Circuit Court Ordered to Enforce Option-to-Purchase Provision in Commercial Real Estate Lease

Published by Susan Allen, Gregory M. Jacobs on | Permalink

District II of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently remanded a commercial lease dispute back to the Waukesha County Circuit Court, directing the court to enforce the parties’ agreed-upon option-to-purchase provision as written.  See Headstart Building, LLC v. National Centers for Learning Excellence, Inc., No. 2016AP434 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 8, 2017).

The dispute originated from a 2002 commercial lease in which Headstart Building, Inc. (“Headstart”) agreed to lease real estate property in Waukesha to National Centers for Learning Excellence, Inc. (“NCLE”).  Id. ¶ 5.  The lease included a provision allowing NCLE to invoke an option to purchase the property at any time.  The following language in the option-to-purchase provision is the focus of the parties’ dispute:

In the event Tenant shall elect to exercise Tenant’s option to purchase the Premises, Landlord and Tenant shall each choose an appraiser to appraise the Premises which appraisals must be completed within forty-five (45) days of the date Tenant notifies Landlord that it intends to exercise its option to purchase.  In the event the fair market value of the Premises in the two appraisals differs by no more than five percent (5%), the Appraised Value shall be the average of the two appraisals.  In the event the appraised value of the Premises in the two appraisals differs by more than five percent (5%), the two appraisers shall agree upon a third appraiser and the result of such third appraisal shall be the Appraised Value.

Id. ¶ 6.

In December 2012, NCLE invoked its right to purchase the property, and the two parties commissioned their respective appraisals.  Headstart’s appraiser valued the property at $6.88 million dollars while NCLE’s appraiser issued a $4.075 million valuation.  Upon comparing the two appraisals, it became clear that the cause of such a wide discrepancy was the differing methodologies employed by the appraisers.  Headstart’s appraiser determined the fair market value with consideration of the current NCLE lease encumbrance, while NCLE’s appraiser calculated the fair market value of the property free and clear of the current lease.  Id. ¶¶ 7-8.

Rather than following the terms of the option-to-purchase provision and have their respective appraisers seek a third party to resolve the conflict, the parties instead engaged in written correspondence disputing the proper methodology to calculate the fair market value of the property.  Once those communications broke down, Headstart filed suit in Waukesha County Circuit Court requesting specific performance of the option-to-purchase (at $6.88 million) and damages arising from NCLE’s bad faith breach of the lease.  NCLE filed a declaratory judgment counterclaim, requesting the court to declare the proper appraisal methodology.  Id. ¶ 9.

After a two-day bench trial, Judge Haughney issued an oral ruling rejecting Headstart’s breach of contract and bad faith claims, though it was unclear from the record whether the grounds for the dismissal was based on Headstart’s failure to follow the option’s procedure of seeking a third appraisal or because the court concluded that the parties’ differing appraisal methodology positions represented a failure to reach a meeting of the minds, rendering the entire provision unenforceable.  Judge Haughney requested supplemental briefing regarding the fate of NCLE’s declaratory judgment counterclaim, and ultimately dismissed that claim as moot on the ground that the option provision was unenforceable and must be stricken from the lease in its entirety.  Id. ¶¶ 10-11.

After NCLE filed an appeal seeking to revive its declaratory judgment counterclaim, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals overruled the Circuit Court’s order striking the option from the lease.  Writing for the Court, Judge Hagerdorn noted that, while essential contractual terms (such as the purchase price in a real estate transaction) must be definite in order to be enforceable, it is well-settled under Wisconsin law that the terms need not be 100% certain so long as they are “capable of being ascertained from the agreement itself.”  Id. ¶ 17.  The Court referenced a long line of Wisconsin precedent upholding real property contracts setting a “fair market value” price to be determined by appraisement, and concluded that the parties’ dispute was one of differing interpretations of agreed-upon contractual terms.  Id. ¶¶ 17-22.   In conclusion, the Court found that the provision provided a simple, straightforward and definite means of determining the purchase price: either the average of the parties’ respective appraisals or, if the difference between those values was too great, the third appraised value of the property.  Id. ¶ 22.

Despite this conclusion, however, the Court found that substantive questions regarding the meaning of the option-to-purchase provision were not before it on appeal and remanded the case to the Circuit Court to address NCLE’s declaratory judgment counterclaim regarding whether the parties must appraise the property with consideration of the NCLE lease encumbrance.  Id. ¶¶ 24-25.  In a concurring opinion, Presiding Judge Reilly disagreed with these remand instructions, concluding that the proper methodology for determining the fair market value of commercial real estate is not a question of law for the courts to decide and that the provision here provides a dispute resolution procedure (i.e., a third appraisal) that should be enforced.  Id. ¶¶ 26-29.

