Category: Contract Law & Beyond

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Contract (as) Social Responsibility (Part 3): Model Contract Terms

My prior posts (#1 and #2) set up the idea that contract appears to be an increasingly attractive way to do some sort of “social justice,” for example by attempting to reduce labor trafficking in supply chain contracts.  I refer to this generally as “contract (as) social responsibility” (KSR).

A contradiction in terms?

I want to turn now to a thoughtful example of KSR terms, the Model Terms (Model Terms) being developed by the Working Group to Draft Human Rights Protections in Supply Contracts of the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association (Working Group).

The Working Group is led by Professor David Snyder (American University) and attorney Susan Maslow.  Although the Model Terms have not yet been posted, they should be shortly and, in any case, are available from David (dsnyder@wcl.american.edu) and Susan (smaslow@ammlaw.com).  The Working Group’s report and the Model Terms are slated to be published in The Business Lawyer later this year.  [Disclaimer:  I am a member of the Working Group and on the editorial board of The Business Lawyer.  Nothing I say on CoOp should be imputed to them.]

While I should probably post a “spoiler alert” here, I thought it would be helpful to summarize certain aspects of the Model Terms in order to identify some of the issues they and, by inference, other KSR terms may raise.

The Model Terms have two goals that are, perhaps, in tension.

Read More

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Contract (as) Social Responsibility (Part 2): Defined Terms

An earlier post set up the month’s agenda:  explore theoretical, doctrinal, and empirical opportunities presented by “contract (as) social responsibility” (KSR).  Before going further, it may be useful to provide some examples and define what I mean by KSR.

Examples

Labor-related terms in supply chain contracts, discussed in the prior post, are a well-known example of KSR, but not the only ones.  Michael Vandenbergh, for example, has argued that supply chain agreements can also be used to advance environmental goals.

But there is a world of KSR beyond supply chain contracts.  Frances McDormand’s speech at the Academy Awards, for example, implored the A-listers in the audience to negotiate for “inclusion riders,” contract terms that would require movie productions to have a certain level of social diversity (e.g., race, gender).  “Impact investing,” according to one enthusiast, “could be one of the most important social innovations in our lifetimes, leveraging the massive power of the capital markets to a higher purpose than maximizing returns for shareholders.” The oldest example I have found so far—and I suspect there are still older ones—is the Beatles’ early performance agreement, which apparently required venues to integrate racially.

Don’t let it be.

KSR can be seen as part of a longer arc of social activism through market action.  From the contested notion that African Americans could use market power to counter the pernicious effects of racism, to Cesar Chavez’s lettuce boycotts of the 1960s, to the South African divestment campaigns of the 1980s, the socially active have long believed that money can do more than talk: it may compel others to walk.  Sometimes, as in apartheid, they may have been right. In other cases, such as black banking, they may not.

Still, we (want to believe that we) can achieve social justice through the beer and coffee we choose to purchase.  Who we see in the media may affect what we believe to be possible in reality, in terms of gender and racial diversity.  Eric Posner and Glen Weyl argue that the “emancipatory force” of “radical markets” “can reawaken the dormant nineteenth-century spirit of liberal reform and lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation.”  Whether or not that is true, there is little doubt that there is demand for social change through market participation.

Because contracting is an important mechanism in market function, the rise of KSR seems, from this perspective, inevitable.  Yet, not all market participation involves contract in any formal sense, and of course most contracting probably does not purport to be socially responsible in the sense that interests me.  So, KSR is at most a (small?) (very small?) subset of contract-based market activity.

Business lawyers love their defined terms–and I am at heart a business lawyer–so what might a definition of KSR look like? Read More

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Contract (as) Social Responsibility (Part 1): Revenge of the Nerds

On a sunny Saturday morning in April I found myself in an airless room in an exceptionally beige Orlando conference hotel discussing what would, to many, be the nadir of contract nerd-dom:  model supply chain terms.

Supply chain agreements set forth the rights and responsibilities of buyers and sellers of goods that lead to products that affect just about everyone who participates in the market economy.  It reportedly takes about 200 contracts to make an iPhone—a number that strikes me as pretty low.

These contracts are important, of course, but only in the same sense that contract terms on indemnification, ERISA, and choice-of-law are important: they are the province of hardcore law junkies because they are so boring no one would really want to spend time thinking about them unless paid to do so.

