ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Emperor’s New (Warm Weather) Clothes?

On Saturday, a new international treaty surplanting the expired Kyoto Protocol was finally reached by 195 nations. For business contracting and numerous, if not all, aspects of life now and in the future, the global climate will be key. 

The main aim of the agreement is to keep temperature rise “well below” 2° C.  The nations will additionally “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C. Thousands of scientists have for a long time reiterated the belief that temperatures rising above 2° Celsius could be devastating, so the aspirational goal of 1.5° C is, of course, a positive sign that national leaders may finally be realizing the dire straits of the planet’s climate situation.

So, this is good news, right? To some extent, yes. “The Paris Agreement for the first time brings all nations into a common ClimateChangecause based on their historic, current and future responsibilities.” However, current national commitments still do not go far enough. As they currently stand, we are headed towards a warming of more than 3° C; much higher than the scientifically advisable goal. The national pledges must be increased over time.  Starting in 2018, each country will have to submit new plans every five years to reach the 1.5/2° goal by 2100. The thought is that even though current coals do not suffice to keep climate warming to the agreed-upon limits, they will over time, starting soon.

History shows, though, that many nations have so far neither been ready nor politically able to make effective greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Previous aspirational goals have not been realized by the great majority of nations, although some not only met, but exceeded their commitments. It’s tempting to note that “time will tell if the situation changes this time,” but we simply don’t have much time to turn around the problem before it is too late for many regions, species and peoples around the world. For example, a temperature increase of 2° C will still be very problematic for low-lying nations such as many small island states, who seem to have been almost entirely forgotten about by many in this context. That, however, was considered one of the “prices” to be paid for reaching the deal. (A true contractual-like bargaining strategy.) Human rights are only mentioned in the preamble to the Agreement and not in the Agreement itself.

Nation themselves will determine their “intended nationally determined contributions,” which are not directly legally binding under notions of hard law as they are not mandatory with top-down enforcement if the nations fail to do so.  Among other factors, the word "contribution" and not, for example, "commitments" demonstrate the legal cautiousness of the agreement.  Nations must, of course, still strive to reach their goals under the UNFCCC and the notion of pacta sunt servanda, but these are not worded in a manner that gives them a firm, legally binding effect. The only directly legally binding parts of the Agreement are some procedural aspects such as the review procedures.

Of course, the reason why the Agreement was adopted by so many parties was precisely that no legal requirements were imposed on nations. Some, such as the United States, would not have accepted this. A senior Obama administration official notes that the Agreement "does not require submission to the Senate because of the way it is structured and because the pieces that are binding are already part of existing agreements.” A legally smart and pragmatic maneuver. But it still remains to be seen whether the United States and other nations act – and act quickly enough - to prevent the problem escalating in spite of good intentions.  I may be one of the few in this context, but I’m still skeptical. The intended time frames still seem too long to me and the actual promised action too meager. I fear that these are simply the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” celebrated so much, perhaps, because of so many years of no action.

Nonetheless, it is certainly remarkable and a very good sign that the world community finally agreed on the dangers posed by climate change and thus a 2° C limit.  That's a good start.  In the words of Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s commissioner for energy and climate action, “[t]oday, we celebrate, [t]omorrow, we have to act. This is what the world expects of us.” But if we have simply turned a corner back to where we came from, namely hoping that sufficient action will be taken soon and pointing out that the world expects that, we might have celebrated a bit too early. I hope I am wrong. Climate change is like a cancer: horrible, always inconvenient, and tough to deal with at many levels. But the longer one waits in tackling it, the worse it will get.

December 14, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Five Flavors of Legal Services

Will the legal hiring and general business situation never change for the better? Maybe, but commentators still think that future change on the legal market will come from structural and innovative, rather than cyclical, change. For example, in addition to relatively simple steps such as hiring outside staffing agencies and sharing office centers, some firms are launching their own subsidiaries providing legally related services such as contract, data and cyber security management along with ediscovery.

Until recently, law firms offered these and other services. As outside service providers have proved to be able to provide certain key services more efficiently and cost effectively than traditional law firms, the latter have lost business that they are now desperately trying to recoup.

Imitation is still the most sincere form of flattery. It is not only on the market for legal services that copycats abound; this has also proved to be the case with, for example, many shared economy service websites such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, VRBO and others. As soon as one company idea and website turns out to be successful, others just like it seem to shoot up within weeks or months.  However, instead of simply trying to do what others are already doing and doing well, it would be nice if companies – law firms among them – would try to think about how they could do things better instead of just trying to, as often seems the case, (re)gain business by taking market shares from others. Exactly how law firms should do so is, of course, the million-dollar question, but it seems clear that innovation is prized both within and beyond the legal field. That will benefit our students if jobs are created by actual law firms rather than by service providers not hiring people with JDs.

December 10, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Labor Contracts, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Out with the Smart Aleck Professors, In with the Party Loyalists

A few days ago, I blogged here on an attempt by some university professors in California to unionize and to obtain better pay and working conditions in general.

In China, university reform is also underway, but, at least in part, with a much more troublesome intent and potentially dire effects for the nation and the world.

The Guardian reports that China’s education minister has vowed to “drive smart alecks, dissenters and thieves” from the country’s university classrooms. This is part of a wider anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi three years ago.

The alleged misconduct ranges from action that seems reasonable (firing university leaders for filing fake expense reports and taking bribes from students) across the pitiful and almost laughable (punishing senior university officials for engaging in illicit acts of “hedonism” by, for example, driving luxury cars) to the outright shocking and extremely troublesome, seen with Western eyes. For example, several university chiefs have been toppled for “flouting Communist party rules.” Attempts are made to ban books that attempt to spread “Western values.” The education minister has also called for “greater political screening of academics before they are hired” and is worried that “enemy forces” are attempting to “infiltrate university campuses” in order to “turn young minds against the party.”

