Wells – The Personification of the Partnership

Post by Andrew Verstein As Paul Miller recently observed, New Private Law scholars have largely hewed to tort, property, contract, or fiduciary law. Comparatively little attention has been devoted to business entities such as corporations and partnerships. Yet without the NPL label, there is fascinating work underway that is well worth the attention of this … Read more

Equity as Meta-Law

Post by Henry Smith  A paper of mine on equity long in the works (and under different titles) is now out as Henry E. Smith, Equity as Meta-Law, 130 Yale L.J. 1050 (2021). Here is the abstract: With the merger of law and equity almost complete, the idea of equity as a special part of … Read more

Gold, Goldberg, Kelly, Sherwin & Smith – The Oxford Handbook of the New Private Law

Post by Andrew Gold, John Goldberg, Daniel Kelly, Emily Sherwin, and Henry Smith We have some good news – The Oxford Handbook of the New Private Law has just been published (Oxford; Amazon)!  The Handbook offers exciting developments in scholarship dedicated to the study of private law in general, and to the New Private Law … Read more

Gold – The Right of Redress

Post by Andrew Gold I’m writing to put in a quick word about my new book, The Right of Redress – now published in the Oxford Legal Philosophy Series. (Here is a poster for the book, which includes a discount code.) Corrective justice theories of private law often focus on a wrongdoer’s obligation to fix … Read more

Retroactive Rights of Action

By Samuel Beswick, Assistant Professor, Peter A. Allard School of Law, The University of British Columbia I recently suggested on Balkinization that a storm seems to be brewing concerning the place of non-retroactivity doctrine (also called the doctrine of “prospective overruling”) in federal law. Non-retroactivity doctrine attempts to define the temporal scope of novel judgments … Read more

Canada’s Second Biennial Obligations Conference

By Samuel Beswick, Frank Knox Memorial Fellow, SJD candidate, Harvard Law School On May 10 and 11, the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law hosted the second biennial Canadian Law of Obligations (CLO) conference. Legal scholars from across Canada, as well as the United States and England, presented their works-in-progress on the theme of Obligations … Read more

Freilich on Prophetic Examples

Post by Janet Freilich Patent law – like many areas of private law – is riddled with unusual, obscure, and sometimes incomprehensible rules. In a forthcoming paper, I draw attention to a particularly puzzling doctrine of patent law: patents can include fictional experiments and made-up data. Take, for instance, the following experiment published in a … Read more

Oxford Studies in Private Law Theory (Miller & Oberdiek eds.) — Call for Papers

Oxford University Press is pleased to announce the launch of Oxford Studies in Private Law Theory, edited by Paul Miller (Notre Dame) and John Oberdiek (Rutgers), and to issue a call for papers for the first volume.  Oxford Studies in Private Law Theory is a series of biennial volumes showcasing the best article-length work across private law … Read more

New Private Law and the Future of Law & Economics — Patrick Goold

Post by Patrick Goold

I recently had the pleasure of attending the “Future of Law & Economics and the Legacy of Guido Calabresi” conference held at Boston University School of Law. It examined the methodological, institutional, and conceptual issues raised by Judge Calabresi’s new book, The Future of Law and Economics. After two fun days, packed with delightful anecdotes about Calabresi and the early days of the Law and Economics movement, the question I found myself asking was: How do the ideas in this new book relate to the New Private Law project? My sense, which I will explain in this short post, is that there is a strong synergy between that project and Calabresi’s vision for Law and Economics.

At the core of Calabresi’s book is a distinction between “Economic Analysis of Law” (EAL) and “Law and Economics” (L&E). EAL uses economic theory to “analyze the legal world.”  EAL scholars explain and justify legal reality through the prism of efficiency. Where that reality does not fit economic theory, the EAL scholar proclaims the law to be “irrational” and in need of reform. The classical precursor to this approach is that of Jeremy Bentham, who tested moral beliefs against a theory of utilitarianism, and dismissed what did not fit the theory as vague generalities and “nonsense upon stilts.” The prominence of EAL scholarship today is due, in part, to the influential writings of Richard Posner.

