Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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The Tennessee Valley Authority sells its power to the BVU Authority in Virginia, one of its many customers. The BVU Authority in turn sells its power to local consumers who need electricity. Among those local consumers is Plaintiff, who believes that the TVA has a statutory duty to use the fruits of its sales to large industrial buyers to subsidize consumers’ electricity consumption. Plaintiff believes that a string of TVA rate changes, shifting costs from industry to consumers, were illegal. So he sued BVU Authority and TVA under three theories, which all more or less amount to claims that the TVA failed to live up to its statutory duties under Section 11. The district court dismissed all three claims because TVA’s rate-making authority is committed to agency discretion and thus unreviewable.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of all three of Plaintiff’s claims. The court explained that Section 11 of the TVA Act lays out broad policies and goals that operate more like aspirations than commands. It does not support any of the claims that Plaintiff offers against TVA or BVU Authority. TVA rate-making is a presumptively unreviewable category of agency action under 701(a)(2), and the policy-laden language of Section 11 does not provide any guidelines or limits to overcome that presumption. Because the TVA-BVU contract simply repeats the vague statutory language, Plaintiff’s contract claim is really a statutory claim in disguise, and Section 11 of the TVA Act does not provide a private cause of action. View "David Holbrook v. Tennessee Valley Authority" on Justia Law

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The Board of Trustees of the Sheet Metal Workers’ National Pension Fund (“the Fund”) sought to recover a delinquent exit contribution from Four-C-Aire, Inc., a former participating employer, under Section 515 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). 29 U.S.C. Section 1145. The Fund claims Four-C-Aire’s obligation arose under a collective-bargaining agreement (“the CBA”) between the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association Local Union No. 58 and the Central New York Sheet Metal Contractors Association, a multiemployer bargaining unit. According to the Fund, Four C-Aire signed on to this preexisting agreement while it was a member of the Contractors Association.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed, finding that Four-C-Aire adopted the agreement by its conduct. The court held that even if Four-C-Aire had preserved the issue, it’s meritless. The record contains several iterations of the written trust documents, including those imposing the exit-contribution requirement. And the Fund’s Director of Operations verified each version of the document in a declaration to the district court. Further, the court wrote there is no evidence the trust documents are invalid. In sum, Four-C-Aire offers no reason why the court shouldn’t enforce the plain terms of the agreement and trust documents, as ERISA requires. View "Board of Trustees v. Four-C-Aire, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff entered into a share purchase agreement with Defendants for the sale of her business, which agreement the parties later amended (the contract, or the amended agreement). Plaintiff filed suit in December 2019 in North Carolina state court, alleging that Defendants had not made interest and earnout payments as required under the amended agreement. Defendants removed the case to federal district court in the Middle District of North Carolina, where they argued that the state or federal courts in New York were the exclusive forums for Plaintiff’s complaint under the contract’s forum selection clause. Defendants also argued that Plaintiff’s claims were not yet ripe because, at the time the complaint was filed, all payments that were due under the contract had been made. The district court remanded the case to the North Carolina state court, and Defendants appealed.   The Fourth Circuit initially concluded that Plaintiff’s claims are ripe, both as originally pleaded and under the facts developed prior to the district court’s judgment. The court also agreed with the magistrate judge that Plaintiff’s claims do not relate to a setoff and that under the contract’s forum selection clause, the state or federal courts in New York are the exclusive forums for Plaintiff’s  claims. The court therefore vacated and remanded with instructions that the district court transfer this case to the Southern District of New York. View "Pamela Whitaker v. Monroe Staffing Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff entered into a reverse mortgage agreement with Reverse Mortgage Solutions, Inc. (“RMS”). In violation of the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”), RMS failed to disclose certain information at closing. Section 1635(b) of TILA imposes certain obligations on a creditor, like RMS, after it receives a notice of rescission, but RMS did not comply with those obligations either. Plaintiff sued RMS for, among other things, rescission and failing to honor her rescission rights under TILA.   A jury returned a verdict for RMS, finding that RMS did not fail to honor Plaintiff’s attempt to rescind the loan. However, the district court issued judgment as a matter of law for Plaintiff holding that RMS violated Section 1635(b)’s requirements. It also held that Plaintiff was not required to tender or return, the loan proceeds to RMS.   The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment as a matter of law and remanded. The court explained that the district court erred in granting judgment as a matter of law to Plaintiff on the Rescission Count. In response to RMS’s failure to voluntarily unwind the loan or otherwise respond to that notice as required by Section 1635(b), Plaintiff had a right to sue RMS to obtain rescission relief under TILA. But neither Section 1635(b) nor any other provision of TILA provides that the failure of a lender to voluntarily unwind a loan or respond to a notice of intent to rescind allows a borrower to avoid tendering the loan proceeds as part of rescission. View "Teresa Lavis v. Reverse Mortgage Solutions Inc" on Justia Law