Liberal academics claim that the discussion and study of sensitive topics has generally become increasingly difficult under the leadership of President Xi.

All this is indeed very troublesome indeed. However, before we roll our eyes too much at these serious Chinese events, let us just remember that the United States academic world is far from perfect either. Recall, for example, the recent defunding of various law school and other university clinics on East Coast campuses for, at bottom, being too liberal and assisting the lower class in obtaining better pay and working conditions. A former senior faculty colleague personally told me once that one of my papers on (are you ready?) climate change was almost “too political” in Orange County, California. The article discussed mainstream factual aspects, including business and investment issues, of climate change that are now, just a few years later, being discussed in Paris by all media, including conservative outlets. Recently, numerous attempts at diversifying college campuses across the nation have shed light on potential elitism and racism in American universities. Nope, we are far from perfect ourselves. But when an entire nation deliberately and officially seeks to censor learning processes, there is indeed cause for alarm.

Last year, I had the great honor, joy and privilege of teaching international environmental law at a prime Chinese university. I brought up such “sensitive” topics as public participation in government law- and decision-making, climate change, and trade in endangered species. I was videotaped doing so (this is normal practice in China). I was also not invited back this past summer. Maybe my teaching is simply no good. Maybe more senior and “famous” lecturers were chosen.   I cannot blame the university for doing so at all. I know that I have a lot with which I can contribute to any educational institution, but I also bow to and honor the many experienced, learned and very well published colleagues on the “market” these days. However, hate to think that I was, perhaps, censored away. I don’t think that is the case. If it was, then I am nonetheless happy to have at least contributed with a few provocative, Western thoughts. Perhaps I was just too much of a smart aleck...

 

December 8, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Law Schools, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Settlement Targeted Toward Banks?

 

Target_Data_Breach_GraphicCommercial class-action practitioner Kevin M. McGinty here describes the final settlement of the infamous 2013 theft of credit and debit card data from retail giant Target's point-of sale terminals:

On Tuesday, December 1, Target entered into a settlement agreement with a class of banks and financial institutions that issued the credit and debit cards that were compromised in the 2013 event.  The settlement was the result of negotiations following closely on the heels of an order by the court certifying a card issuer class.  This last settlement resolves card issuers’ claims that were not previously resolved in Target's August 2015 settlement with Visa, which provided $67 million to resolve claims made by Visa card issuing banks under Visa’s fraud resolution process.  Also separate from this settlement is the $10 million settlement of the claims of consumers whose cards were compromised by the data theft, which Target concluded with the consumer class in March 2015.

The current settlement provides for payment of an additional $39,357,939.38 for the benefit of class member banks.  Of that amount, $19,107,939.38 will be used to fund settlements under MasterCard’s fraud resolution process....

Target-data-breach-sadThe $10 million paid in the consumer settlement may seem at first blush to be grossly disproportionate to the roughly $107 million allocated to the card networks and their issuing banks. It actually isn't. The card payment system is built on private contracts that are themselves heavily impacted by federal consumer protection laws like the Truth-in-Lending Act and the Electronic-Funds-Transfer Act. Together, the contracts and federal law place liability for unauthorized purchases squarely on the issuer banks acting through the card networks.  Thus, we should expect the consumer losses from Target's data breach to be minimal compared to those borne by the banks, who were obligated to fund the consumer losses pending recovery from Target as the ultimately responsible party for this particular data breach.

Sometimes the legal system works more-or-less how it is intended. The consumers actually were protected in this instance.

December 7, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Unionizing University Faculty

Five thousand part-time and non-tenure track professors working for the University of Southern California, a private university employing a total of 6,600 faculty, are petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to become unionized. If the petition is granted, the faculty will get a chance to vote on the issue with contract negotiations to follow soon thereafter.

Those of the faculty who support the move say that it could lead to better working conditions, more job stability and higher pay. Currently, part-time faculty teaching courses for USC earn an average of about $5,000 per course. Such faculty often have to piece together jobs teaching classes for several universities earning them the name “freeway flyers.” Parents are often getting upset that students are being taught by part-time adjuncts. Of course, the stress and uncertainty of not having a stable teaching job in one location may indeed affect the quality of the instruction provided by adjuncts and other non-tenured professors.

Nonetheless, USC Provost Michael Quick and other university representatives have warned the potentially unionizing faculty that their move may lead to “less collegiality on campus” because unions, in their opinion, rest on “an adversarial model.” 

Come again? So, some university folks may resent the fact that their low-paid, low-security, but hardworking colleagues for seeking out better working conditions for themselves and thus eventually the university students? That in itself sounds highly uncollegial and should be rethought. Perhaps some university faculty and leaders ought to consider assisting their colleagues in moving towards better working conditions and pay, as the trend is around the nation in both academia and beyond, not trying to retaining status quo. Unions have a sound role to play in this respect. Even without unions, many of us enjoy good working conditions and pay. However, many faculty may not individually be able to obtain such conditions. Unions have demonstrated their ability to assist workers in this respect. “Adversarial” is not the right word for that. It’s called bargaining power and leverage. It is what you make it.

As if this wasn’t insulting enough to the faculty, the university provost also encouraged the faculty to “read anything an organizer asks to you sign as you would read a legal document.” Duh! As one faculty said: “I almost feel like they’re insulting my intelligence.” Apparently, the intelligence of the faculty is recognized in some contexts (teaching), but not in others (reaching out for help to improve one’s working conditions).

By way of comparison: part-time and untenured faculty at both the University of California and California State University have long been represented by unions. That has not led to any reports of “less collegiality” or any other of the parade of horribles-scenarios so often invoked when it comes to employee versus employer bargains assisted by unions.

December 5, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

What's in YOUR Wallet? (Maybe not an EMV-chip card...)

