Monday, July 8, 2019
In a letter to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s CEO, Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren asked the bank to stop “exploiting its customers” by using what the bank considers the “standard practice” of asking its customers to arbitrate potential claims against it. Chase’s customers can, however, opt out of mandatory arbitration by mailing written rejection notices by Aug. 9, 2019.
Arbitration is, of course, easier for banks and other defendants than having to face a multitude of individual lawsuits. The concern for smaller plaintiff such as private bank customers is that arbitration is not as neutral as a lawsuit as arbitrators are hired privately by, for example, the banks. Arbitrators may thus be unduly biased in favor of the banks and more business savvy than bank customers, who might obtain greater protections from hiring an attorney and going to court. The exploitation part comes in when defendants arguably seek to "sneak" arbitration onto unsuspecting, unsavvy bank customers who are not aware of all the pros and cons of various types of dispute resolution.
Monday, April 29, 2019
Would we really say that Weinstein's company's directors didn't approve of his pattern of sexual misconduct?
This, strictly speaking, isn't really a contract case, although there is an employment contract at issue so I guess that's how it got caught in my filter. But I read it and thought that this case is raising important enough issues that we should be discussing them.
The case is David v. The Weinstein Company LLC, 18-cv-5414 (RA), out of the Southern District of New York, and it's a case centering around the alleged sexual assault perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein on the plaintiff. The story the plaintiff tells is a familiar one to those who have read the Weinstein reporting, that "Weinstein asked her to meet him in his hotel room to discuss potential acting roles, and then, on one occasion, forcibly raped her." This decision isn't so much about Weinstein's conduct, though, as it is about the former directors of Weinstein's companies, who the plaintiff contends "enabled Weinstein's sexual misconduct, making them liable for general negligence and negligent retention or supervision."
The court dismisses the claims against the directors, and the reasons why were what caught my eye about this case. Plaintiff's allegations were that the directors were aware of Weinstein's harassing behavior toward women, based on a number of things: a written communication within the company calling his behavior a "serial problem" the company had to deal with; the characterization by a company executive of Weinstein's female assistants as "honeypot[s]" to lure actresses into meetings with Weinstein; a formal complaint by an employee about Weinstein's behavior; an employee memo summarizing two years' worth of allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by Weinstein and characterizing the company as a "toxic environment for women"; the settlement of many sexual misconduct claims against Weinstein; and at least one police investigation into Weinstein's behavior.
None of the allegations established negligence on the part of the directors, according to the court. First of all, the directors did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care, and there is no case law that directors of a company can be held liable for an employee's tortious act. The plaintiff pointed to the fact that the directors renewed Weinstein's contract in 2015 with a provision that prevented Weinstein from being fired for sexual misconduct as evidence that they were enabling Weinstein's conduct, but the court found that this was "a far cry from them approving of Weinstein's sexual assault." While the court admitted that the directors "were not without moral culpability," their actions were not negligence as a legal matter.
Nor did the plaintiff assert a claim for negligent retention or supervision. The plaintiff did not show that Weinstein's sexual assault took place on the company's premises, since she asserted it happened at a hotel not affiliated with the directors. While the plaintiff argued that Weinstein used company credit cards to pay to the hotel room and lured her to the hotel room under the guise of a business meeting regarding employment by the company, that was regarding the company, not the directors sued here.
As a matter of law, the court's reasoning makes sense.
As a matter of recognition of how oppressive power structures work, this decision is terrible.
When I learned negligence way back in law school, I remember so many discussions about the policy behind it, about not wanting to hold people to a generalized duty to protect everyone on the planet, about how we decide proximate causation, about how it's really at heart about what we want to hold people liable for and what we don't.
So this decision makes sense in terms of worrying about generalized duties, of not dismissing the culpability of those committing the intentional tortious act. But it doesn't make sense in terms of thinking about the type of society we want to live in. The Weinstein reporting tells a story of serial abuse that was systemically protected for years by the power structure around Weinstein. To say that nobody else in the power structure was sexually assaulting women is a true statement of legal fact, but also seems disingenuous at this point. Weinstein's abuse was so widespread and lasted so long not only because of Weinstein but also because of the entire operation around him deflecting culpability for it.
