ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ryan Lochte and Morals Clauses

I have witnessed with interest the evolving story of what exactly happened in Rio involving Ryan Lochte the morning of August 14. Initially Lochte claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint. I later heard through the gossip mill that that story was untrue and that Lochte had in fact beat up some security guards. That turned out, it seems, just to be rumor-mongering, but the story has continued to evolve from there, with both Lochte and the Rio police making statements that later seem untrue, or only partially true, or exaggerated. Slate has a good run-down of the changing versions of Lochte's story, although it's from a week ago. Now Lochte has been charged with filing a false police report, since it does seem clear at this point that no robbery happened. Even that, however, is confusing to parse if you read a lot of articles about it: It seems like the crime is more accurately making a false communication to police, as some articles have eventually stated, since there are conflicting reports about whether a police report was ever filed. 

In the wake of this whole mess, Lochte has lost several of his sponsorship deals (although he's also picked one up). It's unclear, because the contracts don't seem to be public, whether this is a choice of just not renewing the contract (apparently that's the case with Ralph Lauren) or if a violation of a morals clause is being invoked to allow cancellation of the contract (which might be what's going on with Speedo). All of this provokes an interesting morals-clause conversation to me, and we had a bit of discussion about it on the Contracts Professors listserv. It seems clear that Lochte engaged in some sort of inappropriate behavior, and it seems also clear that whatever that behavior was, even the most minor version of the story is arguably a violation of any morals clause out there.

What is most clear is that, no matter what really happened, this has definitely served to tarnish his reputation, and that's is what's striking to me. This story has taken on an enormous life of its own, with many differing versions of it floating around the Internet. This situation has been caused, of course, by Lochte's many differing stories, together with some apparent conflicting statements by the Rio police, coupled with reporting that may have been less than precise itself in describing what was going on. One online story details all the conflicting information and asks the individual reader what they believe about the story.

While this particular maelstrom seems to have some basis in fact, it's not difficult to imagine something like this getting out of control without such justifying behavior at the root of it. Morals clauses tend to be about perception, but does that mean you can manipulate the perception of someone, through no real fault of their own? Take, for instance, the "Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer" meme that was popular on the Internet earlier this year. Ted Cruz wasn't born until after some of the Zodiac killings had happened, so he obviously could not have been the Zodiac Killer, and in fact some people interviewed about the meme noted that was the point: what they were saying was impossible. Nevertheless, it was reported that polls indicated 38% of those surveyed thought he might, in fact, be the Zodiac Killer, despite the impossibility. If a substantial number of people start thinking you did something you absolutely did not do, is that enough for a morals clause to be violated, because of the perception that you did it? 

August 26, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Games, In the News, Sports, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rent-to-Own Contracts: Caveat Emptor or Unconscionable Behavior?

The New York Times reports here (paid access) on the increasing use of so-called “rent-to-own” housing contracts. Under these contracts, companies from big Wall Street giants to a slew of small landlords hoping to strike it rich lend or, should I say, purport to sell homes to tenants who contractually commit to make all repairs on the homes no matter how major or minor (yes, you read that right: all repairs… and it gets more extreme than that, read on!). Typically, tenants under such contracts are not told what repairs are needed, yet face a contractual deadline for making sure that the houses in question are brought up to local code. Unlike most typical home purchases, rent-to-own contracts do not require the tenant/buyer to obtain an independent home inspection.  Images-2

We probably all know how many things can go wrong with older homes, even newer ones. Examples of how bad things can go in this context thus abound. One tenant moved into a home not having been told that it had several unresolved building code violations and had to remain vacant by city order. Another moved into a home that had no heat, no water, and major problems with its sewage system that led to nearly $10,000 in repairs (many of these homes have been purchased by the lender for less than $10,000 and are not worth very much more than that, if any). A third example describes a woman moving into a home with her three children and partner in Michigan, living in the house during cold winter with the only heat sources being one electric heater and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, only to be evicted and charged $3,100 in overdue rent after she stopped paying rent because of the heat issue.

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People who accept these kinds of contracts often do not qualify for mortgages. Banks have virtually stopped making mortgages on homes worth less than $100,000, which leaves millions of people with few options for - now or one day - owning their own homes.

One company that rents homes on a rent-to-own basis does so “as is,” calling the contracts “hybrid leases” that allow people to build up “implied equity.” If tenants are evicted during the contract (typically of a seven-year-duration), they get no credit for money spent on repairs or renovations. Neither do they receive any equity unless they actually end up buying the home at the end of the contract term. At that point, they still need financing for the home which, as mentioned, many people just cannot obtain.

