Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Yesterday, I blogged here about a proposed Labor Department rule that would require investment brokers to contractually bind themselves as fiduciaries of their clients.
Somewhat relatedly, the United States Supreme Court just issued an opinion finding employers to be fiduciaries in relation to the employment plans offered to their employees. The petitioning employees argued that respondent employers acted imprudently by offering six higher priced retail-class mutual funds as 401(k) plan investments when materially identical lower-priced institutional-class mutual funds were available. The higher-priced funds also carried higher fees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the ERISA statute of limitations to the initial selection of funds without considering whether there is also a continued duty to monitor the funds. There is. The Supreme Court found that because the fiduciary duty can be traced to trust law, there is “a continuing duty of some kind to monitor investments and remove imprudent ones. A plaintiff may allege that a fiduciary breached the duty of prudence by failing to properly monitor investments and remove imprudent ones. In such a case, so long as the alleged breach of the continuing duty occurred within six years of suit, the claim is timely. The Ninth Circuit erred by applying a 6- year statutory bar based solely on the initial selection of the three funds.”
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
This week, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer famously filed suit against Wells Fargo claiming that the bank's high-pressure sales culture set unrealistic quotas, spurring employees to engage in fraudulent conduct to keep their jobs and boost the company's profits.
Allegedly (and in my personal experience as I bank with Wells Fargo), the bank would open various bank accounts against its customer’s wills, charge fees for the related “services,” and refuse to close the accounts again for various official-sounding reasons, making it very cumbersome to deal with the bank. The bank’s practices often hurt its customers' credit rankings.
Employees have described “how staffers, fearing disciplinary action from managers, begged friends and family members to open ghost accounts. The employees said they also opened accounts they knew customers didn't want, forged signatures on account paperwork and falsified phone numbers of angry customers so they couldn't be reached for customer satisfaction surveys.”
The city's lawsuit alleges that the root of the problem is an unrealistic sales quota system enforced by constant monitoring of each employee — as much as four times a day. "Managers constantly hound, berate, demean and threaten employees to meet these unreachable quotas," the lawsuit claims. Last year, 26% of the bank’s income came from fee income such as from fees from debit and credit cards accounts, trust and investment accounts. The banking industry is currently set up in such a way that around 85% of institutions would go bankrupt if they do not have fee income.
This comes only three years after Wells Fargo agreed to pay $175 million to settle accusations that its independent brokers discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers during the housing boom and treated these borrowers in predatory ways.
All this in the name of “growth,” traditionally thought of as the sine qua non of industrialized economies, even in financially tough times where simply maintaining status quo – and not going out of business - would seem to be acceptable for now from at least a layman’s, logical standpoint.
In recent years, more and more economists have advanced the view that unbridled growth or even growth per se may simply not be attainable or desirable. After all, we live on a planet with limited resources – financial and environmental - and limited opportunities. This especially holds true in relation to the “1% problem.” Nonetheless, questioning growth has been said to be “like arguing against gasoline at a Formula One race.” So I’m making that argument here, although I acknowledge that I am not an economist: by setting our national (and personal) economies up for ever-continuing growth, we are playing with fire. There is only so much of a need for various things and services, as the above Wells Fargo suit so amply demonstrates. Granted, the global population is growing, but much of that growth is in developing nations where people frankly cannot afford to buy many of the products and services often so angrily pushed by modern companies worldwide. In the Global North, C-level managers are often rewarded via measurements of growth and if they cannot produce the expected growth results, they risk being fired. Sometimes, simply doing the right thing by customers and employees may actually be enough as long as the company would remain sound and in business. Of course, this requires a shift in thinking by shareholders who contribute greatly under our current investment models to the demand for never-ending growth. Overconsumption and waste is a vast ecological problem as well. It has been said that “we must reform economics to reflect ecological reality: nature is not, after all, just a pile of raw materials waiting to be transformed into products and then waste; rather, ecosystem integrity is a precondition for society's survival.”
Growth is, of course, good and desirable if possible. But if, as seems to be the case, it’s coming to a point where we destroy our own chances of healthy long-term survival and wreck the emotional and financial lives of employees and clients in the meantime, something is seriously wrong.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
On Monday, a California Appellate Court declared the tiered water payment system used by the city of San Juan Capistrano unconstitutional under Proposition 218 to the California Constitution. The California Supreme Court had previously interpreted Prop. 218’s requirement that “no fees may be imposed for a service unless that service is actually used by, or immediately available to, the owner of the property in question” to mean that water rates must reflect the “cost of service attributable” to a particular parcel.
