Thursday, November 21, 2013
It’s my pleasure to respond to Tuesday’s posts from Juliet Moringiello and Woodrow Hartzog. Juliet Moringiello asks whether wrap contracts are different enough to warrant different terminology. Moringiello’s knowledge in this area of law is both wide and deep and her article (Signals, Assent and Internet Contracting, 57 Rutgers L. Rev. 1307) greatly informed my thinking on the signaling effects of wrap contracts. The early electronic contracting cases involved old- school clickwraps where the terms were presented alongside the check box and their signaling effects were much stronger than browsewraps. Nowadays, the more common form of ‘wrap is the “multi-wrap,” such as that employed by Facebook and Google with a check or click required to manifest consent but the terms visible only by clicking on a hyperlink. Because they are everywhere, and have become seamlessly integrated onto websites, consumers don’t even see them. Moringiello writes that today’s 25-year old is more accustomed to clicking agree than signing a contract. I think that’s true and it’s that ubiquity which diminishes their signaling effects. Because we are all clicking constantly, we fail to realize the significance of doing so. It’s not the act alone that should matter, but the awareness of what the act means. I’m willing to bet that even among the savvy readers of this blog, none has read or even noticed every wrap agreement agreed to in the past week alone. I wouldn’t have made such a bold statement eight years ago.
Woodrow Hartzog provides a different angle on the wrap contract mess by looking at how they control and regulate online speech. With a few exceptions, most online speech happens on private websites that are governed by “codes of conduct.” In my book, I note that the power that drafting companies have over the way they present their contracts should create a responsibility to exercise that power reasonably. Hartzog expands upon this idea and provides terrific examples of how companies might indicate “specific assent” which underscore just how much more companies could be doing to heighten user awareness. For example, he explains how a website’s privacy settings (e.g. “only friends” or authorized “followers”) could be used to enable a user to specifically assent to certain uses. (His example is a much more creative way to elicit specific assent than the example of multiple clicking which I use in my book which is not surprising given his previous work in this area).
Hartzog also explains how wrap contracts that incorporate community guidelines may also benefit users by encouraging civil behavior and providing the company with a way to regulate conduct and curb hate speech and revenge porn. I made a similar point in this article. I am, however, skeptical that community guidelines will be used in this way without some legal carrot or stick, such as tort or contract liability. (Generally, these types of policies are viewed in a one-sided manner, enforceable as contracts against the user but not binding against the company). On the contrary, the law – in the form of the Communications Decency Act, section 230- provides website with immunity from liability for content posted by third parties. Some companies, such as Facebook, Twitter or Google, have a public image to maintain and will use their discretionary power under these policies to protect that image. But the sites where bad stuff really happens– the revenge porn and trash talking sites – have no reason to curb bad behavior since their livelihood depends upon it. And in some cases, the company uses the discretionary power that a wrap contract allocates to it to stifle speech or conduct that the website doesn’t like. A recent example involves Yelp, the online consumer review company that is suing a user for posting positive reviews about itself. Yelp claims that the positive reviews are fake and is suing the user because posting fake reviews violates its wrap contract. What’s troubling about the lawsuit, however, is that (i) Yelp almost never sues its users, even those who post fake bad reviews, and (ii) the user it is suing is a law firm that earlier, had sued Yelp in small claims court for coercing it into buying advertising. To make matters worse, the law firm’s initial victory against Yelp (where the court compared Yelp’s sales tactics to extortion by the Mafia) for $2,700 was overturned on appeal. The reason? Under the terms of Yelp’s wrap contract, the law firm was required to arbitrate all claims. The law firm claims that arbitration would cost it from $4,000-$5,000.
I agree with Hartzog that wrap contracts have the potential to shape behavior in ways that benefit users, but most companies will need some sort of legal incentive or prod to actually employ them in that way.
Monday, October 7, 2013
I’ve been meaning to blog about a Fourth Circuit opinion that went under noticed, although it should have raised alarm bells. That opinion, rendered in Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc. v. American Home Realty Network, Inc.,722 F.3d 591 (July 17, 2013) held that copyright could be transferred via a clickwrap.
The TOU states:
“All images submitted to the MRIS Service become the exclusive property of (MRIS). By submitting an image, you hereby irrevocably assign (and agree to assign) to MRIS, free and clear of any restrictions or encumbrances, all of your rights, title and interest in and to the image submitted. This assignment includes, without limitation all worldwide copyrights in and to the image, and the right to sue for past and future infringements.”
The defendant, AHR, operates a website, NeighborCity.com which displays real estate listings using a variety of sources, including photographs taken from the MRIS website.
MRIS sued AHR for copyright infringement. Photographs are protected under the Copyright Act. Section 204 of the Copyright Act requires that transfers of copyright ownership require a writing that is signed by the owner. AHR argued that MRIS did not own the copyright to the photographs because its TOU failed to transfer those rights. The issue then was whether a subscriber who clicks agreement to a TOU has “signed” a “written transfer” of the copyright in a way that meets the requirement of Section 204. The Fourth Circuit found that “(t)o invalidate copyright transfer agreements solely because they were made electronically would thwart the clear congressional intent embodied in the E-Sign Act. We therefore hold that an electronic agreement may effect a valid transfer of copyright interests under Section 204 of the Copyright Act.”
