Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Contract-based payment systems have substantially supplanted the check-oriented payments contemplated by the Uniform Commercial Code over a half-century ago. Is there another commercial revolution waiting in the wings with mobile payments? In an insightful industry-focused piece at PYMNTS.com, Karen Webster shares observations on what enabled the mid-1990s success of debit cards and how those ingredients have not fallen into place (yet) today for mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay. Some of the key paragraphs:
Debit ignited by leveraging existing technologies that could be easily enabled at merchants – or that already existed at those merchants – to enable payment via a checking account using a plastic mag stripe card. Mastercard and Visa simply used the technology merchants already had and paid for while the EFTs subsidized the technology that merchants would need to use their cards. No one expected merchants to go sink money in a new technology out of their own pockets.
That has not been the case with NFC and mobile payments.
We’ve unfortunately spent the last 10 years forcing mobile payments into an in-store NFC technology mold that hasn’t knocked the socks off of consumers by simply substituting a tap for a swipe and asked merchants to foot the bill. We’ve let technology drive mobile payment’s ignition strategy, instead of the value created when a consumer with a mini computer in her hand encounters a merchant who’d like to use that computing power to help him sell more stuff to her.
NFC as an ignition strategy has also ignored the many, many dependencies that such a strategy requires to get the critical mass needed to achieve ignition: enough merchants with enough NFC-enabled terminals, enough consumers with enough of the right handsets or cards and enough of a value proposition for both to care. Absent all three, mobile payments ignition is left up to chance: the hope that one day *something* might happen to move things along, and at that point, there’d be infrastructure in place to support it.
This view of the payments market and place of innovation strikes me as largely correct, though I must admit some of my sympathy comes from having recently written here about what payments law can learn from its past.
Despite all the technological innovation sweeping the payments arena, past comparison of the law and the markets suggest that Solomon got it right with the observation that there really is "nothing new under the sun."
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
How often do those of us in the contracts realm get to string together "commercial law," "U.S. Supreme Court," and "original jurisdiction" in the same sentence? If your answer is, "not nearly often enough!" then you may want to keep tabs on a lawsuit filed last month by Arkansas, Texas, and 19 other states against Delaware and MoneyGram. At issue is the appropriate recipient of unclaimed property, the property in this case being the proceeds from unused MoneyGram payment instruments, which, after a time, are ultimately subject to escheat to the state.
The Dallas Morning News described basic facts in covering the rollout of the litigation by the Texas Attorney General:
Attorney General Ken Paxton today accused the state of Delaware of swiping up to $400 million in unclaimed checks that rightfully belong to Texas and the 48 other states.
Texas’ share, he said, would be about $10 million.
For the last four or five years, Paxton said, announcing a lawsuit against Delaware that was filed directly at the U.S. Supreme Court, Delaware has been requiring financial institutions incorporated under its laws — in particular MoneyGram – to turn over unclaimed funds only to Delaware.
But under a 1974 federal law, Paxton asserted, such funds belong to the state in which a transaction originated. MoneyGram lets people pay a fee to purchase a check they can send to someone else.
“The state of Delaware elected to begin playing by a different set of rules,” Paxton said, calling the practice both illegal and unfair. “Delaware has our money.”
He cited an audit released in February 2015 that found that Delaware had claimed more than $150 million in unclaimed checks that originated in 20 other states. Extrapolating to the whole country, he said, the tally could be $400 million.
This group of 21 states is not the first to take issue with Delaware's appropriation of the unclaimed property. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania brought a similar lawsuit in federal district court in which defendant Delaware ultimately invoked the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to resolve disputes between states. SCOTUSblog provides some helpful detail on the legal background and procedural posture of these state-v.-state cases:
The core legal issue in each of the new filings is whether a 1974 law with an assignment of priority of state ownership for unclaimed tangible property applies to the new instrument, which some 1,900 banks or other institutions across the country are using instead of cashier’s or teller’s checks. Delaware says the law does not apply; the other states disagree.
The Supreme Court has issued three rulings on competing state claims to unclaimed intangible property; Congress has overruled one of those, in a 1974 law known as the Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act. That law is at the center of the cases that have reached the Court under its “original” jurisdiction — that is, its authority to decide, in the fashion of a trial court, a legal dispute not decided by a lower court. This jurisdiction is often implicated in resolving disputes between states — as in the new filings over unclaimed property.
