ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, December 10, 2018

You and your corporate entities: often a complex story with repercussions

I got really excited when I saw this case because it's always nice to have a recent parol evidence case to look at, and this one involves movies!

It's a recent case out of Mississippi, Rosenfelt v. Mississippi Development Authority, No. 2017-CA-01120-SCT (you can listen to the oral arguments here). The MDA had communications with Rosenfelt regarding his movie studios' attempt to make movies in Mississippi, eventually guaranteeing a loan through a term sheet signed by the MDA and by Rosenfelt on behalf of his two movie studios. When Rosenfelt wanted to make another movie and applied for another loan under the terms of the agreement, the MDA turned down the request. Rosenfelt then sued for specific performance and damages. Rosenfelt initially triumphed on a motion for partial summary judgment but then, during the specific performance debate in the case, the MDA filed a summary judgment motion challenging Rosenfelt's standing, which resulted in dismissal of Rosenfelt's complaint. 

Rosenfelt appealed, alleging that there was an agreement between him personally and the MDA. However, the court noted that all communications from the MDA were directed explicitly to Rosenfelt as president of the relevant movie studio. The court's decision came down to contract interpretation: All of the written documents in the case unambiguously referred to Rosenfelt in his official corporate capacity or were signed by Rosenfelt in his official corporate capacity. Given the lack of ambiguity on the face of the documents, the court refused to consider parol evidence as to whether Rosenfelt was personally a party to any of the agreements.  Because all of Rosenfelt's allegations concerned his personal agreement with the MDA, the court dismissed the suit. 

This case serves as a reminder that, once you have set up corporate entities, you need to be careful to remember how those corporate entities impact not just your legal liabilities but also your legal rights. 

December 10, 2018 in Commentary, Film, Government Contracting, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In honor of the Red Sox, some baseball contracts

Hello! I was away at a conference last week and then the Red Sox* decided to win the World Series, which threw off all productivity for a while. As I ease back into blogging, I thought I'd link you to this piece from Business Insider, analyzing some of the terms set forth in the 2011-era version of Major League Baseball's uniform contract. I find my students always love to look at real-life contracts, and this is a nice point in the year to do it, as it's a nice way to demonstrate that they are now able to (or should be able to!) understand more of the contract than they might have on the first day of class. 

Of course, I always try to impress upon my students that contracts can be negotiated, so here's a list of some more unusual contract clauses baseball players were successful in getting teams to agree to. 

*(not the Red Sex)

November 1, 2018 in Labor Contracts, Sports, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink

Friday, October 12, 2018

If you're looking for a statute of frauds "cannot be performed within a year" case

I just gave a midterm in my contracts class, which is always so useful to crystallize the places where the students are having consistent understanding issues. For me this year, one of the tricky parts seems to be the statute of frauds, so it was nice to see this recent case out of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Northern Group, Inc. v. Tech 4 Kids Inc., Case No. 17-C-1367 (behind paywall), that deals with a fairly straightforward statute of frauds issue. 

In the case, Northern Group alleged that the parties had an oral agreement for commissions for sales and brought causes of action related to the breach of this agreement. Tech 4 Kids argued that the claims should be dismissed, in part because the oral agreement should have been in writing under the statute of frauds. However, as the court noted, the statute of frauds does not require a contract to be in writing unless it cannot be performed within a year. While it was true that the sales agreements required to be formed to result in commissions under the contract could sometimes taje years to finalize, Northern Group could conceivably have arranged some sales agreements within a year. Moreover, the agreement was terminable at will by either party, so either party could have decided within a year not to continue with the arrangement. Therefore, the oral agreement was capable of being performed within one year and so was not void under the statute of frauds. 

October 12, 2018 in Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Banksy keeps things interesting

Here's me poking my head out from a weekend of midterm grading to thank Banksy for a situation right out of a contracts hypothetical

Thank you to Eric Chiappinelli and Jennifer Taub for the heads-up!

