Monday, July 20, 2015
In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union famously held that “[i]ndividuals have the right - under certain conditions - to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where “the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” for the purpose of otherwise legitimate data collection. “A case-by-case assessment is needed considering the type of information in question, its sensitivity for the individual’s private life and the interest of the public in having access to that information.”
A few days ago, infamous adultery-enabling website Ashley Madison and “sister” site (no pun intended) EstablishedMen.com, which “connects ambitious and attractive young women with successful and generous benefactors to fulfill their lifestyle needs,” was hacked into by “The Impact Team,” a group of apparently offended hackers who threatened to release “all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails” unless the owner of the sites, Avid Life Media, removes the controversial websites from the Internet permanently.
Notwithstanding legal issues regarding, perhaps, prostitution, do customers have a right to be forgotten? Not in general in the USA so far. Even if a provision similar to the EU law applied here, it would only govern search engines. Ashley Madison had, however, contractually promised its paying users a “full delete” in return for a fee of $19. The problem? Apparently that the site(s) still kept purchase details with names. Further, of course, that the company promised and still promises “100% discreet service.” Both seemingly clear contractual promises.
Although the above example may, for perhaps good reason, simply cause you to think that the so-called “clients” above have only gotten what they asked for, the underlying bigger issues remain: why in the world, after first Target, then HomeDepot and others, can companies not find out how to securely protect their customers’ data “100%”? And why should we, in the United States, not have a general right to be deleted not only from companies’ records, but from search engines, if we want to? I admittedly live a very boring life. I don’t have anything to hide. But if I once in a blue moon sign up for something as simple as Meetup.com to go hiking with others, my name and/or image is almost certain to appear within a few days online. I find that annoying. I don’t want my students, for example, to know where I occasionally may meet friends for happy hour. But unless I invest relatively large amount of time in figuring out how to use and not use new technology (which I see that I have to, given the popularity of LinkedIn and the like), I may end up online anyway. That’s not what I signed up for.
As for Ashley Madison, the company has apparently been adding users so rapidly that it has been considering an initial public offering. You can truly get everything on the Internet these days, perhaps apart from data security.
On July 14th, American Honda Finance Corporation (Honda) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) entered into a consent order (the Order). The CFPB and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that Honda had violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and its implementing legislation by permitting dealers to charge higher interest rates on auto loans on the basis of race and national origin.
According to the Order, after a joint investigation, the DOJ and the CFPB made found that, during the time period covered, on average, African-American borrowers were issued loans that resulted in an extra $250 in interest payments over the course of the loan compared to loans issued to non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics paid an extra $200 and Asians and Pacific Islanders paid an extra $150. This result was the product of Honda's specific policy and practice.
The Order gives Honda three options that it can pursue in order to prevent future violations of the ECOA in the future. Honda will also pay $24 million into an escrow account. The funds will be used to compensate borrowers for the excessive interest payments they were required to make.
As the CFPB notes on its website:
Today’s action is part of a larger joint effort between the CFPB and DOJ to address discrimination in the indirect auto lending market. In December 2013, the CFPB and DOJ took an action against Ally Financial Inc. and Ally Bank that ordered Ally to pay $80 million in consumer restitution and an $18 million civil penalty.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Given the major U.S. Supreme Court opinions that were released last week, it's no surprise that the one involving contracts, Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, didn't make the headlines. The case involved an agreement for the sale of a patent to a toy glove which allowed Spidey-wannabes to role play by shooting webs (pressurized foam) from the palm of their hands. Kimble had a patent on the invention and met with an affiliate of Marvel Entertainment to discuss his idea --in Justice Elena Kagan's words--for "web-slinging fun." Marvel rebuffed him but then later, started to sell its own toy called the "Web Blaster" which, as the name suggests, was similar to Kimble's. Kimble sued and the parties settled. As part of the settlement, the parties entered into an agreement that required Marvel to pay Mr. Kimble a lump sum and a 3% royalty from sales of the toy. As Justice Kagan notes:
"The parties set no end date for royalties, apparently contemplating that they would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can)*."
It wasn't until after the agreement was signed that Marvel discovered another Supreme Court case, Brulotte v. Thys Co. 379 U.S. 29 (1964) which held that a patent license agreement that charges royalties for the use of a patented invention after the expiration of its patent term is "unlawful per se." Neither party was aware of the case when it entered into the settlement agreement. Marvel, presumably gleeful with its discovery, sought a declaratory judgment to stop paying royalties when Kimble's patent term expired in 2010.
In a 6-to-3 opinion written by Justice Kagan (which Ronald Mann dubs the "funnest opinion" of the year), the Court declined to overrule Brulotte v. Thys, even though it acknowledged that there are several reasons to disagree with the case. Of interest to readers of this blog, the Court stated:
"The Brulotte rule, like others making contract provisions unenforceable, prevents some parties from entering into deals they desire."
In other words, the intent of the parties doesn't matter when it runs afoul of federal law. Yes, we already knew that, but in cases like this - where the little guy gets the short end - it might hurt just the same to hear it. In the end, the Court viewed the case as more about stare decisis than contract law and it was it's unwillingness to overrule precedent that resulted in the ruling.
