On a Personal Note

As many long-time readers know I have spent the last several years working for the Stanford University Hoover Institution’s Project on Commercializing Innovation.  Until last October the Project was led by F. Scott Kieff, who left to become a Commissioner on the United States International Trade Commission.  The Project is now in the process of wrapping up its various tasks and transitioning to the new Hoover Institution Working Group on Intellectual Property, Innovation, and Prosperity (or IP2 for short).  While I may collaborate with IP2 through future papers and conferences, it will not be a full-time job.  And so although I am grateful for the freedom and flexibility that my work for Hoover has given me to pursue creating Law and the Multiverse and co-authoring The Law of Superheroes, it is time for me to find a new day job, hopefully one that will allow me to continue to work on side-projects like these.

So, in a shameless appeal to my readership, I present my CV and a pair of writing samples.  If you are interested in hiring an intellectual property attorney with a broad range of interests and experience and a technical background in computer science, I’d love to hear from you.

Orphan Black

A few readers asked about the TV series Orphan Black a while back.  Now that the show is in its second season (and I finally got around to watching the first one and have caught up with the second one), I thought I’d address the central legal questions raised by the show.  Moderate spoilers below if you haven’t seen past the first episode or so, followed by big spoilers if you haven’t seen the season one finale.

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Landslide Article

I recently co-authored an article with Professor Brad Desnoyer and Janet Fries discussing superhero-related intellectual property topics, both real and fictional.  Last month the article was published in Landslide, the magazine of the ABA section of IP law, as the cover story!  You can read the article for free online. Thanks to Brad and Janet for their excellent work on the article and to David Postolski for putting everything together.

She-Hulk #3

She-Hulk #3 picks right up where issue #2 left off, introducing Jennifer Walters’s second client: Kristoff Vernard, son of Victor von Doom.  Kristoff is seeking political asylum in the United States, and while Walters was his fifteenth choice to represent him, she agrees to take him on as a client.  This issue mentions a lot of details relating to the law of asylum, so I’m going to take a stab at explaining those.  And once again it wouldn’t be She-Hulk without an ethically questionable decision or two!

I. Political Asylum

Walters explains that obtaining asylum requires proving that the asylum seeker has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of origin and that living in the United States is the only way to get away from it.  This is basically accurate.

The well-founded fear of persecution standard is derived from the standard for refugees, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42):

The term “refugee” means (A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

The “unable or unwilling to return” part is presumably what Walters meant by “living in the United States is the only way to get away from it.”

Of course, that’s merely the standard for refugee status.  Claiming asylum is a little more detailed, requiring four elements described by the Board of Immigration Appeals:

(1) the alien possesses a belief or characteristic a persecutor seeks to overcome in others by means of punishment of some sort; (2) the persecutor is already aware, or could easily become aware, that the alien possesses this belief or characteristic; (3) the persecutor has the capability of punishing the alien; and (4) the persecutor has the inclination to punish the alien.

Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I. & N. Dec. 439, 446 (1987).  Vernard would seem to meet these four factors, and presumably his unwillingness to serve the Latverian government would count as a political opinion.

The next major thing Walters asks about is how long Vernard has been in the US.  It turns out he has been in the US for exactly one year, which sends Walters racing to get to the courthouse.  Again this is correct.  There is a hard one year limit on asylum claims. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a)(2)(B).

Walters exaggerates a little when she says there isn’t a judge in the world that will stay past five.  There are often judges or at least magistrates on call for late-night search warrants and other time-sensitive court business, but this doesn’t fall under any of those circumstances.

When Walters and Vernard finally make it to the court, the judge asks whether there is an I-589 on file or an EOIR-28.  The first is an application for asylum.  The second is a notice of entry of appearance as an attorney, which would need to be filed before Walters could represent Vernard before the New York City Immigration Court, which is indeed located at 26 Federal Plaza as described in the first page of the comic.

