Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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The parties manufacture and sell equipment that removes water from industrial waste. Gethin founded Watermark's predecessor, “J-Parts,” after leaving his position at JWI. JWI sued Gethin and J-Parts for false designation of origin, trademark dilution, trademark infringement, unfair competition, unjust enrichment, misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of fiduciary duties, breach of contract, and conversion. The parties settled. A stipulated final judgment permanently enjoined Watermark and Gethin and “their principals, agents, servants, employees, attorneys, successors and assigns” from using JWI’s trademarks and from “using, disclosing, or disseminating” JWI’s proprietary information. Evoqua eventually acquired JWI’s business and trade secrets, technical and business information and data, inventions, experience and expertise, other than software and patents, and JWI’s rights and obligations under its contracts, its trademarks, and its interest in litigation. Evoqua discontinued the J-MATE® product line. Watermark announced that it was releasing a sludge dryer product. Evoqua planned to reintroduce J-MATE® and expressed concerns that Watermark was violating the consent judgment and improperly using Evoqua’s trademarks. Evoqua sued, asserting copyright, trademark, and false-advertising claims and seeking to enforce the 2003 consent judgment. The district court held that the consent judgment was not assignable, so Evoqua lacked standing to enforce it and that the sales agreement unambiguously did not transfer copyrights. A jury rejected Evoqua’s false-advertising claim but found Watermark liable for trademark infringement. The Sixth Circuit vacated in part. The consent judgment is assignable and the sales agreement is ambiguous regarding copyrights. View "Evoqua Water Technologies, LLC v. M.W. Watermark, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs worked as multi-dwelling unit sales representatives for Insight, a Louisville cable, internet, and phone services provider. In 2011, Time Warner announced it was acquiring Insight. Plaintiffs claim that Time Warner induced them to stay in their jobs although developments at the company would have otherwise caused them to leave. Time Warner allegedly promised them that they would keep their positions and receive better pay. Time Warner acquired Insight in 2012, and allegedly reiterated its promises at meetings. Plaintiffs claim they were shocked to learn in October 2013 that their workforce was being cut in half and that they would need to reapply if they wished to keep their positions. Time Warner argued that Plaintiffs electronically acknowledged and accepted three different at-will employment disclaimers on or before the acquisition date and that, at an August 2013 meeting, Time Warner provided each Plaintiff a copy of a plan that overhauled how they would earn commissions. Plaintiffs each resigned and filed suit, alleging fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and promissory estoppel. The court excluded certain documents that Time Warner allegedly failed to timely disclose, including job offers and electronically-acknowledged at-will disclaimers. The court awarded Plaintiffs attorneys’ fees and costs related to the motion but granted Time Warner summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment and reversed the sanctions. A party may not rely on oral representations that conflict with contrary written disclaimers that the complaining party earlier specifically acknowledged in writing. View "Bisig v. Time Warner Cable" on Justia Law

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Logan worked as a cook for MGM. As part of her job application, she agreed to a six-month limitation period to bring any lawsuit against her employer. After leaving the job, she sued MGM under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e, alleging employment discrimination. Her former employer asserted a statute of limitations defense. Although Logan arguably brought her claim within the Title VII statutory period, she waited longer than the limitation period provided in her employment application. The district court granted MGM summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The contractual limitation period cannot supersede the statutory limitation period for bringing suit under Title VII. The Title VII limitation period is part of an elaborate pre-suit process that must be followed before any litigation may commence. Contractual alteration of this process abrogates substantive rights and contravenes Congress’s uniform nationwide legal regime for Title VII lawsuits. View "Logan v. MGM Grand Detroit Casino" on Justia Law

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In 1968, the Hamilton County, Ohio Board of County Commissioners and Cincinnati consolidated their sewer districts into a single sewer system and entered an agreement providing that the city would manage the sewer system’s operations, subject to County oversight, for 50 years. After the city indicated that it planned to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement in 2018, the Board sought judicial intervention. The district court found that the city’s withdrawal would interfere with environmental remediation projects that the city and Board had committed to implement under a 2004 consent decree. The court temporarily extended the term of the 1968 agreement, enjoining the city’s withdrawal pursuant to the court’s inherent power to enforce consent decrees. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The district court did not abuse its discretion in granting the temporary injunction because doing so was necessary to enforce the terms and objectives of the 2004 consent decree. District courts possess broad authority to enforce the terms of consent decrees, even where doing so requires interfering with municipal prerogatives or commitments. View "United States v. Board of County Commissioners of Hamilton County" on Justia Law

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The defendants, exploration and production companies, contracted with landowners (plaintiffs) to drill for oil and gas on leased properties in Ohio’s Utica Shale Formation between 2010-2012. The agreements provide for royalty payments to the plaintiffs based on the gross proceeds received by the defendants from the sale of each well’s oil and gas production. The defendants sell the oil and gas extracted from the leased properties to “midstream” companies affiliated with the defendants. To calculate the price that an unaffiliated entity would have presumptively paid for the oil and gas, the defendants use the “netback method.” The plaintiffs claim the defendants underpaid their royalties because the netback method does not accurately approximate an arm’s-length transaction price, and improperly deducts post-production costs from the price. The district court granted class certification under FRCP 23(b)(3). The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While the plaintiffs have not met their burden of showing that common issues predominate with respect to a theory that the defendants sold oil and gas to midstream affiliates at below-market prices, the plaintiffs no longer pursued that theory at the class-certification stage. The plaintiffs satisfy the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3) with their liability theory based on the defendants’ deductions of post-production costs. View "Zehentbauer Family Land, LP v. Chesapeake Exploration, L.L.C." on Justia Law

