Thursday, April 16, 2015
A potential class-action lawsuit against SeaWorld was filed in Florida on April 8 just two weeks after the company was sued over its killer whale care in San Diego in another purported class action suit. The Florida lawsuit alleges unjust enrichment and fraud, among other issues. The lawsuit claims that if members of the public knew about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of the orcas, they would not visit the theme parks. Plaintiffs asks the court to require SeaWorld to reimburse ticket prices to all the people who purchased tickets to the Orlando park in the past four years. Visitors to the park pay much as $235 per person. The complaint states that more than five million people attended the Florida theme park in the years 2010 through 2012.
SeaWorld finds itself in a lot of trouble these days over its treatment of its killer whales. The park was, for example, subjected to heavy criticism in the CNN documentary “Blackfish” and in a book written by one of its former orca trainers. Perhaps as a result, its shares have been tanking recently…
SeaWorld, in turn, claims that the criticism and in particular the most recent lawsuit “appears to be an attempt by animal [rights] extremists to use the courts to advance an anti-zoo agenda. The suit is baseless, filled with inaccuracies, and SeaWorld intends to defend itself against these inaccurate claims.” It also claims that it is a leader in orca care. SeaWorld’s parks are regularly inspected by the U.S. government and two organizations. The accreditations of the California and Florida parks expire in 2020.
As part of the experience park visitors purchase, they unquestionably expect to see relatively healthy and happy whales kept under standards of good animal husbandry. But in reality, according to the lawsuits and other statements about the park, SeaWorld does not live up to this end of the bargain. Frequent allegations have been made that SeaWorld’s orcas have a shorter lifespan than wild orcas (usually, animals in captivity live longer than their wild counterparts), are kept in chemical-filled and way too small pools, are drugged with antipsychotic medicines, are not provided with sufficient shade, and are subjected to forced breeding.
Either somebody is not telling the truth here or people’s expectations of what constitutes good ethics in relation to keeping and displaying orcas as well as other show and zoo animals, for that matter. Does this matter under the law? Of course, the general public has a purely legal right to buy tickets to see various performance and exhibit animals as long as no state or federal law is violated as regards how the animals are treated. Ethics are a different story. But misrepresentation is actionable under contracts law. If the above allegations made by TV producers, former trainers, and numerous consumers are correct, SeaWorld has indeed not lived up to the wholesome, animal-friendly image it portrays of itself in order to sell tickets. Its alleged questionable conduct has been going on for years. It’s been almost twenty since a friend of mine (otherwise not very interested in animals) visited SeaWorld San Diego and went on a backstage tour. He told me about the deplorably small pools in which the animals were kept after their performances. In this area, ethics and contracts law interface and have finally come head-to-head. The eventual outcome may be that SeaWorld will not be able to continue making money off its orca shows as it has in the past. Ringling Bros. is voluntarily phasing out its use of elephants after similar protests about their treatment. This may not be a bad thing from a public policy point of view. Time has come to consider how we treat animals in many contexts, and certainly so for mere entertainment and profit-making motives.
See the Florida complaint here: http://ia902707.us.archive.org/24/items/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289.1.0.pdf
Monday, April 13, 2015
A few weeks ago, 17-year old Siobhan O’Dell became known online for her bold and unusual rejection of Duke University’s rejection of her college application. She wrote:
"Thank you for your rejection letter of March 26, 2015. After careful consideration, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me admission into the Fall 2015 freshman class at Duke. This year I have been fortunate enough to receive rejection letters from the best and brightest universities in the country. With a pool of letters so diverse and accomplished I was unable to accept reject letters I would have been able to only several years ago."
Alas, applying for college does not work like that. Accordingly, Duke’s response was simply that Ms. O’Dell’s only option is to appeal the decision, but that her chances of a reversal are not good: “If you choose to appeal, we welcome your request, but I do not wish to raise unreasonable expectations on your part," the university representative writes.
Nice try, though! It sounds like Ms. O’Dell would do well in a Contracts Law class.
Friday, April 3, 2015
In New Zealand, a ban on unfair terms in consumer contracts has taken effect and will, according to the Commerce Commission, will be enforced starting immediately. The regulation forms part of the 2013 Fair Trading Act. Australia introduced a similar ban in 2010.
