Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Over the past few years, more than a dozen 7-Eleven franchisees have sued the company claiming that it operated in bad faith by untruthfully accusing the franchisees of fraud and by strong-arming them to “voluntarily” surrender their franchise contracts based on such false accusations. The franchisees claim that the tactic, which is known in the franchise community as “churning,” is aimed at retaking stores in up-and-coming areas where the franchise can now be sold at a higher contractual value or from franchisees who are too outspoken against the company.
Franchisees split their gross profits evenly with 7-Eleven. The chain claims that it has hours of in-store covert footage showing franchisees voiding legitimate sales and not registering others to keep gross sales lower than the true numbers in order to pay smaller profits to 7-Eleven. Similarly, the chain uses undercover shoppers to spot-check the recording of transactions. This level of surveillance is uncommon among similar companies, says franchise attorney Barry Kurtz. A former corporate investigations supervisor for 7-Eleven calls the practice “predatory.”
Japanese-owned 7-Eleven asserts that a few of their franchisees are stealing and falsifying the sales records, thus depriving the company of its full share of the store profits. It maintains in court records that its investigations are thorough and lawful. It also complains that groups of franchisees often group together to create a “domino of lawsuits, pressuring the company to settle.”
It seems that a company installing hidden cameras to monitor not customers for safety reasons, but one’s own franchisees raises questions of whether or not these people had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their work-related efforts under these circumstances. If not, the issue certainly raises an ethical issue: once one has paid not insignificant franchise fees and continue to share profits with the franchisor at no less than 50-50%, should one really also expect to be monitored in hidden ways by one’s business partner, as the case is here? That has an inappropriate Big-Brother-is-Watching-You feel to it.
In the 1982 hit Dire Straits song Industrial Disease, Mark Knopfler sings that “Two men say they're, Jesus one of them must be wrong.” When it comes to this case, the accusations of “bogus” reasons asserted by the franchisees and returned fire in the form of theft accusations by 7-Eleven, somebody must not follow the contractual duty of good faith and fair dealings.
This case seems thus to be one that could appropriately be settled… oh, wait, the company apparently perceives that to be inappropriate pressure. Perhaps a fact finder will, then, have to resolve this case of mutual mud-slinging. In the meantime, 7-Eleven prides its “good, hardworking, independent franchisees” of being the “backbone of the 7-Eleven brand.” That is, until the company itself deems that not to be the case anymore, at which point in time it imposes a $100,000 “penalty” on those of its franchisees who do not volunteer to sign away their stores. The company does not reveal how it imagines that its hardworking, but probably not highly profitable, franchisees will be able to hand over $100,000 to a company to avoid further trouble.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
- they limit workers' opportunities to seek better jobs within their profession;
- workers subject to non-competes change jobs less frequently and earn less money over time;
- states like California that refuse to enforce non-competes create a better environment for entrepreneurship; and
- low-level employees who are now being subjected to non-compete agreements have no bargaining power with which to challenge them and do not willingly consent to them.
There may be economic studies that dispute the first three bullet points. On the blog, we have tended to emphasize the fourth bullet point. The argument against that point is not empirical. Rather, those who support the enforcement of one-sided boilerplate terms contend that it is generally more efficient to enforce such terms than to expect that each agreement will be negotiated on an individual basis.
As Nancy Kim has argued, that might be okay, so long as the creators of boilerplate contracts are subject to a duty to draft those agreements reasonably. One interesting approach along similar lines is the solution proposed in Ian Ayres & Alan Schwartz, The No-Reading Problem in Consumer Contract Law, 66 Stan. L. Rev. 545 (2014).
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
What would you say if you found out that Facebook used your kids’ names and profile pictures to promote various third-party products and services to other kids? Appalling and legally impossible as minors cannot contract? That’s just what a group of plaintiffs (all minors) attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against Facebook argued recently, but to no avail. Here’s what happened:
Kids sign up on Facebook, “friend” their friends and add other information as well as their profile pictures. Facebook takes that information and display it to your kids’ friends, but alongside advertisements. The company insists that they do “nothing more than take information its users have voluntarily shared with their Facebook friends, and republish it to those same friends, sometimes alongside a related advertisement.” How does this happen? A program called “Social Ads” allows third parties to add their own content to the user material that is displayed when kids click on each other’s information.
The court dismissed the complaint, finding no viable theory on which it could find the user agreements between the kids and Facebook viable. In California, where the case was heard, Family Code § 6700 sets out the general rule for minors’ ability to contract: “… a minor may make a contract in the same manner as an adult, subject to the power of disaffirmance.” The plaintiffs had argued that as a general rule, minors cannot contract. That, said the court, is turning the rule on its head: minors can, as a starting point, contract, but they can affirmatively disaffirm the contracts if they wish to do so. In this case, they had not sought to do so before bringing suit.
Plaintiffs also argued that under § 6701, minors cannot delegate their power to, in effect, appoint Facebook as their agent who could then use their images and information. Wrong, said the court. Kids signing up on Facebook is “no different from the garden-variety rights a contracting party may obtain in a wide variety of contractual settings. Facebook users have, in effect, simply granted Facebook the right to use their names in pictures in certain specified situations in exchange for whatever benefits they may realize from using the Facebook site.”