Given the reality that few read wrap contracts, holding that an author/creator can give up copyright with a click is alarming. The opinion is a prime example of a court doing what is arguably the right thing for reasons of business competition but creating an alarming precedent in the process. Shades of ProCD! Online businesses will certainly benefit from this decision, but creators - not so much. They may realize too late that when they clicked to upload content, they also assigned their rights to their work. This is especially problematic since the primary reason creators use some of these sites is to get publicity for their work. The bargain, in other words, may be quite different from what the creator might have intended.
So - all you creators out there - BEWARE and check out those terms before you click. They may not be as harmless as you think.
H/T to my former student, Leslie Burns and her blog.
Monday, September 30, 2013
Modelmayhem.com (“Modelmayhem”) is a nationwide modeling industry website. Shana Edme (“Edme”) joined the site to further her modeling career. After several photographs of Edme modeling lingerie were disseminated and viewed without her permission, Edme commenced an action in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York (“EDNY”) against Modelmayhem (among others). Edme claimed that the site violated her right to privacy under New York State statutes.
The court began with a discussion of contracting and the Internets:
The conclusory statement by Modelmayhem that "New York law specifically recognizes 'Terms and Conditions' posted on a website as a binding contract" (Modelmayhem's Mem. at 6) completely ignores the developing discussion within this Circuit (and courts nationwide) regarding what actions by an internet user manifests one's asset to contractual terms found on a website. "While new commerce on the Internet has exposed courts to many new situations, it has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract." Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 403 (2d Cir. 2004). "Mutual manifestation of assent, whether by written or spoken word or by conduct" is one such principle. Specht v. Netscape Commc'ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 29 (2d Cir. 2002). As Judge Johnson of this District previously explained:
The Court then discussed Modelmayhem’s failure to explain how Edme became bound to the terms on the website. Modelmayhem could have presented Edme with the terms in a number of ways:
Edme v. Internet Brands, 12 CV 3306 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2013)(Hurley, J.).
[Meredith R. Miller]
Friday, July 19, 2013
Apple had a MFN clause in its contracts with five major book publishers. Last week, Judge Denise Cote (SDNY) held that this clause was part of a conspiracy to fix e-book prices. The contracts required the publishers to give Apple’s iTunes store the best deal in the marketplace on e-books.
What does this decision mean for MFN clauses, which are used in a number of industry contracts? The WSJ took up this topic in a recent article:
Defendants in antitrust cases have liked to have the sound bite that no court has found an MFN to be anticompetitive," said Mark Botti, a former Justice Department antitrust lawyer now in private practice. "They can no longer say that."
Apple, meanwhile, has strongly denied that it conspired to fix prices, and has said it will appeal the decision.
Judge Cote avoided a broad denunciation of MFN clauses, but her decision could haunt contract negotiations in industries as diverse as entertainment and health care, legal experts said. In recent years, the Justice Department has sued a few companies over the use of MFN clauses and is investigating others.
"While most favored-nation clauses can be competitively benign, when they are used as a tool to engage in anticompetitive conduct that harms consumers, the Antitrust Division will take enforcement action," said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer, who oversees the division at the Justice Department.
MFN clauses guarantee the recipient the lowest prices or rates charged to any buyer. While in theory that could encourage competition and lower prices for consumers, in practice such agreements sometimes end up establishing a minimum price, according to antitrust lawyers and government officials.
Apple said the provisions guaranteed its customers would get the lowest price for new and popular e-books. But Judge Cote offered a less-flattering interpretation.
"[The MFN] eliminated any risk that Apple would ever have to compete on price when selling e-books, while as a practical matter forcing the publishers to adopt the agency model across the board," she wrote in her 160-page ruling.
The article reports that the Justice Department is expected to request that the court “impose a variety of conditions on Apple's business, including barring the company from using MFN clauses,” sending the viability of MFN clauses into doubt.
More of the article here on the WSJ site (subscription required).
[Meredith R. Miller]
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The Sacramento Bee reports that a California legislative committee (if you really want to know, it’s called the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media committee) “gutted” a bill that would have illegalized “paperless” tickets. Paperless tickets are more (or is it less?) than what they sound like – they are a way for companies like Ticketmaster to sell seats without permitting purchasers to resell those seats. Purchasers must show their ID and a credit card to attend the show. The bill pitted two companies, Live Nation (owner of Ticketmaster) and StubHub, against each other.
This bill and the related issues should be of interest to contracts profs because it highlights the same license v. sale issues that have cropped up in other market sectors where digital technologies have transformed the business landscape. Like software vendors and book publishers, Ticketmaster is concerned about the effect of technology and the secondary marketplace on its business. Vendors, using automated software (“bots”), can quickly purchase large numbers of tickets and then turn around and sell these tickets in the secondary marketplace (i.e. at StubHub) at much higher prices. Both companies argue that the other is hurting consumers. Ticketmaster argues that scalpers hurt fans, who are unable to buy tickets at the original price and must buy them at inflated prices. Stub Hub, on the other hand, argues that paperless tickets hurt consumers because they are unable to resell or transfer their tickets.
