Friday, March 6, 2015
The always excellent Bob Sullivan recently wrote a post on his blog about the nastiness that resulted from Curt Schilling's proud daddy post. (The nastiness is seriously nasty). As Sullivan points out, and which I've argued here and here, online companies like Twitter have a business responsibility to make sure the services they offer are safe. Online, of course, everything turns into a debate about free speech, even when the so-called speech is obviously obscenity (and please, don't argue with me about this one - if you saw the tweets, you would agree that a "reasonable person" would think they were obscene) and even though the billion dollar companies are not state actors. The problem is that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been construed very broadly by courts to protect websites like Twitter from liability for content posted by others. That gives these companies little incentive to invest resources into policing their sites. But as Sullivan notes, if they don't start to clean up their sites, people might start leaving in droves.
So what should businesses do? One thing they could do is start taking their contracts seriously. We are all familiar with clickwrap and browsewrap agreements that nobody reads. They often contain codes of conduct or, in the case of Twitter, "content boundaries." Companies can start making these agreements more readable and salient. They can start by actually enforcing them. For example, Twitter can enforce their content boundaries by kicking users off the site or charging them a fine for violating the rules (maybe after a warning) which may help defray the costs of policing the site....They can also design their contracts so they are more readable and post a "warning" that abusive tweets will be subject to a fine or suspension and force users to "click" to acknowledge they have read the warning. I suspect that many who tweet impulsively later regret it so a warning at point of posting/sending might make some think twice.
I realize that hiring people to evaluate each reported post might take time so that the best solution would be software that flags certain posts and sends a warning to the user to reconsider the post. It could also contain a reminder that the user will be liable for damages if the tweet is defamatory. All this scary stuff is in the contract - but because it is contained behind a hyperlink, few users will actually read it. An email delivered to the users, reminding them of their contractual obligations and the scary things (public condemnation, suspension or expulsion from the site, liability for lawsuits, maybe even criminal prosecution if the tweet is threatening enough) that might happen to them if they violate these obligations, might be more effective. Some users may voluntarily take down the post in response to the automated email which may cut down on the number of tweets subject to human review.
Of course, contracts can only do so much, but they might help.
Thursday, March 5, 2015
The official portrait of former President Bill Clinton has been completed. See it here. It was painted in the “conservative realistic style” … maybe a little too realistic and not sufficiently conservative?
According to the artist, Nelson Shanks, the bluish shadow of a person that you see on the mantelpiece next to Clinton is that of Monica Lewinski in her infamous blue dress. You got that right: the artist himself has admitted that he purposefully scarred the picture just as the Lewinsky scandal scarred Clinton’s second term. The artist has apparently caught quite some flak for having done this. Regardless of artistic freedom and setting aside all thoughts about the scandal per se, what is, after all, at issue here is a contract for artwork depicting a former President of the United States of America. A bit more respect may have been in order. This was not any regular client having a portrait done; it’s in effect the entire nation that commissioned this work. Perhaps a subjective satisfaction clause would have been in order here. Even if it had been any “regular” client, deliberately depicting one’s paying client in a highly controversial light seems to me to be in questionable taste.
On the other hand, the argument has been made that if the artist had been held to certain contractual stipulations, the portrait of the 42nd President would have been “stiff and untrue.”
That’s not the case? Take a look and judge for yourself. While much has been made of Clinton holding an actual, gash, newspaper – so retro – the strange positioning of his fingers on his hip looks more bizarre to me. An indication of his alleged two-sided look at what constituted “the truth” in certain contexts? To me, it looks more like the V sign for, perhaps, Clinton’s ultimate victory over at least some of the political and other challenges he faced.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Last year, Starbucks announced a new corporate-supported educational program that one year later is still viable: Starbucks will reimburse its full-time workers for taking online classes with Arizona State University. Partial tuition (58%) will be offered to freshmen and sophomores and full tuition for juniors and seniors as long as credits are earned within the past 18 months so as to keep students on track.
As you may have noticed if you are a Starbucks customer, very many of its employees appear to be college-aged. In fact, 70% of Starbucks’ workforce are either in school already or have had to drop out because of various personal difficulties.