In its never-ending quest to increase profits, Corporate America once again prevailed. Even children are not free from being used for this purpose. The only option they seemed to have had in this situation would have been to disaffirm the “contract;” in other words, to stop using Facebook. To me, that does not seem like a difficult choice, but I imagine the vehement protests instantly launched against parents asking their kids to stop using the popular website. Of course, kids are a highly attractive target audience. Some already have quite a bit of disposable income. They are all potential long-time customers for products/services not directed only at kids. Corporate name recognition is important in connection with this relatively impressionable audience. But is this acceptable? After all, there is an obvious reason why minors can disaffirm contracts. This option, however, would often require intense and perhaps undesirable parent supervision. In 2014, it is probably unreasonable to ask one’s kids not to be on social media (although the actual benefits of it are also highly debatable).
Although the legal outcome of this case is arguably correct, its impacts and the taste it leaves in one’s mouth are bad for unwary minors and their parents.
I've been thinking a lot about contract design, disclosure and consent recently, and had a chance to read Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, A Psychological Account of Consent to Fine Print, 99 IOWA L. REV. 1745 (2014) which (from the abstract):
"aims to unpack the beliefs, preferences, assumptions and biases that constitute our assessments of assent to boilerplate. Research suggests that misgivings about procedural defects in consumer contracting weigh heavily on judgments of contract formation, but play almost no role in judgments of blame for transactional harms. Using experimental methods from the psychology of judgment and decision-making, I test the psychological explanations for this disjunction, including motivated reasoning and reliance on availability heuristics."
Wilkinson-Ryan concludes that, while disclosures may not have noticeable effects on the assent process (i.e. whether consumers read or understand terms), they have "enormous effects on how we understand transactional harms." In other words, we are more likely to understand that the consumer has consented and that the consumer is to blame for having consented if the particular disputed issue has been disclosed.
Wilkinson-Ryan covers the same territory that Eric Zacks covered in a couple of earlier articles having to do with contracting behavior by firms and the effect of contract design on how consumers perceive their moral obligations. In the first article, Contracting Blame, 15 Univ. of Penn. J. of Bus. L. 169 (2012) Zacks (I’m quoting from the abstract again):
“explores the impact of the cognitive biases of judges and juries in the context of contract preparation and execution....This Article makes a novel link between behavioral literature and contract preparation and suggests that contract preparers may be able to manipulate adjudicators’ cognitive biases systematically. Exclusive of the economic bargain, contract provisions can provide attributional 'clues' about the contracting context that inform and reassure judicial interpreters that a particular contracting party is more blameworthy than another....In light of the significant implications of the existence and prospective use of such attributional clues for contract law theory and judgment, this Article proposes a broader contextual and adjudicative focus when contemplating contract law reforms.”
In the second, Shame, Regret and Contract Design, 97 Marquette L. Rev. (forthcoming), Zacks argues (again from the abstract):
“(c)ontracts can encourage individuals to feel shame, to blame themselves, to believe that contracts are sacred promises that should be specifically performed, to utilize faulty judgment heuristics when determining contract costs, and to rely on misperceived social norms with respect to challenging or breaching contracts. This may influence them not to breach or challenge an otherwise uneconomical, unconscionable, or illegal contract.”
The takeaway from these three articles? Firms are manipulating consumers through disclosure and contract design into performing contracts without real consent. The question then is what to do about it.
Wilkinson-Ryan’s article raises interesting questions about whether disclosure requirements have unintended consequences. I think her article provides additional support for Omri Ben Shahar and Carl Schneider's book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure (Princeton, 2014).* But rather than concluding that disclosure is a lousy way to address the problem of consent (which it often is), I came to a slightly different conclusion based upon one of her studies. That study found that "making the firm's behavior more salient changed how subjects ranked the blameworthiness of the parties." Wilkinson-Ryan notes that, "(u)nless participants are prompted to think about the firm's drafting process as a set of choices, the drafter's role is not a salient factor in judgments of blame." In my book, Wrap Contracts, and elsewhere, I argue that courts should stop focusing on consumer's "duty to read" and focus instead on the company's "duty to draft reasonably." In other words, courts should consider whether the drafting firm could have presented and drafted the contract terms in a better, more understandable fashion rather than on whether the adherent "should" have noticed the terms. This shifts the burden of form contracting - and Wilkinson-Ryan's studies suggest, the moral blame -- from the non-reading consumer to the bad-drafting, morally culpable, company. Of course, requiring companies to draft reasonably (as distinguished from providing “reasonable notice”) doesn’t get us all the way there – but it may help shift the focus away from blaming the adherent-victim to thinking about the immorality of the drafting firm.
*This blog plans to host a symposium on their book sometime in the fall so stay tuned.
**Boycott Amazon and buy this book from the publisher's website.
Monday, June 9, 2014
Today's New York Times reports on the extension of non-compete agreements to categories of employment not previously subject to them. This isn't really news, but it is nice to see the Times giving serious space to the issue, which I view as just another one-sided boilerplate term that employers are imposing on their employees. The difference here is that courts don't enforce non-competes if they overreach. However, the reality is that courts rarely get the opportunity to review non-competes, either because employees don't have the resources to fight them or because, as illustrated in the Times article, competitors are sometimes reluctant to risk a suit and so they do not hire people subject to non-competes, even if those non-competes might be unreasonable.
The over-the-top example with which the Times starts its story is about a woman whose job offer as a summer camp counselor was withdrawn because of a non-compete. She had worked three previous summers at a Linx-operated summer camp, and her terms of employment there included a non-compete of which she was (of course) unaware. Here is what Linx's founder had to say in defense of the non-compete:
“Our intellectual property is the training and fostering of our counselors, which makes for our unique environment,” he said. “It’s much like a tech firm with designers who developed chips: You don’t want those people walking out the door. It’s the same for us.” He called the restriction — no competing camps within 10 miles — very reasonable.