The Court has no binding obligation to take on such a case. However, if it does, it customarily names a “special master” to act like a junior judge to gather facts and make a recommendation for a decision. A special master’s report is not final unless it becomes the ruling of the Supreme Court.
The large dollar amount in dispute arises from an aggregation of small transactions that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the "money order" species of negotiable instrument:
While Delaware’s claims are at the center of this new financial fight between the states, the controversy actually turns on the specific financial instrument involved, and the Texas company that has been issuing those items, which it calls “official checks.” That company, MoneyGram Payments Systems, Inc., has its main business office in Texas but it is incorporated in Delaware. It does business in all fifty states.
Its main business is as a kind of financial partner to banks and other institutions that prefer not to issue cashier’s checks or teller’s checks in their own name. MoneyGram does it for them, so it acts as the financial backer of its “official checks.”
That kind of transaction is conducted for some of the same reasons that stores do a business in money orders or traveler’s checks. The idea is that, in the form of a money order or traveler’s check, the piece of paper is a guaranteed form of payment that works like cash; in other words, it won’t “bounce” for lack of sufficient funds behind it. Typically, this kind of instrument is in fairly small amounts.
The Supreme Court does not frequently consider issues intersecting with commercial law in quite the way that this case does, so the outcome will certainly bear watching.
Monday, July 11, 2016
A group of 1L students recently caused a stir-up at an anonymous law school by posting an anonymous complaint after their criminal law professor wore a "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt "on campus" (not "to class," apparently). See the letter and the professor's great response here. (For full disclosure, our colleagues on the TaxProf Blog also wrote about the story here ).
Do students, because they enter into a contract with a private law school (or even a public one), have a legitimate reason to complain that their professors wear t-shirts with a socially and legally provocative or at least thought-provoking message? The students wrote, "We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors."
Is this reasonable, in your opinion? First, this comparison is not apt. In fact, it is an extreme over-exaggeration that barely needs commenting on. The students also comment that the "BLM" movement does not have anything to do with the law, which demonstrates the sad state of ignorance about the law and society in which many of our students - and perhaps especially those in conservative areas such as Orange County, California - find themselves (that's where the anonymous law school is thought to be located). The movement is clearly about very little but the law and policy. Second, students can and should expect to get a quality legal education when attending an ABA-accredited law school, but simply because they pay money for it does not entitle them to only hear about the version of the law that _they_ prefer. In fact, as the professor so correctly notes in his response, the consumer theory should not apply to the content of one's legal education. In other words, students don't pay to only hear part of the message. And as the professor said: students certainly don't pay us _not_ to have an opinion about the classes we teach (note that the Tshirt was worn in connection with a criminal procedure class).
What are your thoughts on this? And why does the law school not publish its name?
The circumstances surrounding this lawsuit, LMNO Cable Group, Inc. v. Discovery Communications LLC, Case No. 2:16-cv-4543 (behind paywall), in the Central District of California, could be a television show in its own right.
LMNO, a producer of a number of reality television shows (most importantly for this case "The Little Couple"), allegedly found itself the victim of embezzlement by its accountant, who then later, according to the complaint, threatened to destroy LMNO's professional relationships unless LMNO kept quiet about the alleged embezzler and gave him $800,000. LMNO apparently refused to comply with this request, instead reporting the alleged embezzler to the authorities.
In the meantime, however, the accountant had evidently been in contact with Discovery Communications, whose station broadcasts "The Little Couple." LMNO alleges in this lawsuit that Discovery used the accountant's help to try to drive LMNO out of business by stealing "The Little Couple" from LMNO.
The alleged stealing of "The Little Couple" involved the alleged breach of a number of contracts between LMNO and Discovery about "The Little Couple." As usual with entertainment contracts, they're complicated, consisting of many amendments, and there's an implied contract angle as well. And, predictably, there are copyright and trademark implications, too.
According to the complaint, Discovery directly employs the actors in "The Little Couple," but the contract has a clause preventing Discovery from using these actors to produce shows without LMNO. Allegedly, that is exactly what Discovery is now attempting to do. Specifically, Discovery and LMNO had discussed making a special episode of "The Little Couple" set in Scotland and England. LMNO alleges that Discovery went ahead and filmed the episode without LMNO's involvement, in violation of an additional implied contract between them with regard to that particular episode. In addition, LMNO is alleging that Discovery's actions have breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and interfered with LMNO's abilities to obtain all of its benefits under the contracts.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Yesterday, I blogged here about ticketscalping “ticketbots” outperforming people trying to buy tickets with the result of vastly increased ticket prices.