And, yet, the Orlando conference room was electric.  That’s because these were not the usual supply chain terms dealing with, e.g., quantity, price, delivery, etc.  Instead, this was a meeting of the Working Group to Draft Human Rights Protections in Supply Contracts of the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association (“Working Group”), and the terms we were talking about seek to solve some of the most troubling ethical problems presented by market globalization:  baseline human rights protections for those who work for or with companies in the modern global supply chain.

I will call these terms one of many examples of “Contract (as) Social Responsibility”: efforts to achieve social justice through contract as a formal, legal instrument.

I find just about every word in the preceding paragraph (including “I” and “will”) to be problematic—in an interesting sort of way—and am grateful to the keepers of Concurring Opinions for permitting me to spend the month of May trying to develop my thoughts on this.

 

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Trump as Litigator-in-Chief and Other Real World Stories

Donald Trump (credit: Business Insider)

Donald Trump (credit: Business Insider)

Miriam Cherry and I are thrilled to announce release of our new book, CONTRACTS: A REAL WORLD CASEBOOK.  We spent the last decade ripping cases from the headlines to show students how classic cases and principles that seem dusty still control today’s contract disputes they hear about.  Seeing the old and the new together engages students and we hope contracts teachers will consider this book.

We pulled this together after years of bringing contracts in the news into our classrooms, onto this blog, into a Cambridge U paperback and now, formally into a casebook that’s both fresh and familiar.  For example, thanks to our country’s litigator in chief, the litigious Donald Trump, students tomorrow morning can work out how ancient principles on liquidated damages control current events, as Jennifer Taub explains over at Slate.

Trump shows up in our casebook multiple times, though we omitted a few stories I’ve written on his legal foibles simply to avoid too many encounters.  But below is a reprise of one I wrote a few years ago that did make the cut.  In our casebook, we turned this example into a problem and then excerpted the relevant case precedents, such as the Kel Kim case discussed below along with the classics Taylor v. Caldwell and Krell v. Henry.  Skimming it and comparing it what we put in the casebook gives a sense of our process which, above all, was fun, and the students can tell.  Read More

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Contract Interpretation 2.0: Not Winner-Take-All But Best-Tool-For-The-Job

In a centuries-old debate among contracts scholars, one group supports a presumption favoring a text-centered approach to the interpretation of a written agreement — the plain meaning taken from the four corners — while opponents urge a broader understanding of context — what the parties intended and the circumstances of their negotiation. The contending positions have so hardened that, in a jarring juxtaposition my new Essay will reveal, recent academic classifications of the same state laws are exactly opposite to each other: contextualists classify certain states as contextualist that textualists say are textualist!

Yet despite the persistence of acute polarization, the author also documents — and applauds — promising trends in the literature toward hybridization and compromise, a search for factors to guide the selection of interpretive tools rather than putting some off limits or setting up default rule presumptions. While scholars have thus long obscured a common-sense reality, a new wave of research is making it clearer to all sides that text and context are both useful, depending on the details of different jobs.

More modern, advanced, and sensible, this new view of contract interpretation replaces a stubborn “winner-take-all” approach to the debate with a flexible and practical “best-tool-for-the-job” approach. To illuminate its importance and value — call it contract interpretation 2.0 — my new Essay turns to Warren Buffett’s contracting philosophy and practices. The famous investor and businessman is also a polyglot teacher, and his approach to contracts, especially acquisition agreements and employment arrangements, illustrates the imperative of using the right tool for the job.

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Major Contracts Symposium at GW

qtq80-Sh2bmhDivergence and Reform in the Common Law of Contracts is the title of this year’s GW Law Review Symposium and anyone interested in contracts and/or comparative law will want to join us for it on  Saturday November 19.  Here is a summary from the official web site for the event (RSVP here):

This Symposium continues a tradition of biennial conferences that began at the University of Sheffield, UK in 2011, followed by a conference held at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. But this 2016 Symposium is not your grandfather’s contract law. Instead, this conference takes a 21st Century approach to comparative issues in contract law, examining the most pressing controversies, debates, and challenges currently shaping the United States and United Kingdom’s shared legal tradition in the area of common law contracts.

Symposium papers from the previous two gatherings have been published as books by Cambridge U. Press and Oxford U. Press; papers from the current symposium will be published in the GW Law Review.

Topics include: Comparative Law and Reform; The Share Economy; Remedies; The State of the Interpretation Debate; Good Faith; and Consumer Contracts

Participants include:

Miriam Cherry, St. Louis U.