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Internal and External Accounts of IP Law: Notes from IP, Private Law, and the Supreme Court Conference Continued

Post by Henry Smith

As a follow up to Patrick Goold’s post on the IP, Private Law, and the Supreme Court Conference, let me raise a couple of questions inspired by the first panel. Much of the discussion focused on how treating intellectual property as a kind of property does not mean assuming it is absolute or that all of IP is equally “property-like.” And yet what does it mean to think about a topic in terms of property?

In private law, a distinction is often drawn between two broad families of approaches. On the one hand are external, often functional, theories that explain and justify private law in terms of something else, whether economics, psychology, or philosophy. On the other side and less common in American law schools are internal or interpretivist theories that adopt the perspective of one inside the legal system and seek to make sense of that system from within – to render it coherent.

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North American Workshop on Private Law Theory IV

Post by Patrick Goold

Earlier this month, Fordham University School of Law hosted the fourth annual North American Workshop on Private Law Theory (NAWPLT). This edition of NAWPLT—a yearly conference that gathers U.S and Canadian private law scholars to discuss works-in-progress selected by a steering committee—was organized by Fordham Professors Aditi Bagchi and Ben Zipursky.

In twentieth century legal theory, few issues have received more attention than the question: “What is Property?” Eric Claeys, in Property as an Institutional Artifact, defends a revisionist view. To Claeys, property is not merely a form (a bundle of jural relations), but has an essential substantive content: exclusive use. A property right, on this view, confers on one individual the exclusive authority to benefit from or manage a resource. In a related vein, James Stern’s paper, titled Intellectual Property and the Myth of Nonrivalry, argued against the prevailing view that intangible goods are “nonrivalrous.” Insofar as people have incompatible desires about how intangible goods are to be used, they resemble tangible goods, and hence there can be a need for a legal architecture that delegates to one individual the exclusive right to decide how such goods are used.  

In Legal Positivism as an Idea About What Morality Might Be, Martin Stone considered through the lens of tort law another ‘eternal’ question: the relation of law and morality. Taking issue with the view that the distinctiveness of legal positivism resides in its account of the nature of law, Stone maintains that it instead resides in a particular instrumental understanding of the relation of morality to law. In Retaliatory RICO and the Puzzle of Fraudulent Claiming, meanwhile, Nora Engstrom discussed a new technique repeat-player defendants are using to fight fraudulent claims: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). When it was signed into law in 1970, Congress probably did not envision that RICO’s provisions on bribery, fraud, and obstruction of justice would allow corporate defendants to retaliate against plaintiffs bringing baseless claims to court. Questions remain regarding whether such retaliatory RICO actions can be exercised in a sensible and even-handed manner.

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Harvard Law School’s Private Law Workshop: John C. Harrison, Immunity Rules

Post by Samuel Beswick, Frank Knox Memorial Fellow, SJD candidate, Harvard Law School

In the third of our trilogy of sessions on Hohfeld, Professor Harrison this week presented to the HLS Private Law Workshop a view of Calabresi and Melamed’s famous Cathedral article through a Hohfeldian lens. Calabresi and Melamed organized legal entitlements into three types: those protected by property rules, those protected by liability rules, and inalienable entitlements. An entitlement is protected by a liability rule when, if it is interfered with, the law requires only that the defendant pay an objectively determined value for it (generally in the form of compensatory damages).

Liability rules, Harrison contends, are “a false category.” Calabresi and Melamed had taken accident law from tort and eminent domain from the law of property, and grouped the two as examples of “instances in which society uses liability rules.” But their typology obscured the analytically distinct nature of these categories in two ways: by conflating rules about right/duty and rules about power/liability; and by conflating substantive law and remedies.

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Harvard Law School’s Private Law Workshop: Christopher Newman, Hohfeld and the Theory of In Rem Rights: An Attempted Reconciliation

Post by Patrick Goold

Few questions have received more attention in law than the question “What is Property?” Is an in rem right a right over a thing, as the traditional (and perhaps resurgent) view holds? Or is the term “right in rem” an outmoded reference to a bundle of jural relations existing between individuals (as Hohfeld argued almost a century ago)? Is there a way to reconcile these two competing theories—for property to be both a right over a thing and bundle of rights? At this week’s HLS Private Law Workshop, Christopher Newman presented a work-in-progress in which he attempted a reconciliation of these apparently conflicting understandings of in rem rights.

