Friday, November 13, 2015
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.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
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.
Monday, October 12, 2015
Some shoppers on Sears.com thought it was their lucky day when they saw expensive play sets and fancy toys available for the low price of $11.95. Consumerist has the story here. If you saw a storybook cottage that typically costs hundreds of dollars listed for sale at the low, low price of $11.95, what would you think? That's right. Unless it was advertised as a huge blowout sale, you would probably guess it was a mistake. Apparently, Sears lists items sold by third parties and gets a cut - and this time, a third party had made a pricing error on its items. Of course, some Sears sellers were upset - even though Sears refunded their money and gave them a $5 gift card. So, for all those upset sellers, let's run through the mistake scenario to see whether the law would be on your side:
Was this a mistake of a basic assumption? - Yes, it was a pricing error and pricing errors are generally considered basic assumption mistakes.
Was the mistake made by one or both parties (was it a mutual or unilateral mistake?) - Here, Sears mistakenly believed that the prices listed on its website were accurate (not all $11.95) while the customers saw what the prices were - $11.95 - so it was a unilateral mistake made by Sears.
Did it have a material effect? Yes, there's a big difference between $11.95 and hundreds of dollars so Sears would make less money on the transaction.
Did the non-mistaken party (the Sears customers) know or should they have known of the mistake? - Yes, because they should know that expensive playsets are typically not sold for such a low price unless it is part of a promotion or clearance sale.
Did the mistaken party bear the risk of the mistake? You might think Sears would, since it is their website. But based upon existing case law (i.e. Donovan v. RRL Corp), since there's no lack of good faith here and Sears presumably acted reasonably in managing its website - it does not constitute "neglect of a legal duty" and Sears likely doesn't bear the risk of the mistake.
So - there you have it. Sorry kids - guess you'll just have to go outside and build your own play castles with branches and old bed sheets...
Friday, September 18, 2015
Nancy Kim is, as you probably know, one of the nation’s, if not the world’s, leading experts on internet contracting. She is a contributor to this blog as well. Among other issues, Professor Kim rightfully questions whether consumers are put on sufficient notice of various contractual terms and conditions when they purchase goods or services via the Internet.
The Second Circuit has just held that emails sufficiently direct a purchaser’s attention to a service provider’s terms and conditions including a forum selection clause when a hyperlink is provided along with language “advising” the purchaser to click on the hyperlink. (The case is Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., 796 F.3d 193 (Second Cir. 2015). Said the court, “This method serves the same function as the method of cross-referencing language in a printed copy promotional brochure and sufficed to direct [the purchaser’s] attention to the Booking Terms and Conditions. Both methods may be used to reasonably communicate a forum selection clause.”
The background is this: A customer purchased a ticket for a vacation tour of the Galápagos Islands operated by a tour operator. Shortly thereafter, the tour operator sent the customer three emails: a booking information email, a confirmation invoice, and a service voucher. The booking information email contained the statement, “TERMS AND CONDITIONS: ... All Gap Adventures passengers must read, understand and agree to the following terms and conditions.” This statement was followed by a hyperlink with an underlined URL. The confirmation invoice and service voucher each also contained hyperlinks, which were preceded immediately by the following text: “Confirmation of your reservation means that you have already read, agreed to and understood the terms and conditions, however, you can access them through the below link if you need to refer to them for any reason.” The hyperlinks in all three emails linked to a document entitled “…. Booking Terms and Conditions.” The second paragraph of that document stated that “[b]y booking a trip, you agree to be bound by these Terms and Conditions.... These Terms and Conditions affect your rights and designate the ... forum for the resolution of any and all disputes.” The customer did not dispute that she received the relevant emails. Instead, she alleged, as often happens, that she never read the Booking Terms and Conditions because she never clicked on the hyperlinks.