October 7, 2018 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, Film Clips, In the News, Law Schools, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 28, 2018

Uber fails to establish an accord and satisfaction on a motion to dismiss

If you're looking for a recent accord and satisfaction case, look no further! I've got one for you out of the Northern District of California, TSI USA LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc., Case No. 17-cv-03536-HSG (behind paywall). In the case, Uber and TSI had a contract that Uber terminated. TSI received a termination notice and a check for a little over $200,000. TSI responded to Uber with outstanding invoices Uber owed payment on, amounting to more than $1.4 million. TSI eventually sued Uber for, inter alia, breach of contract, and Uber moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that that TSI's cashing of the $200,000 check operated as an accord and satisfaction, prohibiting TSI's breach of contract claim. 

The court disagreed. Accord and satisfaction requires that the check be presented in good faith and with a conspicuous statement that it is meant to satisfy the entire debt. Construing the facts in the light most favorable to TSI, Uber could not establish that its check of $200,000 met "reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing," given that TSI alleged Uber owed over $1.4 million. In addition, while the termination notice stated "by executing below you acknowledge and agree that such payment constitutes full and final payment," it was followed by a line for signature labeled "Chief Executive Officer." TSI asserted that it thought the signature of the CEO was required for the payment to constitute full and final payment, not that the cashing of the check by itself. The court agreed with TSI that the language was not so "explicit and unequivocal as a matter of law so as to preclude TSI from asserting its breach of contract claim." Therefore, the breach of contract claim survived. 

September 28, 2018 in Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Sometimes you've just got to shrug and live with the precedent you've got

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. 

September 22, 2018 in Commentary, Famous Cases, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Here's one for the "house renovations gone wrong" file

If you're turning to teaching damages in your semester, here's a recent case out of Florida for you, Forbes v. Prime General Contractors, Inc., Case No. 2D17-353. This is one of those cases where the homeowners and the contractor had a contract where the homeowners would pay periodically, as milestones for the work were reached. After completion of the scheduled demolition, though, the contractor told the homeowners that the cost to complete the project had almost doubled. The homeowners refused to pay the extra money, insisting on enforcement of the cost in the contract. The contractor walked off the job at that point. The home, having been in the demolition stage of the project, was uninhabitable. The homeowners rented another house and looked in vain for another contractor to finish the job. Finally, they bought a new house and let the old house go into foreclosure. They also sued the contractor for breach of contract. 

The homeowners won their beach of contract case, but the lower court only awarded them their cost of renting the alternative house as damages, stating that the homeowners had failed to prove any other damages and also had failed to mitigate damages. The appellate court disagreed. The appellate court permitted the homeowners to treat the breach of contract as total and found that they should be awarded damages to place them in the position they would have been in had they never signed the contract. This could include reimbursement of the amount they had paid the contractor and the equity they lost in their home when they had to let it lapse into foreclosure, as well as the rent they had paid. 

The appellate court also found that the homeowners had taken reasonable steps to mitigate damages. They rented while they searched for someone to finish the renovations. When that search failed, they bought a new house rather than continuing to make rent payments. Even if they hadn't bought the new house, they would not have been able to afford continuing to pay rent and the mortgage on the uninhabitable house, so whether they were renting or owning that house would have lapsed into foreclosure either way. The appellate court found that there was nothing else the homeowners could have done to avoid further damages. 

September 10, 2018 in Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

UCC statute of limitations dooms claim

Here at the beginning of the semester, I've just been going over determining whether the UCC or common law applies to contract claims, and here's a recent case out of the Seventh Circuit, Heiman v. Bimbo Foods Bakeries Distribution Co., No. 17-3366, that illustrates why that question can be important. 

The case involves some pretty eyebrow-raising allegations, as, according to the complaint, the defendant began "fabricating" breaches of the contract between the parties, so that it could terminate the contract based on these allegedly faked breaches. Pretty dramatic stuff, but the case falls apart on a statute of limitations issue. The UCC statute of limitations is four years; the relevant common law statute of limitations was ten years. All parties agreed that the cause of action accrued in 2011, so the statute of limitations would have already run if the UCC applied; not so if the common law statute of limitations was applied. 

The court looked at the primary purpose of the agreement. The agreement at issue was a distribution agreement, and the court noted that jurisdictions overwhelmingly interpret distributorship agreements to be about the sale of goods. While the agreement certainly also covered "a significant amount of services," those serves were all "incidental to the larger purpose of the contract, which [was] to sell goods to consumers." Therefore, the contract was governed by the UCC and barred as untimely. 

