Thursday, January 15, 2015
Speaking of auctions (see Jeremy's blog below), how about a rug reading "In Dog We Trust" instead of the official motto of both the United States and Florida?
A sheriff's office in Florida has removed a mat featuring the miswoven lettering. There have reportedly been several offers to buy the misprinted rug after the error was discovered two months after having been placed at the entrance to the sheriff's office.
Spelling in this country is truly going to the dogs.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
On January 7th, a federal judge struck down a ban on foie gras that had been in effect since 2012. The judge was of the opinion that the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act preempts the California ban. This Act gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the sole jurisdiction over the “ingredients requirements” of poultry products.
The judge seems to have forgotten about the federal Animal Welfare Act’s requirements for the humane treatment of farm animals as well as states’ ability to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty. The California Attorney General’s office is reviewing the decision for a possible appeal of the law, which was upheld in previous litigation.
Foie gras is, without a doubt, cruel to animals. To produce the alleged delicacy, geese and ducks are “force-fed a corn mash through a metal tube several times a day so that they gain weight and their livers become 10 times their natural size. Force-feeding sometime injures the esophagus of the bird, which may lead to death. Additionally, the fattened ducks and geese may have difficulty walking, vomit undigested food, and/or suffer in extreme confinement." Do we as consumers still have a right to buy such a product even if it tastes very good? No, according to at least California state law.
How anyone could make themselves eat this product is beyond my comprehension. I confess that I am an animal lover and environmentalist. I do personally believe in those core values. However, I am quite far from an extremist and respect, to a very, very far extent, the opinions of the vast majority of other people. Heck, I am not even a vegetarian (I try to at least buy free-range products). But under notions of both positive law – state and/or federal – and natural law, this is where the buck must stop. There must be limits to what we can do in the name of obtaining a gourmet experience, especially when it comes at such a high price of extreme suffering by our living, sentient creatures. And if consumers cannot draw such lines themselves, courts and legislatures must. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” More than a dozen countries around the world have outlawed the production of foie gras. In this respect, the United States is not great. This case leaves a bad taste in my mouth and, I hope, in yours as well.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. plans to create hurdles for lenders of payday and direct deposit advance loans. Both types of loans are short-term loans intended to help consumers through a rough patch. Payday loans are available at various storefront locations whereas direct deposit advance loans are for banks’ existing customers.
The problem with these types of loans is that they often trap people into cycles of mounting debt with annual interest rates of more than 500% and the need by some to take out an average of 10 loans a year amounting to a total of more than $3,000.
This is a crackdown on organizations that may be seen to pry on the already weak. But is it also a setback for financially underprivileged consumers? After all, if you need money now, you need money now. I think the new proposed regulations are a step in the right direction as consumer protection, but at the same time, more is needed. That “more” is a decent living wage so that so many people do not have to live not only paycheck to paycheck, but in fact pre-paycheck to pre-paycheck.
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to highlight the nation’s economic growth and falling unemployment rate. However, as I have written here before, most people in the U.S. still do not see or feel the economic recovery. Perception is reality. Let’s hope that the economy soon improves so much that most people feel it.
Hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry for alerting me to this story.
Friday, January 2, 2015
A few days ago, I blogged on the recent lawsuit by United Airlines and Orbitz against the developer of Skiplagged. One of the causes of action alleged is breach of contract for encouraging the purchase of a ticket to certain destinations only to get off at an interim point to save money.
The airlines themselves may be breaching their contracts with flyers. For example, when we buy tickets to be flown from point A to point B, that arguably implies being done so without undue delays and, in particular, possibly having to spend the night at your own cost and without your personal belongings in random cities around the world if connections are missed because of flight delays (unless, of course, you choose to spend the night sitting upright in the airport). Needless to say, if you seek to change your ticket, airlines will either charge extreme high fees and the “difference in price” for doing so or outright prohibit this practice. I’ve had to change tickets many times in the past, and it has typically only taken an agent about five minutes to do so. Unconscionabiliy, anyone?