The underlying question seems to be whether a ticket is a license to enter a venue or is it more akin to a property right that can be transferred. Or rather, should a ticket be permitted to be only a license or only a property right that can be transferred? The proposed pre-gutted legislation would have taken that decision out of the hands of the parties (the seller and the purchaser) and mandated that it be a property right that could be transferred. In other words, it would have made a ticket something that could not be a contract. Of course, given the adhesive nature of these types of sales, a ticket as contract would end up being like any other mass consumer contract – meaning the terms would be unilaterally imposed by the seller. In this case, that would mean the ticket would be a license and not a sale of a property right.
It’s not just the media giants who are feeling the disruptive effect of technology - we contracts profs feel it, too.
[NB: My original post confused StubHub with the vendors who use the site. StubHub is the secondary marketplace where tickets can be resold. Thanks to Eric Goldman for pointing that out].
Monday, March 4, 2013
( H/T to Ben Davis -and his student - for posting about the article to the Contracts Prof list serv).
This article indicates that the average Internet user would need 76 work days in order to read all the privacy policies that she encounters in a year. (Unfortunately, the link to the study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon researchers and cited in the article doesn’t seem to be working). But you don’t need a study to tell you that privacy policies are long-winded and hard to find. That’s one of the reasons you don’t read them. Another is that they can be updated, often without prior notice, so what’s the point in reading terms that are constantly changing? Finally, what can you do about it anyway? Don’t like your bank’s privacy policies – good luck finding another bank with a better one.
So, what’s the difference between a contract and a notice? The big difference is that the enforceability of a notice depends upon the notice giver’s existing entitlements, i.e. property or proprietorship rights whereas a contract requires consent.
If I put a sign on my yard that says, Keep off the grass, I can enforce that sign under property and tort law. As long as the sign has to do with something that is entirely within my property rights to unilaterally establish, it’s enforceable. If the sign said, however, ‘Keep off the grass or you have to pay me $50” – well that’s a different matter entirely. That would require a contract because now it involves your property rights.
Privacy policies are more like notices – and should be treated as such even if they are in the form of a contract (such as a little clickbox that accompanies a hyperlink that says TERMS). If a company wants to elevate a notice to a contract, it should require a lot more than that simple click. Because the fact is, contract law currently does require the user to do more than click – it requires the user to read pages and pages of terms spread across multiple pages – at a cost of 76 days a year. The standard form contract starts to look a lot less efficient when viewed from the user’s perspective.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
I recently finished a book manuscript on the subject of “wrap contracts” – shrinkwraps, clickwraps, browsewraps, tapwraps, etc. These non-traditional contracts are interstitial, occupying space in and between contracts and internet law, but not neatly fitting into one alone. I'll be blogging a lot more about them in the future.
On the subject of wrap contracts, not long ago I bought a new laptop with Windows 8 pre-installed.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t have to agree to this:
What's interesting is that my old laptop, which I ordered online, came in a package like this:
Like the typical shrinkwrap, ripping the plastic bag (which was necessary to get to the laptop inside it) was deemed acceptance.
Both were examples of rolling contracts, but they came in different forms -- and neither gave me notice of any terms to come at the time of the transaction. Yet consider the hassle I would have to go through if I decided, after having received the goods and a "reasonable opportunity to read" the terms, that I didn't want to accept the terms. I would have to ship back the computer or take it back to the store, and try to explain that I was rejecting it because I disagreed with the contract terms.
Honestly, now - don't you think the retailer would just think I was nuts? Or that I had found a better deal elsewhere? (Or that I had done something sneaky, like somehow copied the software or infected the computer with a virus?) How many think I would actually get my money back if there was nothing (else) wrong with the laptop(s)?
Monday, October 22, 2012
Lawrence A. Cunningham is the Henry St. George Tucker III Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School. He is also the author of Contracts in the Real World.
Before wrapping up the symposium about Contracts in the Real World, I wanted to offer two posts on main themes of the contributions–which were wonderful.
The first concerns the role of politics in contract law adjudication. It emerged as a theme from several posts, explicitly by Dave and Miriam, implicitly byJake’s discussion of Baby M and by Nancy’s of ProCD, and more obliquely in Tom’s (and Miriam’s) reference to my notion of the “sensible center” in contract law.
Perhaps the safer way to put the point would be to say that the common law of contracts is among the least political of subjects in law. The book does recognize the potential for political factors, of course, including variation among states. And while it celebrates the impressive power of the common law of contracts to deal neutrally with change, it also notes limits.
This is most explicit in the case of Baby M and its contrast with California’s Baby Calvert. I agree with Jake, and his agreement with Dave, that these two cases illustrate the driving role that judicial worldviews, and perhaps local state outlooks, can play in the approach to a case and the outcome.
The pairing of the two cases helps to show such features, in a context where opposition seems particularly acute. This is the context of “public policy,” an area where the common law of contracts is often inferior to administrative or legislative solutions precisely because at stake are exquisitely political decisions. That’s why p. 56 notes that judges on both (or all) sides of the debate about surrogacy contracts “usually concede that better solutions are likely to come from legislation. As magisterial as the common law of contracts is, many of society’s vexing puzzles should be resolved by the legislative branch of government.”
The differences between California and New Jersey on surrogacy contracts reminds me of the differences, to which Dave adverts, between California and New York on the parol evidence rule. In California, Chief Justice Roger Traynor helped to forge a weak parol evidence rule, stressing context and reflecting skepticism of the unity of language, compared to New York, where judges since Andrews and Cardozo (noted at pp 7-8) have shown greater interest in finality and the security of exchange transactions.