At least two-thirds of California water suppliers use some type of tiered structure depending on water usage. For example, San Juan Capistrano had charged $2.47 per “unit” of water (748 gallons) for users in the first tier, but as much as $9.05 per unit in the fourth. The Court did not declare tiered systems unconstitutional per se, but any tiering must be tied to the costs of providing the water. Thus, water utilities do not have to discontinue all use of tiered systems, but they must at least do a better job of explaining just how such tiers correspond to the cost of providing the actual service at issue. This could, for example, be done if heavy water users cause a water provider to incur additional costs, wrote the justices.
The problem here is that at the same time, California Governor Jerry Brown has issued an executive order requiring urban communities to cut water use by 25% over the next year… that’s a lot, and soon! Tiered systems are used as an incentive to save water much needed by, for example, farmers. The California drought is getting increasingly severe, and with the above conflict between constitutional/contracting law and executive orders, it remains to be seen which other sticks and carrots such as education and tax benefits for lawn removals California cities can think of to meet the Governor’s order. Happy Earth Day!
Thursday, April 16, 2015
A potential class-action lawsuit against SeaWorld was filed in Florida on April 8 just two weeks after the company was sued over its killer whale care in San Diego in another purported class action suit. The Florida lawsuit alleges unjust enrichment and fraud, among other issues. The lawsuit claims that if members of the public knew about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of the orcas, they would not visit the theme parks. Plaintiffs asks the court to require SeaWorld to reimburse ticket prices to all the people who purchased tickets to the Orlando park in the past four years. Visitors to the park pay much as $235 per person. The complaint states that more than five million people attended the Florida theme park in the years 2010 through 2012.
SeaWorld finds itself in a lot of trouble these days over its treatment of its killer whales. The park was, for example, subjected to heavy criticism in the CNN documentary “Blackfish” and in a book written by one of its former orca trainers. Perhaps as a result, its shares have been tanking recently…
SeaWorld, in turn, claims that the criticism and in particular the most recent lawsuit “appears to be an attempt by animal [rights] extremists to use the courts to advance an anti-zoo agenda. The suit is baseless, filled with inaccuracies, and SeaWorld intends to defend itself against these inaccurate claims.” It also claims that it is a leader in orca care. SeaWorld’s parks are regularly inspected by the U.S. government and two organizations. The accreditations of the California and Florida parks expire in 2020.
As part of the experience park visitors purchase, they unquestionably expect to see relatively healthy and happy whales kept under standards of good animal husbandry. But in reality, according to the lawsuits and other statements about the park, SeaWorld does not live up to this end of the bargain. Frequent allegations have been made that SeaWorld’s orcas have a shorter lifespan than wild orcas (usually, animals in captivity live longer than their wild counterparts), are kept in chemical-filled and way too small pools, are drugged with antipsychotic medicines, are not provided with sufficient shade, and are subjected to forced breeding.
Either somebody is not telling the truth here or people’s expectations of what constitutes good ethics in relation to keeping and displaying orcas as well as other show and zoo animals, for that matter. Does this matter under the law? Of course, the general public has a purely legal right to buy tickets to see various performance and exhibit animals as long as no state or federal law is violated as regards how the animals are treated. Ethics are a different story. But misrepresentation is actionable under contracts law. If the above allegations made by TV producers, former trainers, and numerous consumers are correct, SeaWorld has indeed not lived up to the wholesome, animal-friendly image it portrays of itself in order to sell tickets. Its alleged questionable conduct has been going on for years. It’s been almost twenty since a friend of mine (otherwise not very interested in animals) visited SeaWorld San Diego and went on a backstage tour. He told me about the deplorably small pools in which the animals were kept after their performances. In this area, ethics and contracts law interface and have finally come head-to-head. The eventual outcome may be that SeaWorld will not be able to continue making money off its orca shows as it has in the past. Ringling Bros. is voluntarily phasing out its use of elephants after similar protests about their treatment. This may not be a bad thing from a public policy point of view. Time has come to consider how we treat animals in many contexts, and certainly so for mere entertainment and profit-making motives.
