ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, September 5, 2016

More on Alleged Property Shark Amtrak

A few days ago, I posted a blog here on Amtrak raising the rent on backyard lots neighboring Amtrak's railroad lines in New York.  The rent in some cases went up by 100,000% (!) according to the website of Congressman Joseph Crowley

Professor Bruckner posed the relevant question of whether the now hotly contested leases are truly new leases or the renegotiation of existing ones.  I've been trying to find out, but not having seen the actual letter from Amtrak (yet), I've dug through news reports and website of legislators.  This is the upshot as best as I can find out right now: It looks like Amtrak is upping the price on _existing_ leases after having had very low prices for years.  See, e.g., these statements: "For decades, Amtrak has leased the property underneath the trusses to homeowners for a nominal fee which releases the agency from the burden of maintaining the premises. Residents were given a 30-day notice to accept an unconscionable annual rent increase – in some cases as much as 100,000 percent or tens of thousands of dollars" and "[i]n a letter addressed to homeowners, Amtrak argues that a review of the lease and the premises it covers, indicates the lease is substantially undervalued. For some, the rent will go up from $25 annually to over $26,000 annually. Failure to approve the new rental amount would result in the termination of the lease 30 days from the notice."

To me, that does indeed seem if not outright unconscionable, then certainly in violation of reasonable contractual expectations and the contractual terms what appears to be an already existing contract. 

As mentioned, Amtrak does have a good argument in its prices having been exceptionally low for decades, but perhaps market prices should be introduced over time as the lessees get replaced over time with the existing leases somehow being grandfathered in?  Granted, the turnover in the NYC real estate market may  not be high in the case of lucrative deals, but on the other hand, nobody lives in any home forever.  Underlying this story does seem to be the fact that Amtrak got upset not so much about the low rents per se, but the fact that some renters were making profits off them.

September 5, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

One-Year Nationwide Non-Compete Found Reasonable in Organic Product Market

I always think it's interesting to see how courts judge the reasonableness of non-competition provisions. In this recent case out of the Eastern District of New York, Grillea v. United Natural Foods, Inc., 16-CV-3505 (SJF)(SIL) (behind paywall), a judge declined to preliminarily enjoin the employer from enforcing the former employee's non-compete and blocking him from accepting his new position, finding that the former employee had not shown a likelihood of success that the non-compete wasn't enforceable. 

The plaintiff and former employee was one of the top executives at the defendant, United Natural Foods. He had signed a non-competition agreement that prohibited him from working anywhere in the United States for one year for any of United's direct competitors. After a few years, United terminated the plaintiff's employment. There was a lot of negotiation about when the termination would take place, which stock options were going to vest, which benefits would keep accruing, how the plaintiff would be categorized, etc., but for purposes of this blog entry, eventually the termination became effective and the plaintiff left United's employ. 

Plaintiff received a job offer from a division of another company called Threshold. Plaintiff spoke to people at United about the job offer. They expressed concern that it would violate his non-compete. Plaintiff said he disagreed because he would be dealing with manufacturing, which was not what his responsibilities had been at United. Plaintiff put people at United down as references and Threshold called and spoke to them. They claimed they informed Threshold they thought what plaintiff was doing was a conflict of interest. 

This dispute followed, with plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction that United not enforce the non-compete so that plaintiff can accept his new position. The court, however, denied plaintiff's motion. The court found that the one-year time period of the non-compete was reasonable and also that the fact that it had no geographic limitation was reasonable because United is a nationwide company (the geographic limitation thing was important to plaintiff's argument because he was switching coasts for the new job). 

What I found most interesting about this case was that the judge emphasized several times that United had stated that the non-compete only prevented plaintiff from working for twenty-nine companies (of which Threshold was one). That was clearly a detail that was compelling to the court. 

September 5, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Egregious Price Increases

You heard about Epipen, the “price of which has climbed sixfold over the last several years. At drug price-comparison website GoodRx, the cheapest price today is $614 for a package containing two, or more than $300 per EpiPen, up from about $100 for two.”

Now there’s Amtrak. The company just raised the prices for renting backyard spaces underneath the Hell Gate Bridge in New York from, in one case, $25 to $25,560 a year (that’s not a typo) and, in another, from $50 to $45,000 a year. Images

The homeowners that rent these “additional” spaces have been given 30 days to accept the new leases or else give up the land. Some use it for recreational purposes but others rent it out as parking lots, which has allegedly caused Amtrak to reconsider these contracts. The company has confirmed the rent hikes, stating that “some lease holders have not seen an increase in more than 70 years” and that renters can still expect to pay only “a fraction (less than 1 percent) of the fair market rental rates.” Amtrak will be “working with each person individually to determine the exact terms of their lease.”