Those differences, in the doctrine and underlying attitudes, are real. But as this example shows and Dave notes, this is not so easy to classify in political or ideological terms. It may be due more to New York’s history as a commercial center and may reflect something about how California is just a more relaxed place in general.
I think the example of ProCD, about which Miriam, Nancy and Jake commented, is an instance of the potential but vague role of politics or judicial worldview in contract adjudication. In the book, I summarize the case as a possible precedent for the main case, which concerned consumers “assenting” to inconspicuous terms in an on-line license—the Netscape spyware case. The ProCD precedent, I note, pointed in opposite directions for the Netscape case, forcing the judge to choose whether to follow in its path or not. The judge chose not to. The related facts seem to support that outcome. So far so good.
But given the charged setting of electronic commerce, I suspected that readers would have a sneaking suspicion that something else is going on. So I identify the judges—something done rarely in the book, as follows: at page 28 “[ProCD was written by] Frank Easterbrook, the federal judge in Chicago appointed by President Ronald Reagan” . . . and at page 27 “Netscape was written by Judge Sonia Sotomayor for a federal appellate court in New York, several years before her promotion by President [Barack] Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The real problem with ProCD may be more akin to the real problem with Baby M: even the common law of contracts nods. The issues are so novel and vexing that legislatures should act. Even the UCC—part of a long tradition in sales law recognizikng the limits of the common law—may not be readily adaptable to the world of electronic commerce, as Miriam’s post about ProCD hints.
But to return to the broader thrust of the sensible center and the generally apolitical quality of contract law, consider two points Jennifer made in her post. The first concerns the political fury that erupted amid the AIG bonus contracts. While politicians were calling for scalps and the company’s PR team intoned about the sanctity of contracts, Jennifer notes the op-ed I wrote summarizing the comparatively cool tools and results recognized by the common law of contracts.
Jennifer also calls attention to the list of conclusions at the end of Contracts in the Real World. Look at those statements of earthy contract law (some listed here) and it will be difficult to deny the truth or to detect a political or ideological edge within the spectrum of American political discourse. Let contract law do its knitting, and my own answer to Dave’s excellent question is that contract law really is pragmatic.
[Posted by JT]
Friday, August 3, 2012
HelloFax, the company that lets you send and receive digital faxes, has spun off its digital signature service into a new stand-alone product: HelloSign.
“Everyone has to sign documents, and it’s done in a really poor way right now, which is what we’re trying to fix,” Joseph Walla, CEO of HelloSign (and HelloFax) told Mashable.
Documents can be signed and securely returned to their sender from both the web and the company’s new iPhone application. Unlike some similar services and apps that are already out there, digital signatures using the service are free and unlimited so you can send and receive just a few documents — or all the contracts for your business — with the service at no cost.
On the iPhone application, you sign a document with your finger on the screen. Once you’re done signing, the signature is brought back into your document, then you can place it where you want it to go. The same experience can be done on your home computer using a mouse.
When you send documents to be signed with HelloSign you can also track those documents with read receipts and audit trails, so you know exactly what’s going on with the document every step of the way.
Walla says that, while digital signatures have been legal in the U.S. for any document that can be signed with a pen for the past 12 years, many companies are still using pen and paper to get the job done. He sees the service as being invaluable to companies and businesses that are faced with delays waiting on paperwork to be signed.
“What we found out is that the only reason people fax things is that the vast majority of these documents are being signed,” Walla said when we spoke to him about HelloFax earlier this year. “What we’ve found is a lot of people joined us for faxing, and now they’ve converted to electronic signatures. We have a lot users who were fax users and now they don’t fax at all.”
With HelloSign, contracts and the like can be handled almost instantly, saving everyone involved in the process valuable time. The only type of document the service can’t handle is one that requires a notary.
HelloSign and its iPhone app are available now. For a limited time, those who sign up for HelloSign will also receive 25GB of free storage from Box.
[Meredith R. Miller]
Monday, July 16, 2012
Via @thecontractsguy (aka Brian Rogers, if you don’t already, you should follow him on Twitter) retweeting @yanger_law, I learned of a recent federal district court case from Florida that held that an instant messaging (“IM”) conversation constituted a contract modification.
Smoking Everywhere, Inc., is a seller of e-cigarettes (hey, can I bum an e-smoke?) Smoking Everywhere contracted with CX Digital Media, Inc., to help with online marketing of a free e-cigarette promotion. CX Digital would place the ad with its affiliates to generate web traffic. I am oversimplifying the technology and metrics here, but basically the deal was that Smoking Everywhere would pay CX Digital around $45 for every completed sale that came via a customer clicking on and ad placed with one of CX Digital’s affiliates. The contract limited the deal to 200 sales per day.