A number of legal questions arise in this context, among them several contractual ones such as the role of caveat emptor vs. the violation of a possible duty to disclose. If the landlords know of the problems from which many of these houses suffer, should they disclose this knowledge? On the other than, shouldn’t these potential (long-term) buyers be presumed to have at least enough savvyness to not promise to bring a home that they do not own outright up to Code by a certain deadline? Then again, are landlords fraudulent in their dealings with these folks when the landlords require such potentially extensive repairs when, as the owners of the homes, they presumably if not actually have actual knowledge of the problems from which these houses suffer? What about the statement that renters get “implied equity?” What in the world does that mean, if anything? Do low-income folks that may never have been homeowners truly understand what it means to bring a home “up to Code” and buying “as is?” Does it matter? And what about the doctrine of unconscionability, which is alive and well in some states such as California? If nothing else, this case seems to smack of both procedural and substantive issues. Images

In some states, landlords are required to keep homes and apartments in habitable condition. But rent-to-own contracts have, for good reason, been said to reside in a gray area of the law: are they rental contracts? - Or purchase contracts? Or something else?

Further, rent-to-own contracts may, to some extent, resemble contracts for deeds. However, the latter are subject to basic consumer-lending regulations such as the Federal Truth in Lending Act.

The housing market again seems to host highly questionable practices. This story almost reads as a contract or property law issue-spotting exam. Meanwhile, housing sharks seem to be swimming relatively freely in some areas of the nation.

For further information, see Alexandra Stevenson and Matthew Goldstein, Rent-to-own Homes: A Win-Win for Landlords, a Risk for Struggling Tenants, the New York Times, Aug. 21, 2016.

August 25, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Microsoft Does Marijuana

In a move that demonstrates how contracts for various aspects of marijuana products and services are going mainstream, Microsoft Corp. has accepted a contract to make marijuana-tracking software available for sale on its cloud computing platform. The software is developed by “cannabis compliance technology” Kind Financial and allows regulators to track where and how much marijuana is being grown, sold or produced in real time. In turn, this lets the regulators know how much sales and other tax they should be collecting and from whom (maybe this is the beginning of the end of some growing marijuana plants in state and national parks to hide their activities from the government). Medical-marijuana-colorado

This contract – called a “breakthrough deal” because it is the first time that Microsoft ventures into the marijuana business - may end up enabling the software developer to capture as much as 60% of this very lucrative market. (Other companies with government contracts often end up with such a large market share.)

How did the company strike such a lucrative deal? You guessed it: by networking. Kind’s CEO was introduced by a board member to an inside contact in Microsoft.

Happy semester!

August 22, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Food and Drink, Government Contracting, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Contracting Against Your Dad Embarrassing You

Which is exactly what Australia's swimming sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell have tried to do. Apparently after their father gave a number of effusive interviews to the press, the sisters turned to contract law in an attempt to protect them from further such events. As this article reports, the sisters entered into a contract with their father in which he promised, "to the best of [his] ability," "not to embarrass [his] daughters on national television."

No word on what their father received in exchange for this promise.

 

August 11, 2016 in Current Affairs, Games, In the News, Sports, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Leveling the Playing Field in the MA Job Market

Yesterday, Stacey noted how employers should be careful not to be too greedy when dealing with employees. Another example of the backlash – judicial or legislative – that may be the result if employers overstep what ought to be reasonable limits in interactions with their employees is a new law in Massachusetts that prohibits employers from asking job candidates about their salary history as part of the screening process or during an interview.

Why indeed should they be able to do so?! In a free market, freedoms cut both ways: just as an employee can, of course, not be sure to get any particular job at any particular salary, the employer also cannot be sure to be able to hire any particular employee! There is no reason why employers should enjoy financial insight about the employee when very often, employees don’t know about the salaries at the early stages of the job negotiation process. Both parties should be able to come to the negotiation table on as equal terms as possible, especially in this job market where employers already often enjoy significant bargaining advantages.

Massachusetts also requires Commonwealth employers to pay men and women equally for comparable work.

August 3, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0)

What Mobile Payments Can Learn from Debit Cards (circa 1995)

Contract-based payment systems have substantially supplanted the check-oriented payments contemplated by the Uniform Commercial Code over a half-century ago. Is there another commercial revolution waiting in the wings with mobile payments? In an insightful industry-focused piece at PYMNTS.com, Karen Webster shares observations on what enabled the mid-1990s success of debit cards and how those ingredients have not fallen into place (yet) today for mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay.  Some of the key paragraphs:

Debit CardsDebit ignited by leveraging existing technologies that could be easily enabled at merchants – or that already existed at those merchants – to enable payment via a checking account using a plastic mag stripe card. Mastercard and Visa simply used the technology merchants already had and paid for while the EFTs subsidized the technology that merchants would need to use their cards. No one expected merchants to go sink money in a new technology out of their own pockets.

That has not been the case with NFC and mobile payments.

We’ve unfortunately spent the last 10 years forcing mobile payments into an in-store NFC technology mold that hasn’t knocked the socks off of consumers by simply substituting a tap for a swipe and asked merchants to foot the bill. We’ve let technology drive mobile payment’s ignition strategy, instead of the value created when a consumer with a mini computer in her hand encounters a merchant who’d like to use that computing power to help him sell more stuff to her.

