Saturday, February 17, 2018
A U.S. judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking the return by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan of a Pablo Picasso masterpiece that a German Jewish businessman was allegedly forced to sell at a low price in order to fund an escape from the Nazis and fascism.
Paul and Alice Leffmann fled Germany for Italy in 1937. Paul Leffmann sold “The Actor” the next year to two art dealers for $12,000 to fund an escape to Switzerland from the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a Hitler ally.
The Met acquired “The Actor” in a 1952 donation, but did not acknowledge Leffmann’s ownership until 2011, after decades of incorrect cataloguing. Leffman’s great-grand niece, who handles the estate of the Leffmans, claimed that the circumstances of the 1938 sale meant that her family never lost title. The Met disagreed, while expressing sympathy for the Leffmanns’ plight.
The judge found that the sale “occurred between private individuals, not at the command of the Fascist or Nazi governments,” and not because of a “wrongful threat” by the buyers that took away Leffmann’s free will.
“Although the Leffmanns felt economic pressure during the undeniably horrific circumstances of the Nazi and Fascist regimes,” the judge wrote, “that pressure, when not caused by the counterparties to the transaction (or the defendant) where the duress is alleged, is insufficient to prove duress with respect to the transaction.”
It is both sad and interesting that so many years after the fascist rise to and fall from power, these types of cases are still heard in courts in this country and beyond.
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Monetizing Sexual Harassment Contractually
In the Harvey Weinstein scandals, investigations have resulted in further almost incredible instances of alleged misconduct including:
- Verbal threats, such as telling employees "I will kill you" or "I will kill your family"
- Employing female staff as "wing women" to "accompany [Mr Weinstein] to events and facilitate [his] sexual conquests"
- Demanding sexual favors in return for career promotion at the studio
- Requiring his drivers to "keep condoms and erectile dysfunction injections in the car at all times"
- The requirement for his assistants to schedule "personals for sexual activity" both during office hours and after work
- Belittling female members of staff with insults about their periods, and shouting at one member of staff that she should leave the company and make babies as that was all she was good for.
Apparently, contracts for Mr. Weinstein contained the proviso that mistreatment claims would result in financial penalties imposed upon the accusers rather than be outright prohibited contractually. This, says some sources, “effectively monetized” sexual harassment.
Surely, no court of law would uphold a contractual clause penalizing an employee merely for making accusations of criminal conduct so long as this was done in good faith (which, as we now know, the accusations against Mr. Weinstein were). It is your legal right and arguably moral duty to call out criminal conduct when it happens. However, whether such an argument would ever be heard in court is questionable, for most employees working for famous, influential companies such as that of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Weinstein himself are probably loath to stand up contractually against Mr. Weinstein. He clearly knew that. Many women didn’t even dare speak out against him for his criminal conduct or if they did, were not believed or helped. But these contractual clauses still show the gall, sickness, and immorality of Mr. Weinstein.
On a happier note: Happy Valentine’s Day! (I swear that the timing of this post is mere coincidence.)
Thursday, February 8, 2018
I am late to the party on this, but I still thought I would point you to Jill Lepore's recent review in the New Yorker of (among other books) Orly Lobel's You Don't Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie's Dark Side. The book is about the epic showdown between Mattel, makers of Barbie, and MGA, maker of rival dolls Bratz, and it has a contract law angle: The designer who created Bratz worked for Mattel and allegedly arrived at the design for Bratz while under an employment contract with Mattel that would have entitled Mattel to the copyright for the design.
The review relays testimony from Mattel's CEO regarding his understanding of the scope of such clauses in employment contracts, namely that they are broad enough to entitle Mattel to claim ownership of designs created decades before the employee in question was hired. Unsurprisingly, in my experience, corporations frequently believe that clauses in employment contracts are indeed very broad; it's unclear how much the assertions of such broad readings affect employees' understandings of their rights.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
As we all know, there is a lawsuit for everything, including whether Starbucks deliberately underfills its lattes to save on the cost of milk. This could constitute a breach of express warranty. So argued a group of plaintiffs in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently. The court dismissed the argument on a motion for summary judgment.
