Category: Contract Law & Beyond

2

Going to Church to Sue Your Neighbor

puritan_men.jpgOf late I have been doing research on the resolution of civil disputes — tort, contract, and property cases — in ecclesiastical courts. Of course there are still religious communities that handle all intra-member litigation “in house.” I am surprised, however, how common this was among Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It turns out that many American denominations are descended from either Calvinists or Anabaptists. Despite various nasty theological disputes in the 16th century, both groups were enthusiastic about the idea of church discipline and thought that one of the things that true Christian churches needed to do was excommunicate members who misbehaved. It was only a hop, skip, and a jump from this basic commitment to discipling members to a literal reading of passages in Matthew and Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians where the New Testament insists that disputes between brethren ought to be brought before the church rather than being taken before the ungodly. The result is that groups like the Quakers, the early Baptists, and the Mormons were all at one time or another quite aggressive about disciplining church members who sued other church members in secular court. However, rather than simply punishing members for hiring a lawyer, these disciplinary proceedings became a way in which congregations took jurisdiction over the underlying dispute, provding an ultimate settlement on the merits.

I wonder, however, if there was something more than theology and the perennial quest for low-cost dispute resolution at issue here. In particular, early Americans seem to have been a litigious lot. Roger Williams, for example, described one of his neighbors as “the salamander always delighting to live in the fire of contention as witnesses his several suits in law.” (In the folk cosmology of early America, the salamander was a creature that could live the heart of a fire.) Many of his compatriots seems to have shared this trait. That being the case, litigation was, if not a major life activity for many early Americans, at the very least was a very significant one. By shifting the forum in which this activity occurred from secular to ecclesiastical courts, religious groups were able create yet another bond with their members. Home is not only where the heart it. It is also where you litigate, particularlly if you are a salamander.

Finally, there seems to have been theatrical component to the interaction between litigation and religion. Brigham Young, for example, delivered a facinating sermon in 1856 denouncing litigation not only for the way in which it created discord among litigants but also as a demoralizing spectacle that tempted people to the courthouse to watch the show. Indeed, his denunciation of litigation sounds in many ways like contemporary denunciations of the theatre by Evangelical Protestants. The Mormon reaction to courts was much like the Mormon reaction to theatres (or dancing, another moral bugbear of the Second Great Awakening): rather than prohibiting it, they brought it in-house. Hence, dances were held in temples and church houses, plays were sponsored by ecclesiastical associations, and litigation was brought before “judges in Israel.” Once within the religious fold, however, litigation continued to be a spectacle and a show. Religious groups, however, radically changed the moral content of the performance. The amoral tourney of wits between trickster lawyers was transformed into a passion play of confession, repentance, and reconciliation as parties in ecclesiastical cases were frequently required as part of their settlements to perform acts of public atonement before their congregations.

20

Shylock and Article 9 of the U.C.C. (with some thoughts on bankruptcy)

shylock.gifShakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice (1598) is often misidentified as an anti-Semitic play about a contract. This is not technically correct, as the transaction at the heart of the drama seems to be a secured loan. (Albeit an anti-Semitic one.) Furthermore, contrary to Shakespeare’s conclusion, I believe that the security agreement is most likely enforceable, at least under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, a point that I hope to make to my secured transactions class. Here is Shylock’s description of the loan agreement between himself and Antonio, a Venetian merchant:

SHYLOCK: This kindness will I show; go with me to a notary; seal me there your single bond, and – in merry sport – if you repay me not on such a day, in such a place, such sum or sums as are expressed in the condition, let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken In what part of your body pleaseth me. (I.3.141-149)

It seems fairly clear from the passage that there is a debt. Antonio promises to pay “such sum or sums as are expressed in the condition.” However, without a valid security interest Shylock has only a personal right of action against Antonio. Indeed, even if Antonio promises the pound of flesh, all that Shylock gets in the event of a failure to deliver the bloody bond is a right to money damages. Section 9-109, however, teaches us that Article 9 governs “a transaction, regardless of form, that creates a security interest in personal property . . . by contract.” Such seems to be the case here. Indeed, Shylock casts the transaction in the form of a bond, ie a promise to deliver the pound of flesh, with a condition, ie payment of the debt, that defeats the bond, a classic pre-Code security arrangement, and the “pound of . . . fair flesh” falls under 9-102(a)(44)’s definition of “goods” (“all things that are moveable when a security interest attaches”), bringing it within the personal property requirement of 9-109.

