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.
Friday, December 12, 2014
Sick of reading our posts (and other news reports) about Uber and Lyft?
I am compelled to add that while the concept is brilliant and the execution quite fine, the script missed some low-hanging fruit suggested by the "Jewish geography navigation system" at the opening. I humbly offer the following potential dialogues:
Driver: Where are you going in such a hurry?
Passenger: Elm and 17th.
D: Elm and 17th? The Weinsteins live right around the corner! Do you know them?
P: I don't think so . . .
D: Such a nice couple. Are you sure you don't know them? I think they had a daughter around your age. How old are you? Where did you go to school? And the Goldbergs live near there too -- surely you know them!
P: I'm just going to a dental appointment. I don't live around there.
D: Well, you should, it's a lovely neighborhood. Where do you live? I know a realtor who could find you a nice apartment. . .
Passenger: Excuse me, I was actually heading in the other direction . . .
Driver: Oh, I know, hon, but I can only find my way there from the JCC, so I thought we'd go there first. It's not far.
D: Or Solomon Schechter, is that closer? I know how to get places from there or from the Temple . . .
P: I can direct you if you want.
D: Relax! Enjoy the ride! You young people are always in such a hurry these days. Do you ever take the time to talk with your parents, I wonder? We can just chat and catch up -- the time will pass quickly
P: Catch up? But I don't even know you.
D: You're about my son's age. He just gave me my third grandchild. [Passing pictures back] Here, aren't they a lovely family?
I'm just sayin . . .
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
I read an interesting article the other day about parties to a contract agreeing to a broad arbitration provision and then carving out some issues that would be litigated should a problem arise. As with many others, I am involved in the International Commerical Arbitration Moot and, when I read the article, the issue seemed familiar. That is because this year's problem includes a contract with the following two provisions:
"Art. 20 All disputes arising out of or in connection with the present contract shall be finally settled
under the Rules of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce by three arbitrators
appointed in accordance with the said Rules. The seat of arbitration shall be Vindobona,
Danubia, and the language of the arbitration will be English. The contract, including this clause,
shall be governed by the law of Danubia.
Art 21: Provisional measures
The courts at the place of business of the party against which provisional measures are sought
shall have exclusive jurisdiction to grant such measures."
As you would expect, one of the parties in the problem asks for interim relief from the ICC while the other says interim measures are for courts only. Very often, if not most of the time, the Moot problem is inspired by an actually case. Some years the students are able to find the case and, while it is never quite exactly on point, it can be helpful.
I could not help but wonder if this issue within this year's problem was inspired by a botched effort to carve interim relief out from the general provision. It would be pretty sloppy to draft something like the above but my hunch is that it has happened.
I am curious to know how other ICAM team coaches have dealt with the issue. In particular, does the word "finally" in Article 20 have any particular signficance?
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
In what seemed an inevitable turn of events, the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys filed a consumer protection lawsuit on 12/9/2010 against Uber for making false and misleading statements about Uber’s background checks of its drivers. George Gascon, the district attorney for San Francisco, calls these checks “completely worthless” because Uber does not fingerprint its drivers. Uber successfully fought state legislation that would have subjected the company’s drivers to the same rules as those required of taxi drivers. Allegedly, Uber has also defrauded its customers for charging its passengers an “airport fee toll” even though no tolls were paid for rides to and from SFO, and charging a “$1 safe ride fee” for Uber’s background check process. California laws up to $2,500 per violation. There are “tens of thousands” of alleged violations by Uber. However, even that will likely put only a small dent in Uber’s economy as it is now valued at $40 billion (yes, with a “b”).
Lyft has settled in relation to similar charges and has agreed to submit information to the state to verify the accuracy of its fares (although not its background checks). It has also agreed to stop picking up passengers at airports until it has obtained necessary permits. Prosecutors are continuing talks with Sidecar.