After re-coding some pages for Smoking Everywhere, CX Digital believed it could drive more traffic and increase the sales it was sending CX Digital. The following exchange, part of a longer IM chat, occurred between “pedramcx” (Soltani) from CX Digital and “nicktouris” (Touris) from Smoking Everywhere:
pedramcx (2:49:45 PM): A few of our big guys are really excited about the new page and they’re ready to run it
pedramcx (2:50:08 PM): We can do 2000 orders/day by Friday if I have your blessing
pedramcx (2:50:39 PM): You also have to find some way to get the Sub IDs working
pedramcx (2:52:13 PM): those 2000 leads are going to be generated by our best affiliate and he’s legit
nicktouris is available (3:42:42 PM): I am away from my computer right now.
pedramcx (4:07:57 PM): And I want the AOR when we make your offer #1 on the network
nicktouris (4:43:09 PM): NO LIMIT
pedramcx (4:43:21 PM): awesome!
And, awesome!, indeed. CX Digital went from sending around 60-something sales a day to an average of over 1200 sales per day (with a peak of over 2800 sales in one day). Accordingly, CX Digital sent Smoking Everywhere an invoice for two months in 2009 that totaled over $1.3 million. And Smoking Everywhere refused to pay.
Among other issues, the question arose whether the IM conversation modified the existing contract. The district court held that it did:
The Court agrees a contract was formed but clarifies that Touris’s response acted as a rejection and counter-offer that Soltani accepted by then replying “awesome!” “In order to constitute an ‘acceptance,’ a response to an offer must be on identical terms as the offer and must be unconditional.” “A reply to an offer which purports to accept it but is conditional on the offeror’s assent to terms additional to or different from those offered is not an acceptance but is a counter-offer.” “The words and conduct of the response are to be interpreted in light of all the circumstances.”
Here, Touris’s response of “NO LIMIT” varies from the two specific terms Soltani offered and so acts as a counter-offer. Soltani proposed CX Digital provide 2,000 Sales per day and that CX Digital be the AOR or agent of record, a term of art meaning the exclusive provider of affiliate advertising on the advertising campaign. Touris makes a simple counter-offer that there be no limit on the number of Sales per day that CX Digital’s affiliates may generate and makes no mention of the AOR term. Soltani enthusiastically accepts the counter-offer by writing, “awesome!” and by beginning to perform immediately by increasing the volume of Sales.
Touris testified he could have been responding to something other than Soltani’s offer of 2,000 Sales per day when he said “NO LIMIT.” Touris acknowledged that he had engaged in contract negotiations about “changing the number of leads, changing URLs, deposits, that type of thing,” although he added, “we mainly spoke on the phone. A little bit of email but I had trouble receiving his emails so I mean we used Instant Messaging but you know there was a lot more than what was presented here, last court appearance.” The implication of this testimony was that Touris could have been responding to something else he and Soltani had discussed by phone. But when pressed on just what else he could have been referring to when he said “NO LIMIT,” Touris’s memory failed him. In particular, he denied that “NO LIMIT” was some kind of personal motto.
Indeed, neither Touris nor Taieb ever suggested any plausible alternative interpretation for why Touris wrote “NO LIMIT” to Soltani, nor did they explain the content of the alleged additional negotiations that took place outside of the September 2, 2009 instant messages or what effect those would have had on the apparent agreement the parties reached on September 2nd. Considering Touris’s admission that he was engaged in instant-message negotiations with Soltani about changing the number of leads along with the September 2nd instant-message transcript, directs the conclusion that those negotiations, wherever and however they occurred, culminated with a modification of the [original contract] when Touris and Soltani agreed to “NO LIMIT.”
Smoking Everywhere also observes that a significant amount of time — almost two hours— passed between Soltani’s offer of 2,000 Sales per day and Touris’s counter-offer of “NO LIMIT,” which it suggests adds uncertainty to the meaning of the conversation. However, more than an hour passes before Soltani added that he would like CX Digital to be the AOR; yet this is clearly part of Soltani’s offer. It is then only thirty-four minutes later that Touris responds “NO LIMIT.” Given that Touris testified he would not have approved such an increase without first discussing it with Taieb, one explanation for the time delay, if one is needed, is that Touris was doing just that — asking Taieb for approval.
(citations omitted). There was some ambiguity here and IM is pretty informal, but given the context, it seems like the court made the right call.
I don’t IM because I don’t understand it. Given the expectation of instantaneous communication, rather than IM, I prefer the telephone. [Notable exception: when you are in a space where you can't gossip aloud about colleagues]. But this case suggests, if you do IM, be careful what you type! It could lead to Smoking Guns Everywhere....
CX Digital Media, Inc. v. Smoking Everywhere, Inc. (S.D. Fl. Mar. 23, 2011) (Altonaga, J.).
[Meredith R. Miller]
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Clickwrap Isn’t Just for Consumers… Employee's Pattern-or-Practice Claim Does Not Trump Class Action Waiver
Bretta Karp sued her employer, CIGNA Healthcare, in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, alleging systematic gender discrimination. She purported to bring the suit as a class action. CIGNA moved to compel arbitration and argued that a class action and class-wide arbitration was waived under the company’s Dispute Resolution Policy.
In 1997, when Karp began her job with CIGNA she signed an acknowledgment of receipt of the dispute resolution policy in the Employee Handbook. At that time, the policy did not mention class actions or arbitrations. In 2005, CIGNA sent a company-wide e-mail informing employees that the Handbook had been updated to reflect changes in the policy. The e-mail contained a link to the Handbook and instructed employees to complete an electronic receipt indicating that they had received the Handbook. The e-mail indicated that failure to fill out the receipt could impact the employee’s future employment with the company. After two follow up emails reminding Karp to acknowledge receipt of the policy changes, she clicked “yes” on the Employee Handbook acknowledgment. The acknowledgment mentioned mandatory arbitration but did not mention the class arbitration waiver. In fact, the Employee Handbook referenced the dispute resolution policy and stated that full details were contained on CIGNA’s website; on the website, the dispute resolution policy specifically waived class-wide arbitration.
