Wednesday, April 27, 2016
I echo Nancy’s tribute below to Prince. Not only was “His Royal Badness” an amazing musician, singer and dancer, he was also able to legally wrestle with and ultimately prevail over some of the really “big boys” in the entertainment industry on issues of contract law.
But even after his death, some companies sought to take financial advantage of him. For example, Cheerios tweeted “Rest in peace” on a simple purple background, but with the “i” replaced with a single Cheerio. After fans expressed their disappointment of this, the tweet was removed just a few hours later with the company acknowledging that their note m ay not have been appropriate. I would agree with that: In such a moment, who’d really think about promoting and buying cereal, of all things?! A lengthier tweet by Hamburger Helper was also removed. Smart: folks, the guy was a vegan! Give the man a little respect.
In contrast, Chevrolet is applauded for a much more tasteful tribute simply stating, on a black background, “Baby That Was Much Too Fast, 1958-2016” and at the very bottom featuring an image of a classic red Corvette, a brand that the singer himself chose to immortalize with his big 1982 hit.
Why would companies so quickly resort to using a famous person’s death to make money? Apart from the Chevrolet ad (which the Chevrolet simply would have to post, it seems, given the song lyrics) Corporate America is rumored to have felt that they did not “bank sufficiently” on the death of another music icon: David Bowie. With Prince’s death, they felt they got a great second chance. (I can no longer find the link to the reputable business magazine where I read this, which shouldn’t matter as no official statement was, of course, made from any company stating this).
With this, let’s remember two great music and business talents who both understood the importance of the Internet on contractual issues (Prince once declaring it dead, Bowie taking the opposite stance and considering it the future of interaction between musicians and their fans). David Bowie even created his own Internet service, BowieNet, to be able to reach out to fans in ways he himself could control.
As law professors, I think we can sympathize with these music icons as we also know how relatively easily big corporations can cash in on the creative works of others. Just think of how little, I have heard, authors of legal casebooks earn on each book sold; not unlike the situation in the musical world.
Rest in peace, Prince and David Bowie
Monday, April 25, 2016
My love for HGTV is real and enduring. It started as a House Hunters addiction when I was a practicing lawyer looking for something mindless to watch when I got home at night and it has seriously spiraled out of control. I find something soothing about the formulaic nature of the shows; their familiarity is like a security blanket to me. And I've also realized that I've actually learned a lot about my taste. For what it's worth, I do feel like HGTV has made me think more about how I decorate my house, even if I can't afford a professional decorator.
So I gobbled up with interest every single article I could find on the recent "Love It or List It" lawsuit. If you don't know the show, it's one of my favorites for the snark between the competing real estate agent and designer. One half of a home-owning couple wants to renovate their existing home; the other half wants to give up and move away. Enter the "Love It or List It" team, showing the couple houses they could buy while simultaneously renovating their home. The theory is that the couple can then decide to love it, or list it.
I entertain no illusions about the "realness" of reality television (really, mostly I've learned from reality television that apparently an enormous number of people are tremendously good actors - while others are decidedly not), but this recent lawsuit attacks not just the "realness" of reality television but practically the *definition* of it: "Love It or List It," the homeowners accuse, were much more interested in making a television show than they were in renovating this couple's home. On at least some level, this lawsuit seems to be a challenge to what "Love It or List It" is: a television show or a general contractor.
As a general contractor, the homeowners weren't too happy with the show's performance. They allege shoddy work on their house, including low-quality product, windows that were painted shut, and holes big enough for vermin to fit through. (They also allege their floor was "irreparably damaged," although I think they can't possibly mean that in the true legal sense of "irreparably," because surely the floor can be repaired?)
It seems to me this is going to come down to the contract between the parties. What did "Love It or List It"'s production company promise? I would love to see what the contract said about the work that was to be performed, how that work was to be performed, and what the financial arrangements were (since part of the couples' allegations is that a large portion of their money was diverted away from the renovations). However, for some reason, I have had an incredibly difficult time locating a copy of the complaint (never mind the contract). None of the stories I've found linked to it, and I have had zero luck finding it through Bloomberg Law's docket search.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
The City of Los Angeles is proposing rules for legalizing Airbnb. The rules would be less draconian than those in Santa Monica, which has entirely banned renting out full units for less than 30 days and which allows home-sharing (in which an occupant rents just a room or a couch) only if the occupant registers and pays taxes on the unit.
In Los Angeles, homeowners would be able to rent out their entire homes for up to ninety days a year. Home-sharing landlords would have to register with the City and, in that connection, submit information about “all hosting platforms to be used and the portion of the unit to be used for Home-Sharing.” Only rooms in one’s main house or guest houses could be rented out, and thus not tents, yurts, backyard RVs, garage spaces and the like.
This is good news for a lovely, modernizing, yet expensive city where many people struggle to make ends meet. With the minimum salary increasing to $15 an hour in 2020, things are improving slightly for the middle and lower classes... but will that be enough to set off rapidly increasing prices in other areas of life? I personally doubt it, but time will tell. At least the above is an improvement of people’s individual property and contracting rights.
Friday, April 15, 2016
(image from IMDB)
Gilmore Girls fandom rejoiced when it was announced that the show would receive a revival on Netflix (and, even better, that it will include Sookie!). But, as often seems to be the case, developments that bring a fandom joy can come with legal entanglements. In this case, producer Gavin Polone's production company Hofflund/Polone has filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros., alleging breach of contract. The lawsuit, Hofflund/Polone v. Warner Bros. Television, Case No. BC616555 (behind paywall), was filed in the Los Angeles County, Central District, Superior Court of California.
The case revolves around the agreement between the parties concerning the original production of Gilmore Girls. The parties agreed, according to Hofflund/Polone, to provide Hofflund/Polone with "$32,500 for each original episode of Gilmore Girls produced in any year subsequent to 2003," along with some percentage of the gross and with "executive producer" credit. With the news of the recent Netflix revival, Hofflund/Polone allegedly reached out to Warner Bros. seeking compensation under the agreement. According to the complaint, Warner Bros. took the position that the Netflix version of Gilmore Girls is a derivative work based on the original series, and so therefore does not trigger compensation to Hofflund/Polone.
It's an interesting question that highlights one of the debates copyright scholars have: What, exactly, is a "derivative" work? Copyright owners have the exclusive right to reproduce their own works or works substantially similar to those works. They also have the right to produce derivative works based on those works, which, in the jurisprudence, has ended up using the same substantially similar standard to elucidate the "based on" language. Which means: what is the point of the derivative work right, if its standard seems the same as the reproduction right? This case has the potential to force confrontation with that problem: Where do we draw the line between infringement of the reproduction right and infringement of the derivative work right? When does a substantially similar work cross the line between reproduction and derivative work?
