A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Quite Possibly, a Bad Rap

By Ryan Morrison

Ryan Leslie is a lot of things. He’s a Harvard University alum who completed his schooling at age 19. He’s a record producer, an R&B singer, and a rapper with a large and loyal fan base. He’s even the founder of a successful media company. One thing he is not, however, is an attorney.

So when his backpack was stolen during a tour in Cologne, Germany, in 2010, he probably should have consulted a lawyer before uploading not one, but two YouTube videos offering rewards for his lost property. First, Mr. Leslie offered a $20,000 reward for the return of his bag containing a hard drive and laptop with beats and recordings invaluable to the musician. With no results, he upped the reward to $1,000,000.

When a German auto shop owner out on a dog walk found the bag containing the computer and the hard drive and demanded his million dollar reward, Mr. Leslie refused to pay because, he said, none of the information on the hard drive was retrievable. This started an offer/acceptance problem that would make a law student scream his mother’s name and pass out during a contracts exam.

Our legal system, in its infinite wisdom, takes a problem too complex for most lawyers and asks twelve individuals with no legal training to figure it out. And in a Manhattan federal court last November, a jury ordered Mr. Leslie to pay Armin Augstein, the man who found the hard drive, the full $1 million. Later, the court ordered Mr. Leslie to an additional $180,000 for interest that accrued between the finding of the laptop and the court’s decision. Various newspapers, most notably the New York Post, have ruthlessly mocked Mr. Leslie for trying to get out of paying what he promised.

We wrote about the case in November of 2011 and came to the conclusion, after reading the media headlines, that Mr. Leslie had to pay up.  But we’ve since had the opportunity to learn more about the case.

We talked to David DeStefano, the attorney for Mr. Leslie, and we’re not certain the correct decision was reached.

…But let’s take a look together, shall we?

In order for a contract to exist between two parties, there must be both an offer and an acceptance. An offer can be as simple as, “Find and bring me my hard drive and I’ll give you $1,000,000.” An acceptance is simply an agreement to the offer (“It’s a deal!”) or actual performance (“Here’s your hard drive.”).

Of course, things can get more complicated. “I returned your hard drive. I don’t know if it has any of the information you wanted on it anymore and it’s totally broken, but it’s still technically what you asked for. When can I expect my million?”

So let’s look at the exact offer from Mr. Leslie. In the original YouTube video posted on the subject, a man beside the rapper bluntly quickly explains that there was a theft, and then states, “We’re offering a $20,000 reward for the return of this bag.”  He hands Mr. Leslie the microphone. From Mr. Leslie:  “Last night the tools that I have to share with all of you, the videos I have of all the tours, the memories that we’ve made together, the music that I make, everything is gone. So if you have any information, if you seen anything, if you hear anything, get at me. Ryanleslielaptopreturn@gmail.com, and I’ll make sure to let you know how much I appreciate it.”

So yes, a direct offer of $20,000 is made for just the bag, but then Mr. Leslie explains that what he is seeking are the items within the bag, going even further and explaining he wants what’s within the items within the bag. It’s a regular case of “Inception.”

The judge believed this video meant “You give me my laptop, and you get $20,000.” But take a step back a moment and let’s use something we don’t normally use in the legal world: common sense. There is not a laptop on the planet that is worth 20,000 bucks. (Okay, maybe some space laptop from NASA is worth a kajillion dollars, but you know what I mean.) Clearly, Mr. Leslie wanted what was on the laptop.

Unfortunately for the musician, New York courts don’t care. “[C]ourts may not by construction add or excise terms, nor distort the meaning of those used and thereby make a new contract for the parties under the guise of interpreting the writing.” And, “the court should not find the contract ambiguous where the interpretation urged by one party would strain the contract language beyond its reasonable and ordinary meaning.” Simply put, if a contract’s language isn’t ambiguous, the plain meaning of the words prevail. (Of course, this may be the most ambiguous contract I’ve ever heard. But that’s just my opinion.)

But then Mr. Leslie made a second video which said the following: “In the interest of retrieving the invaluable intellectual property contained on his laptop and hard drive, Mr. Leslie has increased the reward offer from $20,000 USD to $1,000,000 USD.”

This new video stated that Mr. Leslie was increasing the existing reward offer, making clear that the true offer was for the intellectual property on the laptop, not the laptop itself, and certainly not just the bag. If I offer a reward for a lost textbook, should I have to pay the reward if someone returns the cover of the book with all the pages ripped out? If I offer you money to find my laptop, and you return a broken piece of scrap metal….well, what do you think?

When the musician received his hard drive back and was unable to access it, he tried to have it fixed so he could retrieve the music on it. But the hard drive was evidence for this case, and by trying to have it repaired (which also required reformatting and partitioning of the drive) Mr. Leslie tampered with the evidence, according to the court.

The judge told the jury to accept as fact that Mr. Leslie intentionally destroyed anything that was on the laptop himself.

That. Changes. Everything.

If Mr. Leslie received the laptop and destroyed the files himself, it wouldn’t be a big leap of logic to believe he did it to weasel out of paying his offered reward. But there was no evidence that is what happened. Instead, the music producer may well have been desperately trying to get the files needed to help his career continue to explode? When names like Kanye and Jay-Z are asking for files that were contained on that your drive, wouldn’t you try anything possible to access it?

The jury remained conflicted about this question, and during their deliberations asked the judge if they would be able to reward Mr. Augstein some money amount less than the $1 million. They were ordered to give an all or nothing decision, and eventually decided on “all.”  The judge is supposed to determine the law and the jury is supposed to determine the facts. Here, the fact-finding power was stripped from the jury, wrongfully in my opinion, and will be Mr. Leslie’s strongest chance for appeal.

“Contract law isn’t yet versed in its application of the very new and unique issues brought on by present technology,” says Mr. DeStefano. “This case is one of the most important modern tests for the fundamental concepts of contract law and addresses each element of contract formation.  Hard drive accessibility, data corruption, unilateral contracts formed through YouTube videos. This case really has it all.”

NOTE– February 13, 2013: An earlier version of this article said that Mr. Leslie sent out his laptop for repair. It was his hard drive.

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