Here’s what happened to me one cold winter night a few years back: On my way to Denmark from St. Croix, the airline was late taking off and got even more delayed when it “had to” make an unplanned “quick landing” for gas, which was cheaper at the interim airport than at the end destination, and… ice cubes for people’s drinks! I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I missed the once-daily connection out of Atlanta to Copenhagen and had to spend the night in Atlanta in December. As I was living in tropical St. Croix at the time, I had some warm clothes with me on board the airplane to stay warm there, but had packed my winter gear in my suitcase. The airline paid for my hotel, but would, in spite of my desperate pleas, not let me have my suitcase back for the night. Result: I had to travel to and from the hotel, etc., in indoor clothes on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold winter day in Atlanta (yes, I should have brought a warmer jacket on board the plane, but planes to and from the Caribbean are often very small and I always try not to bring too much carry-on items).
Before 1978, U.S. airlines were required under “Rule 240” to offer seats on a competitor’s next flight if that would be the fastest way of getting the traveler to his or her destination. Airlines created after deregulation were never required to follow that rule, but older airlines such as Delta, United and Continental apparently still adhere to the rule. Funny that they never seem to mention that when they delay you significantly. Next time you fly, it may pay to scrutinize your contract of carriage more carefully to ascertain your rights in case of a delay.
It may be time for Congress to reintroduce a Rule 240-type requirement on airlines, especially as these have become extremely good at flying full – even at overcapacity - and thus often do not have extra space for passengers that have missed their flights. Good customer service often seems to have given way to airlines’ “me first” attitude in the name of hearing the highest profits possible by nickel-and-diming most aspects of airline travel on, at least, economy class.
Feeling empathetic towards the airlines? Don’t. Full or nearly full flights in conjunction with declining gas prices have enabled U.S.-based airlines to earn the highest profit margins in decades. One trade group estimates that airline made 6% profit margins in 2014, higher than the highest rates in the 1990s. Of course, the task of businesses is to make as much money as they can. But at least they should live up to their own contracts of carriage and other contracts principles just as they claim passengers and website developers should.
Here’s a hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry and other contracts professors on a well-known industry list serve for news about this story. All opinion and thoughts above are my own.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
Monday, December 29, 2014
CNN reports that more and more restaurants are implementing no-tipping policies as, perhaps, a way of differentiating themselves from competitors. For example, one restaurant builds both tax and gratuity into menu prices, allegedly resulting in its servers averaging about $16.50 an hour. I have argued here before that it seems fair to me that the burden of compensating one’s employees should fall on the employer and not on, as here, restaurant patrons feverishly having to do math calculations at the end of a meal.
The law does not yet support employment contracts ensuring fair compensation of restaurant and hotel employees. For example, federal law requires employers to pay tipped workers only $2.13 an hour as long as the workers earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Talk about burden shifting…
But change seems to be on the way with private initiatives such as the restaurant no-tipping policy. In Los Angeles, the City Council has approved an ordinance that raises the minimum wage for workers in hotels of more than 300 rooms to $15.37 an hour. Of course, this will mainly affect large hotel chains, which predictably resisted the ordinance citing to issues such as the need to stay competitive price-wise and threatened circumventing the effect of the new law by laying off or not hiring workers to save money. Funny since many of these hotels have been making vast amounts of money for a long time on, arguably, overpriced hotel rooms attracting a clientele that does not seem overly concerned about paying extra for things that are free in most lower-priced hotels (think wifi) and thus probably could somehow internalize the cost of fairly compensating its blue-collar workers.
Much has been said about the “1%” problem and a fair living wage. No reason to repeat that here. However, it is thought-provoking that whereas the U.S. recession officially ended in June 2009 – five years ago - 57% of the U.S. population still believed that the nation was in a recession in March 2014.
Contracting and the economy is, of course, to a large extent a matter of seeking the best bargain one can obtain for oneself. But even in industrialized nations such as ours, there is something to be said for also ensuring that not only the strongest, most sophisticated and wealthiest reap the benefits of the improved economy. So here’s to hoping that more initiatives such as the ones mentioned above are taken in 2015. At the end of 2014, it’s still “the economy, s$%^*&.”
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
I recently saw the last Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies. I found it highly entertaining and was delighted to find a discussion about contracts between Bard, the leader of Laketown, and the King of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, during a pivotal moment in the movie. The two engage in a back-and-forth about the meaning of a bargain, contract defenses (coercion and duress), and the importance of keeping promises. In short, all the issues that come up regularly on this blog. This isn't the first time that contracts have come up in a Hobbit movie. The morality of promise-keeping is an important theme in the movie as it has been in the others.
