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Category: Contract Law & Beyond

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Tribute to James Gandolfini From Contracts in the Real World

As a tribute to the actor, James Gandolfini, who died at the age of 51 yesterday in Rome while on vacation, the following is a story about his hit television series, The Sopranos, taken from my 2012 book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.  I did not know Mr. Gandolfini, but I admired his tenacity and skill; I also met him once in my Greenwich Village neighborhood, and had a delightfully memorable chat. The story is not about him but is the best tribute I can offer; and for a great actor such as him, it seems apt. 

a Sopranos HouseIn 2002, Robert Baer, a former municipal judge and county prosecutor from hardscrabble Elizabeth, New Jersey, claimed a right to half the value of the Emmy Award-winning HBO television series, “The Sopranos,” believing he had a deal with writer David Chase to co-develop it.

Baer’s dream was to write television shows and, eventually, he persuaded a mutual friend to interest Chase in reading one of his scripts. Chase, a native of North Jersey, was already an accomplished figure in television, with several Emmy Awards to his credit, as well as shows such as the “Rockford Files,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and “Northern Exposure” under his belt.

The two met in June 1995 in California. At the time, Chase was developing an idea for a television series about a mob boss undergoing psychiatric therapy. In this meeting, Baer suggested that Chase shoot it in North Jersey and the two kicked around some other ideas.

In August 1995, Chase submitted a program proposal to Fox Broadcasting, which agreed one month later to finance a pilot for the show. Chase thereafter asked for Baer’s help in compiling information about the mafia’s inner workings. In response, Baer contacted acquaintances in the local prosecutor’s office, including Lieutenant Robert Jones, an organized crime expert. Based on their conversation, Baer prepared notes for Chase profiling some underworld characters and detailing the mob’s role in the sanitation business and gambling activities.

In October of that year, the two met again in New Jersey for Chase to do more research. There, Baer regaled Chase with New Jersey true-crime stories during a three-day tour of the region. Baer also introduced Chase to other experts: Detective Thomas Koczur, a homicide specialist, and Antonio Spirito, an Italian waiter and riveting storyteller. Koczur played the tour guide, driving Baer and Chase around to view area landmarks, mob hangouts, and criminal crannies. Some of these later provided the backdrop for the show’s regular opening sequence, while others appeared in various episodes.

Koczur also arranged for the group to dine with the local mobster, Antonio Spirito, who plied them with personal gangland tales and became the model for the show’s protagonist, Tony Soprano. One tidbit Spirito shared referenced two cat-burglar mob brothers called “Little Pussy” and “Big Pussy,” the latter a name Chase gave to a character in the series. Jones profiled the Jewish Mafioso, Morris Levy, then in prison, who bore a close resemblance to the role of Hesh Rabkin on “The Sopranos.”

After the trip, Chase polished up his pilot and submitted it to Fox, also sending a copy to Baer, who later provided written comments on it. Throughout, there was some discussion of payment between Baer and Chase, but no actual agreement was ever reached and Chase never paid Baer any money. The two had only agreed that Chase would read another of Baer’s scripts in return for the help he had given.

“The Sopranos” launched in 1999 on HBO, became a popular and critical hit, and ran through 2007. In May 2002, Baer sued, claiming the show and its protagonist were his ideas, entitling him to half the millions in profits Chase had received. Baer asserted breach of contract and quasi-contract, among other claims. The suit sickened Chase’s stomach, he sobbed upon learning of it, and five years of litigation followed.        Read More

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The Problems and Promise with Terms of Use as the Chaperone of the Social Web

electric_fenceThe New Republic recently published a piece by Jeffrey Rosen titled “The Delete Squad: Google, Twitter, Facebook, and the New Global Battle Over the Future of Free Speech.” In it, Rosen provides an interesting account of how the content policies of many major websites were developed and how influential those policies are for online expression.  The New York Times has a related article about the mounting pressures for Facebook to delete offensive material.

Both articles raise important questions about the proper role of massive information intermediaries with respect to content deletion, but they also hint at a related problem: Facebook and other large websites often have vague restrictions on user behavior in their terms of use that are so expansive as to cover most aspects of interaction on the social web. In essence, these agreements allow intermediaries to serve as a chaperone on the field trip that is our electronically-mediated social experience.

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Contract Evolution

There’s a fantastic symposium issue out of NYU this month, devoted to evolution and innovation in contract terms.  There are articles by the ridiculously productive trinity of Choi/Gulati/Posner, a wild piece by Kevin Davis on Contracts as Technology, and a very cool empirical paper by Marotta-Wurgler and Taylor on evolving terms in standard form contracting online.  I’m obviously biased toward empirical work on this exact topic, so I’m a sucker for this stuff.  But I do think that this kind of empirical and theoretical work is where contract scholarship should be heading in the next 10-20 years.  Check it out.