There was also a tortious interference claim that likewise failed because the complaint admitted that the plaintiff was aware of the possibility of its tortious interference claim in 2011, and so therefore this claim was also untimely under the relevant statute of limitations. The court also added that a party cannot tortiously interfere with its own contract, so the claim failed on the merits as well. 

September 6, 2018 in Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Waiver as a shield, not a sword

It's the time of year when I start thinking about the fact that I should be thinking about my fall classes, and right on cue, here's a case out of the Seventh Circuit, Knopick v. Jayco, Inc., No. 17-2285, that's thoughtful about how waiver works and the policy underlying it. (You can listen to the oral argument here.)

The waiver portion of the case (there was also a jurisdictional issue) involved a warranty that stated it did not apply to RVs purchased by LLCs. The RV in question was purchased by an LLC. Therefore, under the unambiguous language of the warranty, the RV was not covered. However, Knopick argued that Jayco waived this exclusionary language of the warranty when it voluntarily performed some repairs to the RV as if the warranty applied. The warranty, though, had an additional clause stating that such "good will" repairs would not alter the exclusionary language of the warranty. 

Even without that language, the court was skeptical that waiver could be used to achieve what Knopick wanted here. The court noted that waiver is ordinarily used as a "shield" to excuse non-performance. It's used so that a party cannot be "lulled" into a belief that its compliance is sufficient to fulfill a contractual obligation only to be surprised by a lawsuit for inadequate compliance later. Knopick, the court said, was trying to use waiver as a "sword." Rather than protecting himself, he wished to use it to compel performance by Jayco. The court, wary of expanding waiver because of how greatly it would damage the predictability of contracts, stated that it was unwilling to use the doctrine of waiver to compel Jayco, as such an action would have the effect of discouraging parties from "good faith" actions such as that undertaken by Jayco for fear of opening themselves up to expanded liability. 

h/t to Timothy Murray of Murray, Hogue & Lannis for passing this one along!

 

July 26, 2018 in Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Classic Case on Choice of UCC or Common Law

A recent Indiana case demonstrates the continued necessity of distinguishing between the common law and the UCC.  Nothing too new in the case legally as I see it, but it lends itself well to classroom use. Unknown

A medical center entered into two contracts with a medical billing services company for records-management software and related services.  In Indiana and elsewhere, “where a contract involves the purchase of preexisting, standardized software, courts treat it as a contract for the sale of goods governed by the UCC.  However, to determine whether the UCC applies to a mixed contract for both goods and services, Indiana uses the “predominant thrust test.”  Courts ask whether the predominant thrust of the transaction is the performance of services with goods incidentally involved or the sale of goods with services incidentally involved. Id. To determine whether services or goods predominate, the test considers (1) the language of the contract; (2) the circumstances of the parties and the primary reason they entered into the contract; and (3) the relative costs of the goods and services.

In the case, the contractual language was neutral.  Next, the primary reason for executing the agreements was to obtain billing services.  The software was merely a conduit to transfer claims data to the billing services company in order to allow it to perform those services.  The goods – the software – were incidental.  The third and final factor—the relative cost of the goods and services—also pointed toward that conclusion.  As the Indiana Supreme Court has explained, “[i]f the cost of the goods is but a small portion of the overall contract price, such fact would increase the likelihood that the services portion predominates.”  Under the agreement, the medical center paid a one-time licensing fee of $8,000 for software; a one-time training fee of $2,000; and $224.95 each month for services and support for about nine years.  Thus, for the life of the Practice Manager agreement, the services totaled approximately $26,294—more than three times the $8,000 licensing fee for the software.  Under the agreement, the medical center also paid a one-time licensing fee of $23,275 for the software; a one-time training fee of $4,000; and $284 per month for services and support for about six years.  Thus, the services totaled about $24,448—slightly more than the $23,275 software licensing fee. The relative-cost factor reinforces the conclusion that services predominated.  Thus, the ten-year common-law statute of limitations and not the four years under the UCC applied. Unknown-1

Interestingly, the case also shows that because the UCC did not apply, plaintiff’s claim for good faith performance under the UCC dropped out too.  In Indiana, a common-law duty of good faith and fair dealing arises “only in limited circumstances, such as when a fiduciary relationship exists,” which was not the case here.  The parties were thus not under a duty to conduct their business in good faith. Yikes!  This should allow for some good classroom discussions.