This program seems to be a benefit to employees who cannot afford to go to school full time (or even part time), but who desire and education. What is remarkable is also how few “strings” are attached to the program. For example, the employees do not even have to stay with Starbucks after the completion of their degree. Said CEO Howard Schultz (still the CEO): "We want to attract and retain great people. We want to provide [our employees] with new tools and new resources to have advancements in the company.”
What is in it for ASU? This has been said to be a coup for the university, which already has one of the nation’s largest and most highly regarded online programs. Of course, Starbucks has a large amount of employees with, presumably, many coming and going, so ASU now has access to a large database of potential students, something many universities – private and public - are craving in these competitive times.
For the students and the university, rates may be discounted. This is normal in this type of situation. What would truly make a difference would be if the rates could become so reduced for students that they would, in effect, have no out-of-pocket costs altogether.
What, to me, is interesting about this situation is that a public university has found out workable model for online classes and cooperation with a private business venture when many private universities have not.
The somewhat strange catch here is that ASU cannot enter into any other arrangement with a for-profit business for four years, but that Starbucks is free to advertise its partnerships with a few other schools.
See the contract at issue here.
See Starbucks’ description of the program here.
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
I've been away from the submission process for a few years. In the meantime, Scholastica has entered the picture, which from an author's view is simply an expensive headache, and more journals are encouraging authors to submit directly through either e-mail or their own online submissions process.
Having been a historian before becoming a law professor, I am still grateful for the advantages of student-edited law journals and authors' ability to submit to scores of journals simultaneously. I still believe that this process is better for authors and not significantly less arbitrary that double-blind peer review. Lots of scholarship gets published that does not end up getting used or cited under both systems, but the peer review process banishes lots of possibly meritorious scholarship to the dung-heap of history based on the opinions of two people whose reasoning might be insufficient to justify such a heavy penalty.
That said, I do find a new feature of online submission processes disquieting. At least one journal that encourages authors to submit through their online submission form features a Submission Agreement that includes a link to a separate page containing the journal's "attribution and usage policies." The latter are incorporated by reference, and thus one must agree to them in advance before submitting the article. There is nothing particularly onerous in the Submission Agreement or the usage policies, but the problem is that authors submit to dozens or scores of journals. The journals cannot really expect authors (or their administrative assistants who submit on their behalves) to read through boilerplate terms. So there we have it -- forms that purport to bind law professors to terms to which they have not meaningfully consented. This is especially ironic if, like me, you have been writing about the dangers of form contracts and the degraded version of "consent" in this context.
The practice is especially irksome as the submission process does not otherwise involve a contract. When I submit my article to multiple journals for publication, I am submitting an invitation for offers. I have no obligation to the journals, and they have no obligation to me. They don't even have to read my piece before rejecting it, nor do they have to respond in any way to me. And if they do offer to accept my piece (which, note, is typically described as an "offer to publish" not as an "acceptance"), I can reject that offer and go merrily on my way.
The introduction of form contracts at the submission state -- a point at which the parties have no legal relationship -- is simply unnecessary.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Back in 2013, we mused about the seeming disconnect between public outrage at NSA data mining and the lack of comparable outrage with respect to private data mining. Nancy Kim and I have been writing in this area, and a recent report in the ABA Journal provides additional fodder for our scholarship.
One of the things that makes television's "smart" these days is that they have the ability to respond to voice commands. If you have this feature on, the television transmits your information to a third party, according to Samsung. If you turn the voice recognition feature off, your television still gathers the data but it does not transmit it.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
This year, I am teaching a bar preparation course on contracts, which is being offered for the first time at my Law School. This is a lot of fun for me -- I like teaching contracts both semesters because it keeps my mind more focused on the subject. It's also fun to teach the material in a different way -- no cases, as some familiarity with the case law is assumed at this point, so I just give mini refresher lectures and then move on to the homework assignment.