Is this fair? Many of the renters have decks, pools, and established plants on the land. They also clear snow, remove falling bricks and other debris from the land. They’ve been able to enjoy the land for years, perhaps creating a reasonable “course of performance” expectation that the rents would not be increased to such a high extent.

On the other hand, the rent is exceptionally low for New York and has not been increased for many decades. Then again, if the intent of these contracts was for them to serve mainly recreational purposes, what about people that now convert the land into commercial use (parking lots, of all things)? Does that matter?

This case raises interesting issues of contract interpretation, unilateral contract modification, good faith obligations by both parties, etc. It seems to me that Amtrak might, depending on the wording of these contracts, be able to now increase the rent somewhat, but to the extent done here, the intent seems to be an arguably contractually impermissible penalty rather than, perhaps, a good-faith renegotiation of contract terms.

Hat tip to Shubha Ghosh for alerting my attention to this issue.

September 3, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ownership of Steve Harvey's Comedy Tapes Is Ambiguous

Ambiguous contracts can be a nightmare to untangle, especially twenty years later. A recent case out of the Northern District of Texas, Cooper v. Harvey, Civil Action No. 3:14-CV-4152-B (behind paywall), illustrates just that. 

Steve Harvey, currently the host of "Family Feud," has been sued by Joseph Cooper over Harvey's attempts to curtail Cooper's use of performances Cooper taped at Harvey's comedy club in 1993. Cooper claims Harvey gave him permission to film the performances, paid Cooper to film them, and gave Cooper ownership of the videotapes and the right to use and display them. Since that time, Harvey and Cooper have had multiple disputes over the footage, most recently over Cooper's posting of some of it to YouTube. 

Harvey disputes Cooper's claim. He says that he paid Cooper to tape the performances so that Harvey could use them "as study material," and that he never granted Cooper ownership or any rights in the videotapes. Harvey alleges that Cooper uses the video footage as a type of blackmail, essentially, knowing that Harvey might find the material on the videotape embarrassing to have made public. 

This case isn't just he-said/he-said, in that there does appear to be an actual written contract between the parties, even if there is some debate whether or not Harvey ever signed it. At any rate, seeking summary judgment, Harvey argues that the written contract is ambiguous and that the court can therefore hear parol evidence as to whether the parties intended for Harvey to bargain away all of his rights to the work in question. Cooper, for his part, argues that the contract is unambiguous and that, according to its terms, bargaining away all of his rights is exactly what Harvey did. 

The court agreed with Harvey that the contract is ambiguous in whether Cooper or the Comedy House was intended to own the videos under the contract. But, turning to the parol evidence, the court found that nothing Harvey had put forth shed any light on Cooper's intent in entering into the contract. Harvey provided an affidavit that he did not intend the contract to convey his ownership rights but that didn't resolve what the parties' intent was when they signed the contract in 1993. Therefore, the court denied summary judgment on the breach of contract claim. 

Which seems like, in the end, this written contract is going to come down to he-said/he-said. 

August 31, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Film Clips, Recent Cases, Television, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2016

“Trophy hunting” contracts – unenforceable for reasons of public policy

Allow me to highlight my most recent article on the questionable ecosystem viability and contractual common law validity of so-called “trophy hunting” contracts. With these contracts, wealthy individuals in or from, often, the Global North contract for assistance in hunting rare animals for “sport.” Often, these hunts takes place in the Global South where targeted species include giraffes, rhinos, lions, and other vulnerable if not outright threatened or endangered species.  Images
A famous example of this is Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killing “Cecil the Lion” in 2015 causing widespread outcry in this country and around the world. Trophy hunting also takes place in the USA and Canada, where targeted animals include polar bears, grizzly bears, and big horn sheep.

Trophy hunting should be seen on the background of an unprecedented rate of species extinction caused by several factors. Some affected species are already gone; others are about to follow. Western black rhinoceroses, for example, are already considered to have become extinct in 2011.   The rest of the African rhinoceros population may follow suit within the next twenty years if not sufficiently protected. In the meantime, more than 1.2 million “trophies” of over 1,200 different kinds of animals were imported into the United States just between 2004 and 2015. In addition to the extinction problem, the practice may also have ecosystem impacts because, among many other factors, the trophies often stem from or consist of alpha animals.

UnknownOf course, no one is arguing that rare species should be driven to extinction, in fact, quite the opposite: both trophy hunters and those opposing the practice agree that such species should be conserved for the future. However, the question lies in how to do so. Some argue that trophy hunting creates not only highly needed revenue for some nations, but also brings more attention to the species conservation issue.

