ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

7 Crucial Words: "Except as otherwise specified in this Agreement...."


In sexier law subjects, you might discuss the 7 dirty words.  Here, at ContractsProf Blog, we talk about 7 crucial words: "Except as otherwise specified in this Agreement..."

On ocassion, we've mentioned Dan Rather's breach of contract suit against CBS.  Yesterday, a New York appellate court held that the trial court erred in declining to dismiss Rather's breach of contract claim against CBS.  It looked to the "pay or play" clause in Rather's contract and reasoned:

Rather alleges that he delivered his last broadcast as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 9, 2005, and that, since he was only nominally assigned to 60 Minutes II and then 60 Minutes, he should have received the remainder of his compensation under the agreement in March 2005. Rather claims that, in effect, CBS "warehoused" him, and that, when he was finally terminated and paid in June 2006, CBS did not compensate him for the 15 months "when he could have worked elsewhere." This claim attempts to gloss over the fact that Rather continued to be compensated at his normal CBS salary of approximately $6 million a year until June 2006 when the compensation was accelerated upon termination, consistent with his contract.

Contractually, CBS was under no obligation to "use [Rather's] services or to broadcast any program" so long as it continued to pay him the applicable compensation. This "pay or play" provision of the original 1979 employment agreement was specifically reaffirmed in the 2002 Amendment to the employment agreement.

That Amendment also provided, in subparagraph 1(g), that if CBS removed Rather as anchor or co-anchor of the CBS Evening News and failed to assign him as a correspondent on 60 Minutes II or another mutually agreed upon position, the agreement would be terminated, Rather would be free to seek employment elsewhere, and CBS would pay him immediately the remainder of his weekly compensation through November 25, 2006.

We agree that subparagraph 1(g) must be read together with the subparagraph 1(f), which provided that if CBS removed Rather from the CBS Evening News, it would assign him to 60 Minutes II "as a full-time Correspondent," and if 60 Minutes II were canceled, it would assign him to 60 Minutes as a correspondent "to perform services on a regular basis." However, this construction does not render any language of the agreement inoperative, since, consistent with the "pay or play" clause, neither subparagraph 1(g) nor 1(f) requires that CBS actually use Rather's services or broadcast any programs on which he appears, but simply retains the option of accelerating the payment of his compensation under the agreement if he is not assigned to either program.

It is clear that subparagraph 1(g) applies only to a situation where CBS removed Rather as anchor of CBS Evening News and then failed to assign him "as a Correspondent on 60 Minutes II." The amended complaint alleges that when Rather no longer performed anchor duties at CBS, he was assigned to 60 Minutes II. Thus, Rather implicitly concedes that CBS fully complied with subparagraph 1(g).

Supreme Court erred in finding that subparagraph 1(g) modified the "pay or play" provision when it ignored the initial prefatory clause to the rest of that subparagraph, which states "[e]xcept as otherwise specified in this Agreement." As the defendants correctly assert, the seven words are crucial because they require subparagraph 1(g) to be read together with the "pay or play" provision, and thus, subparagraph 1(g) cannot modify the "pay or play" provision to mean that CBS must utilize Rather in accordance with some specific standard by featuring him in a sufficient number or types of broadcasts. As the defendants aptly observed, "the notion that a network would cede to a reporter editorial authority to decide what stories will be aired is absurd."

Rather v. CBS Corp., 2009 NY Slip Op 06738 (App Div 1st Dep't Sept. 29, 2009) (emphasis added).

[Meredith R. Miller]

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