The parties did not dispute that Karp knowingly agreed to arbitrate her claims of gender discrimination. They disagreed, however, about whether Karp was entitled to bring a class-based pattern-or-practice claim. Karp argued that she did not agree to the class arbitration waiver. In an interesting contortion, the court held that CIGNA did not agree to permit class arbitration and could not be compelled to proceed on a class-wide basis. Here’s the reasoning (some citations omitted; emphasis in original):
The Court can only compel class arbitration if there is a “contractual basis for concluding that [the parties] agreed to do so.” Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1775 (emphasis in original)… The Supreme Court has recently emphasized that “the ‘changes brought about by the shift from bilateral arbitration to class-action arbitration’ are ‘fundamental,’” and thus non- consensual, “manufactured” class arbitration “is inconsistent with the FAA.” AT&T Mobility, 131 S. Ct. at 1750 (quoting Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1776).
Class arbitration is thus permissible only if both parties agree. Put another way, a party cannot be compelled to arbitrate class claims unless something in the contract indicates, at least implicitly, that it agreed to permit class arbitration. See Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1776; Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 646 F.3d 113, 124 (2d Cir. 2011) (“Stolt-Nielsen does not foreclose the possibility that parties may reach an ‘implicit’—rather than ‘express’—agreement to authorize class-action arbitration.”).
Here, the Handbook is silent on the issue of class arbitration. However, it states: “[b]y accepting employment . . . you have agreed to arbitrate serious employment-related disagreements between you and the Company . . . using the Company’s Employment Dispute Arbitration Policy and Employment Dispute Arbitration Rules and Procedures.” The company policy and procedures unambiguously provide that “[n]o class-wide arbitrations are allowed under the CIGNA Companies’ Employment Dispute Arbitration Policy or the Rules and Procedures,” and that “[e]ach party seeking resolution of its, his or her claims pursuant to an agreement to arbitrate under these Rules and Procedures must proceed individually. There shall be no class or representative actions permitted.”
Plaintiff disputes whether, under the circumstances, she agreed to the bar on class arbitration, or agreed to waive her class arbitration rights. There is certainly some question whether defendant’s policies and procedures can be enforced against plaintiff simply because she agreed to the terms of the Handbook. But there is no doubt that defendant did not agree to permit class arbitration. Indeed, its policies and procedures state clearly that class arbitration is not permitted. Accordingly, defendant cannot be compelled to submit to class arbitration. See AT&T Mobility, 131 S. Ct. at 1750 (stating that class arbitration must be consensual).
The court did state in a footnote that Karp may not have been provided with sufficient notice of the waiver because the Handbook incorporated the policies which were posted on the company’s website. The court also held that, by agreeing to arbitration, Karp could not litigate her claims in court as a class action.
Karp argued that her pattern-or-practice claim could not be vindicated in a bilateral arbitration because (1) case precedent required it to be brought as a class action and (2) as a practical matter, discovery would be too limited in arbitration. Plus, she could not obtain injunctive relief. The court essentially said that the pattern-or-practice claim is “unusual” with a “peculiar genesis” and was only a method of proof, not a claim in itself. The court broke from precedent requiring a pattern-or-practice to be established in a class action and held that Karp's substantive rights could still be vindicated in bilateral arbitration.
Karp v. Cigna, Case 4:11-cv-10361-FDS (D. Mass. April 18, 2012) (Saylor, J).
[Meredith R. Miller]
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
A federal district court in New York recently ruled in Lebowitz v. Dow Jones & Co. that the Wall Street Journal Online's subscriber agreement was not illusory merely because it had a provision that allowed it to change fees at any time. (H/T Eric Goldman's Technology & Marketing Law Blog which has been on a roll with 'wrap contract issues). Pursuant to their agreement, subscribers to the Wall Street Journal Online obtained access to the Wall Street Journal Online and Barron's Online. Dow Jones (parent of both companies) decided to spin off the Barron's service. Existing subscribers were then told they could continue to access one service, but could only access the other for an additional fee. Plaintiffs sued, claiming breach of contract. At issue, was the following clause of the subscription agreement:
"We may change the fees and charges then in effect, or add new fees or charges, by giving you notice in advance....This Agreements contains the final and entire agreement between us regarding your use of the Services and supersedes all previous and contemporaneous oral and written agreements regarding your use of the Services. We may discontinue or change the Services, or their availability to you, at any time."*
The court found that Dow Jones was expressly permitted to change its services and/or fees (it gets a little fuzzy which in the opinion) pursuant to this clause. Plaintiffs argued that interpreting the above clause to mean that Dow Jones can change the fees at any time (even during the term which has already been paid for), would render the argument illusory and so such an interpretation should be avoided. The question then was whether that clause rendered the agreement illusory. The court held that it did not because "Dow Jones acted reasonably, and therefore this provision of the Subscriber Agreement is not illusory." [This seems a bit backward. It should have said that courts will interpret a requirement of reasonableness into seemingly illusory contracts if it's clear the parties intended to enter into the contract - since the court concluded that Dow Jones didn't act unreasonably, there was no breach]. I'm not sure I agree with the court's decision and wish I had a copy of the entire agreement. It seems a better interpretation of the clause would be that Dow Jones could change the fees but that subscribers would be able to discontinue the subscription and get their prepaid amounts back if they did not like the increase. I don't think that was an option. The court seemed to think that there was no real harm done by changing the terms of the agreement (even before the subscription period had expired) because the majority of WSJ Online subscribers didn't access Barron's Online. (It may also have made a difference that plaintiffs were seeking class certification)
*This provision was accidentally dropped when I copied the text in the original version of this post.