Now Ashley Madison – dating website for married people – has announced that some of the “women” featured on its website were actually “fembots;” virtual computer programs. In other words, men who paid to use the website in the hope of talking to real women were actually spending cash to communicate with computers (men have to pay to use the website, women don’t).
Why the announcement? The new leadership apparently wanted to air the company’s dirty laundry, so to speak.
Ashley Madison was hacked last year, revealing who was using the website to cheat on their husband, wife or partner. It was a devastating hack, ruining lives and even leading a pastor to commit suicide.
This seems to be a clear breach of contract: if you pay to communicate with real women, the contract must be considered breached if all or most of the contact attempts went to and/or from computers only. Perhaps even worse for Ashley Madison is the fact that the company is under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC does not comment on ongoing cases, but “it could be investigating whether Ashley Madison properly attempted to protect the identity of its discreet customers -- which it promised to keep secret. Or it could be investigating Ashley Madison for duping customers into paying to talk to fake women. On Monday, the company also acknowledged that it hired a team of independent forensic accounting investigators to review past business practices around bots and the ratio of male and female U.S. members who were active on the site."
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Have you ever tried buying concert tickets right when they were made available for sale on the Internet, only to find out mere minutes later that they were all sold out? Or, for that matter, highly coveted camping reservations in national or some state parks?
Where once, we all competed against the speed of each other’s fingertips and internet connections, nowadays, “ticket bots” quickly snatch up tickets and reservations making it virtually impossible for human beings to compete online. Ticket bots are, you guessed it, automatic computer programs that buy tickets at lighting speed. They can even read “Captcha boxes;” those little squiggly letters that you have to retype to prove that you are not a computer. Yah, that didn’t work too well for very long.
“A single ticket bot scooped up 520 seats to a Beyonce concert in Brooklyn in three minutes. Another snagged up to more than 1,000 U2 tickets to one show in a single minute, soon after the Irish band announced its 2015 world tour.”
Ticket bots scoop up tickets for scalpers who then resell them on other websites, marking the tickets up many times the original price. (I’m actually not saying that state and national parks are cheated that way, maybe camping reservations in those locations are just incredibly popular as hotel prices have increased and incomes are staggering. I personally used to be able to, with t he help of a husband and several computers, make campground reservations for national holidays, but those days are long gone…”we are now full.”).
Ticket bots are already illegal in more than a dozen states. New York is considering cracking down on this system as well. However, the most severe penalty under New York law is currently fines in the order of a few thousand dollars where ticket scalpers make millions of dollars. A new law proposes jail time for offenders. This is thought to better deter this type of white-collar crime in the ticket contract market.
Everyone else is talking about Donald Trump, so I guess why shouldn't we hop in, right?
This recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece introduced me to an ongoing contract dispute involving Trump that I hadn't been paying attention to, even though now I see it's been widely reported by various news outlets, including food blogs, because it involves restaurants. So if you don't normally like to read political stuff but you consider yourself a foodie, this blog entry is also for you!
It turns out that Trump is embroiled in breach of contract lawsuits with a couple of famous chefs who pulled out of commitments to put restaurants into one of Trump's new developments. According to the reports, the impetus for pulling out of the business deal was Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric during his presidential campaign. Jose Andres, himself an immigrant, was not too happy about Trump's statements. As seems to be the case with Trump, his business concerns don't necessarily track his political rhetoric when the bottom line is at issue. Faced with an immigrant refusing him rather than the other way around, Trump sued Andres for breach of contract. Andres counter-sued, alleging that Trump's many derogatory remarks about Hispanics rendered Andres's proposed Spanish restaurant "extraordinarily risky."
The chefs sought partial summary judgment, which a court recently denied, finding that material facts were still in dispute.
The crux of this lawsuit revolves around the covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Did Trump breach that covenant when he made his remarks, which would make him the one in breach of contract? Or were Trump's remarks not a breach of the covenant, either because they're not relevant to the contract or because they did not harm the prospects for success of Andres's restaurant? I don't know if the parties will continue to litigate this question but I'm curious what the result would be. In the current climate where rhetoric is frequently extremely inflammatory, could there be contract implications to such statements? How far, policy-wise, do we want the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to extend?
