Justia Contracts Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court
Kindred Nursing Centers, L. P. v. Clark
Kentucky ruling that authority to bind a principal to arbitration must be explicitly stated in power of attorney violated the Federal Arbitration Act.When the patients moved into Kindred’s nursing home, their relatives used powers of attorney to complete necessary paperwork, including an agreement that any claims arising from the patient’s stay at Kindred would be resolved through binding arbitration. After the patients died, their estates filed suits alleging that Kindred’s substandard care had caused their deaths. The trial court denied Kindred’s motions to dismiss. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, finding the arbitration agreements invalid because neither power of attorney specifically entitled the representative to enter into an arbitration agreement. Because the Kentucky Constitution declares the rights of access to the courts and trial by jury to be “sacred,” the court reasoned, an agent could deprive her principal of such rights only if expressly provided in the power of attorney. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Kentucky Supreme Court’s clear-statement rule violates the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 2, by singling out arbitration agreements for disfavored treatment. The Act preempts any state rule that discriminates on its face against arbitration or that covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements. The FAA is concerned with both the enforcement and initial validity of arbitration agreements. View "Kindred Nursing Centers, L. P. v. Clark" on Justia Law
DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia
DIRECTV and its customers entered into service agreements that included a binding arbitration provision with a class-arbitration waiver. It specified that the entire arbitration provision was unenforceable if the “law of your state” made class-arbitration waivers unenforceable. The agreement also declared that the arbitration clause was governed by the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 2. After California customers entered into the agreement, the Supreme Court held that California’s rule invalidating class-arbitration waivers was preempted by the Federal Act. When California customers sued, the trial court denied DIRECTV’s request to order the matter to arbitration. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, finding the entire arbitration provision unenforceable under the agreement because the parties were free to refer in the contract to California law as it would have been absent federal preemption. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The California court’s interpretation does not place arbitration contracts “on equal footing with all other contracts,” as required by the Act. California courts would not interpret contracts other than arbitration contracts the same way. The language the court used to frame the issue focused only on arbitration. View "DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia" on Justia Law
Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg
Northwest terminated plaintiff’s membership in its frequent flyer program. A provision in the frequent flyer agreement gave Northwest sole discretion to determine whether a participant had abused the program. Plaintiff claimed that Northwest breached its contract by revoking his membership without valid cause and violated the duty of good faith and fair dealing because it terminated his membership in a way that contravened his reasonable expectations. The district court dismissed, holding that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 pre-empted the breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that claim “too tenuously connected to airline regulation to trigger” ADA pre-emption. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Act pre-empts a state-law claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing if it seeks to enlarge contractual obligations that the parties voluntarily adopted. The Act prohibits states from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to [an air carrier’s] price, route, or service,” 49 U.S.C. 41713(b)(1). The phrase “other provision having the force and effect of law” includes state common-law rules like the claimed implied covenant. Exempting common-law claims would disserve the Act’s central purpose: to eliminate federal regulation of rates, routes, and services so they could be set by market forces. Northwest’s program connects to “rates” by awarding credits redeemable for tickets and upgrades, thus eliminating or reducing ticket prices. It also connects to “services,” i.e., access to flights and higher service categories. Because the implied covenant claim sought to enlarge contractual agreement, it is pre-empted. Under controlling Minnesota law, parties may not contract out of the implied covenant; when state law does not authorize parties to free themselves from the covenant, a breach of covenant claim is pre-empted. Participants in frequent flyer programs can protect themselves by avoiding airlines with poor reputations and enrolling in more favorable rival programs; the Department of Transportation has authority to investigate complaints about frequent flyer programs. The Court also noted that the plaintiff did not appeal his breach of contract claim. View "Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg" on Justia Law
Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp.
Plaintiffs filed a putative collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act, seeking backpay for time spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear required by the employer because of hazards at its steel plants. The employer argued that the time, otherwise compensable under the Act, is noncompensable under its collective bargaining agreement with plaintiffs’ union. Under 29 U.S.C. 203(o), parties may collectively bargain over whether “time spent in changing clothes ... at the beginning or end of each workday” must be compensated. The district court granted the employer partial summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that the protective gear constitutes “clothes,” even if integral and indispensable to the work. Whether one exchanges street clothes for work clothes or simply layers one over the other may be a matter of purely personal choice, and section 203(o) should not be read to allow workers to opt into or out of its coverage at random or at will when another reading is textually permissible. Although safety glasses, earplugs, and a respirator do not fit the interpretation of “clothes,” the relevant question is whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as “time spent in changing clothes or washing.” In this case, time spent donning and doffing safety glasses and earplugs was minimal. View "Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp." on Justia Law
Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Cent. Pension Fund of Operating Eng’rs & Participating Emp’rs
Union-affiliated benefit funds sued Haluch to collect benefits contributions required to be paid under federal law, plus attorney’s fees and costs, which were obligations under a federal statute and the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. The district court issued an order on June 17, on the merits of the contribution claim, and a separate ruling on July 25, on the motion for fees and costs. The Funds appealed on August 15. Haluch argued that the June 17 order was a final decision under 28 U.S.C. 1291, so that notice of appeal was not filed within the 30-day deadline. The First Circuit acknowledged that an unresolved fee issue generally does not prevent judgment on the merits from being final, but held that no final decision was rendered until July 25 because entitlement to fees and costs under the CBA was an element of damages and thus part of the merits. The Supreme Court reversed, finding the appeal of the June 17 decision untimely. The Funds’ claim that contractual attorney’s fees provisions are always a measure of damages failed. There is no justification for different jurisdictional effect based solely on whether an asserted right to fees is based on contract or statute. View "Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Cent. Pension Fund of Operating Eng'rs & Participating Emp'rs" on Justia Law
Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for Western Dist. of Tex.