Plaintiffs’ arguments were threefold: First, that “when filled to the brink,” Starbucks’ cups hold only exactly the beverage volumes listed on the menus. The court dismissed that argument because Starbucks requires its cup manufacturers to make the cups 8-12% larger than the promised beverage volume. Second, that the milk foam added to lattes should not count towards the beverage volume. However, as plaintiffs themselves had argued that milk foam is a component of a latte, the court quickly dismissed that argument as well. Third, plaintiffs argued that the “fill-to” lines in steaming pitchers used by baristas to make the lattes are too low for the finished product to contain the expressly promised volume. The court also dismissed that as the steam is an essential part of a latte.
In short, the court agreed with Starbucks that plaintiffs could not prove that any false statements had been made at all. What was warranted was also what was sold.
Incidentally, Starbucks is – as many other previously very popular brands – increasingly suffering from an image problem: they have apparently become too boring and basic. Once seen as cool and edgy, they are now seen as too ubiquitous, in large part because they simply have too many stores. Their solution is to open upscale Roasteries and Reserve stores.
Meanwhile, the competition – Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s for example – charge $3 less for coffee than Starbucks. The same fate might be countered by Subway Sandwiches, previously the nation’s second-largest fast-food chain. They too might have grown too much and too fast. Additionally, Subway’s menus are seen as too boring, especially by younger millennials who prefer a more diverse range of options, including salads and healthier choices."
The Starbucks case is Strumlauf et. al. v. Starbucks Corporation, Case No. 16-cv-01306-YGR.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Court finds terms are not ambiguous when their dictionary definitions are consistent with the contract
We just finished talking about contractual ambiguity in my contracts class, so I was happy to see this recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, SAS Institute, Inc. v. World Programming Ltd. ("WPL"), No. 16-1808 No: 16-1857 (behind paywall), discussing that very issue in the context of a software license agreement. This is actually part of a much larger case with important copyright implications for computer software code, but, given the subject matter of this blog, I'm focusing on the contract claims. You can read the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the copyright questions here.
Among other things, the parties were fighting over the interpretation of a few of the contractual terms between them. However, the court reminded us that mere disputes over the meaning of a contract does not automatically mean that language is ambiguous. In fact, the court found here based on ordinary dictionary definitions that none of the terms were ambiguous.
First, the parties were fighting over a prohibition on reverse engineering. The court looked to dictionary definitions of "reverse engineering" to arrive at a definition that also made sense in the context of the contract. WPL tried to introduce extrinsic evidence on the meaning of the term but the court found there was no reason to turn to extrinsic evidence since the term was not ambiguous.
The parties were next fighting over the meaning of the license being for "non-production purposes only." The court construed this to have its "ordinary meaning" as forbidding "the creation or manufacture of commercial goods." WPL argued that the phrase had a technical meaning in the software industry, but the court did not find that the parties had intended to use this technical meaning. The dictionary definitions supported the court's construction of the phrase as unambiguous.
Sunday, October 29, 2017
As reported on The Hill and in several other national and international news outlets, tiny Montana energy company Whitefish Energy – located in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s very small hometown – stands to profit greatly from its contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. That’s fine, of course. However, highly questionable issues about the contract have surfaced recently. For example, Whitefish very famously prohibited various government bodies from “audit[ing] or review[ing] the cost and profit elements of the labor rates specified herein.”
What were those? The Washington Post reports that under the contract, “the hourly rate was set at $330 for a site supervisor, and at $227.88 for a ‘journeyman lineman.’ The cost for subcontractors, which make up the bulk of Whitefish’s workforce, is $462 per hour for a supervisor and $319.04 for a lineman. Whitefish also charges nightly accommodation fees of $332 per worker and almost $80 per day for food.” Another news source notes that “[t]he lowest-paid workers, according to the contract, are making $140.26 an hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in Puerto Rico is $7.25 an hour … [T]he average salary for a journeyman electrical lineman is $39.03 per hour in the continental U.S. However, a journeyman lineman on Whitefish Energy's Puerto Rico project will earn $277.88 per hour.”
Little wonder why the company did not want anyone to “audit or review” its labor rates. If it wasn’t for the apparent “old boy”/geographical connections that seemed to have led to this contract to have been executed in the first place, hopefully no Puerto Rican official would have accepted this contract in the form in which it was drafted.