The negligence analysis in this case feels like it's operating in a vacuum, which is kind of how we teach our students to think, presenting them with discrete hypotheticals, but might not be the best or most effective way to set up a fair legal system that protects the most vulnerable and least powerful in society. The societal discussion about the oppressive system that permitted Weinstein (and others) to perpetrate so much abuse has just begun, and maybe we should include how the legal system interacts with those power structures in the discussion. If negligence is all about policy decisions about who you need to protect and how much, then maybe we should have a policy discussion about how to make those decisions, especially if we're making them in the context of an abusive pattern that might be obscured by looking at things in isolation.
The plaintiff's allegations in this case contain many damning examples that many people around Weinstein knew about the disturbing pattern of sexual misconduct, and made affirmative choices to find ways to use the power structure to protect Weinstein. I appreciate the court's statement that the directors might be morally culpable but not legally culpable, and I recognize that law and morals are two different things. But I don't know that I agree that the director's actions are "a far cry from them approving of Weinstein's sexual assault . . . ." Given the allegations about what the directors knew and how they reacted to that knowledge, I think we could read their actions as indicating that they were a far cry from disapproving of Weinstein's sexual assault.
Sunday, December 23, 2018
The below guest blog was shared with us by Oren Gross, the Irving Younger Professor of Law with the University of Minnesota Law School:
Who amongst us has not taught the 1864 case of Raffles v. Wichelhaus, a.k.a. the two ships Peerless? The story of the ships (by some accounts there have been up to eleven ships bearing the same name!) has tantalized and captured the imagination of numerous generations of students learning about meeting of the minds.
You can imagine my delight when, taking a much-needed break from grading exams, I came across a modern version of the story involving three NBA teams and two players named Brooks.
The Washington Wizards, it seems, wanted to strengthen their roster by adding the Phoenix Suns forward Trevor Ariza. For its part, Phoenix was interested in Memphis Grizzlies players and the Grizzlies – in Wizards players. And so, the Wizards’ general-manager concocted a three-team trade and served as the go-between the Suns and the Grizzlies. As part of that trade, the Suns were to get two players from Memphis, namely Selden and Brooks.
Simple enough. Or so it seems. However, as Chris Herrington reported in the Daily Memphian on December 15, 2018, the deal fell apart or, in an insight worthy of contracts’ scholars, “maybe never quite was.”
The problem is that Memphis currently has not one, but two, players on its roster whose last name is Brooks. And whereas the Suns thought they were getting Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies intended to trade MarShon Brooks. Thus, while “two Grizzlies sources confirmed to The Daily Memphian that it was MarShon Brooks, not Dillon Brooks in the deal. Media in Phoenix, however, insisted it was Dillon, not MarShon.”
As the two teams negotiated through the Wizards as the go-between, the miscommunication as to the identity of the player actually to be traded was not revealed until news of the deal leaked to the media.
The outcome? The three-team deal collapsed. As Herrington put it “the deal that never really was was nixed.”
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.
Monday, June 11, 2018
If you teach Lady Duff-Gordon, as I teach Lady Duff-Gordon, you know that it's a fun case that lets you talk about a frankly pretty incredible life. But it's also an older case, so here's a more recent case out of New York using the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to potentially save an allegedly illusory promise, Ely v. Phase One Networks, Inc., 2667/2017 (behind paywall).
The plaintiff is a composer. The defendant is a company that produces music albums. The parties entered into recording and co-publishing agreements. The plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment that the contracts are unenforceable because they are illusory and unconscionable and moved for summary judgment. The court found that factual disputes existed as to both the unconscionability and illusory allegations. The analysis on unconscionability was very brief, but the court did provide a slightly deeper analysis on the illusory promise front. Although the recording contract provided that the recordings were "subject to the defendant's approval in its sole judgment," the court noted that the covenant of good faith and fair dealing "implicit in all contracts" meant that "the defendant could not unreasonably withhold approval."
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.)
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.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
As we all know, there is a lawsuit for everything, including whether Starbucks deliberately underfills its lattes to save on the cost of milk. This could constitute a breach of express warranty. So argued a group of plaintiffs in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently. The court dismissed the argument on a motion for summary judgment.