A few points. First, if your training and fostering of counselors creates a unique environment, then that training and fostering will not transfer when counselors switch to other camps that will presumably train and foster their counselors in other ways. If that's not the case, then there is nothing special or unique about the way you train and foster your counselors and thus no reason (except throwing up barriers to competition) not to allow counselors to work elsewhere.
Second, I just put my daughter on a bus for summer camp. I was a counselor at a summer camp for two years. Most camps now belong to a trade organization that sets down strict rules about safety and counselor training. It is unlikely that what Linx does is unique, and again, to the extent that it is unique, it is not transferable.
Third, a ten mile non-compete would be reasonable except that it is ten miles from any Linx camp, and Linx operates 30 camps in the area. So seen, the rule means that counselors who work at Linx camps cannot then work at any other camp in the region. There is no justification for this. If Linx has intellectual property to protect, it can do so, but Linx's founder's comparison of his camps to a tech firm strikes me as farfetched. I doubt that Linx has any intellectual property relating to its training of counselors. It is not as if a 19-year-old camp counselor comes to her new camp and impresses the people there with her knowledge from her past counseling experience. Each camp has its own traditions. If she says it is better to discard the leeches one pulls off the campers after a lake swim, they are not going to listen to her if the camp tradition is to move the leeches to the infirmary so that they can be "repurposed." What Linx is trying to do with this non-compete likely has less to do with protecting intellectual property than it does to establishing a stranglehold on the market of qualified camp counselors.
The Times story contrasts the employment situation in California, which does not enforce non-competes with that of Massachusetts, which does. But freedom of contract nad free enterprise still seem to have the upper hand in Massachusetts, as the following quote form the Times illustrates:
Michael Rodrigues, a Democratic state senator from Fall River, Mass., said the government should not be interfering in contractual matters like noncompetes. “It should be up to the individual employer and the individual potential employee among themselves,” he said. “They’re both adults.”
This is the typical nonsense underlying the enforcement of boilerplate. The camp counselor in the story was 19 years old, which means she was actually an infant when she signed the non-compete. But even if she could match the sophistication of the business that hired her, how does Mr. Rodrigues expect the negotiation to take place? In his mind it would go something like this:
Business: Here's the contract.
Employee: Okay, let me read it over and strike out all the terms that I don't like.
Business: Sure, take as long as you like and then we can negotiate over each term to which you object.
And here's the reality:
Business: Here's the contract.
Employee: Okay, let me read it over and strike out all the terms that I don't like.
Business: Well, actually, this is a form contract, and it's take it or leave it. Even if you wanted to object, I don't have any authority to change any of the terms. Either you sign this or you don't work here.
But even that is an exaggeration of the amount of consideration that goes in to the signing of employment contracts. They are not read at all and they are not expected to be read at all. And not reading them is the rational thing to do as potential employees have no bargaining power that they could deploy to challenge objectionable terms.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
After two employees of Amedisys, Inc. (Amedisys) went to work for its competitor, Kingwood Home Health Care, LLC (Kingwood), Amedisys sued Kingwood for tortious interference. The two parties then engaged in a game of legal chicken. Amedisys threatened that it would not settle below six figures. Kingwood responded with a settlement offer of $90,000, expecting that Amedisys would reject the offer and trigger Rule 167 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which would allow Kingwood to recover litigation costs if the case went to trial and resulted in a judgment considerably less favorable to Amedisys than the settlement offer.
Amedisys accepted the settlement offer. This apparently was not what Kingwood wanted or expected, and Kingwood refused to treat Amedisys's response as an acceptance. Kingwood proceeded with some pre-trial motions, and Amedisys filed an emergency motion for the enforcement of the settlement agreement. Kingwood claimed that the settlement agreement lacked consideration and that it was fraudulently induced by Amedisys's statement that it would not settle for less than six figures. Note that Kingwood is thus effectively admitting that it made its settlement offer only in order to avail itself of Rule 167. After a few more procedural complexities, the trial court granted Amedysis's motion to have the settlement agreement enforced.
On appeal, in addition to its allegations that the settlement agreement lacked consideration and was fraudulently induced, Kingwood claimed that Amedisys's purported acceptance was a counteroffer because it did not match the terms of Kingwood's offer. While Kingwood offered $90,000 "to settle all claims asserted or which could have been asserted by Amedisys,” Amedisys agreed to accept $90,000 "to settle all monetary claims asserted." Despite the fact that this argument was first raised on appeal, the Texas Court of Appeals agreed with Kingwood and reversed the trial court's judgment in favor of Amedisys.
The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals acted correctly in considering Kingwood's argument, raised for the first time on appeal, that no contract existed. Amedisys, as the moving party, bore the burden of proving each element of its claim that Kingwood had breached a contract, including proof of the existence of a contract.
[Editorializing here: This seems more than a bit off to me. Amedisys likely thought it had proved the existence of a contract when it presented evidence of offer and acceptance. At the trial court, Kingwood did not raise any claims that the acceptance was invalid based on the difference in wording between offer and acceptance. Why should Kingwood be permitted to sit on its legal arguments and save them for appeal? By not raising them in opposition to Amedisys's motion, Kingwood should have been treated as having waived those arguments. Otherwise, Amedisys would have to attempt to guess every possible legal challenge that Kingwood might raise to its claims and put them in its motion papers. In the process, Amedisys would be required to aniticipate every conceivable counterargument to its position, raise and refute each argument. This places an intolerable burden on the movant.]
While the common law does provide that an acceptance may not qualify or change the material terms of an offer, the Texas Supreme Court found that the differences between offer and acceptance in this case were not material given the full context of the exchanges between the parties. Amedisys made clear its intention to accept Kingwood's offer on the terms Kingwood presented. Moreover, there were no additional claims that Amedisys might potentially bring, as the doctrine of res judicata would bar Amedisys for bringing additional, related claims once the suit had been settled.