The case is Trump Old Post Office LLC v. Topo Atrio LLC, 2015 CA 006624 B (behind paywall), in District of Columbia Superior Court.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
In Strumlauf et al. v. Starbucks Corp., No. 16-01306, a federal district court judge based in San Francisco just ruled that a class action lawsuit against Starbucks.The complaint alleges breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and violations of California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act, the California Unfair Competition Law, and the California False Advertising Law.
The company allegedly overcharged its customers by “systematically serving lattes that are 25% too small” in order to save milk. Baristas were allegedly required to use pitchers for heating milk with etched “fill to” lines that are too low. Further, they were told to leave ¼ inch of free space in drink cups. Said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson: "This is not a case where the alleged deception is simply implausible as a matter of law. The court finds it probable that a significant portion of the latte-consuming public could believe that a 'Grande' contains 16 ounces of fluid." Starbucks’ cups for “tall,” “grande,” and “venti” lattes are designed to hold exactly 12, 16 and 20 ounces.
Starbucks so far counters that “if a customer is not satisfied with how a beverage is prepared, we will gladly remake it.” Right, but how many customers would really complain that their drink is .25 inch (6 mm) too small?... And does it really matter? Much of what one pays for with a Starbucks drinks is, arguably, the knowledge of what the retail outlets offer, the ambience, convenience, “free” wifi, etc. Having said that, I am certainly not one to promote consumer fraud and recognize that little by little, the alleged milk-saving scheme could, of course, bring even more money into the coffers of already highly profitable Starbucks.
Monday, June 20, 2016
It isn't something we typically think about but as our world shifts to digital and as more and more of us leave behind large social media footprints, what happens to those accounts when we die? I have thought about it briefly, mostly in thinking that I should give my passwords to someone, so that, if something happens to me unexpectedly, someone will be able to get onto my social media to let my followers know. I have had social media friends vanish with no explanation, and it's always haunted me that maybe something happened to them and I had no way of knowing.
Also of concern to me is that, even if someone is designated as a legacy contact, it still might not allow the kind of access that Rosemary was looking for, or that you might want to grant to someone. Facebook limits what a legacy contact can do, meaning that your power over what happens to your Facebook account really ultimately lies with Facebook, not you or your wishes. Which is a reminder, of course, that our control over our Facebook accounts is limited to begin with and pretty much at the whim of Facebook.
Monday, June 13, 2016
Stories such as this [https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/i-flew-to-abu-dhabi-for-265-round-trip-heres-how-you-can-do-the-same/2016/06/07/fc33cbea-29a3-11e6-b989-4e5479715b54_story.html] about finding incredibly cheap airlines to both national and international destinations because of airline computer pricing mistakes (real or otherwise…) have become commonplace. In 2012, the Department of Transportation established clear rules against changing the price of a ticket after purchase. But in a new decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation, that rule will no longer be enforced:
“As a matter of prosecutorial discretion, the Enforcement Office will not enforce the requirement of section 399.88 with regard to mistaken fares occurring on or after the date of this notice so long as the airline or seller of air transportation: (1) demonstrates that the fare was a mistaken fare; and (2) reimburses all consumers who purchased a mistaken fare ticket for any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase, in addition to refunding the purchase price of the ticket.
Travelers’ websites thus now recommend that people hold off making further travel plans until a ticket and confirmation number have actually been issued. Some have further said about the glitch fares that “[t]ravel is not something that is only for the elite or [people] from certain economic brackets.” Of course, it shouldn’t be, but with the deregulation of the airline industry and steadily increasing prices and fees, history seems to be repeating itself: air travel is, for many, becoming unaffordable. This in spite of record-breaking profits for the airline industry benefiting from low oil prices and, I want to say of course, fares increasing, holding steady or certainly not decreasing very much. Airline executives say they are sharing the wealth with passengers by investing some of their windfalls into new planes, better amenities and remodeled terminals. They're also giving raises to employees and dividends to investors. Right… And whereas some years have been marked by bust, many more have been booming for the airlines.
Given that, why would the DOT be amenable to help out the airlines, and not passengers? Under contract law, mistakes that are not easily “spottable” have, traditionally, not been grounds for contract revocation. If one considers the contract to have been executed when the airline accepts one’s online offer, why should the airline, absent a clear error or other mitigating factors, not be expected to follow the common law of contracts as other parties will, depending on the circumstances, of course, likely have to? That beats me.