I argue that at least until there is much greater certainty than what is currently the case that the practice truly does help the species in the long run (and we don’t have much time for “the long run”!), legal steps must be taken against the trophy hunting. Even when positive law such as hunting laws and/or the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) do not address the issue (yet), common law courts may declare contracts that have proved to be “deleterious effect upon society as a whole,” “unsavory,” “undesirable,” “nefarious,” or “at war with the interests of society” unenforceable for reasons of public policy. Images-2

In the case of Cecil, African lions had been proposed for listing under the ESA when the animal was killed, but the listing did not take effect until a few months later. The case, others like it, and several studies demonstrate that a sufficient and sufficiently broad segment of the population have come to find the killing of very rare animals so reprehensible that common law courts can declare them unenforceable should litigation on the issue arise. This has been the case with many other contracts over time. The same has come to be the case with trophy hunting. As long as doubt exists as to the actual desirability of the practice from society’s point of view – not that of a select wealthy individuals – the precautionary principle of law calls for nations to err on the side of caution. The United States prescribes to this principle as well.

The article also analyzes how different values such as intrinsic and existence values should be taken into account in attempts to monetize the “value” of the practice. Instead of the here-and-now cash that may contribute to local economies (much revenue is also lost to corruption in some nations), other practices such as photo safaris are found by several studies to contribute more, especially in the long term. (Note that Walter Palmer paid a measly USD 50,000 for his contract with the landowner and local hunting guide).

Finally, the article draws in arguments under the public trust doctrine and the state ownership of wildlife doctrine. Ethically, these animals belong to all of us (or none of us). Images-1

Trying to save rare animals by shooting them simply flies in the face of common sense. It also very arguably violates notions of national and international law.

August 29, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Scholarship, Science, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

If You Contract for a $2 Million Watch, You Probably Want the Original Dial

A recent case out of the District of Arizona, Cavan v. Maron, No. CV-15-02586-PHX-PGR (behind paywall), concerns a deal for rare Patek Philippe watches. The plaintiff agreed to purchase two watches for almost $4 million, providing a down payment of almost $3 million. The defendant did not deliver the watches and, in fact, allegedly sold them to someone else, so the plaintiff demanded his down payment back. A watch broker negotiated between the two parties and they decided that, instead, the defendant would sell the plaintiff another rare Patek Philippe watch that was worth more than $2 million. 

The defendant gave the plaintiff the promised watch, and a few years later, when the plaintiff was considering selling the watch, he brought it to an auction house for valuation. The auction house raised questions that the watch's dial had been replaced. A "world renowned watch expert" agreed and pronounced the new dial "inferior," meaning that the watch was now worth significantly less than it would have been with its original dial. 

This lawsuit resulted. The defendant argued that the agreement between the parties never expressly required that the watch had to be sold with its original dial. The court doesn't let the defendant off on that technicality, though. The court notes that it was plausible that the parties intended, when they negotiated to buy and sell a watch worth more than $2 million, that the watch would have all of its original parts, and that a disclosure to the contrary might have been necessary. 

This decision was just surviving a motion to dismiss. Stay tuned for more exciting developments in the luxury watch contract world. 

August 29, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ryan Lochte and Morals Clauses

I have witnessed with interest the evolving story of what exactly happened in Rio involving Ryan Lochte the morning of August 14. Initially Lochte claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint. I later heard through the gossip mill that that story was untrue and that Lochte had in fact beat up some security guards. That turned out, it seems, just to be rumor-mongering, but the story has continued to evolve from there, with both Lochte and the Rio police making statements that later seem untrue, or only partially true, or exaggerated. Slate has a good run-down of the changing versions of Lochte's story, although it's from a week ago. Now Lochte has been charged with filing a false police report, since it does seem clear at this point that no robbery happened. Even that, however, is confusing to parse if you read a lot of articles about it: It seems like the crime is more accurately making a false communication to police, as some articles have eventually stated, since there are conflicting reports about whether a police report was ever filed. 

In the wake of this whole mess, Lochte has lost several of his sponsorship deals (although he's also picked one up). It's unclear, because the contracts don't seem to be public, whether this is a choice of just not renewing the contract (apparently that's the case with Ralph Lauren) or if a violation of a morals clause is being invoked to allow cancellation of the contract (which might be what's going on with Speedo). All of this provokes an interesting morals-clause conversation to me, and we had a bit of discussion about it on the Contracts Professors listserv. It seems clear that Lochte engaged in some sort of inappropriate behavior, and it seems also clear that whatever that behavior was, even the most minor version of the story is arguably a violation of any morals clause out there.