Because the Court of Appeals declined to rule on Kingwood's additional defenses, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for resolution of those issues.
For those who would like to explore the Mirror Image Rule with students, this is a pretty interesting case, and the Texas Supreme Court provides a video recording of the oral arguments, so that would be pretty cool to share with students as well.
Friday, May 30, 2014
Last month, the District Court for the Southern District of New York granted a motion to dismiss brought by defendant Gilt Groupe, Inc. (Gilt) in Starke v. Gilt Groupe, Inc. Adam Starke (Starke) sought to bring a class action claim against Gilt for allegedly misrepresenting on its website that its textiles were made from bamboo fibers when they are in fact made from bamboo derivatives (rayon).
Starke claimed both that he never effectively agreed to the arbitration agreement and class action waiver and that they are unconscionable. Relying on a 2012 case invovling similar challenges to Facebooks click-through terms and conditions, the District Court quickly concluded:
Regardless of whether he actually read the contract's terms, Starke was directed exactly where to click in order to review those terms, and his decision to click the "Shop Now" button represents his assent to them.
Yes, this is indeed how mass-market boilerplate rights-deletion scheme works. Clicking twice, and carefully reading both documents would have increased the time involved in Starke's transaction substantially. Neither Starke nor Gilt, which specializes in "flash sales," wants that. The terms are not intended to be read. Nor do we know that Starke could have understood the significance of the arbitration clause and class action waiver had he read them. In addition, what is Starke's alternative? The District Court blithely directs Starke to Amazon.com. What do you know? Amazon also has an arbitration clause and a class-action waiver! [In fairness, I've always found Amazon's customer service to be excellent -- they take returns and cover shipping on returns, so Starke probably would have been better off with them -- Amazon also accurately described the product at issue in Starke's case.] SDNY, you're part of the problem.
Starke did not seem to raise any serious grounds for finding the arbitration agreement unconscionable.
[This post has been edited to fix errors that a reader called to the author's attention.]
Saturday, May 24, 2014
"You can stop using our Services at any time, although we’ll be sorry to see you go. Google may also stop providing Services to you, or add or create new limits to our Services at any time."
and this unilateral modification clause:
"We may modify these terms or any additional terms that apply to a Service to, for example, reflect changes to the law or changes to our Services. You should look at the terms regularly. We’ll post notice of modifications to these terms on this page. We’ll post notice of modified additional terms in the applicable Service. Changes will not apply retroactively and will become effective no sooner than fourteen days after they are posted. However, changes addressing new functions for a Service or changes made for legal reasons will be effective immediately. If you do not agree to the modified terms for a Service, you should discontinue your use of that Service."
Friday, May 23, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
In California, the Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of divvying up water contracts in the California River Delta between the general public and senior local water rights owners. Years ago, it signed off on long-term contracts that determined “the quantities of water and the allocation thereof” between the parties. About a decade ago, it renewed these contracts without undertaking a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to find out whether the contract renewals negatively affected the delta smelt, a small, but threatened, fish species. The thinking behind not doing so was that since the water contracts “substantially constrained” the Bureau’s discretion to negotiate new terms, no consultation was required.
Not correct, concluded an en banc Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel recently. By way of brief background, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions jeopardizes threatened or endangered species or their habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a). Among other things, federal agencies must consult with the FWS if they have “some discretion”"some discretion" to take action on behalf of a protected species. In this case, since the contractual provision did not strip the Bureau of all discretion to benefit the species, consultation should have taken place. For example, the Bureau could have renegotiated the pricing or timing terms and thus benefitted the species, said the court.
In 1993, the delta smelt had declined by 90% over the previous 20 years and was thus listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Of course, fish is not the only species vying for increasingly scarce California water. Man is another. The current and ongoing drought in California – one of the worst in history – raises questions about future allocations of water. Who should be prioritized? Private water right holders? People in Southern California continually thirsty and eager to water their often overly water-demanding garden plants? Industry? Farmers? Not to mention the wild animals and plants depending on sufficient levels of water? There are no easy answers here.
The California drought is estimated to cost Central Valley farmers $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. While that seems drastic, the drought is still not expected to have any significant effect on the state economy as California is no longer an agricultural state. In fact, agriculture only accounts for 5% of jobs in California. Still, that is no consolation to people losing their jobs in California agriculture or consumers having to pay higher prices for produce in an increasingly warming and drying California climate.
The 1974 movie Chinatown focused on the Los Angeles water supply system. 40 years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse. The game as to who gets water contracts and for how much water is still on.
The event that fuels the first-season plot of the new F/X television series Fargo is a conversation in an emergency room waiting room. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, left) has just been assaulted by Sam Hess, who used to bully him mercilessly in high school. Hess intimidates and humiliates Lester in front of Hess's comically neanderthal sons. Although Hess never actually hits Lester, the result is still a broken nose.
While waiting for someone to attend to his injury, Lester has a conversation with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, Right), who was injured when his car hit a deer and careened off the highway. Once the car came to rest in a snow-covered field, a man wearing only boxer shorts, who for some reason had been in the trunk of Malvo's car, jumped out and ran for the cover of the nearby woods. That's pretty much all we know about Malvo when he and Lester have their conversation.
Malvo manages to learn from Lester what had happened to him and that the man responsible for his injuries is named Hess. Malvo suggests that Lester ought to kill Hess, but Lester is not that kind of person (or at least not yet), so he dismisses the idea. Malvo offers to kill Hess for Lester. Lester just gives him that look of incredulity that has been a staple of Martin Freeman's wonderful career. Malvo insists that Lester say either yes or no, but a nurse interrupts the conversation to take Lester in for treatment, and Lester says nothing.