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Harvard Law School’s Private Law Workshop: Hanoch Dagan and Michael Heller, The Choice Theory of Contracts

Post by Samuel Beswick, Frank Knox Memorial Fellow, SJD candidate, Harvard Law School

Let’s put freedom back into “freedom of contract.” That’s the ambition Professors Hanoch Dagan and Michael Heller set out in their forthcoming book, The Choice Theory of Contracts, excerpts of which the authors presented at this week’s HLS Private Law Workshop.

Dagan and Heller contend that contract law’s ultimate value is, and ought to be, enhancing individual autonomy. They say that only a “choice theory” of contracts facilitates such autonomy: only when contract law offers a sufficient array of contract “types” will individuals be free meaningfully to author their own destinies. The explication of this liberal theory entails engaging with, and unseating dogma on, two fundamental questions: what is contract? And what is freedom?

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Harvard Law School’s Private Law Workshop: Nathan Oman, Reconsidering Contractual Consent

Post by Patrick Goold

How important is consent in contract law? Less important than many suppose, says Professor Nathan Oman. At the first HLS Private Law Workshop of the new academic year, Oman presented his current work in progress, Reconsidering Contractual Consent: Why We Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About Boilerplate and Other Puzzles. In this thought-provoking article, Oman argues that robustly voluntary consent to obligations is far less important to the normative defense of contract law than is often assumed.

Oman’s analysis begins with a puzzle. Normative theories of contract tend to suggest that party consent is necessary to justify enforcing contractual obligations. For autonomy theorists, holding parties accountable for commitments to which they have not meaningfully consented interferes with their ability to self-govern. For economists, consent is an important indication that the transaction makes both parties better off. But here’s the paradox: contract law regularly does not require meaningful party consent before enforcing obligations. Many situations exist wherein courts uphold agreements where the parties are almost wholly ignorant of the terms – boilerplate terms providing a familiar example.

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Apologies as Tort Reform — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel

When we wrong others, there is often an expectation—perhaps a moral duty—that we apologize. By apologizing, the wrongdoer asserts ownership of the wrong and acknowledges the wrongness of the act and the moral standing of the victim. It is also said that apologies can help restore the social order disrupted by the wrong.

In recent decades, many scholars have suggested that there should be a place in the law for apologies. And so the idea of ‘apology laws’ – laws that promote and protect the use of apologies – was born. These laws, now found in 36 states, are meant to encourage wrongdoers to apologize without fear of legal repercussions, and they typically apply in private law settings, such as torts and medical malpractice. A paradigmatic example is a doctor who makes a mistake during surgery but, in the absence of a ‘safe harbor’, would be reluctant to apologize for fear that admitting the mistake would foster litigation and count as an admission of liability.  An apology law that makes apologies inadmissible as evidence of fault at trial, as most do, promises to overcome this barrier.

In a new paper, Tort Reform Through the Backdoor: A Critique of Law & Apologies, (Forthcoming S. Cal. L. Rev., 2017), Yotam Kaplan and I are challenging the predominant scholarly disposition favoring laws that create safe harbors for apologies. We argue that in commercial settings—involving insurance companies, large firms, hospitals, etc.—using the law to encourage apologies may undermine tort liability and undercut deterrence. This effect is not necessarily negative—many people believe that the tort system is out of control—but it does mean apology laws are de-facto tort reform. That many states that normally oppose tort reform adopted apology laws was the result of clever marketing and concentrated lobbying efforts by tort reformers who co-opted the legal discourse on apologies to their own ends. Perhaps most notably, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—neither of whom is a card-carrying tort reformer—advocated actively for apology laws in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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Private Law and Asset Shielding — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel,  postdoctoral fellow in private law, Harvard Law School (job market candidate)

One of the central questions in the New Private Law is how ‘down-to-earth’ should legal analysis be? Regardless of one’s substantive view on this debate, there is one area in which we have been insufficiently realistic: private law enforcement. There is a real gap in our understanding of how legal norms are executed by sheriffs, bailiffs, and private ordering. Understanding the limits of doctrine and law could be informative for both economic and justice-based views of the law, as well as to views that look at the law from the internal point of view.