The customer alleged that she was sexually assaulted on the tour by one of the tour operator’s employees. Instead of being able to pursue her negligence claim in a New York court, she must now pursue her claim in Ontario, Canada. The court also held that it was not unreasonable and unjust to enforce the forum selection clause, stating that such clauses will only be set aside if (1) its incorporation was the result of fraud or overreaching; (2) the law to be applied in the selected forum is fundamentally unfair; (3) enforcement contravenes a strong public policy of the forum in which suit is brought; or (4) trial in the selected forum will be so difficult and inconvenient that the plaintiff effectively will be deprived of his day in court. The plaintiff failed to meet any of those requirements.
This case shows how some courts still ignore the fact that, as Professor Kim has pointed out and as the case obviously shows, even though the attention of purchasers (online or otherwise) is directed towards certain crucial contractual clauses, they in fact do not read these. Such is reality in a society such as ours with numerous and often lengthy and complicated legal notices and disclaimers. Are purchasers then truly given sufficient notice in such modern cases? But from a contrary viewpoint, what else can sellers and service providers possibly do to make purchasers aware of key terms? For more on this, read Professor Kim’s scholarship or book.
Friday, September 4, 2015
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.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
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.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Earlier this summer, I blogged on cheating website Ashley Madison promising to provide "100% discreet service" and a group of hackers threatening to reveal the website's customers if the website was not removed. Well, it was not, and this past week, the group made good on its promise or threat, depending on how one views the issue, to make the stolen database easily available to the general public.
In spite of Ashley Madison's promise to be "100% discreet" (whatever that means), the fine print used in its contracts also states, "We cannot ensure the security or privacy of information you provide through the Internet." No contractual promises seen to have been breached if that had been the only promise made. But as Steve Hedley wrote in his comment (see below), some of those inconvenienced by the hack include a number who paid a fee of $19 specifically for a "full delete". Does US contract law really allow Ashley Madison to take their money and then rely on fine print to justify a complete failure? That is a very good point and indeed does not seem to be the case. It could, of course, be that those who paid for a full delete got it and were _not_ among the ones in the publicized batch, but judging solely from media reports on this account, complaints have been made that the promised "full deletes" were not undertaken, so it seems that at least some that paid _additional_ money to become deleted from the website did not get what they paid for. That's a breach. Thanks, Steve Hedley, for that comment.
But the matter is more serious and sad than that: the website was/is apparently also used for finding homosexual partners, which is illegal and carries the death penalty in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, where two users were listed.
Not surprisingly, this story again shows the importance of internet data security. One would think that after the recent HomeDepot, Target and other database breach episodes, people would have learned, but apparently, this is not the case.
Sunday, August 2, 2015
Remember Aereo, the company trying to provide select TV programs and movies using alternatives to traditional cable TV programming? That company went bankrupt after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.
A federal court in Los Angeles just ruled that online TV provider FilmOn X should be allowed to transmit the programs of the nation’s large broadcasters such as ABC, CBS and Fox online, albeit not on TV screens. See Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FilmOn X, LLC, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, No. 12-cv-6921. Of course, the traditional broadcasters have been aggressively opposing such services and the litigation so far. Recognizing the huge commercial consequences of his ruling, Judge Wu certified the case for an immediate appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Said FilmOn’s lawyer in an interview: “The broadcasters have been trying to keep their foot on the throat of innovation. The court’s decision … is a win for technology and the American public.”
The ultimate outcome will, of course, to a very large extent or perhaps exclusively depend on an interpretation of the Copyright Act and not so much contracts law as such, but the case is still a promising step in the direction of allowing consumers to enter into contracts for only what they actually need or want and not, at bottom, what giant companies want to charge consumers to protect income streams obtained through yesteryear’s business methods. Currently, many companies still “bundle” TV packages instead of allowing customers to select individual stations. In an increasingly busy world, this does not seem to make sense anymore. Time will tell what happens in this area after the appeal to the Ninth Circuit and other developments. Personally, I have no doubt that traditional broadcasting companies will have to give in to new purchasing trends or lose their positions on the market.
Monday, July 20, 2015
In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union famously held that “[i]ndividuals have the right - under certain conditions - to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where “the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” for the purpose of otherwise legitimate data collection. “A case-by-case assessment is needed considering the type of information in question, its sensitivity for the individual’s private life and the interest of the public in having access to that information.”