See the Florida complaint here: http://ia902707.us.archive.org/24/items/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289.1.0.pdf
Monday, March 30, 2015
Earlier this month, Los Angeles-area media reported a somewhat humorous of a valet service that gave away a relatively expensive new car to a random guy claiming that he had "lost the [valet] ticket." Yup, the valet service actually just gave the car to the man who was sporting an Ohio state tattoo. (Of course, this story is not funny for the frustrated car owner).
But wait, the story gets weirder than that (it is, after all, LA, where we worry a lot about our cars...): the valet service sent the responsible employee home and referred the customer to his insurance company. Initial reports indicated that the insurance company did not want to pay for this loss as no theft had occurred... as is always the case, however, the media did not follow up on the end of this story, to the best of my knowledge.
Another valet contract that you must read and that was shared today on the AALS listserv for Contract Professors reminded me of this story. Hat tip to Professor Davis!
Valet companies may have to brush up on their contract writing skills soon...
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Friend of the blog, Miriam Cherry (pictured) is quoted in this story about a spat between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a former neighbor. The story seems much creepier than the classic icehouse case, Mitchill v. Lath. Here, plaintiff Mircea Voskerician claims he offered to sell his house to Zuckerberg after pointing out to Zuckerberg that Voskerician was planning to build a large house that overlooked Zuckerberg's master bedroom. Voskerician alleges that he sold the property to Zuckerberg at a significant discount in return for an oral promise that Zuckerberg would introduce Voskerician, a real estate developer, to Zuckerberg's Silicon Valley contacts.
Voskerician alleges that Zuckerberg has not honored his end of the deal. Zuckerberg seems to be denying there was any such deal. So the interesting contracts question is whether the parol evidence rule will permit introduction of Voskerician's evidence of the oral promise. Noting that California is quite permissive in the admission of parol evidence, Professor Cherry suggests that Voskerician will be permitted to introduce the evidence.
If the newspaper account cited above is accurate, it is hard to imagine how Zuckerberg's introduction would have helped Mr. Voskerician. It might run something like this: "Hey there, Captain of Virtual Industry! Let me introduce you to this man, here, who was almost my backyard neighbor. He threatened to do a Rear Window number on me unless I bought him out. Would you like to do some business with him?"
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
A young Norwegian man has been fined $1,300 for accepting a contract to kill without the intent to follow up on it. Yes, you read that right: all the authorities could charge this man with was contractual fraud. Another 21-year old man ordered the killing of a teenage girl who had rejected the man’s romantic advances. The punishment for the “offeror”? Two years in prison with most of the sentence suspended because the suspect confessed.
Good thing that these men were caught and convicted of something… sort of a gruesome twist on the old, classic Al Capone story (of course, Capone only pled guilty to tax evasion and prohibition charges). I know that the Scandinavian countries do not believe in the rehabilitative effects of relatively severe sentences such as those often dished out in the USA, but still... Two years and $1,300 for an attempted contract on a teenage girl’s head? That seems too lenient to me.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
According to The Telegraph, a letter from Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon (pictured at right) written shortly after her survival of the sinking of the Titanic is going up for auction in Boston on January 22nd. It is expected to fetch as much as $6000 (but they don't know that we are considering putting the vast resources of the ContractsProf Blog in play).
The letter reads:
How kind of you to send me a cable of sympathy from New York on our safety. According to the way we've been treated by England on our return we didn't seem to have done the right thing in being saved at all!!!! Isn't it disgraceful.
Alas, Lady Duff is not referring to the less-than-respectful treatment she received from Judge Cardozo in the case that keeps the Duff name alive, nor is she referring to bad reviews for her 1912 prêt-à-porter show.
She is referring to allegations that her husband, Cosmo, paid crew members extra to row away from survivors in Lifeboat #1, which held 12 people, although it was designed to hold 40. An inquiry found no support for the allegations and cleared the Duff-Gordons. Recently, as reported here in The Telegraph, more letters from the Duff-Gordons were discovered that tell their side of the story.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
On January 7th, a federal judge struck down a ban on foie gras that had been in effect since 2012. The judge was of the opinion that the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act preempts the California ban. This Act gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the sole jurisdiction over the “ingredients requirements” of poultry products.
The judge seems to have forgotten about the federal Animal Welfare Act’s requirements for the humane treatment of farm animals as well as states’ ability to ban the sale of the products of animal cruelty. The California Attorney General’s office is reviewing the decision for a possible appeal of the law, which was upheld in previous litigation.