So it's fun, but it's also a lot of work. I give my students four multiple choice questions each day, and they have to turn in their answers -- explaining why the right answer is wrong and the wrong answers are wrong. The idea is to both solidify their understanding of the doctrine and alert them to the strategy behind bar exam "distractors" -- that is, wrong answers that are trying to trick students into mistaking them for correct answers. Most days, they also have to write a short essay, designed to be akin to MEE questions.
Because I am teaching such a course myself, I read with some interest David Frakt's recent post on The Faculty Lounge on the value of in-house bar prep courses. But I was taken aback by the comments. The anonymous or pseudonymous commentators asked the following rhetorical questions:
- Does bar prep make students better lawyers?
- What good is passing the bar when there are no jobs for lawyers anyway?
- Don't law schools have an obligation to refrain from flooding the market with unemployable lawyers?
I think this is a case of massive anger that is massively misdirected. Students are in law school. They want to stay in law school and they want to become lawyers. I have met with many students facing dismissal from my Law School for poor academic performance. The ones I have spoken to all are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in, and they are furious with us when we dismiss them. So we put the time and the energy into bar prep courses because it is what our students need. Some of them need it because they won't do the work without the additional kick in the pants. Others need it because they have many natural gifts that will make them great lawyers, but excelling at standardized tests is not one of them. We are trying to get them over that hurdle so that they can have the careers for which they are otherwise qualified.
I certainly understand the anger of the unemployed law students. I was an unemployed Ph.D. before I went to law school. I know what professional devastation feels like. It seems like the "Law School Scam" crowd thinks the solution is to just shut law schools like the one I teach at. But how would throwing me, my colleagues, and our support staff out of work improve the situation? It certainly would not improve things for the students we serve, most of whom pass the bar, find work, and do better than they would have done without their degrees. Law school opened for me a range of career options that would have been completely unthinkable without my J.D. Why should that opportunity be denied to the current generation of potential law students?
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Property development is often considered a way for local communities to earn more taxes and evolve with times in general. But when construction and other development is approved in geologically risk areas such as flood zones and things go awfully wrong, is this a mere property and contracts issue, or may criminal liability lie?
In France, the answer is the latter. The former mayor of the small French seaside town La Faute-sur-Mer was just sentenced to jail for four years for deliberately hiding flood risks so that he and the town could benefit from the “cash cow” of property development, a French court has held. His deputy mayor received a two-year sentence in the same plot.
In 2010, the cyclone Xynthia hit western Europe and knocked down seawalls in the French town, leading to severe floods and 29 deaths.
Wait… a cyclone in France? Yes. Climate change is real and it’s here. Unless we do something about it (which apparently we don’t), things will only get worse. As on-the-ground steps that could prevent extreme results such as the above are often simply ignored or postponed while more and more research is done and money saved at various government scales, lawsuits will necessarily follow. The legal disciplines, including contracts law, will have to conform to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate. For starters, we need to seriously question the wisdom and continued desirability of constructing more and more homes in coastal and other flood prone areas. Ignoring known risks is, well, criminal.
Monday, February 2, 2015
We have had quite a few posts about Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services, but they just keep popping up in the news, and the wrinkles are always unexpected and fascinating. Saturday's New York Times reported that the companies allow drivers to rate their passengers. If you get a bad rating, you'd better hail a cab or [shudder] take public transportation. It's not such a strange thing to be rated by a service-provider you pay, the Times point out. After all, students pay tuition to attend law school, and yet we grade them. But of course, students know that going in. Probably most passengers don't expect to be rated. What a wonderful century we inhabit -- so many opportunities to pass judgment on perfect strangers!
And what sort of behavior will get you a bad rating? It may be simple things like asking the driver to turn the heat/air conditioning/radio up or down. One rider expressed her angst about being thought insensitive or lacking in interpersonal skills if she took a call or did work while riding. Even Uber's CEO, one of the few riders with access to his own rating, was downgraded from five stars as a passenger to four. He attributes the lackluster reviews to work stress. He blames himself. "I was not as courteous as I should have been.” He should watch out. You can be banned from Uber, which siad in a blog post that it only wants to serve "the most respectful riders."
The article suggests that two-way review systems are inevitable, even though they may be inaccurate. A comparison of a site that allowed two-way reviews with one that allowed only one-way review found that the two-way system leads to far more positive reviews.