Lawrence Cunningham, GWU

Larry DiMatteo,  U. Florida

Hon. Lord Hodge, UK Supreme Court

Martin Hogg, Edinburgh

Geraint Howells, City U. Hong Kong

Judge Barbara Keenan, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals

Judge Carlos Lucero, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Blake Morant, GWU

James Nehf,  Indiana U.

Robert Stevens,  Oxford U.

Matthias Storme, KU Leuven

Rolf Weber, U. Zurich

 

 

 

 

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Trump v. Mahr: Another Donald Contract Folly

(Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In 2012, Donald Trump, flirting with a run for the presidency of the United States and criticizing its incumbent, Barak Obama, pressured the President to confirm his U.S. citizenship by publicly disclosing his birth certificate.

Despite Obama having done so, Trump sustained the pressure, posting a video on the internet on October 24, 2012—the last week of the election campaign—in which he offered to pay $5 million to Obama as consideration for the President publishing his college and passport applications and records.

Trump was serious, even suggesting charities, clarifying his goal of producing the information, and committing to pay within one hour. The offer also had a deadline: October 31, 20012 at 5:00 p.m. That hour having come and gone without Obama accepting, the offer terminated Obama’s power of acceptance.

On January 7, 2013, the comedian and political talk show host, Bill Maher, appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After calling Trump a liar and racist, he characterized some of Trump’s public ramblings as “syphilitic monkey.” Then came what Trump portrayed as an offer: “suppose that perhaps Donald Trump had been the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan. . . . I hope it’s not true . . . , but, unless, he comes up with proof, I’m willing to offer 5 million dollars to Donald Trump . . . that he can donate to a charity of his choice. . . .”

Trump formally submitted his “acceptance” of this “offer” the next day, sending a copy of Trump’s birth certificate attesting that he is “the son of Fred Trump,” and naming the charities designated as beneficiaries of the $5 million. In Trump’s view, a contract was formed “the moment the Acceptance Letter was sent,” a reference to the usual rule of acceptances, which makes them effective on dispatch (affectionately referred to as the “mailbox rule”).

On February 4, 2013, Trump sued Maher. The lawsuit, of course, was an inherent loser, and Trump soon withdrew it. But in their filings, Trump’s lawyers got much of contract doctrine right, in both the Obama background and Maher interactions.

In relation to Obama, the lawyers correctly noted that (1) an offer creates the power of acceptance, (2) an unrevoked offer may be accepted by following the route to acceptance stated in the offer and a binding contract results, and (3) that the power of acceptance terminates upon any expiration stated (or upon the offer’s revocation of it, the offeree’s rejection of it, or the offeror’s death).

So why did Trump file such a patently frivolous lawsuit?  For a hint and another example of how Trump is a prolific frivolous litigator in American courts, see this companion post.

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Please Pay Me My Blackmail

I’m fascinated by the lawsuit filed against Dennis Hastert by one of his alleged sexual abuse victims for breach of contract. In essence, the suit says that Hastert agreed to pay him around $3 million in compensation but only paid 1/2 of that (due to the feds catching on to the former Speaker’s attempt to structure his payments to avoid detection.)  Now the plaintiff wants the other half.

I don’t how this suit can succeed (though the point of this is probably just to make clear what Hastert allegedly did).  If this is understood as a payment of blackmail, then the contract cannot be enforced as a matter of public policy.  How can it not be construed that way?  If Hastert had refused to pay, what would the plaintiff have done?  Nothing?

Granted, if the allegations against Hastert are true, then he’s an awful, awful human being.  And perhaps blackmail should not be unlawful in circumstances such as this.  But it is, and thus I don’t think that a failure to pay can be converted into a contract action.

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Rather v. CBS Contracts Story Omitted from Redford’s “Truth”

Robert Redford’s latest film, Truth, dramatizes the last stand of newsman Dan Rather, longtime face of CBS News until fired for a controversial 2004 broadcast about President George W. Bush. The film, which debuted this week at the Hamptons Film Festival in Long Island, New York and opens October 16, is based on the book by Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, and is therefore biased.  It is nevertheless a rich story, with Redford playing Rather and Cate Blanchett portraying Mapes (all pictured nearby).  The true story culminated, moreover, in a fight between Rather and CBS about contract interpretation, although neither the book nor the film delves into this important topic.