A few days ago, infamous adultery-enabling website Ashley Madison and “sister” site (no pun intended) EstablishedMen.com, which “connects ambitious and attractive young women with successful and generous benefactors to fulfill their lifestyle needs,” was hacked into by “The Impact Team,” a group of apparently offended hackers who threatened to release “all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails” unless the owner of the sites, Avid Life Media, removes the controversial websites from the Internet permanently.
Notwithstanding legal issues regarding, perhaps, prostitution, do customers have a right to be forgotten? Not in general in the USA so far. Even if a provision similar to the EU law applied here, it would only govern search engines. Ashley Madison had, however, contractually promised its paying users a “full delete” in return for a fee of $19. The problem? Apparently that the site(s) still kept purchase details with names. Further, of course, that the company promised and still promises “100% discreet service.” Both seemingly clear contractual promises.
Although the above example may, for perhaps good reason, simply cause you to think that the so-called “clients” above have only gotten what they asked for, the underlying bigger issues remain: why in the world, after first Target, then HomeDepot and others, can companies not find out how to securely protect their customers’ data “100%”? And why should we, in the United States, not have a general right to be deleted not only from companies’ records, but from search engines, if we want to? I admittedly live a very boring life. I don’t have anything to hide. But if I once in a blue moon sign up for something as simple as Meetup.com to go hiking with others, my name and/or image is almost certain to appear within a few days online. I find that annoying. I don’t want my students, for example, to know where I occasionally may meet friends for happy hour. But unless I invest relatively large amount of time in figuring out how to use and not use new technology (which I see that I have to, given the popularity of LinkedIn and the like), I may end up online anyway. That’s not what I signed up for.
As for Ashley Madison, the company has apparently been adding users so rapidly that it has been considering an initial public offering. You can truly get everything on the Internet these days, perhaps apart from data security.
Friday, July 3, 2015
Late night comedians everywhere celebrated when Donald Trump (pictured) announced his candidacy for President. We too are grateful for the blog fodder. Politico reports that the Donald is suing Univision over its decision to withdraw from a five-year $13.5 contract to broadcast the Miss USA and Miss Universe Pageants, which Trump co-owns. As Time Magazine reports here, NBC has also backed out of airing the Miss USA Pageant, and several people involved have also given the Donald their notice. Trump's partners were upset by statements he made as part of his Presidential campaign that disparaged Mexico and Mexicans. Never fear, the pageant will still be broadcast on Reelz (whatever that is).
Meanwhile, London's The Guardian reports that Harvey Keitel is suing E*Trade for withdrawing from a commitment with Keitel to feature him in a series of three commercials for $1.5 million. According to The Guardian, E*Trade really wanted Christopher Walken for the spots. It was willing to settle for Keitel, until Kevin Spacey became available. E*Trade offered Keitel a $150,000 termination fee, but Keitel says that's not enough.
Students are often astonished that major corporations sometimes operate through informal arrangements such as letters of intent. The fact that they do -- and that they can get in trouble by doing so -- is illustrated in Belfast International Airport's (BIA) attempt to enforce a letter agreement with Aer Lingus. As reported by the BBC, BIA read the letter as embodying a ten-year commitment from Aer Lingus to fly out of BIA. The court found that the agreement merely covered pricing should Aer Lingus continue to fly out of BIA for ten years. Aer Lingus decided to switch to Belfast City Airport, claiming that its arrangement with BIA was no longer financially viable.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Jed Rubenfeld declared the end of privacy in an article that appeared in Stanford Law Review in 2008. Around the same time, Danial Solove explored the role of social media in eroding privacy in Scientific American. National Public Radio introduced a series on the end of privacy back in 2009. In January, Science Magazine devoted a special issue to the end of privacy.
But all is not lost! Contracts can protect our privacy, and corporations routinely agree to privacy policies that restrict their right to sell or otherwise transfer or share the private information they collect when their customers use their services.