Yet, I wonder whether this might not be a little more about contract law after all. The Court observed in a footnote that the patent holder in Brulotte retained ownership while Kimble sold his whole patent. In other words, Brulotte was a licensing agreement, while Kimble was a sale with part of the consideration made in royalties. This made me wonder whether another argument could have been made by Kimble. If Kimble sold his patent rights in exchange for royalty payments, and those royalty payments are unenforceable, could he rescind the agreement? If the consideration for the sale turns out to be void ("invalid per se"), was the agreement even valid? The question is probably moot now given the patent has expired....or is it? Although Kimble did receive royalty payments during the patent term, he presumably agreed to a smaller upfront payment and smaller royalty payments in exchange for the sale of the patent because he thought he would receive the royalty payment in perpetuity. So could a restitution argument be made given that he won't be receiving those royalty payments and the consideration for the sale of the patent has turned out to be invalid?
*Yes, I made an unnecessary reference to the Spiderman theme song so that it would run through your head as you read this - and maybe even throughout the day.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission acted to approve a number of proposals that update the TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act), popularly known as the "Do Not Call" law that prohibits companies from interrupting consumers' dinner time conversations with pesky telemarketing calls. They closed a number of existing loopholes and clarified that phone companies can now block robocalls and robotexts to cell phones. The ruling also makes it easier for consumers who have previously consented to withdraw consent.
So what does this have to do with contracts? We all know how easy it is to consent to online terms. PayPal does, too. PayPal recently informed its customers that it was unilaterally amending its User Agreement. As anyone reading this blog knows, there are serious problems with unilateral modification clauses, especially in the context of wrap contracts that nobody reads. Yet, some courts have found that these clauses are enforceable (others have found they are not because they lack consideration and/or notice/assent). PayPal's recent announced modifications caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC Chief expressed concern that PayPal's prospective agreement may run afoul of federal law. The TCPA requires express written consent before any company can make annoying prerecorded telemarketing calls to consumers. The written consent, however, isn't the ridiculous version of consent that suffices as contractual consent in some courtrooms. There are certain requirements including that the agreement be "clear and conspicuous" and that the person is "not required to sign the agreement...as a condition of purchasing the property, goods, or services." In other words, it can't be a "take it or leave it" situation. Pay Pal's amended User Agreement, however, appears to contain "take-it-or-leave-it" language as it doesn't indicate how customers may refuse to consent to receive calls without having their account shut down. Furthermore, unlike contract law where blanket assent is okay, blanket consent is not okay under the FCC rules. (This blog post provides a nice overview of the issues and also notes that eBay (PayPal's soon-to-be former parent) encountered similar problems with the New York Attorney General).
PayPal's agreement is not the only reason the FCC acted last week, but as Bob Sullivan points out in this post here, it may have been the reason it acted so quickly. Expect to see an updated version of PayPal's agreement in the near future.
Monday, June 8, 2015
I wanted to follow up on Jeremy Telman's posts about two cases, Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum and Berkson v. Gogo. Both cases involved consumers and standard form contracts. Both Sprint and Gogo sought to enforce an arbitration clause in their contracts and both companies presumably wanted to do so to avoid a class action. In Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum, there was no question regarding contract formation. The contract issue in that case involved the validity of the assignment of the contract from US Cellular to Sprint. The court found that the assignment was valid and consequently, so was the arbitration clause.
In Berkson v. Gogo, on the other hand, the issue was whether there was a contract formed between the plaintiffs and Gogo. As Jeremy notes in his post, this is an important case because it so thoroughly analyzes the existing wrap contract law. It also has important implications for consumers and the future of class actions.
Many arbitration clauses preclude class actions (of any kind). Judge Posner notes in his opinion in Andermann v. Sprint Spectrun:
"It may seem odd that (Sprint) wants arbitration....But doubtless it wants arbitration because the arbitration clause disallows class arbitration. If the Andermann's claims have to be arbitrated all by themselves, they probably won't be brought at all, because the Andermanns if they prevail will be entitled only to modest statutory damages."
Judge Posner may have been troubled by this if the facts were different. The Andermanns are claiming that Sprint's calls to them are unsolicited advertisements that violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but Sprint needed to inform them that their service would be terminated because U.S. Cellular's phones were incompatible with Sprint's network. How else would they be able to contact their customers whose service would soon be terminated, Posner rhetorically asks, "Post on highway billboards or subway advertisements?....Post the messages in the ad sections of newspapers? In television commercials?" Sprint's conduct here "likely falls" within an exception to the law and hence, Posner notes "the claims are unlikely to prevail."
It's a different situation in Berkson v. Gogo. In that case, Gogo is allegedly charging consumers' credit cards on a monthly recurring basis without their knowledge. The plaintiffs were consumers who signed up to use Gogo's Wi-Fi service on an airplane, thinking it was only for one month. When Welsh, one of the plaintiffs, noticed the recurring charges, he was given a "partial refund." Welsh then hired a lawyer. Welsh's lawyer sent Gogo a letter notifying the company of the intent to file a class action lawsuit if it did not correct its practices and notify everyone who might have been charged in this manner. Gogo then allegedly sent a refund check directly to Welsh, not his lawyer (which would violate the rule not to directly contact someone represented by counsel). When Berkson, another plaintiff, noticed the charges and complained, the charges stopped; however, when he requested a refund for the period he was charged for the service but did not use it, the company allegedly refused.