The case is Pain Center of SE Indiana LLC v. Origin Healthcare Solutions LLC

July 5, 2018 in Contract Profs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Pleading breach of contract adequately

Here's a short case out of the District of New Jersey, Hall v. Revolt Media & TV, LLC, Civil Action No. 17-2217 (JMV) (MF), in which the plaintiff failed to adequately plead his breach of contract claim. I'm blogging it because I don't spend a lot of time teaching my students about complaint-drafting; there are always just so many other things I'm quickly trying to discuss. But this case strikes me as a nice straightforward way to talk about it. The claim fails because all of the plaintiff's allegations were about contract negotiations: He contacted the defendant to discuss a contract, he sent the defendant a contract that was never signed, he continued to attempt to contact the defendant to negotiate the contract, etc. The court said there was never an allegation that any contract had actually been finalized. Nor did the complaint contain any details about the terms of the contract, such that the court could not tell what had allegedly been breached. I think this can be used as a way to focus the students on what they do need to be sure to include in breach of contract allegations. 

And being sure to also plead promissory estoppel would be a good idea. The complaint did adequately plead unjust enrichment, so this case can act as a good way to teach the distinctions of that cause of action as well. 

July 4, 2018 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 2, 2018

An "exceedingly rare" case where a court discounted testimony, relying in part on the witness's admitted "habit of routinely lying" in the course of business

A recent case out of Michigan, Strategy and Execution Inc. v. LXR Biotech LLC, No. 337105, speaks to the perils of not putting agreements in writing (or doing so and subsequently losing the writing). The parties had a written contract that stated that they would arrive at performance criteria at a later time. But the parties disputed ever entering into a later agreement over the performance criteria. No party produced any written document. LXR's principal testified that the parties reached an oral agreement that he memorialized in writing but the writing was later lost. However, this testimony was not corroborated by any other witness except for one who gave "conflicting testimony" regarding the document. LXR's principal had admitted to "routinely lying" because he apparently thought it to be "good business practice." Furthermore, none of the "voluminous" emails exchanged between the parties ever referenced any agreement on the performance criteria. The court therefore agreed that "this is one of the exceedingly rare cases in which a witness's testimony is insufficient to find a jury question." Despite the testimony, the court was permitted to enter a directed verdict on the breach of contract claim. 

Written contracts are not always required, but this case is an example of why they are often desirable to have, and to keep safe!

(There were other points of appeal in the case relating to other clauses of  the contract and some jury instruction issues.)

July 2, 2018 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 29, 2018

If you want something specific, ask for it in your contract

A recent case out of the Second Circuit, Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics Bermuda Co. Ltd. v. FMC, LLC, No. 17-2400-cv (behind paywall), is another case about interpretation of contract terms -- twice over. Because here the parties entered into a contract, fought over breach of that contract, and then entered into a settlement agreement, which they were also fighting over. The moral is that, if you want something specific, you should ask for it rather than relying on unspoken industry practices. 

The initial agreement between the parties was about an IT operating system. Although the system was going to cost $70 million, the contract wasn't very detailed, with no technical specifications or description of building methods. The parties' relationship deteriorated and they eventually entered into a Settlement Agreement to terminate the project. Under these new terms, FCM would be released from its obligation to provide the system to Ortho, while providing assistance while Ortho transitioned to a different contractor. After execution of the Settlement Agreement, Ortho apparently realized that FCM was not as far along as Ortho had thought and had not prepared certain items that Ortho had assumed it had prepared, and so Ortho claimed that as a result the IT system cost more and took longer. 

The court, however, noted that there was nothing in the contract requiring FCM to produce the certain deliverables Ortho had been looking for. Ortho claimed it was "standard practice in the industry," but the court said that wasn't the equivalent of it being a contractual obligation. FCM was contractually required to provide assistance -- no more, no less. There was nothing in the contract about the job having to be at a particular stage of completion, or that any particular deliverables or documentation had to exist. 

The court also pointed out that Ortho had released its claims regarding the original agreement in the Settlement Agreement. Ortho tried to argue that it had released claims but not damages but the court called that "a nonsensical reading." 