Such contractual provisions can protect consumers . . . unless the company itself is sold or transferred to (merged into) another company. Then the private information that the company has collected just becomes another asset that can get sold off like any other asset. So says a report in today's New York Times. About 85% of the privacy policies of companies reviewed (including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Hulu) provide that "the company might transfer users' information in case of a merger, acquisition, bankruptcy, asset sale or other transaction . . . "
Monday, June 8, 2015
I wanted to follow up on Jeremy Telman's posts about two cases, Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum and Berkson v. Gogo. Both cases involved consumers and standard form contracts. Both Sprint and Gogo sought to enforce an arbitration clause in their contracts and both companies presumably wanted to do so to avoid a class action. In Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum, there was no question regarding contract formation. The contract issue in that case involved the validity of the assignment of the contract from US Cellular to Sprint. The court found that the assignment was valid and consequently, so was the arbitration clause.
In Berkson v. Gogo, on the other hand, the issue was whether there was a contract formed between the plaintiffs and Gogo. As Jeremy notes in his post, this is an important case because it so thoroughly analyzes the existing wrap contract law. It also has important implications for consumers and the future of class actions.
Many arbitration clauses preclude class actions (of any kind). Judge Posner notes in his opinion in Andermann v. Sprint Spectrun:
"It may seem odd that (Sprint) wants arbitration....But doubtless it wants arbitration because the arbitration clause disallows class arbitration. If the Andermann's claims have to be arbitrated all by themselves, they probably won't be brought at all, because the Andermanns if they prevail will be entitled only to modest statutory damages."
Judge Posner may have been troubled by this if the facts were different. The Andermanns are claiming that Sprint's calls to them are unsolicited advertisements that violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but Sprint needed to inform them that their service would be terminated because U.S. Cellular's phones were incompatible with Sprint's network. How else would they be able to contact their customers whose service would soon be terminated, Posner rhetorically asks, "Post on highway billboards or subway advertisements?....Post the messages in the ad sections of newspapers? In television commercials?" Sprint's conduct here "likely falls" within an exception to the law and hence, Posner notes "the claims are unlikely to prevail."
It's a different situation in Berkson v. Gogo. In that case, Gogo is allegedly charging consumers' credit cards on a monthly recurring basis without their knowledge. The plaintiffs were consumers who signed up to use Gogo's Wi-Fi service on an airplane, thinking it was only for one month. When Welsh, one of the plaintiffs, noticed the recurring charges, he was given a "partial refund." Welsh then hired a lawyer. Welsh's lawyer sent Gogo a letter notifying the company of the intent to file a class action lawsuit if it did not correct its practices and notify everyone who might have been charged in this manner. Gogo then allegedly sent a refund check directly to Welsh, not his lawyer (which would violate the rule not to directly contact someone represented by counsel). When Berkson, another plaintiff, noticed the charges and complained, the charges stopped; however, when he requested a refund for the period he was charged for the service but did not use it, the company allegedly refused.
I think that most people would agree that, if the facts alleged are true, Gogo likely violated consumer protection statutes. It also acted poorly by making it so hard to get a refund. Companies should not be permitted to act like this and consumers shouldn't have to threaten class action lawsuits to get their money back. (Gogo doesn't seem to dispute that they were charged during months they did not use the service).
This is where contract formation becomes so important. The class action in Berkson v. Gogo was allowed to proceed because the court found that there was no valid contract formation.
If there was a contract formed between Gogo and the plaintiffs, the arbitration clause would likely have been effective. (I say "would likely have been" because it wasn't even included until after Berkson signed up for the service. But let's put that aside for now and continue....). The arbitration clause - you guessed it - contained the following clause:
"To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, NO ARBITRATION OR OTHER CLAIM UNDER THIS AGREEMENT SHALL BE JOINED TO ANY OTHER ARBITRATION OR CLAIM, INCLUDING ANY ARBITRATION OR CLAIM INVOLVING ANY OTHER CURRENT OR FORMER USER OF THE SITE OR THE SERVICES, AND NO CLASS ARBITRATION PROCEEDINGS SHALL BE PERMITTED. In the event that this CLASS ACTION WAIVER is deemed unenforceable, then any putative class action may only proceed in a court of competent jurisdiction and not in arbitration.