Some airlines are, however, choosing the honoring the mistake fares. Others don’t. Bad PR, you say? That also does not seem to matter. The most hated airline in the U.S. a few years back – Spirit Airlines – was also (at least then) the most profitable.
Hat tip to Matt Bruckner of Howard University School of Law for bringing this story to my attention.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
Relying on the win-a-car-for-a-hole-in-one case where a Pennsylvania court found that a car dealership was obligated to honor its offer for a unilateral contract posted at the ninth tee when a golfer finally aced a hole-in-one despite the dealership’s subjective intent to end the promotional offer two days earlier, a Third Circuit Court of Appeals court found a unilateral contract to exist under the following circumstances.
A brochure distributed to the customers of Giant Eagle – a chain of retail supermarkets, gas stations, etc. – promised its customers that they could “Earn free gas – it’s easy!” and “You may never pay for gas again!” as long as they spent $50 on supermarket purchases. (See the true images posted here in this blog). The brochure, however, also included fine print provided, among other things, that “discounted fuel cannot exceed 30 gallons and discounts must be used in full on one vehicle in one transaction,” “the promotion is valid for a limited time and may end at any time without prior notice,” and “fuelperks! discounts expire 3 months after the last day of the month in which they’re earned.” However, the court found that none of the published program parameters suggested that Giant Eagle reserved the right to retract rewards that customers had already accrued. In fact, in the entire history of the Giant Eagle fuel program, no such retroactive termination ever occurred.
Said the court, “[l]ike the golfer who teed off with a promise of reward in mind, a customer anticipated the promised fuel discounts when deciding to shop at Giant Eagle in the first place—and thus deciding not to shop at a different store. Because she was then aware that she could apply the discounts as advertised if she spent fifty dollars on supermarket purchases using her Advantage Card, she was indeed a party to a unilateral contract with Giant Eagle. Liability therefore attached upon her performance, i.e., at checkout.”
A fair win for consumers, it seems.
Monday, June 6, 2016
I'm one of those apparently rare people who doesn't really use Facebook. But Facebook was evidently very important to City Park Apartments in Salt Lake City, whose management company presented all of the tenants with a "Facebook addendum" to their lease. The addendum allegedly stated that all residents had to befriend the complex on Facebook or be found in breach of their lease agreement.
This seems like an alarming development that I hope is going to be very limited. Is a Facebook account going to start being like a telephone number or an e-mail address, something it's assumed by everyone that you have and should hand over access to in exchange for goods or services? The reason I stopped using Facebook was because of privacy concerns. I wouldn't be thrilled about being told that I'm required by my lease to make sure my landlord can watch my Facebook activities (which often correspond, as we all know, to our real-life activities; if your landlord asked to follow you around through your daily life, or to get e-mailed your vacation photos, I would think many people would consider that a weird request).
And, since I don't do anything on Facebook, does that mean that I wouldn't be allowed to rent an apartment there unless I opened an account? Many people have legitimate, important, in some cases necessary reasons to limit their online presence. Let's hope "Facebook addendums" don't start sweeping the nation.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
Donald Trump is currently attacked on many fronts, one of which for the potential re-launch as President of his now-defunct for-profit real estate training classes. The “playbook” used by the corporate recruiters for the business unit required them, among other things, to use such arguably despicable and potentially fraudulent recruiting language as the following:
“As one of your mentors for the last three days, it’s time for me to push you out of your comfort zone. It’s time for you to be 100% honest with yourself. You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals. I’m looking at your profile and you’re not even close to where you need to be, much less where you want to be. It’s time you fix your broken plan, bring in Mr. Trump’s top instructors and certified millionaire mentors and allow us to put you and keep you on the right track. Your plan is BROKEN and WE WILL help you fix it. Remember you have to be 100% honest with yourself!”
“Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”
(Can you imagine reading those statements allowed for a living?)
Does promising potential students too much constitute fraud in the inducement? In a not entirely dissimilar case in our own field, law student Anna Alaburda recently lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Ms. Alaburda had argued that the law school had committed fraud by publishing deceptive post-graduation employment statistics and salary data in order to bait new students into enrolling. Alaburda claimed that despite graduating at the top of her class and passing the California bar exam, she was unable to find suitable legal employment, and had racked up more than $150,000 in student loan debt. An attorney for the school rejected the claims and said Alaburda never proved them. The attorney also reminded jurors that she had turned down a job offer, and that many Thomas Jefferson alumni have had successful careers. The verdict in that case was 9-3 in favor of Thomas Jefferson.