CapOne Viking TV

While checks have long been governed by the Uniform Commercial Code, credit and debit cards are primarily creatures of private contract. Some of the most important contracts controlling card-based payment systems are ones to which you, as a mere end user, are not a party. Both consumers who use cards and merchants who accept them generally do so through their banks. These banks, in turn, are contracting members of credit card networks, like MasterCard and Visa. Most of us will never actually see these bank-to-network contracts, but they are hugely important for allocating liability among the parties handing a payment card transaction.

On October 1, 2015, these network agreements underwent a major change known as the "EMV Liability Shift." In general terms, this meant the liability for unauthorized was allocated to incentivize the adoption of EMV-chip cards that would ultimately replace the outdated magnetic-stripe cards long popular in the United States.  "EMV," if you are wondering, stands for "EuroPay, MasterCard, Visa," who were the three original adopters of the standard, but all major cards are onboard with EMV today.

I knew that the October 1 shift was coming and that it was a big deal to players in the payment-card industry. This is why I was greatly surprised that, as of October 1, I had received precisely ONE card containing an EMV chip, and that was for the travel credit-card issued to me by my university employer. I to this day have heard nary a peep from my personal card-issuer banks, when I thought they would be tripping over themselves to give me a chip-enabled replacement card. Many point-of-sale card terminals now have a slot in which to insert an EMV card, albeit still retaining the traditional mag-stripe swipe capability. But my cards are still chipless.  How can this be, when the EMV Liability Shift was clearly going to be a big deal?

I may have found the answer to this mystery in this short piece by practicing attorney Christopher H. Roede, who described the liability shift with an important detail (underlined) that I had somehow missed until now:

Under these new credit card network rules, the liability for certain types of unauthorized or fraudulent credit card transactions shifted from the issuing bank and the credit card networks to the party that adopted the lowest level of EMV compliant technology. If, for example, a bank issued a cardholder an EMV compliant card, the merchant had not installed EMV compliant card readers, and an unauthorized transaction occurred at the merchant's location by use of a counterfeit card, the merchant (and not the issuing bank) is liable for the fraud.

To me, that explains a great deal about the card-issuing banks' non-urgency to move customers over to EMV-chip cards. They just aren't worried enough about the cost of having non-compliant technology to issue new cards in an expedited manner.  While EMV will improve the card-issuer's position as against non-adopting merchants, failure to adopt is not putting them in any worse position than they were in before October 1.  Under the Truth-in-Lending Act and Regulation Z [12 C.F.R. §1026(b)(1)], the issuer banks were already liable for most unauthorized use of consumer credit cards. My employer-issued card is not subject to TILA as it isn't a consumer credit card, so my university had significant incentive to make sure that its bank upgraded all employee credit cards were replaced before October 1.  And that is exactly what happened.

Consumers, I suppose, will get chip-based credit cards when the issuer banks feel like getting around to it. It's apparently not THAT urgent for them.

December 5, 2015 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The (Il-)Legality of Workplace Bullying and Discrimination

In cases where workers have quit their jobs because of intolerable workplace bullying and thus wish to assert illegal discrimination, the United States Supreme Court seems inclined to start the statute of limitations “clock” when the employee resigns rather than when the last discriminatory action takes place. Private sector workers typically have 180 days to report job discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) whereas public sector employees must do so within 45 days.

The case is Green v. Brennan, No. 14-613.  In it, a postal worker claims that he was passed over for a promotion because he is black. When he complained to his employer, the United States Postal Service, he was allegedly forced to choose between retirement or a lower-paying job 300 miles away. He resigned and filed suit for constructive discharge, but missed the EEOC deadline. The trial and appellate courts disagreed as to when the statute of limitations should start to run, which would have made a difference in the case.

As the law currently stands, employees only enjoy legal protection against discrimination based on a relatively narrow range of underlying issues such as age, gender, national origin, race, religion or disability under, most relevantly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But luckily, times are changing. Although employees in this country enjoy notoriously few of the rights and work norms that are taken for granted in so many other parts of the industrialized world, some states are doing something to change this situation, at long last. In California, for example, AB 2053 now requires California employers with 50 or more employees to include training in the prevention of “abusive conduct” to already existing requirements regarding sexual harassment. 

“Abusive conduct” is that which a “reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.” “It may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse … that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.” The conduct must be undertaken with malice. In other words, AB 2053 targets a wide range of workplace bullying that is not linked to “traditional” discrimination. Such conduct is surprisingly common and accepted by management to a surprisingly great extent in more places than you might think and in places that may or may not surprise you, including our very own field, legal academia.

Unfortunately, AB 2053 does not yet have sufficient legal “teeth” as defining “malice” and the bullying targeted by the law is difficult. Thus, in spite of the extent of the problem and its many recognized and severe consequences on both employers’ productivity and success levels as well as, of course, the employees’ varied interests, if an employee thinks she or he has an issue with his or her employer, the “resolution is likely [to come from] human resources, and not the courts.” 

What happens if a human resources department is disinterested in or for other reasons - corporate acceptance of workplace bullying, perhaps - unwilling to assist the employee? Perhaps not much, as the situation stands. But just as the Civil Rights movement started some place and built up at least some protections against some types of discrimination, modern notions of what constitutes workplace discrimination and its negative effects are, luckily, spreading. In spite of the usual initial criticism, AB2053 is a very good start. Undoubtedly, the common law will be able to shed further light on what modernly constitutes acceptable workplace behavior and what does not. That way, the law can get the required legal “teeth.” In the meantime, it is a sad observation about the modern American workplace that so many managers effectively tolerate or even undertake workplace harassment and that so few counterbalancing institutions in place in other cultures exist here, for instance trade unions. In contracts law, it’s all about the bargaining power. Most American workers have too little in today’s workplace.