 

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Last Call for Contracts Survey

 

 

 

 

 

Contracts teachers are asked to complete a brief online survey to help the planning and execution of a symposium Washington Law Review is preparing to host on the exciting new book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter, by Lawrence A. Cunningham of George Washington University (published by Cambridge University Press in 2012).

This innovative text embraces a modern, narrative approach to contract law, exploring how cases ripped from the headlines of recent years often hinge on fundamental principles extracted from the classic cases that appear in contracts casebooks. Such an approach suggests new ways to imagine modern casebooks.  In addition to an article by Prof. Cunningham, the WLR will publish in its December 2013 issue  a half dozen pieces by many luminaries and notables, including:

Charles Knapp (NYU/Hastings)

Brian Bix (Minnesota)

Erik Gerding (Colorado)

Jake Linford (Florida State)

Jennifer Taub (Vermont)

To help these scholars and WLR editors with this effort, please fill out the online survey today!

 

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Why Is Privatized Procedure So Rare?

For some time, I’ve been mulling over how closely parties can tailor the rules of civil procedure to their own purposes. That is: can parties write enforceable contract terms which state that if they sue each other, the ordinary procedural rules won’t apply? Do such contracts exist? For example, parties might contract to be able to take 5 depositions in a case instead of the default 10. Or they might dispose of the rules of hearsay.  The literature on this topic of private procedure arguably started with the Scott/Triantis piece, Anticipating Litigation in Contract Design, and has gotten new momentum from Bone, Kapeliuk/Klement, Dodge, and Drahozal/Rutledge. My contribution, freshly up on SSRN, ended up being slightly more empirical than I’d expected — though I guess this won’t surprise any of our long-time readers.  In Why Is Privatized Procedure So Rare?, I try to explain why there is actually so little private procedure in places we’d expect to see it:

“Increasingly we hear that civil procedure lurks in the shadow of private law. Scholars suggest that the civil rules are mere defaults, applying if the parties fail to contract around them. When judges confront terms modifying court procedures — a trend said to be explosive — they seem all-too-willing to surrender to the inevitable logic of private and efficient private ordering.

How concerned should we be? This Article casts a wide net to find examples of private contracts governing procedure, and finds a decided absence of evidence. I search a large database of agreements entered into by public firms, and a hand-coded set of credit card contracts. In both databases, clauses that craft private procedural rules are rare. This is a surprising finding given recent claims about the prevalence of these clauses, and the economic logic which makes them so compelling.

A developing literature about contract innovation helps to explain this puzzle. Parties are not rationally ignorant of the possibility of privatized procedure, nor are they simply afraid that such terms are unenforceable. Rather, evolution in the market for private procedure, like innovation in contracting generally, is subject to a familiar cycle of product innovation. Further developments in this field will not be linear, uniform and progressive; they will be punctuated, particularized and contingent.”

Download it here. I’d love your comments. It’s out in the scrum, but I’m intending to continue to revise it as data continues to come in.

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Pick up the Phone!

From Redstone Federal Credit Union’s credit card agreement:

“Collection. If your Account should become past due, or otherwise in default, you will accept telephone calls from us regarding collection of your Account. You understand that the calls may be automatically dialed and a recorded message may be played. You agree that such calls shall not be “unsolicited” calls for the purpose of state or federal law.”

Translation: screening us is breach of contract!

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SCOTUS Sustains Assault on Contractual Freedom

The Supreme Court continues to reject freedom of contract and the power of contracting and state contract law in favor of its national policy favoring arbitration.  Most recently, in a per curium opinion in Nitro-Lift v. Howard, it said Oklahoma is not allowed to apply its own contract law to evaluate the validity of classic contract terms (here covenants not to compete). Instead, due to SCOTUS takes on a federal law and the presence of an arbitration clause in the contract, arbitrators make that decision.

The Court’s opinion stresses its conception of a national policy favoring arbitration, which it has found in recent decades in a century-old statute, the Federal Arbitration Act.  That emphasis on this “national policy” marks a retreat from the false pretenses that infect the Court’s precedents on the subject, which pretend to be engaged in the application of contract law.

Despite that improvement in the Court’s honesty, it remains the case that the Court’s approach to this subject diminishes traditional principles of contract laws and the value of contracts.  People are held to bargains they did not make or that are recognized by contract law as illegal.  But the Court insists that no court is allowed to consider these questions, thanks to its statement of national policy.