WE BOTH AGREE THAT, WHETHER ANY CLAIM IS IN ARBITRATION OR IN COURT, YOU AND GOGO BOTH WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO A JURY TRIAL INVOLVING ANY CLAIMS OR DISPUTES BETWEEN US."
Now, under the recent line of federal cases (AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, American Express v. Italian Colors, etc) interpreting the FAA, if a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, an arbitrator pretty much decides everything unless (1) the arbitration agreement is unconscionable; or (2) the agreement to arbitrate was never formed
Regarding (1), this doesn't mean that a court may determine whether any other contract provision was unconscionable - only the arbitration clause. So, if there's another clause that you want to argue is unconscionable -- let's say a recurring billing provision that is not conspicuous just as a random example -- you have to take that to the arbitrator. Furthermore, it's much harder now (after the line of US Supreme cases noted above) to argue that an arbitration clause is unconscionable. While many state courts had previously found mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers unconscionable, they may no longer find them unconscionable just because they impose arbitration. In other words, in order to be found unconscionable, the arbitration clauses have to be one-sided (i.e. only the consumer has to arbitrate) or impose hefty filing fees, etc. This, as I mentioned in a prior post, is why so many of these clauses contain opt-out provisions. Gogo's arbitration clause also contained an opt-out provision. But, as readers of this blog know, NOBODY reads wrap contract terms and I would be surprised if anyone opted out. The clause was also in capitalized letters and so would be conspicuous -- if only anyone clicked on the link and scrolled down to see it.
This is why Judge Weinstein's opinion is so important -he recognizes the burden that wrap contracts place on consumers:
"It is not unreasonable to assume that there is a difference between paper and electronic contracting....In the absence of contrary proof, it can be assumed that the burden should be on the offeror to impress upon the offeree -- i.e., the average internet user - the importance of the details of the binding contract being entered into...The burden should include the duty to explain the relevance of the critical terms governing the offeree's substantive rights contained in the contract."
If a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, a consumer who has been wronged and wants to argue that a standard form contract is unconscionable, would probably have to take it to an arbitrator unless there was no agreement to arbitrate in the first place. If there was no agreement formed at all, that would mean no agreement to arbitrate.
This is why it is so important not to find contract formation so easily and expect unconscionability to do all the heavy lifting of consumer protection. An arbitrator very well might do a good job - but we don't know that because an arbitration is a closed hearing. Arbitrators also don't go through the rigorous screening process that judges go through (both elected and appointed judges are thoroughly scrutinized). Furthermore, arbitral decsions are not generally made public, and so arbitration doesn't help with providing guidelines for acceptable business behavior. Judge Posner notes in his opinion, "It's not clear that arbitration, which can be expensive...and which fails to create precedents to guide the resolution of future disputes, should be preferred to litigation." Furthermore, if the arbitration clause contains a "no class" provision, it also forces a consumer to face a company's intimidating attorneys all alone ((because no lawyer is taking this type of case on a contingency basis and no consumer is going to pay a lawyer to attend this type of arbitration).
Berkson v. Gogo is notable for recognizing that website design and contract presentation matter in determining contract formation. Not every click is perceived the same way by consumers -- scrollwraps (where scrolling is required to read through all the terms) provides more notice than a "sign-in-wrap" which is merely a hyperlink next to a SIGN UP button. The reality is that nobody clicks on the Terms hyperlink with a sign-in wrap. As Judge Weinstein notes:
"The starting point of analysis must be the method through which an electronic contract of adhesion is formed. The inquiry does not begin, as defendants argue, with the content of the provisions themselves."
There are some who think that there's no harm in finding contract formation so easily because courts and the doctrine of unconscionability will protect consumers from really bad contract terms. They should think again. Mandatory arbitration clauses affect consumers' ability to seek redress which is why we should start taking contract formation seriously.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
We have previously blogged about “sharing economy” short-term rental company Airbnb at various times here. Time for an update: The City of Santa Monica, California, just passed an ordinance that prohibits property owners and residents from renting out their places unless they remain on the property themselves. This is estimated to prohibit no less than 80% of Airbnb’s Santa Monica listings (1,400 would be banned).