While exercising restraint in only addressing the narrow question presented to it on appeal (whether NCLE’s declaratory judgment claim was properly dismissed), the Court of Appeals’ analysis leaves little doubt in the enforceability of the entirety of the parties’ option-to-purchase provision, including their agreed-upon means of resolving any valuation disputes through the use of a third appraiser.  It will be interesting to see if the Circuit Court follows the Court of Appeals’ lead on remand or instead elects to resolve the substance of the parties’ “fair market value” appraisal methodology dispute, which is one of first impression in Wisconsin.  See id. ¶ 24 n.7

U.S. Supreme Court Reiterates That Not All Procedural Time Limits Are Jurisdictional

Published by Jeffrey A. Mandell, Meg Vergeront on | Permalink

The U.S. Supreme Court’s first decision of the current term involves a suit alleging age and sex discrimination in the workplace. But the Court addressed only an important, though technical, issue about deadlines for appellate filings. Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, No. 16-658, was argued on October 10. The Supreme Court quickly turned around a unanimous decision on November 8, 2017, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Charlaine Hamer brought a federal lawsuit for employment discrimination. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Under 28 U.S.C. 2107(a) and Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1)(A), Ms. Hamer had 30 days from the entry of judgment to notice an appeal. But a few days before the 30-day deadline, Ms. Hamer’s attorneys sought both to withdraw from the case due to strategic differences with the client and requested a 60-day extension of the appeal deadline so that Ms. Hamer could find new counsel for her appeal. The trial court granted both motions. Represented by new counsel, Ms. Hamer filed her appeal shortly before the extended deadline.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, however, questioned whether it had jurisdiction over Ms. Hamer’s appeal and asked the parties to brief that issue. As the appellate court noted, Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(C) limits extensions of time for noticing an appeal to no more than 30 days after the initial deadline. Federal statute—28 U.S.C. 2107(c)—also addresses extensions, but it does not set an outer limit for their length. Here, the district court had granted Ms. Hamer a 60-day extension.

The difference between the statutory text (which does not limit the length of an extension) and Rule 4(a)(5)(C) (which does) has divided appellate courts. Two circuits had deemed the limitation in Rule 4(a)(5)(C) a mandatory claims-processing rule, which means it must be followed but can be waived or forfeited such that there are circumstances where an appeal could be timely even if filed during an extension longer than the Rule countenances. Three circuits had deemed the limitation jurisdictional, which means they considered it an absolute bar to proceeding with an appeal filed after the outside limit of the rule, regardless of circumstances. In Ms. Hamer’s case, the Seventh Circuit joined the jurisdictional side of this split.

The Supreme Court clarified that the 30-day limitation on extensions in Rule 4(a)(5)(C) is a mandatory claims-processing rule, not a jurisdictional limit. The Court reiterated that limits prescribed by congressionally enacted statutes mark jurisdictional boundaries, whereas those prescribed by judicially crafted rules present mandatory claims-processing rules. Here, because the statute governing the timing of appeals—28 U.S.C. 2107—does not itself limit the length of a potential extension, the 30-day restriction in Rule 4(a)(5)(C) is not jurisdictional.

While 28 U.S.C. 2107 had, prior to 1991, limited extensions of the deadline to notice an appeal to 30 days, the Supreme Court refused to speculate that Congress’s deletion of that limit was inadvertent. See Hamer, slip op. at 7-8. And though a prior Supreme Court decision had stated that “the taking of an appeal within the prescribed time is ‘mandatory and jurisdictional,’” Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205, 207 (2009) (quoting Griggs v. Provident Consumer Discount Co., 459 U.S. 56, 61 (1982) (per curiam)), the Hamer Court explained that the word “jurisdictional” is now more carefully and precisely used. See Hamer, slip op. at 9-10.

What’s next? Ms. Hamer’s case goes back to the Seventh Circuit. And future appellate litigants and their attorneys should proceed cautiously, recognizing that the rule allowing an extension of up to thirty days to notice an appeal is a mandatory claims-processing rule, not a jurisdictional limitation.

Law clerk Laura Lamansky assisted with researching and writing this blog post.