But it doesn’t end there. When the San Juan mayor called for the deal to be “voided” and investigated, Whitefish representatives tweeted to her, “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”
To me, this entire contract to violate several established notions of contract law such as, perhaps, undue influence or duress (in relation to contract formation but perhaps also, if possible, to continued contractual performance), bad faith, perhaps even unconscionability, which is a alive and well in many American jurisdictions.
This could work as an interesting and certainly relevant issue-spotter for our contracts students. It also gives one a bad taste in the mouth for very obvious reasons. It will be interesting to see how this new instance of potentially favoring contractual parties for personal reasons will pan out.
Friday, September 15, 2017
On Sept. 12, 2017, Senate Bill 33 was approved by the California Senate and now awaits Governor Brown’s approval before becoming law.
The legislation was designed after the Wells Fargo scandal to block legal the legal tactic of keeping disputes over unauthorized bank accounts out of public court proceedings an favor of private arbitration.
Said the law’s author, Sen. Dodd (D-Napa): “The idea that consumers can be blocked from our public courts when their bank commits fraud and identity theft against them is simply un-American.” It is also clearly unethical and, once again, emphasized how difficult it can be in modern times to strike a fair contractual bargain with a party that has much greater bargaining power than individuals and that uses lengthy and often complex boilerplate contracts with terms few read and understand.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to deny Uber’s move to compel arbitration in a contract with one of its passengers, Spencer Meyers.
The district court had found that Meyer did not have reasonably conspicuous notice of Uber’s terms of service (which contained the arbitration clause) when he registered a user, that Meyer did not unambiguously assent to the terms of service, and that Meyer was not bound by the mandatory arbitration provision contained in the terms of service.
The Second Circuit summed up the usual difference between clickwrap agreements, which require a user to affirmatively click on a button saying “I agree” and which are typically upheld by courts, and browsewrap agreements, which simply post terms via a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen and which are generally found unenforceable because no affirmative action is required to agree to the terms.
In the case, Meyer had been required to click on a radio button stating “Register,” not “I agree.” But in contrast to browsewrap agremeents, Uber also informed Meyer and other users that by creating an account, they were bound to its terms. Uber did so via a hyperlink to the terms on the payment screen.
Meyer nonetheless claimed that he had not noticed or read the terms. The Court thus analyzed whether he was at least on inquiry notice of the arbitration clause because of the hyperlink to the terms. This was the case, found the court, because the payment screen was uncluttered with only fields for the user to enter his or her payment details, buttons to register for a user account, and the warning and related hyperlink. Further, the entire screen was visible at once and the text was in dark blue print on a bright white background. Thus, the fact that the font size was small was not so important.
Mayer was bound to the arbitration clause because he had assented to that term after getting “reasonably objective notice.”
Friday, July 28, 2017
Our friend and esteemed colleague, Professor Charles Calleros, has kindly sent the following as a guest contribution to the ContractsProf Blog. Enjoy!
Recently Val Ricks has collected a number of essays from colleagues on best and worst cases for the development or application of contract law. In addition to participating in that project, Charles Calleros invites faculty to upload and post links to essays about their favorite cases as teaching tools (regardless whether the cases advance the law in an important way). He starts the ball rolling with this Introduction to his essay on "Why Pyeatte v. Pyeatte Might be the Best Teaching Tool in the Contracts Casebook":
Pyeatte v. Pyeatte, a 1983 decision of the Arizona Court of Appeals, did not break new ground in the field of contracts. Nonetheless, I assert that it is one of the best pedagogic tools in the Contracts casebook, for several reasons:
- * The facts are sure to grab the attention of first-semester law students: A law grad reneges on a promise to support his ex-wife through graduate school after she supported him through law school during their marriage;
* This 1980’s opinion is written in modern plain English, allowing students to focus on substance, while also learning a few necessary legal terms of art.