Time will tell what prosecutors around the nation decide to do against these and similar start-ups such as airbnb and vrbo.com, which are also said to bend or outright ignore existing rules.
The Los Angeles Times comments that the so-called “sharing economy” companies face growing pains that “start-ups in the past didn’t – dealing with municipalities around the world, each with their own local, regional and countrywide laws.” It is hard to feel too sorry for the start-ups on this account. First, all companies obviously have to observe the law, whether a start-up or not. Today’s regulations may or may not be more complex than what start-ups have had to deal with before. However, these companies should not be unfamiliar with complex modern-day challenges as that is precisely what they benefit from themselves, albeit in a more technological way. Finally, there is something these companies can do about the legal complexity they face: hire savvy attorneys! There are enough of them out there who can help out. But perhaps these companies don’t care to “share” their profits all that much? One has to wonder. Sometimes, it seems that technological innovation and building up companies as fast as possible takes priority over observing the law.
As indicated in this story,* CNN.com is greatly invested in the story of Morten Storm, who claims that he is a Danish double-agent who infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP) and thus helped the U.S. target and kill AQAP operative and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
Storm (and his CNN co-authors) have quite a story to tell. Among other things, he claims that the United States promised him $5 million for helping the U.S. in its al-Awlaki operation. Although Storm is clearly an international man of mystery, there is little mystery on the question of whether he would have any luck on a claim against the U.S. for breach of a promise to pay $5 million. The U.S. would undoubtdedly point to the Totten case, as updated in Tenet v. Doe, and courts will find the claim non-justiciable.
NB: When you click on this site, you will see the following browsewrap banner across the top:
If you do not want to spend an hour or two parsing CNN's terms and don't want to be bound to terms that you have not read or cannot understand, do not "continue to use" CNN's site (whatever that means).
Hat tip to my student, Brandon Carter.
Friday, December 5, 2014
In today’s “sharing economy,” more and more private individuals attempt to earn some (additional) money in untraditional ways such as selling various things on eBay, driving cars for alternative passenger transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, and providing lodging in private homes on sites such as airbnb. Not only do these services raise many regulatory, licensing, insurance zoning and other issues, they also present a real risk to many hopeful 1099 workers who – as the relevant companies themselves – can vastly misjudge the potential of new attempted products or services.
Take, for example, Lyft drivers. In May, the shared ride company introduced luxury rides via its Lyft Plus program. At least in San Francisco, the drivers had to pay $34,000 out of their own pockets for the large, “loaded” Ford Explorers required by Lyft for drivers to participate in the program. The idea was that passengers would pay twice the normal Lynx rate to get the extra space and perceived luxury of being whisked around town in a large SUV. A bit behind the curve, you think? Indeed. The program was an instantaneous fiasco in San Francisco (the company still advertises the program, but at “only” 1.5 times the price of a regular ride and touting the program as having space enough for six people). Soon, drivers were back to simply getting regular rides– often just at $5 or $6 – just to stay busy. This is obviously not viable in a city with expensive gasoline and cars that get only around $14 miles per gallon, not to mention the purchase price of the new SUVs.
Responding to drivers’ initial concerns, Lyft had promised that they should “not worry about demand, we have that covered.” Realizing that many of its drivers were upset about being stuck with a huge, new gas guzzler without a realistic return on investment, Lyft has offered their Plus drivers help selling the SUVs or a $10,000 bonus… subject to income tax, no less. None of these options, of course, will bring the drivers back to the pre-contractual position. Some drivers admitted to having borrowed money from family members, selling existing cars, even “forgoing other job opportunities for the chance to make more money with Lyft Plus.”