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This dispute concerned whether an international trader of bunker fuel was entitled to a maritime lien on a vessel under the Commercial Instrument and Maritime Lien Act (CIMLA). The M/V LILA SHANGHAI (the Vessel) was a gross tonnage bulk carrier owned by Autumn Harvest Maritime Co. Autumn Harvest time-chartered the Vessel to Bostomar Bulk Shipping Pte Ltd. (Bostomar). The contract foreclosed charterers from unilaterally placing liens on the Vessel; in the event of "any dispute" between Autumn Harvest and Bostomar about the Vessel and their respective obligations, the parties would refer the matter to arbitration. Bostomar sub-chartered the Vessel to Medmar Inc. (Medmar). While sailing to India, the Vessel needed bunkers to complete its journey. Costas Mylonakis, an employee of Windrose Marine, contacted Appellant Sing Fuels Pte. Ltd. (Sing Fuels) to order the Vessel’s bunkers. Sing Fuels transmitted its bunker contract only to Mylonakis’s e-mail address affiliated with Windrose Marine. Mylonakis never returned any memorialized document from Medmar. Sing Fuels exclusively communicated with Mylonakis for this transaction, considered Mylonakis to be Medmar’s fuel broker, and never spoke directly with Medmar. Mylonakis also never communicated with Medmar, he conferred instead with a mysterious entity called M.A.C. Shipping. Medmar returned the Vessel to Bostomar in August 2019, with Sing Fuels still awaiting payment for July bunkers. By October 2019, payment for the July bunkers was still outstanding, so Sing Fuels sent Autumn Harvest a notice of nonpayment; Autumn Harvest refused to pay. In the wake of collapsed negotiations, Sing Fuels paid the physical supplier of the July bunkers. Without knowing where to turn after Medmar’s payment default on the bunkers, and its discussions with Autumn Harvest exhausted, Sing Fuels waited until the Vessel docked in the United States and then availed itself of US courts to recoup payment. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined the bunker trader failed to show that it procured the vessel’s fuel “on the order of the owner or a person authorized by the owner,” under CIMLA, therefore, it affirmed the district court’s judgment denying the maritime lien. View "Sing Fuels Pte Ltd. v. M/V LILA SHANGHAI" on Justia Law

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Defendant, owner and developer of two undeveloped parcels of land, entered into a consulting services agreement with Plaintiff for each parcel. After Plaintiff obtained the necessary approvals from the City of Frederick and otherwise performed the services he was hired to do, Defendant refused payment because it had neither sold the parcels nor elected to build on them, which, it claimed, were conditions precedent to payment. The district court rejected Defendant’s argument and others similar to it and found that it had breached the agreements in refusing payment.   On appeal, Defendant argued that he district court erred (1) in finding that the developer breached the consulting agreements when conditions precedent to compensation were not satisfied; (2) in rejecting its impossibility of performance defense; (3) in applying principles of unjust enrichment in connection with a claim based on a contract; and (4) in calculating unjust enrichment damages.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling and rejected each of Defendant’s challenges. The court concluded that a reasonably prudent person would read the relevant provisions to give them one meaning as relevant to the issues here — that Plaintiff was to be compensated for his “obtaining the Approvals for the Proposed Use,” and that there was no other conditions precedent for earning compensation. Further, the impossibility doctrine is irrelevant to Defendant’s obligation to compensate Plaintiff. Further, Maryland courts provide several exceptions to the unjust enrichment bar, one of which addresses the circumstances here “when the express contract does not fully address a subject matter.” View "Byron Martz v. Day Development Company, L.C." on Justia Law

