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.
Friday, December 5, 2014
In today’s “sharing economy,” more and more private individuals attempt to earn some (additional) money in untraditional ways such as selling various things on eBay, driving cars for alternative passenger transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, and providing lodging in private homes on sites such as airbnb. Not only do these services raise many regulatory, licensing, insurance zoning and other issues, they also present a real risk to many hopeful 1099 workers who – as the relevant companies themselves – can vastly misjudge the potential of new attempted products or services.
Take, for example, Lyft drivers. In May, the shared ride company introduced luxury rides via its Lyft Plus program. At least in San Francisco, the drivers had to pay $34,000 out of their own pockets for the large, “loaded” Ford Explorers required by Lyft for drivers to participate in the program. The idea was that passengers would pay twice the normal Lynx rate to get the extra space and perceived luxury of being whisked around town in a large SUV. A bit behind the curve, you think? Indeed. The program was an instantaneous fiasco in San Francisco (the company still advertises the program, but at “only” 1.5 times the price of a regular ride and touting the program as having space enough for six people). Soon, drivers were back to simply getting regular rides– often just at $5 or $6 – just to stay busy. This is obviously not viable in a city with expensive gasoline and cars that get only around $14 miles per gallon, not to mention the purchase price of the new SUVs.
Responding to drivers’ initial concerns, Lyft had promised that they should “not worry about demand, we have that covered.” Realizing that many of its drivers were upset about being stuck with a huge, new gas guzzler without a realistic return on investment, Lyft has offered their Plus drivers help selling the SUVs or a $10,000 bonus… subject to income tax, no less. None of these options, of course, will bring the drivers back to the pre-contractual position. Some drivers admitted to having borrowed money from family members, selling existing cars, even “forgoing other job opportunities for the chance to make more money with Lyft Plus.”
A sad story all the way around. Companies are continually trying to introduce new products and services to find the next “big thing.” This, of course, is laudable, but not so much so when they seemingly cross the line and make unfounded promises to the less savvy or financially strong. Of course, this also does not mean that workers or customers should not exercise a hefty dose of “caveat emptor” in connections such as this, but it is a somewhat concerning aspect of today’s sharing economy that failed product launches can simply be shared with “smaller fish” with less bargaining power and, apparently, a dangerously high risk-willingness bordering desperation in trying to make a dollar in these financially tough times. Whether in this case, the promise that the demand was “covered” could be a contractual misrepresentation or whether it was simply puffery is another story best left to another forum.
Friday, October 31, 2014
A few weeks ago, we blogged here about how some businesses may pay customers to remove negative reviews from sites such as TripAdvisor.
The blog raised the question of just how reliable online reviews are given this practice and, potentially, the business itself (or friends/family) posting numerous positive reviews, thus making for an entirely fake overall review.
Here’s a twist on that: Yelp will actually remove posts without notifying either the reviewed business or the review poster if the latter has not posted enough other reviews on Yelp. Of course, Yelp decides just how many other reviews are “enough.”
This happened recently to my husband, who is an extremely busy IT professional, but who nevertheless got such a good experience from a small local business that he took the time to post a for him rare review of the business with pictures of the product we had bought. A few days later, the business owner contacted him to ask why he had taken the review down again. He had not, but Yelp had for the above reason.
Of course, Yelp probably wants to avoid the occasional rage posting or an overly rosy review. However, the above practice seems unethical and unreasonable. Review sites will by nature have both good and bad reviews. Yelp has chosen to believe that if a person only posts one thing, it must by definition by unreliable as being too far on either end of the spectrum. However, the truth of the matter is that a lot of busy professionals do not have the time for or interest in posting a large amount of reviews. That, of course, does not make an occasional review unreliable, perhaps quite the opposite: if you don’t post a lot of views, the ones you do must reflect truly good or bad experiences.
Not only does Yelp waste reviewer’s time like this, but it does not even explain this policy on its guidelines section of its website.
A healthy dose of skepticism towards review websites seems warranted, which probably does not surprise too many of us.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Conversely, given the above and similar confusion, why in the world wouldn’t companies simply use an “I agree” box to be on the safe side? Even after the case came out, the Barnes and Noble website does, granted, not feature its “TOS” hyperlink as conspicuously as other links on its website and certainly not as obviously as one would have thought the company would have learned to do after the case (see very bottom left-hand corner of website).
What is more, normally a failure to read a contract before agreeing to its terms does not relieve a party of its obligations under the contract. In the case, however, the court said that in online cases, “the onus must be on website owners to put users on notice of the terms to which they wish to bind consumers … they cannot be expected to ferret out hyperlinks to terms and conditions to which they have no reason to suspect they will be bound.” This is similar to a case we blogged about here.