What goes around comes around. I would not put it past these companies to monitor their drivers' ratings of passengers. The company may find its own ways to retaliate against drivers who complain about passengers who do nothing more offensive than behaving like busy people who are getting a ride from a stranger as part of a commercial transaction.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
An Ohio appellate court upheld a $1.2 million breach of contract judgment against Kent State's men's basketball coach, Geno Ford. The judgment enforced a liquidated damages clause entitling Kent State to damages equal to Ford's annual salary ($300,000) multipled by the number of years remaining on his contract at the point of breach. In Kent State University v. Ford, Coach Ford tried to characterize the liquidated damages clause as a penalty. The court applied Ohio law to determine whether at the time the contract was entered into: 1) damages were uncertain; 2) the damages provided for in the contract were not unconscionable; and 3) the parties intended for damages to follow a breach. The court upheld the trial court's determination that the standard was satisfied in this case. Coach Ford can take consolation in the fact that his salary is short of Jim Harbaugh's by an order of magnitude.
PetaPixel.com reports on a wedding photographer who, after charging a couple $6000 to shoot a wedding album, sought an additional $150 for the album cover. The couple balked, so the photographer is refusing to hand over the photographs and is threatening to charge them an additional $250 "archive fee" if they do not pay up in a month. PetaPixel draws the following lesson from the story:
This all goes to show that as a photographer, you should never rely on verbal agreements when it comes to conditions and charges. Always get everything in writing.
Maybe. The photographer herself has an extremely lengthy blog post about the entire affair in which she claims that everything should have been clear from the written contract. PetaPixel's story makes it seem like an additional charge was added after the contract had been entered into, and if that's the case, the couple might well have balked whether or not the new terms were in writing.
Contracts Prof/Con Law Prof Randy Barnett, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy picked up by the Washington Post, muses interestingly on the applicability of the contractual duty of good faith to the President's duty to faithfully execute the laws in the Constitution's Take Care clause. This helps Barnett reconcile his empathy for the President's refusal to enforce federal drug laws in the face of permissive state laws permitting use of marijuana with his opposition to the President's new initiative on immigration. I've never been persuaded that the contractual analogy is particularly useful in Constitutional interpretation. Suggesting that the contracts doctrine of "good faith" provides a useful gloss on the Take Care clause strikes me as a stretch, but Professor Barnett is always stimulating.
Friday, January 23, 2015
We know that merchantability means passing without objection in the trade. If law review articles were goods, what would that trade be? For law professors, it seems like it is second and third year law students. At some level it would also reviewers of works when a professor is considered for promotion. Recently, though, a colleague of mine and I did a bit of research and began to wonder if acceptable in the trade -- as defined by law students and law professors -- is a meaningful strandard within the trade of academia.
Law professors who do research are generally spending the money of others. The actual buyers are, therefore, those who pay for the scholarship. Let's add that they have no idea what the standard is but would uniformly agree that every article should make someone or something better off and should reflect high quality research. Students and reviewers should be regarded as agents for those paying the bills.
If that is the measure of merchantability (and why wouldn't it be) then editors and reviewers should apply that standard in their own decisions. Clearly they do not and left to their narrow and inappropriate standard for merchantability we have massive amounts of scholarship that, let's face it, is written to justify being granted tenure. There is little verification that most, no matter how carefully done or clever, actually benefits anyone. Some of it -- a small percentage -- is cited but rarely for the substantive points made as opposed to piggy-backing on a fact asserted in the first work. Morever the research is often sloppy. Here is an example. I recently read an article that makes the claim that a certain area of law is now consistent with empirical studies. I looked at the cite and it was to another professor who had not actualy done any empirical work and did not quite say what was claimed. And the work cited by that professor was not on the point made in the first article. In fact the most frequent cite is the hearsay cite in which the author makes a claim because someone else made the same claim.
I expect readers of this will disagree but shouldn't the test of merchatability mean making someone or something (even if a fish) better off and shouldn't documentation be careful and accurate? Don't misunderstand, much of scholarship meets these standards. But much of what currently passes in the trade without objection does not.