I think that most people would agree that, if the facts alleged are true, Gogo likely violated consumer protection statutes. It also acted poorly by making it so hard to get a refund. Companies should not be permitted to act like this and consumers shouldn't have to threaten class action lawsuits to get their money back. (Gogo doesn't seem to dispute that they were charged during months they did not use the service).
This is where contract formation becomes so important. The class action in Berkson v. Gogo was allowed to proceed because the court found that there was no valid contract formation.
If there was a contract formed between Gogo and the plaintiffs, the arbitration clause would likely have been effective. (I say "would likely have been" because it wasn't even included until after Berkson signed up for the service. But let's put that aside for now and continue....). The arbitration clause - you guessed it - contained the following clause:
"To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, NO ARBITRATION OR OTHER CLAIM UNDER THIS AGREEMENT SHALL BE JOINED TO ANY OTHER ARBITRATION OR CLAIM, INCLUDING ANY ARBITRATION OR CLAIM INVOLVING ANY OTHER CURRENT OR FORMER USER OF THE SITE OR THE SERVICES, AND NO CLASS ARBITRATION PROCEEDINGS SHALL BE PERMITTED. In the event that this CLASS ACTION WAIVER is deemed unenforceable, then any putative class action may only proceed in a court of competent jurisdiction and not in arbitration.
WE BOTH AGREE THAT, WHETHER ANY CLAIM IS IN ARBITRATION OR IN COURT, YOU AND GOGO BOTH WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO A JURY TRIAL INVOLVING ANY CLAIMS OR DISPUTES BETWEEN US."
Now, under the recent line of federal cases (AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, American Express v. Italian Colors, etc) interpreting the FAA, if a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, an arbitrator pretty much decides everything unless (1) the arbitration agreement is unconscionable; or (2) the agreement to arbitrate was never formed
Regarding (1), this doesn't mean that a court may determine whether any other contract provision was unconscionable - only the arbitration clause. So, if there's another clause that you want to argue is unconscionable -- let's say a recurring billing provision that is not conspicuous just as a random example -- you have to take that to the arbitrator. Furthermore, it's much harder now (after the line of US Supreme cases noted above) to argue that an arbitration clause is unconscionable. While many state courts had previously found mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers unconscionable, they may no longer find them unconscionable just because they impose arbitration. In other words, in order to be found unconscionable, the arbitration clauses have to be one-sided (i.e. only the consumer has to arbitrate) or impose hefty filing fees, etc. This, as I mentioned in a prior post, is why so many of these clauses contain opt-out provisions. Gogo's arbitration clause also contained an opt-out provision. But, as readers of this blog know, NOBODY reads wrap contract terms and I would be surprised if anyone opted out. The clause was also in capitalized letters and so would be conspicuous -- if only anyone clicked on the link and scrolled down to see it.
This is why Judge Weinstein's opinion is so important -he recognizes the burden that wrap contracts place on consumers:
"It is not unreasonable to assume that there is a difference between paper and electronic contracting....In the absence of contrary proof, it can be assumed that the burden should be on the offeror to impress upon the offeree -- i.e., the average internet user - the importance of the details of the binding contract being entered into...The burden should include the duty to explain the relevance of the critical terms governing the offeree's substantive rights contained in the contract."
If a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, a consumer who has been wronged and wants to argue that a standard form contract is unconscionable, would probably have to take it to an arbitrator unless there was no agreement to arbitrate in the first place. If there was no agreement formed at all, that would mean no agreement to arbitrate.
This is why it is so important not to find contract formation so easily and expect unconscionability to do all the heavy lifting of consumer protection. An arbitrator very well might do a good job - but we don't know that because an arbitration is a closed hearing. Arbitrators also don't go through the rigorous screening process that judges go through (both elected and appointed judges are thoroughly scrutinized). Furthermore, arbitral decsions are not generally made public, and so arbitration doesn't help with providing guidelines for acceptable business behavior. Judge Posner notes in his opinion, "It's not clear that arbitration, which can be expensive...and which fails to create precedents to guide the resolution of future disputes, should be preferred to litigation." Furthermore, if the arbitration clause contains a "no class" provision, it also forces a consumer to face a company's intimidating attorneys all alone ((because no lawyer is taking this type of case on a contingency basis and no consumer is going to pay a lawyer to attend this type of arbitration).
Berkson v. Gogo is notable for recognizing that website design and contract presentation matter in determining contract formation. Not every click is perceived the same way by consumers -- scrollwraps (where scrolling is required to read through all the terms) provides more notice than a "sign-in-wrap" which is merely a hyperlink next to a SIGN UP button. The reality is that nobody clicks on the Terms hyperlink with a sign-in wrap. As Judge Weinstein notes:
"The starting point of analysis must be the method through which an electronic contract of adhesion is formed. The inquiry does not begin, as defendants argue, with the content of the provisions themselves."