The cases are of course not similar, yet similar enough to remind us of the importance of not promising too much in the for-profit educational field (in Thomas Jefferson’s case, the school won, but a dozen other lawsuits have allegedly been filed against other schools). This makes sense from both an ethical and business risk-avoidance angle.
What about the use of the very word “University”? The media seems to stubbornly – probably for “sound bite” reasons – continue using the phrase even though the business was, in effect, forced to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after government pressure around 2010. The business was just that, and not a certified university.
If Trump decides to start up the business again, does the media not help him do so again by using a much too favorable term? It seems like it. Linguistics matter in the law and beyond. May media PR inadvertently (or not) contribute to a potential fraud? Comment below!
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
No Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose With Regard to Architectural and Design Services in Michigan...for Now
A recent case out of the Court of Appeals of Michigan, Albion College v. Stockade Buildings Inc., No. 322917 (behind paywall), gives us an example of a case where precedent was obeyed but one of the judges worried the precedent might provide the wrong result, setting up the potential for further examination by Michigan's Supreme Court.
Plaintiff hired Defendant to build an equestrian facility. Defendant allegedly informed Plaintiff that it had "the necessary experience and expertise" to build the facility that Plaintiff required and promised it would be backed by a warranty.
Because this is a case I'm writing up here, we all know that the story of this equestrian center does not go smoothly. The roof leaked badly. The problem was evident during construction and theoretically repaired but the roof continued to leak badly even after construction was completed. Reviews of the structure blamed the persistent problem on poor design of the facility by Defendant.
The crux of the case was whether the agreement between Plaintiff and Defendant contained an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. In Michigan, such an implied warranty is found in sales of goods governed by the UCC and sales of electricity. The court was reluctant to extend such a warranty to the architectural and design services at issue here.
A concurrence, however, expressed hesitation with the conclusion. While reasonably correct as a matter of simple legal precedent, the concurrence had policy concerns and thought that Michigan's supreme court should review the case and extend the warranty to this situation because of the "egregious facts" of this case. Stay tuned for what happens next!
Monday, May 23, 2016
From a Colonial Cemetery to a World War II Factory to Condos and a Spa: Environmental Concerns, Contract Releases, and Secret Underground Containers Are Just the Latest Chapter
(Photo from northjersey.com)
I use a lot of hypos in my class based on undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards, and I feel like sometimes my students wonder if this is a thing that actually happens. Unfortunately, yes, as a recent case out of New Jersey, North River Mews Associates v. Alcoa Corp., Civil Action No. 14-8129, proves.
The case centers around a piece of land on which Alcoa had operated a manufacturing facility from 1917 to 1968, a facility once so central to East Coast industry that it had actually been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The piece of land had been vacant since 1978 and became a popular site for people looking to photograph "modern ruins." It was eventually sold to North River Mews Associates and 38 COAH Associates (the Plaintiffs). Twenty years ago, the New York Times reported optimistically that the development deal would be a "win-win" the would help clean up the Hudson River shoreline. The site, however, has been plagued by a number of challenges and tragedies (several fires, workman injuries from freak accidents, etc.) that have led some people to talk about curses. (Well, it apparently had been built on an old graveyard dating back to colonial times.) The latest obstacle has now emerged in the form of, yes, previously undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards.
The parties were well aware that the land would have environmental contamination, as the Times article makes clear. But the Plaintiffs had worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and believed that the property had been remediated. In 2013, however, the Plaintiffs discovered two previously unknown underground storage tanks filled with hazardous materials. The property around the tanks seemed to indicate that at one point the tanks had attempted to be burned instead of properly disposed of. The presence of these tanks, needless to say, was never disclosed by Alcoa to the Plaintiffs.
Alcoa's stance, however, is that the purchase contracts for the land released them from liability for various claims brought against them. The court disagreed at this motion to dismiss stage, finding that the language was ambiguous. The release in the contract stated that the Plaintiffs waived the rights "to seek contribution from [Alcoa] for any response costs or claims." The court said that it was unclear whether the contribution language modified only response costs or whether it modified both response costs and claims. Was this a blanket release of all claims, or only a release of the right to seek contribution? This question, the court concluded, could not be determined on a motion to dismiss.