What is most clear is that, no matter what really happened, this has definitely served to tarnish his reputation, and that's is what's striking to me. This story has taken on an enormous life of its own, with many differing versions of it floating around the Internet. This situation has been caused, of course, by Lochte's many differing stories, together with some apparent conflicting statements by the Rio police, coupled with reporting that may have been less than precise itself in describing what was going on. One online story details all the conflicting information and asks the individual reader what they believe about the story.

While this particular maelstrom seems to have some basis in fact, it's not difficult to imagine something like this getting out of control without such justifying behavior at the root of it. Morals clauses tend to be about perception, but does that mean you can manipulate the perception of someone, through no real fault of their own? Take, for instance, the "Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer" meme that was popular on the Internet earlier this year. Ted Cruz wasn't born until after some of the Zodiac killings had happened, so he obviously could not have been the Zodiac Killer, and in fact some people interviewed about the meme noted that was the point: what they were saying was impossible. Nevertheless, it was reported that polls indicated 38% of those surveyed thought he might, in fact, be the Zodiac Killer, despite the impossibility. If a substantial number of people start thinking you did something you absolutely did not do, is that enough for a morals clause to be violated, because of the perception that you did it? 

August 26, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Games, In the News, Sports, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rent-to-Own Contracts: Caveat Emptor or Unconscionable Behavior?

The New York Times reports here (paid access) on the increasing use of so-called “rent-to-own” housing contracts. Under these contracts, companies from big Wall Street giants to a slew of small landlords hoping to strike it rich lend or, should I say, purport to sell homes to tenants who contractually commit to make all repairs on the homes no matter how major or minor (yes, you read that right: all repairs… and it gets more extreme than that, read on!). Typically, tenants under such contracts are not told what repairs are needed, yet face a contractual deadline for making sure that the houses in question are brought up to local code. Unlike most typical home purchases, rent-to-own contracts do not require the tenant/buyer to obtain an independent home inspection.  Images-2

We probably all know how many things can go wrong with older homes, even newer ones. Examples of how bad things can go in this context thus abound. One tenant moved into a home not having been told that it had several unresolved building code violations and had to remain vacant by city order. Another moved into a home that had no heat, no water, and major problems with its sewage system that led to nearly $10,000 in repairs (many of these homes have been purchased by the lender for less than $10,000 and are not worth very much more than that, if any). A third example describes a woman moving into a home with her three children and partner in Michigan, living in the house during cold winter with the only heat sources being one electric heater and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, only to be evicted and charged $3,100 in overdue rent after she stopped paying rent because of the heat issue.

People who accept these kinds of contracts often do not qualify for mortgages. Banks have virtually stopped making mortgages on homes worth less than $100,000, which leaves millions of people with few options for - now or one day - owning their own homes.

One company that rents homes on a rent-to-own basis does so “as is,” calling the contracts “hybrid leases” that allow people to build up “implied equity.” If tenants are evicted during the contract (typically of a seven-year-duration), they get no credit for money spent on repairs or renovations. Neither do they receive any equity unless they actually end up buying the home at the end of the contract term. At that point, they still need financing for the home which, as mentioned, many people just cannot obtain.

A number of legal questions arise in this context, among them several contractual ones such as the role of caveat emptor vs. the violation of a possible duty to disclose. If the landlords know of the problems from which many of these houses suffer, should they disclose this knowledge? On the other than, shouldn’t these potential (long-term) buyers be presumed to have at least enough savvyness to not promise to bring a home that they do not own outright up to Code by a certain deadline? Then again, are landlords fraudulent in their dealings with these folks when the landlords require such potentially extensive repairs when, as the owners of the homes, they presumably if not actually have actual knowledge of the problems from which these houses suffer? What about the statement that renters get “implied equity?” What in the world does that mean, if anything? Do low-income folks that may never have been homeowners truly understand what it means to bring a home “up to Code” and buying “as is?” Does it matter? And what about the doctrine of unconscionability, which is alive and well in some states such as California? If nothing else, this case seems to smack of both procedural and substantive issues. Images

In some states, landlords are required to keep homes and apartments in habitable condition. But rent-to-own contracts have, for good reason, been said to reside in a gray area of the law: are they rental contracts? - Or purchase contracts? Or something else?

Further, rent-to-own contracts may, to some extent, resemble contracts for deeds. However, the latter are subject to basic consumer-lending regulations such as the Federal Truth in Lending Act.

The housing market again seems to host highly questionable practices. This story almost reads as a contract or property law issue-spotting exam. Meanwhile, housing sharks seem to be swimming relatively freely in some areas of the nation.

For further information, see Alexandra Stevenson and Matthew Goldstein, Rent-to-own Homes: A Win-Win for Landlords, a Risk for Struggling Tenants, the New York Times, Aug. 21, 2016.

