Justia Contracts Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
EPLET, LLC v. DTE Pontiac North, LLC
In 2007, GM sold a power plant to DTEPN, which leased the land under the plant for 10 years. DTEPN agreed to sell utilities produced at the plant to GM, to maintain the plant according to specific criteria, and to address any environmental issues. DTEPN’s parent company, Energy, guaranteed DTEPN’s utility, environmental, and maintenance obligations. Two years later, GM filed for bankruptcy. GM and DTEPN agreed to GM’s rejection of the contracts. DTEPN exercised its right to continue occupying the property. An environmental trust (RACER) assumed ownership of some GM industrial property, including the DTEPN land. DTEPN remained in possession until the lease expired. RACER then discovered that DTEPN had allowed the power plant to fall into disrepair and contaminate the property.The district court dismissed the claims against Energy, reasoning that RACER’s allegations did not support piercing the corporate veil and Energy’s guaranty terminated after GM rejected the contracts in bankruptcy.The Sixth Circuit reversed. Michigan courts have held that a breach of contract can justify piercing a corporate veil if the corporate form has been abused. By allegedly directing its wholly-owned subsidiary to stop maintaining the property, Energy exercised control over DTEPN in a way that wronged RACER. DTEPN is now judgment-proof because it was not adequately capitalized by Energy. RACER would suffer an unjust loss if the corporate veil is not pierced. Rejection in bankruptcy does not terminate the contract; the contract is considered breached, 11 U.S.C. 365(g). The utility services agreement and the lease are not severable from each other. Energy guaranteed DTEPN’s obligations under the utility agreement concerning maintenance, environmental costs, and remediation, so Energy’s guaranty is joined to DTEPN’s section 365(h) election. View "EPLET, LLC v. DTE Pontiac North, LLC" on Justia Law
Progressive Rail Inc. v. CSX Transportation, Inc.
Siemens shipped two electrical transformers from Germany to Kentucky. K+N arranged the shipping, retaining Blue Anchor Line. Blue Anchor issued a bill of lading, in which Siemens agreed not to sue downstream Blue Anchor subcontractors for any problems arising out of the transport from Germany to Kentucky. K+N subcontracted with K-Line to complete the ocean leg of the transportation. Siemens contracted with another K+N entity, K+N Inc., to complete the land leg of the trip from Baltimore to Ghent. K+N Inc. contacted Progressive, a rail logistics coordinator, to identify a rail carrier. They settled on CSX. During the rail leg from Maryland to Kentucky, one transformer was damaged, allegedly costing Siemens $1,500,000 to fix.Progressive sued CSX, seeking to limit its liability for these costs. Siemens sued CSX, seeking recovery for the damage to the transformer. The actions were consolidated in the Kentucky federal district court, which granted CSX summary judgment because the rail carrier qualified as a subcontractor under the Blue Anchor bill and could invoke its liability-shielding provisions. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A maritime contract, like the Blue Anchor bill of lading, may set the liability rules for an entire trip, including any land-leg part of the trip, and it may exempt downstream subcontractors, regardless of the method of payment. The Blue Anchor contract states that it covers “Multimodal Transport.” It makes no difference that the downstream carrier was not in privity of contract with Siemens. View "Progressive Rail Inc. v. CSX Transportation, Inc." on Justia Law
Zirbel v. Ford Motor Co.
Donna’s former husband, Carl, retired from Ford in 1998 and participated in Ford’s retirement plan. “In the event of an error” in calculating a pension, the plan requires a beneficiary to return the overpayment “without limitation.” A committee runs the plan, with “discretionary authority" to reduce the repayment. Carl and Donna divorced in 2009. Donna received half of the marital portion of Carl’s pension. Donna agreed to postpone drawing the pension. In 2013, Ford offered a lump sum payment in place of future monthly benefits and a $351,690 retroactive payment for the postponed monthly benefits. After paying taxes, Donna invested some of the money and gave some to her children. Ford audited Donna’s benefits. It discovered that the retroactive pension payment mistakenly included benefits from 1998, when Carl retired, instead of 2009. The payment should have been $108,500. Ford requested repayment; the committee invited Donna to apply for a hardship reduction. The application required disclosure of her finances, including her other substantial retirement funds and an inheritance. Donna did not apply; she sued.The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Ford. The committee’s actions were neither wrong nor arbitrary. Donna did not establish that Ford’s inclusion of an incorrect retroactive-payment amount constituted constructive fraud. She knew that the retroactive payment was too high when she got it, the plan put her on notice that Ford could demand repayment, and she has the capacity to return the money. View "Zirbel v. Ford Motor Co." on Justia Law
Pogue v. Principal Life Insurance Co.