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0

The One Ring and Economic Duress

ring.jpgIn my contracts class, I use the One Ring as a explanatory prop in several doctrinal areas, such as the availability of specific performance. It is convenient, then, that Tolkien’s stories may be moving from one Red Book to another, as the dispute between Peter Jackson and New Line over the fantasy franchise’s profits has just heated up. According to the director:

Wingnut Films has bought a lawsuit against New Line, which resulted from an audit we undertook on part of the income of The Fellowship of the Ring. Our attitude with the lawsuit has always been that since it’s largely based on differences of opinion about certain accounting practices, we would like an independent body – whether it be a judge, a jury, or a mediator, to look at the issues and make an unbiased ruling. We are happy to accept whatever that ruling is. In our minds, it’s not much more complex than that and that’s exactly why film contracts include right-to-audit clauses. [DH Notes: What a Holmesian view of contract law!]

However, we have always said that we do not want to discuss The Hobbit [the long-anticipated prequel to the Lord of the Rings] with New Line until the lawsuit over New Line’s accounting practices is resolved. This is simple common sense – you cannot be in a relationship with a film studio, making a complex, expensive movie and dealing with all the pressures and responsibilities that come with the job, while an unresolved lawsuit exists.

We have also said that we do not want to tie settlement of the lawsuit to making a film of The Hobbit . . .

[O]ur Manager Ken Kamins got a call from the co-president of New Line Cinema, Michael Lynne, who in essence told Ken that the way to settle the lawsuit was to get a commitment from us to make the Hobbit, because “that’s how these things are done”. Michael Lynne said we would stand to make much more money if we tied the lawsuit and the movie deal together and this may well be true, but it’s still the worst reason in the world to agree to make a film.

Several years ago, Mark Ordesky [of New Line] told us that [the studio had] rights to make not just The Hobbit but a second “LOTR prequel”, covering the events leading up to those depicted in LOTR. Since then, we’ve always assumed that we would be asked to make The Hobbit and possibly this second film, back to back, as we did the original movies . . .

However last week, Mark Ordesky called Ken and told him that New Line would no longer be requiring our services on the Hobbit and the LOTR ‘prequel’. This was a courtesy call to let us know that the studio was now actively looking to hire another filmmaker for both projects.

Ordesky said that New Line has a limited time option on the film rights they have obtained from Saul Zaentz (this has never been conveyed to us before), and because we won’t discuss making the movies until the lawsuit is resolved, the studio is going to have to hire another director.

There are some interesting legal issues arising out of this fact pattern. But one has to suspect that both parties here are calculating: Jackson that he stands to make more in the lawsuit that he would in a prequel (therefore, his decision to take issues off the table); New Line, that it is better to delay the lawsuit’s settlement and accept the risk of a mildly less successful movie. The hypothetical I wonder about is whether Jackson could sign the settlement agreement and then assert a defense of economic duress, claiming that he had no choice but to settle to obtain the new movies (sort of like Austin v. Loral). The only problem: his (presumably less than rosy) financial circumstances would have been the fault of King Kong’s disappointing earnings, not New Line’s breach.

1

Number four lawsuit target in all of Kazakhstan; or, Kazakhs Gone Wild

It was bound to happen, wasn’t it? From CNN:

Two fraternity boys want to make lawsuit against “Borat” over their drunken appearance in the hit movie. . . . The lawsuit claims that in October 2005, a production crew took the students to a bar to drink and “loosen up” before participating in what they were told would be a documentary to be shown outside of the United States. . . . After a bout of heavy drinking, the plaintiffs signed a release form they were told “had something to do with reliability issues with being in the RV,” Taillieu said. The film “made plaintiffs the object of ridicule, humiliation, mental anguish and emotional and physical distress, loss of reputation, goodwill and standing in the community,” the lawsuit said.