Monday, January 19, 2015
I recently came across an article by Professor Sidney Kwestel that has many good and interesting things to say about the UCC's famous battle of the forms section, 2-207. However, Professor Kwestel suggests the UCC § 2-207(2)'s "knock out rule" cannot be right because it violates "a basic contract concept--that the offeror is the master of the offer."
I've always understood the "rule" that the offeror is the master of the offer to mean only that: (1) the offeror is free to revoke the offer at any time before acceptance; and (2) under the common law, the offeror can treat any purported acceptance that is not a mirror image of the offer as a rejection of the offer and a counteroffer. In my view, the notion is hardly a "basic concept." It's more like a slogan. You think you are the master of your offer. Big deal. I'll make you a counteroffer. Then I'm the master. Oooh la la.
Professor Kwestel thinks it absurd that an expression of assent could operate as assent to some terms but not others. However, the result is worse for the offeror under the common law. Under the last shot rule, the counterofferor's terms do not just knock out the offeror's terms, they replace them. Since the UCC's version of the battle of the forms eliminates both the mirror image rule and the last shot rule, it reduces the slogan to its first meaning -- it only permits revocation at any time before acceptance. The result is much more even-handed as to whose terms govern, and I count that as a win.
Certainly there are problems about what to do with different terms under § 2-207, and Professor Kwestel's article is very good about illuminating the difficulty navigating between the text of the section and the reporter's comments. While I can easily concede that it has its flaws, I think the problems with the knock-out rule are more textual than conceptual.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Speaking of auctions (see Jeremy's blog below), how about a rug reading "In Dog We Trust" instead of the official motto of both the United States and Florida?
A sheriff's office in Florida has removed a mat featuring the miswoven lettering. There have reportedly been several offers to buy the misprinted rug after the error was discovered two months after having been placed at the entrance to the sheriff's office.
Spelling in this country is truly going to the dogs.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
The effectiveness of disclosure is an ongoing discussion on this blog and not long ago we had an engaging online symposium on Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider's thought-provoking book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. Lauren Willis and Theresa Amato have written an op-ed in today's LA Times that gets to the heart of the failures of disclosures (and related informational problems) when it comes to consumer literacy - and they offer some solutions. I particularly like their suggestion that banks demonstrate that consumers understand the financial products offered. This shifts the burden of disclosure from the consumers to the banks. You can read more here.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
On January 7th, a federal judge struck down a ban on foie gras that had been in effect since 2012. The judge was of the opinion that the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act preempts the California ban. This Act gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the sole jurisdiction over the “ingredients requirements” of poultry products.
The judge seems to have forgotten about the federal Animal Welfare Act’s requirements for the humane treatment of farm animals as well as states’ ability to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty. The California Attorney General’s office is reviewing the decision for a possible appeal of the law, which was upheld in previous litigation.
Foie gras is, without a doubt, cruel to animals. To produce the alleged delicacy, geese and ducks are “force-fed a corn mash through a metal tube several times a day so that they gain weight and their livers become 10 times their natural size. Force-feeding sometime injures the esophagus of the bird, which may lead to death. Additionally, the fattened ducks and geese may have difficulty walking, vomit undigested food, and/or suffer in extreme confinement." Do we as consumers still have a right to buy such a product even if it tastes very good? No, according to at least California state law.
How anyone could make themselves eat this product is beyond my comprehension. I confess that I am an animal lover and environmentalist. I do personally believe in those core values. However, I am quite far from an extremist and respect, to a very, very far extent, the opinions of the vast majority of other people. Heck, I am not even a vegetarian (I try to at least buy free-range products). But under notions of both positive law – state and/or federal – and natural law, this is where the buck must stop. There must be limits to what we can do in the name of obtaining a gourmet experience, especially when it comes at such a high price of extreme suffering by our living, sentient creatures. And if consumers cannot draw such lines themselves, courts and legislatures must. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” More than a dozen countries around the world have outlawed the production of foie gras. In this respect, the United States is not great. This case leaves a bad taste in my mouth and, I hope, in yours as well.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. plans to create hurdles for lenders of payday and direct deposit advance loans. Both types of loans are short-term loans intended to help consumers through a rough patch. Payday loans are available at various storefront locations whereas direct deposit advance loans are for banks’ existing customers.