One thing that's been noted about the derivative work right is it tends to be talked about when there's some kind of change in medium or other kind of adaptation different from the original form (book to film, or translation from one language to another). The definition in the statute points us to that focus. Which raises the question: Is a Netflix revival more like a translation or adaptation of Gilmore Girls than it is like an exact copy of Gilmore Girls? Does this depend on how true it is to the original show?
The "television" landscape has shifted dramatically since Gilmore Girls premiered. It'll be interesting to see how contracts formed pre-Netflix-and-Amazon-production-era function going forward.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
By Rotational - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3455706
Here's an area of law where we're going to need a lot more guidance over the coming years, I suspect: how exactly does the wording of specific insurance policies apply to (now legal in some places under some circumstances) marijuana growing facilities?
A recent case out of the District of Colorado, The Green Earth Wellness Center, LLC v. Atain Specialty Insurance Company, Civil Action No. 13-cv-03452-MSK-NYW, deals with that question. In that case, Green Earth, a marijuana growing facility, alleged that a wildfire sent so much smoke and ash into Green Earth's ventilation system that it ended up damaging the marijuana plants inside. Green Earth therefore made a claim under its insurance policy with Atain for this damage.
This case contains an interesting discussion of how exactly marijuana plants are grown. The important takeaway is that Green Earth was making claims both for Green Earth's growing marijuana plants and for buds and flowers that had been harvested and were being prepared for sale. Green Earth argued that both the growing plants and the harvested buds and flowers were covered under the insurance policy's definition of "Stock." Atain maintained, however, that "Stock" did not apply to the growing plants, only to the buds and flowers that had already been harvested.
The insurance policy defined "stock" as "merchandise held in storage or for sale, raw materials and in-process or finished goods, including supplies used in their packing or shipping." Everyone agreed that the harvested buds and flowers qualified as "stock" so the debate centered entirely around whether the growing plants also qualified as "stock." There was no prior discussion between the parties as to this issue, so the court ended up relying heavily on dictionary definitions, especially of the term "raw materials." The court ended up concluding that this wasn't appropriate for summary judgment, because the court could see the definition as including growing plants or not.
However, the court then turned its attention to another part of the insurance policy that specifically excluded "growing crops." Green Earth argued that its growing marijuana plants weren't "growing crops" because crops are grown outside, not in indoor facilities. But, once again looking at dictionaries, the court concluded that the exact location was not important to the definition of "crop." "Crops" referred to things growing out of soil and did not differentiate between outdoor soil and indoor soil. Therefore, even if the growing marijuana plants could be "raw material" under the definition of "stock," they were specifically excluded from coverage as a "growing crop." And, indeed, in correspondence proposing the policy, Atain wrote that it would not cover "growing...plants," supporting the court's more expansive reading of "crops" as just being a type of plant, whether inside or outside.
Interestingly, Atain then tried to argue that, even though the harvested buds and flowers were technically "stock," they weren't covered because they were "contraband" and public policy was against insuring such forbidden goods. The court noted that the attitude of the federal government toward the legality of marijuana is "nuanced (and perhaps even erratic)" and focused on the fact that it was undisputed that Atain knew Green Earth was growing marijuana and agreed to insure it, so it wasn't fair to allow Atain to back out of that now.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Hurricane Sandy's flooding of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn damaged are in the Christie's warehouse located there, and provoked a rash of subrogation cases against Christie's, including AXA Art Insurance Corp. v. Christie's Fine Art Storage Services, Inc., 652862/13.
All of the cases revolved around the same core set of facts: As Hurricane Sandy was approaching, the Mayor of New York warned that Red Hook was likely to be flooded, and eventually ordered its evacuation. Christie's sent an e-mail to its clients stating it would "take extra precautions" in the face of "significant inclement weather," and that "may include" making sure the generators were working, providing extra security, and raising all of the artwork up off the floor. Allegedly Christie's did none of these things. Shortly after Sandy went through, Christie's sent another e-mail assuring its clients that the artwork was safe, but a few days later Christie's corrected itself, contacting some of its client to inform them that flooding had damaged some of the artwork.
Some insurance companies had to pay out millions of dollars in the wake of this news, and this insurance companies sought to collect the money from Christie's. AXA brought a typical case, that resulted in a typical failure, based on the fact that Christie's storage agreement contained a waiver of subrogation: Christie's clients were "responsible for arranging insurance cover" for the artwork stored at Christie's and "agree[d] to notify [the] insurance carrier/company of this agreement and arrange for them to waive any rights of subrogation against [Christie's] . . . with respect to any loss of or damage to the [artwork] while it remains in [Christie's] care, custody and control."
The court held that this subrogation waiver acted to bar AXA's claims for gross negligence, negligent misrepresentation, breach of bailment, and breach of contract. AXA tried to argue that this was in violation of U.C.C. Section 7-204, but the court disagreed: The U.C.C. prevented Christie's from exempting itself from all liability, but this subrogation waiver, according to the court, merely allocated the risk of liability to the insurance companies. AXA also argued that Christie's breached the storage agreement in its actions (apparently no artwork was supposed to be stored on the ground floor, which had been represented to the clients as being used for "intake" before the artwork was move to more secure storage), but the court said those breaches didn't affect the enforceability of the subrogation waiver.
Well, the appellate court has spoken, and claims like AXA's now live to be litigated another day. In the similar case XL Specialty Insurance Company v. Christie's Fine Art Storage Services, Inc., the appellate court held that the subrogation waiver did violate Article 7 of the U.C.C. and attempt to exempt Christie's from all liability, the lower court's characterization otherwise notwithstanding. Therefore, the fight will now shift to whether Christie's actions were reasonable.
I recently blogged here about the healthcare insurance problem of patients not knowing ahead of time for what they will ultimately be charged and by whom. California is now introducing a bill (“AB 533”) seeking to prevent the problem of patients being unexpectedly charged out-of-network charges at in-network facilities when the facility subcontracts with doctors that are (allegedly) out-of-network.
The practice is widespread, at least in California. Nearly 25% of Californians who had hospital visits since 2013 have been very unpleasantly surprised with unexpectedly high bills after the fact for “out of network” services. This even after inquiring about the contractual coverage ahead of time and ensuring – or attempting to – that their providers were in network.