Court of Appeals Decides Wis. Stat., Ch. 90, Applies Equally to Cities, Villages, and Towns

Published by Matthew Dregne, Holly J. Wilson on | Permalink

Over 150 years ago, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, now codified in Chapter 90 of the Wisconsin Statutes, to resolve conflicts over fences separating neighboring agricultural lands.  Chapter 90 requires fences partitioning farmland from neighboring properties. Chapter 90 also provides detailed requirements for what constitutes a sufficient partition fence and provides cost sharing and dispute-resolution procedures. Chapter 90 assigns towns to assist in resolving disputes between property owners regarding partition fences on land located within their borders.  Chapter 90 also references cities and villages, but it makes no similar assignment to such municipalities. The law therefore is ambiguous about whether cities and villages are obligated to resolve fence disputes.  

In White v. City of Watertown, No. 2016AP2259 (Oct. 12, 2017), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals resolved this ambiguity and clarified that Chapter 90 applies to cities, villages, and towns alike.

The Whites owned and farmed land in the City of Watertown on which they maintained a partition fence. The cost and maintenance of the fence resulted in a dispute between the Whites and their neighbors. Invoking the procedures of Chapter 90, the Whites asked the City to assist in resolving this dispute. When the City refused, the Whites filed suit, asking the circuit court to clarify that the City was legally obligated to help. The circuit court observed that Chapter 90 is ambiguous but held that Chapter 90 applies to cities and villages, the same as it does to towns.

The City appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court agreed with the circuit court that the text of Chapter 90 is ambiguous. On the one hand, the statute requires “fence viewers” to carry out specified governmental duties, which include resolving disputes between property owners. And the statutory definition of fence viewers includes town supervisors, city alderpersons, and village trustees. On the other hand, most of Chapter 90’s references to “fence viewers” include only “town fence viewers.” Further, additional provisions in Chapter 90 appear to contemplate administration and enforcement only by towns.

To resolve this ambiguity, the Court of Appeals looked to the Chapter’s legislative history. The Court found that, prior to 1875, the Chapter contained no references to cities or villages. However, in 1875 the legislature amended Chapter 90 to apply to cities, villages, and towns alike. In 1878, the legislature revised the Wisconsin Statutes. Without reason, most of the language added in the 1875 amendments—language clarifying that the Act applied to cities and villages, as well as to towns—was omitted from the 1878 revised publication. Concluding that the omission “must have been inadvertent,” the Court of Appeals held that, when farmland is in a city or village, that municipality must administer and enforce Chapter 90’s requirements just as a town would if the land were within the town’s boundaries. As a result, the Whites prevailed and the City of Watertown will have to assume Chapter 90 duties with respect to the Whites’ land.

The Court of Appeals in White clarified that cities, villages, and towns must now assume the duties of fence viewers under Chapter 90. The main duty for fence viewers under Chapter 90 is to resolve disputes between adjoining property owners with lands divided by partition fence. For example, under Wis. Stat. § 90.10, fence viewers can direct property owners to repair or rebuild partition fences. Further, under § 90.07, fence viewers, under certain circumstances, may locate the line upon which a partition fence between adjoining lands must be built.

Multi-Month Medical Leave Not A Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

Published by Meg Vergeront, Elizabeth C. Stephens on | Permalink

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 181197*, 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017) that a leave for medical purposes of two months or more is not a reasonable accommodation under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In so doing, however, the Court left open the possibility that shorter or intermittent leaves might be, under appropriate circumstances.    

In Severson, the plaintiff took the full 12-week allotment of medical leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) due to back pain.  During his leave, he scheduled back surgery for day his FMLA leave expired.  Severson told the employer that he would not be able to work for two-to-three months after the surgery and requested non-FMLA medical leave for the recovery time.  The employer denied the request, given that Severson would be unable to perform any part of his job for several months.    

The court held that the employer’s decision did not violate the ADA.  The ADA, the court explained, is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.  Id. at *3.  According to the court, the ADA is designed to prevent discrimination against a “qualified” individual, defined as a person who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.”  Id.  Thus, protection under the ADA is “expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work.  An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.”  Id. (citing Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003)).  Based on these considerations, the court determined that Severson was not a qualified individual under the ADA because the requested accommodation—a leave of two-to-three months—would not allow him to perform the essential duties of his job and thus was not reasonable.   