However, it would probably be hard to find an online shopper in today’s world who would truly not expect that somewhere on the website, there is likely a link with terms that the corporation will seek to enforce. The duty to read should arguably be extended to reading websites carefully as well. Another medium is at stake than the paper contracts of yesteryear, but that doesn’t necessarily change the contents. But that is not the law in the Ninth Circuit as it stands today, as evidenced by this case, which unfortunately fails to clarify exactly what the courts think would be enough to constitute constructive notice. So for now, “something more” is the standard. Perhaps this is an issue of “millenials” versus a slightly older generation to which some of the judges deciding these cases belong.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Craigslist has decided to crack down on companies that use data from its websites to generate ads on competing websites.
Technically, this can be and is done by various software programs (“spiders, “crawlers,” “scrapers” and the like) that look through craigslist and automatically cull information that can be reposted outside the Craigslist sites.
Courts broadly uphold liquidated damages clauses as long as they are not punitive in nature. Some of the factors that play into this rule is whether actual damages would be difficult to calculate after the breach occurs and whether they are unreasonably large.
With today’s many links to links to links, cross postings and machines retrieving data and using it for various purposes (not only commercial ones), contractual damages calculations may be too difficult and, for a court of law, too timeconsuming to be worth the judicial hassle. Liquidated damages are known to, among other things, present greater judicial efficiencies, which is very relevant in these kinds of cases. Perhaps Contracts Law needs to move towards an even broader recognition of such clauses and not be so concerned with the potential punitive aspect, at least as regards the “difficulty in calculation” aspect of the rule. After all, damages also serve a deterrent function. Sophisticated businesses operating programs specifically designed to retrieve data from other companies’ websites should - and logically must, in 2014 - be said to be on notice that they may be violating contractual agreements if they in effect just lift data from others without paying for it and without getting a specific permission to do so.
And what about consumer rights? If a person for some reason only wants his or her information posted on one particular site, why should it be possible for other companies to override that decision and post the information on other sites as well?
One thing is unavoidable technological change. Quite another is violating reasonable consumer and corporate expectations. Some measure of “stick” seems to be in order here.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Intervening Illegality of Underlying Promises Does Not Cause Contract to Fail for Lack of Consideration; Does Not Breach Warranty
What happens when a party to an agreement terminates and begins to make quarterly termination (liquidated damage) payments as promised and then, while payments are being made, a law is past that makes the underlying promised performance illegal? The parties are sorting this out in a case against Orbitz.
In 2005, Orbitz and Trilegiant entered into an agreement (“Master Service Agreement,” or “MSA”) for Orbitz to provide “DataPass” marketing services. Pursuant to the MSA, Orbitz marketed Trilegiant’s services to Orbitz customers. If a customer enrolled in Trilegiant’s services, Orbitz would transfer the customer’s billing and credit card info to Trilegiant and, thereafter, Trilegiant would charge the customer and pay Orbitz a commission. As a result, customers were charged for Trilegiant’s services without ever affirmatively providing their credit card information to Trilegiant (though, they had arguably agreed to be charged when purchasing travel arrangements on the Orbitz site – I leave that part to Nancy Kim).
Customers eventually complained about their credit cards being charged without their knowledge. In 2007, Orbitz notified Trilegiant that it would be terminating the MSA. The MSA allowed for early termination but required Orbitz to make a series of quarterly termination payments (totaling over $18 million) through 2016.
In 2010, Congress enacted the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act (“ROSCA”), which made the DataPass marketing practice illegal. Orbitz stopped making the quarterly termination payments to Trilegiant. Trilegiant sued Orbitz in New York and a recent decision of the trial court (Supreme Court, New York County, Ramos, J.) granted Trilegiant summary judgment on 3 of Orbitz’s 17 affirmative defenses.
First, the court rejected Orbitz’s defense of lack of consideration. The court explained:
Orbitz contends that there had to be consideration for each quarterly termination payment and that Trilegiant's continued use of DataPass is necessary to its claim against Orbitz. Orbitz argues that the consideration for the termination payments was supposed to be Trilegiant's forfeit of potential earnings, earnings that Trilegiant cannot forfeit if it is not in the business of DataPass (see Orbitz's Memorandum of Law at 8-9).