In a lot of ways, this story echoes the complaints made about that other cultural icon, Girls Gone Wild. It’s widely known that that dubious company makes its products by paying minor compensation to inebriated women in exchange for permission to photograph them in various states of undress. The process is highly manipulative and coercive. It was examined in a very critical Los Angeles Times piece, which dwelt on the low age of the women, the alcohol consumption prior to signing a release form, and the subsequent embarrassment of the participants, many of whom did not believe that their image would be used in particular ways. The process has led to a number of lawsuits, which seem awfully similar to the Borat suit. As the LA Times story notes:

It seems like Francis spends a lot of money on lawyers. I guess that comes with the territory of filming strangers who take off their clothes. More than a dozen women have sued him, alleging that his company used images of them exposing their bodies on “Girls Gone Wild” videos, box covers and infomercials without their permission. Only a few have convinced the courts that they were unwitting victims. For the most part, judges and juries have sided with Francis’ 1st Amendment argument that the plaintiffs’ images were captured in public places and that the company was free to use them as it pleased, particularly in light of the fact that the women had signed waivers.

It is said that Borat is brilliant social satire; and we can take judicial notice of the fact that Girls Gone Wild is merely exploitative trashiness. Still, isn’t there an underlying similarity between the allegations, the likely defense, and the concerns at issue?

If we’re opposed to a media producer who plies young women with alcohol in order to exploit their images for prurient purposes, shouldn’t we have the same concerns about a media producer who plies young men with alcohol in order to exploit their images in satire?

8

Borat’s Contract

Sacha Cohen’s movie “Borat” consists of a series of encounters in which the British comedian gets Americans to say and do all sorts of stupid things on camera by posing as a clueless — and often naively offensive — Central Asian reporter. (Heidi apparently liked the movie; given the presence of four-year-olds in my life I’ll have to wait for the DVD.) The BBC, which clearly relishes the prospect of an entire movie devoted to showing what morons the colonials are, reports briefly on the legal side of the gag:

They [Cohen’s subjects…victims?] would be told about the foreign correspondent making a film about life in the US, with the pitch tailored to each person’s specialist subject.

Then on the day of the interview, they would be presented with a release form at the last minute, be paid in cash and, finally, Borat would amble in, beginning with some serious subjects before starting his provocative routine.

I am very curious to see what is in that contract. It would be interesting to see the extent that it will hold up if Cohen gets to experience another aspect of trans-Atlantic barbarism: a good ‘ole fasion American lawsuit. (See the second to last paragraph)

[Update: Here is a copy of the contract via Slate]

0

William of Ockham Goes to Commercial Law Class

Ockham.jpgA lot of legal argument consists of mastering the reasons for and against various recurring dualisms in the law. For example, there is the well-worn dichotomy between rules and standards. Rules provide ex ante certainty and easy resolution of disputes ex post. Standards reduce the incentives for parties to engage in undesirable but rule-skirting behavior ex ante and provide greater substantive fairness ex post. Another example is substance vs. procedure. For example, in administrative or corporate law should judges scrutinize the substance of the decisions that were made, or should they confine themselves to looking only at the procedures used to reach the decision?

A key to understanding the U.C.C., and with it commercial law, is another distinction that students have a harder time wrapping their minds around. I call it the divide between realism and nominalism. During the middle ages scholastic philosophers debated whether or not universals had actual existence independent of any particular instance of the universal, or whether ultimately all that existed was the particulars themselves. The U.C.C. makes a lot more sense, I believe, once you recognize that it in so far as it is possible, it is aggressively committed to nominalism.

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3

Pay the Poor to Be Citizens

money.jpgA colleague suggests that there might be a relationship between a series of seemingly random observations:

  • A sudanese cell-phone billionaire announced a prize for good governance, to be awarded to current African leaders when they step down from office. According to news reports, “each leader awarded the prize will receive $5 million spread over 10 years after leaving office. If still alive when the initial prize is exhausted, prize-winners will receive another $200,000 annually until they die.”
  • The Arizona Voter Reward Act, which would establish a $1,000,000 prize whose proceeds would go to a randomly-selected voter, is on November 7th’s ballot. The state’s Chamber of Commerce is opposed: Harvard’s Info/Law project is more open minded. Most think the law would be plainly illegal preempted by federal law even if passed.
  • Jury pay rates are embarassingly low, if meant to be compensatory. Some jurisdictions are funding pilot projects to study if pay raises will increase compliance with jury service.

Here is the question for debate: is there any meaningful way to distinguish the African prize (which many legal commentators no doubt would celebrate) from the voting and jury service problems? Or, more provocatively, are the powerful the only people who we will allow to make money from being good citizens?

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7

A Romantic Contract?

This story has been floating around for a while, but is still great. The basic plot: after a blind date, the man demands that his date (who didn’t call him back) pay him for half the cost of their meal, on an implied contract theory of recovery. Various emails and voicemails follow.