Pogue, believing that he had a severe anxiety disorder that prevented him from practicing as a family doctor, submitted a disability claim to his long-term disability insurers: Northwestern Mutual and Principal Life. Pogue failed to disclose that the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners had suspended his license for mis-prescribing painkillers. His insurers found out and denied both of his claims. Pogue sued, alleging breach of contract and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing.In Pogue’s lawsuit against Northwestern, the district court granted Northwestern summary judgment on two alternative grounds: the suspension occurred before Pogue became disabled, and the suspension caused stress and anxiety and thus contributed to his disability. The Sixth Circuit court affirmed on the first ground and declined to consider the second ground. When Pogue’s lawsuit against Principal reached summary judgment, the district court applied issue preclusion and relied on the Northwestern district court’s holding that the suspension of Pogue’s license contributed to his disability. The court did not address whether the suspension occurred before Pogue became disabled and also granted summary judgment on Pogue’s bad-faith claims. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The district court erred by giving preclusive effect to an alternative holding on which the Sixth Circuit declined to rule. View "Pogue v. Principal Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law
ECIMOS, LLC v. Carrier Corp.
Carrier manufactures residential Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems. ECIMOS produced the quality-control system that tested completed HVAC units at the end of Carrier’s assembly line. ECIMOS alleged that Carrier infringed on its copyright on its database-script source code—a part of ECIMOS’s software that stores test results. ECIMOS alleges that Carrier improperly used the database and copied certain aspects of the code to aid a third-party’s development of new testing software that Carrier now employs in its Collierville, Tennessee manufacturing facility.ECIMOS won a $7.5 million jury award. The court reduced Carrier’s total damages liability to $6,782,800; enjoined Carrier from using its new database, but stayed the injunction until Carrier could develop a new, non-infringing database subject to the supervision of a special master; and enjoined Carrier from disclosing ECIMOS’s trade secrets while holding that certain elements of ECIMOS’s system were not protectable as trade secrets (such as ECIMOS’s assembled hardware). The Sixth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. There are sufficient reasons to conclude that Carrier did infringe on ECIMOS’s copyright, but Carrier’s liability to ECIMOS based on its copyright infringement and its breach of contract can total no more than $5,566,050. The district court did not err when it crafted its post-trial injunctions. View "ECIMOS, LLC v. Carrier Corp." on Justia Law
Bay Shore Power Co. v. Oxbow Energy Solutions, LLC
In 1998, Bay and Oxbow entered into a limestone supply contract, agreeing to resolve any disputes according to specified “Dispute Resolution Procedures.” Oxbow began to provide lower quality limestone that posed a danger to Bay’s equipment. Bay agreed to pay—under protest—a price in excess of that permitted by the contract for adequate limestone. Negotiations and mediation failed. Bay filed a demand for arbitration. An arbitration panel unanimously held that Oxbow had breached the contract and awarded nearly $5 million in damages, costs, and interest. The panel did not award attorneys’ fees, concluding that the Dispute Procedures expressly deny it the jurisdiction to do so. The district court confirmed the award, agreeing that the contract did not permit the prevailing party to recover its attorneys’ fees.The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Procedure authorizing the allocation of costs states,“(but excluding attorneys’ fees which shall be borne by each party individually). The provision immediately following that grants the prevailing party a right to attorneys’ fees and another provision refers to attorneys’ fees. Those provisions can either be read together to permit the recovery of attorneys’ fees in court but not before an arbitration panel, or they are hopelessly contradictory and unenforceable. Bay presents a reasonable construction of the terms to harmonize them. View "Bay Shore Power Co. v. Oxbow Energy Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law
Cook v. Ohio National Life Insurance Co.