The law does not support Orbitz's argument. It is well settled that an agreement "should be interpreted as of the date of its making and not as of the date of its breach" (X.L.O. Concrete Corp. v John T. Brady and Co., 104 AD2d 181, 184 [1st Dept 2009]). Additionally, "[i]f there is consideration for the entire agreement that is sufficient; the consideration supports every other obligation in the agreement" (Sablosky v Edward S. Gordon Co., 73 NY2d 133, 137 ). A single promise "may be bargained for and given as the agreed equivalent of one promise or of two promises or of many promises. The consideration is not rendered invalid by the fact that it is exchanged for more than one promise" (2-5 Corbin on Contracts § 5.12).
Considerations of public policy also support this conclusion, because a promisor should not be permitted to renege on a promise either because that specific promise lacks textually designated consideration or because the promisor wants to avoid performance of multiple obligations when the promisee has already performed and has no further obligations concurrent with the promisor's performance (see 15 Williston on Contracts §45:7 [4th ed.]).
While Orbitz contends that Trilegiant has been unable to forfeit earnings from new DataPass customers since it ceased the practice in January 2010, that fact has no bearing on whether there was consideration for the termination payment provision in the MSA. The termination payments were part of the original MSA (see MSA at Ex. B), and Trilegiant is correct when it asserts that the existence of consideration for the MSA itself, whether "consist[ing] of either a benefit to the promisor or a detriment to the promisee" (Weiner v McGraw-Hill, 57 NY2d 458, 464 ), is not a disputed material fact in this case.
Additionally, courts do not look to the adequacy of consideration provided that there was consideration, "absent fraud or unconscionability" (Apfel v Prudential-Bache Sec. Inc., 81 NY2d 470, 476 ). There are no allegations that the MSA was fraudulently agreed upon or that it is unconscionable. Further, this Court has already held that the termination payments in the MSA do not constitute a penalty or unenforceable liquidated damages (see NYSCEF Doc. No. 97 at ¶5, Order entered 12/24/2013).
As this Court has previously stated, if these sophisticated parties to the original MSA wanted Orbitz's promise to pay each quarterly termination payment to be contingent on Trilegiant's continued use of DataPass and subsequent forfeiture of revenues, they could have so stipulated in the MSA (see NYSCEF Doc. No. 89 at p 6, Entered 10/7/2013). This Court finds that Orbitz's promise to pay all quarterly termination payments is supported by the same bargained-for consideration given by Trilegiant in exchange for Orbitz's various promises in the MSA as a whole.
Second, the court rejected Orbitz’s argument that Trilegiant lacked standing because it could not show that it was “ready, willing and able” to perform its obligations. The court reasoned:
Orbitz argues that its early termination in 2007 triggered the MSA liquidated damages remedy and that even though Trilegiant was relieved of its obligation to perform it still had to show it was able. Orbitz further argues that Trilegiant has adduced "no evidence whatsoever to prove that it was ready, willing, and able to perform its obligations under the MSA as of the time Defendants stopped making payments in 2010" (Orbitz's Memorandum of Law at p 10).
Whether the remedy constitutes liquidated damages or a separate provision of the MSA that establishes new obligations for Trilegiant and Orbitz whereby Orbitz is obligated to make quarterly payments and Trilegiant essentially is obligated only to collect them, is irrelevant in light of the fact that Trilegiant claims only general damages, which "include money that the breaching party agreed to pay under the contract" (See Biotronik A.G. v Conor Medsystems Ireland, LTD 22 NY3d 799, 805,  citing Tractebel Energy Marketing, Inc. v AEP Power Marketing, Inc., 487 F3d 89, 109 [2d Cir 2007]).
Trilegiant is not required to show its ability to perform through September 30, 2016, the date of the final quarterly termination payment. Even if, arguendo, Trilegiant was required to show it could have performed its obligations under the MSA, Orbitz's argument that those obligations would have included an ability to perform DataPass is unpersuasive. Whether Exhibit B of the MSA constitutes liquidated damages or a separate provision of the contract, Trilegiant is not textually obligated to do anything except not market to Orbitz's customers.
Furthermore, liquidated damage clauses benefit both potential plaintiffs "who [are] relieved of the difficult, if not impossible, calculation of damage, item by item" and potential defendants "who [are] insulated against a potentially devastating monetary claim in the event" of a breach and "[t]hus, public policy is served by the implementation of such clauses" (X.L.O. Concrete Corp. at 186).