December 1, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Consent Agreement on Embryo Destruction a Legally Binding Contract

A California Superior Court Judge has ruled that a consent agreement between spouses about what to do with frozen embryos in case of divorce has the effect of a legally binding contract. This was the first such ruling in California. The case is In re the Marriage of Stephen E. Findley and Mimi C. Lee.

Shortly before Dr. Lee and Mr. Findley were married in 2010, Dr. Lee discovered that she had cancer. The couple decided to create and store embryos to preserve their chances of having a child. Shortly after the marriage, the couple signed a consent decree stating that the embryos were to be destroyed if the couple divorced. They marriage went downhill and ended in an acrimonious divorce in 2015.

Dr. Lee, however, argued for her right to keep the embryos. She argued that because of her age – she is 46 – the embryos are her only chance of having a child on her own. She testified that she considered the fertility clinic agreement a mere consent form and that she thought she could change her mind about it later on.

Judge Anne-Christine Massullo found that a consent agreement is a legally binding contract. It must be upheld in order to render certainty to IVF clinics and individuals who undergo IVT treatment regarding their dispositional choices before embryos are created. Said the judge about holding IVT agreements to be mere contracts: “It is a disturbing consequence of modern biological technology that the fate of … embryos … must be determined in a court by reference to cold legal principles.” That may be a valid concern, but equally important is, undoubtedly, the rights and concerns of both marital parties.

Consider this as well: Dr. Lee had offered her ex-husband to waive child support if he would let her use the embryos. However, such a promise is meaningless in California where such an agreement cannot be enforced. In contrast, Mr. Findley testified that Dr. Lee had once asked him “how much money the embryos were worth to him” and indicated that she could turn a possible child against him in the future. The court found “well founded” Mr. Findley’s belief that Lee would use any child born of the embryos as a money extortion device. Said the judge: “Mr. Findley should be free from court compelled fatherhood and the uncertainties it would bring.”

In this case, these included potential extortion by a highly educated woman – an anesthesiologist - who seems able consider her potential children to be not only objects of affection, but also vehicles for a monetary reward. Mr. Findley testified that he would like to have children some day, just not with Dr. Lee. Wise decision, it seems, and one that the court equally wisely supported, even though it had to resort to “cold legal principles.”

11/21/2015

Consent Agreement on Embryo Destruction a Legally Binding Contract

A California Superior Court Judge has ruled that a consent agreement between spouses about what to do with frozen embryos in case of divorce has the effect of a legally binding contract. This was the first such ruling in California. The case is In re the Marriage of Stephen E. Findley and Mimi C. Lee, Case No. FDI-13-780539, http://www.sfsuperiorcourt.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/FINDLEY_Statement_Of_Decision%20Rev_1.pdf

Shortly before Dr. Lee and Mr. Findley were married in 2010, Dr. Lee discovered that she had cancer. The couple decided to create and store embryos to preserve their chances of having a child. Shortly after the marriage, the couple signed a consent decree stating that the embryos were to be destroyed if the couple divorced. They marriage went downhill and ended in an acrimonious divorce in 2015.

Dr. Lee, however, argued for her right to keep the embryos. She argued that because of her age – she is 46 – the embryos are her only chance of having a child on her own. She testified that she considered the fertility clinic agreement a mere consent form and that she thought she could change her mind about it later on.

Judge Anne-Christine Massullo found that a consent agreement is a legally binding contract. It must be upheld in order to render certainty to IVF clinics and individuals who undergo IVT treatment regarding their dispositional choices before embryos are created. Said the judge about holding IVT agreements to be mere contracts: “It is a disturbing consequence of modern biological technology that the fate of … embryos … must be determined in a court by reference to cold legal principles.” That may be a valid concern, but equally important is, undoubtedly, the rights and concerns of both marital parties.

Consider this as well: Dr. Lee had offered her ex-husband to waive child support if he would let her use the embryos. However, such a promise is meaningless in California where such an agreement cannot be enforced. In contrast, Mr. Findley testified that Dr. Lee had once asked him “how much money the embryos were worth to him” and indicated that she could turn a possible child against him in the future. The court found “well founded” Mr. Findley’s belief that Lee would use any child born of the embryos as a money extortion device. Said the judge: “Mr. Findley should be free from court compelled fatherhood and the uncertainties it would bring.”

In this case, these included potential extortion by a highly educated woman – an anesthesiologist - who seems able consider her potential children to be not only objects of affection, but also vehicles for a monetary reward. Mr. Findley testified that he would like to have children some day, just not with Dr. Lee. Wise decision, it seems, and one that the court equally wisely supported, even though it had to resort to “cold legal principles.”

November 21, 2015 in Current Affairs, Science, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Airline Change Fees

A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article on airline change fees. At bottom, the article asked whether customers are entitled to a refund of their tickets if they discover that the price has been dropped for the route and time in question so that they can buy the cheaper fare. Most of us probably buy the cheapest form of tickets, i.e. “nonrefundable” ones. For those, the answer lies in the name: they are simply not refundable. Under Department of Transportation rules, however, airfare is fully refundable within 24 hours of making the purchase.

The article misses an important legal issue, namely whether it is unconscionable that airlines typically charge $200-$300 dollars in change fees plus any increase in the actual price (and as we all know, when the departure time approaches, prices typically go up). To the best of my knowledge, only Southwest Airlines does not charge any change fees. Kudos to them for that.