* After their immersion in a cold and rather unforgiving bath of consideration and mutual assent, students can finally warm up to a tool for addressing injustice: quasi-contract;
* The opinion’s presentation of background information on quasi-contract provides an opportunity to discuss the difference between an express contract, an implied-in-fact contract, and an implied-in-law contract;
* Although the wife’s act of supporting her husband through law school seems to beg for reciprocation or restitution, students must confront judicial reticence to render an accounting for benefits conferred between partners in a marriage, exposing students to overlap between contract law and domestic relations law;
* The appellate ruling of indefiniteness of the husband’s promise – presented in a later chapter in my casebook, but looming vaguely in the background of the discussion of quasi-contract – invites critique and perhaps even speculation that the appellate panel felt comfortable denying enforcement of the promise precisely because it knew it could grant restitution under quasi-contract; and
* The court’s admonition that expectation interest forms a ceiling for the calculation of restitution reveals a fascinating conundrum that brings us back to the court’s ruling on indefiniteness. . . .
You can find the whole essay here.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Will an associate who makes a $1.5 billion (yes, with a “b”) clerical error still make partner?... Do law firms owe a duty of care to clients of opposing party’s law firm? The answers, as you can guess: very likely not and no! The case goes like this:
General Motors (“GM”), represented by law firm Mayer Brown, takes out a 2001 loan for $300 million and a 2006 loan for $1.5 billion secured by different real estate properties. JP Morgan acts as agent for the two different groups of lenders. GM pays off the first loan, but encounters severe financial troubles and enters into bankruptcy proceedings before paying off the big 2006 loan. GM continues to follow the terms on that loan, and the bankruptcy court also treats the lenders as if they were still secured.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? When Mayer Brown prepared and filed the UCC-3 termination statement for the 2001 loan, the firm also released the 2006 loan by mistake. The lenders of that were thus not secured under the law any longer even though both GM itself and the bankruptcy court treated them as such. The big loan was simply been converted from a secured transaction into a lending contract. Yikes.
How did this happen? The following is too good to be true, if you are in an irritable or easily amused summer mode, so I cite from the case:
“The plaintiffs' complaint offers the following autopsy of the error: a senior Mayer Brown partner was responsible for supervising the work on the closing. He instructed an associate to prepare the closing checklist. The associate, in turn, relied on a paralegal to identify the relevant UCC-1 financing statements. As a cost-saving measure, the paralegal used an old UCC search on General Motors and included the 2006 Term Loan. Another paralegal tasked with preparing the termination statements recognized that the 2006 Term Loan had been included by mistake and informed the associate of the problem, but he ignored the discrepancy. The erroneous checklist and documents were then sent to [JP Morgan’s law firm] Simpson Thacher for review. The supervising partner at Mayer Brown never caught the error, nor did anyone else. With JP Morgan's authorization, the 2001 Synthetic Lease payoff closed on October 30, 2008 … We must also note that, when provided an opportunity to review the Mayer Brown drafts, a Simpson Thacher attorney replied, ‘Nice job on the documents.’”
The lenders represented by JP Morgan sued not Simpson Thacher or JP Morgan, but… Mayer Brown; counsel for the opposing party, arguing that the law firm owed a duty to them not because Mayer Brown represented them or their agent, JP Morgan, in connection with these loans, but rather because, plaintiffs argued, Mayer Brown owed JP Morgan – not the plaintiffs directly – a duty of care as a client in other unrelated matters! As the court said, an astonishing claim.
A law firm or a party directly must always prepare a first draft of any document. “By preparing a first draft, an attorney does not undertake a professional duty to all other parties in the deal.” In sum, said the court, “there is no exception to the Pelham primary purpose rule, and there is no plausible allegation that Mayer Brown voluntarily assumed a duty to plaintiffs by providing drafts to Simpson Thacher for review.”
The case is Oakland Police & Fire Ret. Sys. v. Mayer Brown, LLP, States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Case No. 15 C 6742
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
On April 14, the Wall Street Journal reported that Universal Music Group has won the licensing rights to late pop/rock star Prince's music in the "vault" he apparently kept on his property. The price tag was $30 million. Now, however, Warner Music Group, the singer's first record label, claims that it has conflicting rights in the material.
That turn of events is hardly surprising, but what is is the fact that Universal "hadn't seen a copy of Prince's 2014 contract with Warner, so it asked [a relevant party] to clarify the details afters signing the deal and running into roadblocks as it tried to move forward."
Of course, legal disputes also arose as Prince did not leave a will, thus ceding his entire estate to his sister and five half-siblings.
