Tuesday, February 27, 2018
A recent case out of the Northern District of Illinois, Talcott Communications Corp. v. Quad/Graphics Printing Corp., Case No. 17 C 2278, deals with the enforceability of contract provisions prohibiting consequential damages.
Talcott sued Quad/Graphics for breach of contract and sought losses in advertising revenue when its advertisers left it because of Quad/Graphics's alleged breach. Quad/Graphics contended that consequential damages were waived under the contract and so Talcott could not seek the loss in advertising revenues. Talcott countered that the provision was unconscionable.
The court found the provision was not unconscionable. Talcott provided no evidence that Quad/Graphics did anything questionable during the negotiation of the contract. Talcott argued that it was "outgunned" because Quad/Graphics was a bigger company, but Talcott itself was a sophisticated business and there were no allegations of high-pressure negotiating tactics by Quad/Graphics. There was simply not enough bargaining disparity between the parties, nor enough evidence of coercive behavior to raise the court's concern procedurally.
Nor was the waiver of consequential damages substantively unconscionable. The court noted that Quad/Graphics would still be liable for any compensatory damages, and the waiver of consequential damages is routinely enforced by courts.
The court therefore granted summary judgment in favor of Quad/Graphics on Talcott's claim. (However, it denied Quad/Graphics's motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim as there was not a sufficient showing to justify summary judgment.)
Saturday, February 24, 2018
The Weinstein Co. has had yet another lawsuit filed against it for breach of contract over the Canadian distribution rights of “Paddington 2.” Prior to the allegations against co-founder Harvey Weinstein, the company had an agreement with Toronto-based EOne to distribute the film throughout Canada. In their lawsuit, EOne is seeking to recover $7.8 million that it advanced to Weinstein to obtain the rights to distribute the film throughout Canada. Amidst the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein, the company sold the rights to Warner Bros. After Weinstein broke the agreement, EOne terminated the distribution deal. The original contract provided for post-termination repayment of the advance.
Beyond the $7.8 million advance that EOne paid the Weinstein group, an action for lost profits may be available. The movie has so far grossed $192 million. The U.S. and Canadian box offices opened at $11 million. However, if EOne does decide to try to recover lost profits, it had better act fast. Since the allegations of misconduct were levied against Harvey Weinstein, the company has been on the verge of bankruptcy. The sale of “Paddington 2” to Warner Bros was enough to keep the company afloat until January. According to Reuters, the company is $375 million in debt. Killer Content and Abigail Disney have said that bankruptcy may be the best option for Weinstein Co.
Also found in the complaint is an allegation that Bob Weinstein telephoned the EOne division president to apologize for the sale to Warner Bros and to acknowledge that they would have to compensate EOne. It will be interesting to see if this argument is permitted. Further, the term “compensate” could be construed to include further damages. While only time will tell what the fallout will be from the ongoing Weinstein court battles, it is clear that the bucket is draining quickly.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
A U.S. judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking the return by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan of a Pablo Picasso masterpiece that a German Jewish businessman was allegedly forced to sell at a low price in order to fund an escape from the Nazis and fascism.
Paul and Alice Leffmann fled Germany for Italy in 1937. Paul Leffmann sold “The Actor” the next year to two art dealers for $12,000 to fund an escape to Switzerland from the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a Hitler ally.
The Met acquired “The Actor” in a 1952 donation, but did not acknowledge Leffmann’s ownership until 2011, after decades of incorrect cataloguing. Leffman’s great-grand niece, who handles the estate of the Leffmans, claimed that the circumstances of the 1938 sale meant that her family never lost title. The Met disagreed, while expressing sympathy for the Leffmanns’ plight.
The judge found that the sale “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments,” and not because of a “wrongful threat” by the buyers that took away Leffmann’s free will.
“Although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes,” the judge wrote, “that pressure, when not caused by the counterparties to the transaction (or the defendant) where the duress is alleged, is insufficient to prove duress with respect to the transaction.”
