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America's Collectibles Network, Inc. v. MIG Broadcast Group

August 23, 2007

AMERICA'S COLLECTIBLES NETWORK, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MIG BROADCAST GROUP, INC., AND GUENTER MARKSTEINER, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas A. Varlan United States District Judge

(VARLAN/SHIRLEY)

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff America's Collectibles Network, Inc., d/b/a Jewelry Television ("ACN" or "Jewelry Television"), seeks compensatory damages against defendant, MIG Broadcast Group, Inc. ("MIG"), for breach of a written contract [see Doc. 22]. ACN also seeks treble damages against defendant Guenter Marksteiner for his role in interfering with that contract and for procuring that breach of contract [see id.]. In their answers, defendants contend that they have no liability whatsoever to ACN [see Docs. 29 and 30]. Moreover, MIG has filed a counterclaim, alleging that ACN is in breach of the parties' written agreement as well as an oral contract and, further, that ACN has made fraudulent and negligent misrepresentations which have resulted in damage to MIG [see Doc. 29].*fn1 Jurisdiction is predicated upon diversity of citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeding $75,000, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), and is not in dispute [see Doc. 56, p.1].

This matter is presently before the Court on ACN's motion for partial summary judgment against MIG only, seeking $1,600,362.37 in damages, plus prejudgment interest and attorney fees [see Doc. 25]. The issues raised have been exceptionally well briefed by the parties [see Docs. 27, 32, 35, and 41]. For the reasons that follow, ACN's motion will be denied.

I. Facts

A. Plaintiff's Position

The facts of this case will, of course, be viewed in the light most favorable to MIG, the non-moving party. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the facts relied on by ACN are mostly undisputed or are properly supported by the affidavit of Wally Nour, Jewelry Television's Manager of Financial Planning and Analysis [see Doc. 26]. As will become apparent, however, the Court cannot end its analysis based solely upon the plain language of the contract and Nour's affidavit. From that respect, this case is not as simple as ACN suggests.

ACN is in the business of selling jewelry, precious gemstones, and related items through various venues, including television broadcasts. Marksteiner holds the broadcast license for television station WHDT in Stuart, Florida. Marksteiner is the President and CEO of MIG, which operates station WHDT in the West Palm Beach television market.

It is undisputed that in late March 2004, MIG and ACN entered into an Affiliate Airtime Agreement (the "2004 Agreement"), which is at the heart of this dispute. Pursuant to the 2004 Agreement, ACN specifically agreed to make a minimum monthly payment of $51,000 (the "Base Payment") to MIG in exchange for MIG providing it with airtime. ACN made these monthly Base Payments to MIG in advance for the upcoming month; after the end of each month, ACN would pay a further commission to MIG in arrears in the amount of 16% of ACN's net sales in excess of $280,000, which were attributable to WHDT (the "Adjusted Payment").

The initial term of the 2004 Agreement was from April 1, 2004, through March 31, 2005. The primary provision of the 2004 Agreement at issue in this litigation is the following: "This Agreement will renew automatically for one-year terms unless either party terminates the Agreement in writing at least thirty (30) days prior to the end of any term." [See Doc. 1-2, p.1].*fn2 Also at issue in this litigation is the notice provision of the 2004 Agreement which provides as follows:

Any notices contemplated by this Agreement shall be in writing, sent by certified mail and return receipt requested, hand delivery, or other delivery service that provides written delivery verification and shall be deemed received the earlier of either two business days after mailing or when actually confirmed by written verification. [Id., p.4].

In support of its motion, ACN points out that Marksteiner did not provide notice of termination of the 2004 Agreement in writing within thirty days prior to March 31, 2006, the termination date of the first renewal term. Rather, on March 9, 2006, Marksteiner sent an e-mail to Andy Caldwell, Jewelry Television's Vice President of Distribution, stating in part as follows: the [sic] annual contract with MIG for airtime in the West Palm Beach, Florida market is due to expire this month. The relationship has proved to be profitable for both parties over the past four years. At this time MIG desires that any new renewal contract be simplified to operate on a commission-only basis. [See Doc. 34-5, p.19]. Because the notice was sent less than thirty days before the scheduled termination date, ACN contends this notice was untimely. ACN also takes the position that this notice was not proper because it was sent via e-mail as opposed to one of the means specified in the notice provision of the 2004 Agreement. Nevertheless, this e-mail was referred to Jewelry Television's Senior Vice President of Affiliate Relations, Harris Bagley,*fn3 who responded on March 14, 2006, as follows:

When I passed on your March 9, 2006 email to our attorney to discuss changes in the agreement, he pointed out that the agreement has already extended for an additional one year term and is non-cancelable. Regardless, without waiving the contract I am available to discuss possible changes with you ... . [See Doc. 25-2, p.24].

Thereafter, ACN made the monthly Base Payments to MIG for April, May, June, and July 2006. ACN also paid the Adjusted Payments for March, April, and May 2006 to MIG. Furthermore, during this same period, ACN and MIG discussed possible changes to their contractual relationship.