Spoiler alert: you may not want to read below the jump if you have not watched the show (and intend to do so) as a few plot details are revealed:
Sunday, May 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, Jeremy Telman blogged here about the insanity of having to pay for hundreds of TV stations when one really only wants to, or has time to, watch a few.
Luckily, change may finally be on its way. The company Aereo is offering about 30 channels of network programming on, so far, computers or mobile devices using cloud technology. The price? About $10 a month, surely a dream for “cable cutters” in the areas which Aereo currently serves.
How does this work? Each customer gets their own tiny Aereo antenna instead of having to either have a large, unsightly antenna on their roofs or buying expensive cable services just to get broadcast stations. In other words, Aereo enables its subscribers to watch broadcast TV on modern, mobile devices at low cost and with relative technological ease. In other words, Aereo records show for its subscribers so that they don’t have to.
That sounds great, right? Not if you are the big broadcast companies in fear of losing millions or billions of dollars (from the revenue they get via cable companies that carry their shows). They claim that this is a loophole in the law that allows private users to record shows for their own private use, but not for companies to do so for commercial gain and copyright infringement.
Of course, the great American tradition of filing suit was followed. Most judges have sided with Aero so far, the networks have filed petition for review with the United States Supreme Court, which granted the petition in January.
Stay tuned for the outcome in this case…
Monday, May 12, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
The United States Supreme Court recently held that airlines are allowed to revoke the membership of those of their frequent flyers who complain “too much” about the airline’s services (see Northwest v. Ginsberg). Contracts ProfBlog first wrote about the case on April 3.
In the case, Northwest Airlines claimed that it removed one of its Platinum Elite customers from the program because the customer had complained 24 times over a span of approximately half a year about such alleged problems as luggage arriving “late” at the carousel. The company also stated that the customer had asked for and received compensation “over and above” the company guidelines such as almost $2,000 in travel vouchers, $500 in cash reimbursements, and additional miles. According to the company, this was an “abuse” of the frequent flyer agreement, thus giving the company the sole discretion to exclude the customer. The customer said that the real reason for his removal from the program was that the airline wanted to cut costs ahead of the then-upcoming merger with Delta Airlines. He filed suit claiming breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his contract with Northwest Airlines.
The Court found that state law claims for breaches of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing are pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 if the claims seek to enlarge the contractual relations between airlines and their frequent flyers rather than simply seeking to hold parties to their actual agreement. The covenant is thus pre-empted whenever it seeks to implement “community standards of decency, fairness, or reasonableness” which, apparently, go above and beyond what airlines promise to their customers.
Really? Does this mean that airlines can repeatedly behave in indecent ways towards frequent flyer programs members (and others), but if the members repeatedly complain, they – the customers – “abuse” the contractual relationship?!.. The opinion may at first blush read as such and have that somewhat chilling effect. However, the Court also pointed out that passengers may still seek relief from the Department of Transportation, which has the authority to investigate contracts between airlines and passengers.
The unanimous opinion authored by J. Alito also stated that passengers can simply “avoid an airline with a poor reputation and possibly enroll in a more favorable rival program.” These days, that may be hard to do. First, most airlines appear to have more or less similar frequent flyer programs. Second, what airline these days has a truly “good” reputation? Granted, some are better than others, but when picking one’s air carrier, it sometimes seems like choosing between pest and cholera.
One example is the airlines’ highly restrictive change-of-ticket rules in relation to economy airfare, which seem almost unconscionable. I have flown Delta Airlines almost exclusively for almost two decades on numerous trips to Europe for family and business purposes. A few times, I have had the good fortune to fly first or business class, but most times, I fly economy. Until recently, it was possible to change one’s economy fare in return for a relatively hefty “change fee” of around $200 and “the increase, if any, in the fare.” - Guess what, the fares always had increased the times I asked for a change. Recently, I sought to change a ticket that I had bought for my elderly mother, also using KLM (which codeshares with Delta) as my mother is also frequent flyer with Delta. I was told that it was impossible to change the ticket as it was “deeply discounted.” I had shopped extensively online for the ticket, which was within very close range (actually slightly more expensive than that of Delta’s competitors. I asked the company what my mother could do in this situation, but was told that all she could do was to “throw out the ticket (worth around $900) and buy another one.” Remember that these days, airfare often has to be bought months ahead of time to get the best prices. In the meantime, life happens. Unexpected, yet important events come about. Changes to airline tickets should be realistically feasible, but are currently not on these conditions.
What airlines and regulators seem to forget in times of “freedom of contracting and market forces” is that some of us do not have large business budgets or fly only to go on a (rare, in this country) vacation. My mother is elderly and lives in Europe. I need to perform elder care on another continent and need flights for that purpose just as much as others need bus or train services. Such is life in a globalized world for many of us. In some nations, airlines feature at least quasi-governmental aspects and are much more heavily regulated than in the United States. Here, airfare seems to be increasing rapidly while the middle (and lower) incomes are more or less stagnant currently. I understand and appreciate the benefits of a free marketplace, but a few more regulations seem warranted in today’s economy. It should be possible to, for example, do something as simple as to change a date on a ticket (if, of course, seats are still available at the same price and by paying a realistic change fee) without having to buy extravagantly expensive first class or other types of “changeable” tickets.