NFC as an ignition strategy has also ignored the many, many dependencies that such a strategy requires to get the critical mass needed to achieve ignition: enough merchants with enough NFC-enabled terminals, enough consumers with enough of the right handsets or cards and enough of a value proposition for both to care. Absent all three, mobile payments ignition is left up to chance: the hope that one day *something* might happen to move things along, and at that point, there’d be infrastructure in place to support it.

This view of the payments market and place of innovation strikes me as largely correct, though I must admit some of my sympathy comes from having recently written here about what payments law can learn from its past.

Despite all the technological innovation sweeping the payments arena, past comparison of the law and the markets suggest that Solomon got it right with the observation that there really is "nothing new under the sun."

August 3, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The MoneyGram Case: Commercial Law at the United States Supreme Court

MoneyGram LogoHow often do those of us in the contracts realm get to string together "commercial law," "U.S. Supreme Court," and "original jurisdiction" in the same sentence? If your answer is, "not nearly often enough!" then you may want to keep tabs on a lawsuit filed last month by Arkansas, Texas, and 19 other states against Delaware and MoneyGram.  At issue is the appropriate recipient of unclaimed property, the property in this case being the proceeds from unused MoneyGram payment instruments, which, after a time, are ultimately subject to escheat to the state.

The Dallas Morning News described basic facts in covering the rollout of the litigation by the Texas Attorney General:

Attorney General Ken Paxton today accused the state of Delaware of swiping up to $400 million in unclaimed checks that rightfully belong to Texas and the 48 other states.

Texas’ share, he said, would be about $10 million.

FTexas Shaped Flagor the last four or five years, Paxton said, announcing a lawsuit against Delaware that was filed directly at the U.S.  Supreme Court, Delaware has been requiring financial institutions incorporated under its laws — in particular MoneyGram – to turn over unclaimed funds only to Delaware.

But under a 1974 federal law, Paxton asserted, such funds belong to the state in which a transaction originated. MoneyGram lets people pay a fee to purchase a check they can send to someone else.

“The state of Delaware elected to begin playing by a different set of rules,” Paxton said, calling the practice both illegal and unfair. “Delaware has our money.”

He cited an audit released in February 2015 that found that Delaware had claimed more than $150 million in unclaimed checks that originated in 20 other states. Extrapolating to  the whole country, he said, the tally could be $400 million.

This group of 21 states is not the first to take issue with Delaware's appropriation of the unclaimed property. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania brought a similar lawsuit in federal district court in which defendant Delaware ultimately invoked the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to resolve disputes between states. SCOTUSblog provides some helpful detail on the legal background and procedural posture of these state-v.-state cases:

The core legal issue in each of the new filings is whether a 1974 law with an assignment of priority of state ownership for unclaimed tangible property applies to the new instrument, which some 1,900 banks or other institutions across the country are using instead of cashier’s or teller’s checks.  Delaware says the law does not apply; the other states disagree.

SCOTUSbuilding_1st_Street_SEThe Supreme Court has issued three rulings on competing state claims to unclaimed intangible property; Congress has overruled one of those, in a 1974 law known as the Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act.  That law is at the center of the cases that have reached the Court under its “original” jurisdiction — that is, its authority to decide, in the fashion of a trial court, a legal dispute not decided by a lower court.  This jurisdiction is often implicated in resolving disputes between states — as in the new filings over unclaimed property.

The Court has no binding obligation to take on such a case.  However, if it does, it customarily names a “special master” to act like a junior judge to gather facts and make a recommendation for a decision.  A special master’s report is not final unless it becomes the ruling of the Supreme Court.

The large dollar amount in dispute arises from an aggregation of small transactions that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the "money order" species of negotiable instrument:

While Delaware’s claims are at the center of this new financial fight between the states, the controversy actually turns on the specific financial instrument involved, and the Texas company that has been issuing those items, which it calls “official checks.”   That company, MoneyGram Payments Systems, Inc., has its main business office in Texas but it is incorporated in Delaware.  It does business in all fifty states.

Its main business is as a kind of financial partner to banks and other institutions that prefer not to issue cashier’s checks or teller’s checks in their own name.  MoneyGram does it for them, so it acts as the financial backer of its “official checks.”

That kind of transaction is conducted for some of the same reasons that stores do a business in money orders or traveler’s checks.  The idea is that, in the form of a money order or traveler’s check, the piece of paper is a guaranteed form of payment that works like cash; in other words, it won’t “bounce” for lack of sufficient funds behind it.  Typically, this kind of instrument is in fairly small amounts.

The Supreme Court does not frequently consider issues intersecting with commercial law in quite the way that this case does, so the outcome will certainly bear watching.

July 20, 2016 in Current Affairs, E-commerce | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Do Law Profs Breach a Commercial Educational Agreement by Wearing T-Shirts with a Social Message?