Employer Takeaway

Severson provides definitive guidance to employers in the Seventh Circuit with respect to employee requests for medical leave for two or more months, but only if the leave is not mandated by a medical leave statute like the federal FMLA or any state law counterparts.  While Severson also suggests that even a leave of more than a couple of weeks may not be a reasonable accommodation, employers should still proceed with caution in responding to requests for leave of less than two months because the reasonableness of the leave will turn on the particular circumstances of each request.  Employers also should keep in mind that Severson does not permit employers to deny extended leave mandated by another statute.  In such cases, of course, employers must provide the leave whether or not it would be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 

For additional guidance or questions related to employers’ responsibilities under the ADA, contact Meg Vergeront at (608) 256-0226.    

Stafford Rosenbaum files Supreme Court brief on behalf of International Center for Law & Economics

Published by Jeffrey A. Mandell on | Permalink

Courts generally defer to agency expertise when reviewing administrative rules that regulate conduct in areas where Congress has delegated authority to specialized executive-branch actors. An entire body of law—administrative law—governs agency actions and judicial review of those actions. And at the federal level, courts grant agencies varying degrees of deference, depending on what kind of function the agency is performing, how much authority Congress delegated, and the process by which the agency adopts or enforces policies.

Should courts be more skeptical when an agency changes a policy position, especially if the agency is reversing prior policy without a corresponding change to the governing statute? Daniel Berninger v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 17-498 (U.S.), raises these questions. And this week Stafford Rosenbaum was honored to serve as counsel of record for the International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) in filing an amicus curiae brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and to answer these questions.

ICLE’s amicus brief highlights new academic research suggesting that systematic problems undermine judicial review of agency changes in policy. The brief also points out that judicial review is complicated by conflicting signals from the Supreme Court about the degree of deference that courts should accord agencies in reviewing reversals of prior policy. And the brief argues that the specific policy change at issue in this case lacks a sufficient basis but was affirmed by the court below as the result of a review that was, but should not have been, “particularly deferential.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued the Open Internet Order (“OIO”), which required Internet Service Providers to abide by a series of regulations popularly referred to as net neutrality. To support these regulations, the FCC interpreted the Communications Act of 1934 to grant it authority to heavily regulate broadband internet service. This interpretation reversed a long-standing agency understanding of the statute as permitting only limited regulation of broadband service.

The FCC ostensibly based the OIO on factual and legal analysis. However, ICLE argues, the OIO is actually based on questionable factual reinterpretations and misunderstanding of statutory interpretation adopted more in order to support radical changes in FCC policy than for their descriptive accuracy. When a variety of interested parties challenged the OIO, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the regulations. In doing so, the court afforded substantial deference to the FCC—so much that the D.C. Circuit never addressed the reasonableness of the FCC’s decisionmaking process in reversing prior policy.

ICLE’s amicus brief argues that the D.C. Circuit’s decision “is both in tension with [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and, more, raises exceptionally important and previously unaddressed questions about th[e] Court’s precedents on judicial review of agency changes of policy.” Without further guidance from the Supreme Court, the brief argues, “there is every reason to believe” the FCC will again reverse its position on broadband regulation, such that “the process will become an endless feedback loop—in the case of this regulation and others—at great cost not only to regulated entities and their consumers, but also to the integrity of the regulatory process.”

The ramifications of the Supreme Court accepting this case would be twofold. First, administrative agencies would gain guidance for their decisionmaking processes in considering changes to existing policies. Second, lower courts would gain clarity on agency deference issues, making judicial review more uniform and appropriate where agencies reverse prior policy positions.

ICLE’s brief is available [here]. The Supreme Court’s decision whether to hear the case will likely be issued early next year. Check back for updates as this case develops.

Stafford Rosenbaum collaborated with Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, and Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law Program at the University of Nebraska College of Law, in preparing the ICLE amicus brief. Law clerk Laura Lamansky assisted with the preparation of the brief and with writing this blog post.

U.S. District Court Enjoins Proposed Overtime Regulations

Published by Meg Vergeront, Olivia M. Pietrantoni on | Permalink

In Nevada v. United States Department of Labor, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas determined that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) overstepped its administrative authority in issuing Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations relating to overtime pay. 218 F. Supp.3d 520 (E.D. Tex. 2017). DOL wrote the regulations in response to President Obama’s instruction to the Secretary of Labor to “modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations….” The court’s decision is good news for employers:  the regulations, if fully implemented, would have dramatically increased the number of employees eligible for overtime pay. 