A sad story all the way around. Companies are continually trying to introduce new products and services to find the next “big thing.” This, of course, is laudable, but not so much so when they seemingly cross the line and make unfounded promises to the less savvy or financially strong. Of course, this also does not mean that workers or customers should not exercise a hefty dose of “caveat emptor” in connections such as this, but it is a somewhat concerning aspect of today’s sharing economy that failed product launches can simply be shared with “smaller fish” with less bargaining power and, apparently, a dangerously high risk-willingness bordering desperation in trying to make a dollar in these financially tough times. Whether in this case, the promise that the demand was “covered” could be a contractual misrepresentation or whether it was simply puffery is another story best left to another forum.
Monday, November 24, 2014
Friend of the blog Jeff Sovern, and his co-authors are creating quite a stir with their article that has been topping the charts on SSRN, 'Whimsy Little Contracts' with Unexpected Consequences: An Empirical Analysis of Consumer Understanding of Arbitration Agreements.
You can follow the discussion in the blogosphere at these sites:
Alan S. Kaplinsky and Mark J. Levin start things off on Ballard Spahr's CFPB Monitor. They make two main points. First, arbitration language is generally quite easy to understand. Second, it does not matter whether or not consumers know what they are getting into when they enter into a credit card agreement with an arbitartion clause if consumer arbitration is actually good for consumers.
Jeff Sovern responds on the Consumer Law and Policy blog to a number of the CFPB Monitor points, but on the main question of whether or not consumers benefit from arbitration, he concedes that the study did not attempt to answer that question Rather, the point is that the basis for such arbitration is consent, and his study shows that consumers do not give meaningful consent to arbitration.
Levin and Kaplinsky don’t actually address the core problem we address in our article–that citizens are being unwittingly and unwillingly forced to give up important (and constitutionally guaranteed) procedural rights. Their point–and it is the point arbitration advocates almost invariably make–is that arbitration can be better for consumers than litigation. That may very well be true, at least some of the time. (See my post on the benefits of limited consumer arbitration here.) But it doesn’t answer the right question.
Kaplinsky and Levin have filed their response on Ballard Spahr's CFPB Monitor. They reiterate their argument, citing numerous court opinions, that arbitration clauses can be readily understood by consumers. They remind readers that the purpose of the Federal Arbitration Act was to prevent courts from treating arbitration agreements differently from other agreements. An arbitration clause in an otherwise enforceable agreement ought to be enforceable just as any other term in the agreemnt would be.
My questions in these debates are always the same. If arbitration clasues are potentially beneficial to consumers, why make them mandatory? Provide for arbitration as an option and make clear that if a consumer chooses to arbitrate, she cannot also sue. In addition, what of class action waivers, which now often accompany arbitration provisions? Kaplinsky and Levin claim that some studies show that plaintiffs do better off in individual arbitrations than they do in class actions, but I don't know how studies could show that since (so the argument goes), in some cases plaintiffs won't file claims at all unless they can do so through class actions.
Friday, November 21, 2014
A student shared with me this flyer that her father received. I have provided a large reproduction so that readers can read the fine print, which is really the focus of this post.
On my reading, the meaning of this is as follows: if
- You made the mistake of having previously subscribed to the newspaper; and
- You have the temerity to continue living at the same address; and
- You do nothing else,
A newspaper will be delivered to you on Thanksgiving.
Regardless of what you do with it, your inaction will be deemed consent to future deliveries and you will be charged unless you call the newspaper and put a stop to it.
This "offer" is a turkey, and those receiving it should tell the newspaper to stuff it.
Meredith Miller started blogging here before I did. She holds the record for the contributing editor with the longest tenrue on the blog.
Her lively, quirky posts were one of the things that attracted me to this site and made it worthwhile to keep coming back. She has been a steady companion, sounding board and dedicated contributor to our blog, and we will miss her contributions.
But life moves on, and we can only thank Meredith and wish her well in her new endeavors. In her farewell e-mail to the rest of us, Meredith referenced her blogger's guilt. Blogs are like sharks; they either move or die. There have been many weeks when I despaired of finding the time and the content to keep this blog lively when Meredith would post a story that I knew would attract interest and buy the rest of us some time away from the blog. After nearly ten years of providing us stories and laughts, he has certainly earned her release from blogger's guilt.
