Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Contracts
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AtriCure, an Ohio company, that develops medical devices to treat atrial fibrillation, contracted with Dr. Meng’s company, ZenoMed, to serve as AtriCure’s exclusive Chinese distributor. AtriCure later believed that another of Meng's Chinese companies (Med-Zenith) was attempting to market a dangerous knockoff medical device. AtriCure and ZenoMed had a “Distribution Agreement” that included confidentiality and noncompete clauses and an arbitration clause designating a Chinese entity as the forum. AtriCure let the Distribution Agreement expire and demanded that ZenoMed pay for or return its inventory. Receiving no response, AtriCure filed a federal complaint in Ohio against Meng and Med-Zenith for improperly manufacturing and selling counterfeit products. ZenoMed, Meng, and Med-Zenith sought to stay the lawsuit against them under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 16(a) While Meng and Med-Zenith were not parties to the Distribution Agreement, they argued equitable estoppel and agency theories. The court denied their motion.The Sixth Circuit remanded. Although Supreme Court has promoted a “healthy regard” for the Federal Arbitration Act’s “federal policy favoring arbitration," the Act’s text compels states only to treat arbitration contracts the same way that they treat “any contract.” Ohio law permits the defendants to enforce an arbitration clause even though they did not sign the contract. The defendants' “equitable estoppel” theories failed but the district court failed to ask the right question under Ohio law when rejecting their agency theory. View "AtriCure, Inc. v. Meng" on Justia Law

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Boykin, a 73-year-old African-American veteran, worked in managerial roles for Family Dollar Stores. On July 8, 2018, Boykin had a dispute with a customer. Family Dollar fired Boykin weeks later. Boykin sued, alleging age and race discrimination. Family Dollar moved to compel arbitration, introducing a declaration that Family Dollar employees must take online training sessions, including a session about arbitration. When taking online courses, employees use their own unique ID and password. During the arbitration session, they must review and accept Family Dollar’s arbitration agreement. According to Family Dollar, Boykin completed the session on July 15, 2013. Boykin replied under oath that he did not consent to or acknowledge an arbitration agreement at any time, that he had no recollection of taking the arbitration session, and that no one ever told him that arbitration was a condition of his employment. Boykin requested his personnel file, which did not include an arbitration agreement. The district court granted Family Dollar’s motion.The Sixth Circuit reversed. Although the Federal Arbitration Act requires a court to summarily compel arbitration upon a party’s request, the court may do so only if the opposing side has not put the making of the arbitration contract “in issue.” 9 U.S.C. 4. Boykin’s evidence created a genuine issue of fact over whether he electronically accepted the contract or otherwise learned of Family Dollar’s arbitration policy. View "Boykin v. Family Dollar Stores of Michigan, LLC" on Justia Law

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Zen-Noh purchased grain shipments. Sellers were required to prepay barge freight and deliver the product to Zen-Noh’s terminal but were not required to use any specific delivery company. Ingram, a carrier, issued the sellers negotiable bills of lading, defining the relationships of the consignor (company arranging shipment), the consignee (to receive delivery), and the carrier. Printed on each bill was an agreement to "Terms” and a link to the Terms on Ingram’s website. Those Terms purport to bind any entity that has an ownership interest in the goods and included a forum selection provision selecting the Middle District of Tennessee.Ingram updated its Terms and alleges that it notified Zen-Noh through an email to CGB, which it believed was “closely connected with Zen-Noh,” often acting on Zen-Noh's behalf in dealings related to grain transportation. Weeks after the email, Zen-Noh sent Ingram an email complaining about invoices for which it did not believe it was liable. Ingram replied with a link to the Terms. Zen-Noh answered that it was “not party to the barge affreightment contract as received in your previous email.” The grains had been received by Zen-Noh, which has paid Ingram penalties related to delayed loading or unloading but has declined to pay Ingram's expenses involving ‘fleeting,’ ‘wharfage,’ and ‘shifting.’” Ingram filed suit in the Middle District of Tennessee. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Zen-Noh was neither a party to nor consented to Ingram’s contract and is not bound to the contract’s forum selection clause; the district court did not have jurisdiction over Zen-Noh. View "Ingram Barge Co., LLC v. Zen-Noh Grain Corp." on Justia Law