Other “abuses” also seem to be conducted by airlines towards their passengers and not vice versa. For example, if one faces a death in the family, forget about the “grievance” airfares that you may think exist. Two years ago, my father was passing and I was called to his deathbed. Not having had the exact date at hand months earlier, I had to buy a ticket last minute (that’s usually how it goes in situations like that, I think…). The airline – a large American carrier - charged a very large amount for the ticket, but attempted to justify this with the fact that that ticket was “changeable” when, ironically, I did not need it to be as I needed to leave within a few hours.
In the United States, “market forces” are said to dictate the pricing of airfare. In Europe, some discount airlines fly for much lower prices than in the United States (think round-trip from northern to southern Europe for around $20 plus tax, albeit to smaller airports at off hours). Strange, since both markets are capitalist and offer freedom of contracting. Of course, these discount airlines also feature various fees driving up their prices somewhat, although not nearly as much as in the United States. A few years back, one discount European airline even announced that it planned to charge a few dollars for its passengers to use … the in-flight restrooms. Under heavy criticism, that plan was soon given up. In the United States, some airlines seem to be asking for legal trouble because of their lopsided business strategies. Sure, companies of course have to remain profitable, but when many of them claim in their marketing materials to be “family-oriented” and “focused on the needs of their passengers,” it would be nice if they would more thoroughly consider what that means.
Today is later, and cleaning out my inbox is one way I take a break from term-end grading. Here is part of the e-mail:
- We’re adding an arbitration section to our updated Terms of Service. Arbitration is a quick and efficient way to resolve disputes, and it provides an alternative to things like state or federal courts where the process could take months or even years. If you don’t want to agree to arbitration, you can easily opt out via an online form, within 30-days of these Terms becoming effective. This form, and other details, are available on our blog.
D'oh. If I had read this when I got it, I could have opted out of the arbitration policy! Today, when I tried to click on the opt-out link, I got a screen that said, in effect, "Sorry sucker, you missed the boat!" I had already accepted the new terms of service, including the arbitration clause, by using Dropbox for 30 days without reading the e-mail. If anybody has attempted to opt out, please share your experience. I really wonder how easy it is to opt out or if Dropbox is just counting on people not to bother.
Fortunately, most of Dropbox's terms are pretty reasonable as such things go. Dropbox will pay all fees on claims under $75,000 and will pay a $1000 bonus to anybody who wins an arbitral award in excess of Dropbox's settlement offer. Dropbox promises not to seek its own fees and costs unless the arbitrator determines that the claim is frivolous. There are also exceptions to the arbitration provision for small claims and for injunctive relief, but the latter would have to be brought in San Francisco. There is also the now-unavoidable ban on class actions, as well as consolidated or representative actions.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
On May 8, 2014, Vermont became the first state in the nation to require foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled accordingly. The law will undoubtedly face several legal challenges on both First Amendment and federal pre-emption grounds, especially since giant corporate interests are at stake.
Scientists and companies backing the use of GMOs claim that GMOs are safe for both humans and the environment. Skeptics assert that while that may be true in the short term, not enough data yet supports a finding that GMOs are also safe in the long term.
In the EU, all food products that make direct use of GMOs at any point in their production are subjected to labeling requirements, regardless of whether or not GM content is detectable in the end product. This has been the law for ten years.
GMO stakeholders in the United States apparently do not think that we as consumers have at least a right to know whether or not our foods contain GMOs. Why not, if the GMOs are as safe as is said? A host of other food ingredients have been listed on labels here over the years, although mainly on a voluntary basis. Think MSGs, sodium, wheat, peanuts, halal meat, and now gluten. This, of course, makes perfect sense. But why should GMOs be any different? If, for whatever reason, consumers prefer not to eat GMOs, shouldn’t we as paying, adult customers have as much a say as consumers preferring certain other products?
Of course, the difference here is (surprise!) one of profit-making: by labeling products “gluten free,” for example, manufacturers hope to make more money. If they had to announce that their products contain GMOs, companies fear losing money. So why don’t companies whose products don’t contain GMOs just volunteer to offer that information on the packaging? The explanation may lie in the pervasiveness of GMOs in the USA: the vast majority (60-80%, depending on the many sources trying to establish certainty in this area) of prepared foods contain GMOs just as more than 80% of major crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Maybe GMOs are entirely safe in the long run as well, maybe not, but we should at least have a right to know what we eat, it seems.
Monday, May 5, 2014
In Block v. eBay, Inc., Marshall Block contended that eBay's automatic bidding system violates two provisions of its User Agreement as well as California's Unfair Competition Law. The District Court dismissed the case and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
eBay conducts online auctions through its automatic bidding system. A bidder enters into the system the maximum amount she is willing to bid. This amount is kept confidential, but the system automatically and at pre-determined increments enters the bidder's bids until the bid price exceeds the maximum that the bidder is willing to pay. Block, an eBay seller, claimed that the system violates provisions of the User Agreement in which eBay represents that: 1) it is not involved in the actual transaction between buyers and sellers; and 2) the Agreement creates no agency, partnership, joint-venture, employer/employee or franchisor/franchisee relationship.
The District Court found that neither of these provisions constituted enforceable promises, and the Ninth Circuit agreed. The Court discerned no promissory language in the relevant provisions. Rather, the Court opined that the language in the User Agreement served as a general introductin to eBay's marketplace. While some of the language of the User Agreement are explicitly promissory; the language at issue here is informal and conversational in style.