Foie gras is, without a doubt, cruel to animals. To produce the alleged delicacy, geese and ducks are “force-fed a corn mash through a metal tube several times a day so that they gain weight and their livers become 10 times their natural size. Force-feeding sometime injures the esophagus of the bird, which may lead to death. Additionally, the fattened ducks and geese may have difficulty walking, vomit undigested food, and/or suffer in extreme confinement." Do we as consumers still have a right to buy such a product even if it tastes very good? No, according to at least California state law.
How anyone could make themselves eat this product is beyond my comprehension. I confess that I am an animal lover and environmentalist. I do personally believe in those core values. However, I am quite far from an extremist and respect, to a very, very far extent, the opinions of the vast majority of other people. Heck, I am not even a vegetarian (I try to at least buy free-range products). But under notions of both positive law – state and/or federal – and natural law, this is where the buck must stop. There must be limits to what we can do in the name of obtaining a gourmet experience, especially when it comes at such a high price of extreme suffering by our living, sentient creatures. And if consumers cannot draw such lines themselves, courts and legislatures must. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” More than a dozen countries around the world have outlawed the production of foie gras. In this respect, the United States is not great. This case leaves a bad taste in my mouth and, I hope, in yours as well.
Friday, January 2, 2015
A few days ago, I blogged on the recent lawsuit by United Airlines and Orbitz against the developer of Skiplagged. One of the causes of action alleged is breach of contract for encouraging the purchase of a ticket to certain destinations only to get off at an interim point to save money.
The airlines themselves may be breaching their contracts with flyers. For example, when we buy tickets to be flown from point A to point B, that arguably implies being done so without undue delays and, in particular, possibly having to spend the night at your own cost and without your personal belongings in random cities around the world if connections are missed because of flight delays (unless, of course, you choose to spend the night sitting upright in the airport). Needless to say, if you seek to change your ticket, airlines will either charge extreme high fees and the “difference in price” for doing so or outright prohibit this practice. I’ve had to change tickets many times in the past, and it has typically only taken an agent about five minutes to do so. Unconscionabiliy, anyone?
Here’s what happened to me one cold winter night a few years back: On my way to Denmark from St. Croix, the airline was late taking off and got even more delayed when it “had to” make an unplanned “quick landing” for gas, which was cheaper at the interim airport than at the end destination, and… ice cubes for people’s drinks! I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I missed the once-daily connection out of Atlanta to Copenhagen and had to spend the night in Atlanta in December. As I was living in tropical St. Croix at the time, I had some warm clothes with me on board the airplane to stay warm there, but had packed my winter gear in my suitcase. The airline paid for my hotel, but would, in spite of my desperate pleas, not let me have my suitcase back for the night. Result: I had to travel to and from the hotel, etc., in indoor clothes on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold winter day in Atlanta (yes, I should have brought a warmer jacket on board the plane, but planes to and from the Caribbean are often very small and I always try not to bring too much carry-on items).
Before 1978, U.S. airlines were required under “Rule 240” to offer seats on a competitor’s next flight if that would be the fastest way of getting the traveler to his or her destination. Airlines created after deregulation were never required to follow that rule, but older airlines such as Delta, United and Continental apparently still adhere to the rule. Funny that they never seem to mention that when they delay you significantly. Next time you fly, it may pay to scrutinize your contract of carriage more carefully to ascertain your rights in case of a delay.
It may be time for Congress to reintroduce a Rule 240-type requirement on airlines, especially as these have become extremely good at flying full – even at overcapacity - and thus often do not have extra space for passengers that have missed their flights. Good customer service often seems to have given way to airlines’ “me first” attitude in the name of hearing the highest profits possible by nickel-and-diming most aspects of airline travel on, at least, economy class.
Feeling empathetic towards the airlines? Don’t. Full or nearly full flights in conjunction with declining gas prices have enabled U.S.-based airlines to earn the highest profit margins in decades. One trade group estimates that airline made 6% profit margins in 2014, higher than the highest rates in the 1990s. Of course, the task of businesses is to make as much money as they can. But at least they should live up to their own contracts of carriage and other contracts principles just as they claim passengers and website developers should.