Atlantic, a Virginia corporation, entered into a construction subcontract with J-Crew, a Texas corporation, including a provision that all disputes between the parties would be litigated in Virginia. When a dispute arose, J-Crew filed suit in the Western District of Texas. Atlantic moved to dismiss, arguing that the forum-selection clause rendered venue “wrong” under 28 U. S. C. 406(a) and “improper” under FRCP 12(b)(3). In the alternative, Atlantic moved to transfer the case to Virginia under 28 U. S. C. 1404(a). The district court denied the motions, reasoning that section 1404(a) is the exclusive mechanism for enforcing a forum-selection clause that points to another federal forum; that Atlantic bore the burden of establishing that transfer would be appropriate; and that the court would consider both public- and private-interest factors, only one of which was the forum-selection clause. The Fifth Circuit agreed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. A forum-selection clause may be enforced by a motion to transfer under 1404(a). Section 1406(a) and Rule 12(b)(3) allow dismissal only when venue is “wrong” or “improper.” Whether venue is “wrong” or “improper” depends exclusively on whether the court in which the case was filed satisfies the requirements of 28 U. S. C. 1391. Whether a contract contains a forum-selection clause has no bearing on whether a case falls into a specified district. If a defendant files a 1404(a) motion, a district court should transfer the case unless extraordinary circumstances unrelated to convenience of the parties clearly disfavor a transfer. No such factors were present in this case. The district court improperly placed the burden on Atlantic to prove that transfer to the parties’ contractually preselected forum was appropriate instead of requiring J-Crew, the party acting in violation of the forum-selection clause, to show that public-interest factors overwhelmingly disfavored a transfer and erred in giving weight to the parties’ private interests outside those expressed in the forum-selection clause. Its holding that public interests favored keeping the case in Texas because Texas contract law is more familiar to Texas federal judges than to those in Virginia rested on a mistaken belief that the Virginia federal court would have been required to apply Texas’ choice-of-law rules instead of Virginia’s. View "Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for Western Dist. of Tex." on Justia Law
Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior Univ. v. Roche Molecular Systems, Inc.
The Board of Trustees of Stanford University filed suit against Roche Molecular Systems ("Roche") claiming that their HIV test kits infringed upon Stanford's patents. The suit stemmed from Stanford's employment of a research fellow who was arranged by his supervisor to work at Cetus, a research company developing methods to quantify blood-borne levels of HIV. The research fellow subsequently devised a PCR-based procedure for measuring the amount of HIV in a patient's blood while working with Cetus employees. The research fellow had entered into an agreement to assign to Stanford his "right, title and interest in" inventions resulting from his employment there and subsequently signed a similar agreement at Cetus. Stanford secured three patents to the measurement process. Roche acquired Cetus's PCR-related assets and commercialized the procedure into HIV test kits. At issue was whether the University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act of 1980, 35 U.S.C. 200 et seq., commonly referred to as the Bayh-Dole Act ("Act"), displaced the basic principle that rights in an invention belonged to the inventor and automatically vested title to federally funded inventions in federal contractors. The Court held that the Act did not automatically vest title to federally funded inventions in federal contractors or authorize contractors to unilaterally take title to such inventions and therefore, affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which held that the research fellow's agreement with Cetus assigned his rights to Cetus, and subsequently to Roche; that the Act did not automatically void an inventor's rights in federally funded inventions; and thus, the Act did not extinguish Roche's ownership interest in the invention and Stanford was deprived of standing.
General Dynamics Corp. v. United States; The Boeing Co. v. United States
After petitioners fell behind schedule in developing a stealth aircraft (A-12) for the Navy, the contracting officer terminated their $4.8 billion fixed-price contract for default and ordered petitioners to repay approximately $1.35 billion in progress payments for work the Government never accepted. Petitioners filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims ("CFC"), challenging the termination decision under the Contract Disputes Act of 1978, 41 U.S.C. 609(a)(1). The CFC held that, since invocation of the state-secrets privilege obscured too many of the facts relevant to the superior-knowledge defense, the issue of that defense was nonjusticiable, even though petitioners had brought forward enough unprivileged evidence for a prima facie showing. Accordingly, at issue was what remedy was proper when, to protect state secrets, a court dismissed a Government contractor's prima facie valid affirmative defense to the Government's allegations of contractual breach. The Court concluded that it must exercise its common-law authority in this situation to fashion contractual remedies in Government-contracting disputes and held that the proper remedy was to leave the parties where they were on the day they filed suit.
AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion
Respondents filed a complaint against AT&T Mobility LLC ("AT&T"), which was later consolidated with a putative class action, alleging that AT&T had engaged in false advertising and fraud by charging sales tax on phones it advertised as free. AT&T moved to compel arbitration under the terms of its contract with respondents and respondents opposed the motion contending that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and unlawfully exculpatory under California law because it disallowed classwide procedures. The district court denied AT&T's motion in light of Discover Bank v. Superior Court and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. At issue was whether the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"), 9 U.S.C. 2, prohibited states from conditioning the enforceability of certain arbitration agreements on the availability of classwide arbitration procedures. The Court held that, because it "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress," quoting Hines v. Davidowitz, California's Discover Bank rule was preempted by the FAA. Therefore, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit's ruling and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.