Cook sold variable annuities on behalf of Ohio National, under a contract between Ohio National and a broker-dealer, Triad. Ohio National paid commissions on the previously sold annuities to Triad, which in turn paid commissions to Cook pursuant to a separate agreement between Cook and Triad. After Ohio National terminated its agreement with Triad, Ohio National refused to pay further commissions on annuities sold during the term of the agreement. Cook sued Ohio National for breach of its agreement with Triad. Triad is not a party to the suit. Cook claimed that as a “third-party beneficiary” to the agreement between Ohio National and Triad, he had standing to bring suit. The district court found that, under Ohio law, Cook not an “intended” third-party beneficiary and could not maintain an alternative claim of unjust enrichment against Ohio National. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The plain language of the Selling Agreement makes it clear that plaintiff is not an intended third-party beneficiary under the Agreement. The Agreement unambiguously directs Ohio National to pay commissions to Triad; Cook is precluded from bringing an unjust enrichment claim against Ohio National. View "Cook v. Ohio National Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law
International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America v. Honeywell International, Inc.
Beginning in 1965, Honeywell and the labor union negotiated a series of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). Honeywell agreed to pay “the full [healthcare benefit] premium or subscription charge applicable to the coverages of [its] pensioner[s]” and their surviving spouses. Each CBA contained a general durational clause stating that the agreement would expire on a specified date, after which the parties would negotiate a new CBA. In 2003, the parties negotiated a CBA obligating Honeywell to pay “not . . . less than” a specified amount beginning in 2008. The retirees filed suit, arguing that the pre-2003 CBAs vested lifetime, full-premium benefits for all pre-2003 retirees and that the CBAs of 2003, 2007, and 2011 vested, at a minimum, lifetime, floor-level benefits for the remaining retirees.The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that none of the CBAs vested lifetime benefits. Without an unambiguous vesting clause, the general durational clause controls. Reversing in part, the court held that the “not . . . less than” language unambiguously limited Honeywell’s obligation to pay only the floor-level contributions during the life of the 2011 CBA. The court rejected a claim that Honeywell acquired a "windfall" at the retirees' expense. View "International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America v. Honeywell International, Inc." on Justia Law
Solo v. United Parcel Service Co.
Plaintiffs purchased liability insurance for packages shipped through UPS before December 30, 2013. The price of that insurance was set by a contract that stated that there is no additional charge for the first $100 of coverage whether or not a shipper purchases additional declared value coverage. When Plaintiffs shipped their packages, they were charged $0.85 for each hundred-dollar increment, including the first. Plaintiffs sued UPS on behalf of a proposed class. UPS argued that the controlling phrase was “total value declared” and that “total” value necessarily includes the first $100. In moving for dismissal, UPS stated that it “reserves its right to move to compel arbitration and does not by this motion in any way waive this contractual right.” UPS referenced an arbitration clause found in an amended contract that became effective December 30, 2013, after the shipments at issue were mailed. The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit, relying on the complaint’s allegations that UPS routinely credits customers who complain about the overcharge and “acknowledges the validity of Solo’s reading of the contractual provision.” On remand, UPS raised the obligation to arbitrate as its first affirmative defense. After discovery, UPS moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the motion on the basis of waiver. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Amended UPS Agreement did not retroactively apply to the transactions at issue and, in any event, UPS waived its right to arbitrate. View "Solo v. United Parcel Service Co." on Justia Law
Faber v. Ciox Health, LLC
Three out of every five hospitals use Ciox, a medical records provider, which processed 4.3 million pages per day in 2018. Ciox is subject to the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), 110 Stat. 1936. Department of Health and Human Service fee-limit provisions prohibit Ciox from charging patients more than “reasonable, cost-based fee[s]” for their records. Tennessee’s Medical Records Act (TMRA), prevents hospitals from charging patients more than the “reasonable costs for copying and the actual costs of mailing [their] records.” The named Plaintiffs worked with law firms to request their medical records from Tennessee hospitals. Ciox serviced those requests. Plaintiffs filed a class action, accusing Ciox of charging them more than what HIPAA regulations and TMRA allow. HIPAA does not authorize a private cause of action, so the Plaintiffs cited common-law causes of action: negligence, negligence per se, unjust enrichment, and breach of implied-in-law contract. The district court dismissed the TMRA claim but granted class certification and later granted Ciox summary judgment The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Tennessee's common law is no substitute for the private right of action that Congress refused to create in HIPAA. TMRA’s fee limits unambiguously do not apply to medical-records providers. Plaintiffs cannot prove the existence of any common-law duty or legal contract. Because the court did not send notice to absentee class members, the decision binds only the named Plaintiffs. View "Faber v. Ciox Health, LLC" on Justia Law