Textbook lessons of what NOT to do in the contracts and wills and estates areas of the law.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Everyone is surely, by now, aware of the (most recent) United Airlines scandal. Numerous questions abound: Was the airline racist in asking a non-white person to give up his seat or was the selection of which passenger to bump truly random? If the latter, was the airline racist in pursing this action after seeing that the selected passenger was not white whereas it might have given up taking such drastic action if it the passenger had been white? Equally importantly, what in the world is going on when law enforcement officers act as they did in this situation?! Is it fair to consider United Airlines responsible for actions that were, after all, not taken by its employees, but rather by the authorities?
While these questions are being addressed in many other locations, I find it interesting that several news sources correctly point out that United was legally entitled to bump a passenger, but that several sources seem to incorrectly state that under Department of Transportation rules, airlines may only pay passengers “up to a” $1,350 limit for delays of more than two hours. I have not had the time to fully research this rule, but as I read the rules, there is nothing saying that there is a limit to how much airlines may choose to pay, only what the DOT rules guarantee a pay-out (that one can, incidentally, insist on getting as payment, not a voucher) of $1,350, not more under the federal rules. The DOT guideline states as follows (from a website version only, admittedly):
“If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).”
If my understanding is correct, United could have chosen to voluntarily pay out a lot more than what they reportedly did ($800-1,000) and, as many correctly point out, most likely found some taker. Surely, the rules do not prohibit this. Instead, however, United chose to do what seems to increasingly be the order of the day: stand on their own rights and disregard the interests of their customers in the name of making a few extra dollars. Why am I not surprised?
Sunday, March 19, 2017
In case you have not yet heard about the recent First Circuit Court of Appeals case discussing the legal importance of a comma, here goes: A Maine statute lists the following activities as not counting for overtime pay:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.
Does that mean that drivers can get overtime because driving does count for overtime since “packing” covers both “shipment or distribution”? Or should the sentence be read as “packing for storage” as one thing and “distribution” another, thus precluding the drivers from earning overtime pay?
Circuit judge David J. Barron concluded that “the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”
So, commas still matter. Consider too how “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are a little different. Language aficionados take note! Precise drafting still matters. Was this an outcome-oriented holding? Perhaps. But if so, a holding in favor of workers over a company in a case of interpretive doubt may, in today’s increasingly tough economy for middle and low-income earners, not be such a bad idea from a public policy point of view.
The case is O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901 (1st Cir. 2017).
Thursday, February 23, 2017
The National Music Museum (“NMM”), located in South Dakota, brought suit against Larry Moss and Robert Johnson asking the court to declare it the legal owner of a Martin D-35 guitar formerly owned by Elvis Presley.
Moss and Johnson, both interested in collectibles, have been friends for thirty-five years. In 2007, Johnson contacted Moss stating that he may be interested in acquiring three guitars previously owned by Elvis, which included the D-35. Johnson originally was going to negotiate a deal for Moss to buy all three guitars for $95,000 from a third-party seller. In 2007, a two-part contract for $120,000 was finally drafted stating that (1) Moss would pay Johnson $70,000 and take immediate possession of two of the guitars, and (2) that Johnson would deliver two remaining guitars – including the D-35 – in exchange for the remaining $50,000.
At trial, Moss testified about the 2007 interaction and said, “Well, we never had a deal. I never gave him the money. He never gave me any guitars. There was no deal.” Moss’s actions in 2007 and from 2008-2010 are consistent. Moss never asserted title of the Martin D-35 during either time period because Moss did not believe he had title to the guitar. Moss knew he would not own the Martin D-35 until Johnson delivered it and Moss paid him for it. Because delivery never occurred, Moss never acquired title to the Martin D-35.
Nonetheless, in 2013, Moss contacted a friend of Johnson's inquiring about the status of the D-35. Moss then contacted the NMM where the guitar was on display claiming that he owned the D-35. A lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court seeking declaratory judgment on who was the rightful owner of the guitar.
Under Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which is the governing law for Tennessee and South Dakota, “[u]nless otherwise explicitly agreed title passes to the buyer at the time and place at which the seller completes performance with reference to the physical delivery of the goods . . . .” Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-2-401(2) (2008); SDCL 57A-2-401(2). Here, Johnson never physically delivered the Martin D-35 to Moss. Moss never had physical possession of the Martin D-35. Because Johnson never delivered the guitar and Moss never had possession of it, Moss never acquired title to the Martin D-35.