The Consumer Organization “Consumer NZ” has launched its “Play Fair” campaign to increase awareness of the new law and related consumer issues. According to Consumer NZ, companies had been given plenty of notice of the upcoming ban and thus to review their contracts in order to remove unfair terms, but had to a large extent failed to do so.
The Act will apply to standard-form consumer contracts often used by electricity retailers, gyms, TV service providers and many others.
But what makes a term “unfair”? The Act defines a term as unfair if it would “would cause a significant imbalance between the rights of the company and the consumer, is not reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the company, [or] would cause detriment, whether financial or otherwise, to the consumer if it were to be applied or relied on.” The Act contains a list of terms that courts are likely to regard as unfair. This covers terms that would allow a company to unilaterally vary the terms of the contract, renew or terminate it, penalize consumers for breaching or terminating the contract, vary the price without giving consumers the right to terminate the contract, or vary the characteristics of the goods or services to be supplied.
After intense lobbying by the insurance industry, that industry was exempted from the ban.
Even though this Act is a consumer protection device, only the New Zealand Commerce Commission can, for now, enforce it. The contemplated fine for violations is $600,000.
In the USA, there are, of course, various statutory and common law protections against unfair terms such as those contained in the UCC as well as fraud protections. However, the deterrence effect of these does not seem effective in relation to at least some industries. Alternatively, perhaps the protections are not broad enough, sufficiently well-known, or sufficiently easy to enforce. Or perhaps people just give up and deal with other companies, or pay what they are asked to do by the companies.
I personally just spent no less than two hours chatting online with a major health care provider over their sudden allegation that a certain doctor I had used was “not in network” (with me thus allegedly owing a few thousand dollars to the insurance company) despite that particular provider being listed on the provider’s own website as “in network” and the doctor having confirmed this. Eventually and after numerous contractual and factual arguments, I was able to persuade provider that I was right. But how many others in my situation would simply give up and cave in to, as was the case, the provider’s repeated bootstrapping arguments that “their ultimate price was fair”?
Only two days later, I heard from a moving company that had agreed to move a car for me for $500 (and confirmed this twice) that the “price is actually $600.” When I told them no, it is not, they repeated their allegation that “we did not have a contract.” After telling them a few things about contract formation and modification principles and after declining listening to their attempted, time-consuming warnings about using other companies that were “scam artists,” I am now looking for a new contract another vendor.
Despite whatever legal protections we may officially have in this country against consumer fraud, it is still rampant. New Zealand’s government enforcement system is interesting, but time will tell if they have more success preventing consumer fraud than we do here.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Earlier this month, Los Angeles-area media reported a somewhat humorous of a valet service that gave away a relatively expensive new car to a random guy claiming that he had "lost the [valet] ticket." Yup, the valet service actually just gave the car to the man who was sporting an Ohio state tattoo. (Of course, this story is not funny for the frustrated car owner).
But wait, the story gets weirder than that (it is, after all, LA, where we worry a lot about our cars...): the valet service sent the responsible employee home and referred the customer to his insurance company. Initial reports indicated that the insurance company did not want to pay for this loss as no theft had occurred... as is always the case, however, the media did not follow up on the end of this story, to the best of my knowledge.
Another valet contract that you must read and that was shared today on the AALS listserv for Contract Professors reminded me of this story. Hat tip to Professor Davis!
Valet companies may have to brush up on their contract writing skills soon...
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Some weeks ago, I blogged here about water rights and shortages in drought-ridden California. Of course, California is not the only state where contractual water rights interface with development and public health concerns.
In Ohio, shale driller Gulfport Energy recently filed suit against the town of Barnesville for rights to extract water for Gulfport’s fracking operations. Gulfport had a contract with Barnesville entitling it to draw water from a local reservoir at one cent per gallon. Under the contract, Gulfport would be able to draw the water unless the village determined that such action would endanger public health. Water rights were subsequently also issued to another driller. In the fall of 2014, the village told Gulfport to stop drawing water from the reservoir because of too low water levels. Gulfport’s suit now asks for adequate assurances of performance of the water contract to ensure that it can continue its fracking operations.
Whether that is a good idea is another story. From a short-term perspective: yes, we need energy preferably domestically sourced to avoid international supply interruptions and the geopolitical problems that are associated with importing energy raw materials. But fracking and fossil fuel production in general are associated with other severe problems including heavy water usage in the case of fracking. Such water, the argument goes, is better used for other things such as farming and household consumption.