A group of 1L students recently caused a stir-up at an anonymous law school by posting an anonymous complaint after their criminal law professor wore a "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt "on campus" (not "to class," apparently).   See the letter and the professor's great response here.  (For full disclosure, our colleagues on the TaxProf Blog also wrote about the story here Images).

Do students, because they enter into a contract with a private law school (or even a public one), have a legitimate reason to complain that their professors wear t-shirts with a socially and legally provocative or at least thought-provoking message?  The students wrote, "We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors."

Is this reasonable, in your opinion?  First, this comparison is not apt.  In fact, it is an extreme over-exaggeration that barely needs commenting on.  The students also comment that the "BLM" movement does not have anything to do with the law, which demonstrates the sad state of ignorance about the law and society in which many of our students - and perhaps especially those in conservative areas such as Orange County, California - find themselves (that's where the anonymous law school is thought to be located).  The movement is clearly about very little but the law and policy.  Second, students can and should expect to get a quality legal education when attending an ABA-accredited law school, but simply because they pay money for it does not entitle them to only hear about the version of the law that _they_ prefer.  In fact, as the professor so correctly notes in his response, the consumer theory should not apply to the content of one's legal education. In other words, students don't pay to only hear part of the message.  And as the professor said: students certainly don't pay us _not_ to have an opinion about the classes we teach (note that the Tshirt was worn in connection with a criminal procedure class).

What are your thoughts on this?  And why does the law school not publish its name?

July 11, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, In the News, Law Schools, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Big Legal Issues Surrounding "The Little Couple"

Little Couple

Source: tvguide.com

The circumstances surrounding this lawsuit, LMNO Cable Group, Inc. v. Discovery Communications LLC, Case No. 2:16-cv-4543 (behind paywall), in the Central District of California, could be a television show in its own right.

LMNO, a producer of a number of reality television shows (most importantly for this case "The Little Couple"), allegedly found itself the victim of embezzlement by its accountant, who then later, according to the complaint, threatened to destroy LMNO's professional relationships unless LMNO kept quiet about the alleged embezzler and gave him $800,000. LMNO apparently refused to comply with this request, instead reporting the alleged embezzler to the authorities.

In the meantime, however, the accountant had evidently been in contact with Discovery Communications, whose station broadcasts "The Little Couple." LMNO alleges in this lawsuit that Discovery used the accountant's help to try to drive LMNO out of business by stealing "The Little Couple" from LMNO.

The alleged stealing of "The Little Couple" involved the alleged breach of a number of contracts between LMNO and Discovery about "The Little Couple." As usual with entertainment contracts, they're complicated, consisting of many amendments, and there's an implied contract angle as well. And, predictably, there are copyright and trademark implications, too.

According to the complaint, Discovery directly employs the actors in "The Little Couple," but the contract has a clause preventing Discovery from using these actors to produce shows without LMNO. Allegedly, that is exactly what Discovery is now attempting to do. Specifically, Discovery and LMNO had discussed making a special episode of "The Little Couple" set in Scotland and England. LMNO alleges that Discovery went ahead and filmed the episode without LMNO's involvement, in violation of an additional implied contract between them with regard to that particular episode. In addition, LMNO is alleging that Discovery's actions have breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and interfered with LMNO's abilities to obtain all of its benefits under the contracts.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. If you'd like to read more about the case, I found articles here and here.

July 11, 2016 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Cheating the Cheaters

Yesterday, I blogged here about ticketscalping “ticketbots” outperforming people trying to buy tickets with the result of vastly increased ticket prices.

Now Ashley Madison – dating website for married people – has announced that some of the “women” featured on its website were actually “fembots;” virtual computer programs. In other words, men who paid to use the website in the hope of talking to real women were actually spending cash to communicate with computers (men have to pay to use the website, women don’t). Images-1

Why the announcement? The new leadership apparently wanted to air the company’s dirty laundry, so to speak.

Ashley Madison was hacked last year, revealing who was using the website to cheat on their husband, wife or partner. It was a devastating hack, ruining lives and even leading a pastor to commit suicide.

This seems to be a clear breach of contract: if you pay to communicate with real women, the contract must be considered breached if all or most of the contact attempts went to and/or from computers only. Perhaps even worse for Ashley Madison is the fact that the company is under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC does not comment on ongoing cases, but “it could be investigating whether Ashley Madison properly attempted to protect the identity of its discreet customers -- which it promised to keep secret. Or it could be investigating Ashley Madison for duping customers into paying to talk to fake women. On Monday, the company also acknowledged that it hired a team of independent forensic accounting investigators to review past business practices around bots and the ratio of male and female U.S. members who were active on the site." Images

July 6, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ticket Scalping Machines – An Intersection between Contracts and Criminal Law

Have you ever tried buying concert tickets right when they were made available for sale on the Internet, only to find out mere minutes later that they were all sold out? Or, for that matter, highly coveted camping reservations in national or some state parks?