I personally had the same experience once as described in my recent blog. I also recently encountered a similar problem in South Dakota when, after asking about billing prices from an emergency room, was assured of one relatively modest price, only to be billed roughly ten times that amount a couple of months later for various unrecognizable items on the bill that the service provider, to add insult to injury, subsequently did not want to even discuss with me. (Yes, that is right: sick and in the emergency room, I was leery of hospital pricing and asked, only to still not get correct information.)
The onus of information-sharing should be on doctors and other medical provider. They should tell their patients if they are not in network, patients shouldn’t have to jump through an almost endless row of hoops just to find out their ultimate contractual obligations. Doctors will know immediately once you swipe your health insurance card, whereas patients have no way of knowing, as these stories show. Making matters even worse: what are patients supposed to do when they often don’t even see all the involved doctors ahead of time? Wake up during anesthesia and ask, “Oh, by the way, are you in network”? This practice is unconscionable and must stop. It is arguably an ethical obligation as well.
Because some hospitals, for instance, only accept employer-provided plans and not individual ones, some patients will always be out of network, thus allowing doctors to bill full charge. “This is a market failure. It allows doctors to exploit the monopoly that they have.”
Although it seems ridiculous, patients may, for now, have to turn the tables on the providers and scrutinize as many providers and facilities as they get in touch with 1) what the prices charged to the patients will be, and 2) if the providers are truly, actually, really in network (!).
Contractually, would patients win if they informed providers that they will only pay for in-network providers and only up to a certain amount? What else can a reasonable patient do in situations of such blatant greed and ignorance as these stories depict? Comment below!
Monday, April 4, 2016
CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39855 (Harvard Science Center)
It's a very common thing, to be provided with a "policy" as opposed to a "contract." A recent case out of the District of Massachusetts, Charest v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Civil Action No. 13-11556-DPW, addresses that exact issue, and concludes, as you might expect, that what you call something isn't as important as how you behave.
Dr. Mark Charest was a chemistry graduate student at Harvard University. While he was there, he and his supervisor (also a defendant in this lawsuit) and other scientists developed a "novel and valuable method for creating synthetic tetracyclines," important for commercial antibiotics. Universities have lots of valuable things being created by their employees and students, so it's not surprising that Harvard had a policy in place for this sort of situation. Harvard had Dr. Charest, as a student, sign the Harvard University Participation Agreement, which contained a clause that Dr. Charest "ha[d] read and  under[stood] and agree[d] to be bound by the terms of the 'Statement of Policy in Regard to Inventions, Patents, and Copyrights,'" referred to in this case as the IP Policy. A lot of things happen from that point on, but the important thing to know for purposes of this blog entry is that Dr. Charest maintained that Harvard had breached the IP Policy. Harvard, in response, maintained (among other things) that the IP Policy was not a contract.
Other than being called a "policy," you might think this an odd argument for Harvard to try to make, considering that having Dr. Charest sign an agreement to be bound by the IP Policy sounds pretty contract-y. A 1988 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, Jackson v. Action for Boston Community Development, had held that an employer's personnel manual was not a contract, and so Harvard relied heavily on that precedent, trying to cast its IP Policy as similar to the personnel manual in that case.
Jackson established a number of factors for its decision, and, while some of those factors did weigh in favor of Harvard, others weighed in favor of Dr. Charest. For instance, Harvard maintained the ability to unilaterally modify the IP Policy and there were no negotiations between Harvard and Dr. Charest over the IP Policy, two factors Jackson said support a conclusion that the IP Policy does not impose contractual obligations. However, Harvard called special attention to the IP Policy and Dr. Charest's agreement to it, required Dr. Charest's signature acknowledging the IP Policy, and the IP Policy spoke in mandatory terms rather than suggestive terms, all of which made it seem more like a binding contract.
In the end, the court found that, as the Jackson precedent has developed, the really important thing is whether Dr. Charest understood himself to have to agree to the terms of the IP Policy in order to continue as a student researcher at Harvard, and that Harvard was likewise agreeing to be bound. The court concludes that yes, this was true. The IP Policy sounded as if it was being very clear about Harvard's obligations, because of its unambiguous language. Harvard itself consistently referenced the IP Policy as governing its actions when questioned by Dr. Charest and when communicating with its students. Therefore, Harvard could not pretend now that it had not been behaving as if it was bound by the terms of the IP Policy.
(Nevertheless, the court went on to dismiss most--but not all--of Dr. Charest's claims. The facts are too complicated to get into in the scope of this blog entry, but if you're interested in the relationship between research universities and their graduate students, it's an interesting read.)
Monday, March 28, 2016
Here, Stacey Lantagne reports on a very sad story of what can happen if health care customers fail to follow accurate procedure and, at bottom, dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s when contracting for health care services.
For me, this speaks to the broader issue of whether or not patients can truly be said to have given consent to all the procedures and professionals rendering services to patients. I think this is often not the case. As you know, Nancy Kim is an expert on this area in the electronic contracting context. She kindly alerted me to this story in the health care field. (Thanks for that.) The article describes the practice of “drive-by doctoring” whereby one doctor calls in another to render assistance although the need for this may be highly questionable. The NY Times article describes an instance in which one patient had meticulously researched his health care insurance coverage, yet got billed $117,000 by a doctor he did not know, had never met, and had not asked for. That doctor had apparently shown up during surgery to “help.”
Of course, this is a method for doctors to make end runs around price controls. Other methods are increasing the number of things allegedly or actually performed for patients. Other questionable practices include the use of doctors or facilities that all of a sudden turn out to be “out of network” and thus cost patients much more money than if “in network.” I personally had that experience a few years ago. I had to have minor surgery and checked my coverage meticulously. The doctor to perform the surgery was in network and everything was fine. She asked me to report to a certain building suite the morning of the surgery. All went well. That is, until I got the bill claiming that I had had the procedure performed by an “out of network” provider. This was because… the building in which the procedure was done by this same doctor was another one than the one where I had been examined! When I protested enough, the health care company agreed to “settle” in an amount favorable to me.
In these cases, patients typically have very little choice and bargaining power. In the emergency context, what are they going to do? There is obviously no time to shop around. You don’t even know what procedures, doctors, etc., will be involved. The health care providers have all the information and all the power in those situations. However, in my opinion, that far from gives them a carte blanche to bill almost whatever they want to, as appears to be the case, increase their incomes in times when insurance companies and society in general is trying to curb spiraling health care costs.
In the non-emergency context, how much of a burden is it really realistic and fair to put on patients who are trying to find out the best price possible for a certain procedure, only to be blind-sighted afterwards? That, in my opinion, far exceeds fair contracting procedure and veers into fraudulent conduct. Certainly, such strategies go far beyond the regular contractual duty to perform in good faith.