August 25, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Microsoft Does Marijuana

In a move that demonstrates how contracts for various aspects of marijuana products and services are going mainstream, Microsoft Corp. has accepted a contract to make marijuana-tracking software available for sale on its cloud computing platform. The software is developed by “cannabis compliance technology” Kind Financial and allows regulators to track where and how much marijuana is being grown, sold or produced in real time. In turn, this lets the regulators know how much sales and other tax they should be collecting and from whom (maybe this is the beginning of the end of some growing marijuana plants in state and national parks to hide their activities from the government). Medical-marijuana-colorado

This contract – called a “breakthrough deal” because it is the first time that Microsoft ventures into the marijuana business - may end up enabling the software developer to capture as much as 60% of this very lucrative market. (Other companies with government contracts often end up with such a large market share.)

How did the company strike such a lucrative deal? You guessed it: by networking. Kind’s CEO was introduced by a board member to an inside contact in Microsoft.

Happy semester!

August 22, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Food and Drink, Government Contracting, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Does “Similar Quality” Reflect a $17,100 Reduction in Car Resale Value?

Plaintiff William Baldwin’s almost new Toyota Tundra pickup truck was badly damaged when, while parked, the cars of two other men slammed into it. This decreased the car’s future resale value by more than $17,100. Mr. Baldwin filed suit against his insurance company, AAA, among others. He wanted either the pre-accident value of the car or a sum which would allow him to repair the pickup truck to its original pre-accident condition. He contended that the truck did not match such condition with respect to safety, reliability, mechanics, cosmetics, and performance. Unknown

The interpretation of an insurance contract is, in California, a matter of law. This insurance policy provided that AAA “may pay the loss in money or repair.” Further, under the Limits of Liability, that AAA’s coverage responsibility for car damage would “not exceed the lesser of those two options,” namely paying “the actual cash value of the damaged property or the amount necessary to repair the property … with similar kind and quality.” (My emphasis).

The court found that the insurance policy “ambiguously gave the insurer the right to elect to repair the insured’s vehicle to a “similar condition if repair costs would be less than the actual cash value of the vehicle.”

In other words, the court supported AAA’s reading that a car with a realistic loss in value of $17,000 was in a “similar condition” to its almost-new value. You can see why this lawsuit came about. On the other hand, the car was repaired and was fully functional. Should insurance companies then additionally have to pay out a sum that would correspond to an arguably hypothetical resale value (the owner may never sell the car at the relevant moment in time)? Arguably, that would drive up insurance prices too much. Note too that this case is from California where cars are almost members of one’s family…

The case is Baldwin v. AAA Northern California, et al., 1 Cal.App.5th 545 (Cal. Ct. App. 2016).

August 21, 2016 in Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

My Least Favorite Contractual Relationship at the Moment Is with AT&T

I apologize for my lack of blogging lately, but, you see, AT&T was supposed to have my Internet connected last Monday and still hasn't managed to get around to it,  after a series of delayed appointments, canceled appointments, and appointments where no technician ever showed up. On Wednesday evening when I called to express my displeasure about all of this, I was told that my failure to accept the delays without complaining meant that they were now pushing my installation back even further, so that now I am looking at sometime next week. 

Naturally, at a time when I will be teaching, so the Saga of Internet-less may drag on for a while. 

I would love to examine my AT&T contract in detail to see what my rights (if any) are,  but, of course, the contract requires me to have Internet access to get to it! So for the time being I am keeping my mouth shut and hoping AT&T decides to show up next week and then I will return to my regularly scheduled blogging!

August 20, 2016 in Commentary, True Contracts, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Contracting Against Your Dad Embarrassing You

Which is exactly what Australia's swimming sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell have tried to do. Apparently after their father gave a number of effusive interviews to the press, the sisters turned to contract law in an attempt to protect them from further such events. As this article reports, the sisters entered into a contract with their father in which he promised, "to the best of [his] ability," "not to embarrass [his] daughters on national television."

No word on what their father received in exchange for this promise.


August 11, 2016 in Current Affairs, Games, In the News, Sports, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Here's a Case Finding Unconscionability

This recent case out of the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California, Ow v. Oropeza, Case No. 15-41959 CN (behind paywall), has a nice example of unconscionability. Well, not that unconscionabilty can be called "nice." But I know my students are always attracted to the doctrine of unconscionability as an argument but it can be difficult to find good examples of it being successful. Here, however, is one.

The relationship between Ow and the defendants in this case begins with a house that Ow had owned that was damaged by fire and became uninhabitable. Ow began living with friends or in motel rooms, eventually defaulted on the note on the house, and later declared bankruptcy.