Curiously (to me), Walters argues that Vernard is eligible for asylum because he is being persecuted because of membership in a particular social class, namely the Latverian royal family.  It is true that a family can qualify as a particular social class.  Gebremichael v. I.N.S., 10 F.3d 28 (1st Cir. 1993).  But Vernard isn’t being persecuted simply because he’s a member of the Latverian royal family; indeed his membership in the royal family affords him numerous privileges and protections.  Rather, it is his refusal to follow the government’s policy of succession that is the source of the fear of persecution.  If, for example, Vernard were a member of the royal family but not heir to the throne he wouldn’t have a well-founded fear of persecution.  But I won’t quibble about that too much: Vernard still had a good claim based on political opinions, and membership in the royal family is a little easier to explain.

II. The Duty of Confidentiality and the Attorney-Client Privilege

Once again it wouldn’t be She-Hulk without a casual ethical lapse.  Rather than conduct Vernard’s intake interview at her office, Walters takes him to a coffee shop, where they discuss the case in the crowded shop and outside with several people nearby.  Nothing they discuss is an important secret (it’s not as if they’re discussing where he hid the body or something), but it is nonetheless a potential violation of the duty of confidentiality.

Attorneys owe a duty of confidentiality to their clients.  In New York this duty is described by Rule 1.6:

(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly reveal confidential information, as defined in this Rule …

“Confidential information” consists of information gained during or relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) protected by the attorney-client privilege

But information cannot be protected by the privilege if the lawyer discusses confidential information with the client in a non-confidential setting.  This can include communicating in the presence of third parties.  See, e.g., People v. Harris, 57 N.Y.2d 335 (1982) (speaking to a lawyer in the presence of a police officer and another person); Bower v. Weisman, 669 F.Supp. 602 (S.D.N.Y. 1987) (talking in an elevator).  If the communication is never really confidential then the privilege doesn’t exist.

Now, there’s no ethical problem if the client voluntarily disregards confidentiality, but in this case Walters was the one to (firmly) request conducting the interview in public.  Vernard may have reasonably believed that the conversation would be protected, since his (prospective) attorney was the one to suggest the idea.

Again, we don’t see Walters or Vernard discuss anything terribly secret or damaging in public, but it’s a bad practice to discuss a case with a client in public.

As a Matter of Law, the Opera is Haunted

Today’s post was inspired by this question from Sara, who writes:

In the Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical The Phantom of the Opera, it is made clear that the new owners of the Opera Company and building were unaware of a chandelier-dropping, money-demanding, havoc-wreaking, stage hand-killing “opera ghost” they were to encounter squatting in their basement when they purchased the building and the company.

Would this end up being a case of “buyer beware”, where they now have to deal with this murderous costumed freak on their own, or would there be a chance of them getting their money back, since no contract they signed would have mentioned a ghost?

I would have liked to save this question for Halloween, but it’s too good a question to wait six months.  I know next to nothing about French law, so I’m going to approach it from a US perspective.  Good thing, too, because it turn out that there’s a famous New York case almost exactly on point: Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (1991).  The full text of the case is worth reading if only because it is full of terrible ghost puns.

In Stambovsky a resident of New York City bought a house in the village of Nyack, a small suburb of New York.  Unfortunately for the buyer the house had a long and storied history in the community of being haunted, which the out-of-town buyer did not discover until after the purchase.  Whether the buyer was superstitious or merely concerned with the diminished resale value of a haunted house, he sought to rescind the contract on the theory that the seller should have disclosed the house’s haunted status.

Ordinarily a court might balk at having to determine whether a house is haunted, but in this case the seller had previously made a point of claiming in both the national and local press that the house was indeed haunted.  As a result the court held that the seller was legally prevented (“estopped”) from claiming otherwise and thus “as a matter of law, the house is haunted.”

Having thus established that the house was haunted, the court held that the case called for an exception to the general rule of caveat emptor (“buyer beware”):

Where, as here, the seller not only takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s ignorance but has created and perpetuated a condition about which he is unlikely to even inquire, enforcement of the contract (in whole or in part) is offensive to the court’s sense of equity. Application of the remedy of rescission, within the bounds of the narrow exception to the doctrine of caveat emptor set forth herein, is entirely appropriate to relieve the unwitting purchaser from the consequences of a most unnatural bargain.

In light of all this, what do we make of the case of the Opera Populaire?  The buyers were evidently ignorant of the haunting, whereas the sellers were aware, and we may assume that even in the 1880s one would be unlikely to inquire as to the haunted status of a property.  So far, so good.

