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Business Law Legal Research Blog

ADMIRALTY: Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death

Posted by Alfred C. Shackelford III on Thu, Oct 27, 2022 @ 09:10 AM

Fred Shackelford—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            In a case of apparent first impression, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided when a cause of action in admiralty for wrongful death accrues. In Deem v. William Powell Co., 33 F.4th 554 (9th Cir. 2022), a shipyard machinist contracted mesothelioma while employed in repairing naval vessels. His illness was diagnosed on February 20, 2015, and he died on July 3, 2015. His wife filed suit within three years of his death but more than three years after the illness was diagnosed. The federal district court ruled that the claim was time-barred because the three-year statute of limitations began to run at the time of the diagnosis.

            The issue on appeal was succinctly stated: "When does a wrongful death claim accrue in a maritime case?" Id. at 559. To decide the question, the appellate court recognized that there is a fundamental distinction between survival actions and wrongful death actions under admiralty law. A survival action is for the benefit of the directly injured victim, while a wrongful death action benefits the decedent’s family members who are deprived of his presence when he dies.

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Topics: Alfred C. Shackelford III, wrongful death, statute of limitations, admiralty, accrual of claim

CONTRACTS: Importance of Carefully Drafting Contractual Choice-of-Law Clauses

Posted by Charlene J. Hicks on Thu, Oct 27, 2022 @ 09:10 AM

Charlene Hicks—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            It is common enough for an overworked attorney drafting a contract to regard a choice-of-law clause as boilerplate and therefore not in need of thoughtful consideration. However, the specific wording of such a clause may well alter the outcome of a future dispute between the contracting parties. Perhaps the most important consideration in this regard is whether the clause is worded broadly enough to encompass all potential causes of action that may arise in both contract and tort. In addition, specific language may be included to ensure that the chosen forum’s statute of limitations will also apply.

            One recent illustrative case is ARKRAY America, Inc. v. Navigator Business Solutions, Inc., No. N20C-12-012 MMJ (2021) (CCLD), 2021 Del. Super. LEXIS 463 (June 9, 2021). There, the parties entered into two separate contracts, one for software and consulting services and one for a license. Both contracts contained nearly identical choice-of-law clauses except that one provided for Utah law to apply and the other for Delaware law. Both choice-of-law clauses utilized traditional language stating that the agreement shall be governed by and in accordance with the named state’s laws without reference to the state’s conflicts-of-law principles.

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Topics: contracts, statute of limitations, Charlene J. Hicks, choice of law clauses, causes of action in contract and tort

BANKING: Standing to Enforce UCC Midnight Deadline Rule

Posted by Paul A. Ferrer on Wed, Apr 13, 2022 @ 10:04 AM

Paul Ferrer—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            As part of the check collection process governed by Article 4 of the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”), the “midnight deadline” rule of § 4-302 requires that a payor bank pay or return an item, or send notice of its dishonor, before midnight of the next banking day following the banking day on which the bank receives the item. The rule imposes strict liability on a payor bank that fails to meet the midnight deadline requirement. But what if something happens to the payee while the check is being dishonored as part of the collection process? Who has standing to sue the payor bank to enforce the midnight deadline rule?

            That was the unusual question decided by the Virginia Supreme Court in Stahl v. Stitt, ___ Va. ___, 869 S.E.2d 55 (2022). In that case, Ivory Markus had checking accounts at Branch Banking and Trust Company (“BB&T”) and MCNB Bank and Trust Company (“MCNB”). Markus’s niece, Sheree Stahl, was designated as the payable-on-death (“POD”) beneficiary on the BB&T account. On March 15, 2016, Stahl made an electronic request for a check transferring the $245,271.25 balance of the MCNB account to the BB&T account. On March 18, MCNB’s online banking system issued a check in that amount for mail-in deposit into the BB&T account. A BB&T branch received the check on March 21, and BB&T provisionally credited Markus’s account on that day. On March 22, the check was electronically presented to MCNB for payment. MCNB decided to dishonor the check and return it to BB&T but failed to do so until March 25, after MCNB’s midnight deadline. Markus died intestate on March 26.