Of course, part of this is what health care insurance is for. But even with good health care insurance, patients often end up with large out-of-pocket expenses as well. The frauds in this context are well known too: most health care providers blatantly offer two pricing scheme: one (higher) if they have to bill insurance companies, and a much lower price if they know up front to bill as a “cash price.”
We have a long ways to come in this area still, sadly.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
One of the areas of contract law where the mere language alone frequently trips my students up is the area of assignment and delegation, largely because neither courts nor contracts are always exactly precise in what they mean in this area. It remains one of the areas that, say, a large insurance company can find it got the wording wrong, as happened in a recent case out of Florida, Bioscience West v. Gulfstream Property and Casualty Insurance, Case No. 2D14-3946.
A homeowner had bought a insurance policy from Gulfstream. The policy prohibited assignment "of this policy" without Gulfstream's written consent. The homeowner's house suffered water damage and she hired Bioscience to fix the damage. She assigned "any and all insurance rights, benefits, and proceeds pertaining to services provided by BIOSCIENCE WEST INC. under the above referenced policy to BIOSCIENCE WEST, INC." When Gulfstream subsequently denied the homeowner's insurance claim, Bioscience sued as the assignee of the homeowner's right to recover the insurance policy's benefit. Gulfstream responded by stating that the policy could not be assigned with Gulfstream's consent, which had never been given. The distract court agreed, found the homeowner's assignment to be improper, and entered summary judgment in Gulfstream's favor.
The appellate court disagreed. The appellate court said that the phrase "assignment of this policy" plainly referred to the entire policy. What the homeowner assigned, however, was something less than the entire policy, i.e., just a portion of the benefits. Therefore, under the "unambiguous" wording of the policy, the homeowner's actions were permissible without Gulfstream's consent; Gulfstream's consent was only required if she tried to assign the entire policy.
And, in fact, the court found this was consistent with the loss-payment portion of the policy, which provided that Gulfstream would pay the homeowner "unless some other person . . . is legally entitled to receive payment." The court said that proved that Gulfstream understood that the homeowner would be able to assign benefits under the policy. (Although arguably all this proved was that Gulfstream understood that the homeowner would be able to assign benefits under the policy with Gulfstream's consent.) At any rate, there was ample precedent in Florida's case law supporting the proposition that policyholders can assign post-loss claims without the consent of the insurer.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
I just find this case so tragic and frustrating that I had to share with others, because that's just how I am, I like to spread those emotions around. But I think it's important, as we continue to debate how we do health care and health insurance in this country, to really think about the outcomes of these questions. And I have a nephew who was born premature and had to spend a little time in the NICU. My nephew is now a happy, energetic, clever five-year-old who we are very grateful for (even though we don't understand how five years have managed to pass, surely that's incorrect and he was just born yesterday, no?), but this case made me think of him and remember those first few scary days when you have a baby who you can't bring home with you. And how unforgiving bureaucracy can be in the face of your mere human emotions.
Kurma v. Starmark, Inc., No. 12-11810-DPW, a recent case out of the District of Massachusetts, introduces us to the Kurmas. Their son was born about two months premature and was immediately hospitalized after birth and remained in the intensive care unit for over two months. His hospital bills totaled more than $667,000. It seems as if it was a happy ending for the baby boy and that he eventually went home with his parents, because the case doesn't tell us otherwise, so that at least seems like good news for the Kurmas.
The bad news was that they failed to comply perfectly with all of the formalities of their health insurance policy, and for this reason the court found it had no choice but to find that the baby boy was not covered by his father's health insurance plan and therefore the Kurmas are responsible for the $667,000 hospital bill.
Mr. Kurma had been employed by First Tek since 2006. First Tek enrolled in the Bluesoft Group Health Benefit Plan on July 1, 2010. Mr. Kurma and his family joined in the plan as soon as it became available. His wife at the time was already pregnant, and her pregnancy care was covered under the plan. Their son was born on October 7, 2010, three months after they joined the Bluesoft plan.
What makes this case so tragic to me is that it wasn't as if Mr. Kurma did nothing to inform his health insurance that his baby son had been born. He did, in fact. He called his health insurance's claims processor on October 14, 2010, to inform him that his son had been born the previous week. Everybody agreed that this was timely notice to the health insurance company of the baby's birth. A week later, on October 21, Mr. Kurma received a letter from an affiliate of his health insurance company referring to "Baby Boy" and requesting medical information to determine the necessity of the baby's ongoing treatment.
Mr. Kurma had several more conversations with his health insurance company during the month of October. The parties disputed what was said in those conversations, although they agreed that Mr. Kurma wished to add his newborn son to the health insurance plan. There was disagreement as to whether or not Mr. Kurma was told that he needed to provide his HR department at work with written notice of his son's birth in order to add him to the policy. At any rate, on November 8, 2010 (more than 30 days after the baby's birth, which was the time limit Mr. Kurma had under the policy), the health insurance company sent Mr. Kurma a "Certificate of Group Coverage" that "is evidence of your coverage under this plan." The new baby was listed as the individual to whom the coverage applied and the "Date coverage began" was given as October 7, 2010, the date of the baby's birth. To be honest, I would at that point, if I were Mr. Kurma, probably have considered the baby to have been covered, as that piece of paper would have seemed self-evident to me as "evidence of...coverage." However, this piece of paper contained a trick: It claimed the "Date coverage ended" as October 6, 2010, the date before the baby's birth. According to the health insurance company, this should have been a red flag to Mr. Kurma, as that was the health insurance company's way of indicating that it had refused coverage on the baby. I'm not entirely sure why the way to do this wouldn't have been to send a letter saying "We are not covering the baby," rather than sending some weird time-travel-y message like this. It would be a good policy for all of us to just say what we mean in communications like this, don't you think? This paper, far from raising any red flag that Mr. Kurma needed to do anything further, seemed to reassure Mr. Kurma that he had done everything he needed to do.
And, even more confusingly, not even the insurance company itself, internally, seemed to know whether or not it thought the baby was covered. On November 4, an employee noted that the baby was automatically covered for the first month of his life and then needed to be formally added to the policy. A second note on November 5 corrected that to explain that the baby needed to be immediately enrolled in order to be covered. But it seems to me that if not even the health insurance company's own employees can figure out whether or not the baby was covered, it seems ridiculous to assume that a harried new father, with a baby in intensive care and a five-year-old at home to worry about, was supposed to be able to figure it out.