At any rate, the Plaintiffs also alleged that Alcoa concealed the presence of the underground tanks, fraudulently inducing them to enter into the contracts, and the court concluded that, if true, that would be grounds for the release to be vitiated.
This case is a great example of how long environmental issues, development deals, and contractual disputes can drag on. In 1997, the parties signed the purchase contract. Today, the parties are still trying to clean up the site and fighting over which of them ought to pay for it, with language drafted twenty years ago taking center stage. As the case continues, it will of course likely become relevant who knew about the storage tanks and when, and I am curious to see if the tanks can be dated. Since Alcoa apparently ceased using the site for manufacture in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how much knowledge from that time period still exists. It's the latest chapter in the history of a plot of land that seems to have been a busy place for centuries.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Another one bites the dust. GM is the most recent car company having to admit that it has reported overly optimistic figures about the gas mileage of, in this case, some of its 2016 SUVs sold in retail trade. Before GM, there was obviously VW, but also Mitsubishi, Hyundai, and Ford, all in the span of the past two years.
GM is temporarily halting sales of about 60,000 new 2016 SUVs because the vehicles' labels overstated their fuel efficiency. The 1-2 miles per gallon mileage overstatement was the result of improper calculations, according to GM. The company plans to compensate owners for the difference in miles per gallon and announce the program in the coming week.
Does this suffice as a remedy? Arguably, no one buys an SUV because of its low gas mileage, so in this case in contrast to the VW “dieselgate,” an argument that a customer bought a car because of its fuel efficiency is less plausible. But should that let GM off the hook in this case simply by saying that it will compensate for the fuel difference? How can an accurate prediction of what that will be over the time the SUV owners keep the car even be made? - For presumably, GM is not only planning to compensate the owners for the past difference, thinking that owners can now simply sell the cars if they are no longer satisfied with them? That seems unfair to the buyers as it is common knowledge that one cannot recover the value paid for a brand new case as with these 2016 models. Should criminal liability lie? OK, perhaps not for the 1-2 mile difference, but what about the systematic fraud committed by VW? Shouldn’t someone be held criminally liable for that?
Of course, a class-action lawsuit has been brought by some buyers. Has time come for everyone – the EPA, car makers, and car buyers – to realize that there is really only so much that can be done with the fuel efficiency of regular-engine cars? After all, hybrids and now electric cars are widely available and will probably cover the needs of the vast majority of car buyers, few of whom really need an SUV. They get much better “fuel” mileage than cars with traditional engines. Still, extreme consumer fraud is committed by at least some (or one…) of these car makers. Reckoning time seems to have come.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Contracts preventing consumers from filing class-action lawsuits against banks may soon be illegal if a proposed ruling by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau takes effect. A hearing on the ruling will be held on Thursday, May 12, 2016.
For quite some time, clauses requiring consumers to arbitrate disputes with banks and banning class action lawsuits against banks in cases of disputes have been common. According to a prominent attorney to testify at Thursday’s hearing, one of the effects of required arbitration has been to make class action lawsuit highly unlikely. Of course, a contractual clause outright prohibiting class action suits means that if a consumer wants to litigate the dispute and arbitration, he or she would have to do so in an individualized suit. Because of the low amounts typical at issue in bank-v-consumer disputes, such clauses have had the effect of preventing litigation. Even if it comes to litigation between banks and consumers, “consumers can easily be outgunned” by savvy banks who additionally are said to “like to drag things out,” a problem when consumers at the same time have to take time off from work to litigate.
The proposed rule would not ban arbitration clauses. Rather, it would prevent contract clauses from including language that bans consumers from joining class-action cases. Such bans are common, and they have become more widely enforced since the United States Supreme Court in 2011 held that the FAA requires state courts to honor bans even if state law prohibits them.
According to Consumer Bureau Director Richard Cordray, "signing up for a credit card or opening a bank account can often mean signing away your right to take the company to court if things go wrong." Cordray also calls the current practice a "contract gotcha that effectively denies groups of consumers the right to seek justice and relief for wrongdoing." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness calls the proposed rules a “backdoor ban” on arbitration clauses, said to provide individual consumers the chance for “more financial relief than a class-action suit.” The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Consumer Banking Project states that it is probably true that banks will ditch arbitration clauses if the CFPB’s rules take effect, but “consumers will probably be just fine.”