There are some who think that there's no harm in finding contract formation so easily because courts and the doctrine of unconscionability will protect consumers from really bad contract terms. They should think again. Mandatory arbitration clauses affect consumers' ability to seek redress which is why we should start taking contract formation seriously.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
We have previously blogged about “sharing economy” short-term rental company Airbnb at various times here. Time for an update: The City of Santa Monica, California, just passed an ordinance that prohibits property owners and residents from renting out their places unless they remain on the property themselves. This is estimated to prohibit no less than 80% of Airbnb’s Santa Monica listings (1,400 would be banned).
The city plans to spend $410,000 in the first year to enforce the rule using three new full-time employees. Violators may be fined by up to $500. However, because Airbnb does not list addresses, staff will have to look at photos of the properties and drive around the city streets to try to identify the violators. Doing so sounds awfully invasive and awkward, but that is nonetheless the plan. Adds Assistant Planning Director Salvador Valles: “We can issue citations just based on the advertisement alone when we're using our business regulations.” Other major cities are also trying to crack down on short-term rentals.
But why, you ask? Good question. In times when, as I have blogged about before and as is common knowledge, medium- and low-income earners are falling behind higher-income earners to a somewhat alarming extent, you would think the government could let people earn some additional money on what is, after all, their own property. Cities, however, claim that short-term rentals drive up the rental prices by cutting into the number of residences that are available for long-term rentals. “Even a study commissioned by Airbnb itself earlier this year found that Airbnb increases the price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco by an average of $19 a month.” Traffic concerns are also often mentioned in this context as are potential tax avoidance issues, although Airbnb has now started to deduct taxes from rental fees before transferring these to the landlords.
Airbnb’s end goal? To go IPO. The goal for at least some landlords? Eighty-year-old Arlene Rosenblatt, for example, rents out her home in Santa Monica whenever she and her husband leave town to visit their seven grandchildren. She charges anywhere from $115 to $220 a night for her home, listing it on Airbnb and other sites and thus earning as much as $20,000 a year. "I'm a retired schoolteacher," Rosenblatt says. "We don't get a lot of retirement income. My husband, all he has is his Social Security."
Time will tell what happens in this latest clash between private property and contractual rights and government regulations.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Should salary levels be regulated or mainly left to individual contractual negotiations between the employee and his/her employer? The former, according to the Los Angeles City Council and governance entities in several other cities and states.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles decided to increase the minimum salary to $15 an hour by 2020. Other cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Seattle have passed similar measures. Liberal strongholds, you say? Think again. Republican-leading states like Alaska and South Dakota have also raised their state-level minimum wages by ballot initiative. Some companies such as Walmart and Facebook have raised their wages voluntarily.
But the effect is likely to be particularly strong here in Los Angeles, where around 50% of the work force earn less than $15 an hour. That’s right: in an urban area with super-rich movie studios, high-tech companies, hotels, restaurants, health companies and much more, half of “regular” employees barely earn a living salary. In New York state, around one third of workers make less than $15 an hour. Take into consideration that the cost of living in some cities such as Los Angeles and maybe even more so San Francisco and New York is very high. In fact, studies show that every single part of Los Angeles is unaffordable on only $15 an hour if a person spends only the recommended one third on housing.
“Assuming a person earning $15 an hour is also working 40 a week, which is rare for a minimum wage employee, and that they're not taking any days off, they'd be earning $31,200 a year. An Economic Policy Institute study released in March found that a single, childless person living in Los Angeles has to make $34,324 a year just to live in decent conditions (and that was using data from 2013).”
Opponents, however, say that initiatives such as the above will make some cities into “wage islands” with businesses moving to places where they can pay employees less. Others call the initiative a “social experiment that they would never do on their own employees” (they just did...) But “even economists who support increasing the minimum wage say there is not enough historical data to predict the effect of a $15 minimum wage, an unprecedented increase. A wage increase to $12 an hour over the next few years would achieve about the same purchasing power as the minimum wage in the late 1960s, the most recent peak.”
Time will tell if the sky falls from the above initiative or if the system in a rich urban area such as Los Angeles can cope. Said Gil Cedillo, a councilman who represents some of the poorest sections of the city and worries that some small businesses will shut down, “I would prefer that the cost of this was really burdened by those at the highest income levels. Instead, it’s going to be coming from people who are just a rung or two up the ladder here.”
This is, of course, not only an issue of the value of low-wage work and fending for yourself to not end up at the bottom of the salary chain. It is a matter of alleviating urban poverty and improving the nation’s overall economy for a sufficient amount of people to better get the economy back on track for more than the few.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Yesterday, I blogged here about a proposed Labor Department rule that would require investment brokers to contractually bind themselves as fiduciaries of their clients.
Somewhat relatedly, the United States Supreme Court just issued an opinion finding employers to be fiduciaries in relation to the employment plans offered to their employees. The petitioning employees argued that respondent employers acted imprudently by offering six higher priced retail-class mutual funds as 401(k) plan investments when materially identical lower-priced institutional-class mutual funds were available. The higher-priced funds also carried higher fees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the ERISA statute of limitations to the initial selection of funds without considering whether there is also a continued duty to monitor the funds. There is. The Supreme Court found that because the fiduciary duty can be traced to trust law, there is “a continuing duty of some kind to monitor investments and remove imprudent ones. A plaintiff may allege that a fiduciary breached the duty of prudence by failing to properly monitor investments and remove imprudent ones. In such a case, so long as the alleged breach of the continuing duty occurred within six years of suit, the claim is timely. The Ninth Circuit erred by applying a 6- year statutory bar based solely on the initial selection of the three funds.”