In numerous past SCOTUS cases, dissenting opinions were routinely filed exposing the flaws in the Court’s jurisprudence. The recent per curium opinion may signal capitulation, indicating that there are no longer any Justices prepared to object to these mistakes. That defeat means it is clearly time for Congress to rein the Court in. It should make it clear that state courts are responsible for developing and applying state contract law, not SCOTUS, federal courts or private arbitrators.

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CELS VII: Low Variance, High Significance

[CELS VII, held November 9-10, 2012 at Stanford, was a smashing success due in no small part to the work of chief organizer Dan Ho, as well as Dawn Chutkow (of SELS and Cornell) and Stanford's organizing committee.  For previous installments in the CELS recap series, see CELS III, IV, V, and VI. For those few readers of this post who are data-skeptics and don’t want to read a play-by-play, resistance is obviously futile and you might as well give up. I hear that TV execs were at CELS scouting for a statistic geek reality show, so think of this as a taste of what’s coming.]

Survey Research isn't just for the 1%!

Unlike last year, I got to the conference early and even went to a methods panel. Skipping the intimidating “Spatial Statistics and the GIS” and the ominous “Bureau of Justice Statistics” panels, I sat in on “Internet Surveys” with Douglas Rivers, of Stanford/Hoover and YouGuv. To give you a sense of the stakes, half of the people in the room regularly use mTurk to run cheap e-surveys. The other half regularly write nasty comments in JELS reviewer forms about using mTurk.  (Oddly, I’m in both categories, which would’ve created a funny weighting problem if I were asked my views.) The panel was devoted to the proposition “Internet surveys are much, much more accurate than you thought, and if you don’t believe me, check out some algebraic proof.  And the election.”  Two contrasting data points. First, as Rivers pointed out, all survey subjects are volunteers, and thus it’s a bit tough to distinguish internet convenience samples from some oddball scooped up by Gallup’s 9% survey response rate.  Second, and less comfortingly, 10-15% of the adult population has a reading disability that makes self-administration of a survey prompt online more than a bit dicey.  I say: as long as the disability isn’t biasing with respect to contract psychology or cultural cognition, let’s survey on the cheap!

Lunch next. Good note for presenters: avoid small pieces of spinach/swiss chard if you are about to present. No one will tell you that you’ve spinach on a front tooth.  Not even people who are otherwise willing to inform you that your slides are too brightly colored. Speaking of which, the next panel I attended was Civil Justice I. Christy and I presented Clusters are AmazingWe tag-teamed, with me taking 9 minutes to present 5 slides and her taking 9 minutes to present the remaining 16 or so.  That was just as well: no one really wanted to know how our work might apply more broadly anyway. We got through it just fine, although I still can’t figure out an intuitive way to describe spectral clustering. What about “magic black box” isn’t working for you?

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F-Words: Fairness and Freedom in Contract Law

As I read “Facing Limits,” Larry’s chapter on unenforceable bargains, I had to pause and smile at the following line:

People often think that fairness is a court’s chief concern, but that is not always true in contract cases (p. 57).

I still remember the first time someone used the word “fair” in Douglas Baird’s Contracts class. “Wait, wait,” he cried, with an impish grin. “This is Contracts! We can’t use ‘the f-word’ in here!”Of course, Larry also correctly recognizes the flip side of the coin. If courts are not adjudicating contracts disputes based on what is “fair,” we might think that “all contracts are enforced as made,” but as Larry points out, “that is not quite right, either” (p. 57).

Pedagogically, Contracts in the Real World is effective due to its pairings of contrasting casebook classics, juxtaposed against relevant modern disputes. In nearly every instance, Larry does an excellent job of matching pairs of cases that present both sides of the argument. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise, because I love the project overall, but I feel like Larry may have missed the boat with one pairing of cases. Read More

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Using Contracts in the Real World in the Classroom

Aside from the deeper theoretical questions that Prof. Cunningham raises about contract theory in Contracts in the Real World,  the heart of the book is in its fun, rollicking, and thoroughly modern examples.

Every contracts professor should take a look at this book to glean ideas for real-world examples and hypotheticals.  Even if your textbook is stuck in the world of itinerant homesteaders, ships using astrolabes for navigation, and delayed industrial components (shout out to Kirksey, Raffles, and Hadley v. Baxendale!), your students will appreciate the use of some fun celebrity stories to liven up the classroom discussion.

The last time that I taught Contracts, for example, I did a series of hypotheticals based on Charlie Sheen’s contractual troubles.  Based on Prof. Cunningham’s materials, I was able to structure some hypotheticals based on Sheen for my unit on conditions.    The students seemed to appreciate it, and in fact, I have asked a student from my class last year to share her impressions with our blog readers. It appears here

 

Miriam Cherry is Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law.  Some of her scholarship can be found at this link on SSRN.