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Robert was admitted to a nursing home multiple times. During his final stay, he fell out of bed, sustained a head injury, and later died. His estate sued in state court, alleging negligence, negligence per se, violations of Kentucky’s Residents’ Rights Act, KRS 216.515(26), corporate negligence, medical negligence, wrongful death, and loss of consortium. The nursing home sought to enforce an arbitration agreement in federal court. The district court held that no valid agreement covering the final visit existed. An Agreement dated January 5, 2015 displays a mark of some kind in the “Signature of Resident” block, but it is difficult to read. Bramer’s estate alleges that this scrawl is a forgery; Robert's widow stated in an affidavit that neither she nor Robert signed that form. On an Agreement dated January 26, 2015, the widow signed in the “Signature of Resident” block. The Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreements are identical, bind successors and assigns, and require arbitration of a wide range of disputes. They purport to remain in effect through discharge and subsequent readmission. Although signing the Agreement was not a condition of admission, it was presented as part of the admissions packet. The estate presented evidence that the staff implied that signing the Agreement was required. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. By requesting a second agreement on January 26, the nursing home effectively abandoned the first agreement. Lacking Robert’s consent, there was no valid agreement to arbitrate. View "GGNSC Louisville Hillcreek v. Estate of Bramer" on Justia Law

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KCP, the plaintiff, had hoped to act as a middleman in a potential distribution deal for a novel cleaning product and targeted Henkel, a large consumer products company as a potential distributor. KCP and Henkel entered into a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to aid in the negotiations of a distribution deal. KCP provided Henkel with confidential information about the product. Following a year of exchanging information and engaging in negotiations, the NDA lapsed, and no deal was consummated. KCP asserts that Henkel’s parent company, Henkel KGaA, used confidential information it acquired through the NDA to develop the product on its own and also interfered with the potential distribution deal. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of KGaA. As to a breach of contract claim, the court found that KGaA was not a party to the NDA and could not be liable for its breach. As to a tortious interference claim, the court found that KGaA is the parent company of Henkel, so the parent-subsidiary privilege immunizes it from a tortious interference claim involving its subsidiary; the court found that the narrow “improper motive” exception to that privilege did not apply. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of KGaA, KCP has not presented sufficient evidence of any improper motive or means to pierce the parent-subsidiary privilege. View "Knight Capital Partners Corp. v. Henkel AG & Co." on Justia Law

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Fifth Third Bank’s “Early Access” program is a short-term lending option for certain customers who hold eligible checking accounts. Fifth Third deposited Early Access loans straight into borrowers’ accounts, then paid itself back automatically, with a 10% “transaction fee,” after a direct deposit posted or 35 days elapsed, whichever came first. The contract governing the program disclosed the annual percentage rate (APR) as 120% in all cases. Plaintiffs obtained Early Access loans, which were paid back fewer than 30 days later. They contend that the 120% figure is false and misleading. Calculated using a more conventional method, in which the APR is tied to the length of the loan, plaintiffs assert that the APR was actually as high as 3650%. The district court rejected an Ohio law breach-of-contract claim, holding that the contract unambiguously disclosed the method for calculating APR despite admitting that the result “may be misleading.” The Sixth Circuit reversed. The contract was ambiguous because it provided different descriptions of “APR” that cannot be reconciled. The first was a definition, lifted verbatim from a federal regulation, that describes the APR as being “expressed as a yearly rate”; the second was the method used to calculate it, which is not based on any time period. The ambiguity raises a question of fact that should be resolved on remand. View "Laskaris v. Fifth Third Bank" on Justia Law

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Rotondo was the sole owner of Apex, which wholly owned four limited liability companies (Directional Entities). Apex and the Directional Entities provided services, such as human resources, to different clients. Rotondo sold the Directional Entities’ key asset, customer lists, to AES, which agreed to pay Rotondo a share of its gross profits in the form of “Consulting Fees.” Two entities sought to collect Rotondo’s Consulting Fees: Akouri loaned money to one of Rotondo’s other companies and had a security interest in Apex’s assets and a judgment against Rotondo and Apex for $1.4 million. Rotondo also owes the IRS $3.4 million. The IRS filed several notices of tax liens against Rotondo, Apex, and the Directional Entities. AES filed an interpleader action. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the IRS. The timing of a federal tax lien is measured by when the IRS gave notice of its lien, 26 U.S.C. 6323(a), (f); the timing of state security interests, like Akouri’s, is measured by when they become “choate”—i.e., complete or perfected. Akouri’s interest would be choate as of 2019, but the IRS’s tax liens date to before 2019. The court rejected Akouri’s attempt to recategorize the customer list assets as originally belonging to Apex rather than the Directional Entities. View "AES-Apex Employer Services, Inc. v. Rotondo" on Justia Law

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Economy Linen and Towel Service faced a shortfall of qualified truck drivers and subcontracted with another firm to provide the necessary drivers. The union filed a grievance on the ground that the new drivers earned a higher hourly rate than the union-represented employees. An arbitrator ruled for the union. The district court and Sixth Circuit affirmed, noting that in reviewing arbitration awards, courts do not ask whether the arbitrator interpreted the contract correctly; “the parties bargained for an arbitrator’s interpretation of the contract, not a federal judge’s interpretation of it.” The court noted that this situation did not involve any allegations of fraud and that the arbitrator did not decide any issue outside of his authority but only determined which contractual provision controlled. View "Economy Linen & Towel Service, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters" on Justia Law