I am hoping to compile a top ten list next week of my favorite Meredith posts. Please feel free to nominate your favorites in the comments.
Monday, November 17, 2014
In The Blues Brothers, the band performs at Bob's Country Bunker. All things considered, the show goes rather well:
After the show, the Brothers ask to be paid. The owner offered to pay $200 for the performance, but the band owed $300 for beer. Elwood objects that they had been told that they would not have to pay for the first round, but the owner refuses to treat that as a waiver. A student asked me about the scene, and I'm not sure how it might be resolved. I would treat it as a matter of interpretation and expect that a court could hear expert testimony about the customary terms of contracts with bands at establishments such as Bob's Country Bunker.
But then there is a second issue (or third, if you think waiver is the second issue). The Brothers got the gig by pretending to be another band, The Good Ole Boys. So Bob has an argument that he was fraudulently induced to contract with Jake and Elwood. If that is so, they might be better off seeking to recover in quantum meruit, since Bob told them "that's some of the best goddam music we've had in the Country Bunker in a long time." The audience hurled what seemed like hundreds of bottles of beer at the band during the performance, so Bob must have made quite a bit in drink (or projectile) sales. On the other hand, I don't know what it costs to clean up that mess.
Hat tip to Valpo 1L Brandon Carter for calling my attention to the scene and to the fact that he is watching old movies when he should be studying law!
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
According to this story from NJ.com, a customer in an Atlantic City restaurant bought a bottle of wine with dinner. The server showed him a wine list and suggested a wine. When he asked how much the wine cost, she said, "Thirty-Seven Fifty," which he understood to mean $37.50. She meant $3,750, and the wine list so indicated, but the customer did not have his reading glasses with him. It's an interesting fact pattern.
Fortunately, an episode of The Simpsons provides best practices in this area, as animated television sit-coms do in most areas. In episode 8F09, Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk, Homer's stock in the Springfield nuclear plant went up for the first time in ten years. He sells and makes a cool $25. Soon thereafter, the value of Homer's stock rises to $5200, but that's another matter.
Homer conte1mplates his options and decides to buy beer. The following conversation with Moe (of Moe's Tavern) ensues:
Moe: Want a Duff?
Homer (haughtily): No, I'd like a bottle of Henry K. Duff's Private Reserve.
Moe (Gasping): Are you sure? 'Cause once I open the bottle, there's no refund.
See? That's how it's done!
Friday, October 17, 2014
The Alliance for Justice has released a documentary on forced arbitration called Lost in the Fine Print. It's very well-done, highly watchable (meaning your students will stay awake and off Facebook during a viewing), and educational. I recently screened the film during a special session for my Contracts and Advanced Contracts students. It's only about 20 or so minutes and afterward, we had a lively discussion about the pros and cons of arbitration. We discussed the different purposes of arbitration and the pros and cons of arbitration where the parties are both businesses and where one party is a business and the other a consumer. Many of the students had not heard about arbitration and didn't know what it was. Many of those who did know about arbitration didn't know about mandatory arbitration or how the process worked. Several were concerned about the due process aspects. They understood the benefits of arbitration for businesses, but also the problems created by lack of transparency in the process. I thought it was a very nice way to kick start a lively discussion about unconscionability, public policy concerns, economics and the effect of legislation on contract law/case law.
I think it's important for law students to know what arbitration is and it doesn't fit in easily into a typical contracts or civil procedure class so I'm afraid it often goes untaught. The website also has pointers and ideas on how to organize a screening and discussion questions.
Monday, October 13, 2014
We have posted previously about business entities that try to go after customers that give them negative reviews here and here. It seems, based on our limited experience, that threatening to sue customers for writing negative reviews is not a great business model.