On November 29, 2010, Mr. Kurma had a conversation with his health insurance company in which he stated that he had added his new son to the plan. That night he e-mailed HR at First Tek to ask them to add the baby to the plan. That e-mail was the first written contact Mr. Kurma had had with HR. It came, as you can see, more than 30 days after the baby's birth. Which was a violation of the policy, which provided, "You notify Us and the Claims Processor of the birth . . . within 30 days," with "Us" defined as Mr. Kurma's employer, First Tek. Mr. Kurma had only informed the claims processor within 30 days.
In December 2010, Mr. Kurma was told for the first time that the health insurance company was denying coverage for his new baby. Confused, Mr. Kurma inquired as to why and was told it was his failure to return the written enrollment forms to his HR department within 30 days of the baby's birth. Mr. Kurma called his health insurance company to complain; they were unmoved.
Mr. Kurma's employer, however, was moved by Mr. Kurma's situation. To be honest, it seems as if First Tek knew all along that Mr. Kurma's son had been born and was in intensive care, which makes sense to me, as it is the kind of thing that employers tend to know, if you're taking time off and such. First Tek's CEO actually contacted the health insurance company on behalf of Mr. Kurma, asking for leniency: "[Mr. Kurma] has a prematurely born child who is still in hospital and in deep sorrow and was not in a right frame of mind. Is there anything you can do to make the carrier make an exception?" The carrier--who nobody disputed was well aware of the baby's existence and Mr. Kurma's desire to add him to the plan--refused to make such an exception, insisting that it could not because First Tek (the company requesting leniency) had not been properly notified. Note that that was the only basis for the health insurance company's denial, as stated in the letter it sent Mr. Kurma: "The plan required that Mr. Kurma notify [the insurance company] AND his employer, within 30 days after the infant's date of birth. [The insurance company] received notification within the required time frame, but First Tek did not." No matter, apparently, that First Tek itself requested that its notice requirement be waived and at any right apparently believed itself to have been properly notified.
Now the insurance plan in this case contained language that added further confusion to what was going on here: It gave First Tek "full, exclusive and discretionary authority to determine all questions arising in connection with this Contract including its interpretation." Under this clause, one might think that, if First Tek considered itself to have been validly notified, then it was. Not so fast, though. The insurance plan also contained language that the insurance company "has full, discretionary and final authority for construing the terms of the plan and for making final determinations as to appeals of benefit claim determinations . . . ." So whose interpretation, First Tek's or the insurance company's, should win here, when they both have some sort of "full" and "discretionary authority"?
The court concluded that this language meant that First Tek had authority over contract interpretation, but the insurance company had authority over claim determinations under the contract. Therefore, First Tek was correct in its assertion that the baby was enrolled, because that lay within First Tek's discretion. However, First Tek could not contradict the insurance company's determination, even accepting that the baby was enrolled, that the benefits were denied. I admit I'm so confused by this determination, I read this paragraph of the decision over several times, and I'm fighting a cold myself at the moment (and worrying about what health insurance coverage I'm going to mess up should I need to see a doctor over this illness!), so if I'm reading this wrong, please let me know, but this seems contradictory. What's the point of giving First Tek "ultimate" authority over who's enrolled under the policy if the health insurance company has "ultimate" authority to ignore First Tek's "ultimate" authority and deny benefits because it doesn't think people are enrolled? The court seems to think that this is a system that makes sense, but it mostly seems to me that it's just a fancy way of obscuring the fact that First Tek really had no authority here. Which might be fine as just a straightforward matter, but this is anything but straightforward: The contract manages to strip First Tek of authority by saying the opposite, much like the weird denial of coverage the insurance company sent that actually read that it was "evidence . . . of coverage." This is like being Alice in Looking-Glass Land, frankly.
At any rate, as you could probably tell was coming, Mr. Kurma loses this case. What's interesting is that he presents no claim that he ever informed First Tek in any way of the birth of his son within the relevant 30-day period. I find this difficult to believe, personally, and I don't know how there couldn't have been something he could have used to argue that he gave First Tek some notice, especially given the evidence that even First Tek's CEO tried to get coverage for the baby. But the court says there was no dispute that there had been no notice "of any kind," not even oral, and so Mr. Kurma failed under the terms of the policy.
Mr. Kurma argued that First Tek clearly wished the baby to be enrolled and tried to intercede with the insurance company on Mr. Kurma's behalf. The court's reaction to this is unimpressed: the plan says what the plan says, and First Tek's desire not to follow the plan doesn't mean anything. (Of course, presumably First Tek didn't have a whole lot of opportunity to negotiate the terms of the plan in the first place.) Mr. Kurma also tries to argue estoppel, which fails because, again, the words of the plan were clear, and Mr. Kurma failed to follow them, so he can't argue estoppel. Likewise, there was no duty on the insurance company's part to explain to Mr. Kurma what steps he had to take to insure his son, and there was no bad faith on the insurance company's part in failing to do so.
So, the end result is that the Kurma family is now over $667,000 in debt, as a result of having sought to save their son's life. This case just kills me. I know what the plan said, but I am a trained lawyer who found the words being said to Mr. Kurma confusing; I am bewildered by how it could be reasonable to expect Mr. Kurma to wade through all of this during what was doubtless the most stressful and emotionally exhausting time of his life. Think of how challenging you find it to deal with bureaucracy under ideal circumstances; imagine having to do it while your tiny infant son is fighting for his life in intensive care. And having to do it under circumstances where you're given dense pages of legalese, no assistance to walk through that legalese, and documents that say one thing while meaning the opposite.
I know that insurance companies have a lot to deal with, too. And I know this insurance company didn't want to pay $667,000 in medical bills. I know this insurance company wanted to make sure it makes people jump through a few hoops first to make sure they really deserve the health care. But I just find this outcome in this case tragically absurd in a way that makes me despair for how we're dealing with health care in this country: Nobody disputed that the health insurance company was well aware Mr. Kurma's wife was pregnant and would presumably soon be having a child; nobody disputed that the health insurance company was well aware Mr. Kurma's son had been born and was hospitalized; nobody disputed that the health insurance company indicated to Mr. Kurma that it was evaluating the necessity of his son's medical treatment; nobody disputed that the health insurance company even sent "evidence of . . . coverage" to Mr. Kurma. And still the health insurance company didn't have to cover the baby, because of one missed hoop that the company it pertained to sought to waive entirely.
Maybe your view is that Mr. Kurma should have been more on top of things. But I just think this seems like an incredibly harsh case.