Plaintiffs’ arguments were threefold: First, that “when filled to the brink,” Starbucks’ cups hold only exactly the beverage volumes listed on the menus. The court dismissed that argument because Starbucks requires its cup manufacturers to make the cups 8-12% larger than the promised beverage volume. Second, that the milk foam added to lattes should not count towards the beverage volume. However, as plaintiffs themselves had argued that milk foam is a component of a latte, the court quickly dismissed that argument as well. Third, plaintiffs argued that the “fill-to” lines in steaming pitchers used by baristas to make the lattes are too low for the finished product to contain the expressly promised volume. The court also dismissed that as the steam is an essential part of a latte.
In short, the court agreed with Starbucks that plaintiffs could not prove that any false statements had been made at all. What was warranted was also what was sold.
Incidentally, Starbucks is – as many other previously very popular brands – increasingly suffering from an image problem: they have apparently become too boring and basic. Once seen as cool and edgy, they are now seen as too ubiquitous, in large part because they simply have too many stores. Their solution is to open upscale Roasteries and Reserve stores.
Meanwhile, the competition – Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s for example – charge $3 less for coffee than Starbucks. The same fate might be countered by Subway Sandwiches, previously the nation’s second-largest fast-food chain. They too might have grown too much and too fast. Additionally, Subway’s menus are seen as too boring, especially by younger millennials who prefer a more diverse range of options, including salads and healthier choices."
The Starbucks case is Strumlauf et. al. v. Starbucks Corporation, Case No. 16-cv-01306-YGR.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Court finds terms are not ambiguous when their dictionary definitions are consistent with the contract
We just finished talking about contractual ambiguity in my contracts class, so I was happy to see this recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, SAS Institute, Inc. v. World Programming Ltd. ("WPL"), No. 16-1808 No: 16-1857 (behind paywall), discussing that very issue in the context of a software license agreement. This is actually part of a much larger case with important copyright implications for computer software code, but, given the subject matter of this blog, I'm focusing on the contract claims. You can read the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the copyright questions here.
Among other things, the parties were fighting over the interpretation of a few of the contractual terms between them. However, the court reminded us that mere disputes over the meaning of a contract does not automatically mean that language is ambiguous. In fact, the court found here based on ordinary dictionary definitions that none of the terms were ambiguous.
First, the parties were fighting over a prohibition on reverse engineering. The court looked to dictionary definitions of "reverse engineering" to arrive at a definition that also made sense in the context of the contract. WPL tried to introduce extrinsic evidence on the meaning of the term but the court found there was no reason to turn to extrinsic evidence since the term was not ambiguous.
The parties were next fighting over the meaning of the license being for "non-production purposes only." The court construed this to have its "ordinary meaning" as forbidding "the creation or manufacture of commercial goods." WPL argued that the phrase had a technical meaning in the software industry, but the court did not find that the parties had intended to use this technical meaning. The dictionary definitions supported the court's construction of the phrase as unambiguous.
Sunday, October 29, 2017
As reported on The Hill and in several other national and international news outlets, tiny Montana energy company Whitefish Energy – located in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s very small hometown – stands to profit greatly from its contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. That’s fine, of course. However, highly questionable issues about the contract have surfaced recently. For example, Whitefish very famously prohibited various government bodies from “audit[ing] or review[ing] the cost and profit elements of the labor rates specified herein.”
What were those? The Washington Post reports that under the contract, “the hourly rate was set at $330 for a site supervisor, and at $227.88 for a ‘journeyman lineman.’ The cost for subcontractors, which make up the bulk of Whitefish’s workforce, is $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319.04 for a lineman. Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.” Another news source notes that “[t]he lowest-paid workers, according to the contract, are making $140.26 an hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in Puerto Rico is $7.25 an hour … [T]he average salary for a journeyman electrical lineman is $39.03 per hour in the continental U.S. However, a journeyman lineman on Whitefish Energy's Puerto Rico project will earn $277.88 per hour.”
Little wonder why the company did not want anyone to “audit or review” its labor rates. If it wasn’t for the apparent “old boy”/geographical connections that seemed to have led to this contract to have been executed in the first place, hopefully no Puerto Rican official would have accepted this contract in the form in which it was drafted.
But it doesn’t end there. When the San Juan mayor called for the deal to be “voided” and investigated, Whitefish representatives tweeted to her, “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”
To me, this entire contract to violate several established notions of contract law such as, perhaps, undue influence or duress (in relation to contract formation but perhaps also, if possible, to continued contractual performance), bad faith, perhaps even unconscionability, which is a alive and well in many American jurisdictions.