Fortunately, there is a market solution. As reported in this weekend's column in The New York Times's "The Ethicist," businesses that recieve negative online reviews can just contact the reviewers and pay them to take down the review. According to the account in The Times, the author of a TripAdvisor review of a hotel entitled it "An Overpriced Dung Heap," but then accepted a 50% discount in return for removing the review. He should have bargained down to "Dung Heap," since the hotel probably was still a dung heap but perhaps was no longer overpriced.
The reviewer asked The Ethicist who was most unethical: himself, the hotel or TripAdvisor for hosting a system so easily corrupted. We don't get paid to weigh in on ethical matters. Actually, we don't get paid at all. But we do have opinions to vent, so here are some.
As The Ethicist acknowledged, what the hotel owner did was not illegal. An economist might reduce the question to one of efficiency. If the hotel owner thinks her money is well spent making bad publicity go away, rather than actually improving the quality of her hotel, that is a choice she can make as a business owner. The market may prove her wrong. The lack of negative reviews on TripAdvisor may not help if in fact one is greeted by a kickline of cockroaches and bedbugs when entering the guest rooms. The Ethicist dodges the stickier problem that TripAdvisor may contain only positive reviews of The Dung Heap Inn because the owners and their supporters flood the site with fake reviews. One would think that TripAdvisor's value would be correlated to its accuracy, but it is hard to see what measure TripAdvisor could take to insure that posts on its site are the real deal.
Friday, October 10, 2014
This is the fourth in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II, Breaking Out of the Shell, can be found here.
Part III, What Is This Emerging New Life? can be found here.
Part IV: Discarding the Last Remnants of the Old Shell
When reading More Than You Wanted to Know together with the reactions in the virtual symposium, I have been struck by two facts. First, we clearly know much more about how mandatory disclosure regimes work than ever before. Details aside, a consensus is emerging that these regimes do not always help consumers make better decisions. Second, despite this increase in knowledge and emerging consensus over the problem, there is even more uncertainty and even less consensus over how consumer protection should be reformed in light of these facts.
i. Diagnosing the Problem
How can more clarity about the empirical facts lead to less clarity about what the law should be? I believe that part of the reason is simple: many of the current debates over these issues are still insufficiently attentive to the rigorous types of argumentation needed to address the purely normative aspects of these questions. To be more specific, the third premise of the classical law and economics movement (see Part I) has not yet been replaced by rigorously developed lines of argumentation from the appropriate cognate fields—as has happened with the first two premises.
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that rigorous argumentation on these topics is lacking. I mean to highlight a sociological fact about the current legal academy. I believe that the right lines of argument have not yet been sufficiently absorbed by contract law scholars who work in and around the law and economics paradigm. Because of the predominance and recent expansions of this paradigm within the study of contract law, this third premise is increasingly assumed or tacitly accepted by many other contract law scholars. This includes many scholars who do work predominantly in law and psychology or engage in straightforward empirical legal research.
In More Than You Wanted to Know, Ben-Shahar and Schneider are, for example, apparently willing to accept that the primary purpose of consumer protection law is to help consumers make better decisions. This is why they recommend better advice instead of more disclosure. But interestingly enough, almost all of the people who have responded critically in this symposium appear to accept—either explicitly or tacitly—either the same normative proposition or the alternative view that consumer protection laws should be set up to promote social welfare more generally. (The most notable exception is Aditi Bagchi’s response—though Steven Burton’s plea that the authors spend more time thinking about obligation may represent a similar thought.)
Hence, there is a normative assumption running through many of the current debates. The assumption is that consumer protection laws should be shaped to promote either better subjective choice or human welfare more generally. But is this normative premise true? And before we even get to that question: how might we determine whether it is true?
After the jump, I will pursue these questions. I will suggest that we cannot get clearer about the appropriate shape of consumer protection law, however, until we ask the right normative questions. And I will suggest that we are not yet doing that in major areas of contract law studies.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
This is the third in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II, Breaking Out of the Shell, can be found here.
