Md. judge turns to 'Seinfeld' for explanation

By John O'Brien | Aug 27, 2008

The cast of "Seinfeld"


ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) - The impact of one of television's most-loved shows -- "Seinfeld" -- has made its way from everyday language to case law.

Maryland's Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, turned to an episode of the wildly successful series to explain good faith in a contract in a dispute between author Tom Clancy and his ex-wife.

Wanda King is upset that Clancy withdrew from and had his name removed from a series of books he did not author, violating the good faith in a marital property agreement the two reached during their divorce proceedings. On Page 31, Judge Glenn Harrell turns to "an unlikely legal illustrator."

"In an episode of his television show, Jerry's character purchased a jacket at a men's clothing shop. The terms of the contract permitted Jerry to return the item for refund at his discretion," Harrell wrote.

Instead, Harrell's copying of the dialogue showed, Jerry was not allowed to return the jacket because the reason he gave was "spite." The dialogue reads:

Clerk: Spite?
Jerry: That's right. I don't care for the salesman that sold it to me.
Clerk: I don't think you can return an item for spite.
Jerry: What do you mean?
Clerk: Well, if there was some problem with the garment. If it were unsatisfactory in some way, then we could do it for you, but I'm afraid spite doesn't fit into any of our conditions for a refund.
Jerry: That's ridiculous, I want to return it. What's the difference what the reason is?
Clerk: Let me speak with the manager... excuse me... Bob!
(walks over to the manager and whispers)
Bob: What seems to be the problem?
Jerry : Well, I want to return this jacket and she asked me why and I said for spite and now she won't take it back.
Bob: That's true. You can't return an item based purely on spite.

The exchange takes place in the 1996 episode "The Wig Master." Over the years, the series became famous for creating catch phrases like "master of your domain" and "not that there's anything wrong with that."

A lower court had found that Clancy, author of books like "The Hunt for Red October," had breached a good faith responsibility to his ex-wife by having his name removed from the "Tom Clancy's Op-Center" series.

Though two judges dissented, the Court of Appeals found Tuesday that there is no clear proof of that and remanded the case. King was seeking attorneys fees and court costs, too, because of the alleged breach.

The Court said Clancy only had a responsibility to act in good faith to his business partners -- something Jerry Seinfeld did not do.

"In attempting to exercise his contractual discretion out of 'spite,' Jerry breached his duty to act in good faith towards the other party to the contract," Harrell wrote. "Jerry would have been authorized to return the jacket if, in his good faith opinion, it did not fit or was not an attractive jacket.

"He may not return the jacket, however, for the sole purpose of denying to the other party the value of the contract. Jerry's post hoc rationalization that he was returning the jacket because he did not 'want it' was rejected properly by Bob as not credible."

A dissenting opinion by Judge Lynne Battaglia did not address the "Seinfeld" argument.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at

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