This Psychic Didn’t See It Coming
One of the things that good lawyers do is plan for future possibilities – even when the client, a psychic and astrologer, can (supposedly) see the future. My mentor, Dan Minutillo, repeatedly drilled into me the need to “double-think” – to ask the “what if” questions, even if the client assures us that everything will be hunky-dory forever.
Walter Mercado “was” a psychic and astrologer in Puerto Rico. (Don’t worry; Mercado is still around; see the last paragraph for why the past tense is used.)
On August 4, 1995, Mercado and Bart [Enterprises] signed the Agreement, under which Bart would develop and distribute materials and products related to Mercado’s psychic and astrological services. As part of the Agreement, Mercado granted Bart several rights “during the Term and throughout the Territory” of the Agreement. The Agreement defines “Territory” as the universe. . . . . It defines “Term” to mean “in perpetuity,” subject to a termination provision which, inter alia, allows Mercado to terminate the Agreement after fifteen days’ written notice if Bart fails to pay Mercado any agreed compensation within sixty days of the due date.
Mercado-Salinas v. Bart Enters. Int’l Ltd., (1st Cir. 12/20/2011, free subscription required).
Mercado gave Bart an irrevocable assignment in copyrights to certain preexisting materials, and to develop new materials using Mercado’s name. Mercado also irrevocably assigned all rights to the common law trademark “Walter Mercado” to Bart – meaning someone else permanently took over – the rights to his name. For all this, Mercado received $25,000 a month in base salary, along with $5,000 a month in clothing allowance, and $2,000 a month for up to 25 three-minute segments per month.
“Finally, the Agreement provides that ‘all grants granted or assigned by this agreement shall be irrevocable under all or any circumstances, and shall not be subject to rescission, termination or injunction. In the case of breach of this agreement by Bart, Mercado’s sole remedy shall be limited to an action at law for damages.’”
Mercado even helped Bart register the “Walter Mercado” trademark by filing affidavits authorizing Bart to use and register the trademarks, both in the United States and in Mexico.
All went well for the first decade of the agreement, but beginning in 2006, Mercado stopped providing new material or appearing at scheduled appearances. In turn, Bart stopped compensating him. Despite the irrevocability of his agreement with Bart, Mercado tried to terminate the agreement, and the courthouse fight soon commenced, both in Florida, and later in Puerto Rico. Mercado was enjoined from using the “Walter Mercado” trademark, id. at 279, and could not terminate the agreement, because his own breach caused Bart to withhold payment. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the injunction, finding that by failing to meet his own contractual obligations, Mercado was barred from asserting that Bart breached the Agreement between them: a “party’s breach effectively suspends the nonbreaching party’s duty to tender performance.”
Where Mercado’s psychic powers and his counsel failed him is in not recognizing that in the future he might not want to be obligated under the Agreement anymore, and he might want to control his own identity. While the $25,000 a month stipend (and $5,000 clothing allowance!) was no doubt tempting, surrendering control over your name as a trademark to someone else is ripe for disaster. Some more doublethinking should have been done.
The amazing Mercado managed to bounce back quickly. A mere six days after the district court enjoined him from using his name, he transformed into Shanti Ananda. Betcha saw that one coming.