Furthermore, in spite of Moss's attempt to seek specific performance under a breach of contract theory, the court did not find this persuasive because the contract specifically stated that Moss would not pay the $50,000 balance until there had been delivery of the guitar. Based on the plain text of the contract, delivery was set to be a future date. Additionally, Moss and Johnson exchanged emails for five years, but Moss never asked Johnson to deliver the guitar, nor did he claim to the owner of the guitar. As a result, the court found Johnson had the title to the D-35 guitar, and transferred it to the NMM. Thus, the NMM is the rightful owner of the guitar.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
In times with enough serious and often depressing news, I thought I would bring you this little neat story (with profuse apologies to everyone, including my co-bloggers, for my virtual absence for a few months):
An Apollo 11 bag used to protect moon rocks samples was stolen by Max Ary, a former curator convicted in 2006 of stealing and selling space artifacts that belonged to the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. Mr. Ary subsequently served two years in prison and was sentenced to pay more than $132,000 in restitution. Space artifacts found in his home, including the Apollo 11 bag, were forfeited to meet that debt. However, the Apollo 11 bag was incorrectly identified as Ary's and subsequently sold to Nancy Carlson for $995 in February 2015 at a Texas auction held on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service.
The government petitioned the court to reverse the sale and return the lunar sample bag to NASA, alleging that due to a mix up in inventory lists and item numbers, the lunar sample bag that was the subject of the April 2014 forfeiture order was mistakenly thought to be a different bag and that no one, including the United States, realized at the time of forfeiture that this bag was used on Apollo 11. The government cited cases where federal courts vacated or amended forfeiture orders, including where inadequate notice was provided to a property owner, as a justification for the bag's return to NASA.
Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled in the U.S. District Court for Kansas that Ms. Carlsen obtained the title to the historic artifact as "a good faith purchaser, in a sale conducted according to law." With her title to the bag now ordered by the Kansas court, Carlson needs to file a motion in the U.S. District Court for Texas for its return from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. However, “[t]he importance and desirability of the [lunar sample] bag stems solely and directly from the efforts of the men and women of NASA, whose amazing technical achievements, skill and courage in landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely [to Earth] have not been replicated in the almost half a century since the Apollo 11 landing," the judge wrote … Perhaps that fact, when reconsidered by the parties, will allow them to amicably resolve the dispute in a way that recognizes both of their legitimate interests," J. Marten wrote.
H/t to Professor Miriam Cherry for bringing this story to my attention.
Friday, October 14, 2016
This week, while teaching parol evidence, I taught the case of Mitchill v. Lath, which involves an oral agreement between the parties to tear down an ice house on land to the land their sales agreement was about. A student asked what the deal was with the guy who owned the land the ice house was on, and I admit I didn't know the deal, so I went and looked it up, and here's the deal:
He was George Richard Lunn, a clergyman who was born in Iowa but settled in Schenectady, where he was elected mayor on a Socialist ticket and later served in the House of Representatives and as Lieutenant Governor of New York. I had no idea who Lunn was and thought it was interesting that he turned out to have a Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page doesn't mention his role in Mitchill v. Lath but his Prabook entry does.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Vast Majority of Consumers Prefer Court Procedure over Arbitration
We have discussed arbitration clauses in this blog several times. Now, a Pew Charitable Trust survey of more than 1,000 individuals shows that 95% of consumers prefer judge or jury trials regarding questionable bank fees and similar practices over arbitration clauses. 89% want to be able to join a class action lawsuit. At the same time, no less than 93% of banks include jury (but not bench) trial waivers in their checking account agreements.
What about the argument that the only thing that consumers get out of this is higher fees and fewer services to cover increased litigation costs? First, consumers are not prohibited from choosing arbitration, it’s the option to have class action suits that is at issue here. And as the Los Angeles Times reported, “if banks keep their noses clean, they won’t end up in court” in the first place. Besides, it’s not so much consumers that choose to litigate, businesses file four times as many lawsuits as individuals. Maybe this is for good reason: arbitrators ruled in favor of banks and credit card companies 94% of the time in disputes with California consumers. Maybe it is not: since banks are the ones who pay for the arbitration process, a recurring concern is that arbitrators may be reluctant to find against the banks.