FLSA Background

The FLSA requires employers to pay employees one and one-half times the employee’s regular rate of pay for all hours worked above forty in a given work week. However, employers do not have to pay overtime to employees who hold positions that fall within a regulatory exemption.  With respect to the executive, administrative and professional exemption, prior to the regulation at issue in this case, positions were considered exempt only if an employee in the position performs specified duties and is paid a salary of at least $455 per week, or $23,660 annually. 

At Obama’s prompting, the DOL revised the federal overtime regulations.  Had they gone into effect, they would have drastically raised the threshold salary amount to $913 per week, or $47,476 annually.  These figures would be updated automatically every three years. 

The Court’s Decision

Twenty-one states and fifty-five business groups sued the DOL seeking to invalidate the final rule. The plaintiffs argued that the overtime regulations exceeded the scope of DOL’s delegated authority.  The court considered whether the DOL’s interpretation was based on a permissible construction of FLSA.  The court analyzed the statutory text, and the plain meaning of the words “executive,” “administrative,” “professional,” and “capacity.”  Based on this analysis, the court determined that Congress intended the exemption to apply to employees who perform “executive, administrative, or professional capacity” duties.

The court found that the final rule will “effectively eliminate the duties test…” and is thereby a “salary-level only test,” which does not align with Congress’s intent.  The court explained that a lower minimum salary-level “screen[s] out the obviously nonexempt employees, making an analysis of duties in such cases unnecessary.”  A higher minimum salary-level “makes an employee’s duties…irrelevant if the employee’s salary falls below the new minimum.”  The court believed this ignored Congress’s intention to consider employees’ duties. Based on this determination, the court held that the DOL’s final overtime rule was unlawful.

Effect of the Court’s Ruling

The court’s decision enjoins the DOL from implementing the Obama-era rule.  Furthermore, the Trump administration did not advocate for the increased salary test on appeal of the lower court’s decision.  Therefore, regardless of the outcome on appeal, the Obama-era overtime rule will not go into effect, at least not during the current administration.  On July 26, 2017, the DOL published a Request for Information to gather public comments to aid in revising the rule.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Sets Tight Standard of Proof for Conspiracy to Misappropriate Trade Secrets

Published by Jeffrey A. Mandell, Meg Vergeront, Gregory M. Jacobs on | Permalink

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently clarified the evidentiary requirements for establishing a conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets under Wis. Stat. § 134.90.  See North Highland Inc. v. Jefferson Machine & Tooling Inc. et al., 2017 WI 75, 898 N.W.2d 74 (2017).  In a narrow 4-3 decision written by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, the Court concluded that such a claim may proceed to trial only if there is evidence establishing the defendant had direct knowledge of the misappropriation.

North Highland Inc. is a small manufacturing company that served as a vendor for Bay Plastics, a distributor of customized plastic parts.  Dwain Trewyn worked as a business generator for North Highland.  His duties included submitting bids for potential projects.  When Frederick Wells, Bay Plastics’ owner, decided to form his own manufacturing company, Jefferson Machine & Tool Inc., he approached Trewyn about joining the new venture.  Trewyn became a 25% owner of Jefferson, even as he continued to work at North Highland.

A dispute arose when Jefferson and North Highland submitted competing bids to manufacture stainless steel trolley assemblies for Tyson Foods Inc.  Trewyn submitted North Highland’s confidential bid for the project. Then, he submitted a slightly lower bid on behalf of Jefferson. Tyson awarded the contract to Jefferson, until North Highland threatened to sue and the deal fell apart.

North Highland sued Trewyn, Wells, Jefferson, and Bay Plastics, alleging, among other theories, that Wells and Trewyn had conspired to misappropriate North Highland’s trade secrets (namely, the amount of the Tyson bid).  After Trewyn filed for bankruptcy and settled North Highland’s claims against him, the circuit court granted Wells’ summary judgment motion and dismissed the claims against Wells.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the claims against Wells. The court concluded that (1) North Highland had failed to set forth any facts establishing that Trewyn and Wells conspired to misappropriate North Highland’s trade secrets, and (2) North Highland had not established that the amount of its bid qualified as a trade secret under Wis. Stat. § 134.90(1)(c).  At North Highland’s request, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley affirmed the dismissal.  Like the lower courts, the Supreme Court determined that the evidentiary record did not support the allegation that Wells had conspired with Trewyn to misappropriate North Highland trade secrets allegedly protected by statute.  Id. ¶ 39.  While it was undisputed that Trewyn had formulated the Tyson bids for both North Highland and Jefferson, the Court was unwilling to permit a jury to say that meant that Wells himself must have known the amount of North Highland’s bid.  Id. ¶ 41.  The Court cited repeated deposition testimony from both Wells and Trewyn that (1) Wells was not aware Trewyn had submitted a Tyson bid on North Highland’s behalf, (2) Wells was not involved in formulating Jefferson’s bid, and (3) Wells had not created Jefferson to compete against North Highland.  Id. ¶¶ 11-15, 30-33.