Finally, the court rejected Orbitz’s argument that Trilegiant violated a warranty provision in the MSA in which the parties promised that performance of the agreement did not violate any law. The court reasoned:
While Orbitz contends that Trilegiant and similar DataPass practitioners "violated the rights of millions of Americans" (Orbitz's Response at 13), ROSCA does not refer to the violation of consumers' "rights" when it describes the actions of third party sellers, such as Trilegiant, who purchased consumers' credit card information (15 U.S.C. §8401 at Sec. 2). ROSCA's findings instead refer to DataPass as something that undermined consumer confidence and "defied consumers' expectations" (id. at Sec. 2(7)).
This Court has already held that ROSCA does not make any violating contracts unenforceable and the MSA is enforceable despite DataPass being presently illegal (see NYSCEF Doc. No. 89 at p 5, Entered 10/7/2013). Moreover, as this Court has already explained, "the primary purpose of ROSCA was to protect consumers (15 U.S.C. §8401), not marketers that were using DataPass as a tool" (NYSCEF Doc. No. 89 at p 4, Order entered 10/7/2013, citing Lloyd Capital Corp. v Pat Henchar, Inc., 80 NY2d 124, 127 ).
Orbitz claims that Trilegiant has failed to show that it was not in violation of Section 6.1 of the MSA, based on the concept that an "express warranty is as much a part of the contract as any other term" (CBS, Inc. v. Ziff-Davis Pub. Co., 75 NY2d 496, 503 ).
A breach of warranty claim is established "once the express warranty is shown to have been relied on as part of the contract," and the claiming party then has "the right to be indemnified in damages for its breach [and] the right to indemnification depends only on establishing that the warranty was breached" (id. at 504).
Orbitz argues that there are disputed issues of fact as to Trilegiant's alleged breach of warranty, but Orbitz has not alleged damages for which it could be indemnified nor has it alleged any evidence of Trilegiant's breach of warranty that is not rooted in ROSCA's condemnation of DataPass. This Court has already held that ROSCA's enactment and findings do not relieve Orbitz from its obligations under the MSA, holding that "as a general rule also, forfeitures by operation of law are disfavored, particularly where a defaulting party seeks to raise illegality as a sword for personal gain rather than a shield for the public good" (NYSCEF Doc. No. 89 at p 4, Entered 10/7/2013, quoting Lloyd Capital Corp. at 128 [internal quotations omitted]).
Orbitz tries to use ROSCA's findings that DataPass was bad for consumers and the economy and Trilegiant's cessation of DataPass activity as evidence of conduct that would violate the MSA Section 6.1. These allegations do not create a question of fact. This Court has already held that "ROSCA does not provide that any violating contracts are rendered unenforceable or that its provisions were intended to apply retroactively" (see NYSCEF Doc. No. 89 at p 5, Entered 10/7/2013), and Trilegiant ceased DataPass almost a year before ROSCA made the practice illegal.
A case worth watching.
Trilegiant Corp. v. Orbitz, LLC, 2014 NY Slip Op 24230 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. Aug. 20, 2014)(Ramos, J.).
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Imagine a world where specific performance of contracts is no longer a cause of action because the contracts themselves automatically execute the agreement of the parties. Or where escrow agents are replaced by rule- and software-driven technology. Imagine instantaneous recording of property records, easements and deeds. Imagine a world where an auto owner who is late on his payment will be locked out of his car. While these scenarios may seem to come from a futuristic fantasy world, innovations offered by the Bitcoin 2.0 generation of technology may create a world where these seeming marvels are an every-day occurrence, and technology renders some contract causes of action obsolete.
How could that be? Hinkes explains:
Bitcoin and other virtual currencies are powered by blockchain technology, which maintains and verifies all transactions in that virtual currency through a massive, publically available ledger. The transparency created by the blockchain eliminates the need for trusted third parties, like credit card processors or banks, to take part in these transactions. Because anyone can see the transactions, virtual currency cannot be transferred to more than one party, or “double spent,” which is a key feature that preserves the integrity of the blockchain system. This same blockchain technology can be purposed to facilitate, verify and enforce the terms of agreements automatically without the need for human interaction using what are termed “smart contracts.”
The blockchain, of course, cannot physically enforce a contract, or actually compel a person or entity to do anything. Instead, the blockchain can be used to enforce certain pre-determined rules that can move an asset from person to person by agreement. Ownership of goods could be associated with a specialized coin, which can be transferred between parties along with payment in a virtual currency system, or in a specialized implementation of blockchain technology.
Hinkes provides an example of how the technology can ensure performance:
Examining a simple real estate transaction can demonstrate how smart contracts could drastically alter the way business is conducted. Presently, Party A and Party B would enter into a contract that requires Party A to pay $200,000.00 to Party B in exchange for Party B agreeing to convey title to Party B’s condominium unit to Party A upon receipt of payment. If Party A pays the money, but Party B later refuses to convey title, Party A is required to hire an attorney to seek specific performance of that contract, or to obtain damages. The determination of the outcome will be made by a third party- a judge, jury, or arbitrator.