The problem with these types of loans is that they often trap people into cycles of mounting debt with annual interest rates of more than 500% and the need by some to take out an average of 10 loans a year amounting to a total of more than $3,000.
This is a crackdown on organizations that may be seen to pry on the already weak. But is it also a setback for financially underprivileged consumers? After all, if you need money now, you need money now. I think the new proposed regulations are a step in the right direction as consumer protection, but at the same time, more is needed. That “more” is a decent living wage so that so many people do not have to live not only paycheck to paycheck, but in fact pre-paycheck to pre-paycheck.
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to highlight the nation’s economic growth and falling unemployment rate. However, as I have written here before, most people in the U.S. still do not see or feel the economic recovery. Perception is reality. Let’s hope that the economy soon improves so much that most people feel it.
Hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry for alerting me to this story.
Friday, January 2, 2015
A few days ago, I blogged on the recent lawsuit by United Airlines and Orbitz against the developer of Skiplagged. One of the causes of action alleged is breach of contract for encouraging the purchase of a ticket to certain destinations only to get off at an interim point to save money.
The airlines themselves may be breaching their contracts with flyers. For example, when we buy tickets to be flown from point A to point B, that arguably implies being done so without undue delays and, in particular, possibly having to spend the night at your own cost and without your personal belongings in random cities around the world if connections are missed because of flight delays (unless, of course, you choose to spend the night sitting upright in the airport). Needless to say, if you seek to change your ticket, airlines will either charge extreme high fees and the “difference in price” for doing so or outright prohibit this practice. I’ve had to change tickets many times in the past, and it has typically only taken an agent about five minutes to do so. Unconscionabiliy, anyone?
Here’s what happened to me one cold winter night a few years back: On my way to Denmark from St. Croix, the airline was late taking off and got even more delayed when it “had to” make an unplanned “quick landing” for gas, which was cheaper at the interim airport than at the end destination, and… ice cubes for people’s drinks! I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I missed the once-daily connection out of Atlanta to Copenhagen and had to spend the night in Atlanta in December. As I was living in tropical St. Croix at the time, I had some warm clothes with me on board the airplane to stay warm there, but had packed my winter gear in my suitcase. The airline paid for my hotel, but would, in spite of my desperate pleas, not let me have my suitcase back for the night. Result: I had to travel to and from the hotel, etc., in indoor clothes on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold winter day in Atlanta (yes, I should have brought a warmer jacket on board the plane, but planes to and from the Caribbean are often very small and I always try not to bring too much carry-on items).
Before 1978, U.S. airlines were required under “Rule 240” to offer seats on a competitor’s next flight if that would be the fastest way of getting the traveler to his or her destination. Airlines created after deregulation were never required to follow that rule, but older airlines such as Delta, United and Continental apparently still adhere to the rule. Funny that they never seem to mention that when they delay you significantly. Next time you fly, it may pay to scrutinize your contract of carriage more carefully to ascertain your rights in case of a delay.
It may be time for Congress to reintroduce a Rule 240-type requirement on airlines, especially as these have become extremely good at flying full – even at overcapacity - and thus often do not have extra space for passengers that have missed their flights. Good customer service often seems to have given way to airlines’ “me first” attitude in the name of hearing the highest profits possible by nickel-and-diming most aspects of airline travel on, at least, economy class.
Feeling empathetic towards the airlines? Don’t. Full or nearly full flights in conjunction with declining gas prices have enabled U.S.-based airlines to earn the highest profit margins in decades. One trade group estimates that airline made 6% profit margins in 2014, higher than the highest rates in the 1990s. Of course, the task of businesses is to make as much money as they can. But at least they should live up to their own contracts of carriage and other contracts principles just as they claim passengers and website developers should.