In the face of this “unrebutted” deposition testimony, the Court concluded that “[t]here are simply no facts or reasonable inferences derived from the facts to support such an allegation [of trade secret misappropriation against Wells].”  Id. ¶ 42.  Having found no evidence of misappropriation, the Court had no need to decide whether the amount of a confidential project bid qualifies as a “trade secret” under Wis. Stat. §134.90(1)(c).

In a detailed dissent, Chief Justice Roggensack noted that § 134.90(2) extends liability to anyone who “knows or had reason to know” about misappropriation, such that circumstantial evidence of an actor’s knowledge should be enough to prove a violation.  Id. ¶¶ 109-110 & n.38.  Applying this standard, the dissent referenced additional deposition testimony from Wells that (1) Wells worked with Trewyn to develop Jefferson’s bid, (2) Wells knew Trewyn continued to work at North Highland during the Tyson bidding process, (3) Wells recognized that North Highland and Jefferson were competitors, and (4) Wells was aware that Trewyn’s employment contract with North Highland did not contain  a non-compete provision.  Id. ¶¶ 56-61, 109.  Given this additional testimony, the dissent argued that the evidentiary record presented factual issues appropriate for a jury to resolve.

In the wake of North Highland, entities considering suit against former employees and/or competitors for violations of Wis. Stat. § 134.90 should evaluate what admissible evidence ties their competitors’ conduct to the alleged misappropriation.  The majority was unwilling to allow North Highland to extend liability beyond its own employee (Trewyn), who clearly was the primary actor, despite Wells’ presumed awareness of Trewyn’s business conflicts.  Accordingly, before undertaking expensive litigation under Wisconsin trade-secrets law, companies should be prepared to establish a clear, strong, direct link between their targeted defendants and the alleged misappropriation.

Management Policies Generally Will Not Abrogate Employment-At-Will

Published by Meg Vergeront on | Permalink

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently reversed a circuit court decision that awarded a physician-employee $2.2 million against his employer, Dean Health Systems (Dean). Bukstein, M.D. v. Dean Health Systems, Inc., No. 2016AP920 (Wis. Ct. App. July 20, 2017) (recommended for publication). The dispute revolved around whether Bukstein was an employee at-will who Dean could terminate for any reason, with or without cause, without being subject to a breach-of-employment contract claim.

Background

Bukstein initially signed an employment agreement with Dean that confirmed that Buckstein was an at-will employee.  After an investigation into allegations of inappropriate touching of patients, Dean fired Buckstein “without cause,” pursuant to the at-will provision in the initial agreement.  Bukstein sued, arguing that one of Dean’s management policies modified his at-will employment status, and afforded him greater employment protection from termination. Buckstein argued that the policy “‘change[d] the employment relationship by creating a ‘contract separate from or supplemental to the [employment agreement].’”  The decision did not identify relevant content of the policy at issue.    

Court’s Decision

The court of appeals rejected Bukstein’s argument in one fell swoop, stating that “[t]he problem with Bukstein’s reliance on the [management] policy is that, under controlling case law, the policy does not modify Dean’s right to terminate Bukstein under the at-will provision in the employment contract.”  The court explained that a policy such as the one in this case “does not modify or take precedence over an at-will employment agreement” unless the “only when” rule applies.

The “only when” rule provides that policies “alter an established at-will employment relationship ‘only when’ the policy ‘contains express provisions from which it can reasonably be inferred that the parties intended to bind each other to a different employment relationship’ than the established at-will relationship.’” The court stated that Bukstein failed to point to any language in Dean’s management policy that could support a reasonable inference that the parties intended to change their at-will employment relationship.  Therefore, the court held that Dean did not breach its contract with Bukstein when it relied on the at-will provision in the employment agreement to terminate Bukstein “without cause.”

Employer Take-Away

Employers that issue policies governing the employment relationship, such as policies setting the duration of employment or conditions upon which it may terminate employees, should carefully examine the policy language to determine whether that language could trigger the “only when” rule. A decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Ferraro v. Koelsch, 124 Wis.2d 154, 163-65, 368 N.W.2d 666 (1985), gives a few examples of the kinds of polices that might trigger the “only when” rule.  Such policies include those that (1) govern employees in exchange for “continued employment,” (2) establish a layoff procedure based on seniority, and (3) provide that “discharge [will] only be for ‘just cause.’”