Unconscionability requires the familiar inquiry into whether the substance of the contract is oppressively one-sided and whether the complaining party had any meaningful choice when entering into the contract. In my opinion, such steep change fees are unconscionable, at least in cases where customers change for a reason other than simply trying to get a refund in cases of cheaper fares. Because apparently all airlines other than Southwest charge these high change fees for economy-class, no-frills tickets, and because it is not always possible to fly Southwest Airlines (they only fly to certain locations, most of them within the United States), customers in effect have no choice in avoiding such fees if they have to change the tickets. Often, tickets have to be bought months ahead of time to either get the best prices and/or to get the desired departure dates and times. In today’s ever-changing work environment, many people may have to change their tickets for valid work-related reasons, not to mention changing private circumstances. If that is the case, one may simply have to give up an existing ticket as the rules are today since buying a new one may well be cheaper than trying to change the existing one. And while it is possible to get insurance for illness-related cancellations, travel insurance covering work reasons typically only covers changes in employment and the like and thus not changes required by changed circumstances one’s current position, even though those may be outside one’s control.

Substantively, it seems uniquely and highly oppressively one-sided for airlines to charge hundreds of dollars for a change that a customer can, with a few clicks on a secure website, implement in minutes himself/herself. Even if the airline had to have an actual person make the change (and those days seem gone), that person would similarly only require minutes, if not only seconds, to do so.

Until someone challenges the airlines on this account, they seem intent on continuing this profit-increasing device. As Hans Christian Anderson said: “To travel is to live.” For now, it seems that we have to live with not being able to change our airline tickets once purchased.

November 13, 2015 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Lego Turns Down Order for Millions of Lego Bricks to be Used for "Political" Purposes

Danish toy building brick maker Lego recently turned down an order for several million lego bricks that were to have been used in an art exhibit by Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei in Melbourne.   Why?  Because Lego refrains from “actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda.” 

The bricks would have been used for two projects, one of which would have consisted of mosaic portraits of twenty Australian advocates for human rights and for information and Internet freedom.  Prominent lawyers such as Michael Kirby and Geoffrey Robertson would have been depicted as would have WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Last year, Mr. Ai used Legos to create mosaic portraits of 176 political exiles and prisoners of conscience in an exhibit on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.  At that time, Mr. Weiwei bought the toys via a nonprofit helping him develop the Alcatraz exhibition.

This is apparently not the first time that the Lego Group is turning down otherwise valuable contracts for its popular bricks.  Just this year, Lego rejected a proposal to make Lego figures of the female United States Supreme Court justices, also because such use was considered “political.” (Huh?!)  Previously, Lego has tried to persuade a Polish artist to withdraw an installation that used Lego bricks to depict a Nazi concentration camp (Lego, in turn, withdrew that request after lawyers got involved.).

China’s reaction to the Ai Weiwei story? The state-run Chinese Global Times reported that “as China becomes more powerful, commercial organizations and national governments will become more well behaved and more scared to apply a double standard to China.” (Link to Global Times not available, but see here for coverage from NPR and the NY Times)  Surely, at least part of that statement must be a mistranslation.  If not, then let’s indeed hope that governments and corporations alike become better behaved (if not, could we give them time out?).

Does this case make sense from a business point of view?  Perhaps, if the company wants to err on the extremely cautious side of avoiding negative PR in general.  Or is this perhaps rather an issue of not risking to upset a very valuable and increasingly affluent country such as China?  Should it matter to a manufacturer what its products are sold for?  Said Weiwei: “A company that sells pens [also] cannot tell a writer that he or she can’t do political or romantic writing. It’s really none of their business.” 

Having been born and raised in Denmark, Lego’s attitude surprises me somewhat.  Danes – whether organizations or individuals – often weigh in on important social issues.  Danes are often not afraid to speak their minds on important social issues.  That is simply how “small talk” and opinion-making is formed in the nation.  As a nation, Denmark often touts itself as a world leader when it comes to other complex issues such as comprising the environment, energy and health care even though those could also be seen as “political” in nature.  On that backdrop, Lego’s attitude seems even more conservative from a PR point of view, but of course, it is a multi-million dollar company worried about the bottom line.  Fair enough, but in a way, it would be refreshing if companies would take more responsibility for the ultimate effects of their products.  Some are.  For example, some companies are voluntarily reducing the sugar content in their products or at least providing less sugary alternatives to traditional products.  Others are not (the gun industry, to mention one).  But where, such as in the Lego case, companies decide to be overly cautious in relation to issues that do not seem all that controversial and that are not even funded or otherwise supported by the vendor itself, it seems that we are risking censorship via corporatism. 

The future of Weiwei’s exhibits is unknown, but he is reported to be making use of Lego collection points after having received numerous offers of Lego donations on social media. 

November 2, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Miscellaneous, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

DNA Test Kits, Law Enforcement and TOS

23andme just issued a report that indicates that it has received 4 requests for  customer information from law enforcement agencies and the FBI.  The company was able to fend off those requests.  Given that the company has over a million customers, that's not a large number, but the implications are chilling.  As Jeremy Telman and I argue in a forthcoming article, the personal data collected by private companies may be used by the government in ways that may surprise us (and, in some cases, deprive of us basic constitutional rights....)  23andme extracts its customers consent by including the following in its TOS:

"Further, you acknowledge and agree that 23andMe is free to preserve and disclose any and all Personal Information to law enforcement agencies or others if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process (such as a judicial proceeding, court order, or government inquiry) or obligations that 23andMe may owe pursuant to ethical and other professional rules, laws, and regulations; (b) enforce the 23andMe TOS; (c) respond to claims that any content violates the rights of third parties; or (d) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of 23andMe, its employees, its users, its clients, and the public. In such event we will notify you through the contact information you have provided to us in advance, unless doing so would violate the law or a court order."

Nevermind that this provision is not one that most customers would have bothered to read, hidden as it is behind a hyperlink and buried in the text.  You can read more about the potential use of DNA test kits by law enforcement agencies here and here

But wait - there's more!  As I was scrolling through 23andme's terms, I found another provision that potentially affects even more customers:

"Genetic Information you share with others could be used against your interests. You should be careful about sharing your Genetic Information with others. Currently, very few businesses or insurance companies request genetic information, but this could change in the future. While the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was signed into law in the United States in 2008, its protection against discrimination by employers and health insurance companies for employment and coverage issues has not been clearly established. In addition, GINA does not cover life or disability insurance providers. Some, but not all, states and other jurisdictions have laws that protect individuals with regard to their Genetic Information. You may want to consult a lawyer to understand the extent of legal protection of your Genetic Information before you share it with anybody.