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Topics: Paul A. Ferrer, banking law, strict liability, midnight deadline rule, check collection process, UCC

CORPORATE LAW: Delaware’s New Universal Test for Demand Futility—A Game Changer?

Posted by Charlene J. Hicks on Thu, Nov 18, 2021 @ 09:11 AM

Charlene Hicks—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            Prior to bringing a shareholder derivative action, the complaining shareholders must normally make a detailed presuit demand on the corporation’s board of directors or show the court that such a demand would be futile. In United Food & Commercial Workers Union v. Zuckerberg, No. 404, 2020, 2021 WL 4344361 (Del. Sept. 23, 2021), the Delaware Supreme Court announced a new “universal test” for determining whether a shareholder demand should be excused as futile. This new test imposes more stringent pleading requirements on the derivative plaintiffs to show futility.

            In United Food, the complaining shareholders alleged that the members of Facebook, Inc.’s (now “Meta Platforms Inc.”) board of directors violated their fiduciary duties when they voted in favor of a stock reclassification that would have allowed Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, to sell most of his Facebook stock while still maintaining voting control. The Board’s vote eventually led to the company spending approximately $90 million to defend against a class action lawsuit. The complaining shareholders filed the derivative action in an attempt to recoup those litigation expenses.

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Topics: corporations, Charlene J. Hicks, impartial business judgment, shareholder dirivative action, presuit demand

BANKRUPTCY: TALC Powder Bankruptcy

Posted by Anne B. Hemenway on Thu, Nov 18, 2021 @ 09:11 AM

Anne Hemenway—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            Facing tens of thousands of claims against Johnson & Johnson's ("J&J's") baby powder and other talc products, alleging that the baby powder contains asbestos and causes cancer, J&J put the talc claims into a separate entity called LTL Management LLC, which then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-October 2021 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of North Carolina. In re LTL Mgmt., LLC, No. 21-30589 (Bankr. W.D.N.C. Oct. 14, 2021). J&J itself is not part of the bankruptcy filing.

            The pharmaceutical company's corporate shuffling and bankruptcy maneuver is known as a "Texas two-step" bankruptcy, whereby J&J split its business through a divisive merger under Texas law and created a new entity to carry the talc liabilities. The Texas law allowed J&J to avoid accountability for the over 40,000 talc powder claims. The State's divisive merger statute, Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code Ann. § 1.002(55)(A), allows a company to divide into two separate entities. Because a divisive merger is not treated as an assignment of assets or liabilities, it is used as a strategic alternative to a traditional spin off or asset sale.

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Topics: bankruptcy, Anne B. Hemenway, J&J talc claims, Texas two-step bankruptcy, divisive merger

ATTORNEY AND CLIENT—LEGAL ETHICS: In the Matter of Rudy Giuliani

Posted by Amy Gore on Thu, Sep 23, 2021 @ 11:09 AM

Amy Gore—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            Recently, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court suspended the law license of Rudy Giuliani, pending a fuller hearing in In re Giuliani, 197 A.D.3d 1, 146 N.Y.S.3d 266 (2021). Without getting mired in any of the political ramifications the suspension of Giuliani may trigger, this ruling provides a useful procedural and substantive framework for evaluating the limits of advocacy by attorneys, both inside and outside of a courtroom.

            In this case, multiple complaints were filed before the New York Attorney Grievance Committee ("AGC") based primarily on alleged false statements made by Giuliani in various filings before multiple courts as well as statements made to the press and before other groups during the course of his representation of Donald Trump and the Trump Campaign. The AGC is the administrative entity charged with investigating allegations of attorney misconduct in violation of the New York Rule of Professional Conduct, 22 NYCRR 1240.7, upon receipt of a written complaint. One of the procedural mechanisms available to the AGC is to motion to the Appellate Division a request for interim suspension when "uncontroverted evidence of professional misconduct" has been demonstrated. 22 NYCRR 1240.9(a)(5).