Amid a heated 2004 presidential election, on a CBS 60 Minutes broadcast of September 8, 2004, Rather questioned President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era. Rather implied that Bush exerted political influence to avoid that era’s military draft by entering the Guard, and then receiving special treatment to skip military duties. A media melee followed Rather’s show. Bush supporters challenged its accuracy, the authenticity of documents used, and Rather’s journalistic integrity, which many believed was compromised by bias against President Bush.

After investigation, CBS disavowed the broadcast and, two weeks later, an emotional Rather apologized for it on national television. But CBS and Rather disagreed on the overall journalistic quality of the broadcast and what to do about it. Rather identified important accurate facts in the broadcast, obscured by the firestorm, and urged a defense of those whose reputations, including his and Mapes, the broadcast imperiled.

For its part, CBS emphasized the journalistic lapses and wanted to let it go at that. Believing CBS was most interested in the politics of good relations with the White House, as Bush was running for reelection in a heated contest against Senator John Kerry, Rather retracted his apology and claimed CBS fraudulently induced it. The day after President Bush won reelection, CBS told Rather it planned to remove him from his coveted spot as anchor of the CBS Evening News—a stinging rebuke. Rather’s last broadcast as anchor was March 9, 2005.

During the next 15 months, through May 2006, CBS kept Rather on its payroll, paying his salary of about $125,000 per week ($6 million annually). CBS gave him irregular appearances on CBS programs covering less significant stories, and his former television profile diminished. He rarely appeared on the network’s big-time shows such as 60 Minutes. Worse, CBS prevented him from pursuing jobs with competing networks or other media. Rather claimed that CBS marginalized him by giving him limited staff and editorial support; rejected most of his story proposals and aired those it accepted at off-peak times; denied him the chance to appear as a guest on other programs; and generally prevented him from refurbishing his reputation. Read More

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Howard Stern’s Audience: One Group or Two?

11111Howard Stern is a wealthy man, but he sought to be some $300 million richer after his radio employer, Sirius, doubled his audience by acquiring rival XM. Stern thought his contract said as much but a court disagreed.  Businesspeople and lawyers alike can take a lesson from the deal, presented here in one of my three-part series this week on the unruliness of words–and numbers.  Following on my accounts of whether the attack 14 years ago today on the WTC was one occurrence or two and whether The Hobbit film trilogy released by New Line Cinema was one film or three, here’s the Stern story. 

The Howard Stern Show is a popular off-color program long aired on traditional radio. But in 2004, one of the leading satellite radio companies, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., persuaded Stern to move his program to its service. Performance compensation under the resulting licensing agreement called for Sirius to pay Stern’s production company up to five separate awards of common stock in Sirius—each worth $75 million—if a series of ever-rising subscriber thresholds was met.

To implement this deal, the parties included in their formal written contract an exhibit setting out the company’s estimated number of subscribers as of year-end for each of the ensuing five years. The agreement then provided that the company would pay a stock bonus if at any year-end the actual number of subscribers exceeded the target by a specified amount: a first bonus for exceeding the target by two million; a second for exceeding it by four million; a third for exceeding by six million; a fourth for exceeding by eight million; and a fifth by ten million.

There was no dispute about what happened the first two years: at 2006, actual subscribers exceeded estimated subscribers by more than two million and Sirius promptly delivered $75 million worth of its stock to Stern; at 2007, actual subscribers did not exceed the target by more than four million, and therefore no bonus was due. A complication arose in 2008, however, because in that year Sirius acquired a rival, XM Radio, which had nearly ten million subscribers. So the parties disputed whether those subscribers counted as Sirius subscribers under the bonus provisions of the licensing agreement.

Resolution depended on determining the intended meaning of their contract in light of the specific terms of Sirius’s acquisition of XM. Before the acquisition, Sirius and XM were separate rivals of about equal size (Sirius had more than nine million subscribers)—and both had been wooing Stern to join them. After the acquisition, Sirius changed its name to Sirius XM, but the two continued to operate separately with their own subscribers, although subscribers could buy a premium package to add the other company’s offerings. About one million XM subscribers signed up for the Sirius package.

Counting only original Sirius subscribers, at year-end 2008, actual subscribers did not exceed target subscribers by more than four million contemplated for a second bonus award. Even adding the one million XM subscribers who bought access to Sirius, the target was not so surpassed. But if also counting the nearly ten million XM subscribers that Sirius acquired in the acquisition, then the target was exceeded by more than ten million, triggering all the bonuses and meaning Sirius owed Stern another $300 million worth of stock. Read More