Ow did not have the money to fix the house or to catch up on the payments he owed on the house. Enter a man named Freeman who proposed that he would pay the $24,000 owed to the bank on the house and keep the payments current until Ow could sell the house. In exchange, Freeman would receive $105,000, to be paid out of the proceeds of selling the house. Freeman ended up paying almost $39,000 on the house, until the sale that Freeman had helped facilitate fell through. At that point, Freeman stopped paying on the house.

The court examined the arrangement between Ow and the defendants and found it to be unconscionable. Freeman's expectation to receive $105,000 only a few months after investing at most $39,000 in the house amounted to an interest rate in excess of 250%. This interest rate wasn't justified by the low risk of Freeman's behavior, because Freeman approached Ow with prospective buyers already in hand and so knew the house should be sold quickly.

Procedurally, Ow was homeless when he was approached by Freeman, and he was desperate to save the house, where he had grown up. He had tried to restructure the loan with the bank but was unsuccessful. Ow, the court found, had no other options.

I feel like I've grown used to many courts being reluctant to find that people had no options. Here's an example of a situation otherwise.

August 10, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Service Fees Are Annoying...But Not Bad Faith

A recent case out of the District of Connecticut, Singer v. Priceline Group, Inc., No. 15-cv-1090 (VAB), tackles an issue familiar to all who travel: service fees. The plaintiff, on behalf of a class, sued Priceline over the fact that service fees were added on to the price that he bid to pay for a hotel room. We've all been beset by service fees tacked onto the prices quoted for various travel-related items, from hotel rooms to flights, and to be honest I feel like I, to some extent, have just grown used to and resigned to them. The court seems to feel the same way about them here. The service fees weren't a breach of contract, since Priceline's Terms of Use explicitly stated that service fees might be charged above the quoted price, nor were they a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing because, again, Priceline was upfront about the fact that Singer might owe more money in service fees from the hotel. Priceline never made any representation that it wouldn't provide Singer with quotes that might require further service fees and so did not act in bad faith when it did so in a way that the court found was open and reasonable.

I might wish that more places would just tell me the end price without the extra fees, but, for now, I think the widespread acceptance of these fees in the course of transactions indicates they're here to stay for the time being.

August 4, 2016 in Commentary, E-commerce, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Covenants Not to Compete: Be Careful Not to Get Greedy

One of the things I caution my students about is the danger of being greedy in a covenant not to compete. If you are in a jurisdiction that enforces such covenants, you still must be aware that courts frequently subject them to close examination. It might be true that in many cases, the employee subject to the over-restrictive covenant might simply accept it without challenging it, but a recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, RLM Communications, Inc. v. Tuschen, No. 14-2351 (you can listen to the case's oral argument here), serves as a reminder that a court can knock a covenant not to compete out of a contract and leave no protection at all in its place.

Tuschen was an employee of RLM who had the following non-compete in her employment contract:

While I, the Employee, am employed by Employer, and for 1 years/months afterward, I will not directly or indirectly participate in a business that is similar to a business now or later operated by Employer in the same geographical area. This includes participating in my own business or as a co-owner, director, officer, consultant, independent contractor, employee, or agent of another business.

Tuschen eventually resigned from RLM and went to work for a competitor, eScience, and RLM alleged that Tuschen had thereby breached her non-compete.

The Fourth Circuit, however, found that the non-compete was overbroad and therefore unenforceable. First it noted that it prohibited direct and indirect participation, which the court found inherently problematic, because it theoretically prevented Tuschen from, say, acting as eScience's realtor, landscaper, or caterer. Nor was the only problem with the covenant its use of the word "indirectly," which RLM argued could just be struck from the clause, leaving the rest of the clause enforceable and in place. The breadth of prohibition on Tuschen's actions, including to businesses that might be operated by RLM in the future, wasn't justified by RLM's business concerns. The non-compete's focus on the identity of the new employer, rather than on Tuschen's behavior in the new employment, was misplaced: RLM should have been more concerned about the risk that Tuschen would use secret RLM knowledge detrimentally, rather than concerned about who she was working for (directly or indirectly).

An interesting case, with some interesting things to say about non-competes (and also trade secret misappropriation). When you read the case, it becomes clear that the court thought Tuschen was in many ways a good employee for RLM who was not engaging in sketchy behavior. In fact, in the court's characterization, one of the things RLM complains about was that Tuschen took steps to make the transition within RLM for her replacement easier and more streamlined without seeking permission first. This whole case stands as a warning not to be overly aggressive with enforcement in situations where a court will find it inappropriate.  

August 2, 2016 in Commentary, Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 1, 2016

Parties May Still Rescind from Contracts Based on Obvious Unilateral Mistakes

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit just reconfirmed the traditional rule that when one of the parties to a contract has, without gross fault or laches on his or her part, made a mistake, the mistake was known, or ought to have been known, to the opposite party, and the mistake can be relieved against without injustice, a unilateral mistake may be a ground for rescinding a contract, or for refusing to enforce its specific performance.