Here’s a hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry and other contracts professors on a well-known industry list serve for news about this story. All opinion and thoughts above are my own.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
Monday, December 29, 2014
CNN reports that more and more restaurants are implementing no-tipping policies as, perhaps, a way of differentiating themselves from competitors. For example, one restaurant builds both tax and gratuity into menu prices, allegedly resulting in its servers averaging about $16.50 an hour. I have argued here before that it seems fair to me that the burden of compensating one’s employees should fall on the employer and not on, as here, restaurant patrons feverishly having to do math calculations at the end of a meal.
The law does not yet support employment contracts ensuring fair compensation of restaurant and hotel employees. For example, federal law requires employers to pay tipped workers only $2.13 an hour as long as the workers earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Talk about burden shifting…
But change seems to be on the way with private initiatives such as the restaurant no-tipping policy. In Los Angeles, the City Council has approved an ordinance that raises the minimum wage for workers in hotels of more than 300 rooms to $15.37 an hour. Of course, this will mainly affect large hotel chains, which predictably resisted the ordinance citing to issues such as the need to stay competitive price-wise and threatened circumventing the effect of the new law by laying off or not hiring workers to save money. Funny since many of these hotels have been making vast amounts of money for a long time on, arguably, overpriced hotel rooms attracting a clientele that does not seem overly concerned about paying extra for things that are free in most lower-priced hotels (think wifi) and thus probably could somehow internalize the cost of fairly compensating its blue-collar workers.
Much has been said about the “1%” problem and a fair living wage. No reason to repeat that here. However, it is thought-provoking that whereas the U.S. recession officially ended in June 2009 – five years ago - 57% of the U.S. population still believed that the nation was in a recession in March 2014.
Contracting and the economy is, of course, to a large extent a matter of seeking the best bargain one can obtain for oneself. But even in industrialized nations such as ours, there is something to be said for also ensuring that not only the strongest, most sophisticated and wealthiest reap the benefits of the improved economy. So here’s to hoping that more initiatives such as the ones mentioned above are taken in 2015. At the end of 2014, it’s still “the economy, s$%^*&.”
Monday, December 22, 2014
After years of conducting research on the genes of various animals, George Doe (a pseudonym), an accomplished biologist with a PhD in cellular and molecular biology, decides to have his own genes examined for fun and to discover whether he may be genetically predisposed to cancer. He buys a test kit online from one the many companies that provide such services these days. He is so excited about the process that he also buys a kit for his mother and father as gifts. They all have their genes tested. George finds out that he is not predisposed to cancer. But that’s not it. He also finds out that another male who has had his own genes tested and is thus registered with the same company is “50% related” to George. This can only mean one of three things: this other male is George’s grandfather, uncle or … half brother. After intense and testy family discussions, George’s father apparently admits that he had fathered this other male before marrying George's mother. George’s parents are now divorced and the entire family torn apart with no one talking to each other.
A very sad affair. Of course, nothing appears to be contractually wrong with this case: at the bottom of one’s profile with www.23andme.com, the company that provided the tests in this case, George and his family had checked a small box indicating for them to do so “if you want to see close family members in this search program.” The company is said to have close to one million people in its database. With modern science, close family members can easily be identified out of such data if opting into being notified.
Here, the company does not appear to have done anything wrong legally. Quite the opposite: if anything, the above shows that the buyers in these situations may not be sufficiently mentally prepared for the information they may discover through DNA testing. Arguably, they should be. After all, the old adage “watch out what you ask for, you may get it” still rings true.
But isn’t this situation akin to the various other situations we have blogged a lot about here this past year where customers buy various items online and click – or not – on various buttons, thus signaling at least alleged acceptance of, for example, terms of service requiring arbitration instead of lawsuits in case of disputes? As I have argued, many people probably just clicks such buttons without fully realizing what the legal or, in cases such as the above, factual results may be. Should online vendors be required either legally to make such check boxes or other online indicia of acceptance a lot more obvious? Or should they at least be required to do so for reasons of business ethics?