Peter Gulia, an adjunct professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law, sent me this as a follow-up and I add it to the text here with his permission because I think it's a valuable contribution.
Your great essay on Kurma v. Starmark, Inc. paints a striking story. But let me give you a way to reconsider what happened.
The health plan is a “self-funded” health plan that is not health insurance. The employer pays the claims from the employer’s assets. (The employer likely has a stop-loss insurance contract that pays the employer, not the plan or any participant, if claims exceed specified measures.)
Starmark is not an insurer; it provides services to the employer, which also is the health plan’s sponsor, administrator, and named fiduciary.
In any moment during Mr. Kurma’s difficulties, the employer, acting as the plan’s administrator, could have instructed the processor to treat Kurma’s newborn as regularly enrolled. Doing so would make the employer responsible to pay the mother’s and newborn’s medical expenses.
(Even if the employer asked: “Is there anything [the processor] can do to make the carrier make an exception?”, this likely referred to trying to persuade the stop-loss insurer to provide more coverage than its contract promised.)
If one analyzes this case under the common law of contracts, one might classify it as a duty-to-read case. The reported facts suggest the participant did not read the plan, and also did not read, at least not carefully, its summary plan description.
That Mr. Kurma suffered a loss because he didn’t sufficiently understand his employee-benefit plan’s conditions is harsh. But it’s not because Starmark failed to perform its service agreement. And it’s not because Starmark sought to avoid an expense it never would bear.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
Every time I teach the mailbox rule, I'm amazed by how different the world was not so long ago. Imagine having to wait days to receive documents, instead of seconds via e-mail. When I was practicing, if documents didn't come through to me instantaneously, I found myself going through my spam, annoyed at the delay and the time I was losing in not having the documents in hand immediately. I think all the time that the practice of law must have been very different.
A recent case out of the District of Maryland, CMFG Life Insurance Co. v. Schell, Case No. GJH-13-3032, made me think again about how important timing can be. In that case, a delay in sending a document that amounted to only a couple of hours contributed to a sizable financial loss.
Sandra Lee had an annuity with CMFG that listed as its beneficiaries her husband William Schell and her three children. On December 14, 2012, between 11 and 11:30 am, Schell delivered a Change of Beneficiary form to the office of Lee's financial advisor, Nelson Turner. The form, signed by Schell as attorney-in-fact for Lee pursuant to a power of attorney that had been executed by Lee on December 6, named Schell as the sole beneficiary of the annuity, removing Lee's three children. Turner faxed the form to CMFG; the fax transmission stated CMFG received it at 2:01 pm.
At 1:10 pm, in between the time of Schell leaving the form with Turner and the time of CMFG receiving the faxed form, Lee died. Therefore, CMFG rejected the beneficiary change because it had not received the form prior to Lee's death, as required by the contract. Schell objected to CMFG's payment of the benefits to Lee's children, arguing that he was the only beneficiary of the annuity, and this lawsuit resulted.
Section 4.2 of the annuity stated that the beneficiary could be changed "by written request any time while the annuitant is alive." Both parties agreed that this language was clear that any beneficiary change had to take place while Lee was alive. But Schell said that the contract said the beneficiary change would be effective on the date signed, and he signed it while Lee was alive. The court, however, noted that this reading of the contract ignored the "by written request" language. The annuity actually contained a definition of "written request" that said it was a "written notice . . . received in our home office." The court noted that, although Schell might have signed the beneficiary form while Lee was still alive, it was not received by CMFG, as required by the contract, until after Lee had died. Therefore, it was not effective under the terms of the contract requiring it to be received while Lee was alive.
You might be thinking that, if not for Turner's delay in faxing the form, Schell would have been tens of thousands of dollars richer at this moment. However, the court went on to rule that the change of beneficiary form would not have been effective in any event because Schell could not breach his fiduciary duty to Lee and use his power of attorney to achieve his own personal gain.
At any rate, though, if you do have a properly executed change of beneficiary form for an annuity, it is in your best interest not to delay sending it in and making it effective.
Friday, March 18, 2016
Thank you to Matthew Bruckner for posting the following comment on my post on crowdwork: "Thanks for the interesting discussion of crowd-working issues. If folks are interested, in a recent article I discussed using crowdworkers to supplement lawyer's work in bankruptcy cases. Article here."
Monday, March 14, 2016
H-2B visas provide for foreign citizens to work temporarily for American businesses in non-agricultural roles. However, these visas can sometimes lead to abuse of the foreign citizens working under them, as was alleged in a recent case out of the Eighth Circuit, Cuellar-Aguilar v. Deggeller Attractions, No. 15-1219. Also blogged about here from a workplace law point of view, the case involved a group of nineteen workers who had been employed in a traveling carnival. The workers alleged, among other things, that their employer had breached their employment contracts by paying them below the minimum wage.
The district court found that there had been no contract between the workers and their employer, basing its decision on the federal regulations governing the H-2B visa program. However, the appellate court said that was the incorrect place to look for guidance on whether a contract existed. Rather, the existence of a contract is governed by state common law, and in this case there was enough evidence of a contract to survive a motion to dismiss. The workers received offers of employment from Deggeller and then traveled to the United States in acceptance of those offers, which was enough to establish a contractual relationship. The court then used the federal regulations governing the H-2B visa program to fill in the particular terms of the contract, which included a requirement that the employer pay no less than the minimum wage. Therefore, the workers' allegations that the employer had breached this requirement established a valid contract cause of action.
Allowing the workers to proceed on a contract theory may seem like a positive development for similarly situated workers who might find themselves taken advantage of. However, I had the pleasure recently of hearing Prof. Annie Smith from the University of Arkansas School of Law speak on the prospect of mandatory arbitration clauses being applied to guestworkers. As we all know, mandatory arbitration clauses are currently in major vogue, and Prof. Smith expressed concern that mandatory arbitration would be detrimental to already vulnerable guestworkers. The decision here might encourage employers like Deggeller to enter into more formal contracts that would include arbitration clauses. If they're going to be found to be in a contractual relationship anyway, presumably the employers would want to exercise control over the terms of that contractual relationship.
Friday, March 11, 2016
I bet we'd have a lot fewer people fighting arbitration clauses if arbitration = tweeting J.K. Rowling.
As reported around the Internet, a student and her high school science teacher entered into a contract concerning whether Rowling would write another Harry Potter book. The contract called for the loser to declare the victor "Mighty" (a much more charming form of consideration than payment of a sum of money).