Furthermore, Genetic Information that you choose to share with your physician or other health care provider may become part of your medical record and through that route be accessible to other health care providers and/or insurance companies in the future. Genetic Information that you share with family, friends or employers may be used against your interests. Even if you share Genetic Information that has no or limited meaning today, that information could have greater meaning in the future as new discoveries are made. If you are asked by an insurance company whether you have learned Genetic Information about health conditions and you do not disclose this to them, this may be considered to be fraud."

This is information that might be very useful to a potential customer.  So why is this buried way down in the TOS?  Maybe because it might make potential customers think twice about purchasing the kit?  (Ya think?)  Back in the good old days, companies posted potential dangers relating to the use of their products and services where you could see them.  We used to call them notices and they had to be conspicuous.  Now they bury them in the fine print and call them "contracts." 

 

October 22, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Online Reviews – Are You Hot or Not?

Amazon is suing approximately 1,000 individuals who are allegedly in breach of contract with the Seattle online retailer for violating its terms of service.  Amazon is also alleging breach of Washington consumer protection laws.  

In April, Amazon sued middlemen websites offering to produce positive reviews, but this time, Amazon is targeting the actual freelance writers of the reviews, who often merely offer to post various product sellers’ own “reviews” for as little as $5.  (You now ask yourself “$5? Really? That’s nothing!”  That’s right… to most people, but remember that some people don’t make that much money, so every little bit helps, and numerous of the freelancers are thought to be located outside the United States.)  The product sellers and freelancers are alleged to have found each other on www.fiverr.com, a marketplace for odd jobs and “gigs” of various types.

There are powerful incentives to plant fraudulent reviews online. About 45 percent of consumers consider product reviews when weighing an online purchase.  Two-thirds of shoppers trust consumer opinions online.  For small businesses, it can be more economical to pay for positive reviews than to buy advertising. For example, a half-star increase in a restaurant's online rating can increase the likelihood of securing, say, a 7 p.m. booking by 15 to 20 percent. “A restaurateur might be tempted to pay $250 for 50 positive reviews online in the hopes of raising that rating.”

As law professors, we are not beyond online reviews and thus potential abuses ourselves. See, for example, www.ratemyprofessor.com.  There, anyone can claim that they have taken your course and rank you on your “Helpfulness,” “Clarity,” and “Easiness,” give you an overall grade as well as an indication of whether you are hot or not (clearly a crucial aspect of being a law professor…) To stay anonymous, people simply have to create a random anonymous sounding email address. Not even a user screen name appears to be required. Hopefully, that website does not have nearly as much credibility as, for example, Yelp or TripAdvisor, but the potential for abuse of online reviews is clear both within as well as beyond our own circles.

As shown, though, some companies are taking action.  TripAdvisor claims that it has a team of 300 people using fraud detection techniques to weed out fake reviews.  But fraudulent reviews aren't thought to be going away anytime soon. One source estimates that as many as 10-15% of online reviews are fake (to me, that seems a low estimate, but I may just be a bit too cynical when it comes to online reviews).

So, next time you are reading reviews of a restaurant online, I suppose the learning is that you should take the reviews with a grain of salt.

October 21, 2015 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Food and Drink, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Gag Clauses in Consumer Contracts

They’re still doing it: companies not wanting negative online reviews of their products or services attempt to contractually prohibit unsatisfied customers from posting such feedback. Not only that, but some companies also seek to take legal and other retaliatory action against their customers if they defy such attempted clauses.

For example, the FTC recently instigated suit against weight-loss company Roca Labs for threatening legal action against customers writing negative comments about the company’s allegedly ineffective weight loss powder.  (H/t to my colleagues on the AALS Contracts listserv for mentioning this story).  When one of Roca Lab’s customers posted a comment on the Better Business Bureau website, the company cited to their contract with the client that stated, “You will not disparage RL and/or any of its employees, products or services... If you breach this agreement... we retain all legal rights and remedies against the breaching customer..."  The company also asked the customer for information about her contacts on Twitter and Facebook (she luckily declined…).

There is no federal law prohibiting companies from trying to suppress negative reviews, but the FTC alleged unfair practices, among other things because the clause in question was buried in fine print.  The issue may also be a First Amendment problem, according to an attorney for www.pissedconsumer.com, a third-party website that, as the name indicates, allows negative reviews of companies. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ftc-lawsuit-roca-labs-weight-loss-powder-gag-clause-customers-sued/

I could not agree more that the voice of customers who have been disappointed for good reason should be heard. It is, frankly, ridiculous what some companies can get away with in this country in this day and age, in my opinion.  (In the EU, for example, much more consumer-friendly regulations exist. In the USA, the legislative balancing of consumers v. companies often, in my opinion, is more of a slant favoring businesses, but that’s a thought for another day).  But here’s the thing: what about the true risk of disgruntled customers posting reviews that don’t quite reflect what really happened, that exaggerate the situation, or that simply make things seem worse than what they really were?  Even with emoticons, things can seem very harsh once written down even if they were not necessarily meant to be. 

Take, for example, popular hosting website Airbnb.  My husband and I own a historically registered house that requires a lot of upkeep and fixing after 90 years of neglect, so we signed up as hosts to try it out and, of course, to make a little extra money.  We love it!  We meet the most interesting people that truly enjoy our house. But as one’s success on that and other websites is, in reality, often tied closely to having a large amount of very good reviews, we also live with the constant worry that one day, somebody could post a negative review about something that most people would probably consider seemingly minor (our house is almost 100 years old, and there are necessarily small kinks with a house like that).  See also Nancy Kim’s recent blog on our apparently increasing need to judge each other negatively. At least Airbnb allows its users to post comments to reviews, but not all websites follow such practice.