Associate Olivia Pietrantoni assisted in researching and writing this post.

Seventh Circuit Clarifies Applicability of Economic Loss Doctrine to Liability Insurance Coverage

Published by Bruce Huibregtse, Gregory M. Jacobs on | Permalink

The Seventh Circuit recently clarified the potential impact of Wisconsin’s Economic Loss Doctrine on the availability of liability insurance coverage for commercial insureds facing defective product claims.  See Haley et al. v. Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. et al., Nos. 16-3563 & 16-3648 (7th Cir. 2017).  In holding that coverage was available for the defective residential windows claims at issue in this case, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Wisconsin common law requires a case-by-case analysis to determine liability insurance coverage for underlying claims subject to the Economic Loss Doctrine, thus rejecting the more broad proposition that any claim subject to the doctrine is per se not covered.

The Economic Loss Doctrine is a common law rule that has been adopted by the Wisconsin courts to allocate monetary risks arising from the purchase of commercial goods between buyers and sellers.  The rule eliminates a purchaser’s access to tort-based causes of actions to recover purely economic losses from the manufacturer of a defective product.  Injuries to people or third-party property continue to be redressable in tort, but purely economic claims (i.e., loss of economic value of the product itself and/or consequential monetary loss arising from the product’s failure to function as expected) can be compensated only under contract law. 

Wisconsin courts also have expanded the Economic Loss Doctrine by adopting the integrated-system rule. Under that rule, when a defective product has been incorporated with other products to function cohesively as an “integrated system,” the Economic Loss Doctrine applies to preclude tort-based claims for damage to any other component of that system.  See, e.g., Wausau Tile, Inc. v. County Concrete Corp., 226 Wis. 2d 235, 249-53 (1999).

In March 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court applied the Economic Loss Doctrine and the correlating integrated-system rule to hold that no liability insurance coverage was available for defective product claims brought against a pharmaceutical supplement supplier.  See Wis. Pharmacal Co. v. Neb. Cultures of Cal., Inc., 367 Wis. 2d 221 (2016).  In that case, Pharmacal was sued for producing defective daily supplement tablets; the tablets as a whole were alleged to be defective because they contained an incorrect probiotic bacterial species. Pharmacal had obtained that probiotic species from a downstream supplier and combined it with other ingredients when formulating the defective tablets.

Pharmacal’s liability insurance policies included standard coverage for damage to other property, but excluded coverage for damage to Pharmacal’s own property.  The Pharmacal Court, citing the Economic Loss Doctrine and the integrated-system rule, concluded that no coverage was available.  The Court reasoned that, although only one ingredient used in the supplement tablets was defective, the ingredients were combined into an inseparable integrated system.  As a result, damage to any component of the tablets was considered damage to Pharmacal’s own property.

Based on the Pharmacal decision, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork’s insurers argued that they had no obligation to defend the defective windows claims at issue. They started from the proposition that in prior decisions Wisconsin courts have applied the Economic Loss Doctrine to defective windows claims, holding that windows form an integrated system with the other structural components of a house.  They then argued that, just as Pharmacal’s insurer had no duty to cover damage to an integrated system, they had no duty to cover the alleged damages to any component of the plaintiffs’ homes.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the broad proposition that Pharmacal required an integrated system analysis under all circumstances.  In doing so, the Court noted that whether insurance coverage exists depends instead on the nature of the underlying plaintiff’s alleged loss.  In contrast to the claims at issue in Pharmacal, where the plaintiff sought to replace the supplement tablets entirely because the defective ingredient was indistinguishable from the non-defective ingredients, here the class-action plaintiff homeowners were seeking repairs to identifiable components of the houses other than the defective windows themselves.  The Seventh Circuit accordingly concluded that the resulting damage to the drywall, wood framing, and brick surrounding the defective windows constituted damage to “other property” under the policy language, thus triggering the insurers’ coverage obligations notwithstanding that the claims were subject to Wisconsin’s Economic Loss Doctrine.

Assuming the Seventh Circuit has interpreted the Pharmacal decision correctly, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork serves as a significant clarification regarding the impact of the Economic Loss Doctrine on liability insurance coverage under Wisconsin law.  As a result, commercial insureds facing product defect claims alleging damages to distinguishable components of integrated systems should be able to assert the Economic Loss Doctrine as an absolute defense to any tort-based causes of action without in turn eliminating their liability insurers’ obligation to defend the litigation.