Monday, May 18, 2015
Under a United States Labor Department plan, investment brokers may be required to bind themselves contractually as fiduciaries for their clients in the future. Only a few states such as California and Missouri require brokers to act as fiduciaries at all times. In others, brokers must simply recommend investments that are “suitable” for investors based on various factors, but are not required to adhere to the higher fiduciary “best-interest” standard.
The contemplated advantages are two-fold. First, the rule is thought to better protect investors from broker recommendations that, if followed, would help the brokers earn more or higher fees, but fail to meet investors’ best interests. A contractually stipulated duty would also help “deflate arguments that brokerages typically raise to deflect blame for bad advice, such as that an investor has in-depth financial know-how.
Second, arbitration cases would be easier to prove. This is so because arbitrators currently rely on state laws when determining the standard of conduct to be followed by the brokers, which is one of the threshold issues to be analyzed in investor cases. A uniformly required fiduciary standard would, it is thought, be more investor-friendly.
Needless to say, there are also contrary views. For example, some attorneys fear that investors’ lawyers will start or increase a hunt for more retirement account cases to represent. Others worry about an increased amount of class action cases.
Regardless, given the complexity of today’s investment world, requiring brokers to act as fiduciaries for their clients does indeed seem like the “good step in the right direction” as the president of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association recently called the initiative.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
This week, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer famously filed suit against Wells Fargo claiming that the bank's high-pressure sales culture set unrealistic quotas, spurring employees to engage in fraudulent conduct to keep their jobs and boost the company's profits.
Allegedly (and in my personal experience as I bank with Wells Fargo), the bank would open various bank accounts against its customer’s wills, charge fees for the related “services,” and refuse to close the accounts again for various official-sounding reasons, making it very cumbersome to deal with the bank. The bank’s practices often hurt its customers' credit rankings.
Employees have described “how staffers, fearing disciplinary action from managers, begged friends and family members to open ghost accounts. The employees said they also opened accounts they knew customers didn't want, forged signatures on account paperwork and falsified phone numbers of angry customers so they couldn't be reached for customer satisfaction surveys.”
The city's lawsuit alleges that the root of the problem is an unrealistic sales quota system enforced by constant monitoring of each employee — as much as four times a day. "Managers constantly hound, berate, demean and threaten employees to meet these unreachable quotas," the lawsuit claims. Last year, 26% of the bank’s income came from fee income such as from fees from debit and credit cards accounts, trust and investment accounts. The banking industry is currently set up in such a way that around 85% of institutions would go bankrupt if they do not have fee income.
This comes only three years after Wells Fargo agreed to pay $175 million to settle accusations that its independent brokers discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers during the housing boom and treated these borrowers in predatory ways.
All this in the name of “growth,” traditionally thought of as the sine qua non of industrialized economies, even in financially tough times where simply maintaining status quo – and not going out of business - would seem to be acceptable for now from at least a layman’s, logical standpoint.
In recent years, more and more economists have advanced the view that unbridled growth or even growth per se may simply not be attainable or desirable. After all, we live on a planet with limited resources – financial and environmental - and limited opportunities. This especially holds true in relation to the “1% problem.” Nonetheless, questioning growth has been said to be “like arguing against gasoline at a Formula One race.” So I’m making that argument here, although I acknowledge that I am not an economist: by setting our national (and personal) economies up for ever-continuing growth, we are playing with fire. There is only so much of a need for various things and services, as the above Wells Fargo suit so amply demonstrates. Granted, the global population is growing, but much of that growth is in developing nations where people frankly cannot afford to buy many of the products and services often so angrily pushed by modern companies worldwide. In the Global North, C-level managers are often rewarded via measurements of growth and if they cannot produce the expected growth results, they risk being fired. Sometimes, simply doing the right thing by customers and employees may actually be enough as long as the company would remain sound and in business. Of course, this requires a shift in thinking by shareholders who contribute greatly under our current investment models to the demand for never-ending growth. Overconsumption and waste is a vast ecological problem as well. It has been said that “we must reform economics to reflect ecological reality: nature is not, after all, just a pile of raw materials waiting to be transformed into products and then waste; rather, ecosystem integrity is a precondition for society's survival.”
Growth is, of course, good and desirable if possible. But if, as seems to be the case, it’s coming to a point where we destroy our own chances of healthy long-term survival and wreck the emotional and financial lives of employees and clients in the meantime, something is seriously wrong.
Monday, April 27, 2015
If it were up to General Motors, it may soon be illegal for you to tinker with your own car. That’s because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), an Act that started as anti-piracy legislation about a decade ago, now also protects coding and software in a range of products more broadly. Your car is one such product if it, as many cars do nowadays, it has an onboard computer. Vehicle makers promotes two arguments in their favor: first, that it could be dangerous and even malicious to alter a car’s software programming. Second, per the tractor maker John Deere, that “letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system.” “Will”?! As the Yahoo article mentioning this story smartly pointed out, “[t]hat’s right— pirating music. Through a tractor.”
Isn’t that an example of a company getting a little too excited over its own products? Or am I just an incurable city girl (although one that occasionally likes country music)? Judging from the lyrics to a recent Kenny Chesney hit (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy"), I see that opinions differ in this respect. To each her own.