Of course, class action lawsuits is the only feasible way for consumers to have their legal rights vindicated because of the small individual amounts involved. For the banks, however, this is big business – literally: In April, the Supreme Court let stand a decision that Wells Fargo had deliberately arranged checking-account payments in order to “maximize the number of overdrafts” resulting in fees of $25-35. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/13-16195.pdf
Monday, August 29, 2016
Allow me to highlight my most recent article on the questionable ecosystem viability and contractual common law validity of so-called “trophy hunting” contracts. With these contracts, wealthy individuals in or from, often, the Global North contract for assistance in hunting rare animals for “sport.” Often, these hunts takes place in the Global South where targeted species include giraffes, rhinos, lions, and other vulnerable if not outright threatened or endangered species.
A famous example of this is Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killing “Cecil the Lion” in 2015 causing widespread outcry in this country and around the world. Trophy hunting also takes place in the USA and Canada, where targeted animals include polar bears, grizzly bears, and big horn sheep.
Trophy hunting should be seen on the background of an unprecedented rate of species extinction caused by several factors. Some affected species are already gone; others are about to follow. Western black rhinoceroses, for example, are already considered to have become extinct in 2011. The rest of the African rhinoceros population may follow suit within the next twenty years if not sufficiently protected. In the meantime, more than 1.2 million “trophies” of over 1,200 different kinds of animals were imported into the United States just between 2004 and 2015. In addition to the extinction problem, the practice may also have ecosystem impacts because, among many other factors, the trophies often stem from or consist of alpha animals.
Of course, no one is arguing that rare species should be driven to extinction, in fact, quite the opposite: both trophy hunters and those opposing the practice agree that such species should be conserved for the future. However, the question lies in how to do so. Some argue that trophy hunting creates not only highly needed revenue for some nations, but also brings more attention to the species conservation issue.
I argue that at least until there is much greater certainty than what is currently the case that the practice truly does help the species in the long run (and we don’t have much time for “the long run”!), legal steps must be taken against the trophy hunting. Even when positive law such as hunting laws and/or the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) do not address the issue (yet), common law courts may declare contracts that have proved to be “deleterious effect upon society as a whole,” “unsavory,” “undesirable,” “nefarious,” or “at war with the interests of society” unenforceable for reasons of public policy.
In the case of Cecil, African lions had been proposed for listing under the ESA when the animal was killed, but the listing did not take effect until a few months later. The case, others like it, and several studies demonstrate that a sufficient and sufficiently broad segment of the population have come to find the killing of very rare animals so reprehensible that common law courts can declare them unenforceable should litigation on the issue arise. This has been the case with many other contracts over time. The same has come to be the case with trophy hunting. As long as doubt exists as to the actual desirability of the practice from society’s point of view – not that of a select wealthy individuals – the precautionary principle of law calls for nations to err on the side of caution. The United States prescribes to this principle as well.
The article also analyzes how different values such as intrinsic and existence values should be taken into account in attempts to monetize the “value” of the practice. Instead of the here-and-now cash that may contribute to local economies (much revenue is also lost to corruption in some nations), other practices such as photo safaris are found by several studies to contribute more, especially in the long term. (Note that Walter Palmer paid a measly USD 50,000 for his contract with the landowner and local hunting guide).
Trying to save rare animals by shooting them simply flies in the face of common sense. It also very arguably violates notions of national and international law.
Sunday, August 28, 2016
The Second Circuit just ruled in a case involving Amazon that "reasonable minds could disagree on the reasonableness of the notice" of the arbitration agreement provided by Amazon.
In 2013, the plaintiff, Dean Nicosia, bought diet pills on Amazon containing the ingredient sibutramine, a controlled substance that was withdrawn from the market by the FDA in 2010 because of concerns over severe health risks. Mr. Nicosia stated that the presence of sibutramine was not disclosed to him and that he was never notified nor offered a refund, even after Amazon stopped selling the product. Amazon moved to dismiss on the grounds that Nicosia's claims were covered by a mandatory arbitration provision. The district court granted that motion, finding that Nicosia had constructive notice of the arbitration clause.