This could work as an interesting and certainly relevant issue-spotter for our contracts students. It also gives one a bad taste in the mouth for very obvious reasons. It will be interesting to see how this new instance of potentially favoring contractual parties for personal reasons will pan out.
Friday, September 15, 2017
On Sept. 12, 2017, Senate Bill 33 was approved by the California Senate and now awaits Governor Brown’s approval before becoming law.
The legislation was designed after the Wells Fargo scandal to block legal the legal tactic of keeping disputes over unauthorized bank accounts out of public court proceedings an favor of private arbitration.
Said the law’s author, Sen. Dodd (D-Napa): “The idea that consumers can be blocked from our public courts when their bank commits fraud and identity theft against them is simply un-American.” It is also clearly unethical and, once again, emphasized how difficult it can be in modern times to strike a fair contractual bargain with a party that has much greater bargaining power than individuals and that uses lengthy and often complex boilerplate contracts with terms few read and understand.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to deny Uber’s move to compel arbitration in a contract with one of its passengers, Spencer Meyers.
The district court had found that Meyer did not have reasonably conspicuous notice of Uber’s terms of service (which contained the arbitration clause) when he registered a user, that Meyer did not unambiguously assent to the terms of service, and that Meyer was not bound by the mandatory arbitration provision contained in the terms of service.
The Second Circuit summed up the usual difference between clickwrap agreements, which require a user to affirmatively click on a button saying “I agree” and which are typically upheld by courts, and browsewrap agreements, which simply post terms via a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen and which are generally found unenforceable because no affirmative action is required to agree to the terms.
In the case, Meyer had been required to click on a radio button stating “Register,” not “I agree.” But in contrast to browsewrap agremeents, Uber also informed Meyer and other users that by creating an account, they were bound to its terms. Uber did so via a hyperlink to the terms on the payment screen.
Meyer nonetheless claimed that he had not noticed or read the terms. The Court thus analyzed whether he was at least on inquiry notice of the arbitration clause because of the hyperlink to the terms. This was the case, found the court, because the payment screen was uncluttered with only fields for the user to enter his or her payment details, buttons to register for a user account, and the warning and related hyperlink. Further, the entire screen was visible at once and the text was in dark blue print on a bright white background. Thus, the fact that the font size was small was not so important.
Mayer was bound to the arbitration clause because he had assented to that term after getting “reasonably objective notice.”
Friday, July 28, 2017
Our friend and esteemed colleague, Professor Charles Calleros, has kindly sent the following as a guest contribution to the ContractsProf Blog. Enjoy!
Recently Val Ricks has collected a number of essays from colleagues on best and worst cases for the development or application of contract law. In addition to participating in that project, Charles Calleros invites faculty to upload and post links to essays about their favorite cases as teaching tools (regardless whether the cases advance the law in an important way). He starts the ball rolling with this Introduction to his essay on "Why Pyeatte v. Pyeatte Might be the Best Teaching Tool in the Contracts Casebook":
Pyeatte v. Pyeatte, a 1983 decision of the Arizona Court of Appeals, did not break new ground in the field of contracts. Nonetheless, I assert that it is one of the best pedagogic tools in the Contracts casebook, for several reasons:
- * The facts are sure to grab the attention of first-semester law students: A law grad reneges on a promise to support his ex-wife through graduate school after she supported him through law school during their marriage;
* This 1980’s opinion is written in modern plain English, allowing students to focus on substance, while also learning a few necessary legal terms of art.
* After their immersion in a cold and rather unforgiving bath of consideration and mutual assent, students can finally warm up to a tool for addressing injustice: quasi-contract;
* The opinion’s presentation of background information on quasi-contract provides an opportunity to discuss the difference between an express contract, an implied-in-fact contract, and an implied-in-law contract;
* Although the wife’s act of supporting her husband through law school seems to beg for reciprocation or restitution, students must confront judicial reticence to render an accounting for benefits conferred between partners in a marriage, exposing students to overlap between contract law and domestic relations law;
* The appellate ruling of indefiniteness of the husband’s promise – presented in a later chapter in my casebook, but looming vaguely in the background of the discussion of quasi-contract – invites critique and perhaps even speculation that the appellate panel felt comfortable denying enforcement of the promise precisely because it knew it could grant restitution under quasi-contract; and
* The court’s admonition that expectation interest forms a ceiling for the calculation of restitution reveals a fascinating conundrum that brings us back to the court’s ruling on indefiniteness. . . .