Hat tip to Professor Daniel D. Barnhizer of the AALS listserve for sharing this story.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
As for the series on law school instruction and law schools in general that Jeremy started here recently: count me in!
I agree with Jeremy’s views that issue-spotting is very important in helping students develop their “practical skills,” as the industry now so extensively calls for. As Jeremy and Professor Bruckner do, I also never give up trying to have the students correctly issue spot, which in my book not only means spotting what the issues are, but also omitting from their tests and in-class analyses what I call “misfires” (non-issues). In my opinion, the latter is very necessary not only for bar taking purposes, but also in “real life” where attorneys often face not only strict time limits, but also word limits.
But I’ll honestly admit that my students very often fail my expectation on final tests. Some cannot correctly spot the issues at all. Many have a hard time focusing on those aspects of the issues that are crucial and instead treat all issues and elements under a “checklist” approach overwriting the minor issues and treating major issues conclusorily. Yet others seem to cram in as many issues as they can think of “just in case” they were on the test (yes, I have thought about imposing a word limit on the tests, but worry about doing so for fear of giving any misleading indication of how many words they “should” write, even if indirectly so on my part).
Maybe all this is my fault … but maybe it isn’t (this too will hopefully add to Professor Bruckner’s probably rhetorical question on how to teach issue-spotting skills). Every semester, I post approximately a dozen or so take-home problems with highly detailed answer rubrics. I only use textbooks that have numerous practice problems long and short. I review these in class. I also review, in class, numerous other problems that I created myself. I give the students numerous hints to use commercial essay and other test practice sources. Yes, all this on top of teaching the doctrinal material. All this is certainly not “hiding the ball.” Frankly, I don’t really know what more a law professor can realistically do (other than, of course, trying different practice methods, where relevant, to challenge both oneself and the students and to see what may work better as expectations and the student body change).
So what seems to be the problem? As I see it, it doesn’t help that at least private law schools at the bottom half of the ranking system have to accept students with lower indicia of success than earlier. But even that hardly explains the problem (who knows what really does). Some law schools have to offer remedial writing classes and various other types of extensive academic support to students in their first semesters and beyond. Some of the problem, in my opinion, clearly stems from the undergraduate-level education our students receive. In large part, this makes extensive use of multiple-choice questions for assessments and not, as future lawyers would benefit from, paper or essay-writing tests or exercises. Thus, undergraduate-level schools neither teach students how to spot "issues" from "scratch" nor do they teach them how to write about these. Numerous time have my students told me that they have not really written anything major before arriving in law school.
Why is that, then? Isn’t that problem one of time and resources; in other words, the fact that not just law professors, but probably most university professors, are required to research and write extensively in addition to teaching and providing service to their institutions? For example, see Jeremy’s comments on his busy work schedule here. Something has to give in some contexts. At the undergraduate level, maybe it’s creating and grading essays and instead resorting to machine-graded multiple-choice questions and not challenging students sufficiently to consider what the crux of a given academic problem is. Just a thought. I am, of course, not saying that we should not conduct research. I am saying, though, that I find it frustrating that lower-level educations, even renowned ones, cannot seem to figure out how to use whatever resources they do, after all, have to train their students in something as seemingly simple as how to write and how to think critically.
At the law school level, some “handholding” and various types of practical assistance is, of course, acceptable. But to me, the general trend in legal education seems to be moving towards a large extent of explaining, demonstrating, giving examples, setting forth goals, assessments, and so forth. I agree with what Jeremy said in an earlier post that we should at some point worry about converting the law school education process into one that resembles undergraduate-style (or high school style!) education.
Recall that the United States is not an island unto itself. Many studies show that our educational system is falling behind international trends. Where in many other nations in the world (developed and developing), students are expected to come up with, for example, quite advanced research and writing projects for their degrees, we are - at least in some law schools - teaching students just how to write, and what to write about. This is a sad slippery slope. Until the American educational sector as such improves, I agree that we should do what we can to motivate and help our students. But I also increasingly wish that our “millennial” students would take matters into their own hands more and take true ownership of learning what they need to learn for a given project or class with less handholding, albeit of course still some guidance. Nothing less than that will be expected from them in practice.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
On Monday, a California Appellate Court declared the tiered water payment system used by the city of San Juan Capistrano unconstitutional under Proposition 218 to the California Constitution. The California Supreme Court had previously interpreted Prop. 218’s requirement that “no fees may be imposed for a service unless that service is actually used by, or immediately available to, the owner of the property in question” to mean that water rates must reflect the “cost of service attributable” to a particular parcel.
At least two-thirds of California water suppliers use some type of tiered structure depending on water usage. For example, San Juan Capistrano had charged $2.47 per “unit” of water (748 gallons) for users in the first tier, but as much as $9.05 per unit in the fourth. The Court did not declare tiered systems unconstitutional per se, but any tiering must be tied to the costs of providing the water. Thus, water utilities do not have to discontinue all use of tiered systems, but they must at least do a better job of explaining just how such tiers correspond to the cost of providing the actual service at issue. This could, for example, be done if heavy water users cause a water provider to incur additional costs, wrote the justices.