Where once, we all competed against the speed of each other’s fingertips and internet connections, nowadays, “ticket bots” quickly snatch up tickets and reservations making it virtually impossible for human beings to compete online. Ticket bots are, you guessed it, automatic computer programs that buy tickets at lighting speed. They can even read “Captcha boxes;” those little squiggly letters that you have to retype to prove that you are not a computer. Yah, that didn’t work too well for very long.

“A single ticket bot scooped up 520 seats to a Beyonce concert in Brooklyn in three minutes. Another snagged up to more than 1,000 U2 tickets to one show in a single minute, soon after the Irish band announced its 2015 world tour.”

Ticket bots scoop up tickets for scalpers who then resell them on other websites, marking the tickets up many times the original price. (I’m actually not saying that state and national parks are cheated that way, maybe camping reservations in those locations are just incredibly popular as hotel prices have increased and incomes are staggering. I personally used to be able to, with t Imageshe help of a husband and several computers, make campground reservations for national holidays, but those days are long gone…”we are now full.”).

Ticket bots are already illegal in more than a dozen states. New York is considering cracking down on this system as well. However, the most severe penalty under New York law is currently fines in the order of a few thousand dollars where ticket scalpers make millions of dollars. A new law proposes jail time for offenders. This is thought to better deter this type of white-collar crime in the ticket contract market.

July 5, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News, Legislation, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Donald Trump and the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

Everyone else is talking about Donald Trump, so I guess why shouldn't we hop in, right?

This recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece introduced me to an ongoing contract dispute involving Trump that I hadn't been paying attention to, even though now I see it's been widely reported by various news outlets, including food blogs, because it involves restaurants. So if you don't normally like to read political stuff but you consider yourself a foodie, this blog entry is also for you!

It turns out that Trump is embroiled in breach of contract lawsuits with a couple of famous chefs who pulled out of commitments to put restaurants into one of Trump's new developments. According to the reports, the impetus for pulling out of the business deal was Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric during his presidential campaign. Jose Andres, himself an immigrant, was not too happy about Trump's statements. As seems to be the case with Trump, his business concerns don't necessarily track his political rhetoric when the bottom line is at issue. Faced with an immigrant refusing him rather than the other way around, Trump sued Andres for breach of contract. Andres counter-sued, alleging that Trump's many derogatory remarks about Hispanics rendered Andres's proposed Spanish restaurant "extraordinarily risky."

The chefs sought partial summary judgment, which a court recently denied, finding that material facts were still in dispute.

The crux of this lawsuit revolves around the covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Did Trump breach that covenant when he made his remarks, which would make him the one in breach of contract? Or were Trump's remarks not a breach of the covenant, either because they're not relevant to the contract or because they did not harm the prospects for success of Andres's restaurant? I don't know if the parties will continue to litigate this question but I'm curious what the result would be. In the current climate where rhetoric is frequently extremely inflammatory, could there be contract implications to such statements? How far, policy-wise, do we want the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to extend?

The case is Trump Old Post Office LLC v. Topo Atrio LLC, 2015 CA 006624 B (behind paywall), in District of Columbia Superior Court. 

July 5, 2016 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Food and Drink, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Is that Starbucks Grande Really Grande?..

Here’s a case that shows you that size really does matter… in contract law at least. Of-course-size-matters-just-ask-that-poor-ex-planet-pluto-e3505

In Strumlauf et al. v. Starbucks Corp., No. 16-01306, a federal district court judge based in San Francisco just ruled that a class action lawsuit against Starbucks.The complaint alleges breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and violations of California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act, the California Unfair Competition Law, and the California False Advertising Law.

The company allegedly overcharged its customers by “systematically serving lattes that are 25% too small” in order to save milk. Baristas were allegedly required to use pitchers for heating milk with etched “fill to” lines that are too low. Further, they were told to leave ¼ inch of free space in drink cups. Said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson: "This is not a case where the alleged deception is simply implausible as a matter of law. The court finds it probable that a significant portion of the latte-consuming public could believe that a 'Grande' contains 16 ounces of fluid." Starbucks’ cups for “tall,” “grande,” and “venti” lattes are designed to hold exactly 12, 16 and 20 ounces.

Starbucks so far counters that “if a customer is not satisfied with how a beverage is prepared, we will gladly remake it.”  Right, but how many customers would really complain that their drink is .25 inch (6 mm) too small?... And does it really matter? Much of what one pays for with a Starbucks drinks is, arguably, the knowledge of what the retail outlets offer, the ambience, convenience, “free” wifi, etc. Having said that, I am certainly not one to promote consumer fraud and recognize that little by little, the alleged milk-saving scheme could, of course, bring even more money into the coffers of already highly profitable Starbucks.

Images

June 22, 2016 in Current Affairs, Famous Cases, Food and Drink, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Have You Designated a Legacy Contact on Facebook?

