ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Contracts Professors: Prepare to Meet Robolawyer

Do law students intending to practice in the areas of contracts and commercial law particularly need to consider the risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence?  It wouldn't hurt.

At this month's AALS annual meeting, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minnow made some headlines with her comments that the threat to the jobs of human lawyers from artificial intelligence is overhyped:

Minow said she didn’t see computers having a role in matters that require subjective legal judgment. “Assessment and critique of justice and justice mechanisms, I don’t see AI taking that on. Nor do I see AI taking on ethics,” she said. “I don’t mean to suggest there is no relation between AI and ethical suggestions, but I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the human being. There will always be a need for human beings.”

Robot-lawyer-at-deskDean Minnow's points of optimism--that matters of justice and ethics will require a human component--seem substantially correct, but they highlight a particular problem in the contract and commercial law fields. Matters of human justice, like the administration of criminal penalties and the protection of civil rights, are a natural bulwark against the replacement of lawyers by computers in those fields. The values at stake are ones that we, as a society, would be (fortunately) fundamentally queasy about taking out of human hands. But what if the stakes are "mere" money, as is frequently the case with contracts?  That is the kind of area where increased efficiencies and removal of the human element give less pause.

This sort of automation of transactional work is certainly underway, ranging from the drafting of basic transactional documents through websites like Legal Zoom to the intriguing use of smart contracts that can govern and enforce themselves, such as through application of Bitcoin-style blockchain technology. In short, teachers of Contracts are training students in a field with a high degree of risk of being automated out of existence.

Robolawyer is coming, so how do we prepare our Contracts students to become lawyers whose value-adding proposition is not susceptible to automation?  This question has many answers, I suspect, but we won't reach any of them unless we start by recognizing the problem.

January 19, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Law Schools, Teaching, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Very, Very Frequent Flyers Do Not Have Separate Contracts with Airlines

If a customer belongs to an airline’s frequent flyer program, but flies so often that one obtains an elevated status under that program, is the customer then also by implication governed by a separate contract with the airline and not just the “basic” version of the frequent flyer rules?

No, according to a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in Hammarquist v. United Continental Holdings, Inc. (Nos. 15-1836 and 15-1845).

In the class action lawsuit against beleaguered United Airlines, plaintiffs were members of the airline’s “MileagePlus” program. Condition no. 1 of the program rules stated that the airline had the “right to change the Program Rules, regulations, benefits, conditions of participation or mileage levels … at any time, with or without notice ….” Plaintiffs, who had obtained “Premier” status argued that under the Premier Program, an alternative modification provision prohibited United from changing the benefits that had already been earned, but which could, per airline tradition and the basic program rules, only be enjoyed the following year. The court made short shrift of that: The plaintiffs did not dispute that the parties’ contractual relationship was governed by the Program Rules that, under precedent established in Lagen v. United Continental Holdings, the elevated status of some frequent flyers does not result in a free-standing contracts separate from the underlying frequent flyer program being established. United Airlines had not made any contractual representations that would render it unable to change the benefits under the basic contract.

Plaintiffs also argued that at the most, United Airlines should only be allowed to change the benefits once a year and not, as had apparently been the case, in the
middle of the year. Plaintiffs relied on the airline’s website, which had stated th That changes were possible “from year to year,” but also that “unless otherwise stated,” the basic Program Rules applied to the Premier Program. That, according to the plaintiffs, meant that the airline could not change the benefits “at any time” as had been stated in the frequent flyer rules. The court found that United Airlines had never “stated” that Condition no. 1 did not also apply to its very frequent flyers, and that the airline had never contractually promised that changes could only be implemented only from year to year.

Nice try, but in this case, a contractually fair enough outcome, it seems. United Airlines “cannot be liable for breaching a contract that it did not make.”

January 15, 2016 in Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tenured Political Science Professor Fired for Statements about God

Recently, Stacey blogged here about whether tenure is a contract. Yesterday, the news broke that a tenured associate political science professor at Wheaton College, a private Christian university, may soon get to test that theory.

Shortly after the San Bernadino, California, shooting massacre, Professor Larycia Hawkins stated on her Facebook account (which listed her profession and employer) that she “stand[s] in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." She elaborated that “we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.” She also wore a hijab in “embodied solidarity” with Muslim women.

The response by the College is, for now, the equivalent of “You’re fired.” The College placed Professor Hawkins on administrative leave in December "to explore significant questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements, including but not limited to those indicating the relationship of Christianity to Islam."  Further, "Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution's faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college's evangelical Statement of Faith." According to Wheaton College President Ryken, however, the College also “support[s] the protection of all Americans including the right to the free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States." Professor Hawkins’ legal team is, according to televised news statements on 1/6, exploring the possibility of a lawsuit should the professor’s preferred solution – mediation and an amicable solution – turn out to be impossible.