It is both sad and interesting that so many years after the fascist rise to and fall from power, these types of cases are still heard in courts in this country and beyond.
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Monetizing Sexual Harassment Contractually
In the Harvey Weinstein scandals, investigations have resulted in further almost incredible instances of alleged misconduct including:
- Verbal threats, such as telling employees "I will kill you" or "I will kill your family"
- Employing female staff as "wing women" to "accompany [Mr Weinstein] to events and facilitate [his] sexual conquests"
- Demanding sexual favors in return for career promotion at the studio
- Requiring his drivers to "keep condoms and erectile dysfunction injections in the car at all times"
- The requirement for his assistants to schedule "personals for sexual activity" both during office hours and after work
- Belittling female members of staff with insults about their periods, and shouting at one member of staff that she should leave the company and make babies as that was all she was good for.
Apparently, contracts for Mr. Weinstein contained the proviso that mistreatment claims would result in financial penalties imposed upon the accusers rather than be outright prohibited contractually. This, says some sources, “effectively monetized” sexual harassment.
Surely, no court of law would uphold a contractual clause penalizing an employee merely for making accusations of criminal conduct so long as this was done in good faith (which, as we now know, the accusations against Mr. Weinstein were). It is your legal right and arguably moral duty to call out criminal conduct when it happens. However, whether such an argument would ever be heard in court is questionable, for most employees working for famous, influential companies such as that of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Weinstein himself are probably loath to stand up contractually against Mr. Weinstein. He clearly knew that. Many women didn’t even dare speak out against him for his criminal conduct or if they did, were not believed or helped. But these contractual clauses still show the gall, sickness, and immorality of Mr. Weinstein.
On a happier note: Happy Valentine’s Day! (I swear that the timing of this post is mere coincidence.)
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
By my count, 56 attorneys general have sent a letter to Congress asking for legislation that would exempt sexual harassment claims from the ubiquitous arbitration clauses found in employment contracts. The letter is succinct and eloquent on the damaging effects arbitration has on these victims and society as a whole.
Friday, February 9, 2018
I teach many Beyonce cases in entertainment law, but usually in an intellectual property context. The New Orleans Advocate reports that Beyonce has been sued in connection with her single Formation, but the lawsuit is contractual in nature. The plaintiff, Kimberly Roberts, is alleging that she entered into a contract with Beyonce to use footage from her documentary in exchange for a lump-sum payment and royalties. Roberts is alleging that Beyonce has breached the contract by failing to pay royalties. Roberts also alleges that Beyonce has exceeded the scope of the license that Roberts granted.
Toll Processing, LLC, plans to have Kastalon, Inc., fix some very large industrial machinery for it at some point in time. Kastalon stores the machinery in the meantime, thinking that it will only be a few months until Toll Processing can issue a purchase order for the repair. However, Toll Processing never does so. Kastalon eventually sells the machinery for its scrap value; $6,380. About two years later, Toll Processing contacts Kastalon to have the machinery fixed. “What machinery?,” asks Kastalon. “My $417,000 machinery,” is the answer. Lawsuit is filed for breach of contract.
Is storing items for a party without any definite timeframe being agreed upon an illusory promise? Both the district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that Toll Processing’s argument that Kastalon had promised to store the machinery until the issuance of a purchase order, “whenever that might be,” was indeed an illusory promise rendering the contract unenforceable. Perhaps, said the courts, the parties attempted to formulate a contract and were comfortable with somewhat informal proceedings, but parties cannot expect courts to complete the negotiation process and arrive at material terms on their behalf.
That makes sense, but the opinion also states that no less than two years had gone by between any contacts between the two companies. You would think that a simple email asking, “hey, what do you want us to do with your equipment, we can’t store it for free anymore?,” would have been possible and might have resolved this matter. The opinion does not mention bad faith, which seems to be at issue as well.