My scholarship focuses on questions concerning the enforcement of private legal norms. In Shielding of Assets and Lending Contracts (Forthcoming, Int’l Rev. L. Econ.) I consider the problem of asset shielding. Most judgments, if not voluntarily implemented, depend on enforcement through the seizure of the judgment-debtor’s assets. The problem is that ownership is too malleable and enforcement is too constrained, so there are many ways in which people can hide, shield, or protect their assets (transfer of money to an exotic offshore trust, bankruptcy planning, sham transfer to one’s relatives, hiding money under the mattress, etc.). Some of these techniques are more complicated than others, and some people will have moral reservations about deploying certain kinds of shielding techniques, or self-interested concerns about the effects of shielding on their credit scores, but overall, there is a real temptation here – especially since criminal enforcement against those who shield is quite rare. Given this temptation, it is puzzling why people do not shield assets more often. More generally, because avoiding judgments through asset shielding undermines many private legal obligations, it is important to have an account of when people would choose to meet their obligations and, if they decide to shield, the magnitude of assets that would be shielded.

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Why Private Law? — Patrick Goold

Post by Patrick Goold

I have a question for the readers of this blog: Why make a distinction between public law and private law? Note, my question is not what is the distinction, but why is it a useful and helpful division to make? Of course, both questions are important and interrelated, but for now, I would like to focus on the latter.

This may be the central question in the New Private Law. Prior private law scholarship has typically fallen into two broad schools. On one hand, there are the Private Law Skeptics, who argue that all law has “public” ends, and ergo all law is public. On the other hand, we find Private Law Disciples, who point to the millennia-old private-public law distinction and assume it will simply continue. New Private Lawyers are different from both traditional camps. We do not take for granted the private-public distinction. Rather, as inclusive pragmatists, we demand to know whether this is a distinction worth retaining. What good does it do us? But, contrary to Private Law Skeptics, most of us, at least intuitively, believe that something is or can be accomplished by retaining the distinction. So the question is: what is that?

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Bagchi, Dagan, and Hesselink at “Contract Law in a Liberal Society” Summer School in June — John Golden

Post by John Golden

From June 29 to July 1, the University of Amsterdam hosted a “summer school” on “Contract Law in a Liberal Society.”  The gathering featured extended presentations by Aditi Bagchi of the Fordham University School of Law, Hanoch Dagan of Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann Faculty of Law, and Martijn Hesselink of the University of Amsterdam, as well as additional short presentations of completed works or works in progress by more junior scholars.  This post describes aspects of the presentations by Bagchi, Dagan, and Hesselink as I perceived them.

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Communal Property and Two Legal Cultures — Henry Smith

Post by Henry Smith

Last week I took part in some events at the Intensive Doctoral Week at Sciences Po in Paris.  This is a conference for Ph.D. students in law from all over France, organized by Mikhail Xifaras of Sciences Po Law School, and it features panels devoted to a wide range of topics.  One of two on property focused on the future of communal property, with panelists Bob Ellickson, Séverine  Dusollier, Maria Rosaria Marella, and myself (with my name spelled “Henri” no less!).  The notion of common property has a long pedigree and is very important in the work of legal scholars such as Bob Ellickson and Carol Rose and economists such as Gary Libecap and Elinor Ostrom.  The Europeans have a renewed interest in communal property for two reasons. First, they believe that it is a way of breaking down the supposedly hyper-individualist notion of property enshrined in the civil code.  Second, communal property can be used to solve cutting-edge problems like providing new forms of low-income housing. 

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Samuelson on Merger in Copyright Law and Questions of Redundancy in Legal Design — John M. Golden

Post by John Golden

In the forthcoming article Reconceptualizing Copyright’s Merger Doctrine, Pamela Samuelson of Berkeley Law provides an extended review of copyright law’s merger doctrine.  Courts have periodically invoked this doctrine in restricting the extent to which copyright protections apply to the expression of an idea when, as Samuelson puts it, “that idea is incapable of being expressed, as a practical matter, in more than one or a small number of ways.”  Samuelson’s article seeks to quash a number of “myths” about the doctrine, touching on aspects of its substantive scope, the frequency of the doctrine’s applicability, and its history as a creature of “common law adjudication.”  Samuelson concludes, among other things, that (1) the doctrine serves as an important “limiting principle of U.S. copyright law”; (2) the doctrine can affect copyrightability as well as copyright scope; and (3) courts should avoid an overly narrow view of the doctrine, thereby helping it realize its potential as a means for “mediating conflicts between and among the interests of first and second-generation authors, of third parties affected by those disputes, and of the public.”