Using a smart contract, however, avoids the potential for one party to perform while the other refuses or fails to perform. Using a smart contract, Party A and Party B can agree to the same transaction, but structure it differently. In this scenario, Party A will agree to pay $200,000.00 worth of virtual currency to Party B, and Party B will agree to transmit the title to the condominium in a specialized type of coin on the blockchain. When Party A transfers the virtual currency to Party B, this action serves as the triggering event for Party B, which then automatically sends the specialized coin which signifies the title to the condominium at issue to Party A. The transfer is then complete, and Party A’s ownership of the condominium is verifiable through a publically available record on the blockchain.
Friday, July 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A woman owes $20 to Kohl’s on a credit card. The debt collector allegedly started to “harass” the woman over the debt, calling her cell phone up to 22 times per week as early as 6 a.m. and occasionally after midnight. What would a reasonable customer do? Probably pay the debt, which the woman admits was only a “measly $20.” What did this woman do? Not to pay the small debt, telling the caller that they had “the wrong number,” and follow the great American tradition of filing suit, alleging violations of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act which, among other things, makes it illegal to call cell phones using auto dialers or prerecorded voices without the recipient’s consent.
Consumer protection rules also prohibit collection agencies from calling before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., calling multiple times during one day, leaving voicemail messages at a work number, or continuing to call a work phone number if told not to.
Last year, Bank of America agreed to pay $32 million to settle claims relating to allegations of illegally using robo-debt collectors. Discover also settled a claim alleging that they violated the rules by calling people’s cell phones without their consent. Just recently, a man’s recorded 20-minute call to Comcast pleading with their representative to cancel his cable and internet service went viral online.
The legal moral of these stories is that companies are not and should, of course, not be allowed to harass anyone to collect on debt owed to them or refuse to cancel services no longer wanted. However, what about companies such as Kohl’s who are presumably owed very large amounts of money although in the form of many small debts? Is it reasonable that customers such as the above can do what she admits doing, simply saying “screw it” to the company and in fact reverse the roles of debtor and creditor by hoping for a settlement via a lawsuit on a questionable background? Surely not.
I once owned a small company and can attest to the difficulty of collecting on debts even with extensive accurate documentation. The only way my debt collecting service or myself were able to collect many outstanding amounts was precisely to make repeat requests and reminders (although, of course, in a professional manner). As a matter of principle, customers should not be able to get away with simply choosing not to pay for services or products they have ordered, even if the outstanding amounts are small. If companies have followed the law, perhaps time has come for them to refuse settling to once again re-establish the roles of debtor and creditor. This, one could hope, would lead irresponsible consumers to live up to their financial obligations, as must the rest of society.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, I blogged here on Aereo’s attempt to provide inexpensive TV programming to consumers by capturing and rebroadcasting cable TV operators’ products without paying the large fees charged by those operators. The technology is complex, but at bottom, Aereo argued that they were not breaking copyright laws because they merely enabled consumers to capture TV that was available over airwaves and via cloud technology anyway.
In the recent narrow 6-3 Supreme Court ruling, the Courts said that Aereo was “substantially similar” to a cable TV company since it sold a service that enabled subscribers to watch copyrighted TV programs shortly after they were broadcast by the cable companies. The Court found that “Aereo performs petitioners’ works publicly,” which violates the Copyright Act. The fact that Aereo uses slightly different technology than the cable companies does not make a “critical difference,” said the Court. Since the ruling, Aereo has suspended its operations and posted a message on its website that calls the Court’s outcome "a massive setback to consumers."
Whether or not the Supreme Court is legally right in this case is debatable, but it at least seems to be behind the technological curve. Of course the cable TV companies resisted Aereo’s services just as IBM did not predict the need for very many personal computers, Kodak failed to adjust quickly enough to the digital camera craze, music companies initially resisted digital files and online streaming of songs. But if companies want to survive in these technologically advanced times, it clearly does not make sense to resist technological changes. They should embrace not only technology, but also, in a free market, competition so long as, of course, no laws are violated. We also do not use typewriters anymore simply to protect the status quo of the companies that made them.
It is remarkable how much cable companies attempt to resist the fact that many, if not most, of us simply do not have time to watch hundreds of TV stations and thus should not have to buy huge, expensive package solutions. Not one of the traditional cable TV companies seem to consider the business advantage of offering more individualized solutions, which is technologically possible today. Instead, they are willing to waste money and time on resisting change all the way to the Supreme Court, not realizing that the change is coming whether or not they want it.