The case is Toll Processing Services, LLC, v. Kastalon, Inc., 2018 WL 505338.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
I am late to the party on this, but I still thought I would point you to Jill Lepore's recent review in the New Yorker of (among other books) Orly Lobel's You Don't Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie's Dark Side. The book is about the epic showdown between Mattel, makers of Barbie, and MGA, maker of rival dolls Bratz, and it has a contract law angle: The designer who created Bratz worked for Mattel and allegedly arrived at the design for Bratz while under an employment contract with Mattel that would have entitled Mattel to the copyright for the design.
The review relays testimony from Mattel's CEO regarding his understanding of the scope of such clauses in employment contracts, namely that they are broad enough to entitle Mattel to claim ownership of designs created decades before the employee in question was hired. Unsurprisingly, in my experience, corporations frequently believe that clauses in employment contracts are indeed very broad; it's unclear how much the assertions of such broad readings affect employees' understandings of their rights.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Someday I will blog about things other than NDAs again but I feel like every time I open the internet there's another story about an NDA. Everyone today was talking about last night's interview of Stormy Daniels on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which was a bizarre series of answering-questions-with-questions and playing coy and talking around the main issue, which was her alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006. You can find lots of articles online; here's one that lays it out. Those trying to summarize the interview generally seem to assume that Daniels must be restricted by an NDA, because she could say if there wasn't an NDA, but it's the proving of a negative, basically; the reporters are trying to make sense of the blank space the non-answers leave in their wake.
It's all had me wondering about the role NDAs played--or maybe more importantly, didn't seem to play?--during the Clinton impeachment. Lots of details about Clinton's sexual harassment history came out during the impeachment, and from my brief research into it, it doesn't seem like there were any NDAs in play. Does anybody have other information about this? How do the number of NDAs around Trump in play today shift our perspective, conversation, and legal analysis?
Monday, January 29, 2018
I’ve written many, many times now on the ways in which NDAs have been used to protect and enable systemic abuse of less empowered people, and they’re in the news again. USA Gymnastics has decided not to fine McKayla Maroney for violating her NDA and speaking out about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the Team USA doctor who recently pled guilty to sexual assault and has been accused by over 140 women. The women’s stories reveal how enforced silence can be used to obscure the full extent of harmful, abusive, and criminal conduct, making it seem as if each account was an isolated incident instead of a pattern of behavior.
A recent report from the Financial Times also makes this point. An expose on a men-only charity event in London, the article revealed that the hostesses hired for the event were asked to sign NDAs (which they were not allowed to read or take with them). Afterwards, during the event, they were subjected to multiple instances of groping, including hands up skirts, and one report of having a penis exposed to her. But we only know about this treatment because the NDAs meant to protect this behavior were broken.
Friday, January 26, 2018
A recent case out of Michigan, Dalton Township v. Charter Township of Muskegon, No. 335743 (behind paywall), involved a dispute over the payment of “hydrant fees.” The defendant ceased paying the fees, alleging that it was not required to pay them under the parties’ contract, and the plaintiffs sued. The defendant won summary judgment on the issue based on a plain language reading of the contract. Reiterating that “unambiguous contractual language must be enforced as written,” the court embarked on a close reading of the contract and determined that nowhere did it require the defendant to pay the disputed fees. There was no mention of any “hydrant fees” in the contract and the clauses that discussed revenue and expenses never mentioned any such fees. The court found that this was unambiguous and must be enforced as written and would not consider any extrinsic evidence on the issue.
(There was another issue in the case regarding whether disputes under the contract could be brought to court. The court concluded that it could resolve the dispute under the contract’s terms.)
Thursday, January 25, 2018
A recent case out of the Northern District of Illinois, Washington v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, No. 17 CV 2343 (behind paywall), tackles, among other things, fraud and duress in the context of enforcing a settlement agreement. Washington worked for the defendant. After a dispute arose between the parties, they entered into a settlement agreement. Washington now seeks to declare the settlement agreement unenforceable on a number of grounds.