My point is simply this: it is, of course, to go overboard to require one’s paying customers to not post negative reviews via contractual clauses or other methods. But how do we balance the need for true and honest, productive reviews with the risk of disgruntled and perhaps even dishonest customers?  Comment below!

October 3, 2015 in Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Want to Judge Your Fellow Humans? There's an App for That

Because we're all not insecure enough, there's a new app out there that let's people rate other people on a scale of 1-5.  There's no need to take their class,(Rate Your Professor) or eat at their restaurant (Yelp) or ride in their car (Uber)- now you can rate someone just for breathing, and if you don't like the way they breathe, you can tell the whole world about it on the Peeple App. 

They may be truly naive or they may be disingenuous (we've seen greed and self-serving rhetoric masquerading as idealism from other companies), but the two founders claim that the purpose of the app is about uplifting people --to borrow from The Princess Bride, I don't think that word means what they think it means.   As with all things digital, there are terms and conditions that the founders say will allow them to prevent bullying on the site.  But I'm not so sure - Twitter and Facebook have no-bullying policies (or their equivalent) and that hasn't really stopped the bullying.... 

It's unclear whether the app will survive regulators' scrutiny as it requires the poster to submit the subject's phone number in order to create the subject's profile.

October 1, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lyft's TOS Can't Save It From the TCPA (or Why Contract Law's Version of Consent Needs to Get With the Program)

The FCC recently issued a Citation and Order to Lyft  which alleges that its terms of service violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  Under the TCPA, a company that wants to inflict autodialed phone messages or text messages for marketing purposes must first obtain the express prior written consent of the recipient. Furthermore, FCC regulations forbid requiring such consent as a condition of purchasing any goods, services or property. Significant penalties result from failure to comply with the TCPA and the accompanying rules.  Lyft has already updated its TOS in response to the FCC's action.

Lyft's terms of service required its customers to consent to autodialed calls and texts.  Prospective customers are required to check a box stating "I agree with the Terms of Service."  The sign-up page includes a link to the Lyft TOS.  Section 6 of the Lyft TOS stated:

"By becoming a User, you expressly consent and agree to accept and receive communications from us, including via e-mail, text message, calls, and push notifications to the cellular telephone number you provided to us. By consenting to being contacted by Lyft, you understand and agree that you may receive communications generated by automatic telephone dialing systems and/or which will deliver prerecorded messages sent by or on behalf of Lyft, its affiliated companies and/or Drivers, including but not limited to: operational communications concerning your User account or use of the Lyft Platform or Services, updates concerning new and existing features on the Lyft Platform, communications concerning promotions run by us or our third party partners, and news concerning Lyft and industry developments. IF YOU WISH TO OPT-OUT OF PROMOTIONAL EMAILS, TEXT MESSAGES, OR OTHER COMMUNICATIONS, YOU MAY OPT-OUT BY FOLLOWING THE UNSUBSCRIBE OPTIONS PROVIDED TO YOU.Standard text messaging charges applied by your cell phone carrier will apply to text messages we send. You acknowledge that you are not required to consent to receive promotional messages as a condition of using the Lyft Platform or the Services. However, you acknowledge that opting out of receiving text messages or other communications may impact your use of the Lyft Platform or the Services."

 The terms stated that consumers may opt out by using "unsubscribe options," but the FCC investigation discovered that such an option didn't really exist.  There was no easy way to find the unsubscribe option and consumers had to navigate Lyft's website to find the opt-out page.  Even  if they did manage to find it, if they opted out, they couldn't use the service. 

This is another instance where contract law's easy assent rules don't actually help businesses and cause too much confusion.  While a consumer may have "consented" to the autodialing and the texts under contract law, the FCC rules require something that is more like what most people consider to be consent - express written consent and a real choice not to agree.  A default opt-in unless you opt-out (and even that's illusory), well - that just doesn't cut it under the TCPA and the FCC rules.  Sadly, in contract law, too often it does.

Contract law should get with the program and follow the commonsense version of consent adopted by the FCC. 

 

September 22, 2015 in Current Affairs, Legislation, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

When Lust Leads to Espionage

The recent massive hack into married-but-dating website Ashley Madison’s files may not only have breached the customer’s reasonable contractual expectations, but is now also said to lead to serious counter-intelligence concerns.  

Both China and Russia are collecting personal and sensitive information about people who may be involved in American national security operations.  What better leverage to have against operatives than information about their most secret, erotic desires. The temptation to resist such information being shared with even more people may persuade some operatives to render otherwise secret information about United States national security issues.  Recall that quite a few affair seekers used their official government addresses to arrange their attempted or successful trysts.  In combination with another recent OPM hack, countries that are seen as adversaries have apparently also been able to obtain information about who has sought security clearances and can use this information for counter-intelligence purposes.

That seems to provide a good public policy argument for why courts should find against Ashley Madison if it came to a contractual lawsuit regarding the breach of “100% secrecy” and “full deletes” promised, but not delivered, by Ashley Madison.

September 6, 2015 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 4, 2015

Uber's Employees: Employees or Independent Contractors?

Yesterday, we blogged here about important considerations regarding whether an employee will be seen as an employee or a contractor.

In O'Connor v. Uber Technologies, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen just ruled that Uber's drivers may  pursue their arguments that they were employees in the form of a class-action suit. One of the reasons was that Uber admitted that they treated a large amount of its drivers "the same."