Speaking of the Hobbit, the Weinstein brothers have lost their fight against Warner Bros. over the profits to the last two Hobbit movies. As discussed previously on this blog, the issue involved the meaning of "first motion picture" of each book but not "remakes." The Hobbit book was split into three movies and the Weinsteins argued that they should get a percentage from each movie; Warner Bros. claimed that they should only get royalties from the first Hobbit movie. Unfortunately for contracts enthusiasts, the matter was sent to arbitration against the wishes of the Weinstein Bros. who wanted it to play out in court so we may never find out the basis for the arbitrator's ruling.
Monday, December 22, 2014
After years of conducting research on the genes of various animals, George Doe (a pseudonym), an accomplished biologist with a PhD in cellular and molecular biology, decides to have his own genes examined for fun and to discover whether he may be genetically predisposed to cancer. He buys a test kit online from one the many companies that provide such services these days. He is so excited about the process that he also buys a kit for his mother and father as gifts. They all have their genes tested. George finds out that he is not predisposed to cancer. But that’s not it. He also finds out that another male who has had his own genes tested and is thus registered with the same company is “50% related” to George. This can only mean one of three things: this other male is George’s grandfather, uncle or … half brother. After intense and testy family discussions, George’s father apparently admits that he had fathered this other male before marrying George's mother. George’s parents are now divorced and the entire family torn apart with no one talking to each other.
A very sad affair. Of course, nothing appears to be contractually wrong with this case: at the bottom of one’s profile with www.23andme.com, the company that provided the tests in this case, George and his family had checked a small box indicating for them to do so “if you want to see close family members in this search program.” The company is said to have close to one million people in its database. With modern science, close family members can easily be identified out of such data if opting into being notified.
Here, the company does not appear to have done anything wrong legally. Quite the opposite: if anything, the above shows that the buyers in these situations may not be sufficiently mentally prepared for the information they may discover through DNA testing. Arguably, they should be. After all, the old adage “watch out what you ask for, you may get it” still rings true.
But isn’t this situation akin to the various other situations we have blogged a lot about here this past year where customers buy various items online and click – or not – on various buttons, thus signaling at least alleged acceptance of, for example, terms of service requiring arbitration instead of lawsuits in case of disputes? As I have argued, many people probably just clicks such buttons without fully realizing what the legal or, in cases such as the above, factual results may be. Should online vendors be required either legally to make such check boxes or other online indicia of acceptance a lot more obvious? Or should they at least be required to do so for reasons of business ethics?
I think so. Most working people are exceptionally busy these days. Frankly, not many of us take the time to scrutinize the various implications - legal or otherwise – of the purchases we make online, especially because the agreements we accept in cyberspace are presented so very differently online, yet are so deceptively similar in legal nature that we probably feel pretty comfortable with simply clicking “I accept” as the vast majority of such transactions present no or only minor problems for us? And aren’t the vendors the party with the very best knowledge of some, if not most, of the problems that arise in these contexts? How hard would it really be for them to make sure that they use all the “bells and whistles” to truly put people on notice of what typical problems encountered may be, exactly to avoid legal problems down the road? One would think so, although, of course, customers also carry some of the burden of educating ourselves about what we buy and what that may mean. This is perhaps especially so when such delicate issues as the above are involved.
For George Doe, the above unfortunately turned out to be much more of a curse that kept on giving instead of a gift that kept on giving.
On behalf of your blogging team here at ContractsProfs Blog: Happy Holidays!
Saturday, December 13, 2014
In the UK, two sections of the Statute of Marlborough are facing repeal after being in force for 747 years. That’s right: the Statute was passed in 1267 and is thus older than the Magna Carta, which – although having been drafted in 1215 – was not copied into the statute rolls to officially become law until 1297. Two sections, however, still remain good law.
Why the suggested repeal? The two potentially obsolete sections address the ancient British power of “distress,” which allowed landlords to enter a debtor’s property and seize his/her goods. However, distress was abolished by new legislation this past March.
But don’t worry, our British colleagues are not about to do anything rash or unpopular. Although the Law Commission has proposed the repeal, a public consultation has been initiated to make sure that no one actually uses the two sections anymore.