This case raises serious questions about the academic freedom of tenured professors – even untenured ones - with which we as law professors are also very familiar. This is perhaps even more so in the cases of private colleges. It seems to me that with a message along the lines of what even Pope Francis uttered along with a reasoned (meta)physical explanation of her views and the College’s self-professed acceptance of freedom of religion, Professor Hawkins did not act in a way that should, under notions of academic freedom, get her fired. If we as law professors do not agree with or wish to challenge certain traditional or even untraditional legal views, are we not allowed to do so because the institutions we work for or the majority of our colleagues hold another view? One would hope so. Most of us can probably agree that academic freedom is exactly all about being able to, within reason at least, provoke deeper thought in relation to what we teach. Note that Dr. Hawkins did not teach religious studies, but political science. With the current embittered debate about Muslims and terrorism around the world, Dr. Hawkins arguably raised some interesting points even if one does not agree with her statements from a Christian point of view.

Stay tuned for more news on this case!

January 7, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Law Schools, Religion, Teaching, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Legal Rights to Give up Your Travel Tickets

Exactly one year ago, I blogged here about United Airlines and Orbitz suing a 22-year old creator of a website that lets travelers find the cheapest airfare possible between two desired cities. Travelers would buy tickets to a cheaper end destination, but get off at stopover point to which a ticket would have been more expensive. For example, if you want to travel from New York to Chicago, it may be cheaper to buy one-way airfare all the way to San Francisco, not check any luggage, and simply get off in Chicago.

The problem with that, according to the airline industry: that is “unfair competition” and “deceptive behavior.” (Yes, the _airline industry_ truly alleged that.) Additionally, the plaintiffs claimed that the website promoted “strictly prohibited” travel; a breach of contracts cause of action under the airlines’ contract of carriage.

It seems that the United Airlines attorneys may not have remembered their 1L Contracts course well enough, for a contracts cause of action must, of course, be between the parties themselves or intended third party beneficiaries. The website in question was simply a third party with only incidental effects and benefits under the circumstances. Without more, such a party cannot be sued under contract law. (This may also be a free speech issue.)

Orbitz has since settled the suit.  Recently, a federal lawsuit was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction over the now 23-year old website inventor. United Airlines has not indicated whether it plans further legal action.  

Along these lines, cruise ship passengers are similarly not allowed to get off a cruise ship in a domestic port if embarking in another domestic port unless the cruise ship is built in the United States and owned by U.S. citizens. This is because the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1866 – enacted to support American shipping – requires passengers sailing exclusively between U.S. ports to travel in ships built in this country and owned by American owners. Thus, cruise ships traveling from, for example, San Diego to Alaska and back will often stop in Canada in order not to break the law. But if the vessel also stops in, for example, San Francisco and you want to get off, you will be subject to a $300 fine which, under cruise ship contracts of carriages, will be passed on to the passenger. See 19 CFR 4.80A and a government handbook here.

Convoluted, right? Indeed. Necessary? In this day and age: not in my opinion. As I wrote in my initial blogs on the issue, if one has a contract for a given product or service, pays it in full, and does not do anything that will harm the seller’s business situation, there should be no contractual or regulatory prohibitions against simply deciding not to actually consume the product or use the service one has bought. Again: if you buy a loaf of bread, there is also nothing that says that you actually have to eat it. You don’t have to sit and watch all sorts of TV channels simply because you bought the channel line-up. In my opinion, United Airlines and Orbitz were trying to hinder healthy competition and understandable consumer conduct. What is still rather incomprehensible to me in this context is why in the world airlines would have anything against passengers getting off at a midway point. It’s less work for them to perform and it gives them a chance to, if they allowed the conduct openly, resell the same seat twice. A win-win-win situation, it seems, for the original passenger, the airline, and the passenger that might want to buy the second leg at a potentially later point in time at whatever price then would be applicable. The same goes for the typically unaffordable “change fees” applied by most airlines: if they charged less (a change can very easily be done by travelers on a website with no airline interaction) and the consumer was willing to pay the then-applicable rate for the new date (prices typically go up, not down, as the departure dates approach), the airlines might actually benefit from being able to sell the given-up seat. Of course, they don’t see it that way… yet.

In many ways, traveling in this country seems to be going full circle in that it is becoming an expensive luxury. Thankfully, new low-cost airlines also appear on the market to provide much needed competition in this close-knit industry that, in the United States, seems to be able to carefully skirt around anti-trust rules without too many legal allegations of wrongdoing. (See here for allegations against United, American, Delta and Southwest Airlines for controlling capacity in order to keep airline prices up).

Happy New Year and safe travels!

January 3, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Selling “Restorative Justice” for a Profit

Shoplifting is a major problem to retailers. In 2014, for example, retailers lost $44 billion nationwide to theft by shoplifters, employees and vendors. But how about this for an apparently very popular “solution”: Retailers such as Bloomingdale’s, Wal-Mart, Burlington Coat Factory, DSW Inc. and even Goodwill Industries have signed up with CEC, a company that provides “restorative justice” for profit.