First, Washington alleged fraud on the part of the defendant, alleging a number of misrepresentations and intentional omissions in the agreement. But the defendant argued that Washington's reliance on the alleged statements and omissions wasn't reasonable and further that it had no duty to disclose any information to Washington, which the court agreed with. Washington had her own counsel; had three weeks to consider the agreement; and had seven days after signing within which she could revoke the agreement. Since she had adequate counsel and time to consider the terms, the court found that Washington could not allege that the settlement agreement was procured by fraud.
Second, Washington alleged duress because she feared for the termination of her job and "a humiliating public hearing." The board argued that Washington had alternatives to signing the agreement, and in fact those alternatives would have entitled her to continue to receive her full salary while she pursued them, so there would have been no economic duress to those choices. Again, given her independent counsel and the amount of time she was given to consider her choices, the court found that Washington failed to allege duress.
Washington made many other allegations, including illegality, mistake, and lack of consideration, all of which the court dismissed.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
A recent case out of Minnesota, Oberfoell v. Kyte, A17-0575, reminds all of us that noncompete agreements need to have a justification. Kyte worked for Oberfoell's online-auction business and signed a contract that contained a noncompete clause. He later left to start his own online-auction business and Oberfoell sued.
The lower court found the noncompete agreement to be unenforceable and this appellate court agreed. Oberfoell simply couldn't justify its necessity because he failed to assert a legitimate business interest protected by the noncompete clause. Oberfoell made general allegations that Kyte had personal relationships with many of Oberfoell's customers and thus possessed goodwill belonging to Oberfoell. But Oberfoell never identified any customers who he was worried about, nor did he ever introduce any evidence that Kyte had used any of Oberfoell's customer lists improperly. The court concluded that Kyte did not seem to be the "face" of the business nor was he the exclusive contact the customers had with the business. There was no evidence that any of Oberfoell's customers were concerned about Kyte leaving and no evidence that any of them followed Kyte to his new business. Therefore, Oberfoell failed to prove that the noncompete was protecting a legitimate business interest.
Oberfoell also tried to assert that his customer lists and other materials were taken by Kyte and qualified as a violation of the noncompete. The court pointed out that the customer lists weren't secret and weren't treated as secrets by Oberfoell, and so couldn't qualify as trade secrets. The other materials suffered from the same lack of confidential protection.
Finally, the noncompete also failed on the basis of reasonableness. It prohibited Kyte from competing in a radius of 150 miles for five years. The court found the 150-mile restriction to be "arbitrary," and Oberfoell produced no evidence justifying his choice of such a large radius. The five-year restriction was also unreasonable because the evidence showed Oberfoell could have replaced Kyte easily and quickly, so there was no reason to keep Kyte from competing for so long (in fact, Oberfoell apparently never hired anyone to replace Kyte, delegating his responsibilities to already-existing employees). There was no evidence that Kyte had received any extensive training that gave him an advantage in establishing his business, which took him a few months to get started.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Everyone is talking about HQ Trivia right now, it seems. I'll be honest, though: Last week was the first time I've ever heard of the app. "It's a live trivia show," I was told. "You play twice a day with hundreds of thousands of your closest friends and try to win money."
I downloaded the app because I was curious, and everything about it was an odd, surreal experience. I hadn't expected there to be a live host making uncomfortable one-sided banter to fill time while the start of the game was delayed. Then, when the questions started up, I...had no idea what to do, because nothing about my screen ever changed. I was just staring at the host the whole time. I couldn't figure out how to answer a question.
I found out later that the question is supposed to pop up on your screen. It didn't on my screen, an issue that I saw other people online complaining about, so I know it at least wasn't my own incompetence. I didn't really stick around for more, though. I deleted the app, thinking it was just something that didn't seem to be my kind of thing.