Business as usual for fracking companies may not be the best idea seen from a societal point of view. Contracts rights are only a small part of this much bigger problem. However, time seems to have come for governments to incorporate escape clauses not only for “public health concerns” into water contracts, but also for drought concerns. This is not always done, as the above case shows, but such a relatively easy step could help solve at least some contractual disputes. In times of increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall in some areas, such contract drafting may well make sense.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
The problem with constructive consent, or substituting "manifestations of assent" for actual assent, in consumer contracts is that consumers often aren't aware what rights they've relinquished or what they have agreed to have done to them. Too bad for consumers, right? Well, it's also too bad for companies. Companies that rely on contracts to obtain consumer consent may find that what suffices for consent in contract law just won't cut it under other law that seeks actual consumer consent. Michaels, the arts and crafts store chain, found that out the hard way. They were recently hit with two class action lawsuits alleging that their hiring process violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Job applications clicked an "I Agree" box which indicated "consent" to the terms and conditions which authorized a background check on the applicant. As this article in the National Law Review explains, the FCRA requires that job applicants receive "clear and conspicuous" standalone notice if they are seeking consent from applicants to obtaining a background report. A click box likely won't (and shouldn't) cut it. Contracts that everybody knows nobody reads shouldn't be considered sufficient notice. It would, of course, be much simpler if contractual consent were more aligned with actual human behavior....
Saturday, March 14, 2015
Secret backroom deals conducted in hotels and private apartments. Dedicated phone lines. Market-sharing agreements and price fixing activities. Million-dollar deals. Thinking oil, diamonds, shares or foreign exchange? Think again! Eleven of the top … yoghurt makers in France, including American-owned Yoplait, were recently fined approx. $200 million for the above activities, which affected about 90% of the French yoghurt market and thus “seriously disturbed” it.
Yoplait, the majority of which is owned by U.S.-based General Mills, Inc., actually revealed the cartel under a French law that allows companies to self-report their price fixing activities in exchanged for reduced punishment. So far, the company has received no fines.
Apparently, the French competition authorities are cracking down on deals such as the above. The French government has also recently started cleaning out, so to speak, the ranks among shampoo, toothpaste and various cleaning product manufacturers.
Price fixing does, of course, disturb the free market forces. When shopping in this country, it is remarkable how close prices for various everyday items are. However, that does not mean that prices have been set in any illegal way. Retailers such as gas stations, which are well-known at least in the Los Angeles area to have almost the same prices all the time, could just stick the head out the window to see how the competitors price their products. But if mere yoghurt is worth the above risk, one wonders what else may be going on behind the scenes in the global corporate world. Perhaps it’s better not to know.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Last year, Starbucks announced a new corporate-supported educational program that one year later is still viable: Starbucks will reimburse its full-time workers for taking online classes with Arizona State University. Partial tuition (58%) will be offered to freshmen and sophomores and full tuition for juniors and seniors as long as credits are earned within the past 18 months so as to keep students on track.
As you may have noticed if you are a Starbucks customer, very many of its employees appear to be college-aged. In fact, 70% of Starbucks’ workforce are either in school already or have had to drop out because of various personal difficulties.
This program seems to be a benefit to employees who cannot afford to go to school full time (or even part time), but who desire and education. What is remarkable is also how few “strings” are attached to the program. For example, the employees do not even have to stay with Starbucks after the completion of their degree. Said CEO Howard Schultz (still the CEO): "We want to attract and retain great people. We want to provide [our employees] with new tools and new resources to have advancements in the company.”
What is in it for ASU? This has been said to be a coup for the university, which already has one of the nation’s largest and most highly regarded online programs. Of course, Starbucks has a large amount of employees with, presumably, many coming and going, so ASU now has access to a large database of potential students, something many universities – private and public - are craving in these competitive times.
For the students and the university, rates may be discounted. This is normal in this type of situation. What would truly make a difference would be if the rates could become so reduced for students that they would, in effect, have no out-of-pocket costs altogether.
What, to me, is interesting about this situation is that a public university has found out workable model for online classes and cooperation with a private business venture when many private universities have not.
The somewhat strange catch here is that ASU cannot enter into any other arrangement with a for-profit business for four years, but that Starbucks is free to advertise its partnerships with a few other schools.
See the contract at issue here.
See Starbucks’ description of the program here.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Two contracts issues have reappeared recently and both greatly affect the earning abilities of California citrus farmers, among others: the ability to ship products and the ability to grow them in the first place.
The shipping situation was - and still is - affected greatly by the recent employment contract dispute between shipping companies and dockworkers. Recently, the parties reached a tentative deal on a new five-year contract after months of discussions that ended with a roughly 3% wage increase each year, a hike in pensions and continued union jurisdiction over the maintenance of truck trailers. While the dispute was going on, many oranges destined for Chinese New Year celebrations overseas rotted away as activities in and around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were impacted. The docks still aren’t expected to return to normal until well into the season for Valencia oranges and past the season for navel oranges. Importers of cars, among other things, have also recently expressed their problems keeping up with the demand for imported cars (which is huge in California).
For citrus and other farmers, the shipping problem is exacerbated by the ongoing very severe drought that California is experiencing for the fourth year in a row and that so far has resulted in 41% of the state finding itself in the most severe category of water shortages.
While farmers up and down California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley vehemently protest
regulations limiting their access to freshwater, others are taking matters into their own hands: they simply steal water. From the apparently more and more typical situation of subcontractors using fire hydrants without permits to people driving away with water from fire hydrants in trucks, siphoning it off canals, or tinkering with the pipes of their neighbors or local water providers, farmers are not the only ones getting desperate for water.
Since we are talking California, there has to be a “weird” twist to the story: in the Silicon Valley, a water district has removed irrigation pipes that rangers say allowed … a nudist colony to make unauthorized water diversions from a waterfall.
There is even a phrase for thieves of this nature: “water bandits.” This situation is only about to get worse as the drought is predicted at above 80% certainty to become the worst in 1,000 years. Some cities such as Los Angeles are offering tax initiatives for removing residential lawns. Nonetheless, Californians will still have to grapple with the contractual and other rights to access to water – saline or otherwise - for some time to come.
Monday, February 23, 2015
2012 American Idol winner Phillip Phillips has lodged a “bombshell petition” with the California Labor Commissioner seeking to void contracts that Phillips now finds manipulative, oppressive, and “fatally conflicted.”
Before winning season 11 of “American Idol,” Phillips signed a series of contracts with show producer “19 Entertainment” governing such issues as his management, recording and merchandising activities. These contracts are allegedly very favorable to 19 Entertainment, for example allowing the company as much as a 40% share of any moneys made from endorsements, withholding information from Phillips about aspects of his contractual performance such as the name of his album before it was announced publicly, and requiring Phillips to (once) perform a live show once without compensation. 19 Entertainment has also lined up such gigs for Phillips as performing at a World Series Game, appearing on “Ellen,” the “Today Show,” and “The View.”
It is apparently not unusual for those on successful TV reality shows to renegotiate deals at some point once their career gets underway. Phillips claims that he too frequently requested this, but that 19 Entertainment turned his requests down. Can he really expect them to agree to post-hoc contract modifications?
Very arguably not. Under the notion of a pre-existing legal duty, a party simply cannot expect that the other party to a contract should have to or, much less, should be willing to change the contractually expected exchange of performances. This seems to be especially so in relation to TV reality shows where the entire risk/benefit analysis to the producer is that the “stars” may or may not hit it big. For hopeful stars, the same considerations apply: their contracts may lead them to fame and fortune… or not. That’s the whole idea behind these types of contracts. Of course, if industry practice is to change the contracts along the way and if both parties are willing to do so, they are free to do so. Otherwise, the standards for contractual modifications are probably the same for entertainment stars as for “regular” contractual parties.
Another issue in this case is whether an “agent” is a company or a physical person. Under the California Talent Agencies Act (“TAA”), only licensed “talent agents” can procure employment for clients. Phillips is attempting to apply the TAA to entertainment companies like 19 Entertainment. If Phillips is successful, the ramifications may be significant for the entertainment industry in which companies very often negotiate deals with performers without taking the TAA into account. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court famously gave personal rights to corporations, albeit only in the election context. Time will tell how California looks at the issue of corporate personhood and responsibilities in the entertainment context.
Adjudications under the controversial TAA are notoriously slow and could leave contractual parites in “limbo” for a very long time. Time and patience is not what Hollywood parties are known to have a lot of, so stay tuned for the outcome of this dispute.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Property development is often considered a way for local communities to earn more taxes and evolve with times in general. But when construction and other development is approved in geologically risk areas such as flood zones and things go awfully wrong, is this a mere property and contracts issue, or may criminal liability lie?
In France, the answer is the latter. The former mayor of the small French seaside town La Faute-sur-Mer was just sentenced to jail for four years for deliberately hiding flood risks so that he and the town could benefit from the “cash cow” of property development, a French court has held. His deputy mayor received a two-year sentence in the same plot.
In 2010, the cyclone Xynthia hit western Europe and knocked down seawalls in the French town, leading to severe floods and 29 deaths.
Wait… a cyclone in France? Yes. Climate change is real and it’s here. Unless we do something about it (which apparently we don’t), things will only get worse. As on-the-ground steps that could prevent extreme results such as the above are often simply ignored or postponed while more and more research is done and money saved at various government scales, lawsuits will necessarily follow. The legal disciplines, including contracts law, will have to conform to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate. For starters, we need to seriously question the wisdom and continued desirability of constructing more and more homes in coastal and other flood prone areas. Ignoring known risks is, well, criminal.
Monday, February 9, 2015
According to Randall Roberts in the L.A. Times, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury ruled for the Sylvester Stewart (aka funk legend Sly Stone, at left) in his action against his ex-manager Gerald Goldstein, attorney Glenn Stone and Even St. Productions Ltd. It's the usual story. Sly Stone suffered from drug addiction and ran into hard times when defendants proposed a commercial association in 1989. Stone successfully alleged unjust enrichment and breach of contract, claiming that he never saw the money that the enterprise earned through his music. A jury awarded Stone $5 million. Even St. Productions filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and the other defendants say that they plan to appeal.
According to Fox Connecticut, a fraternity member who was suspended from Quinnipiac University in a hazing incident is suing the university and four of its officers for breach of contract. He alleges that his tuition payment entailed a contractual commitment and that the university did not live up to its end of the bargain because he was not fairly treated. He has other claims against the university sounding in Connecticut's Unfair Trade Practices Statute and in the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing.
And . . . at long last, the Steven Salaita saga has made its way into a complaint. We blogged about this story before here and here and here. His 39-page complaint alleges statutory violations under 42 USC §§ 1983 and 1985, as well as promissory estoppel, breach of contract, tortious interference, and spoilation of evidence.
Friday, January 23, 2015
We know that merchantability means passing without objection in the trade. If law review articles were goods, what would that trade be? For law professors, it seems like it is second and third year law students. At some level it would also reviewers of works when a professor is considered for promotion. Recently, though, a colleague of mine and I did a bit of research and began to wonder if acceptable in the trade -- as defined by law students and law professors -- is a meaningful strandard within the trade of academia.
Law professors who do research are generally spending the money of others. The actual buyers are, therefore, those who pay for the scholarship. Let's add that they have no idea what the standard is but would uniformly agree that every article should make someone or something better off and should reflect high quality research. Students and reviewers should be regarded as agents for those paying the bills.
If that is the measure of merchantability (and why wouldn't it be) then editors and reviewers should apply that standard in their own decisions. Clearly they do not and left to their narrow and inappropriate standard for merchantability we have massive amounts of scholarship that, let's face it, is written to justify being granted tenure. There is little verification that most, no matter how carefully done or clever, actually benefits anyone. Some of it -- a small percentage -- is cited but rarely for the substantive points made as opposed to piggy-backing on a fact asserted in the first work. Morever the research is often sloppy. Here is an example. I recently read an article that makes the claim that a certain area of law is now consistent with empirical studies. I looked at the cite and it was to another professor who had not actualy done any empirical work and did not quite say what was claimed. And the work cited by that professor was not on the point made in the first article. In fact the most frequent cite is the hearsay cite in which the author makes a claim because someone else made the same claim.
I expect readers of this will disagree but shouldn't the test of merchatability mean making someone or something (even if a fish) better off and shouldn't documentation be careful and accurate? Don't misunderstand, much of scholarship meets these standards. But much of what currently passes in the trade without objection does not.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Speaking of auctions (see Jeremy's blog below), how about a rug reading "In Dog We Trust" instead of the official motto of both the United States and Florida?
A sheriff's office in Florida has removed a mat featuring the miswoven lettering. There have reportedly been several offers to buy the misprinted rug after the error was discovered two months after having been placed at the entrance to the sheriff's office.
Spelling in this country is truly going to the dogs.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
On January 7th, a federal judge struck down a ban on foie gras that had been in effect since 2012. The judge was of the opinion that the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act preempts the California ban. This Act gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the sole jurisdiction over the “ingredients requirements” of poultry products.
The judge seems to have forgotten about the federal Animal Welfare Act’s requirements for the humane treatment of farm animals as well as states’ ability to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty. The California Attorney General’s office is reviewing the decision for a possible appeal of the law, which was upheld in previous litigation.
Foie gras is, without a doubt, cruel to animals. To produce the alleged delicacy, geese and ducks are “force-fed a corn mash through a metal tube several times a day so that they gain weight and their livers become 10 times their natural size. Force-feeding sometime injures the esophagus of the bird, which may lead to death. Additionally, the fattened ducks and geese may have difficulty walking, vomit undigested food, and/or suffer in extreme confinement." Do we as consumers still have a right to buy such a product even if it tastes very good? No, according to at least California state law.
How anyone could make themselves eat this product is beyond my comprehension. I confess that I am an animal lover and environmentalist. I do personally believe in those core values. However, I am quite far from an extremist and respect, to a very, very far extent, the opinions of the vast majority of other people. Heck, I am not even a vegetarian (I try to at least buy free-range products). But under notions of both positive law – state and/or federal – and natural law, this is where the buck must stop. There must be limits to what we can do in the name of obtaining a gourmet experience, especially when it comes at such a high price of extreme suffering by our living, sentient creatures. And if consumers cannot draw such lines themselves, courts and legislatures must. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” More than a dozen countries around the world have outlawed the production of foie gras. In this respect, the United States is not great. This case leaves a bad taste in my mouth and, I hope, in yours as well.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. plans to create hurdles for lenders of payday and direct deposit advance loans. Both types of loans are short-term loans intended to help consumers through a rough patch. Payday loans are available at various storefront locations whereas direct deposit advance loans are for banks’ existing customers.
The problem with these types of loans is that they often trap people into cycles of mounting debt with annual interest rates of more than 500% and the need by some to take out an average of 10 loans a year amounting to a total of more than $3,000.
This is a crackdown on organizations that may be seen to pry on the already weak. But is it also a setback for financially underprivileged consumers? After all, if you need money now, you need money now. I think the new proposed regulations are a step in the right direction as consumer protection, but at the same time, more is needed. That “more” is a decent living wage so that so many people do not have to live not only paycheck to paycheck, but in fact pre-paycheck to pre-paycheck.
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to highlight the nation’s economic growth and falling unemployment rate. However, as I have written here before, most people in the U.S. still do not see or feel the economic recovery. Perception is reality. Let’s hope that the economy soon improves so much that most people feel it.
Hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry for alerting me to this story.
Friday, January 2, 2015
A few days ago, I blogged on the recent lawsuit by United Airlines and Orbitz against the developer of Skiplagged. One of the causes of action alleged is breach of contract for encouraging the purchase of a ticket to certain destinations only to get off at an interim point to save money.
The airlines themselves may be breaching their contracts with flyers. For example, when we buy tickets to be flown from point A to point B, that arguably implies being done so without undue delays and, in particular, possibly having to spend the night at your own cost and without your personal belongings in random cities around the world if connections are missed because of flight delays (unless, of course, you choose to spend the night sitting upright in the airport). Needless to say, if you seek to change your ticket, airlines will either charge extreme high fees and the “difference in price” for doing so or outright prohibit this practice. I’ve had to change tickets many times in the past, and it has typically only taken an agent about five minutes to do so. Unconscionabiliy, anyone?
Here’s what happened to me one cold winter night a few years back: On my way to Denmark from St. Croix, the airline was late taking off and got even more delayed when it “had to” make an unplanned “quick landing” for gas, which was cheaper at the interim airport than at the end destination, and… ice cubes for people’s drinks! I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I missed the once-daily connection out of Atlanta to Copenhagen and had to spend the night in Atlanta in December. As I was living in tropical St. Croix at the time, I had some warm clothes with me on board the airplane to stay warm there, but had packed my winter gear in my suitcase. The airline paid for my hotel, but would, in spite of my desperate pleas, not let me have my suitcase back for the night. Result: I had to travel to and from the hotel, etc., in indoor clothes on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold winter day in Atlanta (yes, I should have brought a warmer jacket on board the plane, but planes to and from the Caribbean are often very small and I always try not to bring too much carry-on items).
Before 1978, U.S. airlines were required under “Rule 240” to offer seats on a competitor’s next flight if that would be the fastest way of getting the traveler to his or her destination. Airlines created after deregulation were never required to follow that rule, but older airlines such as Delta, United and Continental apparently still adhere to the rule. Funny that they never seem to mention that when they delay you significantly. Next time you fly, it may pay to scrutinize your contract of carriage more carefully to ascertain your rights in case of a delay.
It may be time for Congress to reintroduce a Rule 240-type requirement on airlines, especially as these have become extremely good at flying full – even at overcapacity - and thus often do not have extra space for passengers that have missed their flights. Good customer service often seems to have given way to airlines’ “me first” attitude in the name of hearing the highest profits possible by nickel-and-diming most aspects of airline travel on, at least, economy class.
Feeling empathetic towards the airlines? Don’t. Full or nearly full flights in conjunction with declining gas prices have enabled U.S.-based airlines to earn the highest profit margins in decades. One trade group estimates that airline made 6% profit margins in 2014, higher than the highest rates in the 1990s. Of course, the task of businesses is to make as much money as they can. But at least they should live up to their own contracts of carriage and other contracts principles just as they claim passengers and website developers should.
Here’s a hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry and other contracts professors on a well-known industry list serve for news about this story. All opinion and thoughts above are my own.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
Monday, December 29, 2014
CNN reports that more and more restaurants are implementing no-tipping policies as, perhaps, a way of differentiating themselves from competitors. For example, one restaurant builds both tax and gratuity into menu prices, allegedly resulting in its servers averaging about $16.50 an hour. I have argued here before that it seems fair to me that the burden of compensating one’s employees should fall on the employer and not on, as here, restaurant patrons feverishly having to do math calculations at the end of a meal.
The law does not yet support employment contracts ensuring fair compensation of restaurant and hotel employees. For example, federal law requires employers to pay tipped workers only $2.13 an hour as long as the workers earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Talk about burden shifting…
But change seems to be on the way with private initiatives such as the restaurant no-tipping policy. In Los Angeles, the City Council has approved an ordinance that raises the minimum wage for workers in hotels of more than 300 rooms to $15.37 an hour. Of course, this will mainly affect large hotel chains, which predictably resisted the ordinance citing to issues such as the need to stay competitive price-wise and threatened circumventing the effect of the new law by laying off or not hiring workers to save money. Funny since many of these hotels have been making vast amounts of money for a long time on, arguably, overpriced hotel rooms attracting a clientele that does not seem overly concerned about paying extra for things that are free in most lower-priced hotels (think wifi) and thus probably could somehow internalize the cost of fairly compensating its blue-collar workers.
Much has been said about the “1%” problem and a fair living wage. No reason to repeat that here. However, it is thought-provoking that whereas the U.S. recession officially ended in June 2009 – five years ago - 57% of the U.S. population still believed that the nation was in a recession in March 2014.
Contracting and the economy is, of course, to a large extent a matter of seeking the best bargain one can obtain for oneself. But even in industrialized nations such as ours, there is something to be said for also ensuring that not only the strongest, most sophisticated and wealthiest reap the benefits of the improved economy. So here’s to hoping that more initiatives such as the ones mentioned above are taken in 2015. At the end of 2014, it’s still “the economy, s$%^*&.”
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
I recently saw the last Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies. I found it highly entertaining and was delighted to find a discussion about contracts between Bard, the leader of Laketown, and the King of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, during a pivotal moment in the movie. The two engage in a back-and-forth about the meaning of a bargain, contract defenses (coercion and duress), and the importance of keeping promises. In short, all the issues that come up regularly on this blog. This isn't the first time that contracts have come up in a Hobbit movie. The morality of promise-keeping is an important theme in the movie as it has been in the others.
Speaking of the Hobbit, the Weinstein brothers have lost their fight against Warner Bros. over the profits to the last two Hobbit movies. As discussed previously on this blog, the issue involved the meaning of "first motion picture" of each book but not "remakes." The Hobbit book was split into three movies and the Weinsteins argued that they should get a percentage from each movie; Warner Bros. claimed that they should only get royalties from the first Hobbit movie. Unfortunately for contracts enthusiasts, the matter was sent to arbitration against the wishes of the Weinstein Bros. who wanted it to play out in court so we may never find out the basis for the arbitrator's ruling.