While I agree with the Court's analysis here, I am a bit wary of its emphasis on the informal language used in the User Agreement. I noticed recently that Google changed the tone (but not the substance) of its Terms of Service by adding contractions and generally making the corporation sound more like an unthreatening hipster. Notwithstanding the verbal skinny jeans, companies engaged in e-commerce use these agreements to limit consumer rights and their own exposure to legal action, often to the verge of rendering these documents illusory agreements. I wish the Ninth Circuit had limited its opinion to a finding that there was no promise and had not equated informal language with a lack of intent to be bound.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A class-action lawsuit filed recently against Amazon asserts that the giant online retailer did not honor its promise to offer “free shipping” to its Prime members in spite of these members having paid an annual membership fee of $79 mainly in order to obtain free two-day shipping.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Amazon would covertly encourage third-party vendors to increase the item prices displayed and charged to Prime members by the same amount charged to non-Prime members for shipping in order to make it appear as if the Prime members would get the shipping for free. Amazon would allegedly also benefit from such higher prices as it deducts a referral fee as a percentage of the item price from third-party vendors.
The suit alleges breach of contract and seeks recovery of Prime membership costs for the relevant years as well as treble damages under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. Most states have laws such as consumer fraud statutes, deceptive trade practices laws, and/or unfair competition laws that can punish sellers for charging more than the actual costs of “shipping and handling." In some cases that settled, companies agreed to use the term “shipping and processing” instead of “shipping and handling” to be more clear towards consumers.
On the flip side of the situation is how Amazon outright prevents at least some private third-party vendors from charging the actual shipping costs (not even including “handling” or “processing” charges). For example, if a private, unaffiliated vendor sells a used book via Amazon, the site will only allow that person to charge a certain amount for shipping. As post office and UPS/FedEx costs of mailing items seem to be increasing (understandably so in at least the case of the USPS), the charges allowed for by Amazon often do not cover the actual costs of sending items. And if the private party attempts to increase the price of the book even just slightly to not incur a “loss” on shipping, the book may not be listed as the cheapest one available and thus not be sold.
This last issue may be a detail as the site still is a way of getting one’s used books sold at all whereas that may not have been possible without Amazon. Nonetheless, the totality of the above allegations, if proven to be true, and the facts just described till demonstrate the contractual powers that modern online giants have over competitors and consumers.
A decade or so ago, I attended a business conference for other purposes. I remember how one presenter, when discussing “shipping and handling” charges, got a gleeful look in his eyes and mentioned that when it came to those charges, it was “Christmas time.” When comparing what shipping actually costs (not that much for large mail-order companies that probably enjoy discounted rates with the shipping companies) with the charges listed by many companies, it seems that not much has changed in that area. On the other hand, promises of “free” shipping have, of course, been internalized in the prices charged somehow. One can hope that companies are on the up-and-up about the charges. Again: buyer beware.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
According to this article in today's New York Times, General Mills has added language to its website designed to force anyone who interacts with the company to disclaim any right to bring a legal action against it in a court of law. If a consumer derives any benefit from General Mills' products, including using a coupon provided by the company, "liking" it on social media or buying any General Mills' product, the consumer must agree to resolve all disputes through e-mail or through arbitration.
The website now features a bar at the top which reads:
The Legal Terms include the following provisions:
- The Agreement applies to all General Mills products, including Yoplait, Green Giant, Pillsbury, various cereals and even Box Tops for Education;
- The Agreement automatically comes into effect "in exchange for benefits, discounts," etc., and benefits are broadly defined to include using a coupon, subscribing to an e-mail newsletter, or becoming a member of any General Mills website;
- The only way to terminate the agreement is by sending written notice and discontinuing all use of General Mills products;
- All disputes or claims brought by the consumer are subject to e-mail negotiation or arbitration and may not be brought in court; and
- A class action waiver.
The Times notes that General Mills' action comes after a judge in California refused to dismiss a claim against General Mills for false advertising. Its packaging suggests that its "Nature Valley" products are 100% natural, when in fact they contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. The Times also points out that courts may be reluctant to enforce the terms of the online Agreement. General Mills will have to demonstrate that consumers were aware of the terms when they used General Mills products. And what if, when they did so, they were wearing an Ian Ayres designed Liabili-T?
Monday, April 7, 2014
My student, Cecelia Harper (pictured), recently ordered television service. The representative for the service provider offered a 2-year agreement, which he said was “absolutely, positively not a contract.” Learned in the law as she is, Cecelia asked the representative what he thought the difference was between a contract and an agreement. He wasn't sure, but he did read her what he called "literature," which surprisingly enough was not a Graham Greene novel but the terms and conditions of the agreement, which included a $20/month "deactivation" fee should Cecelia terminate service before the end of the contract -- oops, I mean agreement -- term.
I have seen said agreement, and it includes the following charming terms:
- Service provider reserves the right to make programming and pricing changes;
- Customer is entitled to notice of changes and is free to cancel her service if she does not like the changes, but then she will incur the deactivation fee;
- Customer must agree in advance to 12 categories of administrative fees that may be imposed on her;
- Service provider reserves right to change the terms of the agreement at any time, and continued use of the service after notice constitutes acceptance of new terms;
- An arbitration clause that excludes certain actions that the service provider might bring; and
- A class action waiver
If the agreement had a $20/month deactivation fee in it, I could not find it. All I see is a deactivation fee of "up to $15." Rather, the "customer agreement" references a separate "programming agreement," and suggests that there are cancellation fees associated with termination prior to the term of the programming agreement.
So in what sense is this not a contract? My guess is that this is service providers trying to emulate what cell phone service providers have done with their "no contract phone" campaigns. For example, there's this one:
I'm guessing that the television service providers have learned that these ad campaigns have made "contract" into a dirty word. They are now seeking to seduce new customers by insisting that they do not offer contracts. Oren Bar-Gill will have to write a sequel to his last book and call it Seduction by Agreement.