Surely an innovative company will soon be able to work its way around traditional cable companies’ strong position on this market while at the same time observing the Supreme Court’s markedly narrow holding. Some have already started doing so. Aereo itself promises that it is only “paus[ing] our operations temporarily as we consult with the court and map out our next steps.”
Monday, July 7, 2014
H/T to Eric Goldman for sharing with the list a new case from Judge Lucy Koh of the federal district court of Northern California. Tompkins v. 23andMe provides a detailed analysis of 23andMe's wrap contracts. The case involves the same Terms of Service presented as a hyperlink at the bottom of the website's pages, and then later, post-purchase and at the time of account creation, as a hyperlink that requires a "click" in order to proceed (which I refer to as a "multi-wrap" as it's neither browsewrap nor clickwrap but a little of both). The court says the former presentation lacks notice, but the latter constitutes adequate formation. Eric Goldman provides a detailed analysis of the case here.
Not surprisingly, the Terms contained a unilateral modification clause which was briefly discussed in the context of substantive unconscionability. It was not, however, raised as a defense to formation, i.e. to argue that the promises made by 23andme were illusory.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
What would you say if you found out that Facebook used your kids’ names and profile pictures to promote various third-party products and services to other kids? Appalling and legally impossible as minors cannot contract? That’s just what a group of plaintiffs (all minors) attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against Facebook argued recently, but to no avail. Here’s what happened:
Kids sign up on Facebook, “friend” their friends and add other information as well as their profile pictures. Facebook takes that information and display it to your kids’ friends, but alongside advertisements. The company insists that they do “nothing more than take information its users have voluntarily shared with their Facebook friends, and republish it to those same friends, sometimes alongside a related advertisement.” How does this happen? A program called “Social Ads” allows third parties to add their own content to the user material that is displayed when kids click on each other’s information.
The court dismissed the complaint, finding no viable theory on which it could find the user agreements between the kids and Facebook viable. In California, where the case was heard, Family Code § 6700 sets out the general rule for minors’ ability to contract: “… a minor may make a contract in the same manner as an adult, subject to the power of disaffirmance.” The plaintiffs had argued that as a general rule, minors cannot contract. That, said the court, is turning the rule on its head: minors can, as a starting point, contract, but they can affirmatively disaffirm the contracts if they wish to do so. In this case, they had not sought to do so before bringing suit.
Plaintiffs also argued that under § 6701, minors cannot delegate their power to, in effect, appoint Facebook as their agent who could then use their images and information. Wrong, said the court. Kids signing up on Facebook is “no different from the garden-variety rights a contracting party may obtain in a wide variety of contractual settings. Facebook users have, in effect, simply granted Facebook the right to use their names in pictures in certain specified situations in exchange for whatever benefits they may realize from using the Facebook site.”
In its never-ending quest to increase profits, Corporate America once again prevailed. Even children are not free from being used for this purpose. The only option they seemed to have had in this situation would have been to disaffirm the “contract;” in other words, to stop using Facebook. To me, that does not seem like a difficult choice, but I imagine the vehement protests instantly launched against parents asking their kids to stop using the popular website. Of course, kids are a highly attractive target audience. Some already have quite a bit of disposable income. They are all potential long-time customers for products/services not directed only at kids. Corporate name recognition is important in connection with this relatively impressionable audience. But is this acceptable? After all, there is an obvious reason why minors can disaffirm contracts. This option, however, would often require intense and perhaps undesirable parent supervision. In 2014, it is probably unreasonable to ask one’s kids not to be on social media (although the actual benefits of it are also highly debatable).
Although the legal outcome of this case is arguably correct, its impacts and the taste it leaves in one’s mouth are bad for unwary minors and their parents.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
"You can stop using our Services at any time, although we’ll be sorry to see you go. Google may also stop providing Services to you, or add or create new limits to our Services at any time."
and this unilateral modification clause:
"We may modify these terms or any additional terms that apply to a Service to, for example, reflect changes to the law or changes to our Services. You should look at the terms regularly. We’ll post notice of modifications to these terms on this page. We’ll post notice of modified additional terms in the applicable Service. Changes will not apply retroactively and will become effective no sooner than fourteen days after they are posted. However, changes addressing new functions for a Service or changes made for legal reasons will be effective immediately. If you do not agree to the modified terms for a Service, you should discontinue your use of that Service."