This blog post focuses on another aspect of Samuelson’s article, its discussion of how the merger doctrine relates to other limiting doctrines in copyright.  These other doctrines include the following: (1) the scènes à faire doctrine, which limits the extent to which copyright covers standard or indispensable elements of expression (such as conventional poses in portraits, see William W. Fisher III et al., Reflections on the Hope Poster Case, 25 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 243, 259 (2012)); (2) copyright law’s originality requirement; (3) exclusions of facts, ideas, and other functional subject matter from copyright protection.  At one point, Samuelson suggests that courts’ relative lack of confidence in their mastery of copyright law’s content or justifications might explain some of the apparent proliferation of doctrinal overlaps.  She writes, “Courts sometimes perceive the other doctrines as overlapping with merger, but in some cases, courts invoke multiple doctrines when seemingly unsure which doctrine would provide the soundest grounding for the court’s decision.”

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The Second Circuit Polices the Contract-Tort Boundary — Greg Klass

Post by Greg Klass

On Monday the Second Circuit released its decision in US ex rel. O’Donnell v. Countrywide Home Loans. This is a major case—in terms of dollar amounts (the trial court had assessed a $1.27 billion penalty against Countrywide), for understanding the law’s ability to deal with the wrongs that caused the subprime mortgage crisis, and with respect to the legal question of where to draw the line between contracts and torts. There’s much more going on in the case than I can summarize here. But here are some initial thoughts on it. Some of them also appear in Dan Fisher’s excellent piece in Forbes.

The legal framework is a little complex, but the basic thrust of the decision is that there was no evidence that Countrywide ever made a false representation to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae about the quality of the mortgages it was selling. The initial contract of sale promised to deliver “investment quality mortgages,” but that was just a promise. There was no evidence that at the time Countrywide made it the company intended to do anything else—that it committed promissory fraud. It is clear that Countrywide subsequently intentionally breached that promise by delivering lots and lots mortgages that it knew were crap. (If you haven’t seen or read The Big Short, you might be shocked by Judge Rakoff’s post-verdict summary of the bullshit Countrywide trafficked in.) But, according to the Second Circuit, there was no evidence that it ever made any additional representations—after the initial contract to sell—as to the quality of those mortgages. No lie, no fraud.

A few observations:

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Hohfeld Returns to the Supreme Court — Ted Sichelman

Post by Ted Sichelman After more than a 25-year hiatus, Wesley Hohfeld—one of the preeminent private law theorists of the 20th century—has been cited by Justice Thomas in dissent earlier this week in Heffernan v. City of Paterson (thanks to Shyam Balganesh for the heads up), a case involving the alleged deprivation of free speech … Read more

Defences in Unjust Enrichment, Book Review — Yotam Kaplan

Post by Yotam Kaplan, Private Law Fellow, Harvard Law School

Defences in Unjust Enrichment, edited by Andrew Dyson, James Goudkamp and Frederick Wilmot-Smith, is the recently published second volume in an ongoing series, Hart Studies in Private Law: Essays on Defences. The first volume covered defenses in tort law, and the remaining two volumes will treat defenses in contract law and equity. The current volume offers essays by some of the world’s leading scholars, and a memorable note by Lord Reed of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. This is a welcome addition to unjust enrichment scholarship, as the study of defenses (and the change of position defense in particular) has been central to the development of this area of law in recent years. 

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Summer School Announcment: “Contract Law in a Liberal Society” — Yonathan Arbel

Post by Yonathan Arbel Dr. Lyn Tjon Soei Len, of the University of Amsterdam,  asked to bring this invitation for their very interesting summer-school to the attention of our readers: From June 29- July 1 the Summer School “Contract Law in a Liberal Society” will take place in Amsterdam. Junior scholars and advanced students will have … Read more