William Allensworth

UT law professor William Allensworth presented a case before the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments on Wednesday.

The case is about legal contract clauses that determine where legal action will be held if necessary, and whether the contract can be overturned by states that seem to have jurisdiction.

“I think the argument went well,” Allensworth said. “The justices were engaged, they certainly understand the parties’ positions.”

Allensworth argued for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas as a representative of J-Crew Management, Inc. 

In 2009, the Atlantic Marine Construction Company, Inc. hired J-Crew to provide materials and work for the construction of a children’s center in Fort Hood. After the project’s completion, J-Crew sued Atlantic Marine in a federal court in Austin for $159,000 the company claimed it was still owed. 

Allensworth said the case will be decided on the basis of statutory interpretation and with consideration given to forum selection clauses.

During the argument, Justice Stephen Breyer said the numbers were against Allensworth because there are only three appellate circuits in the U.S. that weigh factors such as state jurisdiction over contractual clauses while there are five appellate circuits that abide by the contract.

The statutory interpretation does favor his position, Allensworth said afterward. He is concerned that there may be a remand to the district court to weigh additional factors.

“I was able to get in and out of the courtroom with my head,” Allensworth said. “And I think the justices enjoyed hearing an argument about a real dispute involving real parties.

William Allensworth, attorney and adjunct law professor at UT, argued Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving contract law and legal forum selection.

Allensworth argued on the side of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas as a representative of J-Crew Management, Inc. 

In 2009, the Atlantic Marine Construction Co. hired J-Crew to provide materials and work for the construction of a children’s center in Fort Hood. After the project’s completion, J-Crew sued in a federal court in Austin for more than $160,000 the company claimed it was still owed. 

Atlantic Marine contested the jurisdiction of the lawsuit because of a contractual agreement that all litigation should be pursued in Virginia.

Allensworth argued the lawsuit should be handled in Texas courts because the bulk of work performed took place in Texas, so Texas courts seemed the logical selection for legal arbitration.

“[The western district of Texas] is where we performed our work, where the project’s located, where all the witnesses reside and where virtually all of the evidence is located,” Allensworth told the justices, according to a transcript of oral argument released by the Court.

Justice Elena Kagan expressed skepticism, saying both parties in a lawsuit must adhere to a pre-negotiated forum, even if another forum seems more convenient.

“[You had] a negotiated contract, that you accepted in convenience, and … you got something for your … acceptance of inconvenience,” Kagan said. “The end. You have to live with your contract.”

Allensworth will know the decision in the case by early July, when the justices announce decisions from the October oral arguments.

William Allensworth, attorney and adjunct professor at UT, will become one of the few attorneys in America to present a case before the United States Supreme Court next month. 

Allensworth will argue against lawyers from the Atlantic Marine Construction Company in a case concerning forum-selection clauses — agreements between business firms selecting courts where potential legal disputes will be decided. Hearings will begin Oct. 9. 

Allensworth said he values what he views as an opportunity not many lawyers encounter.

“There are over 300,000 attorneys in America,” Allensworth said. “But there are only 75-80 Supreme Court cases per year.”

The Atlantic Marine Construction Company’s contract with J-Crew Management — represented by Allensworth — contained a forum-selection clause that said litigation would be held in Virginia. Because the majority of the contract was executed in Texas, Texas courts overruled the clause. Allensworth said the clauses are typically managed by district courts which determine reasonable jurisdiction. 

Allensworth said after his case had won in the district court and in the 5th Circuit Appellate Court, his opponent appealed to the Supreme Court. He said he was not expecting the court to take the case. 

“That’s the bad news,” Allensworth said. “The good news is that it is the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Allensworth has been practicing law for 35 years and said he is excited and nervous about this opportunity.

“Our case could affect policy,” Allensworth said. “It will affect all venue decisions. We will be sitting 15 feet from the nine Supreme Court Justices. That’s intimidating.”

Allensworth’s assistant, Chad Simon, has been practicing law for seven years and has been with Allensworth’s firm for two years. Simon presented the case at the district and 5th Circuit courts. Simon was once a student in Allensworth’s class.

“I think it’s great that the University brings in professors with real world experience,” Simon said.

Allensworth said his current case has been part of his classroom discussion this semester and that his students have shown interest in the subject.

“The students want to talk more about the case than the usual topics,” Allensworth said.

David Donaldson, journalism lecturer who teaches media law, said the interpretation of the clause can often depend on how it was written.

“If it’s something the parties negotiated over — that’s probably binding,” Donaldson said. “But if it’s just a standard form they always use, then judges might be looking at other factors to determine a reasonable forum selection.”

Donaldson said he was pleased for Allensworth, whom he has known for many years. 

“This is an exciting time for him,” he said.