The city plans to spend $410,000 in the first year to enforce the rule using three new full-time employees. Violators may be fined by up to $500. However, because Airbnb does not list addresses, staff will have to look at photos of the properties and drive around the city streets to try to identify the violators. Doing so sounds awfully invasive and awkward, but that is nonetheless the plan. Adds Assistant Planning Director Salvador Valles: “We can issue citations just based on the advertisement alone when we're using our business regulations.” Other major cities are also trying to crack down on short-term rentals.
But why, you ask? Good question. In times when, as I have blogged about before and as is common knowledge, medium- and low-income earners are falling behind higher-income earners to a somewhat alarming extent, you would think the government could let people earn some additional money on what is, after all, their own property. Cities, however, claim that short-term rentals drive up the rental prices by cutting into the number of residences that are available for long-term rentals. “Even a study commissioned by Airbnb itself earlier this year found that Airbnb increases the price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco by an average of $19 a month.” Traffic concerns are also often mentioned in this context as are potential tax avoidance issues, although Airbnb has now started to deduct taxes from rental fees before transferring these to the landlords.
Airbnb’s end goal? To go IPO. The goal for at least some landlords? Eighty-year-old Arlene Rosenblatt, for example, rents out her home in Santa Monica whenever she and her husband leave town to visit their seven grandchildren. She charges anywhere from $115 to $220 a night for her home, listing it on Airbnb and other sites and thus earning as much as $20,000 a year. "I'm a retired schoolteacher," Rosenblatt says. "We don't get a lot of retirement income. My husband, all he has is his Social Security."
Time will tell what happens in this latest clash between private property and contractual rights and government regulations.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Last year, Starbucks announced a new corporate-supported educational program that one year later is still viable: Starbucks will reimburse its full-time workers for taking online classes with Arizona State University. Partial tuition (58%) will be offered to freshmen and sophomores and full tuition for juniors and seniors as long as credits are earned within the past 18 months so as to keep students on track.
As you may have noticed if you are a Starbucks customer, very many of its employees appear to be college-aged. In fact, 70% of Starbucks’ workforce are either in school already or have had to drop out because of various personal difficulties.
This program seems to be a benefit to employees who cannot afford to go to school full time (or even part time), but who desire and education. What is remarkable is also how few “strings” are attached to the program. For example, the employees do not even have to stay with Starbucks after the completion of their degree. Said CEO Howard Schultz (still the CEO): "We want to attract and retain great people. We want to provide [our employees] with new tools and new resources to have advancements in the company.”
What is in it for ASU? This has been said to be a coup for the university, which already has one of the nation’s largest and most highly regarded online programs. Of course, Starbucks has a large amount of employees with, presumably, many coming and going, so ASU now has access to a large database of potential students, something many universities – private and public - are craving in these competitive times.
For the students and the university, rates may be discounted. This is normal in this type of situation. What would truly make a difference would be if the rates could become so reduced for students that they would, in effect, have no out-of-pocket costs altogether.
What, to me, is interesting about this situation is that a public university has found out workable model for online classes and cooperation with a private business venture when many private universities have not.
The somewhat strange catch here is that ASU cannot enter into any other arrangement with a for-profit business for four years, but that Starbucks is free to advertise its partnerships with a few other schools.
See the contract at issue here.
See Starbucks’ description of the program here.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
Monday, December 22, 2014
After years of conducting research on the genes of various animals, George Doe (a pseudonym), an accomplished biologist with a PhD in cellular and molecular biology, decides to have his own genes examined for fun and to discover whether he may be genetically predisposed to cancer. He buys a test kit online from one the many companies that provide such services these days. He is so excited about the process that he also buys a kit for his mother and father as gifts. They all have their genes tested. George finds out that he is not predisposed to cancer. But that’s not it. He also finds out that another male who has had his own genes tested and is thus registered with the same company is “50% related” to George. This can only mean one of three things: this other male is George’s grandfather, uncle or … half brother. After intense and testy family discussions, George’s father apparently admits that he had fathered this other male before marrying George's mother. George’s parents are now divorced and the entire family torn apart with no one talking to each other.