Other newer, but nonetheless obsolete, laws are also being earmarked for removal. One is from the 1990s and was drafted to regulate the “increasing popularity of acid house parties.” Apparently, acid house parties are not in anymore and thus, the law is no longer needed.
In spite of the above, two sections of the Statute of Marlborough still remain in effect. One forbids individuals from seeking revenge for debt non-payment without being sanctioned to do so by the court (you gotta love the fact that in the UK, one can apparently get courts to approve one seeking revenge against one’s debtors). Another prevents tenants from ruining or selling off the landlord’s land. Fair enough…
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
I read an interesting article the other day about parties to a contract agreeing to a broad arbitration provision and then carving out some issues that would be litigated should a problem arise. As with many others, I am involved in the International Commerical Arbitration Moot and, when I read the article, the issue seemed familiar. That is because this year's problem includes a contract with the following two provisions:
"Art. 20 All disputes arising out of or in connection with the present contract shall be finally settled
under the Rules of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce by three arbitrators
appointed in accordance with the said Rules. The seat of arbitration shall be Vindobona,
Danubia, and the language of the arbitration will be English. The contract, including this clause,
shall be governed by the law of Danubia.
Art 21: Provisional measures
The courts at the place of business of the party against which provisional measures are sought
shall have exclusive jurisdiction to grant such measures."
As you would expect, one of the parties in the problem asks for interim relief from the ICC while the other says interim measures are for courts only. Very often, if not most of the time, the Moot problem is inspired by an actually case. Some years the students are able to find the case and, while it is never quite exactly on point, it can be helpful.
I could not help but wonder if this issue within this year's problem was inspired by a botched effort to carve interim relief out from the general provision. It would be pretty sloppy to draft something like the above but my hunch is that it has happened.
I am curious to know how other ICAM team coaches have dealt with the issue. In particular, does the word "finally" in Article 20 have any particular signficance?
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
In what seemed an inevitable turn of events, the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys filed a consumer protection lawsuit on 12/9/2010 against Uber for making false and misleading statements about Uber’s background checks of its drivers. George Gascon, the district attorney for San Francisco, calls these checks “completely worthless” because Uber does not fingerprint its drivers. Uber successfully fought state legislation that would have subjected the company’s drivers to the same rules as those required of taxi drivers. Allegedly, Uber has also defrauded its customers for charging its passengers an “airport fee toll” even though no tolls were paid for rides to and from SFO, and charging a “$1 safe ride fee” for Uber’s background check process. California laws up to $2,500 per violation. There are “tens of thousands” of alleged violations by Uber. However, even that will likely put only a small dent in Uber’s economy as it is now valued at $40 billion (yes, with a “b”).
Lyft has settled in relation to similar charges and has agreed to submit information to the state to verify the accuracy of its fares (although not its background checks). It has also agreed to stop picking up passengers at airports until it has obtained necessary permits. Prosecutors are continuing talks with Sidecar.
Time will tell what prosecutors around the nation decide to do against these and similar start-ups such as airbnb and vrbo.com, which are also said to bend or outright ignore existing rules.
The Los Angeles Times comments that the so-called “sharing economy” companies face growing pains that “start-ups in the past didn’t – dealing with municipalities around the world, each with their own local, regional and countrywide laws.” It is hard to feel too sorry for the start-ups on this account. First, all companies obviously have to observe the law, whether a start-up or not. Today’s regulations may or may not be more complex than what start-ups have had to deal with before. However, these companies should not be unfamiliar with complex modern-day challenges as that is precisely what they benefit from themselves, albeit in a more technological way. Finally, there is something these companies can do about the legal complexity they face: hire savvy attorneys! There are enough of them out there who can help out. But perhaps these companies don’t care to “share” their profits all that much? One has to wonder. Sometimes, it seems that technological innovation and building up companies as fast as possible takes priority over observing the law.
As indicated in this story,* CNN.com is greatly invested in the story of Morten Storm, who claims that he is a Danish double-agent who infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP) and thus helped the U.S. target and kill AQAP operative and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
Storm (and his CNN co-authors) have quite a story to tell. Among other things, he claims that the United States promised him $5 million for helping the U.S. in its al-Awlaki operation. Although Storm is clearly an international man of mystery, there is little mystery on the question of whether he would have any luck on a claim against the U.S. for breach of a promise to pay $5 million. The U.S. would undoubtdedly point to the Totten case, as updated in Tenet v. Doe, and courts will find the claim non-justiciable.