Here’s a hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry and other contracts professors on a well-known industry list serve for news about this story. All opinion and thoughts above are my own.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
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, October 20, 2014
Class action lawsuits can be a great way for consumers to obtain much necessary leverage against potentially overreaching corporations in ways that would have been impossible without this legal vehicle. But they can also resemble mere litigiousness based on claims that, to laypeople at least, might simply seem silly. Decide for yourself where on this spectrum the recent settlement between Red Bull and a class of consumers falls. The background is as follows:
The energy drink Red Bull contains so much sugar and caffeine that it can probably help keep many a sleepy law professor and law student alert enough to get an immediate and urgent job done. I admit that I have personally enjoyed the drink a few times in the past, but cannot even drink an entire can without my heart simply beating too fast (so I don’t).
Red Bull’s marketing efforts promised consumers a “boost, “wings,” and “improved concentration and reaction speeds.” One consumer alleges in the class action suit that he “had been drinking the product since 2002, but had seen no improvement in his athletic performance.”
It strikes me as being a bad idea to pin one’s hopes on a mere energy drink to improve one’s athletic performance. These types of energy drinks seem to be geared much more towards a temporary sugar high than anything else. At any rate, if the drink doesn’t help, why continue drinking it for another 12 years?
Nonetheless, a group of plaintiffs filed claim asserting breach of express warranty, unjust enrichment, and violations of various states’ consumer protection statutes. The consumers claim that Red Bull’s deceptive conduct and practices mean makes the company’s advertising and marketing more than just “puffery,” but instead deceptive and fraudulent and thus actionable. The company of course denies this, but has chosen to settle the lawsuit “to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation.”
To me, this case seems to be more along the lines of Leonard v. Pepsico than a more viable claim. Having said that, I am of course not in favor of any type of false and misleading corporate claims for mere profit reasons, but a healthy dose of skepticism by consumers is also warranted.
Friday, August 1, 2014
Readers of this blog should already be familiar with the famous Harrier jet case in which plaintiff John Leonard attempted to treat a Pepsi commercial as an offer for the sale of a Harrier jet in exchange for 7 million Pepsi points or the equivalent in cash, which came to about $700,000. In Leonard v. Pepsico. (edited version available here), Judge Kimba Wood ruled in Pepsico's favor, finding that the commercial that Leonard mistook for an offer was actually a joke.
We have learned via the Contracts Prof listserv that a Harrier Jet was recently sold at auction for £ 105,800 -- that is under $200,000. In this case, the auctioneer specified that the jet was being sold "for display purposes only and is not currently airworthy." It doesn't even come with any weapons systems. Bummer. Still, although the Pepsi commercial suggests an operational Harrier (there is no indication of weapons capabilities), Leonard's offer of $700,000 actually turns out to be way too high for a non-functional jet. So, if instead of showing a kid landing a jet outside of his school, the commercial had shown the same kid impressing his friends with the grounded jet in his backyard, Judge Wood would have had a harder time construing the ad as a joke.
Since the notice of the jet for auction claims that this is the first time a Harrier has been sold at auction, Pepsico would have had a hard time getting its hands on a jet. Tthat would not have bothered Mr. Leonard, who more likely was interested in the difference in value between a functioning Harrier and the $700,000 he offered. However, if the court were able to discover the actual value of a non-operational jet, it would have awarded Mr. Leonard no damages for the breach.
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.
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…
Monday, May 12, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
The United States Supreme Court recently held that airlines are allowed to revoke the membership of those of their frequent flyers who complain “too much” about the airline’s services (see Northwest v. Ginsberg). Contracts ProfBlog first wrote about the case on April 3.
In the case, Northwest Airlines claimed that it removed one of its Platinum Elite customers from the program because the customer had complained 24 times over a span of approximately half a year about such alleged problems as luggage arriving “late” at the carousel. The company also stated that the customer had asked for and received compensation “over and above” the company guidelines such as almost $2,000 in travel vouchers, $500 in cash reimbursements, and additional miles. According to the company, this was an “abuse” of the frequent flyer agreement, thus giving the company the sole discretion to exclude the customer. The customer said that the real reason for his removal from the program was that the airline wanted to cut costs ahead of the then-upcoming merger with Delta Airlines. He filed suit claiming breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his contract with Northwest Airlines.