Facebook

Source: facebook.com

It isn't something we typically think about but as our world shifts to digital and as more and more of us leave behind large social media footprints, what happens to those accounts when we die? I have thought about it briefly, mostly in thinking that I should give my passwords to someone, so that, if something happens to me unexpectedly, someone will be able to get onto my social media to let my followers know. I have had social media friends vanish with no explanation, and it's always haunted me that maybe something happened to them and I had no way of knowing. 

Despite the fact that I'm a lawyer, it honestly never occurred to me that what happens to my social media accounts after my death might be governed by their terms of use...until I saw this story reported widely on the local news. There was a recent tragedy in a nearby town that resulted in the unexpected, untimely death of George Heath. George's widow, Rosemary, was accessing his Facebook account to send photos and videos to family and friends and share older memories. Given how long Facebook has been around now, there are potentially years' worth of memories built up on Facebook pages, and one could see how they would be of some comfort in a time of grief. 

However, Facebook's terms of use prohibited what Rosemary was doing. Someone notified Facebook that George had died and Facebook basically locked the account down. They call it "memorializing the page," but the effect of it is that it's locked and no one can access it, not even someone who has the password. Now, this makes sense in a way: People could do malicious and terrible things to a deceased person's Facebook page, theoretically, if Facebook didn't lock it down. But it's a harsh outcome when applied to people in Rosemary's situation. 

Facebook's terms of use inform you that you should designate a legacy contact. This was actually difficult for me to find in Facebook's policies and I eventually only found it by Googling "Facebook memorialized page," so it's not like this is very obvious on the website itself. And, anyway, not many of us think a whole lot about our unexpected deaths. And, if we do, not many of us think that we should read our social media terms of use about it. I looked it up, and Twitter also has a policy where you can lock down a Twitter account if the user dies, but Twitter seems to require a lot more proof than Facebook does

Also of concern to me is that, even if someone is designated as a legacy contact, it still might not allow the kind of access that Rosemary was looking for, or that you might want to grant to someone. Facebook limits what a legacy contact can do, meaning that your power over what happens to your Facebook account really ultimately lies with Facebook, not you or your wishes. Which is a reminder, of course, that our control over our Facebook accounts is limited to begin with and pretty much at the whim of Facebook

We tend not to read the terms of use of sites, as we all know. And we talk about that a lot in the context of agreeing to arbitration clauses and stuff like that. We don't often think about how that can have consequences for our loved ones after our deaths. I understand, of course, that Facebook and Twitter don't want to hand out log-in information, but if the user has given the log-in information to someone else--and, as I could foresee, if the user has given the log-in information to someone specifically for the purpose of managing the social media account if/when they die--it seems odd for Facebook to then react as if that person's actions are prohibited. On the other hand, I suppose, how would Facebook know otherwise? A conundrum.

 

June 20, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Airlines Not Required to Honor Pricing Glitches

Stories such as this [https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/i-flew-to-abu-dhabi-for-265-round-trip-heres-how-you-can-do-the-same/2016/06/07/fc33cbea-29a3-11e6-b989-4e5479715b54_story.html] about finding incredibly cheap airlines to both national and international destinations because of airline computer pricing mistakes (real or otherwise…) have become commonplace. In 2012, the Department of Transportation established clear rules against changing the price of a ticket after purchase.  But in a new decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation, that rule will no longer be enforced:

“As a matter of prosecutorial discretion, the Enforcement Office will not enforce the requirement of section 399.88 with regard to mistaken fares occurring on or after the date of this notice so long as the airline or seller of air transportation: (1) demonstrates that the fare was a mistaken fare; and (2) reimburses all consumers who purchased a mistaken fare ticket for any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase, in addition to refunding the purchase price of the ticket.

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Travelers’ websites thus now recommend that people hold off making further travel plans until a ticket and confirmation number have actually been issued. Some have further said about the glitch fares that “[t]ravel is not something that is only for the elite or [people] from certain economic brackets.” Of course, it shouldn’t be, but with the deregulation of the airline industry and steadily increasing prices and fees, history seems to be repeating itself: air travel is, for many, becoming unaffordable. This in spite of record-breaking profits for the airline industry benefiting from low oil prices and, I want to say of course, fares increasing, holding steady or certainly not decreasing very much.  Airline executives say they are sharing the wealth with passengers by investing some of their windfalls into new planes, better amenities and remodeled terminals. They're also giving raises to employees and dividends to investors.  Right… And whereas some years have been marked by bust, many more have been booming for the airlines.

Given that, why would the DOT be amenable to help out the airlines, and not passengers? Under contract law, mistakes that are not easily “spottable” have, traditionally, not been grounds for contract revocation. If one considers the contract to have been executed when the airline accepts one’s online offer, why should the airline, absent a clear error or other mitigating factors, not be expected to follow the common law of contracts as other parties will, depending on the circumstances, of course, likely have to? That beats me.