A very sad affair. Of course, nothing appears to be contractually wrong with this case: at the bottom of one’s profile with www.23andme.com, the company that provided the tests in this case, George and his family had checked a small box indicating for them to do so “if you want to see close family members in this search program.” The company is said to have close to one million people in its database. With modern science, close family members can easily be identified out of such data if opting into being notified.
Here, the company does not appear to have done anything wrong legally. Quite the opposite: if anything, the above shows that the buyers in these situations may not be sufficiently mentally prepared for the information they may discover through DNA testing. Arguably, they should be. After all, the old adage “watch out what you ask for, you may get it” still rings true.
But isn’t this situation akin to the various other situations we have blogged a lot about here this past year where customers buy various items online and click – or not – on various buttons, thus signaling at least alleged acceptance of, for example, terms of service requiring arbitration instead of lawsuits in case of disputes? As I have argued, many people probably just clicks such buttons without fully realizing what the legal or, in cases such as the above, factual results may be. Should online vendors be required either legally to make such check boxes or other online indicia of acceptance a lot more obvious? Or should they at least be required to do so for reasons of business ethics?
I think so. Most working people are exceptionally busy these days. Frankly, not many of us take the time to scrutinize the various implications - legal or otherwise – of the purchases we make online, especially because the agreements we accept in cyberspace are presented so very differently online, yet are so deceptively similar in legal nature that we probably feel pretty comfortable with simply clicking “I accept” as the vast majority of such transactions present no or only minor problems for us? And aren’t the vendors the party with the very best knowledge of some, if not most, of the problems that arise in these contexts? How hard would it really be for them to make sure that they use all the “bells and whistles” to truly put people on notice of what typical problems encountered may be, exactly to avoid legal problems down the road? One would think so, although, of course, customers also carry some of the burden of educating ourselves about what we buy and what that may mean. This is perhaps especially so when such delicate issues as the above are involved.
For George Doe, the above unfortunately turned out to be much more of a curse that kept on giving instead of a gift that kept on giving.
On behalf of your blogging team here at ContractsProfs Blog: Happy Holidays!
Friday, December 12, 2014
Sick of reading our posts (and other news reports) about Uber and Lyft?
I am compelled to add that while the concept is brilliant and the execution quite fine, the script missed some low-hanging fruit suggested by the "Jewish geography navigation system" at the opening. I humbly offer the following potential dialogues:
Driver: Where are you going in such a hurry?
Passenger: Elm and 17th.
D: Elm and 17th? The Weinsteins live right around the corner! Do you know them?
P: I don't think so . . .
D: Such a nice couple. Are you sure you don't know them? I think they had a daughter around your age. How old are you? Where did you go to school? And the Goldbergs live near there too -- surely you know them!
P: I'm just going to a dental appointment. I don't live around there.
D: Well, you should, it's a lovely neighborhood. Where do you live? I know a realtor who could find you a nice apartment. . .
Passenger: Excuse me, I was actually heading in the other direction . . .
Driver: Oh, I know, hon, but I can only find my way there from the JCC, so I thought we'd go there first. It's not far.
D: Or Solomon Schechter, is that closer? I know how to get places from there or from the Temple . . .
P: I can direct you if you want.
D: Relax! Enjoy the ride! You young people are always in such a hurry these days. Do you ever take the time to talk with your parents, I wonder? We can just chat and catch up -- the time will pass quickly
P: Catch up? But I don't even know you.
D: You're about my son's age. He just gave me my third grandchild. [Passing pictures back] Here, aren't they a lovely family?
I'm just sayin . . .
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Myanna posted yesterday about an L.A. Times story about Uber. Today's New York Times has more news about attempts to regulate companies like Uber and Lyft. The issue is the quality of the companies' background checks on their drivers. In a sidebar, the Times notes that three states and seven foreign jursdictions have taken legal action against Uber. But the ride sharing companies are energetic lobbyists and often have been successful in blocking regulation.
