Emails Becoming Smoking Gun Evidence in J.C Penney

The age of emails has made it more difficult to get away with certain things. One might find it more difficult for example, to insist on one belief or attitude if he has been found to have said the opposite in an email. Such is the case for Ron Johnson, the former head of retail at Apple and now the chief executive of J.C. Penney. He has said that, because he believes in “perfect integrity” he would never ask a person to breach a contract.

However, he engaged in discussion with Martha Stewart to sell some of her items in J.C. Penny stores, despite Ms. Stewart having an exclusive contract with Macy’s. Mr. Johnson has reportedly tried to get around the contract by claiming that there would be independent Martha Stewart stores within J.C. Penney stores.

While independent stores are allowed under the Macy’s contract, J.C. Penney has not moved to lease space to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO). Instead, Mr. Johnson testified in court that J.C. Penney, and not MSLO, would set prices for the merchandise, decide when it would be promoted, employ the people who sold the goods, own the goods, source the goods, book the sales, bear the risk and own the shop, J.C. Penney nonetheless insists that any space displaying the Martha Stewart mark and containing Martha Stewart merchandise qualifies as an MSLO store.

Despite his insistence that he is not inducing Ms. Stewart to breach her contract with Macy’s, Mr. Johnson admitted in an email to Ms. Stewart that her contract with Macy’s was “a major impediment” to their deal to sell her goods in J.C. Penney stores. In another email, he said, in reference to Ms. Stewart, “the ball is in her court now to talk to Macy’s about a break in a tight, exclusive agreement they have with her.” He also reportedly said that the “Macy’s deal is key. We need to find a way to break the renewal right in spring 2013.”

One person was apparently key to bringing about the J.C. Penny deal. That person was William Ackman, the activist investor whose hedge fund is J.C. Penney’s largest shareholder. After the deal was announced, Mr. Johnson wrote to Mr. Ackman, “We put Terry in a corner. Normally when that happens and you get someone on the defensive, they make bad decisions. This is good.”

The emails emerged in a New York courtroom where Macy’s has accused J.C. Penney of inducing Martha Stewart to breach her contract with Macy’s. Macy’s is also attempting to block its competitor from opening Martha Stewart stores in J.C. Penney locations.
Legal experts have been surprised that this case has made it to trial at all, since the contract itself seems fairly straightforward. Martha Stewart herself told the judge, Justice Jeffrey K. Oing of New York State Supreme Court, “I keep looking at this entire episode of this lawsuit wondering why it isn’t – it’s a contract dispute. an understanding of what is written on the page, and it just boggles my mind that we’re sitting in front of you.”

The judge agreed and ordered the parties to pursue mediation to resolve the matter.
Macy’s continues to promote Martha Stewart products with the tag line “Only at Macy’s.”

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