The problem here is that at the same time, California Governor Jerry Brown has issued an executive order requiring urban communities to cut water use by 25% over the next year… that’s a lot, and soon! Tiered systems are used as an incentive to save water much needed by, for example, farmers. The California drought is getting increasingly severe, and with the above conflict between constitutional/contracting law and executive orders, it remains to be seen which other sticks and carrots such as education and tax benefits for lawn removals California cities can think of to meet the Governor’s order. Happy Earth Day!
Thursday, April 16, 2015
A potential class-action lawsuit against SeaWorld was filed in Florida on April 8 just two weeks after the company was sued over its killer whale care in San Diego in another purported class action suit. The Florida lawsuit alleges unjust enrichment and fraud, among other issues. The lawsuit claims that if members of the public knew about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of the orcas, they would not visit the theme parks. Plaintiffs asks the court to require SeaWorld to reimburse ticket prices to all the people who purchased tickets to the Orlando park in the past four years. Visitors to the park pay much as $235 per person. The complaint states that more than five million people attended the Florida theme park in the years 2010 through 2012.
SeaWorld finds itself in a lot of trouble these days over its treatment of its killer whales. The park was, for example, subjected to heavy criticism in the CNN documentary “Blackfish” and in a book written by one of its former orca trainers. Perhaps as a result, its shares have been tanking recently…
SeaWorld, in turn, claims that the criticism and in particular the most recent lawsuit “appears to be an attempt by animal [rights] extremists to use the courts to advance an anti-zoo agenda. The suit is baseless, filled with inaccuracies, and SeaWorld intends to defend itself against these inaccurate claims.” It also claims that it is a leader in orca care. SeaWorld’s parks are regularly inspected by the U.S. government and two organizations. The accreditations of the California and Florida parks expire in 2020.
As part of the experience park visitors purchase, they unquestionably expect to see relatively healthy and happy whales kept under standards of good animal husbandry. But in reality, according to the lawsuits and other statements about the park, SeaWorld does not live up to this end of the bargain. Frequent allegations have been made that SeaWorld’s orcas have a shorter lifespan than wild orcas (usually, animals in captivity live longer than their wild counterparts), are kept in chemical-filled and way too small pools, are drugged with antipsychotic medicines, are not provided with sufficient shade, and are subjected to forced breeding.
Either somebody is not telling the truth here or people’s expectations of what constitutes good ethics in relation to keeping and displaying orcas as well as other show and zoo animals, for that matter. Does this matter under the law? Of course, the general public has a purely legal right to buy tickets to see various performance and exhibit animals as long as no state or federal law is violated as regards how the animals are treated. Ethics are a different story. But misrepresentation is actionable under contracts law. If the above allegations made by TV producers, former trainers, and numerous consumers are correct, SeaWorld has indeed not lived up to the wholesome, animal-friendly image it portrays of itself in order to sell tickets. Its alleged questionable conduct has been going on for years. It’s been almost twenty since a friend of mine (otherwise not very interested in animals) visited SeaWorld San Diego and went on a backstage tour. He told me about the deplorably small pools in which the animals were kept after their performances. In this area, ethics and contracts law interface and have finally come head-to-head. The eventual outcome may be that SeaWorld will not be able to continue making money off its orca shows as it has in the past. Ringling Bros. is voluntarily phasing out its use of elephants after similar protests about their treatment. This may not be a bad thing from a public policy point of view. Time has come to consider how we treat animals in many contexts, and certainly so for mere entertainment and profit-making motives.
See the Florida complaint here: http://ia902707.us.archive.org/24/items/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289.1.0.pdf
Monday, April 13, 2015
A few weeks ago, 17-year old Siobhan O’Dell became known online for her bold and unusual rejection of Duke University’s rejection of her college application. She wrote:
"Thank you for your rejection letter of March 26, 2015. After careful consideration, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me admission into the Fall 2015 freshman class at Duke. This year I have been fortunate enough to receive rejection letters from the best and brightest universities in the country. With a pool of letters so diverse and accomplished I was unable to accept reject letters I would have been able to only several years ago."
Alas, applying for college does not work like that. Accordingly, Duke’s response was simply that Ms. O’Dell’s only option is to appeal the decision, but that her chances of a reversal are not good: “If you choose to appeal, we welcome your request, but I do not wish to raise unreasonable expectations on your part," the university representative writes.
Nice try, though! It sounds like Ms. O’Dell would do well in a Contracts Law class.
Friday, April 3, 2015
In New Zealand, a ban on unfair terms in consumer contracts has taken effect and will, according to the Commerce Commission, will be enforced starting immediately. The regulation forms part of the 2013 Fair Trading Act. Australia introduced a similar ban in 2010.
The Consumer Organization “Consumer NZ” has launched its “Play Fair” campaign to increase awareness of the new law and related consumer issues. According to Consumer NZ, companies had been given plenty of notice of the upcoming ban and thus to review their contracts in order to remove unfair terms, but had to a large extent failed to do so.
The Act will apply to standard-form consumer contracts often used by electricity retailers, gyms, TV service providers and many others.