June 29, 2018 in Commentary, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

On Ambiguity: 80 Example Exercises from D.C. Toedt

Metal Fan CartoonNothing communicates the meaning and effects of ambiguity like a good example. So how about eighty of them in one place? 

Our friend over at the On Contracts blog, D.C. Toedt (Houston), has generously posted a collection of 80 exercises illustrating textual ambiguity. The sources vary widely, ranging from legal and religious texts to news items, popular culture, and even comic strips. Toedt uses the exercises in his contract-drafting course, challenging students to rewrite to clarify the meaning. The examples would work well in teaching ambiguity and contract interpretation in the 1L doctrinal course, as well.   

And let's face it: In addition to being pedagogically useful, ambiguities can be downright funny. Enjoy the list! 

June 29, 2018 in Teaching, Weblogs | Permalink

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Your contract should say what you want; fancier terms are not always a good thing

A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Treasure Chest Themed Value Mail, Inc. v. David Morris International, Inc., 17 Civ. 1 (NRB), deals with a digital marketing contract, presenting a variety of straightforward interpretation questions that could be helpful for basic examples for some things to look out for in contract drafting. 

The parties entered into a contract in which Treasure Chest was required to provide "greater than 300,000 follow up weekly digital impressions." The first dispute was over whether "digital impressions" was too ambiguous to be enforced. The court, however, easily defined "digital impression" with reference to investopedia.com. The court distinguished "digital impression" from "email," saying if the parties had meant "email" they would have used the word "email." A lesson in just using what you wish to say if that's indeed what you want; fancier terms are not always necessary and might just leave some room open for arguments about ambiguity and interpretation. 

There was also a dispute over whether it was ambiguous that compensation was "up to" a certain amount. But the court disagreed, saying it was clear that this simply meant the contract would not exceed a certain amount. 

Therefore, the court found there was a valid contract, that Treasure Chest fulfilled all of its obligations under the contract, and David Morris did not, so Treasure Chest was entitled to damages. Treasure Chest also sought attorneys' fees, but the court found that the contract was not clear enough to justify attorneys' fees. The contract said that "costs necessary to collect" past due balances could be awarded, but the court said that did not satisfy the "high standard" for collection of attorneys' fees via contract. Again, if attorneys' fees are what you want, attorneys' fees are probably what you should say. 

June 27, 2018 in Commentary, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 15, 2018

It's True: People Really Are Getting Dumber and Dumber

New scientific studies have proven what we might all have been jokingly saying, but which apparently is true: the world population is increasing, but IQ levels are decreasing.   The reason?  Nurture, not nature. 

The studies claim that after 1975, IQ levels started to drop because of, it is thought, "environmental factors."  These could include pollution, changes in the education system and media environment, nutrition, reading less, and being online more.   Yikes.

"It's not that dumb people are having more kids than smart people, to put it crudely. It's something to do with the environment, because we're seeing the same differences within families," said one of the co-authors and lead researchers on the project.

For us, this is not good news for obvious reasons.  But are we, in fact, a contributing cause?  I know that some of my students, for example, do not enjoy and sometimes simply will not read long homework assignments, don't read privately, and indeed spend large amounts of time online.  I'm sure your students are not very unlike mine in that respect.  Other studies that I don't have handy here also demonstrate that our students have difficulty reading longer texts simply because they are not used to reading anything much longer than blog posts, twitter feeds, and maybe the occasional article here and there, but certainly not books.  

Read the entire findings.  References to "changes in the education system" and "decreasing access to education" are disturbing.

 

 

June 15, 2018 in Commentary, Contract Profs, In the News, Law Schools, Miscellaneous, Science, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Saving illusory promises with implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing

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." 

June 11, 2018 in Commentary, Famous Cases, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Professor's retaliation claims mostly survive motion to dismiss

A professor at Columbia sued the university, alleging various contract-based claims. In a recent decision, Joshi v. The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, 17-cv-4112 (JGK), the Southern District of New York permitted the claims to survive the university's motion to dismiss. 

The university argued that various employment policies did not constitute binding contracts between the parties. However, the court disagreed. The university had in place a Reservation of Rights that stated the employment handbook should not be treated as a contract. But there were factual disputes as to whether this Reservation of Rights applied to the other employment policies at issue, which did not seem to be found in the employment handbook. The parties disputed how clearly the Reservation of Rights was incorporated into the policies, and whether the Reservation of Rights was conspicuous. Therefore, the court allowed the breach of contract claim to survive the motion to dismiss (it also found that there were factual disputes about whether the university's actions were a breach of the policy). 