Some airlines are, however, choosing the honoring the mistake fares. Others don’t. Bad PR, you say? That also does not seem to matter. The most hated airline in the U.S. a few years back – Spirit Airlines – was also (at least then) the most profitable.

Hat tip to Matt Bruckner of Howard University School of Law for bringing this story to my attention.

June 13, 2016 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Legislation, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Unilateral Contracts: “… Never Pay for Gas Again!”

Relying on the win-a-car-for-a-hole-in-one case where a Pennsylvania court found that a car dealership was obligated to honor its offer for a unilateral contract posted at the ninth tee when a golfer finally aced a hole-in-one despite the dealership’s subjective intent to end the promotional offer two days earlier, a Third Circuit Court of Appeals court found a unilateral contract to exist under the following circumstances.

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A brochure distributed to the customers of Giant Eagle – a chain of retail supermarkets, gas stations, etc. – promised its customers that they could “Earn free gas – it’s easy!” and “You may never pay for gas again!” as long as they spent $50 on supermarket purchases. (See the true images posted here in this blog). The brochure, however, also included fine print provided, among other things, that “discounted fuel cannot exceed 30 gallons and discounts must be used in full on one vehicle in one transaction,” “the promotion is valid for a limited time and may end at any time without prior notice,” and “fuelperks! discounts expire 3 months after the last day of the month in which they’re earned.” However, the court found that none of the published program parameters suggested that Giant Eagle reserved the right to retract rewards that customers had already accrued. In fact, in the entire history of the Giant Eagle fuel program, no such retroactive termination ever occurred.

Said the court, “[l]ike the golfer who teed off with a promise of reward in mind, a customer anticipated the promised fuel discounts when deciding to shop at Giant Eagle in the first place—and thus deciding not to shop at a different store. Because she was then aware that she could apply the discounts as advertised if she spent fifty dollars on supermarket purchases using her Advantage Card, she was indeed a party to a unilateral contract with Giant Eagle. Liability therefore attached upon her performance, i.e., at checkout.”

A fair win for consumers, it seems.

June 9, 2016 in Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 6, 2016

"Facebook Addendums": Does Your Landlord Want to Be Your Friend?

I'm one of those apparently rare people who doesn't really use Facebook. But Facebook was evidently very important to City Park Apartments in Salt Lake City, whose management company presented all of the tenants with a "Facebook addendum" to their lease. The addendum allegedly stated that all residents had to befriend the complex on Facebook or be found in breach of their lease agreement. 

This seems like an alarming development that I hope is going to be very limited. Is a Facebook account going to start being like a telephone number or an e-mail address, something it's assumed by everyone that you have and should hand over access to in exchange for goods or services? The reason I stopped using Facebook was because of privacy concerns. I wouldn't be thrilled about being told that I'm required by my lease to make sure my landlord can watch my Facebook activities (which often correspond, as we all know, to our real-life activities; if your landlord asked to follow you around through your daily life, or to get e-mailed your vacation photos, I would think many people would consider that a weird request).

And, since I don't do anything on Facebook, does that mean that I wouldn't be allowed to rent an apartment there unless I opened an account? Many people have legitimate, important, in some cases necessary reasons to limit their online presence. Let's hope "Facebook addendums" don't start sweeping the nation. 

June 6, 2016 in Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Trump “University” - Fraud in the Inducement?

Donald Trump is currently attacked on many fronts, one of which for the potential re-launch as President of his now-defunct for-profit real estate training classes. The “playbook” used by the corporate recruiters for the business unit required them, among other things, to use such arguably despicable and potentially fraudulent recruiting language as the following:

“As one of your mentors for the last three days, it’s time for me to push you out of your comfort zone. It’s time for you to be 100% honest with yourself. You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals. I’m looking at your profile and you’re not even close to where you need to be, much less where you want to be. It’s time you fix your broken plan, bring in Mr. Trump’s top instructors and certified millionaire mentors and allow us to put you and keep you on the right track. Your plan is BROKEN and WE WILL help you fix it. Remember you have to be 100% honest with yourself!”

and

“Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”

(Can you imagine reading those statements allowed for a living?)

Does promising potential students too much constitute fraud in the inducement? In a not entirely dissimilar case in our own field, law student Anna Alaburda recently lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law.  Ms. Alaburda had argued that the law school had committed fraud by publishing deceptive post-graduation employment statistics and salary data in order to bait new students into enrolling. Alaburda claimed that despite graduating at the top of her class and passing the California bar exam, she was unable to find suitable legal employment, and had racked up more than $150,000 in student loan debt. An attorney for the school rejected the claims and said Alaburda never proved them. The attorney also reminded jurors that she had turned down a job offer, and that many Thomas Jefferson alumni have had successful careers. The verdict in that case was 9-3 in favor of Thomas Jefferson.

The cases are of course not similar, yet similar enough to remind us of the importance of not promising too much in the for-profit educational field (in Thomas Jefferson’s case, the school won, but a dozen other lawsuits have allegedly been filed against other schools). This makes sense from both an ethical and business risk-avoidance angle.