Part III: What IsThis Emerging New Life?
In Part II, I described how More Than You Wanted to Know seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions relevant to consumer protection law based not on ungrounded psychological premises or the kind of abstract theoretical reasoning that is typically associated with the classical law and economics paradigm but rather on actual psychological and empirical research. I suggested that these methodological moves explain the power of the book to take us much closer to the truth about use and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure regimes to cure a host of problems in consumer contracting.
As someone interested in methodology and the sociology of knowledge production in the legal academy, I find developments like these incredibly interesting. I am fascinated by the fact that they are often viewed as developments internal to the law and economics movement—even though they essentially dispense with some of its early guiding premises and draw on methodologies from other cognate fields.
The movement to replace classical economic assumptions about human decision-making with psychological facts is, for example, sometimes called “behavioral economics”. But what is really happening is that classical economic assumptions about human psychology are being replaced with direct psychological research into the relevant facts. Similarly, the move to replace economic modeling with rigorous empirical research is sometimes called “econometrics”. But what is really happening—at least within the legal academy—is that fewer law and economics scholars are making predictions about legal rules based merely on theoretical modeling and more are engaging in genuine empirical research. When they do this, they typically use statistical and other methods developed in the social sciences more generally—and not methods specific to the field of economics.
In my view, one of the greatest virtues of some parts of the law and economics movement is that it has been willing to revise many of its early premises and adopt methodologies from other fields when necessary to make its scholarship better track the truth. This willingness is also one of its greatest sources of continuing strength. Because of this willingness, the field has essentially been able to absorb a broad range of criticisms, while continuing to broaden in influence and produce scholarship that better tracks the truth. More Than What You Wanted to Know is a wonderful example of this development—at least when it come to curing distortions caused by the first two premises of the classical law and economics paradigm. (For a description of these 3 premises, see here.)
Still, as far as I know, there is not yet any name for the move to replace ungrounded economic assumptions about how to assess normative arguments (i.e., premise 3 from Part I) with rigorous thought developed by experts in the appropriate cognate fields. These are the fields of moral, legal and political philosophy, along with the field of meta-ethics. Corresponding to this fact, there is not yet as robust an acknowledgment of the need for this move within many influential contract law circles.
When I say I believe significant new life may be emerging in the study of contract law, I am nevertheless referring to the possibility that all three of the classical law and economics premises be replaced with rigorous lines of evidence and argumentation drawn from the correct cognate fields. I am referring to a highly interdisciplinary research program that draws on (1) our best contemporary psychological findings into decision-making and how humans operate with legal rules when asking psychological questions relevant to contract law, (2) rigorous empirical research into the consequences of different legal rules when adopted by groups with real human psychologies, and (3) philosophically well-grounded argumentation and debate over the normative propositions that are most relevant to contract law.
I am describing a hope, not an expectation—because it is we, as a field, who will decide whether this new life fully emerges.
For a range of historically contingent reasons, the classical law and economics movement may just end up serving as the early vehicle (or the proverbial “egg”) for this transition within the legal academy. I believe that would be an incredibly good thing for the study of contract law because it would essentially allow the legal academy to adapt a ready-made set of social and academic networks that are already studying this subject matter intensively and in highly influential manners. But this would also require a much greater appreciation by scholars who work within this paradigm of the need for more rigorous philosophical input on normative questions.
The result would, moreover, not just be an expanded sub-field of law and economics. It would be better described as a fully informed search for the truth. The proverbial “egg” will have given birth to something much, much better.
But we are not yet there yet. There is still too large a disconnect between moral and political philosophers and economists within the legal academy. Hence, a great deal of highly influential work on contract law still risks producing distortion. In Part IV, I will show how this problem still affects many discussions of consumer protection law. I will also make a plea that we work together to breath the right new life into contract law studies going forward.