If anyone has any other theories for why representatives for service providers are insisting that their contracts are really agreements, please share!
Monday, March 31, 2014
More on the Fairness of Contractual Penalties
By Myanna Dellinger
In my March 3 blog post, I described how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just held that contractual liquidated damages clauses in the form of late and overlimit fees on credit cards do not violate due process law. A new California appellate case addresses a related issue, namely whether the breach of a loan settlement agreement calling for the repayment of the entire underlying loan and not just the settled-upon amount in the case of breach is a contractually prohibited penalty. It is.
In the case, Purcell v. Schweitzer (Cal. App. 4th Dist., Mar. 17, 2014), an individual borrowed $85,000 from a private lender and defaulted. The parties agreed to settle the dispute for $38,000. A provision in the settlement provided that if the borrower also defaulted on that amount, the entire amount would become due as “punitive damages.” When the borrower only owed $67 or $1,776 (depending on who you ask), he again defaulted, and the lender applied for and obtained a default judgment for $85,000.
Liquidated damages clauses in contracts are “enforceable if the damages flowing from the breach are likely to be difficult to ascertain or prove at the time of the agreement, and the liquidated damages sum represents a good faith effort by the parties to appraise the benefit of the bargain.” Piñon v. Bank of Am., 741 F.3d 1022, 1026 (Ninth Cir. 2014). The relevant “breach” to be analyzed is the breach of the stipulation, not the breach of the underlying contract. Purcell. On the other hand, contractual provisions are unenforceable as penalties if they are designed “not to estimate probable actual damages, but to punish the breaching party or coerce his or her performance.” Piñon, 741 F.3d at 1026.
At first blush, these two cases seem to reach the same legally and logically correct conclusion on similar backgrounds. But do they? The Ninth Circuit case in effect condones large national banks and credit card companies charging relatively small individual, but in sum very significant, fees that arguably bear little relationship to the actual damages suffered by banks when their customers pay late or exceed their credit limits. (See, in general, concurrence in Piñon). In 2002, for example, credit card companies collected $7.3 billion in late fees. Seana Shiffrin, Are Credit Card Law Fees Unconstitutional?, 15 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 457, 460 (2006). Thus, although the initial cost to each customer may be small (late fees typically range from $15 to $40), the ultimate result is still that very large sums of money are shifted from millions of private individuals to a few large financial entities for, as was stated by the Ninth Circuit, contractual violations that do not really cost the companies much. These fees may “reflect a compensatory to penalty damages ratio of more than 1:100, which far exceeds the ratio” condoned by the United States Supreme Court in tort cases. Piñon, 741 F.3d at 1028. In contrast, the California case shows that much smaller lenders of course also have no right to punitive damages that bear no relationship to the actual damages suffered, although in that case, the ratio was “only” about 1:2.
The United States Supreme Court should indeed resolve the issue of whether due process jurisprudence is applicable to contractual penalty clauses even though they originate from the parties’ private contracts and are thus distinct from the jury-determined punitive damages awards at issue in the cases that limited punitive damages in torts cases to a certain ratio. Government action is arguably involved by courts condoning, for example, the imposition of late fees if it is true that they do not reflect the true costs to the companies of contractual breaches by their clients. In my opinion, the California case represents the better outcome simply because it barred provisions that were clearly punitive in nature. But “fees” imposed by various corporations not only for late payments that may have little consequence for companies that typically get much money back via large interest rates, but also for a range of other items appear to be a way for companies to simply earn more money without rendering much in return.
At the end of the day, it is arguably economically wasteful from society’s point of view to siphon large amounts of money in “late fees” from private individuals to large national financial institutions many of which have not in recent history demonstrated sound economic savvy themselves, especially in the current economic environment. Courts should remember that whether or not liquidated damages clauses are actually a disguise for penalties depends on “the actual facts, not the words which may have been used in the contract.” Cook v. King Manor and Convalescent Hospital, 40 Cal. App. 3d 782, 792 (1974).
Friday, March 21, 2014
Microsoft has been in the news recently for accessing a user's Hotmail account without a court order. Microsoft revealed this information as part of a lawsuit it filed against a former employee who it accussed of stealing trade secrets. The company received information that a French blogger had access to Windows operating system software code and wanted to find out who was the blogger's source. Conveniently for Microsoft, the blogger had a Microsoft-operated Hotmail account. The company's accessing of the emails and instant messages of the blogger was lawful because - you guessed it - it was permitted under the company's terms of service which state:
We also may share or disclose personal information, including the content of your communications:
- To comply with the law or respond to legal process or lawful requests, including from law enforcement and government agencies.
- To protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers, including enforcing the terms governing your use of the services.
- To act on a good faith belief that access or disclosure is necessary to protect the personal safety of Microsoft employees, customers or the public.
Lest you think you can escape the intrusions of corporate peeking into personal communications by moving to another email provider, a quick check of the terms of service of Yahoo and Google showed nearly identical language in their privacy policies.
Google’s terms of service state:
We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:
- meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
- enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
- detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
- protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.
You acknowledge, consent and agree that Yahoo may access, preserve and disclose your account information and Content if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (i) comply with legal process; (ii) enforce the TOS; (iii) respond to claims that any Content violates the rights of third parties; (iv) respond to your requests for customer service; or (v) protect the rights, property or personal safety of Yahoo, its users and the public.
Interestingly, Microsoft's terms of service give the company less discretion to snoop through our emails than Google or Yahoo -- it can only do so to protect the company and its users. Google or Yahoo can access communications to protect third party property interests. But they wouldn't really do that without a court order, would they? Oh, right.