NB: When you click on this site, you will see the following browsewrap banner across the top:
If you do not want to spend an hour or two parsing CNN's terms and don't want to be bound to terms that you have not read or cannot understand, do not "continue to use" CNN's site (whatever that means).
Hat tip to my student, Brandon Carter.
Monday, December 8, 2014
Following up on Myanna Dellinger's post from last week, we noticed this story about Airbnb and Uber. Both companies are leaders of the so-called new sharing economy, but what they really love to share (unequally) is risk. The article explains how insurance works for both companies, and the clear message is: it isn't clear that it will, at least not for the Uber drivers or people who use Airbnb to rent out their homes or apartments for days or weeks at a time. Actually, the article has very little to say about Uber, which doesn't really share risk at all -- it tells its drivers to self-insure, and then the drivers run into trouble (if they run into things) because their insurance does not cover commercial activities.
According to the Times article, regular homeowners' insureance will not cover Airbnb renters because most standard homeowners' insurance policies do not cover harms caused by commercial activities. Airbnb thus has taken out a secondary insurance policy that will cover up to $1 million in liability for the renters who use its site, and Airbnb is offering this policy to its users for free. For reasons that are not really clear in the article, its author Ron Lieber suggests that Airbnb might not really provide insurance to its renters. He points to Airbnb's checkered history of encouraging renters to ignore local ordinances and not being there for its renters who then ran afoul of the law. He suggests that Airbnb's secondary insruance scheme might not cover the sorts of liabilities that renters might face, and it is clear that some primary homeowners' policies would also exclude liabilities arising out of commercial activiities.
And, as long as we are piling on Uber, Saturday's New York Times also featured an opinion piece by Joe Nocera. According to Nocera, it is impossible to reach Uber by phone because, according to Nocera, Uber says having a phone center or customer service line is not in Uber's business model. If you try to call the listing for Uber in New York City, you get another company, über, a New York design firm. The owner of über claims that she fields between 1 and 10 calls a day from Uber customers seeking assistance. She has even had to go to court to explain to the judge that the plaintiff sued the wrong Uber, or the wrong über.
Friday, December 5, 2014
In today’s “sharing economy,” more and more private individuals attempt to earn some (additional) money in untraditional ways such as selling various things on eBay, driving cars for alternative passenger transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, and providing lodging in private homes on sites such as airbnb. Not only do these services raise many regulatory, licensing, insurance zoning and other issues, they also present a real risk to many hopeful 1099 workers who – as the relevant companies themselves – can vastly misjudge the potential of new attempted products or services.
Take, for example, Lyft drivers. In May, the shared ride company introduced luxury rides via its Lyft Plus program. At least in San Francisco, the drivers had to pay $34,000 out of their own pockets for the large, “loaded” Ford Explorers required by Lyft for drivers to participate in the program. The idea was that passengers would pay twice the normal Lynx rate to get the extra space and perceived luxury of being whisked around town in a large SUV. A bit behind the curve, you think? Indeed. The program was an instantaneous fiasco in San Francisco (the company still advertises the program, but at “only” 1.5 times the price of a regular ride and touting the program as having space enough for six people). Soon, drivers were back to simply getting regular rides– often just at $5 or $6 – just to stay busy. This is obviously not viable in a city with expensive gasoline and cars that get only around $14 miles per gallon, not to mention the purchase price of the new SUVs.
Responding to drivers’ initial concerns, Lyft had promised that they should “not worry about demand, we have that covered.” Realizing that many of its drivers were upset about being stuck with a huge, new gas guzzler without a realistic return on investment, Lyft has offered their Plus drivers help selling the SUVs or a $10,000 bonus… subject to income tax, no less. None of these options, of course, will bring the drivers back to the pre-contractual position. Some drivers admitted to having borrowed money from family members, selling existing cars, even “forgoing other job opportunities for the chance to make more money with Lyft Plus.”
A sad story all the way around. Companies are continually trying to introduce new products and services to find the next “big thing.” This, of course, is laudable, but not so much so when they seemingly cross the line and make unfounded promises to the less savvy or financially strong. Of course, this also does not mean that workers or customers should not exercise a hefty dose of “caveat emptor” in connections such as this, but it is a somewhat concerning aspect of today’s sharing economy that failed product launches can simply be shared with “smaller fish” with less bargaining power and, apparently, a dangerously high risk-willingness bordering desperation in trying to make a dollar in these financially tough times. Whether in this case, the promise that the demand was “covered” could be a contractual misrepresentation or whether it was simply puffery is another story best left to another forum.