(NB: Since at least some members of the opera company know that the Phantom is a flesh-and-blood squatter rather than a ghost, it may be that the question is whether a seller has a duty to disclose knowledge of a dangerous squatter on the premises.  Inasmuch as this is a rare thing (especially for an otherwise legitimately occupied and used building) that would be very difficult for a prospective buyer to ascertain on their own (not even the seller knew where the Phantom’s lair was) it seems that a seller would have the same duty to disclose a real Phantom as a spectral one.)

However, a key difference from Stambovsky is that the sellers did not create the condition.  It’s not as though the former owners invited the Phantom to take up residence or popularized the story of the building being haunted (as far as I know).  It could be argued that they perpetuated it by not taking adequate steps to rid the building of the Phantom, but on balance I’m not sure that’s enough.  In Stambovsky the seller “deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed,” whereas at least originally the story of the Phantom was mostly a matter of whispered rumors.  The Stambovsky court repeatedly emphasized the seller’s prior actions, which are mostly lacking in this case.

Thus, the outcome in this case would probably turn on the extent to which the seller had traded on the opera house’s haunted state, but there would at least be an argument for the buyers undoing the sale.  The exception to caveat emptor created in Stambovsky might not reach quite that far, however.

Ultimate Spider-Man #117

The question behind today’s post comes from Levi.  Trigger warning: this post deals extensively and frankly with the subject of suicide.

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Captain America and Taxes

Today’s post is a quick one in response to this question from ldycemn:

Since cap was frozen…should he have to pay a fine for not filling?

This seems like an appropriate question for this time of year, and luckily it has a pretty simple answer: no.  Not everyone has to file a tax return, particularly those with incomes below a certain threshold.  The filing requirements change with some frequency, but as far as I can tell there has always been a threshold.  Since Steve Rogers wasn’t earning any money after he was frozen (since he was presumed dead), he wouldn’t have to file.  If he received backpay after being thawed out then he would have to pay taxes on that backpay, but that would be based on the tax laws when he was thawed, not the years during which he was frozen.

She-Hulk #2

Today’s post is a short one based on the second issue of Charles Soule’s run of She-Hulk.  Soule continues to do great work, though this issue doesn’t have quite as many legal issues to discuss.  A big one is revealed at the end of the issue, but I don’t want to spoil it.  Instead I’m going to talk about attorneys and non-compete agreements.

When Jennifer Walters left her job with the firm of Paine & Luckberg, she was told that all of her outstanding cases would be assigned to other associates, except for “the blue file.”  As a partner explains, “we took that case as a courtesy to you.  If you go, it goes too.”  We learn a little more about the mysterious blue file in issue #2, but not enough to discuss yet.  What we do see in issue #2 is Walters trying (and failing) to drum up business from clients for whom she did work while she was at Paine & Luckberg.  But wait: is it legal for an attorney to attempt to poach clients from her former employer?  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Non-competition and non-solicitation agreements are a common feature of many employment contracts, especially in industries that are dependent on sales relationships with specific customers or which involve employees learning a lot of not-quite-trade-secrets-but-still-important information.  The specifics vary from industry to industry, employer to employer, employee to employee, and (most importantly) state to state, but basically they seek to prohibit the employee from competing with the employer for a certain amount of time after the employment relationship is terminated.  This can include working for a competitor, working in the same industry, or trying to solicit the employer’s clients.  A few states basically ban the practice outright, and those that allow it do so with significant restrictions.  This usually takes the form of limitations on the geographic, temporal, and industry scope of such agreements.

For example, an employee might be forbidden from working in the same (relatively narrowly defined) industry, for a year or two, within the same city.  This means the employee could find similar work in another part of the country, or work in a related but distinct field, or just wait it out.

New York, where She-Hulk works, is a state that allows such restrictive covenants, but only to the extent that they are reasonable and necessary to protect valid business interests.  The general rule is that they are allowed if they are “reasonable in time and area, necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests, not harmful to the general public and not unreasonably burdensome to the employee.”  BDO Seidman v. Hirshberg, 93 N.Y.2d 382, 388-89 (1999).  But there is a special rule for attorneys.