In the case, two private persons bid a higher and higher amount to purchase a home via a short sale (first $371,000, then $412,000, then $444,000. After that, the hopeful buyer bid a disputed amount that would, at any rate, have resulted in a much lower net payout to the bank than any of the above total prices would have.).

Finding for the bank, the panel noted that the buyers “will not suffer an injustice under Georgia law because they will only be deprived of what Georgia law does not allow them to have—in [one person’s] case the opportunity to take advantage of another's obvious unilateral mistake; in [the other person’s] case the opportunity to retain mortgaged property after he defaulted on the underlying loan. The breach of contract claims fail.”

Property is considered unique, but not so unique as to overcome an apparent failure to be on the up-and-up in the bargaining process. It did seem like the buyers here were indeed trying to see if the bank would simply not notice its own mistake, which it in fact only did two years later, for some reason.

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Forum Selection Clauses in Moving Contracts

 Moving Mess

As anyone who's ever moved knows full well, it's a fraught process. Finding good movers can be challenging, and untangling the relationships between the parties involved in your move even more challenging: which company is storing, which company is packing, which company is renting the truck being used, which company owns the truck being used, which company employs the movers, etc. I've had moves go poorly enough that I've left a couple of scathing "beware!" reviews in places, but I've never gone to court, and so I never really thought through fully the challenges in litigating issues that might arise during a move.

A recent case out of Ohio, Nieman v. Moving Insurance, LLC, Appeal No. C-150666, made me finally consider them. Not a lot of details are given about what happened during the Niemans' move to prompt them to sue, but what we do learn is that they are suing about a move from Chicago to Cincinnati. The Niemans have sued multiple companies, probably because of how many companies get involved in a major interstate move like this. For instance, it seems to me that they're suing a moving company, a trucking company, and an insurance company (again, details aren't really given in the case). The Niemans signed contracts, of course, with each of these entities. Each of the contracts had a forum selection clause. One contract required that suit be brought in New Jersey. The other contracts required that suit be brought in Florida. The court here found that the Niemans were bound by the forum selection clauses. Therefore, rather than bringing suit in their current state and the place where the move concluded, the Niemans have to bring two suits, one in New Jersey, one in Florida.

I've blogged a lot about arbitration clauses, but I haven't blogged much about forum selection clauses. The court is dismissive here of the Niemans' arguments, which it characterizes as a matter of inconvenience rather than injustice. But surely there's a point where something becomes so inconvenient that it's no longer worthwhile, from a cost efficiency perspective, to pursue it, and in that case isn't some kind of injustice being wrought? I'm not saying necessarily that the Niemans deserve some kind of recovery from the moving companies. However, I could see how, if it was me, faced with a ruling that I had to bring two separate cases, procuring lawyers, etc., in states that aren't even in my time zone, I might decide it wasn't worth the effort and just drop it.  And I don't think this is laziness on my part; I think this is practicality regarding the best use of my time and money at that point. Which, of course, means this definitely depends on the amount of damages I believed that I was owed, and therefore underlines that enforcing a forum selection clause in these circumstances means that there is some amount of liability that, as a practical matter, will almost never be assessed, even if it should be, because the costs of procuring that assessment are too high.

This is, naturally, an ongoing problem in the court system in general. Maybe because I am in the process of coordinating yet another move, this one really stood out to me today!

July 27, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Non-Competes: An Internet Show Is Not a Radio Show

A recent case out of the Eastern District of Michigan, Burke v. Cumulus Media, Inc., Case No. 16-cv-11220 (behind paywall), has some interesting things to say about the impact of the Internet on non-competes you may be drafting.

In the case, the plaintiffs had a radio show on a Michigan radio station owned by Cumulus. Cumulus terminated the plaintiffs, and they sued alleging age discrimination. In response, Cumulus counterclaimed alleging that the plaintiffs were violating their non-compete clause because they were hosting an Internet-based radio show together.

Unfortunately for Cumulus, though, the non-compete prohibited the plaintiffs from doing various things related to "radio stations." It said nothing about any other medium, including the Internet. Because the plaintiffs had shifted their show to an Internet stream, it was not covered by the non-compete.

If you're drafting non-competes in this context, keep this ruling in mind. Of course, I have no idea if a non-compete that included the Internet would have been considered enforceable or if it would have restricted the plaintiffs' ability to earn a livelihood too much.