Here’s how it works: Retailers sign a contract with CEC under which CEC will provide “life skills” courses to shoplifters caught by the retailers. The retailers pay nothing for this “service.” Rather, shoplifters must pay the company $500 for a six-hour course and sign a confession. If they refuse to do so, they are threatened with criminal prosecution and allegedly intimidated in several other ways. According to CEC, “over 1 million individuals have gone through the core program.” Do the math (if you trust the company’s statement) and you’ll see that contracting to sell justice and self-help is apparently quite lucrative.

According to CEC, this is all a good thing. In a statement apparently now removed from the company’s website, but reported here, the company purports to give “low-level, first-time shoplifters a valuable opportunity to learn how to make better choices, while saving them a criminal record and sparing law enforcement resources.” According to CEC now []: “CEC’s Adult Educational Program focuses on developing practical skills that will help achieve social goals. The dual approach of addressing behavior while promoting provident living helps reinforce change.”

What’s the problem with this alleged win-win situation? According to at least the San Francisco city attorney, the conduct is a violation of the California Business and Professions Code. It also alleged to amount to extortion, false imprisonment, coercion and deception. The city attorney has filed suit. CEC defends, claiming that its “vision is to reinvent the way crimes are handled, starting with retail theft.” Indeed. Do we, however, trust companies to sell justice for us via private contracts? Comment below!

December 21, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Miscellaneous | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Phone Companies Still Trying to Take Advantage of Callers

How does paying 18 cents a minute for a local phone call in 2015 sound to you – fair enough or a scam?  How about 23 cents a minute for a non-local call?  If you think that no one can possibly charge that much today or that no one in their right minds would pay it, think again (ok, at least the former).

In Orange County, California, jails, the average phone call costs just that.  In return for providing phone service in a county’s jail system, a telecommunications company typically guarantees the county a multi-million dollar “commission” as well as a percentage of the revenue.  For example, Alabama company Global Tel-Link guarantees a payment of $15 million or two-thirds of phone revenue, whichever is greater, to Los Angeles County.  To be able to pay such a high price, the phone companies of course pass the cost on to the end clients; the inmates in at least Southern California counties. Lacountyprisonphones

The inmates and their families have had enough.  They filed suit recently against Los Angeles and nearby counties alleging that the fee for inmate telephone calls are “grossly unfair and excessive” and amount to an illegal moneymaking scheme for local governments.

Before you ask yourself who is calling the kettle black, as I must admit I did when I first learned of this story, think of this: criminal recidivism is greatly reduced by family communication.  The Federal Communications Commission last month capped local call rates and trimmed the cap on interstate long-distance calls for this and other reasons.  Mothers with husbands in jail have paid several thousand dollars to telecommunications companies so that their children can talk to their fathers, undoubtedly a benefit to not only the families, but also society in the long run.

Of course, the inmates have few alternatives as cell phones are very typically not allowed in jail.

It continually amazes me how much Americans are willing or have to pay for phone service, Internet service, and cable TV service.  In the case of inmates, of course, they have little choice.  To avoid paying large monthly fees for cell phone service, I have kept my “dumb phone,” but instead find myself annoyed at still, in 2015, not being able to get more selective cable TV for only those stations I truly watch (the news, if you can call it that these days).  Monopolies or not: communications companies still typically have the upper hand in contractual bargaining situations.

December 16, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 14, 2015

DirectTV v. Imburgia - FAA Preemption Über Alles

On DeceDarth vader thumbs-upmber 14, the United States Supreme Court decided DirecTV v. Imburgia, the latest chapter in an expansion of the Federal Arbitration Act to pre-empt state law well beyond anything Congress in the 1920s could plausibly have imagined. Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of the Court's FAA jurisprudence.

The Court once again purports to place arbitration agreements "on equal footing with all other contracts," while at the same time giving arbitration clauses a force that even a Sith would have to admire.  Don't underestimate the power of arbitration clauses over all other terms in a contract.  Professor Imre Stephen Szalai (Loyola - New Orleans) may have said it best in an e-mail that made the rounds on ADR, CivPro, and Contracts Prof listervs and that is especially appropriate for this blog:

"Nothing can stand in the way of FAA preemption, not even the parties' contract."

Many commentators will write many words about many aspects of the DirecTV case in the upcoming days and weeks, such as the eloquent dissent by Justice Ginsburg addressing economic imbalances of power in consumer contracts. I want to take a moment here, however, to praise the short and lonely dissent by Justice Thomas, espousing a view on which he has been unwaivering for more than two decades: "I remain of the view that the Federal Arbitration Act does not apply to proceedings in state courts."

While that solo dissent--and five dollars--will get you a café mocha at Starbucks, he has Congressional intent right.  A pre-Erie statute intended to overcome federal courts' traditional hostility to arbitration was never intended to become a federal preemption juggernaut capable of divesting states of huge swaths of jurisdiction over state contract law.

Federal Arbitration Act rant now complete. Thank you for listening.




December 14, 2015 in Current Affairs, Recent Cases, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (3)

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.”


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,

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, 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,  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, a third-party website that, as the name indicates, allows negative reviews of companies.

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)