In every state that I am aware of (including New York) there is an ethical rule similar to ABA Model Rule 5.6, which states:

A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:

(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement concerning benefits upon retirement;

The justification for the rule is found in the comments, which state that

An agreement restricting the right of lawyers to practice after leaving a firm not only limits their professional autonomy but also limits the freedom of clients to choose a lawyer.

One might observe that this is equally true of every other profession and its clients, but there is not necessarily any hypocrisy here.  Remember that this is an ethical rule created by the legal profession, not an exception to the law.  Without this rule it is entirely possible that law firms could impose non-compete agreements on their employees and partners, although one could imagine a court carving out an exception for criminal defendants on the basis of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The bottom line is that, although the firm intended to keep its clients, Walters was almost certainly free to try to poach them.

She-Hulk #1

Marvel has started a new run of She-Hulk, written by practicing attorney Charles Soule.  In contrast to the somewhat further ranging series written by Dan Slott, this volume promises to focus somewhat more closely on Jennifer Walters’s day job.  So has Soule’s considerable legal experience allowed him to blend interesting stories and accurate legal detail?  Let’s take a look.

(Spoilers ahead: if you haven’t checked out the first issue (which is pretty good), go buy it.)

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The Flash and Property Rights

More mailbag questions today, this one inspired by this scene in The Flash Vol. 3, #2.  Charles asks:

Now, what the Flash does here is pretty freaking cool, but as you can see in my tags… what happens afterwards? Who owns that building? Do the tenants have to pay rent? Is there going to have to be a contract worked out between the landowners and the Flash? Even if it passes code, will it still be approved for someone to live in because the Flash, from all appearances, isn’t a certified home builder?

There are a lot of questions here, but let’s start at the beginning.

I. Who Owns the Building?  And What About Rent?

Regardless of the prior ownership situation, it’s clear that The Flash is offering the building as a gift.  Acceptance of that gift won’t require a contract (indeed gratuitous transfers are a classic example of a situation in which a contract does not exist).  Whether the owner will accept that gift is the real question.

If the owner of the prior building is the same as the owner of the land it sat on, then they’re unlikely to turn down a nice new building (assuming we can handwave any building code issues).  But if the landowner is not the same as the building owner, then the landowner might have welcomed the opportunity to terminate their agreement with the building owner, perhaps to consolidate lots, rezone the property, redevelop, or simply to sell or lease to someone else.  They might not be so keen on the new building.

It is also possible that the building and land were owned by the tenants themselves, which would probably simplify matters.

In any event, the tenants would almost certainly have to continue to pay rent.  They might not have to renegotiate their leases.  Apartment lease agreements commonly refer to a unit at an address, not to a specific building.  They also typically have clauses dealing with the destruction of the building, but from what I’ve seen of lease agreements it’s entirely possible that the tenants would have a right to continue to lease a unit in the new building (assuming the building owner accepted the gift, etc).

II. Building Code and Permit Issues

Now we start getting into the real problems.  In addition to The Flash (presumably) not being a licensed contractor, he certainly didn’t pull the required permits for rebuilding.  There may not be much legal leeway for the building to be approved without those licenses and permits.  And there are good reasons for this: we’re given to understand that The Flash did a good job of rebuilding, but what if he missed something?  It might not be so easy for the injured party to haul him into court.

And moreover, although the tenants ask “where are we going to live now?”, unless there’s a housing shortage the answer is “another apartment, since you can terminate the lease for the now non-existent one.”  To the extent that their property was destroyed, well, that’s what renter’s insurance is for.  Now, they may not have had insurance, and finding and moving into a new place is costly.  But it seems to me that The Flash could have more easily (and legally) used his powers to quickly make a bunch of money and then just given that to the tenants.  That might be more realistic, but it wouldn’t be very fun.

III. Conclusion

More questions remain: where did he get the building materials?  How did he pay for them?  If he could buy a building’s worth of materials, why not just give the tenants the money?  But the bottom line seems to be that even if he could convince the landowner to accept the gift of the building and the city to approve its construction, it probably wasn’t the best way to handle the situation.  It did make for an awesome comic book scene, though.