While I was Googling my app experience, though, I came across this pretty wild article from The Daily Beast and it made me think about a thought exercise I like to make my contracts students engage in at the very beginning of the semester: What does each party to a transaction want from the relationship they're about to enter into, and how will that translate into the contract? The article recounts an interview the Daily Beast conducted with the app's main host, and then their interactions with the app's CEO. At the end, it's revealed that the app is in a negotiation for a long-term contract with the main host. The rest of the article provides a lot of meat for speculation as to how those negotiations might go, based on the comments of both the main host and the CEO. The CEO appears to be very worried about the app's trade secrets being revealed, so one can assume that the contract would be very strict about the host's interactions with the media. Doubtless the parties will discuss a non-competition clause as well. And how much will the negotiations be impacted by the newness of the HQ app phenomenon; the uniqueness of its setup; and the fuzziness of its future plans? All interesting things to consider.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Those posting ideas to the internet, in tweets or YouTube trailers or other websites: take note. This is an older decision, but one worth recounting on this blog I think. Out of the Central District of California, Alexander v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc., CV 17-3123-RSWL-KSx, warns you that making your ideas available for free can mean that you forfeit the right to pursue compensation if someone else uses them.
The case concerns the movie "Creed," which the plaintiff Alexander alleged he came up with. He sued the defendants for misappropriation of his idea, breach of implied contract, and unjust enrichment. The misappropriation of idea claim fails in California, so the court moves on to the breach of implied contract claim, where Alexander also faltered because he failed to allege that he ever offered the "Creed" idea for sale. In tweeting the idea at Sylvester Stallone, the court read the allegations as portraying a gratuitous offer of the idea to Stallone.
Alexander argued that he thought he would be paid for the idea based on industry custom, and that the defendants understood that he tweeted the idea at them with the expectation of payment. But the court disagreed. All Alexander did was tweet the idea at Stallone and post it all over the internet; those actions were not compatible with expecting compensation, since the idea was widely available for free. There was never any communication between Alexander and the defendants, so the court found that it "strain[ed] reason" to imply an agreement for compensation from an unanswered tweet and the posting of the idea in other places on the internet.
Finally, the unjust enrichment claim also failed. Alexander could not allege how the defendants benefitted from his idea, since he never alleged how the defendants accepted the idea. At any rate, since the idea was available for free all over the internet, the court stated that it was "unclear" why the defendants should be expected to compensate Alexander.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
The plaintiff Wilson resigned his position as the athletic director for the defendant Northland College after investigation for two sexual harassment complaints. Wilson and the college signed an agreement upon his resignation that restricted what the college could say about the situation to the media. The college radio station subsequently ran some stories reporting on Wilson's resignation. Wilson sued for, inter alia, breach of the separation agreement. The college moved to dismiss and the Western District of Wisconsin recently granted the motion in Wilson v. Northland College, 17-cv-337-slc (behind paywall).
The problem was Wilson couldn't identify any term of the contract that the college breached. The contract set forth a joint press release to be issued and stated that "[t]o the extent that either party is asked by a media source of any sort to provide an additional explanation, both parties will state that the mutually agreed upon statement speaks for itself." The college issued the require statement and the college radio host, beyond reporting that Wilson had resigned, did not provide any reasons for the resignation and referred to the press release, exactly as the contract required.
Wilson's main arguments were that the press release was supposed to be the college's only statement and that no college employee (which the radio host was) could speak about Wilson's conduct, sexual harassment, or investigations in any way. But the court concluded that that was not what the contract called for and the radio host's statements that the college would not comment for the reasons behind the resignation beyond the press release complied with the college's contractual obligations.
Monday, January 15, 2018
I would say this is the time of year when I am perpetually behind, except that that is every time of year, so it's not surprising that it's taken me a bit to blog about Marvel's Create Your Own platform. As the article here makes clear, the terms and conditions require those uploading to the site to provide to Marvel the right to do almost anything it wishes with the material, without limit, notice, attribution, or payment. You can read all of the terms and conditions here.