I think so. Most working people are exceptionally busy these days. Frankly, not many of us take the time to scrutinize the various implications - legal or otherwise – of the purchases we make online, especially because the agreements we accept in cyberspace are presented so very differently online, yet are so deceptively similar in legal nature that we probably feel pretty comfortable with simply clicking “I accept” as the vast majority of such transactions present no or only minor problems for us? And aren’t the vendors the party with the very best knowledge of some, if not most, of the problems that arise in these contexts? How hard would it really be for them to make sure that they use all the “bells and whistles” to truly put people on notice of what typical problems encountered may be, exactly to avoid legal problems down the road? One would think so, although, of course, customers also carry some of the burden of educating ourselves about what we buy and what that may mean. This is perhaps especially so when such delicate issues as the above are involved.
For George Doe, the above unfortunately turned out to be much more of a curse that kept on giving instead of a gift that kept on giving.
On behalf of your blogging team here at ContractsProfs Blog: Happy Holidays!
Thursday, December 18, 2014
This case arises out of a fact pattern with which many contracts profs may already be familiar. It's a new twist on Leonard v. PepsiCo., alas with the same result.
James Cheney Mason (Mason) represented defendant Nelson Serrano in a capital murder trial. Mason gave an interview on NBC news in which he pointed out that his client could not have committed murders in Bartow, Florida on the same day that he was on a business trip in Atlanta Georgia. Surveillance cameras from the La Quinta Inn in Atlanta established Serrano's presence at the hotel both before and after the murders. The prosecution claimed that Serrano flew to Orlando, drove to Bartow, committed the murders, drove to Tampa, and flew back to Atlanta in time to show up on the surveillance tapes once again. Serrano was convicted and sentenced to death.
Law student Dustin Kolodziej (Kolodziej) watched Mason's interview with NBC after it was edited for broadcast. In the edited version that Kolodziej saw, Mason seemed to be offering a million dollars to anyone who could get off a plane in Atlanta and make it back to the La Quinta Inn in 28 minutes. Kolodziej took this as a challenge and as a unilateral offer that he could accept by making the trip in 28 minutes or less. Kolodziej recorded himself making the trip and sent the recording to Mason with a demand for payment. Mason refused.
In Kolodziej v. Mason, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgment to Mason. In the unedited version of Mason's interview, it is clear that his challenge was directed at the prosecution and not erga omnes. Moreover, the Eleventh Circuit found, no reasonable person could construe any statement that Mason made in either the edited or the unedited version of the interview as a serious offer to pay a million dollars to anybody who could travel from the airport to the hotel in 28 minutes. According to the Court, the context in which the words were uttered (an attempt to poke holes in the prosecution's theory) and the hyperbolic nature of the alleged offer, with its familiar overtones of schoolyard braggadocio, were insufficient to establish Mason's willingness to enter into a contract.
The Court distinguished this case from the classics, Lucy v. Zehmer and Carbolic Smoke Ball and other, equally entertaining cases. The Court was no more inclined to entertain Kolodziej's claim than it would be to declare Mason a monkey's uncle, if he had chosen that turn of phrase when attempting to illustrate the implausibility of the prosecution's timeline.
The Court suggested that the entire suit was a result of Kolodziej's inadequate understanding of contracts doctrine (hence the duncecap image above, which by the way, does not represent Kolodziej). The Court paraphrased Pope and suggested that a little legal knowledge is a very dangerous thing indeed. As the Court explained,
Kolodziej may have learned in his contracts class that acceptance by performance results in an immediate, binding contract and that notice may not be necessary, but he apparently did not consider the absolute necessity of first having a specific, definite offer and the basic requirement of mutual assent.
This seems more than a bit unfair. Kolodziej was wrong, but he may have thought it worth the gamble. He lost his case, but he had quite an experience. In any case, Judge Cardozo's remark in Allegheny College about how half-truths are sometimes mistaken for the whole truth seems more apposite.
A classic form of statement identifies consideration with detriment to the promisee sustained by virtue of the promise. Hamer v. Sidway, 124 N. Y. 538, 27 N. E. 256, . . . . So compendious a formula is little more than a half truth. There is need of many a supplementary gloss before the outline can be so filled in as to depict the classic doctrine.
Mistakes of law such as Kolodziej's are common, and learned judges (and even law professors) as well as law students can make them.