In a related story, the Times reports that an Uber driver in India is facing allegations that he raped a passanger. Today's Times reports that the driver was wanted on other crimes as well.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
In what seemed an inevitable turn of events, the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys filed a consumer protection lawsuit on 12/9/2010 against Uber for making false and misleading statements about Uber’s background checks of its drivers. George Gascon, the district attorney for San Francisco, calls these checks “completely worthless” because Uber does not fingerprint its drivers. Uber successfully fought state legislation that would have subjected the company’s drivers to the same rules as those required of taxi drivers. Allegedly, Uber has also defrauded its customers for charging its passengers an “airport fee toll” even though no tolls were paid for rides to and from SFO, and charging a “$1 safe ride fee” for Uber’s background check process. California laws up to $2,500 per violation. There are “tens of thousands” of alleged violations by Uber. However, even that will likely put only a small dent in Uber’s economy as it is now valued at $40 billion (yes, with a “b”).
Lyft has settled in relation to similar charges and has agreed to submit information to the state to verify the accuracy of its fares (although not its background checks). It has also agreed to stop picking up passengers at airports until it has obtained necessary permits. Prosecutors are continuing talks with Sidecar.
Time will tell what prosecutors around the nation decide to do against these and similar start-ups such as airbnb and vrbo.com, which are also said to bend or outright ignore existing rules.
The Los Angeles Times comments that the so-called “sharing economy” companies face growing pains that “start-ups in the past didn’t – dealing with municipalities around the world, each with their own local, regional and countrywide laws.” It is hard to feel too sorry for the start-ups on this account. First, all companies obviously have to observe the law, whether a start-up or not. Today’s regulations may or may not be more complex than what start-ups have had to deal with before. However, these companies should not be unfamiliar with complex modern-day challenges as that is precisely what they benefit from themselves, albeit in a more technological way. Finally, there is something these companies can do about the legal complexity they face: hire savvy attorneys! There are enough of them out there who can help out. But perhaps these companies don’t care to “share” their profits all that much? One has to wonder. Sometimes, it seems that technological innovation and building up companies as fast as possible takes priority over observing the law.
Monday, December 8, 2014
Following up on Myanna Dellinger's post from last week, we noticed this story about Airbnb and Uber. Both companies are leaders of the so-called new sharing economy, but what they really love to share (unequally) is risk. The article explains how insurance works for both companies, and the clear message is: it isn't clear that it will, at least not for the Uber drivers or people who use Airbnb to rent out their homes or apartments for days or weeks at a time. Actually, the article has very little to say about Uber, which doesn't really share risk at all -- it tells its drivers to self-insure, and then the drivers run into trouble (if they run into things) because their insurance does not cover commercial activities.
According to the Times article, regular homeowners' insureance will not cover Airbnb renters because most standard homeowners' insurance policies do not cover harms caused by commercial activities. Airbnb thus has taken out a secondary insurance policy that will cover up to $1 million in liability for the renters who use its site, and Airbnb is offering this policy to its users for free. For reasons that are not really clear in the article, its author Ron Lieber suggests that Airbnb might not really provide insurance to its renters. He points to Airbnb's checkered history of encouraging renters to ignore local ordinances and not being there for its renters who then ran afoul of the law. He suggests that Airbnb's secondary insruance scheme might not cover the sorts of liabilities that renters might face, and it is clear that some primary homeowners' policies would also exclude liabilities arising out of commercial activiities.
And, as long as we are piling on Uber, Saturday's New York Times also featured an opinion piece by Joe Nocera. According to Nocera, it is impossible to reach Uber by phone because, according to Nocera, Uber says having a phone center or customer service line is not in Uber's business model. If you try to call the listing for Uber in New York City, you get another company, über, a New York design firm. The owner of über claims that she fields between 1 and 10 calls a day from Uber customers seeking assistance. She has even had to go to court to explain to the judge that the plaintiff sued the wrong Uber, or the wrong über.