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In 2012, the Moores sued, claiming that Equitrans breached the parties’ right-of-way agreement and trespassed on the Moores’ land by laying two pipeline segments outside of the area specified in their agreement. A jury found that Equitrans either trespassed on the Moores’ West Virginia property or violated the right-of-way agreement but made no findings as to the proper remedy. While the Moores initially sought equitable relief (ejectment), a subsequent condemnation judgment in favor of Equitrans ultimately precluded such relief. Following several appeals, the district court allowed the Moores to pursue damages for breach-of-contract and trespass but denied leave to add a claim for intentional trespass. Later, the district court barred any claim for breach-of-contract damages. After excluding much of the Moores’ evidence of trespass damages, the court sua sponte entered judgment in favor of Equitrans.The Fourth Circuit vacated in part. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying leave to amend, in making its motion in limine rulings, or in entering judgment in favor of Equitrans on contract damages. The court rejected a contention that the proper measure of trespass damages includes a portion of Equitrans’s profits. Because the Moores lacked sufficient notice that they needed to come forward with all evidence of trespass damages, the court vacated the portion of the judgment concerning trespass damages for procedural error and remanded. View "Moore v. Equitrans, L.P." on Justia Law

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Labor unions and the West Virginia Pipe Trades Health and Welfare Fund, sued Nitro Construction under the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), 29 U.S.C. 185, after Nitro made several tardy payments to the Fund. Nitro had paid its required contribution before the suit was filed; the suit sought $77,373.95 in liquidated damages, plus interest and attorneys’ fees, as provided for by the collection procedures.The district court granted Nitro summary judgment, holding that the liquidated damages constituted penalties and were therefore unrecoverable. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Although ERISA allows punitive liquidated damages, federal common law prohibits punitive damages for breach of contract. The federal common law to be applied in LMRA Section 301 cases is ordinarily the general law of contracts. The court noted that the Fund sought almost $80,000 in liquidated damages, even though its actual damages (lost interest) are readily ascertainable and were only $3,952. Nitro’s late payments did not result in any claim being denied. Nitro never agreed to the liquidated damages provisions; the Fund unilaterally created its delinquent employer procedures under its governing document. The district court did not err by finding these liquidated damages provisions to be punitive and declining to enforce them. View "Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 625 v. Nitro Construction Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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Employees of a Navy services contractor, SA-TECH, sued the contractor in California state court for violations of the state’s labor laws. Before and during that suit, SA-TECH sought guidance from the Navy as to whether California’s labor laws applied to it and its subcontractors, given the federal nature of its service contract. Those requests went unanswered. SA-TECH’s claim with its contracting officer under the Contract Disputes Act was denied. SA-TECH then sought declaratory relief on the questions: whether the modified understanding of California labor laws would control SA-TECH’s operations on Navy and Navy-chartered ships; whether SA-TECH would be permitted or required by the Navy, under its contracts, to pay any sleep-time over-time; and whether costs incurred by SA-TECH in settling the state-court litigation would be allowable costs under its current contract.The district court dismissed the complaint, citing lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Contract Disputes Act’s exhaustion requirements, 41 U.S.C. 7103(a)(1)–(3). The Fourth Circuit affirmed. SA-TECH did not specifically assert any legal or contractual grounds entitling it to the Navy’s opinion on its agency status. Its other issues are monetary claims for which SA-TECH did not present a requested sum certain, as required to exhaust its remedies. View "Systems Application & Technologies, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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An immigration bond allows the release of a detained individual based on a surety’s contractual undertaking to the United States to either deliver the individual as demanded or forfeit the sum specified in the bond. Nexus runs a bonds program: It screens immigrants and maintains contact with them throughout their release. Nexus lacks the Department of Treasury’s commercial-surety certification and needs another surety to take on the liability to the government. RLI performs that function for a fee. Nexus agreed to indemnify RLI for all losses. The parties’ Commercial Surety General Indemnity Agreement involves nearly 2,500 bonds and contains several clauses designed to keep RLI whole. One obligates Nexus to provide collateral sufficient to cover all of RLI’s exposure,Nexus argued that RLI’s exposure should be measured on each bond individually, that RLI is not actually “exposed” to any risk, and Nexus does not need to deposit collateral until there is reason to believe that RLI will have to pay on a particular bond because an immigrant fails to appear in court.The Fourth Circuit affirmed in favor of RLI. Although it is not known which immigrants will breach, some will. The Agreement must secure against aggregate risk—the likelihood Nexus will be able to (timely) indemnify RLI for all future breached bonds. Nexus’s financial condition, its historical willingness to indemnify RLI, and the historical rate of bonds breached bear on that likelihood and should inform the collateral calculus. View "RLI Insurance Co. v. Nexus Services, Inc." on Justia Law