In addition, the terms and conditions contain a long list of prohibited content, including such vague terms as "sensationalism" (defined as "killer bees, gossip, aliens, scandal, etc." which is one of my favorite collections of nouns ever) and "alternative lifestyle advocacies" (who is deciding what an alternative lifestyle is?), "misleading language" (misleading as to what?), and a catch-all "other controversial topics." (Incidentally, it also includes what I assume is a typo, as it prohibits "suggestive or revealing images" which it defines as "bare midriffs, lets, etc." I assume that's meant to be "legs.")
...Am I the only one who now wants to read a comic strip about aliens who advocate alternative lifestyles and raise killer bees, sharing scandalous gossip and double entendres (also prohibited) with their other alien alternative-lifestyle friends over a couple of glasses of wine (ditto) during their weekly high-stakes poker game (yup), all while baring their midriffs?
(All of the prohibitions are blanket prohibitions except for graphic violence, which might be approved on a case-by-case basis.)
Monday, January 8, 2018
The news tonight reported on a real-life contracts issue near and dear to my heart, since my grandmother got caught up in an identical situation with her oil. Basically, New England has been in the middle of a two-week stretch of below-freezing temperatures, unusual for us. It's cold here, but not usually -18. Lots of people have contracts with oil companies that provide for automatic tank refill. These contracts are not cheap to enter into. My grandmother's cost hundreds of dollars a year, and that's just for them to show up; we still have to pay for the oil on top of it. But, because everyone's been using more oil than usual, the oil companies have been caught completely unprepared for how many of their automatic-renewal-contract customers have needed oil. How unprepared? Well, my 85-year-old grandmother spent more than 12 hours completely without heat, problematic in the arctic cold we were gripped in. And the problem is: What were our options? We'd paid hundreds of dollars to never be left in a situation, we thought, when our grandmother's tank would go empty. That was supposed to be the point of the contract, that we wouldn't have to worry about her running out of oil. But that was exactly what happened.
And, as the news report makes clear, once you enter into this contract, you're not allowed to get your oil from anybody else. So we were in a situation where we couldn't get the service we'd paid for, and we were prohibited by contract from getting the service from anyone else. As the news report states, the oil company may waive the fee on a case-by-case basis. But, for many people on limited incomes dealing with already expensive heating costs, taking the risk of being charged a $399 fee might not be acceptable.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
A recent case out of the Sixth Circuit, Heimer v. Companion Life Insurance Co., No. 16-2274, "is about whether a contract should mean what it says." The insurance policy at issue disclaimed coverage for injuries that resulted from the "illegal use of alcohol." Heimer legally consumed a great deal of alcohol (he was legal drinking age), but then illegally operated a motorbike while his blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. He collided with another motorbike and suffered extensive injuries.
The insurance company claimed that the policy didn't cover the accident because it resulted from the illegal use of alcohol. The court disagreed based on the plain language of the contract. The policy said "use," not "under the influence." Therefore, Heimer's injuries weren't covered only if his use of the alcohol was illegal, which it was not. Heimer's criminal offense was illegally using a motor vehicle, not illegally using alcohol.
The court acknowledged that obviously the insurance company didn't want to have to pay for the injuries caused by the drunken motorbike driving, but the court noted that the contract's language needed to be modified to reach that result.
A concurrence in part / dissent in part agreed with the outcome and accused the insurance company, the contract's drafter, of "sloppy drafting," but did allow that the phrase might be ambiguous.
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
A class action brought in the Western District of Tennessee over Internet service speeds, Carroll v. TDS Telecommunications Corp., No. 1:17-cv-01127-STA-egb (behind paywall), recently survived a motion to dismiss. Among the claims was a breach of contract claim based on the plaintiff's procurement of a high-speed Internet service plan. The plaintiff agreed to pay between $120 and $150 a month for access to service of a particular speed, which she alleged she did not receive, rendering her Internet incapable of supporting the uses, such as Netflix and YouTube, that she had been told the Internet plan would support. The court found these to be sufficient allegations of a breach of contract to survive the motion to dismiss. The plaintiff's other causes of action, including for fraud, unjust enrichment, and civil conspiracy, also survived the motion.