Sunday, May 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, Jeremy Telman blogged here about the insanity of having to pay for hundreds of TV stations when one really only wants to, or has time to, watch a few.
Luckily, change may finally be on its way. The company Aereo is offering about 30 channels of network programming on, so far, computers or mobile devices using cloud technology. The price? About $10 a month, surely a dream for “cable cutters” in the areas which Aereo currently serves.
How does this work? Each customer gets their own tiny Aereo antenna instead of having to either have a large, unsightly antenna on their roofs or buying expensive cable services just to get broadcast stations. In other words, Aereo enables its subscribers to watch broadcast TV on modern, mobile devices at low cost and with relative technological ease. In other words, Aereo records show for its subscribers so that they don’t have to.
That sounds great, right? Not if you are the big broadcast companies in fear of losing millions or billions of dollars (from the revenue they get via cable companies that carry their shows). They claim that this is a loophole in the law that allows private users to record shows for their own private use, but not for companies to do so for commercial gain and copyright infringement.
Of course, the great American tradition of filing suit was followed. Most judges have sided with Aero so far, the networks have filed petition for review with the United States Supreme Court, which granted the petition in January.
Stay tuned for the outcome in this case…
Friday, May 9, 2014
Andrew Muennink, a senior at Round Rock High School in Texas, struck a deal with Cindy House, his art teacher: if he gets 15,000 retweets of a photo by noon on May 23, she will not require the students to take the art final exam. The photo depicts them shaking on the deal and the writing on the blackboard behind them sets out the key terms:
Apparently, Muennink's first offer to Ms. House was 5,000 retweets, but they ultimately struck the deal at 15,000. What if he reaches 15,000? Then, Muennink says, "I'd be the man!" As of this writing, he's reached 6,117 retweets.
Muennink's bargain has inspired high school students across the U.S. - with some negotiating a better deal (10,000 retweets for no final) and others negotiating a much more difficult goal (250,000 tweets - and this student really needs the retweets because she "barely went to . . . class").
These students were apparently concerned about the statute of frauds and included signatures on the blackboard:
If you are inclined to retweet and save a high school student from a final, the hashtag is #nofinal.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A class-action lawsuit filed recently against Amazon asserts that the giant online retailer did not honor its promise to offer “free shipping” to its Prime members in spite of these members having paid an annual membership fee of $79 mainly in order to obtain free two-day shipping.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Amazon would covertly encourage third-party vendors to increase the item prices displayed and charged to Prime members by the same amount charged to non-Prime members for shipping in order to make it appear as if the Prime members would get the shipping for free. Amazon would allegedly also benefit from such higher prices as it deducts a referral fee as a percentage of the item price from third-party vendors.
The suit alleges breach of contract and seeks recovery of Prime membership costs for the relevant years as well as treble damages under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. Most states have laws such as consumer fraud statutes, deceptive trade practices laws, and/or unfair competition laws that can punish sellers for charging more than the actual costs of “shipping and handling." In some cases that settled, companies agreed to use the term “shipping and processing” instead of “shipping and handling” to be more clear towards consumers.
On the flip side of the situation is how Amazon outright prevents at least some private third-party vendors from charging the actual shipping costs (not even including “handling” or “processing” charges). For example, if a private, unaffiliated vendor sells a used book via Amazon, the site will only allow that person to charge a certain amount for shipping. As post office and UPS/FedEx costs of mailing items seem to be increasing (understandably so in at least the case of the USPS), the charges allowed for by Amazon often do not cover the actual costs of sending items. And if the private party attempts to increase the price of the book even just slightly to not incur a “loss” on shipping, the book may not be listed as the cheapest one available and thus not be sold.
This last issue may be a detail as the site still is a way of getting one’s used books sold at all whereas that may not have been possible without Amazon. Nonetheless, the totality of the above allegations, if proven to be true, and the facts just described till demonstrate the contractual powers that modern online giants have over competitors and consumers.
A decade or so ago, I attended a business conference for other purposes. I remember how one presenter, when discussing “shipping and handling” charges, got a gleeful look in his eyes and mentioned that when it came to those charges, it was “Christmas time.” When comparing what shipping actually costs (not that much for large mail-order companies that probably enjoy discounted rates with the shipping companies) with the charges listed by many companies, it seems that not much has changed in that area. On the other hand, promises of “free” shipping have, of course, been internalized in the prices charged somehow. One can hope that companies are on the up-and-up about the charges. Again: buyer beware.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
According to this article in today's New York Times, General Mills has added language to its website designed to force anyone who interacts with the company to disclaim any right to bring a legal action against it in a court of law. If a consumer derives any benefit from General Mills' products, including using a coupon provided by the company, "liking" it on social media or buying any General Mills' product, the consumer must agree to resolve all disputes through e-mail or through arbitration.