This is the second in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
Part I, The Proverbial “Egg,” can be found here.
Part II: Breaking Out of the Shell
As we all know, the law and economics movement has proven a formidable force within the legal academy, especially in relation to subjects like contract law. As recently as 2012, even Charles Fried, the author of Contract as Promise, was forced to acknowledge that “the economic analysis of law may today be the dominant intellectual approach to legal institutions generally and contract law in particular.”
Because of Omri Ben-Shahar’s training and intellectual ties, many will view More Than What You Wanted to Know as a work that is partly internal to the law and economics movement. This affiliation should help the book because it will allow the book to speak credibly to a wide range of influential contract law scholars who currently share this affiliation. The book ultimately challenges one of the early dogmas of the classical law and economics paradigm, as described in my prior post, but—because of the book’s intellectual affiliations—the book can pose this challenge in an especially effective manner.
It should nevertheless be noted that the central insights in the book arise not from anything specific to the field of law and economics but rather from rejection of the field’s first two classical premises. With respect to human psychology (see premise 1 in Part I), Ben-Shahar and Schneider do not simply assume that consumers make more rational decisions whenever more facts are disclosed to them. Instead, they canvass a wealth of psychological evidence to the contrary. This evidence shows that consumers are especially likely to make poorer decisions as their choices become more complex and unfamiliar and when those terms are dictated by sophisticated contracting parties.
When determining the likely consequences of legal rules (see premise 2 in Part I), the authors similarly avoid abstract economic modeling and turn instead to direct empirical data. They draw this empirical data from a broad range of sources, and the facts suggest that mandatory disclosure regimes have increasingly begun to harm consumers in many contexts.
One reason for this is dynamic. Over time, mandatory disclosure regimes tend to lend increasing complexity and unfamiliarity to even the most banal of transactions. In one particularly poignant example, the authors describe the $.99 purchase of an iTunes song—which was accompanied by 32 feet of complex and often incomprehensible boilerplate (when printed out in a tiny font, as illustrated on the left). One of the underappreciated consequences of mandatory disclosure regimes is that they have increasingly begun to flummox consumers in even the simplest of transactions.
In highlighting facts like these, More Than You Wanted to Know takes us much closer to the truth about mandatory disclosure regimes than classical law and economics methodologies can. Speaking from a purely methodological perspective, it is able to do this because it is willing to abandon the first two premises of the classical paradigm and replace them with something better. It seeks to answer psychological and empirical questions relevant to consumer protection law based not on ungrounded premises but rather on actual psychological and empirical research.
This is an example of the emerging new life that I see in contract law studies. It is a better life because it is more likely to track the truth.
In my next post, I will nevertheless reflect more deeply on this new life. I will ask whether we have gone far enough as a field to make it really come to life. Have we—in other words—gone far enough yet to ensure that our collective research best tracks the truth?
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
This is the first in a four-part post by Robin Kar that serves as a sort of coda to our virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. Schneider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure.
When an egg hatches, new life emerges. But it often takes its first steps into the world with some remnants of its newly discarded shell.
I believe that significant new life may be emerging in the study of contract law, but that too much of an old shell remains. Rather than hide the ball, let me just say that the proverbial “egg” is the classical law and economics movement. And More Than What You Wanted to Know takes us part—though only part—of the way toward that emerging new life.
Jeremy Telman has been kind enough to let me post a late addendum to this symposium so that I can explain these perceptions. I want to use this review to prompt more scholars in the field—including Ben-Shahar and Schneider—to acknowledge what we need to do as a field to get further toward the right destination in the study of contract law.
As other contributors have noted, More Than You Wanted to Know is a full-throated attack on mandatory disclosure regimes. These regimes have been widely used and accepted in many contexts for some time now. It is therefore interesting to note that almost all of the commentators here have voiced some agreement with the basic thrust of the book—even while arguing that its thesis is overly general. We are witnessing the tail end of a shift from what once seemed to be common knowledge (i.e., about the usefulness and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure to cure a host problems in consumer contracting contexts) to a very different shared understanding.