In some ways, it is a nice hypo for a contracts exam. Under what underlying legal theory would a court refuse to get involved in this dispute? Is consideration lacking? Is the subject matter of the contract too personal?

Food for thought.

6

Legal Scholarship and the Nixon Effect

nixon.jpgLegal thinking often seems to be cyclical. Constitutional law scholarship provides (to my ignorant outsiders perspective) a clear example of this. In the 1960s and 1970s the law reviews were filled with articles exalting the role of the courts as guardians of liberty and searching for various jurisprudential philosophers’ stones that would allow the courts to bestow items from the liberal wish list upon the nation e.g. constitutionally mandated rights to welfare payments, etc. The country, however, had the bad manners to proceed along its own political path without reference to the concerns of the legal academy and five GOP presidents to two Democratic presidents later, the federal judiciary is filled with conservatives. Academic panegyrics to judicial modesty and minimalism according sprout like mushrooms. There is, of course, the temptation to see such a cycle in crassly political terms, and perhaps have the bad manners to suggest that left-of-center constitutional law professors are simply modifying their jurisprudential theories in the face of right-of-center election results.

Private law scholarship is also prone to its own intellectual cycles. In the 1970s, Grant Gilmore was confidently predicting the Death of Contract and Farnsworth and his associates were putting the finishing touches on the second Restatement, which confidently set out to deliver us from the horrid formalism of Williston’s work. The gentle establishment liberal sanity of the Legal Process movement seemed to reign supreme, troubled only by the pesky legal economists, whose influence Morton Horton Horwitz assured us peaked in about 1980. Fast forward twenty-five years, and one can read defenses in the Yale Law Journal of formalistic contract interpretation that Williston never imagined of in his headiest pre-Realist dreams. Of course here too, there are crassly political explanations. Flinty-hearted Chicago-school economists are no doubt more attracted to private law subjects like contracts or corporations rather than the intricacies of substantive due process. Furthermore, more than one aspiring conservative legal academic has been advised to go into business law by Federalist Society elders on the grounds that it constitutes a kind of safe preserve for right wingers. Finally, the results at the elections have given ambitious projects for say consumer protection the same surreal feel as articles arguing that the courts should announce a constitutional right to welfare payments. It ain’t going to happen, so why bother?

For all of the fun involved in spinning out political stories to account for the cycles of legal thought, however, there is a simpler academic imperative at work. There is a sense in which young scholars have no choice but to slay their elders. Writing an article saying “amen” to the reigning theoretical consensus is probably not the route to tenure and academic fame. Hence, the discredited ideas of one generation are going to inevitably find their champions in the next generation for the simple reason that no scholar wants to write articles saying “Me too.”

Think of it as the Nixon effect. When he left office the intellectual consensus on Nixon was overwhelmingly negative. Not surprisingly, Nixon’s reputation has risen with time for the simple reason that no one is interested in a new book suggesting that Nixon is a crook, but a book suggesting that Nixon wasn’t so bad after all will get some attention. Not to worry. In the fullness of time, a consensus in favor of a more positive view of Nixon will develop, and some young Turk historian will make his reputation by pointing out that at the end of the day Nixon was a lying, paranoid, un-indicted co-conspirator.

1

Is this form contract enforceable?

I taught Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute today. So the issue of form contracts was particularly salient when I read the form contract for Pollhost.com, a site that provides polls for blogs. The contract is tightly drafted, with a number of clauses that vary what you’d normally think of as the default law. For example:

Pollhost’s failure at any time to enforce any provision of these terms of service shall not constitute a waiver or limitation of Pollhost’s right subsequently to enforce every provision of the terms of service.

Pollhost shall have the sole discretion as to what what constitutes a violation of any of these terms.

NOTWITHSTANDING ANYTHING ELSE IN THESE TERMS OF SERVICE OR OTHERWISE, POLLHOST SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION DIRECT, INDIRECT, CONSEQUENTIAL, SPECIAL, OR EXEMPLARY DAMAGES, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION DAMAGES FOR LOST PROFITS, PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS, GOODWILL, DATA, OR OTHER LOSSES (EVEN IF POLLHOST HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES) ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO YOUR USE OF OR INABILITY TO USE THE SERVICE.

What do you think, is this form contract enforceable? Take the poll!

Is the form contract enforceable in your state?

  
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