The Court found that state law claims for breaches of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing are pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 if the claims seek to enlarge the contractual relations between airlines and their frequent flyers rather than simply seeking to hold parties to their actual agreement. The covenant is thus pre-empted whenever it seeks to implement “community standards of decency, fairness, or reasonableness” which, apparently, go above and beyond what airlines promise to their customers.
Really? Does this mean that airlines can repeatedly behave in indecent ways towards frequent flyer programs members (and others), but if the members repeatedly complain, they – the customers – “abuse” the contractual relationship?!.. The opinion may at first blush read as such and have that somewhat chilling effect. However, the Court also pointed out that passengers may still seek relief from the Department of Transportation, which has the authority to investigate contracts between airlines and passengers.
The unanimous opinion authored by J. Alito also stated that passengers can simply “avoid an airline with a poor reputation and possibly enroll in a more favorable rival program.” These days, that may be hard to do. First, most airlines appear to have more or less similar frequent flyer programs. Second, what airline these days has a truly “good” reputation? Granted, some are better than others, but when picking one’s air carrier, it sometimes seems like choosing between pest and cholera.
One example is the airlines’ highly restrictive change-of-ticket rules in relation to economy airfare, which seem almost unconscionable. I have flown Delta Airlines almost exclusively for almost two decades on numerous trips to Europe for family and business purposes. A few times, I have had the good fortune to fly first or business class, but most times, I fly economy. Until recently, it was possible to change one’s economy fare in return for a relatively hefty “change fee” of around $200 and “the increase, if any, in the fare.” - Guess what, the fares always had increased the times I asked for a change. Recently, I sought to change a ticket that I had bought for my elderly mother, also using KLM (which codeshares with Delta) as my mother is also frequent flyer with Delta. I was told that it was impossible to change the ticket as it was “deeply discounted.” I had shopped extensively online for the ticket, which was within very close range (actually slightly more expensive than that of Delta’s competitors. I asked the company what my mother could do in this situation, but was told that all she could do was to “throw out the ticket (worth around $900) and buy another one.” Remember that these days, airfare often has to be bought months ahead of time to get the best prices. In the meantime, life happens. Unexpected, yet important events come about. Changes to airline tickets should be realistically feasible, but are currently not on these conditions.
What airlines and regulators seem to forget in times of “freedom of contracting and market forces” is that some of us do not have large business budgets or fly only to go on a (rare, in this country) vacation. My mother is elderly and lives in Europe. I need to perform elder care on another continent and need flights for that purpose just as much as others need bus or train services. Such is life in a globalized world for many of us. In some nations, airlines feature at least quasi-governmental aspects and are much more heavily regulated than in the United States. Here, airfare seems to be increasing rapidly while the middle (and lower) incomes are more or less stagnant currently. I understand and appreciate the benefits of a free marketplace, but a few more regulations seem warranted in today’s economy. It should be possible to, for example, do something as simple as to change a date on a ticket (if, of course, seats are still available at the same price and by paying a realistic change fee) without having to buy extravagantly expensive first class or other types of “changeable” tickets.
Other “abuses” also seem to be conducted by airlines towards their passengers and not vice versa. For example, if one faces a death in the family, forget about the “grievance” airfares that you may think exist. Two years ago, my father was passing and I was called to his deathbed. Not having had the exact date at hand months earlier, I had to buy a ticket last minute (that’s usually how it goes in situations like that, I think…). The airline – a large American carrier - charged a very large amount for the ticket, but attempted to justify this with the fact that that ticket was “changeable” when, ironically, I did not need it to be as I needed to leave within a few hours.
In the United States, “market forces” are said to dictate the pricing of airfare. In Europe, some discount airlines fly for much lower prices than in the United States (think round-trip from northern to southern Europe for around $20 plus tax, albeit to smaller airports at off hours). Strange, since both markets are capitalist and offer freedom of contracting. Of course, these discount airlines also feature various fees driving up their prices somewhat, although not nearly as much as in the United States. A few years back, one discount European airline even announced that it planned to charge a few dollars for its passengers to use … the in-flight restrooms. Under heavy criticism, that plan was soon given up. In the United States, some airlines seem to be asking for legal trouble because of their lopsided business strategies. Sure, companies of course have to remain profitable, but when many of them claim in their marketing materials to be “family-oriented” and “focused on the needs of their passengers,” it would be nice if they would more thoroughly consider what that means.
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.