Friday, October 31, 2014
A few weeks ago, we blogged here about how some businesses may pay customers to remove negative reviews from sites such as TripAdvisor.
The blog raised the question of just how reliable online reviews are given this practice and, potentially, the business itself (or friends/family) posting numerous positive reviews, thus making for an entirely fake overall review.
Here’s a twist on that: Yelp will actually remove posts without notifying either the reviewed business or the review poster if the latter has not posted enough other reviews on Yelp. Of course, Yelp decides just how many other reviews are “enough.”
This happened recently to my husband, who is an extremely busy IT professional, but who nevertheless got such a good experience from a small local business that he took the time to post a for him rare review of the business with pictures of the product we had bought. A few days later, the business owner contacted him to ask why he had taken the review down again. He had not, but Yelp had for the above reason.
Of course, Yelp probably wants to avoid the occasional rage posting or an overly rosy review. However, the above practice seems unethical and unreasonable. Review sites will by nature have both good and bad reviews. Yelp has chosen to believe that if a person only posts one thing, it must by definition by unreliable as being too far on either end of the spectrum. However, the truth of the matter is that a lot of busy professionals do not have the time for or interest in posting a large amount of reviews. That, of course, does not make an occasional review unreliable, perhaps quite the opposite: if you don’t post a lot of views, the ones you do must reflect truly good or bad experiences.
Not only does Yelp waste reviewer’s time like this, but it does not even explain this policy on its guidelines section of its website.
A healthy dose of skepticism towards review websites seems warranted, which probably does not surprise too many of us.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Class action lawsuits can be a great way for consumers to obtain much necessary leverage against potentially overreaching corporations in ways that would have been impossible without this legal vehicle. But they can also resemble mere litigiousness based on claims that, to laypeople at least, might simply seem silly. Decide for yourself where on this spectrum the recent settlement between Red Bull and a class of consumers falls. The background is as follows:
The energy drink Red Bull contains so much sugar and caffeine that it can probably help keep many a sleepy law professor and law student alert enough to get an immediate and urgent job done. I admit that I have personally enjoyed the drink a few times in the past, but cannot even drink an entire can without my heart simply beating too fast (so I don’t).
Red Bull’s marketing efforts promised consumers a “boost, “wings,” and “improved concentration and reaction speeds.” One consumer alleges in the class action suit that he “had been drinking the product since 2002, but had seen no improvement in his athletic performance.”
It strikes me as being a bad idea to pin one’s hopes on a mere energy drink to improve one’s athletic performance. These types of energy drinks seem to be geared much more towards a temporary sugar high than anything else. At any rate, if the drink doesn’t help, why continue drinking it for another 12 years?
Nonetheless, a group of plaintiffs filed claim asserting breach of express warranty, unjust enrichment, and violations of various states’ consumer protection statutes. The consumers claim that Red Bull’s deceptive conduct and practices mean makes the company’s advertising and marketing more than just “puffery,” but instead deceptive and fraudulent and thus actionable. The company of course denies this, but has chosen to settle the lawsuit “to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation.”
To me, this case seems to be more along the lines of Leonard v. Pepsico than a more viable claim. Having said that, I am of course not in favor of any type of false and misleading corporate claims for mere profit reasons, but a healthy dose of skepticism by consumers is also warranted.
Friday, October 17, 2014
The Alliance for Justice has released a documentary on forced arbitration called Lost in the Fine Print. It's very well-done, highly watchable (meaning your students will stay awake and off Facebook during a viewing), and educational. I recently screened the film during a special session for my Contracts and Advanced Contracts students. It's only about 20 or so minutes and afterward, we had a lively discussion about the pros and cons of arbitration. We discussed the different purposes of arbitration and the pros and cons of arbitration where the parties are both businesses and where one party is a business and the other a consumer. Many of the students had not heard about arbitration and didn't know what it was. Many of those who did know about arbitration didn't know about mandatory arbitration or how the process worked. Several were concerned about the due process aspects. They understood the benefits of arbitration for businesses, but also the problems created by lack of transparency in the process. I thought it was a very nice way to kick start a lively discussion about unconscionability, public policy concerns, economics and the effect of legislation on contract law/case law.