But how has this shift occurred? As someone interested in the sociology of the legal academy and how different interdisciplinary methods can combine to produce (or distort) knowledge, I want to delve further into this question. I also want to ask whether we have gone far enough, in our collective studies of contract law, in the right direction. (I should probably apologize in advance to Carl Schneider that I will focus more on contract than informed medical consent in these posts, given the nature of this blog.)
The Proverbial “Egg”
If the “egg” is the classical law and economics movement, then that is where we should start.
Interdisciplinary studies of law can obviously produce enormous insight. When methods from cognate fields are applied to the law without sufficient reflection on the validity or applicability of their guiding premises, they can, however, also produce significant distortion. In this particular case, I believe that faulty premises associated with the classical law and economics movement are part of the cause of overblown intuitions concerning the use and value of mandatory disclosure regimes.
To analyze the source of this distortion more concretely, I ask you to consider an approach to studying contract law that might seem fanciful at first. This approach combines three basic elements:
- Human Psychology. The approach starts with certain assumptions about how human psychology and decision-makings works. These assumptions are intuitively plausible to some but are not rooted in any rigorous psychological research.
- Predictions about Legal Rules. The approach then generates predictions about the consequences of legal rules by modeling interactions among hypothetical people with the psychologies presumed in premise 1 under different hypothetical legal rules. The approach thus relies on theoretical modeling instead of rigorous empirical research to make empirical predictions.
- Normative Questions. The approach is skeptical of any kind of value that is not reducible to the value of some state of affairs. Proponents of this approach are thus impatient with normative arguments that do not fit easily into the consequentialist (and/or welfarist or cost-benefit) frameworks that they best understand. People who adopt this approach are not, however, typically trained in moral or political philosophy—which are the fields that deal most directly and rigorously with normative questions. Nor are they trained in the field of “meta-ethics”—which is the study of the status or objectivity of normative judgments. People who adopt this approach are thus largely unversed in the considerations that might legitimately ground (or respond) to their skepticism. This prevents them from knowing whether their grounds for skepticism are valid. It also prevents them from knowing whether their skepticism can be limited to concepts they reject (like “rights” and “fairness”), or whether it equally affects the values they accept (like “welfare” and a person’s “good”).
On its face, an approach like this would appear to be a recipe for disaster. It studies contract law and makes numerous recommendations for legal reform, but it employs a methodology that is unmoored in the specific classes of evidence and types of argumentation that are most relevant to its professed subject matter.
But as anyone reading this blog will know, this description is far from fanciful. To make it describe something real, one need only clarify that the psychology referenced in premise 1 is homo economicus—or the classical, “rational actor” model. Then these three premises provide a pretty good description of the heart of the classical law and economics approach to studying contract law.
These three premises can also seem to lend support to the value and sufficiency of mandatory disclosure regimes to cure a host of problems with consumer contracting. Mandatory disclosure regimes purport to produce the precise information needed for rational consumers to make better choices for themselves. If people are rational actors (see premise 1), then economic modeling (as described in premise 2) can thus be used to show that these regimes should simultaneously produce overall gains for consumers who contract, overall gains in social welfare and a more efficient allocation of resources. These regimes should also work relatively automatically, or “as by an invisible hand”, in the following sense: they should produce these results without the need for any centralized state planner to know in advance which exchanges are better for specific parties. There is, moreover, nothing else to value (as per premise 3). Hence, there is nothing else that legitimately speaks to the appropriate contours of consumer protection law.
There is no doubt about it: mandatory disclosure regimes work incredibly well in (classical economic) theory. The question is whether they work in reality. In the posts that follow, I will explore that question. I will suggest that More Than You Wanted to Know takes us further toward the truth—but cannot, as it stands, take us all the way there.