** I plan to blog a little bit more about the notice aspects of this case after I've had a chance to review the pleadings in the case.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
In a putative class action, plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against Facebook alleging that the social networking site violated their right of privacy by misappropriating their names and likenesses for commercial endorsements without their consent. Plaintiffs, minors residing in Illinois, commenced the action in the Southern District of Illinois. Facebook moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of California pursuant to a forum selection clause in Facebook’s terms of service.
Before addressing the validity of the forum selection clause, the court had to determine whether plaintiffs (minors) could disaffirm the clause under the infancy doctrine. The court held that, because plaintiffs have used and continue to use Facebook, they could not disaffirm the forum selection clause. The court reasoned:
The infancy defense may not be used inequitably to retain the benefits of a contract while reneging on the obligations attached to that benefit. * * * Thus, “[i]f an infant enters into any contract subject to conditions or stipulations, the minor cannot take the benefit of the contract without the burden of the conditions or stipulations.” 5 Samuel Williston & Richard A. Lord, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 9:14 (4th ed. 1993 & Supp. 2011) (collecting cases). California law is in accord with “the equitable principle that minors, if they would disaffirm a contract, must disaffirm the entire contract, not just the irksome portions.” Holland v. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co., 75 Cal. Rptr. 669, 672 (Cal. Ct. App. 1969). “[N]o person, whether minor or adult, can be permitted to adopt that part of an entire transaction which is beneficial, and reject its burdens. This commanding principle of justice is so well established, that it has become one of the maxims of the law . . . . [Minors] must either accept or repudiate the entire contract,” and “they cannot retain [the contract’s] fruits and at the same time deny its obligations.” Peers v. McLaughlin, 26 P. 119, 120 (Cal. 1891). “A party cannot apply to his own use that part of the transaction which may bring to him a benefit, and repudiate the other, which may not be to his interest to fulfill.” Id.
The court then held that the clause was valid and ordered the transfer of the case.
The lesson: a minor cannot accept the benefits of a contract and then seek to void it in an attempt to escape the consequences of clauses that minor does not like (especially when they “like” on Facebook).
E.K.D. v. Facebook, Inc., No. 11-461-GPM (S.D. of Ill. March 8, 2012) (Murphy, J.)
[Meredith R. Miller]
Monday, December 12, 2011
A recent letter to the NYT's consumer advocate, the "Haggler," (aka David Segal, who some of us law profs may not love so much anymore since his recent swipe at legal scholarship...) raised some interesting contracts issues. A reader complained that in early September he bought two round trip tickets from San Francisco to Palau for $510 on Korean Air for a trip in February. In the interim, he booked hotels, bought an underwater camera and made plans. Sixty-four days later, he received an email from Korean Air stating that the posted fare was "erroneous" and that his tickets were cancelled. They offered a refund for "travel-related" expenses, including the tickets, and a $200 Korean Air voucher. The reader stated that with the voucher, his new fare would be $360/ticket higher than the fare he had originally booked.
So, what's the price of an average airline ticket to Palau from S.F. in early February? I checked and it's anywhere from $1600 to $2500 for coach. But before you say unilateral mistake -- for didn't the reader check other airlines and know that the quoted rate was so much lower? - I say, Hold on. I realize this is not the first time an airline, or any company, has posted an erroneous fare. The Haggler discussed another incident involving British Airways that arose in 2009 where the company posted fares from U.S. to India for $40. In that case, British Airways covered travel-related costs and gave out $300 vouchers. (One of the issues in an exam I wrote several years ago was inspired by this situation).
But the British Airways case was different from the Korean Air case in several ways. The British Airways fare was so low that I think the purchasers "knew or should have known" about the mistake. The Korean Air price was also low, but given the deals to be found on the Internet and that the tickets were booked so far in advance, it is not evident that the purchaser "should have known" that the fare was a mistake. It's a great deal, but not clearly a mistake. Furthermore, the wrong price was listed for only a few minutes on the British Airways site, whereas the erroneous fare was posted on the Korean Air website for several days ("at least four"). Would it be "unconscionable" to force Korean Air to honor the fare? Maybe. Under Donovan v. RRL Corp., the standard of"unconscionability" for unilateral mistake purposes is lower than required when it's a standalone defense.
There's another issue that was raised in the Haggler column as a potential problem for the purchasers, the "contract of carriage." I checked on the Korean Air website and found the document - all 44 pages of it. It's accessible as a link on the bottom of the Korean Air website, of course. I took a brief glance at the document (necessarily brief b/c of the length). There were some references to Korean Air's ability to cancel for broad and vaguely defined reasons, but I would not have interpreted these as permitting cancellation for posting an erroneous fee - these seemed more appropriately interpreted as allowing cancellation for equipment failure or scheduling or weather complications.