You can find the whole essay here.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Will an associate who makes a $1.5 billion (yes, with a “b”) clerical error still make partner?... Do law firms owe a duty of care to clients of opposing party’s law firm? The answers, as you can guess: very likely not and no! The case goes like this:
General Motors (“GM”), represented by law firm Mayer Brown, takes out a 2001 loan for $300 million and a 2006 loan for $1.5 billion secured by different real estate properties. JP Morgan acts as agent for the two different groups of lenders. GM pays off the first loan, but encounters severe financial troubles and enters into bankruptcy proceedings before paying off the big 2006 loan. GM continues to follow the terms on that loan, and the bankruptcy court also treats the lenders as if they were still secured.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? When Mayer Brown prepared and filed the UCC-3 termination statement for the 2001 loan, the firm also released the 2006 loan by mistake. The lenders of that were thus not secured under the law any longer even though both GM itself and the bankruptcy court treated them as such. The big loan was simply been converted from a secured transaction into a lending contract. Yikes.
How did this happen? The following is too good to be true, if you are in an irritable or easily amused summer mode, so I cite from the case:
“The plaintiffs' complaint offers the following autopsy of the error: a senior Mayer Brown partner was responsible for supervising the work on the closing. He instructed an associate to prepare the closing checklist. The associate, in turn, relied on a paralegal to identify the relevant UCC-1 financing statements. As a cost-saving measure, the paralegal used an old UCC search on General Motors and included the 2006 Term Loan. Another paralegal tasked with preparing the termination statements recognized that the 2006 Term Loan had been included by mistake and informed the associate of the problem, but he ignored the discrepancy. The erroneous checklist and documents were then sent to [JP Morgan’s law firm] Simpson Thacher for review. The supervising partner at Mayer Brown never caught the error, nor did anyone else. With JP Morgan's authorization, the 2001 Synthetic Lease payoff closed on October 30, 2008 … We must also note that, when provided an opportunity to review the Mayer Brown drafts, a Simpson Thacher attorney replied, ‘Nice job on the documents.’”
The lenders represented by JP Morgan sued not Simpson Thacher or JP Morgan, but… Mayer Brown; counsel for the opposing party, arguing that the law firm owed a duty to them not because Mayer Brown represented them or their agent, JP Morgan, in connection with these loans, but rather because, plaintiffs argued, Mayer Brown owed JP Morgan – not the plaintiffs directly – a duty of care as a client in other unrelated matters! As the court said, an astonishing claim.
A law firm or a party directly must always prepare a first draft of any document. “By preparing a first draft, an attorney does not undertake a professional duty to all other parties in the deal.” In sum, said the court, “there is no exception to the Pelham primary purpose rule, and there is no plausible allegation that Mayer Brown voluntarily assumed a duty to plaintiffs by providing drafts to Simpson Thacher for review.”
The case is Oakland Police & Fire Ret. Sys. v. Mayer Brown, LLP, States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Case No. 15 C 6742
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
On April 14, the Wall Street Journal reported that Universal Music Group has won the licensing rights to late pop/rock star Prince's music in the "vault" he apparently kept on his property. The price tag was $30 million. Now, however, Warner Music Group, the singer's first record label, claims that it has conflicting rights in the material.
That turn of events is hardly surprising, but what is is the fact that Universal "hadn't seen a copy of Prince's 2014 contract with Warner, so it asked [a relevant party] to clarify the details afters signing the deal and running into roadblocks as it tried to move forward."
Of course, legal disputes also arose as Prince did not leave a will, thus ceding his entire estate to his sister and five half-siblings.
Textbook lessons of what NOT to do in the contracts and wills and estates areas of the law.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Everyone is surely, by now, aware of the (most recent) United Airlines scandal. Numerous questions abound: Was the airline racist in asking a non-white person to give up his seat or was the selection of which passenger to bump truly random? If the latter, was the airline racist in pursing this action after seeing that the selected passenger was not white whereas it might have given up taking such drastic action if it the passenger had been white? Equally importantly, what in the world is going on when law enforcement officers act as they did in this situation?! Is it fair to consider United Airlines responsible for actions that were, after all, not taken by its employees, but rather by the authorities?