But what makes a term “unfair”? The Act defines a term as unfair if it would “would cause a significant imbalance between the rights of the company and the consumer, is not reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the company, [or] would cause detriment, whether financial or otherwise, to the consumer if it were to be applied or relied on.” The Act contains a list of terms that courts are likely to regard as unfair. This covers terms that would allow a company to unilaterally vary the terms of the contract, renew or terminate it, penalize consumers for breaching or terminating the contract, vary the price without giving consumers the right to terminate the contract, or vary the characteristics of the goods or services to be supplied.
After intense lobbying by the insurance industry, that industry was exempted from the ban.
Even though this Act is a consumer protection device, only the New Zealand Commerce Commission can, for now, enforce it. The contemplated fine for violations is $600,000.
In the USA, there are, of course, various statutory and common law protections against unfair terms such as those contained in the UCC as well as fraud protections. However, the deterrence effect of these does not seem effective in relation to at least some industries. Alternatively, perhaps the protections are not broad enough, sufficiently well-known, or sufficiently easy to enforce. Or perhaps people just give up and deal with other companies, or pay what they are asked to do by the companies.
I personally just spent no less than two hours chatting online with a major health care provider over their sudden allegation that a certain doctor I had used was “not in network” (with me thus allegedly owing a few thousand dollars to the insurance company) despite that particular provider being listed on the provider’s own website as “in network” and the doctor having confirmed this. Eventually and after numerous contractual and factual arguments, I was able to persuade provider that I was right. But how many others in my situation would simply give up and cave in to, as was the case, the provider’s repeated bootstrapping arguments that “their ultimate price was fair”?
Only two days later, I heard from a moving company that had agreed to move a car for me for $500 (and confirmed this twice) that the “price is actually $600.” When I told them no, it is not, they repeated their allegation that “we did not have a contract.” After telling them a few things about contract formation and modification principles and after declining listening to their attempted, time-consuming warnings about using other companies that were “scam artists,” I am now looking for a new contract another vendor.
Despite whatever legal protections we may officially have in this country against consumer fraud, it is still rampant. New Zealand’s government enforcement system is interesting, but time will tell if they have more success preventing consumer fraud than we do here.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Earlier this month, Los Angeles-area media reported a somewhat humorous of a valet service that gave away a relatively expensive new car to a random guy claiming that he had "lost the [valet] ticket." Yup, the valet service actually just gave the car to the man who was sporting an Ohio state tattoo. (Of course, this story is not funny for the frustrated car owner).
But wait, the story gets weirder than that (it is, after all, LA, where we worry a lot about our cars...): the valet service sent the responsible employee home and referred the customer to his insurance company. Initial reports indicated that the insurance company did not want to pay for this loss as no theft had occurred... as is always the case, however, the media did not follow up on the end of this story, to the best of my knowledge.
Another valet contract that you must read and that was shared today on the AALS listserv for Contract Professors reminded me of this story. Hat tip to Professor Davis!
Valet companies may have to brush up on their contract writing skills soon...
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Some weeks ago, I blogged here about water rights and shortages in drought-ridden California. Of course, California is not the only state where contractual water rights interface with development and public health concerns.
In Ohio, shale driller Gulfport Energy recently filed suit against the town of Barnesville for rights to extract water for Gulfport’s fracking operations. Gulfport had a contract with Barnesville entitling it to draw water from a local reservoir at one cent per gallon. Under the contract, Gulfport would be able to draw the water unless the village determined that such action would endanger public health. Water rights were subsequently also issued to another driller. In the fall of 2014, the village told Gulfport to stop drawing water from the reservoir because of too low water levels. Gulfport’s suit now asks for adequate assurances of performance of the water contract to ensure that it can continue its fracking operations.
Whether that is a good idea is another story. From a short-term perspective: yes, we need energy preferably domestically sourced to avoid international supply interruptions and the geopolitical problems that are associated with importing energy raw materials. But fracking and fossil fuel production in general are associated with other severe problems including heavy water usage in the case of fracking. Such water, the argument goes, is better used for other things such as farming and household consumption.
Business as usual for fracking companies may not be the best idea seen from a societal point of view. Contracts rights are only a small part of this much bigger problem. However, time seems to have come for governments to incorporate escape clauses not only for “public health concerns” into water contracts, but also for drought concerns. This is not always done, as the above case shows, but such a relatively easy step could help solve at least some contractual disputes. In times of increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall in some areas, such contract drafting may well make sense.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
The problem with constructive consent, or substituting "manifestations of assent" for actual assent, in consumer contracts is that consumers often aren't aware what rights they've relinquished or what they have agreed to have done to them. Too bad for consumers, right? Well, it's also too bad for companies. Companies that rely on contracts to obtain consumer consent may find that what suffices for consent in contract law just won't cut it under other law that seeks actual consumer consent. Michaels, the arts and crafts store chain, found that out the hard way. They were recently hit with two class action lawsuits alleging that their hiring process violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Job applications clicked an "I Agree" box which indicated "consent" to the terms and conditions which authorized a background check on the applicant. As this article in the National Law Review explains, the FCRA requires that job applicants receive "clear and conspicuous" standalone notice if they are seeking consent from applicants to obtaining a background report. A click box likely won't (and shouldn't) cut it. Contracts that everybody knows nobody reads shouldn't be considered sufficient notice. It would, of course, be much simpler if contractual consent were more aligned with actual human behavior....