The article (from last month) reports that there were two possible Harry Potter pieces of creativity to be contended with. One is the prequel movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling wrote the original textbook (which already existed at the time the contract was entered into and so isn't part of the dispute) and also wrote the screenplay for the movie, which could have been in dispute. However, the article points out that Rowling wrote the screenplay to the movie, and the contract concerns a Harry Potter "novel." Even if you wish to make an argument that screenplays should have been included in the definition of the contractual term "novel," it seems like Fantastic Beasts would fail because it does not "feature the character Harry Potter as part of the main plotline," as required by the contract. (At least, so I assume from what I know about the movie so far.)
The other piece of Harry Potter creativity being debated under the contract, and the one for which Rowling was called in to arbitrate, concerned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play focusing on Harry as an adult and his relationship with his children, especially his son Albus. Cursed Child raised issues: It was a play but it is being billed as "the eighth story," the script will be published in text form, and the website claims it's "based on an original story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany." It does seem as if, considering this is a "play," even its published script would not be considered a "novel" under the contact. However, the student who was a party to the contract sought further clarification from Rowling.
Using the convenient method of Twitter, the student explained her contract to Rowling and asked for a decision on whether Cursed Child would fulfill the terms of the contract. Rowling responded, confirming that Cursed Child is a play and also noting that, while she had contributed to the story, Jack Thorne was the "writer" of the play.
The student was pleased that her clear contractual terms meant that she was still the victor, but also noted that the term of the contract had not yet run. Since the publication of the article and the arbitration of the Cursed Child dispute, J.K. Rowling has announced a new set of stories to be collected under the title History of Magic in North America. So far, these stories also seem not to fulfill the terms of the contract, as they seem more like "extra books" rather than "an entirely new book," and they do not seem to feature Harry Potter at all. However, Rowling seems to be dancing right around the edges of this contract's terms.
Monday, March 7, 2016
People keep challenging arbitration provisions, and they keep losing. In this instance, a case out of Washington called Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services of Seattle, Inc. v. Yates, Wood & MacDonald, Inc., No. 73199-8-I.
This time, the parties were both voluntary members of the Commercial Broker's Association (the "CBA"), the bylaws of which contained a clause that CBA members agreed to arbitrate disputes with each other according to the CBA's arbitration procedure. Neither party ever signed any sort of membership agreement to belong to the CBA, which Marcus focused on in its argument that the arbitration provision therefore wasn't enforceable. Marcus argued that, without a signed agreement, there was no evidence that it had manifested assent to the arbitration provision. However, well-established Washington law held that membership in the voluntary organization was evidence enough that Marcus and Yates assented to abide by its bylaws. There was no requirement that there be a signed agreement.
Marcus didn't confine its arguments to just asserting that there should have been a signed agreement, however. Marcus then tried to argue that it wasn't even a member of the CBA, because of the fact that no one had been able to produce a membership agreement signed by Marcus. This was a bad move on its part and lost it a lot of credibility. The court pointed out that Marcus had paid all of the CBA's required fees and dues since 1993 and had in fact on two previous occasions taken advantage of the CBA's arbitration tribunal to resolve disputes, a procedure only available to CBA members. The court also pointed out that, despite testifying that he did not believe Marcus was a member of the CBA, Marcus's regional manager had routinely provided other brokers with Marcus's "CBA Office ID" number.
Marcus was willing to fight hard to keep this dispute out of arbitration, to the point of having to be scolded by the court for "prevaricating." At the point when that is happening, I'm not sure winning the case and staying in front of that judge is what you want!
Friday, March 4, 2016
I am pleased to be able to post the following from guest blogger Creola Johnson of the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law:
“His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” said Mitt Romney during a speech denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. This statement has prompted additional inquiries into lawsuits filed against Trump University by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and others. (See Petition from New York v. The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative LLC.)
In a class-action lawsuit, many attendees of Trump University alleged that they paid as much as $35,000 to be personally mentored in learning how to earn millions investing in real estate. Despite numerous attempts by lawyers for the Trump defendants to get these lawsuits to dismiss, courts have given the green light for the lawsuits to continue against the Trump defendants. See, e.g., Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, No. 10-CV-940-IEG (WVG), 2010 WL 3988684 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 12, 2010) (refusing to dismiss claims against the for-profit Trump program on educational malpractice grounds because the court was not convinced “Trump University” was “an educational institution to which this doctrine applies.”). For the most recent decision permitting Mr. Schneiderman’s case to proceed, go to: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/AD1/calendar/appsmots/2016/March/2016_03_01_dec.pdf.
What can we say for sure at this juncture about the lawsuits? First, “Trump University” was not a university. There are numerous educational standards and laws that must be complied with for an institution to legitimately claim to be a university. The question then becomes: did the people running Trump’s real estate program (the Trump Program) make promises that arose to level of being a contract. For example, the consumer-plaintiffs alleged that the Trump Program promised that the instructors and mentors running the program would be “hand-picked by Donald Trump.” However, this promise was allegedly breached because most of the instructors and mentors were unknown to Mr. Trump and that they didn’t actually teach any real estate techniques.
We’ll have to wait for a court or jury’s finding regarding what promises were actually made by Donald Trump and the people running the Trump Program. The good news for the plaintiffs and Mr. Schneidermann is that they do not have to prove the existence of a contract. New York, along with every state, has laws that prohibit businesses from engaging in deceptive and unfair business practices.
Consumers should be leery of any language that appears to promise an educational outcome—e.g., “you will earn a six-figure salary after graduation.” While a state’s attorney general, such as Mr. Schneiderman, has the authority to make businesses stop deceptive practices, the attorney general may not be able to get back the money consumers have lost. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! For an in-depth discussion of deceptive degrees, see my article, Degrees of Deception: Are Consumers and Employers Being Duped by Online Universities and Diploma Mills?
President’s Club Professor of Law,
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Monday, February 29, 2016
Are arbitration provisions binding against exotic dancers? Well, if you're wondering, in this Connecticut case, Horrocks v. Keepers, Inc., CV156054684S (behind a paywall), the answer is yes.
The plaintiffs here filed the lawsuit alleging that they were employees, not independent contractors as the gentleman's club maintained, and as such the club had violated plaintiffs' legal rights as employees, including failing to pay minimum wage. The club moved to stay the proceedings arguing that it had signed an entertainment lease agreement with all of the dancers that required binding arbitration to resolve disputes.
The plaintiffs' main argument was that the entire entertainment lease agreement was void because it had an illegal purpose in seeking to implement the club's violation of labor laws as alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint. Because the entire agreement was void, the argument went, the arbitration clause wasn't enforceable. In the alternative, the plaintiffs argued that the arbitration provision was unconscionable.
