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Monday, September 30, 2013

Internet Contracting Mayhem

Modelmayhem.com (“Modelmayhem”) is a nationwide modeling industry website.  Shana Edme (“Edme”) joined the site to further her modeling career.  After several photographs of Edme modeling lingerie were disseminated and viewed without her permission, Edme commenced an action in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York (“EDNY”) against Modelmayhem (among others).  Edme claimed that the site violated her right to privacy under New York State statutes.

Modelmayhem moved to dismiss, arguing that Edme agreed to resolve any and all disputes in California. Specifically, Modelmayhem claimed that the "Terms of Use" found on its website contains a forum selection clause.  The EDNY (Judge Hurley) denied Modelmayhem’s motion because it failed to explain how Edme bound herself to the Terms of Use, including how users of its website were advised of the terms.

The court began with a discussion of contracting and the Internets:

The conclusory statement by Modelmayhem that "New York law specifically recognizes 'Terms and Conditions' posted on a website as a binding contract" (Modelmayhem's Mem. at 6) completely ignores the developing discussion within this Circuit (and courts nationwide) regarding what actions by an internet user manifests one's asset to contractual terms found on a website. "While new commerce on the Internet has exposed courts to many new situations, it has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract." Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 403 (2d Cir. 2004). "Mutual manifestation of assent, whether by written or spoken word or by conduct" is one such principle. Specht v. Netscape Commc'ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 29 (2d Cir. 2002). As Judge Johnson of this District previously explained:

On the internet, the primary means of forming a contract are the so-called "clickwrap" (or "click-through") agreements, in which website users typically click an "I agree" box after being presented with a list of terms and conditions of use, and the "browsewrap" agreements, where website terms and conditions of use are posted on the website typically as a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen.  Hines v. Overstock.com, Inc., 668 F. Supp. 2d 362, 366 (E.D.N.Y. 2009). A browsewrap agreement "usually involves a disclaimer that by visiting the website — something that the user has already done — the user agrees to the Terms of Use not listed on the site itself but available only be clicking a hyperlink." Fteja v. Facebook, Inc., 841 F. Supp. 2d 829, 837 (S.D.N.Y. 2012). Thus, in deciding the validity of browsewrap agreements, "courts consider primarily whether a website user has actual or constructive knowledge of a site's terms and conditions prior to using the site." Hines, 668 F. Supp. 2d at 367 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The Court then discussed Modelmayhem’s failure to explain how Edme became bound to the terms on the website.  Modelmayhem could have presented Edme with the terms in a number of ways:

For example, (1) a user could have agreed to the Terms of Use by clicking an "I agree" box before creating an account and gaining access to the website's services; (2) the Terms of Use could have
appeared on the website's homepage; (3) the Terms of Use could have been accessible from a hyperlink located on the homepage; (4) the Terms of Use could have been buried somewhere else on the website; or (5) some other combination or scenario not otherwise contemplated by the Court.

Modelmayhem did not, however, provide any evidence of how the Terms of Use were made available to users of the site:

The only evidence presented on this issue is a screenshot of the Terms of Use. The Court, however, cannot glean solely from this screenshot how the Terms of Use were presented to users of the Modelmayhem website.

The circumstances surrounding how Modelmayhem's Terms of Use were exhibited to its users is determinative on the issue of whether Edme had actual or constructive notice of the terms and condition, including whether the forum selection clause was reasonably communicated to her. Compare Specht, 306 F.3d at 32 (concluding that a provision that a website user would not encounter until he scrolled down multiple screens was not enforceable because "a reference to the existence of license terms on a submerged screen is not sufficient to place consumers on inquiry or constructive notice of those terms") and Hines, 668 F. Supp. 2d at 368 (holding that forum selection clause was not reasonably communicated where "Defendant failed to explain how Plaintiff and its other customers were 'advised' of the Terms and Conditions, or to cite a single case that suggests that merely posting such terms on a different part of a website constitutes reasonable communication of a forum selection clause") with Zaltz v. JDate, --- F. Supp. 2d ----, 2013 WL 3369073, at *7-8 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (finding that "plaintiff assented to Jdate.com's Terms and Conditions of Service, meaning that the forum selection clause contained therein was, in fact, reasonably communicated to her since plaintiff "did not need to scroll or change screens in order to be advised of the Terms and Conditions; the existence of, and need to accept and consent to, the Terms and Conditions of Service was readily visible") and Fteja, 841 F. Supp. 2d at 840-41 (concluding that because plaintiff was "informed of the consequences of his assenting click and he was shown, immediately below, where to click to understand those consequences," defendant's Terms of Use were "reasonably communicated"). Without such information and evidence, the Court is unable to conclude that the Terms of Use were binding on plaintiff and that the forum selection clause — contained within the Terms of Use — were reasonably communicated to plaintiff. Accordingly, the Court denies Modelmayhem's motion to dismiss on the basis that the forum selection clause contained in its Terms of Use is enforceable.

Internet companies, it is not enough to go into court and point to a forum selection clause in your terms of use.  To enforce that clause, you also have to establish where that clause is on your site and how you pointed users to that clause… and better yet, how you obtained the user's assent to the terms.

Edme v. Internet Brands, 12 CV 3306 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2013)(Hurley, J.).

[Meredith R. Miller]

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