Another interesting facet of this case is that only one of the plaintiffs' non-competes was at issue here. The other non-compete by its terms was only enforceable if Cumulus paid the plaintiff for the period of time he was prohibited from competing. Cumulus chose not to pay that plaintiff and so did not (and could not) seek to enforce his non-compete. Whenever I talk to my students about covenants not to compete, we talk about how easily they can be broadly drafted to possibly intimidate less legally knowledgeable employees, and one of the things we bring up is that making them have some cost to the employer could help judge the seriousness of the necessity of the covenant. Here, it apparently wasn't worth it for Cumulus to pay to keep one of the plaintiffs from competing.

July 25, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

More Adventures in Leasing: Persistent Apartment Flooding Edition

Here is a good case for illustrating equitable estoppel in a way that students, frequently renters, will probably appreciate: Pinnacle Properties Development Group, LLC v. Daily, Court of Appeals Case No. 10A01-1512-SC-2275, out of Indiana.

You may recognize Pinnacle's name. I previously blogged about them here. I stated in that blog entry that the case seemed straightforward and not worth the money to appeal, but apparently they have a habit of appealing relatively small (here, $752.37) judgments against them.

In this case, Daily was a tenant at a Pinnacle property. About eight months after moving into his apartment, Daily's apartment flooded. He reported the flooding using Pinnacle's emergency telephone number, which Pinnacle told its tenants to use in such circumstances. When no one answered the emergency number, he left a message and then dealt with the flooding himself, borrowing a wet/dry vacuum and removing thirty gallons of water from his unit. 

In the month of July, the apartment flooded three more times. The first two times, Daily again called the Pinnacle emergency number. He was told that someone would be sent out to his apartment, but no one ever came. Daily continued to deal with the flooding himself, removing another fifty-two gallons of water using the borrowed wet/dry vacuum.

The third time in July that the apartment flooded, Daily went personally to the Pinnacle office, rather than calling the number. Pinnacle submitted a work order into the system but still no one came out to Daily's apartment. Daily bought himself his own wet/dry vacuum and continued to remove gallons of water from his apartment. A week later, he filed a complaint against Pinnacle and was awarded his rent for the month of July, the cost of the wet/dry vacuum he purchased, and some costs and interest. (The amount he was awarded was considerably less than the three-thousand-plus dollars he was originally seeking.)

Pinnacle's main argument on appeal was that the lease required Daily to give Pinnacle written notice of the flooding, which he never did. The court wasn't sure written notice was required under the lease but it stated that, even if that was true, Pinnacle was equitably estopped from asserting the written notice requirement because it was undisputed that Pinnacle had actual notice of Daily's flooding issue. It would be unjust under these circumstances to force Daily to pay rent for an apartment that was partially uninhabitable, where Pinnacle knew that Daily was suffering this problem and provided Daily with false assurances that it would deal with the problem, on which Daily relied, justifiably, to his detriment. As the court says, "We can hardly imagine a more appropriate application of the equitable estoppel doctrine." The court affirmed the award of the July rent, plus the cost of the wet/dry vacuum as a consequential damage.

July 20, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Contracts Law and the Case of the Super Bowl Jewelry Heists


By Mario Sarto - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Here's a case with some interesting facts: Jacobsen Diamond Center, LLC v. ADT Security Services, Inc., Docket No. A-1578-14T1, out of New Jersey.

The plaintiff in the case is a jeweler, who suffered two consecutive thefts on Super Bowl weekends in 2010 and 2011. The first Super Bowl theft involved cutting through the wall that bordered a retail store next door and removing a safe positioned against the wall. Because the thieves cut through the wall, they didn't set off the ADT alarm system linked to the jeweler's doors.  

After this robbery, the jeweler then moved its safes to the middle of the store, away from the walls. The second Super Bowl theft (perhaps by the same people, emboldened by their previous success?) involved the disabling of the ADT security system in place.

The Super Bowl thieves have never been apprehended, and the jeweler did not have any insurance on the stolen jewels, so the jeweler has sued ADT and a number of other companies that were involved with the jeweler's security systems, alleging various misrepresentations about the security, fraud, negligence, and breaches of contract. The jeweler lost on all of its claims, either by summary judgment or by jury verdict, and the jeweler now appeals.

Of special interest to this contracts law blog is the ruling on the limitation of liability clause in ADT's contract with the jeweler. This was a standard form contract used by ADT that limited its liability to $1,000 (far below the alleged worth of the stolen jewels). These limitations of liability clauses are enforceable and reasonable; the policy behind this stance is supposed to encourage the purchaser of the security system to maintain insurance coverage of its valuables, as it is the purchaser in the best position to know what the value is of the things it is seeking to protect. The court found that the jeweler knew it should have had insurance and it was not ADT's fault that the jeweler failed to obtain such insurance; therefore, ADT should not be held responsible for the jeweler's failure.

July 18, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink