Saturday, October 3, 2015
They’re still doing it: companies not wanting negative online reviews of their products or services attempt to contractually prohibit unsatisfied customers from posting such feedback. Not only that, but some companies also seek to take legal and other retaliatory action against their customers if they defy such attempted clauses.
For example, the FTC recently instigated suit against weight-loss company Roca Labs for threatening legal action against customers writing negative comments about the company’s allegedly ineffective weight loss powder. (H/t to my colleagues on the AALS Contracts listserv for mentioning this story). When one of Roca Lab’s customers posted a comment on the Better Business Bureau website, the company cited to their contract with the client that stated, “You will not disparage RL and/or any of its employees, products or services... If you breach this agreement... we retain all legal rights and remedies against the breaching customer..." The company also asked the customer for information about her contacts on Twitter and Facebook (she luckily declined…).
There is no federal law prohibiting companies from trying to suppress negative reviews, but the FTC alleged unfair practices, among other things because the clause in question was buried in fine print. The issue may also be a First Amendment problem, according to an attorney for www.pissedconsumer.com, a third-party website that, as the name indicates, allows negative reviews of companies. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ftc-lawsuit-roca-labs-weight-loss-powder-gag-clause-customers-sued/
I could not agree more that the voice of customers who have been disappointed for good reason should be heard. It is, frankly, ridiculous what some companies can get away with in this country in this day and age, in my opinion. (In the EU, for example, much more consumer-friendly regulations exist. In the USA, the legislative balancing of consumers v. companies often, in my opinion, is more of a slant favoring businesses, but that’s a thought for another day). But here’s the thing: what about the true risk of disgruntled customers posting reviews that don’t quite reflect what really happened, that exaggerate the situation, or that simply make things seem worse than what they really were? Even with emoticons, things can seem very harsh once written down even if they were not necessarily meant to be.
Take, for example, popular hosting website Airbnb. My husband and I own a historically registered house that requires a lot of upkeep and fixing after 90 years of neglect, so we signed up as hosts to try it out and, of course, to make a little extra money. We love it! We meet the most interesting people that truly enjoy our house. But as one’s success on that and other websites is, in reality, often tied closely to having a large amount of very good reviews, we also live with the constant worry that one day, somebody could post a negative review about something that most people would probably consider seemingly minor (our house is almost 100 years old, and there are necessarily small kinks with a house like that). See also Nancy Kim’s recent blog on our apparently increasing need to judge each other negatively. At least Airbnb allows its users to post comments to reviews, but not all websites follow such practice.
My point is simply this: it is, of course, to go overboard to require one’s paying customers to not post negative reviews via contractual clauses or other methods. But how do we balance the need for true and honest, productive reviews with the risk of disgruntled and perhaps even dishonest customers? Comment below!
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Because we're all not insecure enough, there's a new app out there that let's people rate other people on a scale of 1-5. There's no need to take their class,(Rate Your Professor) or eat at their restaurant (Yelp) or ride in their car (Uber)- now you can rate someone just for breathing, and if you don't like the way they breathe, you can tell the whole world about it on the Peeple App.
They may be truly naive or they may be disingenuous (we've seen greed and self-serving rhetoric masquerading as idealism from other companies), but the two founders claim that the purpose of the app is about uplifting people --to borrow from The Princess Bride, I don't think that word means what they think it means. As with all things digital, there are terms and conditions that the founders say will allow them to prevent bullying on the site. But I'm not so sure - Twitter and Facebook have no-bullying policies (or their equivalent) and that hasn't really stopped the bullying....
It's unclear whether the app will survive regulators' scrutiny as it requires the poster to submit the subject's phone number in order to create the subject's profile.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Lyft's TOS Can't Save It From the TCPA (or Why Contract Law's Version of Consent Needs to Get With the Program)
The FCC recently issued a Citation and Order to Lyft which alleges that its terms of service violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Under the TCPA, a company that wants to inflict autodialed phone messages or text messages for marketing purposes must first obtain the express prior written consent of the recipient. Furthermore, FCC regulations forbid requiring such consent as a condition of purchasing any goods, services or property. Significant penalties result from failure to comply with the TCPA and the accompanying rules. Lyft has already updated its TOS in response to the FCC's action.
Lyft's terms of service required its customers to consent to autodialed calls and texts. Prospective customers are required to check a box stating "I agree with the Terms of Service." The sign-up page includes a link to the Lyft TOS. Section 6 of the Lyft TOS stated:
"By becoming a User, you expressly consent and agree to accept and receive communications from us, including via e-mail, text message, calls, and push notifications to the cellular telephone number you provided to us. By consenting to being contacted by Lyft, you understand and agree that you may receive communications generated by automatic telephone dialing systems and/or which will deliver prerecorded messages sent by or on behalf of Lyft, its affiliated companies and/or Drivers, including but not limited to: operational communications concerning your User account or use of the Lyft Platform or Services, updates concerning new and existing features on the Lyft Platform, communications concerning promotions run by us or our third party partners, and news concerning Lyft and industry developments. IF YOU WISH TO OPT-OUT OF PROMOTIONAL EMAILS, TEXT MESSAGES, OR OTHER COMMUNICATIONS, YOU MAY OPT-OUT BY FOLLOWING THE UNSUBSCRIBE OPTIONS PROVIDED TO YOU.Standard text messaging charges applied by your cell phone carrier will apply to text messages we send. You acknowledge that you are not required to consent to receive promotional messages as a condition of using the Lyft Platform or the Services. However, you acknowledge that opting out of receiving text messages or other communications may impact your use of the Lyft Platform or the Services."
The terms stated that consumers may opt out by using "unsubscribe options," but the FCC investigation discovered that such an option didn't really exist. There was no easy way to find the unsubscribe option and consumers had to navigate Lyft's website to find the opt-out page. Even if they did manage to find it, if they opted out, they couldn't use the service.
This is another instance where contract law's easy assent rules don't actually help businesses and cause too much confusion. While a consumer may have "consented" to the autodialing and the texts under contract law, the FCC rules require something that is more like what most people consider to be consent - express written consent and a real choice not to agree. A default opt-in unless you opt-out (and even that's illusory), well - that just doesn't cut it under the TCPA and the FCC rules. Sadly, in contract law, too often it does.
Contract law should get with the program and follow the commonsense version of consent adopted by the FCC.
Sunday, September 6, 2015
The recent massive hack into married-but-dating website Ashley Madison’s files may not only have breached the customer’s reasonable contractual expectations, but is now also said to lead to serious counter-intelligence concerns.
Both China and Russia are collecting personal and sensitive information about people who may be involved in American national security operations. What better leverage to have against operatives than information about their most secret, erotic desires. The temptation to resist such information being shared with even more people may persuade some operatives to render otherwise secret information about United States national security issues. Recall that quite a few affair seekers used their official government addresses to arrange their attempted or successful trysts. In combination with another recent OPM hack, countries that are seen as adversaries have apparently also been able to obtain information about who has sought security clearances and can use this information for counter-intelligence purposes.
That seems to provide a good public policy argument for why courts should find against Ashley Madison if it came to a contractual lawsuit regarding the breach of “100% secrecy” and “full deletes” promised, but not delivered, by Ashley Madison.
Friday, September 4, 2015
Yesterday, we blogged here about important considerations regarding whether an employee will be seen as an employee or a contractor.
In O'Connor v. Uber Technologies, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen just ruled that Uber's drivers may pursue their arguments that they were employees in the form of a class-action suit. One of the reasons was that Uber admitted that they treated a large amount of its drivers "the same."
Of course, millions of dollars may be at stake in this context. Profit margins are much higher for companies such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other so-called "on demand" or "sharing economy" companies. That is because the companies do not have to pay contractors for health insurance benefits, work-related expenses, certain taxes, and the like. But seen from the driver/employee's point of view, getting such benefits if they are truly employees is equally important in a country such as the United States where great disparities exist between the wealthy (such as the owners of these start-up companies) and the not-so-wealthy, everyday workers.
Plaintiffs are represented by renowned employee-side attorney Shannon "Sledgehammer" Liss-Riordan who represented and won a major suit by skycaps against American Airlines some years ago, so sparks undoubtedly will fly in the substantive hearings on this issue.
Thursday, September 3, 2015
The National Labor Relations Board recently issued a decision , Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., d/b/a/ BFI Newby Island Recyclery, that establishes a new standard for determining who is a joint employer.
BFI Newby Island Recyclery hired Leadpoint, a staffing services company, to provide some workers for its recyclery. BFI and Leadpoint had signed a temporary labor services agreement which could be terminated by either party upon thirty days' notice. The agreement stated that Leadpoint was the sole employer of the workers and that nothing in the Agreement shall be construed as creating an employment relationship between BFI and the personnel supplied by Leadpoint. In other words, the agreement contained language that is pretty standard in independent contractor agreements. The agreement also provided that Leadpoint would recruit, interview, test, select and hire personnel for BFI. BFI was not involved in Leadpoint's hiring procedures. BFI, however, had the authority to "reject any Personnel and...discontinue the use of any personnel for any or no reason." Again, this is fairly standard language in independent contractor agreements. In a departure from precedent, the NLRB ruled that a company that hires a contractor to provide workers may be considered a joint employer of those workers if it has the right to control them even if it does not actively supervise them. The dissenters were rather unhappy and their opinions are worth reading as they lay out the expected impact of the ruling.
It's a significant decision and one that should make lawyers take another look at their clients' independent contractor agreements to see whether they contain language that indicates the potential to control the contractor's employees. While the language in the contract was not the only factor influencing the Board's decision, it was an important one.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
Uber. It just seems to always be in the news for one more lawsuit, doesn’t it. In late August, the district attorneys for San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a civil complaint against the company alleging that it is making misrepresentations about its safety procedures. The complaint, i.a., reads that Uber’s “false and misleading statements are so woven into the fabric of Uber’s safety narrative that they render Uber’s entire safety message misleading.”
On its website, Uber promises that “from the moment you request a ride to the moment you arrive, the Uber experience has been designed from the ground up with your safety in mind” and that “Ridesharing and livery drivers in the U.S. are screened through a process that includes county, federal, and multi-state criminal background checks. Uber also reviews drivers’ motor vehicle records throughout their time driving with Uber.”
However, Uber does not use fingerprint identication technology, which means that the company cannot search state and federal databases, only commercial ones.
The result? People with highly questionable backgrounds end up being on Uber’s payroll. For example, one “Uber driver was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982. He spent 26 years in prison, was released in 2008 and applied to Uber. A background report turned up no records relating to his murder conviction. He gave rides to over 1,100 Uber customers.” Yikes. Another “Another driver was convicted on felony charges for lewd acts with children. He gave over 5,600 rides to Uber customers.”
Add this to the ongoing lawsuit about whether Uber’s drivers should be legally classified as “employees” or “contractors,” and Uber is in a mound of legal trouble.
Certainly, a misrepresentation seems to have been made if the company deliberately touts its safety and its “industry-leading background check process” yet only uses a commercial database that does not even necessarily ensure that its drivers are who they say they are.
Still, Uber remains one of the most valuable start-ups in the world. It and similar “sharing economy” companies such as Airbnb have gained a good foothold on a market with a clear demand for new types of services. So far, so good. But initial success should not and does not equate with a “free-for all” situation just because these new companies are highly successful, at least initially. It seems that they are learning that lesson. Lyft, for example, already settled with prosecutors in regards to its safety. Perhaps Uber will follow suit.
Monday, August 24, 2015
Hugely successful auto-maker Tesla is making very good money not only on its electric cars, but also on its contracts selling zero emission credits to rivaling automakers. New environmental standards in eleven states require that by 2025, 15% of a car company’s sold fleet must be so-called “zero emission” vehicles. If a company cannot meet existing standards, they can purchase zero emissions credits from other companies that can. Tesla is one of those.
This year, Tesla has sold approximately $68 million worth of credits to competing automakers, which represents 12% of its overall revenue. Overall, Tesla is doing very well: its net profit for the first quarter of this year was more than $11 million and its shares have been reported to be up more than 165% so far this year.
This raises the question that I also raised here on this blog in another post earlier this summer: is the emissions trading scheme a good idea, or does it simply allow for glorified “contracts to pollute”? As with many other things in the law, both could be seen to be the case. See this report that casts doubt on whether carbon credits help or hurt the agenda. Some call them "hot air,"perhaps for good reason. But at least Tesla is, hopefully, challenging other automakers to innovate to pollute less.
Another question, though, is the use of the euphemism “zero emissions.” Electric vehicles are arguably better seen from an environmental point of view than traditional cars, but they are not “zero” emissions. They could, instead, be called “emissions elsewhere” vehicles. That, of course, does not sound nearly as good. However, the electricity used for electric cars is produced somewhere. The true question is: by what means? If the electricity stems from dirty coal-fired power plants, the solution is not as good as it sounds, although concentrating the pollution in one large plant may be better than having many individual cars produce power on the road. That is a question for another forum. Suffice it to say that choice is good, and if car buyers could also in all locales could always decide exactly how to source their electricity (from, for instance, solar power), the matter would be different. That is not (yet) the case. So for now, “zero emission” vehicles are actually not so.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Earlier this summer, I blogged on cheating website Ashley Madison promising to provide "100% discreet service" and a group of hackers threatening to reveal the website's customers if the website was not removed. Well, it was not, and this past week, the group made good on its promise or threat, depending on how one views the issue, to make the stolen database easily available to the general public.
In spite of Ashley Madison's promise to be "100% discreet" (whatever that means), the fine print used in its contracts also states, "We cannot ensure the security or privacy of information you provide through the Internet." No contractual promises seen to have been breached if that had been the only promise made. But as Steve Hedley wrote in his comment (see below), some of those inconvenienced by the hack include a number who paid a fee of $19 specifically for a "full delete". Does US contract law really allow Ashley Madison to take their money and then rely on fine print to justify a complete failure? That is a very good point and indeed does not seem to be the case. It could, of course, be that those who paid for a full delete got it and were _not_ among the ones in the publicized batch, but judging solely from media reports on this account, complaints have been made that the promised "full deletes" were not undertaken, so it seems that at least some that paid _additional_ money to become deleted from the website did not get what they paid for. That's a breach. Thanks, Steve Hedley, for that comment.
But the matter is more serious and sad than that: the website was/is apparently also used for finding homosexual partners, which is illegal and carries the death penalty in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, where two users were listed.
Not surprisingly, this story again shows the importance of internet data security. One would think that after the recent HomeDepot, Target and other database breach episodes, people would have learned, but apparently, this is not the case.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
According to this report in the Chicago Sun Times, The Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) is calling "strikeworthy" a proposal by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Forrest Claypool that teachers pay their full pension contributions. The proposal would result in a seven percent pay cut according to CTU PresidentKaren Lewis. The CTU had previously agreed to a seven percent "pension pick-up" in lieu of a pay raise. Claypool now claims that there is no solution to CPS's $9.5 billion pension crisis that does not involve an end to the pick-up. Chicago teachers will likely return to work without a contract and could strike at any time. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (pictured) has proposed phasing out the pick-up over a period of years in an attempt to ease the blow.
The Los Angeles Times reports that UC San Diego and the University of Southern California (USC) have filed competing lawsuits in a battle over control of a long term research project that seeks to develop treatments for Alzheimer's. A researcher at UC San Diego switched his affiliation to USC and has sought to take some of the project's funding with him. In early rounds, a San Diego judge has sided with UC San Diego on ownership of the project, including databases relevant to the project's ongoing research. Eli Lilly & Co. had pledged up to $76 million to UC San Diego to test a new Alzheimer's medication that the company is developing. Lilly now plans to move those fund to USC's new institute. The future of this research project seems caught in the cross-hairs of competing claims to contractual entitlement to both funding sources and intellectual property.
The Business Insider reported last week that Fox Sports analyst Craig James is suing the network, alleging that he was fired for voicing his opposition to gay marriage. James alleges breach of contract and discrimination. His termination, days after he was hired, allegedly relates to a statement he made in 2012 when he was running for U.S. Senate that gays and lesbians would have "to answer to the Lord for their actions."
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
A new Los Angeles Times investigation has revealed that nine out of ten students drop out of unaccredited law schools in California. Of the few students that graduate, only one in five ultimately become a lawyer. In other words, a mere 2% of the people that initially enroll in an unaccredited law school end up being attorneys. Shameful at best. One example of one person who did not make it as an attorney is former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who went to “People’s College of Law” and took the bar four times, but never passed.
Unaccredited law schools are said to flourish in California. The state is one of only three in the nation that allow students from unaccredited law schools to take the bar test (the others are Alaska and Tennessee). Unaccredited schools in California are held to very few academic standards by regulatory bodies and, by their very nature, none by accrediting agencies.
Most of the unaccredited law schools are owned by small corporations or even private individuals. One, for example, is owned by a“Larry H. Layton, who opened his school in a … strip mall above a now-shuttered Mexican restaurant. He thought the Larry H. Layton School of Law, which charges about $15,000 a year, would grow quickly. But according to the state bar records, he has had six students since 2010.”
Experts again say that action must be taken. For example, Robert Fellmeth, the Price Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, has stated that unaccredited schools “aren't even diploma mills, they are failure factories. They're selling false hope to people who are willing to put everything out there for a chance to be a lawyer."
As before, the problem goes beyond unaccredited law schools. Several ABA accredited law schools also demonstrate both poor employment and bar passage statistics, although the problem seems to be the most severe when it comes to unaccredited schools.
This story is not new to your or many others. However, it serves as a reminder of the continued importance of both insiders and outsiders taking a renewed look at regulations for (and broader expectations of) law schools in California and beyond. As always, purchasers of anything including educational “services” (which, as the above other and many other studies show, can all too easily turn out to be disservices) should be on the lookout for what they buy. A great deal of naivety by new students seems to be contributing to the problem. However, that does not justify the tactics and perhaps even the existence of some of these educational providers. Having said that, I also – again – cannot help ask myself what in the world some of these students are thinking in believing that they can beat such harsh odds. Hope springs eternal, it seems, when it comes to wanting to become a California attorney.
Sunday, August 2, 2015
Remember Aereo, the company trying to provide select TV programs and movies using alternatives to traditional cable TV programming? That company went bankrupt after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.
A federal court in Los Angeles just ruled that online TV provider FilmOn X should be allowed to transmit the programs of the nation’s large broadcasters such as ABC, CBS and Fox online, albeit not on TV screens. See Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FilmOn X, LLC, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, No. 12-cv-6921. Of course, the traditional broadcasters have been aggressively opposing such services and the litigation so far. Recognizing the huge commercial consequences of his ruling, Judge Wu certified the case for an immediate appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Said FilmOn’s lawyer in an interview: “The broadcasters have been trying to keep their foot on the throat of innovation. The court’s decision … is a win for technology and the American public.”
The ultimate outcome will, of course, to a very large extent or perhaps exclusively depend on an interpretation of the Copyright Act and not so much contracts law as such, but the case is still a promising step in the direction of allowing consumers to enter into contracts for only what they actually need or want and not, at bottom, what giant companies want to charge consumers to protect income streams obtained through yesteryear’s business methods. Currently, many companies still “bundle” TV packages instead of allowing customers to select individual stations. In an increasingly busy world, this does not seem to make sense anymore. Time will tell what happens in this area after the appeal to the Ninth Circuit and other developments. Personally, I have no doubt that traditional broadcasting companies will have to give in to new purchasing trends or lose their positions on the market.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
I earlier blogged on an American TV personality's contract to hunt and kill one of the most highly endangered species on earth: a black rhino. That hunt has now been completed at a price tag of $350,000. The asserted reasoning for wanting to undertake the hunt: the money would allegedly help the species conservation overall and the local population. Studies, however, show that only 3-5% of that money goes to the local population. Some experts believe that the money could be much better spent for both the local population and the species via, for example, tourism to see the animals alive. This brings in three to fifteen times of what is created through so-called "trophy hunting."
This past week, the world community was again outraged over yet another American's hunt - this time through a contract with a local rancher and professional assistant hunter - of Cecil the Lion. The price? A mere $50,000 or so. This case has criminal aspects as well since the landowner involved did not have a permit to kill a lion. The hunter previously served a year of probation over false statements made in connection with his hunting methods: bow and arrow.
This is also how the locally famous and collared Cecil - a study subject of Oxford University - was initially hunted down, lured by bait on a car to leave a local national park, shot, but not killed, by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, and eventually shot with a gun no less than 40 hours after being wounded by Palmer.
Comments by famous and regular people alike have been posted widely since then. For example, said Sharon Osbourne: ""I hope that #WalterPalmer loses his home, his practice & his money. He has already lost his soul."
I recognize that some people - including some experts - argue for the continued allowance of this kind of hunting. Others believe it is a very bad idea for many biological, criminal, ethical, and other reasons to allow this practice. If you are interested in signing a petition to Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe to stop issuing hunting permits to kill endangered animals, click here. It will take you less than 60 seconds.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
You cannot say that we are boring you this week. Our blogs have included considerations on advertising on porn sites and having one’s illicit affairs forgotten contractually. Add to that the news that this week, Roman Catholic nuns, the archdiocese of Los Angeles, the formerly Jesuit student turned California Governor Brown and Pope Francis all had something to say about contracting about major and, admittedly, some minor issues.
To start with the important: Pope Francis famously issued his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ “On Care for our Common Home.” In it, he critiques “cap and trade agreements,” which by some are considered to be a mere euphemism for contractual permits to pollute and not the required ultimate solution to CO2 emissions. In the Pope’s opinion, “The strategy of buying and selling carbon credits can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” Well said.
Governor Brown, however, disagrees: Brown shrugged off Francis' comments. "There's a lot of different ways," he told reporters, "that cap and trade can be part of a very imaginative and aggressive program." Brown, however, does agree with the Pope that we are “dealing with the biggest threat of our time. If you discount nuclear annihilation, this is the next one. If we don’t annihilate ourselves with nuclear bombs then it's climate change. It’s a big deal and he’s on it.”
In less significant contractual news, Roar, Firework, and I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It singer Katy Perry is interested in buying a convent owned by two Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin. Why? Take a look at these pictures. The only problem is who actually has the right to sell the convent to begin with: the Sisters or the archdiocese. When two of the sisters found out the identity of the potential buyer (Perry), they became uninterested in selling to her because of her “public image.” They now prefer selling to a local restaurateur whereas the archdiocese prefers to complete the sale to Perry, although she bid less ($14.5 million) on the property than the restaurateur ($15.5 million). Perry may be about to learn that image is indeed everything in California, even when it comes to the Divine. Perry is no stranger to religion herself as she was, ironically, raised in a Christian home by two pastor parents.
Monday, July 20, 2015
In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union famously held that “[i]ndividuals have the right - under certain conditions - to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where “the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” for the purpose of otherwise legitimate data collection. “A case-by-case assessment is needed considering the type of information in question, its sensitivity for the individual’s private life and the interest of the public in having access to that information.”
A few days ago, infamous adultery-enabling website Ashley Madison and “sister” site (no pun intended) EstablishedMen.com, which “connects ambitious and attractive young women with successful and generous benefactors to fulfill their lifestyle needs,” was hacked into by “The Impact Team,” a group of apparently offended hackers who threatened to release “all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails” unless the owner of the sites, Avid Life Media, removes the controversial websites from the Internet permanently.
Notwithstanding legal issues regarding, perhaps, prostitution, do customers have a right to be forgotten? Not in general in the USA so far. Even if a provision similar to the EU law applied here, it would only govern search engines. Ashley Madison had, however, contractually promised its paying users a “full delete” in return for a fee of $19. The problem? Apparently that the site(s) still kept purchase details with names. Further, of course, that the company promised and still promises “100% discreet service.” Both seemingly clear contractual promises.
Although the above example may, for perhaps good reason, simply cause you to think that the so-called “clients” above have only gotten what they asked for, the underlying bigger issues remain: why in the world, after first Target, then HomeDepot and others, can companies not find out how to securely protect their customers’ data “100%”? And why should we, in the United States, not have a general right to be deleted not only from companies’ records, but from search engines, if we want to? I admittedly live a very boring life. I don’t have anything to hide. But if I once in a blue moon sign up for something as simple as Meetup.com to go hiking with others, my name and/or image is almost certain to appear within a few days online. I find that annoying. I don’t want my students, for example, to know where I occasionally may meet friends for happy hour. But unless I invest relatively large amount of time in figuring out how to use and not use new technology (which I see that I have to, given the popularity of LinkedIn and the like), I may end up online anyway. That’s not what I signed up for.
As for Ashley Madison, the company has apparently been adding users so rapidly that it has been considering an initial public offering. You can truly get everything on the Internet these days, perhaps apart from data security.
On July 14th, American Honda Finance Corporation (Honda) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) entered into a consent order (the Order). The CFPB and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that Honda had violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and its implementing legislation by permitting dealers to charge higher interest rates on auto loans on the basis of race and national origin.
According to the Order, after a joint investigation, the DOJ and the CFPB made found that, during the time period covered, on average, African-American borrowers were issued loans that resulted in an extra $250 in interest payments over the course of the loan compared to loans issued to non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics paid an extra $200 and Asians and Pacific Islanders paid an extra $150. This result was the product of Honda's specific policy and practice.
The Order gives Honda three options that it can pursue in order to prevent future violations of the ECOA in the future. Honda will also pay $24 million into an escrow account. The funds will be used to compensate borrowers for the excessive interest payments they were required to make.
As the CFPB notes on its website:
Today’s action is part of a larger joint effort between the CFPB and DOJ to address discrimination in the indirect auto lending market. In December 2013, the CFPB and DOJ took an action against Ally Financial Inc. and Ally Bank that ordered Ally to pay $80 million in consumer restitution and an $18 million civil penalty.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Given the major U.S. Supreme Court opinions that were released last week, it's no surprise that the one involving contracts, Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, didn't make the headlines. The case involved an agreement for the sale of a patent to a toy glove which allowed Spidey-wannabes to role play by shooting webs (pressurized foam) from the palm of their hands. Kimble had a patent on the invention and met with an affiliate of Marvel Entertainment to discuss his idea --in Justice Elena Kagan's words--for "web-slinging fun." Marvel rebuffed him but then later, started to sell its own toy called the "Web Blaster" which, as the name suggests, was similar to Kimble's. Kimble sued and the parties settled. As part of the settlement, the parties entered into an agreement that required Marvel to pay Mr. Kimble a lump sum and a 3% royalty from sales of the toy. As Justice Kagan notes:
"The parties set no end date for royalties, apparently contemplating that they would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can)*."
It wasn't until after the agreement was signed that Marvel discovered another Supreme Court case, Brulotte v. Thys Co. 379 U.S. 29 (1964) which held that a patent license agreement that charges royalties for the use of a patented invention after the expiration of its patent term is "unlawful per se." Neither party was aware of the case when it entered into the settlement agreement. Marvel, presumably gleeful with its discovery, sought a declaratory judgment to stop paying royalties when Kimble's patent term expired in 2010.
In a 6-to-3 opinion written by Justice Kagan (which Ronald Mann dubs the "funnest opinion" of the year), the Court declined to overrule Brulotte v. Thys, even though it acknowledged that there are several reasons to disagree with the case. Of interest to readers of this blog, the Court stated:
"The Brulotte rule, like others making contract provisions unenforceable, prevents some parties from entering into deals they desire."
In other words, the intent of the parties doesn't matter when it runs afoul of federal law. Yes, we already knew that, but in cases like this - where the little guy gets the short end - it might hurt just the same to hear it. In the end, the Court viewed the case as more about stare decisis than contract law and it was it's unwillingness to overrule precedent that resulted in the ruling.
Yet, I wonder whether this might not be a little more about contract law after all. The Court observed in a footnote that the patent holder in Brulotte retained ownership while Kimble sold his whole patent. In other words, Brulotte was a licensing agreement, while Kimble was a sale with part of the consideration made in royalties. This made me wonder whether another argument could have been made by Kimble. If Kimble sold his patent rights in exchange for royalty payments, and those royalty payments are unenforceable, could he rescind the agreement? If the consideration for the sale turns out to be void ("invalid per se"), was the agreement even valid? The question is probably moot now given the patent has expired....or is it? Although Kimble did receive royalty payments during the patent term, he presumably agreed to a smaller upfront payment and smaller royalty payments in exchange for the sale of the patent because he thought he would receive the royalty payment in perpetuity. So could a restitution argument be made given that he won't be receiving those royalty payments and the consideration for the sale of the patent has turned out to be invalid?
*Yes, I made an unnecessary reference to the Spiderman theme song so that it would run through your head as you read this - and maybe even throughout the day.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission acted to approve a number of proposals that update the TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act), popularly known as the "Do Not Call" law that prohibits companies from interrupting consumers' dinner time conversations with pesky telemarketing calls. They closed a number of existing loopholes and clarified that phone companies can now block robocalls and robotexts to cell phones. The ruling also makes it easier for consumers who have previously consented to withdraw consent.
So what does this have to do with contracts? We all know how easy it is to consent to online terms. PayPal does, too. PayPal recently informed its customers that it was unilaterally amending its User Agreement. As anyone reading this blog knows, there are serious problems with unilateral modification clauses, especially in the context of wrap contracts that nobody reads. Yet, some courts have found that these clauses are enforceable (others have found they are not because they lack consideration and/or notice/assent). PayPal's recent announced modifications caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC Chief expressed concern that PayPal's prospective agreement may run afoul of federal law. The TCPA requires express written consent before any company can make annoying prerecorded telemarketing calls to consumers. The written consent, however, isn't the ridiculous version of consent that suffices as contractual consent in some courtrooms. There are certain requirements including that the agreement be "clear and conspicuous" and that the person is "not required to sign the agreement...as a condition of purchasing the property, goods, or services." In other words, it can't be a "take it or leave it" situation. Pay Pal's amended User Agreement, however, appears to contain "take-it-or-leave-it" language as it doesn't indicate how customers may refuse to consent to receive calls without having their account shut down. Furthermore, unlike contract law where blanket assent is okay, blanket consent is not okay under the FCC rules. (This blog post provides a nice overview of the issues and also notes that eBay (PayPal's soon-to-be former parent) encountered similar problems with the New York Attorney General).
PayPal's agreement is not the only reason the FCC acted last week, but as Bob Sullivan points out in this post here, it may have been the reason it acted so quickly. Expect to see an updated version of PayPal's agreement in the near future.
Monday, June 8, 2015
I wanted to follow up on Jeremy Telman's posts about two cases, Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum and Berkson v. Gogo. Both cases involved consumers and standard form contracts. Both Sprint and Gogo sought to enforce an arbitration clause in their contracts and both companies presumably wanted to do so to avoid a class action. In Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum, there was no question regarding contract formation. The contract issue in that case involved the validity of the assignment of the contract from US Cellular to Sprint. The court found that the assignment was valid and consequently, so was the arbitration clause.
In Berkson v. Gogo, on the other hand, the issue was whether there was a contract formed between the plaintiffs and Gogo. As Jeremy notes in his post, this is an important case because it so thoroughly analyzes the existing wrap contract law. It also has important implications for consumers and the future of class actions.
Many arbitration clauses preclude class actions (of any kind). Judge Posner notes in his opinion in Andermann v. Sprint Spectrun:
"It may seem odd that (Sprint) wants arbitration....But doubtless it wants arbitration because the arbitration clause disallows class arbitration. If the Andermann's claims have to be arbitrated all by themselves, they probably won't be brought at all, because the Andermanns if they prevail will be entitled only to modest statutory damages."
Judge Posner may have been troubled by this if the facts were different. The Andermanns are claiming that Sprint's calls to them are unsolicited advertisements that violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but Sprint needed to inform them that their service would be terminated because U.S. Cellular's phones were incompatible with Sprint's network. How else would they be able to contact their customers whose service would soon be terminated, Posner rhetorically asks, "Post on highway billboards or subway advertisements?....Post the messages in the ad sections of newspapers? In television commercials?" Sprint's conduct here "likely falls" within an exception to the law and hence, Posner notes "the claims are unlikely to prevail."
It's a different situation in Berkson v. Gogo. In that case, Gogo is allegedly charging consumers' credit cards on a monthly recurring basis without their knowledge. The plaintiffs were consumers who signed up to use Gogo's Wi-Fi service on an airplane, thinking it was only for one month. When Welsh, one of the plaintiffs, noticed the recurring charges, he was given a "partial refund." Welsh then hired a lawyer. Welsh's lawyer sent Gogo a letter notifying the company of the intent to file a class action lawsuit if it did not correct its practices and notify everyone who might have been charged in this manner. Gogo then allegedly sent a refund check directly to Welsh, not his lawyer (which would violate the rule not to directly contact someone represented by counsel). When Berkson, another plaintiff, noticed the charges and complained, the charges stopped; however, when he requested a refund for the period he was charged for the service but did not use it, the company allegedly refused.
I think that most people would agree that, if the facts alleged are true, Gogo likely violated consumer protection statutes. It also acted poorly by making it so hard to get a refund. Companies should not be permitted to act like this and consumers shouldn't have to threaten class action lawsuits to get their money back. (Gogo doesn't seem to dispute that they were charged during months they did not use the service).
