Saturday, September 22, 2018
There comes a time in every teaching semester (usually very early on...) where you have to coax your students to be comfortable with courts contradicting each other. You have to teach them to distinguish the cases, to make sense of it, but sometimes I feel like the answer to the contradictions is "the parties didn't argue that point and it just got missed and now we just have to deal."
I was thinking about this as I read a recent case out of the Third Circuit, Cook v. General Nutrition Corp., No. 17-3216 (behind paywall), which affirmed a failed lawsuit against GNC for, among other things, breach of contract. The appellants made several arguments for why their claims should not have been dismissed, one of them that GNC's termination of the contract was a breach. But the Third Circuit noted that termination was permitted by the contract: "[The contract] expressly permit[ted] GNC to unilaterally modify or cancel the agreement at any time, with or without notice."
That was the line that gave me pause, because I only recently taught Harris v. Blockbuster, which holds a contractual provision illusory precisely because it permitted Blockbuster to unilaterally change the contract at any time without even having to provide any notice. Other courts have definitely agreed with Harris, and while it's been distinguished I didn't really see any courts disagreeing with the conclusion. Third Circuit courts do seem to apply the illusory promise doctrine, so it doesn't seem like they've just decided to do without this doctrine in the Third Circuit.
It does seem like Harris can be read as only applying in the context of agreements to arbitrate and not all agreements (although there was apparently an arbitration clause in the GNC contract). Unfortunately, this is just me guessing as to how you can distinguish Harris, because there is zero discussion of illusory promises in the Third Circuit's very brief opinion. The court asserts that the contract gave GNC this right, and that while it might be "unfortunate," it was permissible and therefore not a breach.