On June 30, 2006, Marksteiner sent a letter to Harris Bagley stating that, "[i]n March of this year I timely notified you that the annual contract then in effect between JTV and MIG would expire on 31 March 06 and that MIG would not renew carriage of JTV programming under the terms of this agreement." [Id., p.26].*fn4 Marksteiner explained in his deposition that the "timely" notification to which he was referring was his March 9, 2006 e-mail [see id., p.13].*fn5 Moreover, in his June 30th letter, Marksteiner stated that the Jewelry Television feed would be terminated on July 1, 2006 [see Doc. 25-2, p.26].

It is undisputed that MIG terminated the Jewelry Television feed on July 1, 2006. According to Nour, ACN has been damaged in three ways, all of which directly result from MIG's breach of contract at that point in time. First, MIG received a Base Payment from ACN of $51,000 for July 2006; however, MIG did not carry the Jewelry Television feed in that month [see Doc. 26, p.2]. Consequently, ACN did not make an Adjusted Payment to MIG in arrears for June 2006 sales [see id.]. When the $51,000 overpayment of the Base Payment is netted against the Adjusted Payment for June sales that was not paid, ACN contends that it is owed $21,703.95 [id.].

Second, ACN contends that it has lost, and is losing, profits from the sale of goods it would have made to viewers of WHDT if MIG had not breached the contract [see id., p.3]. According to Nour, these lost profits total $1,388,424.56 for the period from July 1, 2006, through March 31, 2007 [id.].

Finally, ACN contends that it makes a profit on the revenue it receives for shipping goods [id., p.4]. Because of MIG's breach of contract, ACN maintains that it has lost, and is losing, profits it would have made from shipping goods it would have sold in the West Palm Beach area [id.]. According to Nour, these lost profits total $190,233.97 for the period from July 1, 2006, through March 31, 2007 [id.]. Therefore, Nour has calculated ACN's total damages at $1,600,362.37 [id.].

B. Defendants' Position

In response to ACN's virtually undisputed facts and Mr. Nour's affidavit, MIG offers the following proof to demonstrate that there are several genuine issues of material fact, based in large measure on these parties' previous dealings, as to whether the 2004 Agreement had automatically renewed on April 1, 2006. And because the 2004 Agreement had not renewed, MIG contends that it was not in breach of that agreement and therefore has no liability to ACN. MIG does point out, however, that the parties orally agreed to do business on a month-to-month basis after March 31, 2006, and that MIG has honored those commitments. In order to address fully the legal issues raised by ACN's motion, a rather detailed recapitulation of the history of the parties' entire relationship is necessary.

i. The 2002 Agreement

The parties entered into their first Affiliate Airtime Agreement on September 1, 2002 (the "2002 Agreement"), through a broker called Backchannel Media, whereby MIG would carry the Jewelry Television program. [See Doc. 34-4, pp.22-27]. The 2002 Agreement provided that MIG would send ACN an affidavit of performance by the 15th of each month, basically stating the times during the previous month when Jewelry Television was aired on WHDT (the "Billing Affidavit") [id., p.24]. ACN would calculate its net sales, deducting for returned items, and then pay MIG a rate of "$0.76 per subscriber per year, or otherwise, fifteen percent (15%) of the net sales ... whichever amount is greater." [Id., p.23].

The 2002 Agreement was to run for one year [id.]. Under the cancellation provision, either party could terminate the 2002 Agreement upon thirty days prior written notice to the other [id.]. Attached to the 2002 Agreement after the signature page was a section entitled "Additional Terms and Provisions," with one key provision pertaining to notice: "Any notices contemplated by this Agreement shall be writing, sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, and shall be deemed received two business days after mailing." [Id., p.27]. Thus, if either party wanted to terminate the 2002 Agreement before the one year term ended on August 31, 2003, it could do so by sending a written notice by certified mail.

ii. The 2003 Agreement

Before the 2002 Agreement ended, however, the parties entered into a new agreement dated March 31, 2003 (the "2003 Agreement") [Doc. 46-2, pp.1-6]. Although the start date for the 2002 Agreement was April 1, 2003, it is interesting to note that this agreement was not actually signed by all the parties until April 24, 2005, several weeks later [id., p.4]. Significantly, the parties have produced no correspondence concerning the 2003 Agreement. Rather, according to the testimony of two of ACN's employees, Burt Bagley and Patsy Harris, the parties primarily corresponded by phone and e-mail [see Doc. 34-2, p.36; Doc. 34-4, p.9].

The 2003 Agreement generally provided for the same payment structure as the 2002 Agreement, i.e., MIG sent a Billing Affidavit, and ACN paid based on net sales, deducting for returned items [see Doc. 46-2, p.2]. The primary negotiated differences were a rate increase and the time of payment - the commission was to be paid every month, five days in advance [id.]. As before, the term of the 2003 Agreement was one year [id., p.1].

One critical change in the 2003 Agreement from the 2002 Agreement was that the parties substituted a renewal provision in lieu of the cancellation provision, as follows:

Renewal. This Agreement will renew automatically for additional one-year terms unless either party terminates the Agreement in writing or at least thirty (30) days prior to the end of any term.

[Id., p.2]. Thus, the deadline for providing notice of termination of the 2003 Agreement was March 1, 2004.

Also attached to the 2003 Agreement were the same Additional Terms and Provisions attached to the 2002 Agreement. Notably, the same boilerplate notice language was employed: "Any notices contemplated by this Agreement shall be in writing, sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, and shall be deemed received two business days after mailing." [Id., p.6]. A notice of termination under the 2003 Agreement was therefore ...


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