From a practical standpoint, it is also noteworthy that in this case the Western District of Wisconsin federal court denied the insurers’ request to stay the underlying product defect lawsuit when they intervened to litigate the related insurance coverage issues for the matter.  As a result, the insurers were forced to continue to pay to defend Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork in the ongoing defective windows litigation while simultaneously seeking a ruling that they were not obligated to do so under their liability insurance policies.

Going forward, therefore, insurers may be better off litigating any defense coverage disputes for underlying product defect claims in Wisconsin state courts, where it is standard practice for courts to stay the underlying litigation pending resolution of an insured’s defense obligations and where an insurer may have more success in arguing that the Seventh Circuit inappropriately narrowed the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s holding in Pharmacal.

The Not-So-Scenic Pit: Court Reaffirms Limited Local Control Over Certain Solid Waste Facilities

Published by Paul Kent, Vanessa D. Wishart on | Permalink

The issue of local control is once again front and center in a recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision, Scenic Pit LLC v. Village of Richfield, No. 2015AP2291 (June 28, 2017) (recommended for publication).

Scenic Pit LLC sought to open a clean fill solid waste facility in the Village of Richfield. Such facilities accept disposal of only certain low hazard wastes. The Village took the position that Scenic needed to obtain several local approvals, including for rezoning the property, for a conditional use permit, and for a construction storm water and erosion control permit. Id., ¶4. Scenic applied for construction permits from the Village, but it did not attempt to acquire the storm water and erosion control permit or the rezoning of the property. Id., ¶4. The Village denied Scenic’s application for construction permits. Id.

Scenic also applied for and obtained a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) general permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for construction site storm water runoff and erosion control. Id.

When the Village denied the construction permits, Scenic sued seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not required to comply with local approvals and an injunction ending the Village’s interference with its proposed plan. Id., ¶5. Both Scenic and the Village moved for summary judgment. Id.

The circuit court granted summary judgment to the Village, on the ground that under the authority of Willow Creek Ranch, LLC v. Town of Shelby, 2000 WI 56, 235 Wis. 2d 409, 611 N.W.2d 693, Scenic was required to comply with all local ordinances unless “‘state and local interests are diametrically opposed,’” which the court found they were not. Id.

On appeal, Scenic argued that the DNR had exempted clean fill facilities from needing to obtain the kind of local approvals the Village was requiring. The court of appeals agreed with Scenic. The court explained that the legislature has designated the regulation of solid waste facilities as a matter of statewide concern. Id., ¶8. While a municipality may regulate matters of statewide concern, it may only do so as long as local ordinances do not conflict with state law. Id.

The court relied heavily on DeRosso Landfill Co. v. City of Oak Creek, 200 Wis. 2d 642, 547 N.W.2d 770 (Wis. 1996), which it explained was directly on point. The DeRosso court had previously determined that the statutory and regulatory scheme allowed DNR to exempt low hazard waste facilities from local requirements that applied to most other waste facilities and that this scheme amounted to an express withdrawal of municipal power to require local approvals. Id., ¶11. 

The Village attempted to distinguish DeRosso on the ground that the precedent does not apply to local zoning. That, the Village argued, placed its dispute with Scenic beyond the scope of DeRosso decision. Id., ¶14-19. The court disagreed, explaining that the precedent on which the Village was relying, Willow Creek Ranch, LLC v. Town of Shelby, 2000 WI 56, 235 Wis. 2d 409, 611 N.W.2d 693, was inapposite and simply did not address the issue raised here, nor did it conflict with the rationale in DeRosso. Id., ¶¶14-19.

After holding that DeRosso controlled and that any local approvals required to construct Scenic’s facility were preempted, the court went on to examine whether the Village’s zoning ordinance and construction storm water and erosion control regulations were local approvals. Id., ¶19. The court concluded that they were, based on the very broad definition of “local approval” found at Wis. Stat. § 289.33(3)(d). Id., ¶29.

The takeaway from this case is that municipalities have limited control over the siting of certain solid waste facilities such as low-hazard clean fill facilities. However, the court was careful to point out that DNR regulations still control siting of such facilities. As the court explained, “[l]eaving the regulation of clean fill facilities to DNR may or may not be good policy, but it is what the legislature and DNR have done through statute and administrative rule (as interpreted by the supreme court.)” Id., ¶24.

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