I may have missed it, but I didn't see a provision allowing Korean Air to cancel for posting an erroneous fare after it has confirmed the reservation. To interpret the existing cancellation clauses to mean Korean Air can cancel at will would create mutuality issues. Korean Air would not want to make this argument for while such an interpretation would disadvantage the purchasers in this particular case, it could also mean that the contracts it enters with its other customers are void (and customers could cancel at the last minute).
Another provision I didn't see and just might have missed (although I doubt it) was a choice of law provision with respect to contract claims.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Yesterday, now widely known as "Cyber Monday," I received a marketing email from Patagonia. The message: "Don't Buy This Jacket." The email read in part:
Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time - and leave a world inhabitable for our kids - we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.
The advertisement reminded me to "think twice" and instructed not to "buy what [I] don't need." The jacket, "[m]ade of warm, breathable, compressible and stretchy high-loft fleece," is apparently one of Patagonia's bestsellers; retail price of $149.
Ha! Nice try, Patagonia. I will not be manipulated by your reverse psychology. Though, it did remind me of a contracts exam fact pattern I used a few years back that involved an email where the sender said something like "I'm selling my house but, trust me, you don't want to buy my house because it has been a real money pit." Seller also says all sorts of funny and brutally frank things about the house. One of the questions raised was whether this email constitued an offer to contract. I am also reminded of the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show in the early 90's and a gentleman wandering around saying "bad [acid] trips, who wants 'em? I got 'em!" But I digress, though only slightly (e.g., Ship of Fools, see below).
Elvis Costello is also participating in this season of reverse psychology. His message: "don't buy my new box set." In fact, Costello apparently wrote on his website: "Unfortunately, we at www.elviscostello.com find ourselves unable to recommend this lovely item to you as the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire." The price? $225. NBC reports:
Costello tried to get the record company to knock the price down, but was unsuccessful. So he is recommending buying the work of another legendary artist.
"If you should really want to buy something special for your loved one at this time of seasonal giving, we can whole-heartedly recommend, 'Ambassador of Jazz' -- a cute little imitation suitcase, covered in travel stickers and embossed with the name 'Satchmo' but more importantly containing TEN re-mastered albums by one of the most beautiful and loving revolutionaries who ever lived – Louis Armstrong," Costello wrote. "The box should be available for under one hundred and fifty American dollars and includes a number of other tricks and treats. Frankly, the music is vastly superior."
It may be earnest, but I read it as a brilliant marketing ploy. Who would have known that Elvis Costello was issuing a new box set? I mean, who buys physical CDs anymore? And it even comes with a vinyl record... but it is overpriced and you don't want it.
[Meredith R. Miller]
Monday, November 21, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
You've probably often wondered: Why can't I find a recording of any Academy Award winning actors giving dramatic readings of End-User License Agreements? Well, wonder no longer. Thanks to a tip from Oklahoma City's Celeste Pagano, we can now share CNET's production of Richard Dreyfuss's reading of Apple's EULA for its iTunes software.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
A few posts back, I referred to Apple's business model as incorporating relational contracting on a mass consumer scale which made me wonder whether relational contract theory is due for a revival (not that it ever went away). I didn’t attend the conference at Wisconsin honoring Stewart Macaulay although I wish I had. Relational contracting should be the subject of renewed interest given the new business models that incorporate goods, services, and information. On the radio yesterday morning, I heard someone talk about Google's business as being more than a series of searches - it was about services and relationships with its customers. (Okay, maybe those weren't the exact words, but they're close enough). A few weeks ago, a NYT article discussed new technology companies that are assisting musicians in managing their relationships with their fans. In order to survive, many businesses (especially those in the creative industries) will have to reboot for the evolving marketplace. Not all businesses (and by “businesses," I mean musicians, writers and artists who want to get paid and are not backed by large corporate conglomerates) are equipped to do this. Well, make way for companies like Topspin, Bandcamp, FanBridge and ReverbNation, to assist them. These companies help musicians run a band's online business which means they sell music, manage fan clubs and calculate royalty payments. They have found a way to bundle physical and digital goods. How much you want to bet that those digital goods are protected by contracts?
Which brings me to relational contract law. The purpose of these companies is to enable the musician to survive (and even thrive) without being backed by a record company. Now, the musician can directly manage the relationship with the fan. In the past, a fan joined a fan club, bought a ticket to a concert from one vendor, a record from a retailer, a tee shirt from another retailer - you get the picture. With the exception of the rules on the back of the concert ticket and the fan club membership rules, the other transactions were not governed by contract. The fan can now buy everything she or he wants that's band-related from that band's website, subject to the terms and conditions of the website and the licenses that accompany the digital products. Shouldn't the terms of those contracts be considered in light of the existing relationship between the musician and the fan? Wouldn't a relational contracts approach be helpful in analyzing the terms and how they should be interpreted and enforced?
Apple is relevant in this discussion for another reason. If it weren't for iTunes, it's likely that
none of these businesses would exist. (Fun note - the NYT article mentions that the chief executive of Topskin has a tattoo of the logo for NeXT Computer, which was Steve Job's old company).