The court also allowed the plaintiff's claim of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to survive, because it was about different conduct than the breach of contract claim (regarding the university's failure to investigate and stop the retaliation at issue, rather than the retaliation itself). 

And the plaintiff's promissory estoppel claim also survived. The university argued that promissory estoppel claims do not apply to employment relationships, but the court disagreed and refused to dismiss the claim based on that alone, stating that the plaintiff was not seeking reinstatement of employment. The plaintiff's allegations, taken in the light most favorable to them, adequately pleaded promissory estoppel, so the court allowed the claim to survive. 

The court did, however, dismiss the plaintiff's claim for fraud in the inducement, finding that the plaintiff had not adequately pleaded that the university acted with an intent to deceive. 

May 30, 2018 in Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Here's an Example of an Illegal Contract

I always struggle to think of examples of illegal contracts other than contracts to kill people, which makes for a dramatic class discussion but I fear might cause the students to write off illegal contracts as a subject better suited for Breaking Bad or something. So I was delighted to come across this recent case out of Michigan, M-D Investments Land Management, LLC v. 5 Lakes Adjusting, LLC, No. 336394 (behind paywall), dealing with an illegal contract. 

While the contract is found illegal in this case, the facts are not glamorous. The plaintiff hired the defendant to adjust its fire insurance claim and signed a contract for the services. Later, the plaintiff filed this action seeking a declaration that the contract between the parties was illegal as against public policy, and therefore voidable at the plaintiff's option. The issue was that the contract had not been approved by the Department of Insurance and Financial Services ("DIFS") as required by Michigan statute. 

The trial court found the contract in violation of the statute and thus voidable, and this appellate court agreed. The statute required the adjuster to seek approval from DIFS of its contract, and the defendant's failure to do so, no matter the reason, made the contract at least voidable at the plaintiff's option (which the plaintiff had chosen to exercise), if not void altogether. 

The defendant argued that it has since obtained DIFS approval of its contract. However, it was undisputed that it did not have this approval for the entire time the contract with the plaintiff was in effect. Thus, the contract could not be saved by after-the-fact approval.  

November 30, 2017 in Commentary, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 8, 2017

Conversations left open-ended don't rise to the level of an offer

In my head it's still the beginning of the school year, even though at my school we just finished our third week of classes already. This means that, because we only have a one-semester Contracts course, I'm just finishing up contract formation and moving on, and this case is kind of a nice little reminder review about the principles surrounding offers.

The case out of New Jersey, Kristine Deer, Inc. v. Booth, No. C-29-16 (behind paywall), involved a luxury active wear company, K-DEER, for which the defendant, Booth, worked. Booth had several conversations over the course of her employment with K-DEER's sole shareholder, Kristine Deer, about Booth receiving possible equity interest in the company. However, every one of those conversations was fairly vague. Deer seemed to always finish the conversations with some kind of demurral: that she had to "think about" it more, or that she wasn't "ready to have the conversation." Eventually, Booth resigned with an e-mail that read "If you are not willing to pursue an active dialog about ownership I am not interested in working at K-DEER." 

The parties are now involved in litigation, which included, among other things, Booth's counterclaim for breach of contract. She alleged that "Deer led [her] to believe she was a partner and had a right to equity in K-DEER," because she "did not explicitly deny her requests for equity" and called her a "partner" at times. However, the court quoted at length from Booth's deposition, where she admitted that Deer did not offer her any equity and that, in fact, her unwillingness to do so was why she resigned. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to find an offer from Deer to Booth. There was no expression of commitment on Deer's part. In fact, all of Deer's statements seemed to evince the opposite. So the court found no contract existed between the parties. 

As I am teaching my students to do now, the court then moved on, examining Booth's claim for quantum meruit. However, Booth never alleged that she wasn't adequately compensated, just that she would have left K-DEER earlier had she realized Deer wasn't going to give her equity. That did not justify quantum meruit. The court found that Booth had been compensated for all the work she had performed, so there was no unjust enrichment on K-DEER's part.

September 8, 2017 in Labor Contracts, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)