The website now features a bar at the top which reads:
The Legal Terms include the following provisions:
- The Agreement applies to all General Mills products, including Yoplait, Green Giant, Pillsbury, various cereals and even Box Tops for Education;
- The Agreement automatically comes into effect "in exchange for benefits, discounts," etc., and benefits are broadly defined to include using a coupon, subscribing to an e-mail newsletter, or becoming a member of any General Mills website;
- The only way to terminate the agreement is by sending written notice and discontinuing all use of General Mills products;
- All disputes or claims brought by the consumer are subject to e-mail negotiation or arbitration and may not be brought in court; and
- A class action waiver.
The Times notes that General Mills' action comes after a judge in California refused to dismiss a claim against General Mills for false advertising. Its packaging suggests that its "Nature Valley" products are 100% natural, when in fact they contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. The Times also points out that courts may be reluctant to enforce the terms of the online Agreement. General Mills will have to demonstrate that consumers were aware of the terms when they used General Mills products. And what if, when they did so, they were wearing an Ian Ayres designed Liabili-T?
Monday, March 3, 2014
My student, Sam Henderson (who blogs here), directed my attention to this report on the Legal Informatics Blog about blockchain contracting and conveyancing systems. Blockchain technology is apparently one of the many things that makes Bitcoin transactions foolproof, genius-proof, and completely impervious to rampant speculation, financial catastrophe and the bankruptcy of major dealers in the virtual currency. So, like Bitcoin itself, applying blockchain technology could only democratize and decentralize commercial law, or so maintains this blog post on Thought Infection.
What a strange idea.
Contracts are private legislation. They are already about as democratic and decentralized as they could possibly be. Sure, they are governed by the relevant laws of the relevant jurisdictions, but blockchain technology would not change that. In any case, the law of contracts already permits the parties to choose the law that will govern them (within reason), so that's pretty decentralized and democratic.
What is not democratic and decentralized about commercial law is the fact that contracts tend to be drafted by the powerful and imposed upon people as take-it-or-leave it deals through form contracting. Given the complexity of the technologies associated with Bitcoin, it seems unlikely that adding layers of technology to commercial law would render it more democratic and less centralized.
Unfortunately, Thought Infection's post is misinformed about contracts. He writes
Whereas today contracts are restricted to deals with enough value to justify a lawyers time (mortgages, business deals, land transfer etc…), in the future there is no limit to what could be codified into simple contracts. You could imagine forming a self-enforcing contract around something as simple as sharing a lawnmower with your neighbor, hiring a babysitter, or forming a gourmet coffee club at work. Where this could really revolutionize things is in developing nations, where the ability to exchange small-scale microloans with self-enforcing contractual agreements that come at little or no cost would be a quantum leap forward.
Here are the problems with this as I see it:
- Contracts are not restricted; they are ubiquitous;
- Contracts do not require lawyers; they are formed all the time through informal dealings that are nonetheless legally binding so long as the requisite elements of contract formation are present;
- To some extent, Thought Infection's imagined contracts already are contracts, and to the extent that they are not contracts it is because people often choose to form relationships that are not governed by law (e.g., do you really want to think about the legal implications of hiring a baby sitter -- taxes, child-labor laws, workman's comp . . . yuck!); and
- Microloans are already in existence, and the transactions costs associated with contracts do not seem to be a major impediment.
Look, I'm not a Luddite (I blog too), but I also don't think that technology improves our lives with each touch. Technology usually makes our lives more efficient, but it can also make our lives suckier in a more efficient way. Technology does not only promote democracy and decentralization; it also promotes invasions of privacy by the panopticon state and panopticon corporations or other private actors, reification of human interactions, commidication and alienation. It has not helped address income disparity on the national or the global scale, ushered in an era of egalitarian harmony overseen by benevolent governments or pastoral anarchy.
As to contracts specifically, however, there are lots of ways to use technology that are available now and are generally useful. Last week, we discussed Kingsley Martin's presentation at KCON 9. Kingsley has lots of ideas about how to deploy technology to improve sophisticated contracting processes. But for the more mundane agreements, there is a nifty little app that a couple of people mentioned at KCON 9 called Shake. For those of you looking for a neat way to introduce simple contracts to your students, or for those of you who want to make the sorts of deals that Thought Infection thinks we need blockchain to achieve, Shake is highly interactive, fun and practical.