When Nicosia bought the product, the final checkout screen stated “Review your order” and “[b]y placing your order, you agree to Amazon.com’s privacy notice and conditions of use.” The words “conditions of use” were hyperlinked to the actual text of the terms including the arbitration agreement, but were “not bold, capitalized, or conspicuous in light of the whole webpage.” Proximity to the top of a webpage also does not necessarily make something more likely to be read in the context of an elaborate webpage design. Additionally, said the court, “[a]lthough it is impossible to say with certainty based on the record, there appear to be between fifteen and twenty‐five links on the Order Page, and various text is displayed in at least four font sizes and six colors (blue, yellow, green, red, orange, and black), alongside multiple buttons and promotional advertisements. Further, the presence of customers’ personal address, credit card information, shipping options, and purchase summary are sufficiently distracting so as to temper whatever effect the notification has.”
The court made the further analogy:
“It is as if an apple stand visitor walks up to the shop and sees, above the basket of apples, a wall filled with signs. Some of those signs contain information necessary for her purchase, such as price, method of payment, and delivery details, and are displayed prominently in the center of the wall. Others she may quickly disregard, including advertisements for other fruit stands. Among them is a sign binding her to additional terms as a condition of her purchase. Has the apple stand owner provided reasonably conspicuous notice? We think reasonable minds could disagree.”
The Amazon case raises some interesting questions, I think. First and as always: is an online customer – a consumer in this case - truly put on notice just because of a hyperlink on a website? The Second Circuit will now get a chance to resolve that issue. Second, and perhaps much more troubling here is the weight the district court gave to the mere fact that Mr. Nicosia had “signed up for an account” with Amazon. In today’s day and age, we all sign up for numerous accounts to conduct all sorts of life matters from the simple to the complex. I, for one, don’t like to shop or conduct much other business online, but I have an entire spreadsheet full of usernames and passwords to various websites that I have used or still sometimes use. In and of itself, that hardly means that I am aware of any contractual terms contained anywhere on those websites. In my opinion, holding users to such “notice” is unreasonable and unrealistic in today’s busy world (it is simply too time-consuming to study all possible legal requirements listed on all these website in detail to do by far most of the things I do online, and I am sure many other consumers are in my situation.). Even worse, the district court seemed willing to hold consumers to the very high burden of having to familiarize themselves with perhaps frequently changing terms online after having created an online account with a certain company. Again, that is just not realistic with the modern barrage of necessary and/or required website usage. Finally, the court found that users do not actually have to read the terms to be bound by them. It is apparently enough that they could have “inquired” of these terms. That’s giving an online company tremendous legal weight and, arguably, presents split authority in comparison with that of the Ninth Circuit.
The case is Nicosia v. Amazon.com, Inc.
Hat tip to Matthew Bruckner of Howard Univesity School of Law for bringing this story to my attention. http://www.law.howard.edu/1831
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Yesterday, I blogged here about ticketscalping “ticketbots” outperforming people trying to buy tickets with the result of vastly increased ticket prices.
Now Ashley Madison – dating website for married people – has announced that some of the “women” featured on its website were actually “fembots;” virtual computer programs. In other words, men who paid to use the website in the hope of talking to real women were actually spending cash to communicate with computers (men have to pay to use the website, women don’t).
Why the announcement? The new leadership apparently wanted to air the company’s dirty laundry, so to speak.
Ashley Madison was hacked last year, revealing who was using the website to cheat on their husband, wife or partner. It was a devastating hack, ruining lives and even leading a pastor to commit suicide.
This seems to be a clear breach of contract: if you pay to communicate with real women, the contract must be considered breached if all or most of the contact attempts went to and/or from computers only. Perhaps even worse for Ashley Madison is the fact that the company is under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC does not comment on ongoing cases, but “it could be investigating whether Ashley Madison properly attempted to protect the identity of its discreet customers -- which it promised to keep secret. Or it could be investigating Ashley Madison for duping customers into paying to talk to fake women. On Monday, the company also acknowledged that it hired a team of independent forensic accounting investigators to review past business practices around bots and the ratio of male and female U.S. members who were active on the site."