While these questions are being addressed in many other locations, I find it interesting that several news sources correctly point out that United was legally entitled to bump a passenger, but that several sources seem to incorrectly state that under Department of Transportation rules, airlines may only pay passengers “up to a” $1,350 limit for delays of more than two hours. I have not had the time to fully research this rule, but as I read the rules, there is nothing saying that there is a limit to how much airlines may choose to pay, only what the DOT rules guarantee a pay-out (that one can, incidentally, insist on getting as payment, not a voucher) of $1,350, not more under the federal rules. The DOT guideline states as follows (from a website version only, admittedly):
“If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).”
If my understanding is correct, United could have chosen to voluntarily pay out a lot more than what they reportedly did ($800-1,000) and, as many correctly point out, most likely found some taker. Surely, the rules do not prohibit this. Instead, however, United chose to do what seems to increasingly be the order of the day: stand on their own rights and disregard the interests of their customers in the name of making a few extra dollars. Why am I not surprised?
Sunday, March 19, 2017
In case you have not yet heard about the recent First Circuit Court of Appeals case discussing the legal importance of a comma, here goes: A Maine statute lists the following activities as not counting for overtime pay:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.
Does that mean that drivers can get overtime because driving does count for overtime since “packing” covers both “shipment or distribution”? Or should the sentence be read as “packing for storage” as one thing and “distribution” another, thus precluding the drivers from earning overtime pay?
Circuit judge David J. Barron concluded that “the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”
So, commas still matter. Consider too how “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are a little different. Language aficionados take note! Precise drafting still matters. Was this an outcome-oriented holding? Perhaps. But if so, a holding in favor of workers over a company in a case of interpretive doubt may, in today’s increasingly tough economy for middle and low-income earners, not be such a bad idea from a public policy point of view.
The case is O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901 (1st Cir. 2017).
Thursday, February 23, 2017
The National Music Museum (“NMM”), located in South Dakota, brought suit against Larry Moss and Robert Johnson asking the court to declare it the legal owner of a Martin D-35 guitar formerly owned by Elvis Presley.
Moss and Johnson, both interested in collectibles, have been friends for thirty-five years. In 2007, Johnson contacted Moss stating that he may be interested in acquiring three guitars previously owned by Elvis, which included the D-35. Johnson originally was going to negotiate a deal for Moss to buy all three guitars for $95,000 from a third-party seller. In 2007, a two-part contract for $120,000 was finally drafted stating that (1) Moss would pay Johnson $70,000 and take immediate possession of two of the guitars, and (2) that Johnson would deliver two remaining guitars – including the D-35 – in exchange for the remaining $50,000.
At trial, Moss testified about the 2007 interaction and said, “Well, we never had a deal. I never gave him the money. He never gave me any guitars. There was no deal.” Moss’s actions in 2007 and from 2008-2010 are consistent. Moss never asserted title of the Martin D-35 during either time period because Moss did not believe he had title to the guitar. Moss knew he would not own the Martin D-35 until Johnson delivered it and Moss paid him for it. Because delivery never occurred, Moss never acquired title to the Martin D-35.
Nonetheless, in 2013, Moss contacted a friend of Johnson's inquiring about the status of the D-35. Moss then contacted the NMM where the guitar was on display claiming that he owned the D-35. A lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court seeking declaratory judgment on who was the rightful owner of the guitar.
Under Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which is the governing law for Tennessee and South Dakota, “[u]nless otherwise explicitly agreed title passes to the buyer at the time and place at which the seller completes performance with reference to the physical delivery of the goods . . . .” Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-2-401(2) (2008); SDCL 57A-2-401(2). Here, Johnson never physically delivered the Martin D-35 to Moss. Moss never had physical possession of the Martin D-35. Because Johnson never delivered the guitar and Moss never had possession of it, Moss never acquired title to the Martin D-35.
Furthermore, in spite of Moss's attempt to seek specific performance under a breach of contract theory, the court did not find this persuasive because the contract specifically stated that Moss would not pay the $50,000 balance until there had been delivery of the guitar. Based on the plain text of the contract, delivery was set to be a future date. Additionally, Moss and Johnson exchanged emails for five years, but Moss never asked Johnson to deliver the guitar, nor did he claim to the owner of the guitar. As a result, the court found Johnson had the title to the D-35 guitar, and transferred it to the NMM. Thus, the NMM is the rightful owner of the guitar.