Friday, May 6, 2016
Nevertheless, the court refused to enforce the provision. The court noted that part of the test in evaluating whether to enforce a choice-of-law provision is to consider whether California's law would be contrary to the "fundamental policy" of Illinois's law and, if so, whether Illinois would therefore have a "materially greater interest" than California in the case at issue. Here, Illinois is one of only a few states with a statute concerning biometrics; California has no such statute. The court found that Illinois's BIPA represented a fundamental policy of Illinois to protect its residents from unauthorized use of their biometrics, and that applying California law here instead of Illinois law would interfere with Illinois's policy. In fact, the court noted, enforcing the choice-of-law provision would effectively eliminate any effectiveness of BIPA whatsoever, because there would be no ability for Illinois residents to protect themselves against national corporations like Facebook. Therefore, the court found, Facebook has to deal with Illinois's BIPA, regardless of Facebook's attempts to limit the relevant laws of its service to only California's laws.
This all leaves for another day whether the Tag Suggestions program actually does violate BIPA.
Monday, May 2, 2016
The answer is a definite... maybe.
Bitcoin, of course, is the original--and many would say at this point, most successful--effort to create a "cryptocurrency," a digital store of value that can be traded electronically without the necessity of a bank intermediary yet can also avoid the problem of double-spending (i.e., digital counterfeiting) that would destroy an electronic currency's value. For purposes of contract law, Bitcoin is most notable because the aforementioned double-spending problem was solved by the creation and implementation of blockchain technology. Blockchain programming allows, among other things, for the maintenance of transactional records in a ledger distributed among numerous and otherwise unrelated computers across the internet rather than in a central location. Contract lawyers have particular reason to care about the blockchain because it raises the looming possibility of "smart contracts," contracts with the technical capability of enforcing themselves.
An enduring mystery of Bitcoin has been the identity of its 2008 creator, who to date has been identified only by the pseudonym "Satoshi Nakamoto." Efforts to identify Nakamoto have been largely unsuccessful, with the most notable misstep being Newsweek's debunked 2014 claim that Satoshi was Japanese-American physicist Dorian Nakamoto.
This rather enduring tech mystery may have been solved, though skeptics remain unconvinced. In an interview with the BBC and other media organizations, Australian tech entrepreneur Craig Wright claims to be the real Satoshi Nakamoto, and other prominent members of the Bitcoin community are backing his claim. The fact that Wright's claim arose on the eve of the digital currency and technology conference Consensus 2016 has allowed for the intriguing circumstance of people in the know reacting and the entire story being live blogged.
So is Craig Wright actually Satoshi Nakamoto? Opinion certainly may shift over the next several days and weeks, but at this point a majority seem to be accepting his claim or profess to be open to accepting it. All in all, an intriguing turn of events out on the periphery of contracts and commercial law.
A class action lawsuit has been filed against Starbucks for negligent misrepresentation, fraud and unjust enrichment in the company’s sale of cold drinks.
The company offers three sizes of drinks — Tall, Grande, Venti and Trenta — which correspond to 12, 16, 24 and 30 fluid ounces, respectively. These fluid ounce measurements are advertised in the store. However, because of the large amounts of ice added to the drinks, customers actually receive much less (at a high price, as is well known).
The complaint claims that "[a] Starbucks customer who orders a Venti cold drink receives only 14 fluid ounces of that drink — just over half the advertised amount, and just over half the amount for which they are paying … In the iced coffee example, a Starbucks customer who orders and pays for a Venti iced coffee, expecting to receive 24 fluid ounces of iced coffee based on Starbucks' advertisement and marketing, will instead receive only about 14 fluid ounces of iced coffee."
A Starbucks spokesperson states that “[o]ur customers understand and expect that ice is an essential component of any ‘iced’ beverage,” adding that the company would remake any beverage if a customer is unsatisfied.
Maybe it would be a better idea to get a beer or a wine. They can’t water those down (I think...). Five Starbucks locations in the D.C. area have started serving booze and tapas as part of a nationwide effort to keep some of its stores open after typical coffee shop hours.
Going to a coffee shop for… tapas and alcohol in order to … what, stay loyal to an already huge brand? Avoid trying a local bar? If you think “only in America,” think again: Starbucks is also enjoying huge success in Europe, home of exquisite coffee shops with excellent pastries and snack. Talk about selling sand to Sahara…