a scary movie person), so I don't know much about them, and I was fascinated to learn that there are several haunted houses around the country that require attendees to sign waivers. In the words of this Cosmo article, "A 'if you're so scared that you actually die, your family won't sue us into oblivion' type of waiver." (Some haunted houses even involve electric shocks, I was told. Electric shocks!! I had no idea.)
I was able to locate a couple of these haunted house waivers online. Here's one that acknowledges risk of animal bites and contacts with poisonous plants (yikes!). Here's another one (with I have to admit a fair amount of typos) that contains a little clause down at the bottom acknowledging that you've been offered safety glasses.
At least one article queries whether this practice is entirely legal. The article asks, "Is it okay to mentally and even physically abuse individuals if they sign a waiver? Is there a limit to what should be legally acceptable?" and notes that few people are able to complete the experience and that it frequently leaves participants bruised, cut, and apparently shivering with shock. The haunted house they're talking about in the article requires guests to go through a health check first, I guess to try to minimize the possibility that they will suffer any lasting harm--either physically or mentally--from whatever crazy thing is going on in there. While this might sound terrifying to me, it apparently just sounds like an awesome time to a bunch of people. According to this article, there's a 17,000-person waiting list to get into this haunted house.
Another interesting thing I learned while researching this stuff (peering at the scary descriptions from between my fingers) is that apparently some of the haunted houses also make the guests sign confidentiality provisions? I guess to preserve the surprise for others. At any rate, now I've creeped myself out just looking at this stuff and I need to go watch some HGTV just to stop shuddering!
Btw, if you are a haunted house person and you're curious if one of these extreme you-would-have-to-pay-me-a-million-dollars-to-go-in-here experiences is near you, I found lists here and here. Or feel free to leave your personal favorite in the comments! Happy haunting!
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Hip-Hop Contracts Week continues! This time with a recent ruling out of the Southern District of New York in Walker v. Carter, #1:12-cv-05384-ALC-RLE (behind paywall).
In the case, the plaintiff, Walker, sued Jay-Z and others regarding not a song but the logo for Roc-a-Fella Records. The court was dismissive of Walker's relationship to the logo right off the bat: "Plaintiff casts himself as the creative mastermind of the Logo's design, though he admits that he neither came up with the idea for the Logo nor drew any part of it." Right away you can tell that this doesn't sound like a judge who's inclined to find for the plaintiff here.
And he doesn't. He grants defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no evidence of any written contract between the parties and so Walker's breach of contract claims could not survive. Walker had alleged that he and the defendants had entered into a contract providing for royalties to be paid over a period of ten years. Unfortunately for Walker, this contract--which couldn't possibly be performed within a year--is subject to the Statute of Frauds and required to be in writing, or at least for there to be sufficient evidence that a writing once existed. Generally, in New York this evidence has consisted of either the admission by the other party that a writing did exist at one time or the testimony of witnesses regarding the signing and content of the now-lost writing. Here, defendants denied that any writing had ever existed (which seems predictable, frankly) and Walker could produce no witnesses as to the signing of the contract, as Walker stated that no one other than the defendants and himself were there when the contract was signed.
Walker did produce two witnesses regarding the existence of the contract. However, they were insufficient. One testified that he had seen a piece of paper Walker told him was a contract but that he didn't read the contract and did not know what the contract said. The other testified in a number of ways that contradicted Walker's own testimony regarding the contract: Walker claimed to have written the contract in the same face-to-face meeting when it was signed, but the witness claimed to have seen the contract before it was signed, which couldn't have been possible if Walker's testimony was true. Walker claimed to have lost the contract in 1996, but the witness claimed to have seen it in 2000. Walker claimed the contract was written on blank paper, the witness claimed the contract was on lined paper. Et cetera. The court felt justified, given all of these impossible contradictions in the testimony, in disregarding this witness's testimony, especially since the witness also claimed to have a direct interest in the contract due to his close relationship with Walker. In fact, the court recounted that the witness had initially testified that he had never seen the contract, and only changed his testimony after being spoken to by counsel and after the statute of frauds had become an issue in the case.
Therefore the court concluded that the statute of frauds required the contract to be in writing, there was no writing, and there was no genuine issue of material fact that there had ever been a writing, and so granted defendants' summary judgment motion.
(He also found that Walker's copyright infringement claims were time-barred, so this was a total victory for Jay-Z and the other defendants.)
(A Reuters article about the case can be found here.)