What about the use of the very word “University”? The media seems to stubbornly – probably for “sound bite” reasons – continue using the phrase even though the business was, in effect, forced to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after government pressure around 2010.   The business was just that, and not a certified university.

If Trump decides to start up the business again, does the media not help him do so again by using a much too favorable term? It seems like it. Linguistics matter in the law and beyond. May media PR inadvertently (or not) contribute to a potential fraud? Comment below!

June 2, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Law Schools, Recent Cases, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

No Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose With Regard to Architectural and Design Services in Michigan...for Now

A recent case out of the Court of Appeals of Michigan, Albion College v. Stockade Buildings Inc., No. 322917 (behind paywall), gives us an example of a case where precedent was obeyed but one of the judges worried the precedent might provide the wrong result, setting up the potential for further examination by Michigan's Supreme Court. 

Plaintiff hired Defendant to build an equestrian facility. Defendant allegedly informed Plaintiff that it had "the necessary experience and expertise" to build the facility that Plaintiff required and promised it would be backed by a warranty. 

Because this is a case I'm writing up here, we all know that the story of this equestrian center does not go smoothly. The roof leaked badly. The problem was evident during construction and theoretically repaired but the roof continued to leak badly even after construction was completed. Reviews of the structure blamed the persistent problem on poor design of the facility by Defendant. 

The crux of the case was whether the agreement between Plaintiff and Defendant contained an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. In Michigan, such an implied warranty is found in sales of goods governed by the UCC and sales of electricity. The court was reluctant to extend such a warranty to the architectural and design services at issue here. 

A concurrence, however, expressed hesitation with the conclusion. While reasonably correct as a matter of simple legal precedent, the concurrence had policy concerns and thought that Michigan's supreme court should review the case and extend the warranty to this situation because of the "egregious facts" of this case.  Stay tuned for what happens next!

May 25, 2016 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 23, 2016

From a Colonial Cemetery to a World War II Factory to Condos and a Spa: Environmental Concerns, Contract Releases, and Secret Underground Containers Are Just the Latest Chapter

North Jersey

(Photo from northjersey.com)

I use a lot of hypos in my class based on undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards, and I feel like sometimes my students wonder if this is a thing that actually happens. Unfortunately, yes, as a recent case out of New Jersey, North River Mews Associates v. Alcoa Corp., Civil Action No. 14-8129, proves. 

The case centers around a piece of land on which Alcoa had operated a manufacturing facility from 1917 to 1968, a facility once so central to East Coast industry that it had actually been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The piece of land had been vacant since 1978 and became a popular site for people looking to photograph "modern ruins." It was eventually sold to North River Mews Associates and 38 COAH Associates (the Plaintiffs). Twenty years ago, the New York Times reported optimistically that the development deal would be a "win-win" the would help clean up the Hudson River shoreline. The site, however, has been plagued by a number of challenges and tragedies (several fires, workman injuries from freak accidents, etc.) that have led some people to talk about curses. (Well, it apparently had been built on an old graveyard dating back to colonial times.) The latest obstacle has now emerged in the form of, yes, previously undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards.  

The parties were well aware that the land would have environmental contamination, as the Times article makes clear. But the Plaintiffs had worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and believed that the property had been remediated. In 2013, however, the Plaintiffs discovered two previously unknown underground storage tanks filled with hazardous materials. The property around the tanks seemed to indicate that at one point the tanks had attempted to be burned instead of properly disposed of. The presence of these tanks, needless to say, was never disclosed by Alcoa to the Plaintiffs. 

Alcoa's stance, however, is that the purchase contracts for the land released them from liability for various claims brought against them. The court disagreed at this motion to dismiss stage, finding that the language was ambiguous. The release in the contract stated that the Plaintiffs waived the rights "to seek contribution from [Alcoa] for any response costs or claims." The court said that it was unclear whether the contribution language modified only response costs or whether it modified both response costs and claims. Was this a blanket release of all claims, or only a release of the right to seek contribution? This question, the court concluded, could not be determined on a motion to dismiss. 

At any rate, the Plaintiffs also alleged that Alcoa concealed the presence of the underground tanks, fraudulently inducing them to enter into the contracts, and the court concluded that, if true, that would be grounds for the release to be vitiated. 

This case is a great example of how long environmental issues, development deals, and contractual disputes can drag on. In 1997, the parties signed the purchase contract. Today, the parties are still trying to clean up the site and fighting over which of them ought to pay for it, with language drafted twenty years ago taking center stage. As the case continues, it will of course likely become relevant who knew about the storage tanks and when, and I am curious to see if the tanks can be dated. Since Alcoa apparently ceased using the site for manufacture in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how much knowledge from that time period still exists. It's the latest chapter in the history of a plot of land that seems to have been a busy place for centuries. 

May 23, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)