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Topics: Amy Gore, license suspension, ethics, limits of advocacy, Rudy Giuliani, false or misleading statements by attorney

CONTRACTS: An Object Lesson in How Not to Mitigate Damages

Posted by Paul A. Ferrer on Fri, Aug 20, 2021 @ 09:08 AM

Paul Ferrer—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            Well-established contract law holds that when one party breaches a contract, the nonbreaching party must make reasonable efforts to mitigate its damages. The consequences of failing to mitigate are well illustrated by a recent Illinois appellate decision. See Mayster v. Santacruz, 2020 IL App (2d) 190840, 163 N.E.3d 246.

            The plaintiff owned and operated a Mathnasium math tutoring franchise. The franchisee entered into a binding purchase agreement to sell the franchise for $100,000. The parties bickered over several terms, but the disagreement did not justify the buyer's termination, which therefore constituted a breach. Soon after the breach, however, the buyer offered to reinstate the deal and buy the franchise for the same $100,000 originally agreed. The franchisee refused, choosing instead to raise the asking price to $130,000 to explore more profitable opportunities. The franchisee also declined the franchisor's suggestion that it advertise the franchise for sale in an internal publication that targeted Mathnasium owners, and would thus have been more likely to produce a new buyer. The trial court concluded that the buyer had breached the contract but that the franchisee could not recover any damages based on its absolute failure to mitigate. The only questions presented on appeal were whether the franchisee had failed to mitigate its damages and, if so, whether its failure barred it from recovering anything at all.

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Topics: contracts, Paul A. Ferrer, failure to mitigate, no recovery of damages

CONTRACTS: Virginia Unconscionability Decision Shows That Extreme Facts May Indeed Make Bad Law

Posted by Paul A. Ferrer on Thu, Jun 25, 2020 @ 12:06 PM

Paul Ferrer, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

   The Virginia Supreme Court's recent decision in Flint Hill School v. McIntosh, No. 181678, 2020 WL 33258 (Va. Jan. 2, 2020), seems to provide some support for the old adage that "bad facts make bad law." In that case, the McIntoshes enrolled their minor child in Flint Hill School, a private school in Fairfax County, Virginia. The McIntoshes signed an enrollment contract in which they agreed to pay "all attorneys' fees and costs" incurred by the school "in any action arising out of or relating to this Enrollment Contract." Significantly, the provision did not require that the school be the prevailing party in order to recover its attorneys' fees. As the Virginia Supreme Court pointed out, the practical effect of such a provision, if applied as written, is essentially to foreclose all litigation on the contract.

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Topics: contracts, Paul A. Ferrer, contract of adhesion, meaningful alternatives, common law of unconscionability, procedural unconscionability

CONTRACTS:  Contract Excuses and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted by Anne B. Hemenway on Thu, Jun 25, 2020 @ 10:06 AM

Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden and worldwide shuttering of large and small businesses may be felt for a long time. One of the resulting issues is the applicability of a force majeure clause, or common-law impossibility, frustration of purpose, or commercial impracticability excuses for contract performance and obligations. Force majeure clauses come into effect when events occurring beyond the control of the parties prevent performance of contract obligations. Some contracts include specific force majeure events that will excuse performance at this time, such as a pandemic (the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020) or when governmental or administrative action is taken that disrupts or precludes performance under a contract.

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Topics: contracts, Anne B. Hemenway, COVID-19, force majeure clause, frustration of purpose, excuse for performance

PATENTS: A Federal Agency Is Not a "Person" for Purposes of Review of the Validity of a Patent Under the Leahy-Smith Act

Posted by Anne B. Hemenway on Fri, Dec 20, 2019 @ 09:12 AM

Anne Hemenway—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

            In Return Mail, Inc. v. USPS, 139 S. Ct. 1853 (2019), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a federal agency is not considered a "person" for purposes of seeking review of the validity of a patent under the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011 ("AIA"), 35 U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq.  The AIA, enacted on September 16, 2011, changed the patent system from a first-to-invent to a first-inventor-to-file system.  The transition to a first-to-file system took place over a period of approximately 18 months.

            The AIA also created the Patent Trial and Appeal Board and established three types of administrative review proceedings before the Board.  See 35 U.S.C. § 6.  The reviews include an "inter partes review," a "post-grant review," and a "covered-business-method" ("CBM") review.  See id. §§ 311, 321.

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Topics: Anne B. Hemenway, validity, patents, first-inventor-to-file system

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