Of course, millions of dollars may be at stake in this context.  Profit margins are much higher for companies such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other so-called "on demand" or "sharing economy" companies. That is because the companies do not have to pay contractors for health insurance benefits, work-related expenses, certain taxes, and the like.  But seen from the driver/employee's point of view, getting such benefits if they are truly employees is equally important in a country such as the United States where great disparities exist between the wealthy (such as the owners of these start-up companies) and the not-so-wealthy, everyday workers.

Plaintiffs are represented by renowned employee-side attorney Shannon "Sledgehammer" Liss-Riordan who represented and won a major suit by skycaps against American Airlines some years ago, so sparks undoubtedly will fly in the substantive hearings on this issue.

September 4, 2015 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Labor Contracts, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The NLRB and Independent Contractors

The National Labor Relations Board recently issued a decision , Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., d/b/a/ BFI Newby Island Recyclery,  that establishes a new standard for determining who is a joint employer.  

BFI Newby Island Recyclery hired Leadpoint, a staffing services company, to provide some workers for its recyclery.  BFI and Leadpoint had signed a temporary labor services agreement which could be terminated by either party upon thirty days' notice.  The agreement stated that Leadpoint was the sole employer of the workers and that nothing in the Agreement shall be construed as creating an employment relationship between BFI and the personnel supplied by Leadpoint.  In other words, the agreement contained language that is pretty standard in independent contractor agreements.  The agreement also provided that Leadpoint would recruit, interview, test, select and hire personnel for BFI.  BFI was not involved in Leadpoint's hiring procedures.  BFI, however, had the authority to "reject any Personnel and...discontinue the use of any personnel for any or no reason."  Again, this is fairly standard language in independent contractor agreements.  In a departure from precedent, the NLRB ruled that a company that hires a contractor to provide workers may be considered a joint employer of those workers if it has the right to control them even if it does not actively supervise them. The dissenters were rather unhappy and their opinions are worth reading as they lay out the expected impact of the ruling.  

It's a significant decision and one that should make lawyers take another look at their clients' independent contractor agreements to see whether they contain language that indicates the potential to control the contractor's employees. While the language in the contract was not the only factor influencing the Board's decision, it was an important one.

September 3, 2015 in Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Miscellaneous | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Uber’s Safety Checks

Uber.  It just seems to always be in the news for one more lawsuit, doesn’t it.  In late August, the district attorneys for San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a civil complaint against the company alleging that it is making misrepresentations about its safety procedures.  The complaint, i.a., reads that Uber’s “false and misleading statements are so woven into the fabric of Uber’s safety narrative that they render Uber’s entire safety message misleading.” 

On its website, Uber promises that “from the moment you request a ride to the moment you arrive, the Uber experience has been designed from the ground up with your safety in mind” and that “Ridesharing and livery drivers in the U.S. are screened through a process that includes county, federal, and multi-state criminal background checks. Uber also reviews drivers’ motor vehicle records throughout their time driving with Uber.”

However, Uber does not use fingerprint identication technology, which means that the company cannot search state and federal databases, only commercial ones. 

The result? People with highly questionable backgrounds end up being on Uber’s payroll.  For example, one “Uber driver was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982. He spent 26 years in prison, was released in 2008 and applied to Uber. A background report turned up no records relating to his murder conviction. He gave rides to over 1,100 Uber customers.” Yikes.  Another “Another driver was convicted on felony charges for lewd acts with children. He gave over 5,600 rides to Uber customers.” 

Add this to the ongoing lawsuit about whether Uber’s drivers should be legally classified as “employees” or “contractors,” and Uber is in a mound of legal trouble.

Certainly, a misrepresentation seems to have been made if the company deliberately touts its safety and its “industry-leading background check process” yet only uses a commercial database that does not even necessarily ensure that its drivers are who they say they are.

Still, Uber remains one of the most valuable start-ups in the world.  It and similar “sharing economy” companies such as Airbnb have gained a good foothold on a market with a clear demand for new types of services.  So far, so good.  But initial success should not and does not equate with a “free-for all” situation just because these new companies are highly successful, at least initially.  It seems that they are learning that lesson.  Lyft, for example, already settled with prosecutors in regards to its safety.  Perhaps Uber will follow suit.

September 1, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News, Labor Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Contracting to Pollute

Hugely successful auto-maker Tesla is making very good money not only on its electric cars, but also on its contracts selling zero emission credits to rivaling automakers. New environmental standards in eleven states require that by 2025, 15% of a car company’s sold fleet must be so-called “zero emission” vehicles.  If a company cannot meet existing standards, they can purchase zero emissions credits from other companies that can. Tesla is one of those.

This year, Tesla has sold approximately $68 million worth of credits to competing automakers, which represents 12% of its overall revenue. Overall, Tesla is doing very well: its net profit for the first quarter of this year was more than $11 million and its shares have been reported to be up more than 165% so far this year.

This raises the question that I also raised here on this blog in another post earlier this summer: is the emissions trading scheme a good idea, or does it simply allow for glorified “contracts to pollute”? As with many other things in the law, both could be seen to be the case. See this report that casts doubt on whether carbon credits help or hurt the agenda. Some call them "hot air,"perhaps for good reason. But at least Tesla is, hopefully, challenging other automakers to innovate to pollute less.

Another question, though, is the use of the euphemism “zero emissions.” Electric vehicles are arguably better seen from an environmental point of view than traditional cars, but they are not “zero” emissions.  They could, instead, be called “emissions elsewhere” vehicles.  That, of course, does not sound nearly as good. However, the electricity used for electric cars is produced somewhere. The true question is: by what means? If the electricity stems from dirty coal-fired power plants, the solution is not as good as it sounds, although concentrating the pollution in one large plant may be better than having many individual cars produce power on the road. That is a question for another forum. Suffice it to say that choice is good, and if car buyers could also in all locales could always decide exactly how to source their electricity (from, for instance, solar power), the matter would be different. That is not (yet) the case. So for now, “zero emission” vehicles are actually not so.

August 24, 2015 in Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Travel, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)