On the plaintiffs' first point, the court concluded that the legality of the overall entertainment lease agreement was a matter for the arbitrator to decide. According to Connecticut precedent, the courts' job is only to determine if the arbitration clause is valid; every other issue is left to the arbitrator. Therefore, all of the arguments about the illegality of the entertainment lease agreement were left to the arbitrator, and the court focused its analysis on the alleged unconscionability of the arbitration provision.
We've seen this story before. And, in fact, courts have seemed pretty determined to find arbitration provisions enforceable, even when other parts of the contract were unconscionable (or, as here, where it was questionable whether the contract was enforceable at all). There was actually Connecticut precedent about another set of exotic dancers suing another gentlemen's club with similar allegations, and in that case, D'Antuono v. Service Road Corp, 789 F. Supp. 2d 308 (D. Conn. 2011), the court upheld the arbitration provision against attacks of unconscionability. The court in this case follows the precedent, finding this case indistinguishable from D'Antuono.
The court here allows for the possibility that this arbitration clause was part of an unenforceable adhesion contract presented in bad faith with a knowing illegal purpose, but says that alone isn't enough to deny enforcement of the arbitration clause, because that would only be procedural unconscionability. As far as substantive unconscionability went, the cost and fee shifting provisions provided in the arbitration clause weren't unreasonable, and the class action waiver included in the arbitration provision was also not unconscionable according to precedent: "Requiring the plaintiffs to pursue their claims individually is not an ineffective vindication of their rights."
I admit that I'd never really given a lot of thought to class action waivers, but it does seem odd to assert that class action waivers do not harm the plaintiffs' ability to vindicate their rights. After all, class actions are frequently understood to exist to correct the problem that, sometimes, individual pursuit of claims isn't effective.
At any right, individual pursuit through arbitration is what these plaintiffs are left with.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
American Airlines has nonsuited (i.e., dismissed without prejudice to refilling the lawsuit) its declaratory judgment claim against Gogo. American had recently asked a Texas state court to determine whether the provision of the availability of "better service" (or some similar term) in its 2012 contract had been triggered such that American could force Gogo to submit a competitive bid to retain its service.
As discussed in a previous post, American's negotiating leverage arose as much from the publicity surrounding it filing of a lawsuit as it did from the actual contract term. The term was apparently vague enough that Gogo could (and did) take the position that its rights as American's exclusive in-flight service provider had not been called into question by American's request for a new proposal. Upon American's filing of a declaratory judgment lawsuit in Texas state court, however, Gogo's stock price dropped 27 percent.
Today, the word is out that Gogo has changed its position and accepted American's interpretation of the contract. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports:
[American Airlines had said] that its contract with Gogo allowed it to renegotiate or terminate its agreement if another company offered a better service. Gogo had disputed that clause in the contract, but Friday agreed to the contract provision and said it would provide a competitive bid within 45 days.
“American is a valued customer of Gogo, and Gogo looks forward to presenting a proposal to install 2Ku, our latest satellite technology, on the aircraft that are the subject of the AA Letter,” Gogo said in a government filing Friday. “We acknowledge the adequacy of the AA Letter and that our receipt of the AA Letter triggered the 45 day deadline under the agreement for submission of our competitive proposal.”
* * *
Once American reviews Gogo’s proposal, if it does not beat out a competitor’s proposal, American can terminate Gogo’s contract with 60 days’ notice.
Shares of Gogo [ticker: GOGO] jumped on the news of the dropped lawsuit, up almost 10 percent....
The swift manner in which this episode had played out emphasizes the extent to which contract doctrine and interpretation it frequently not the principal driver of business relationships. Gogo could have marshalled a team of lawyers and stood on its interpretation of the contract up to final judgment--likely a summary judgment based on a question of law. But what would be the reputational and business cost? Eventually, the marketplace won't allow contract rights to serve as a substitute for proof of the quality of a product.
A challenge I find in teaching future transactional lawyers is to ensure that they do not become enamored with legal rights as being the be-all and end-all of deal making. Law is important, but a business lawyer must employ practical wisdom, as well. That wisdom includes the fact that law itself is only one part of practicing law... and it sometimes isn't even the most important part.
Friday, February 19, 2016
At any given time, the Uniform Law Commission/NCCUSL is engaged in many important and useful state-law drafting projects, but one of the more interesting ones for me is its current work in drafting a proposed Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act. I have had the fantastic opportunity to act as an observer to the drafting committee and watch the stakeholders and commissioners navigate disparate policy perspectives and try find as-common-as-possible ground, while Chair Fred Miller keeps the group on task and Reporter Sarah Jane Hughes assimilates an incredible amount of debate into a rapidly evolving draft. The experience is a wonder that I would recommend to anyone with a serious interest in legislative policymaking. It also, for present purposes, helps illustrate both the benefits and limits of contract law in a nascent market-space.
The current drafting project arose out of the phenomenon of Bitcoin, the first technologically viable means of electronically transmitting value without the possibility of double spending or the need for a financial intermediary, like a bank. While the use cases for virtual currency technology are still in their relative infancy, states began to consider and enact disparate regulatory schemes, with New York's BitLicense regulatory framework being the most prominent example. While federal regulators and law enforcement have understandably focused on preventing the use of pseudonymous cryptocurrency to advance criminal enterprises and finance international terrorism, the state concerns have tended more toward protection of consumers and other users engaged in perfectly legal transactions. While Bitcoin does not require an intermediary any more than paper cash requires use of a bank, intermediaries--like digital wallet services--have arisen to fill the convenience role analogous to bank accounts. These virtual currency intermediaries are, for the most part, the principal target of state-law regulation and current work of the Uniform Law Commission.
What is the contract law angle here? It's this: In the absence of specially-crafted law of the sort now under consideration, the common law of contracts fills the void to enable some degree of enforceable private ordering. The flexibility of contract law is such that it can allow for the birth of business models no one contemplated as recently as the eve of Bitcoin's creation in 2008. The flexibility of such a legal regime is amazing. Contract law can, nonetheless, only facilitate business so far. Public-protective regulation is necessary to achieve widespread market acceptance beyond the universe of early-adopters and risk takers. Regulation carries its own risks, however, as a heavy-handed approach can stifle innovation and create anti-competitive barriers to market entry.
That--in many different flavors--is the policy question being grappled with in the Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act, and the question is relevant in any other space where rapidly developing technology exceeds the capacity of existing law. Where do we apply protective public law, and what do we keep within the realm of private contracts?