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In 2009, Carhartt contracted with Innovative to create a flame-resistant fleece fabric for use in its line of flame-resistant garments. The fabric that Innovative developed for Carhartt, “Style 2015," contained a modacrylic fiber, “Protex-C.” Innovative agreed that it would conduct flame-resistance testing on the Style 2015 fabric before shipping it to Carhartt, using the industry-standard test, ASTM D6413. Carhartt sent Innovative emails in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 stating that Carhartt would do “regular, random testing on the product that is received.” Carhartt performed visual inspections but did not conduct flame-resistance testing until 2016. The Style 2015 fabric failed the D6413 test. Carhartt notified Innovative, which then conducted its own testing and concluded that Style 2015 fabrics dating back to 2014 did not pass flame-resistance testing. In 2013, Innovative stopped using Protex-C and began using a different modacrylic fiber without notice to Carhartt.The district court granted Innovative summary judgment on Carhartt’s negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, false advertising claims. breach of contract and warranty claims. The court reasoned that Carhartt did not notify Innovative of the suspected breach within a reasonable amount of time after Carhartt should have discovered the defect, as required by Michigan’s Uniform Commercial Code. The Sixth Circuit reversed. Reasonable minds could differ as to whether Carhartt should have discovered the breach sooner by performing regular, destructive fire-resistance testing on the fabric. View "Carhartt, Inc. v. Innovative Textiles, Inc." on Justia Law

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After a car accident, Wilkerson filed a claim with her insurer, American Family. Her policy will pay for “loss of or damage to your insured car and its equipment, less the deductible[.]” A“Limits of Liability” section adds that American Family will pay no more than the lesser of “the actual cash value of the stolen or damaged property” or “the amount necessary to repair or replace the property.” American Family concluded that the cost to “repair or replace” her Impala exceeded its pre-accident “actual cash value,” and contracted with AudaExplore to calculate that value. AudaExplore estimated the Impala’s market value based on its location, mileage, condition, and the recent advertised prices of 2010 Impalas in the area ($8,218-$10,033). AudaExplore valued Wilkerson’s car at $9,979. American Family subtracted Wilkerson’s deductible and paid her $9,479.Wilkerson brought suit under the Class Action Fairness Act, 28 U.S.C. 1332(d), arguing that “actual cash value” includes sales taxes and fees that a party typically must incur when buying a replacement car (whether or not a party actually incurs those expenses in a given case). She sought $673.58 for the taxes and $19.50 for fees Ohio charges to transfer a car’s title and registration. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her complaint. American Family’s policy indicates that “actual cash value” is best read to refer to market value, not replacement costs less depreciation. View "Wilkerson v. American Family Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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In 1989, the Plaintiffs opened Money Market Investment Accounts (MMIAs) with FNB. FNB guaranteed that the MMIAs’ annual rate of interest would “never fall below 6.5%.” The original contract did not limit an account holder’s right to enforce the agreement in court but stated: Changes in the terms of this agreement may be made by the financial institution from time to time and shall become effective upon the earlier of (a) the expiration of a thirty-day period of posting of such changes in the financial institution, or (b) the making or delivery of notice thereof to the depositor by the notice in the depositor’s monthly statement for one month.In 1997, FNB merged with BankFirst. In 2001, BankFirst merged with BB&T, which sent a Bank Services Agreement (BSA) to each account holder, which included an arbitration provision. A 2004 BSA amendment added a class action waiver. A 2017 Amendment made massive changes to the BSA, including an extensive arbitration provision and stating that continued use of the account after receiving notice constituted acceptance of the changes. The Plaintiffs maintained their accounts. In 2018, the Plaintiffs were notified that the annual percentage rate applicable to their accounts would drop from 6.5% to 1.05%.The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the Plaintiffs' breach of contract suit. Because there was no mutual assent, the 2001 BSA and its subsequent amendments are invalid to the extent that they materially changed the terms of the original agreement. BB&T gave the Plaintiffs no choice other than to acquiesce or to close their high-yield savings accounts. BB&T did not act reasonably when it added the arbitration provision years after the Plaintiffs’ accounts were established, thus violating the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. View "Sevier County Schools Federal Credit Union v. Branch Banking & Trust Co." on Justia Law

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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

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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

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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

Posted in: Contracts, ERISA
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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