This is where contract formation becomes so important. The class action in Berkson v. Gogo was allowed to proceed because the court found that there was no valid contract formation.
If there was a contract formed between Gogo and the plaintiffs, the arbitration clause would likely have been effective. (I say "would likely have been" because it wasn't even included until after Berkson signed up for the service. But let's put that aside for now and continue....). The arbitration clause - you guessed it - contained the following clause:
"To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, NO ARBITRATION OR OTHER CLAIM UNDER THIS AGREEMENT SHALL BE JOINED TO ANY OTHER ARBITRATION OR CLAIM, INCLUDING ANY ARBITRATION OR CLAIM INVOLVING ANY OTHER CURRENT OR FORMER USER OF THE SITE OR THE SERVICES, AND NO CLASS ARBITRATION PROCEEDINGS SHALL BE PERMITTED. In the event that this CLASS ACTION WAIVER is deemed unenforceable, then any putative class action may only proceed in a court of competent jurisdiction and not in arbitration.
WE BOTH AGREE THAT, WHETHER ANY CLAIM IS IN ARBITRATION OR IN COURT, YOU AND GOGO BOTH WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO A JURY TRIAL INVOLVING ANY CLAIMS OR DISPUTES BETWEEN US."
Now, under the recent line of federal cases (AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, American Express v. Italian Colors, etc) interpreting the FAA, if a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, an arbitrator pretty much decides everything unless (1) the arbitration agreement is unconscionable; or (2) the agreement to arbitrate was never formed
Regarding (1), this doesn't mean that a court may determine whether any other contract provision was unconscionable - only the arbitration clause. So, if there's another clause that you want to argue is unconscionable -- let's say a recurring billing provision that is not conspicuous just as a random example -- you have to take that to the arbitrator. Furthermore, it's much harder now (after the line of US Supreme cases noted above) to argue that an arbitration clause is unconscionable. While many state courts had previously found mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers unconscionable, they may no longer find them unconscionable just because they impose arbitration. In other words, in order to be found unconscionable, the arbitration clauses have to be one-sided (i.e. only the consumer has to arbitrate) or impose hefty filing fees, etc. This, as I mentioned in a prior post, is why so many of these clauses contain opt-out provisions. Gogo's arbitration clause also contained an opt-out provision. But, as readers of this blog know, NOBODY reads wrap contract terms and I would be surprised if anyone opted out. The clause was also in capitalized letters and so would be conspicuous -- if only anyone clicked on the link and scrolled down to see it.
This is why Judge Weinstein's opinion is so important -he recognizes the burden that wrap contracts place on consumers:
"It is not unreasonable to assume that there is a difference between paper and electronic contracting....In the absence of contrary proof, it can be assumed that the burden should be on the offeror to impress upon the offeree -- i.e., the average internet user - the importance of the details of the binding contract being entered into...The burden should include the duty to explain the relevance of the critical terms governing the offeree's substantive rights contained in the contract."
If a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, a consumer who has been wronged and wants to argue that a standard form contract is unconscionable, would probably have to take it to an arbitrator unless there was no agreement to arbitrate in the first place. If there was no agreement formed at all, that would mean no agreement to arbitrate.
This is why it is so important not to find contract formation so easily and expect unconscionability to do all the heavy lifting of consumer protection. An arbitrator very well might do a good job - but we don't know that because an arbitration is a closed hearing. Arbitrators also don't go through the rigorous screening process that judges go through (both elected and appointed judges are thoroughly scrutinized). Furthermore, arbitral decsions are not generally made public, and so arbitration doesn't help with providing guidelines for acceptable business behavior. Judge Posner notes in his opinion, "It's not clear that arbitration, which can be expensive...and which fails to create precedents to guide the resolution of future disputes, should be preferred to litigation." Furthermore, if the arbitration clause contains a "no class" provision, it also forces a consumer to face a company's intimidating attorneys all alone ((because no lawyer is taking this type of case on a contingency basis and no consumer is going to pay a lawyer to attend this type of arbitration).
Berkson v. Gogo is notable for recognizing that website design and contract presentation matter in determining contract formation. Not every click is perceived the same way by consumers -- scrollwraps (where scrolling is required to read through all the terms) provides more notice than a "sign-in-wrap" which is merely a hyperlink next to a SIGN UP button. The reality is that nobody clicks on the Terms hyperlink with a sign-in wrap. As Judge Weinstein notes:
"The starting point of analysis must be the method through which an electronic contract of adhesion is formed. The inquiry does not begin, as defendants argue, with the content of the provisions themselves."
There are some who think that there's no harm in finding contract formation so easily because courts and the doctrine of unconscionability will protect consumers from really bad contract terms. They should think again. Mandatory arbitration clauses affect consumers' ability to seek redress which is why we should start taking contract formation seriously.
Thursday, May 28, 2015