I think it's important for law students to know what arbitration is and it doesn't fit in easily into a typical contracts or civil procedure class so I'm afraid it often goes untaught. The website also has pointers and ideas on how to organize a screening and discussion questions.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Jimmy John's, a sandwich chain that frankly I had never heard of but which has over 2,000 franchise locations, apparently makes its employees sign pretty extensive confidentiality and non-compete agreements , as reported by Bob Sullivan and this Huffington Post article. It's not clear to me what trade secrets are involved in making sandwiches, although I am a big fan of more transparency when it comes to what goes in my food and how it's made. As Bob Sullivan points out, in this economy, employment-related agreements for most employees are typically adhesion contracts. Making workers sign non-competes to get a job makes it much harder for them to get their next job. In this case, the employee is prohibited from working for two years at any place that makes 10% of its revenue from any sandwich-type product (broadly defined to include wraps and pitas) that is within 3 miles of any Jimmy Johns location. Given that there are 2,000 such locations, it could make it difficult for some food industry workers to find other jobs.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Conversely, given the above and similar confusion, why in the world wouldn’t companies simply use an “I agree” box to be on the safe side? Even after the case came out, the Barnes and Noble website does, granted, not feature its “TOS” hyperlink as conspicuously as other links on its website and certainly not as obviously as one would have thought the company would have learned to do after the case (see very bottom left-hand corner of website).
What is more, normally a failure to read a contract before agreeing to its terms does not relieve a party of its obligations under the contract. In the case, however, the court said that in online cases, “the onus must be on website owners to put users on notice of the terms to which they wish to bind consumers … they cannot be expected to ferret out hyperlinks to terms and conditions to which they have no reason to suspect they will be bound.” This is similar to a case we blogged about here.
However, it would probably be hard to find an online shopper in today’s world who would truly not expect that somewhere on the website, there is likely a link with terms that the corporation will seek to enforce. The duty to read should arguably be extended to reading websites carefully as well. Another medium is at stake than the paper contracts of yesteryear, but that doesn’t necessarily change the contents. But that is not the law in the Ninth Circuit as it stands today, as evidenced by this case, which unfortunately fails to clarify exactly what the courts think would be enough to constitute constructive notice. So for now, “something more” is the standard. Perhaps this is an issue of “millenials” versus a slightly older generation to which some of the judges deciding these cases belong.
Monday, September 29, 2014
The NYT had an article about e-cigarette label warnings today that was eerily appropriate given our symposium on Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider's book, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure. The reporter must have been following our blog symposium and seems to have come up with an example that supports the arguments made by Ben-Shahar and Schneider. The article explains how big tobacco companies have been putting warning labels on their e-cigarette packages that are more extensive than those on their tobacco cigarettes. There are several possible explanations for why they are doing this, ranging from the least cynical (they want to be good corporate citizens) to the more cynical (they are trying to set up their smaller e-cigarette competitors for later regulation, possibly reduce demand for e-cigs to boost sales of tobacco cigs, and protect themselves from liability).
I tend to be in the more cynical camp. Big tobacco companies are both attempting to protect themselves from liability by setting forth as many potential dangers of their product as they can, and they are positioning e-cigarettes as "just as" dangerous, if not more, than plain old tobacco cigarettes. The article notes something that readers of the book and blog already know - the disclosures have little effect on consumer purchasing decisions because nobody reads them. The strategy of big tobacco supports the arguments made by Ben Shahar and Schneider that disclosure hurts rather than helps consumers except there's one crucial difference - the companies are putting these extensive disclosures on the labels themselves. They are not mandated. By voluntarily disclosing the harms of e-cigs, big tobacco companies both protect themselves from liability and avert regulation. Doing away with mandated disclosure wouldn't prevent this kind of strategic selective disclosure --selective and strategic in the sense that these companies are only forthcoming with certain products and with certain types of disclosure. It's revealing that one of the companies claiming that e-cigarettes warrant more extensive disclosure than their tobacco counterparts is RJ Reynolds, which succesfully sued the FDA to prevent mandated graphic warnings on cigarette packages.
So - the battle about disclosure continues to rage....