My current case is an ‘interpretation of contract’ case. So this article was of current interest.
Defendant Palmer Luckey argued that he had not breached the terms of the confidentiality agreement at issue, in that the nondisclosure and exclusivity provisions had never taken effect. Here’s the relevant part of the contract (emphasis added by the court):
The Receiving party shall keep all details including drawings and part suppliers of the Head Mounted Display confidential and shall not aid any other person or entity in the design of a Head Mounted Display other than the disclosing party. Unless within a twelve month period from 1st July 2011 the receiving party has not received a minimum payment in royalties of 10,000 US dollars by the disclosing party. The exclusivity shall remain in place for a period of 10 years providing a minimum of 10,000 US dollars is paid from the disclosing party to the receiving party per annum.
Note that the second sentence is ungrammatical: it should have been a conditional clause modifying the first sentence. Here’s what the court said about it:
Luckey’s argument that the nondisclosure and exclusivity provisions of the agreement never took effect turns on the interpretation of the italicized sentence fragment above. Luckey contends that the ten thousand dollar payment contemplated therein was a contingent event that had to occur before the exclusivity and nondisclosure obligations could take effect. Seidl’s (and Total Recall’s) failure to make such a payment, Luckey argues, is fatal to Total Recall’s claim that Luckey breached the contract. Total Recall responds that its payment obligation was excused by Luckey’s alleged breach.
The use of the word “unless” tends to support Luckey’s construction of the agreement; however, the grammatical defect in the provision renders it ambiguous at the Rule 12 stage. One possibility is that the fragment was a condition subsequent, meaning the duty to maintain confidentiality evaporated after one year (if the payment was not made). Another is that it was a condition precedent, meaning the duty never arose in the first place (since no payment was made). And, while it seems clear that zero payment was ever made, the idea that Luckey frustrated such payment and thus excused it is plausible (if barely so) at the Rule 12 stage.
First, let’s consider how to interpret the language at issue. I suggest that Luckey’s argument doesn’t make sense. Here’s why:
Obligations can use a dynamic verb (pay, sell, terminate) or they can use a stative verb (keep, maintain, preserve). Here are two versions of an obligation using a dynamic verb plus a conditional clause, one using the subordinator if and the other the subordinatorunless:
- On 1 January 2018, A shall pay B $100 if C is then living in the United States.
- On 1 January 2018, A shall pay B $100 unless C is then not living in the United States.
The meaning of both versions is clear. I offer two versions just to demonstrate thatunless is the negative counterpart of if—if the matrix clause (that’s what you call the part of the sentence a conditional clause attaches to) modifies an obligation, unless serves to express when the obligation doesn’t apply. You can make if and unless equivalent by making negative the conditional clause of one or the other—hence living in with if andnot living in with unless in the above examples. (There are other subordinators, includingprovided.)
Here are two versions using a stative-verb matrix clause, again with one conditional clause using if, the other unless:
- A shall keep the information confidential if by 1 July 2012 B has paid A $10,000.
- A shall keep the information confidential unless by 1 July 2012 B has not paid A $10,000.
The version using unless is a simplified version of the language at issue in this dispute. The version with if is clear—the obligation applies only after the condition has been satisfied. The version with unless expresses a different meaning. There’s nothing to suggest that the obligation wouldn’t apply on entry into the contract. It follows that because unless is the negative counterpart of if, in the context of a stative obligation that applies on entry into the contract, the natural reading of a conditional clause with unlessis that satisfaction of the condition would mean that the party under the obligation would no longer have to comply with it.
That’s perhaps easier to see using simpler examples:
- I’ll walk your dog if you’re nice to me.
- I’ll walk your dog unless you’re not nice to me.
The first example is clear—It’s a condition to my walking your dog that you be nice to me. But it would be semantically anomalous to derive that meaning from the second example. The natural meaning is that I’ll walk your dog, but I’ll stop doing so if you’re not nice to me.
So the court was mistaken in saying that “use of the word ‘unless’ tends to support Luckey’s construction of the agreement.”