Wednesday, November 5, 2014
According to this story from NJ.com, a customer in an Atlantic City restaurant bought a bottle of wine with dinner. The server showed him a wine list and suggested a wine. When he asked how much the wine cost, she said, "Thirty-Seven Fifty," which he understood to mean $37.50. She meant $3,750, and the wine list so indicated, but the customer did not have his reading glasses with him. It's an interesting fact pattern.
Fortunately, an episode of The Simpsons provides best practices in this area, as animated television sit-coms do in most areas. In episode 8F09, Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk, Homer's stock in the Springfield nuclear plant went up for the first time in ten years. He sells and makes a cool $25. Soon thereafter, the value of Homer's stock rises to $5200, but that's another matter.
Homer conte1mplates his options and decides to buy beer. The following conversation with Moe (of Moe's Tavern) ensues:
Moe: Want a Duff?
Homer (haughtily): No, I'd like a bottle of Henry K. Duff's Private Reserve.
Moe (Gasping): Are you sure? 'Cause once I open the bottle, there's no refund.
See? That's how it's done!
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.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Jimmy John's, a sandwich chain that frankly I had never heard of but which has over 2,000 franchise locations, apparently makes its employees sign pretty extensive confidentiality and non-compete agreements , as reported by Bob Sullivan and this Huffington Post article. It's not clear to me what trade secrets are involved in making sandwiches, although I am a big fan of more transparency when it comes to what goes in my food and how it's made. As Bob Sullivan points out, in this economy, employment-related agreements for most employees are typically adhesion contracts. Making workers sign non-competes to get a job makes it much harder for them to get their next job. In this case, the employee is prohibited from working for two years at any place that makes 10% of its revenue from any sandwich-type product (broadly defined to include wraps and pitas) that is within 3 miles of any Jimmy Johns location. Given that there are 2,000 such locations, it could make it difficult for some food industry workers to find other jobs.
Monday, October 6, 2014
While we were busy with the virtual symposium, we got a bit behind on reporting on cases. This one is from late August.
Three Steak n Shake (SNS) franchisees brought suit against SNS seeking a declaratory judgment that, under the terms of their franchise agreements, they may set their own prices and are not required to participate in corporate promotions. The case resulted from a corporate takeover in 2010, after which SnS initiated new pricing policies that plaintiff franchisees claim adversely affected their businesses.
The franchisees' agreements with SNS provided that the latter “reserve[d] the right to institute at any time a system of nonbinding arbitration or mediation.” One month after plaintiffs filed suit, SNS introduced an arbitration policy requiring franchisees to engage in nonbinding arbitration at SNS's request. Pursuant to that policy, SNS filed a motion in the District Court to stay proceedings and compel arbitration. The District Court denied the motion, finding the arbitration agreement "illusory" because one-sided and unenforceable. In addition, the District Court found that the new arbitration policy could not apply retroactively to claims that had already been filed and that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) did not apply to non-binding arbitration.
In Druco Restaurants, Inc. v. Steak N Shake Enterprises, Inc., the Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court's first ground for decision and did not reach its alternative grounds. Applying Indiana law, the Seventh Circuit found the arbitration agreement illusory. The Court noted that SNS was free to exercise or not exercise its right to arbitration at whim. The company also retained complete discretion to determine venues where and procedures under which arbitration would take place. Where so much is uncertain, the Seventh Circuit noted, the agreement is vague, indefinite and unenforceable.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Over the past few years, more than a dozen 7-Eleven franchisees have sued the company claiming that it operated in bad faith by untruthfully accusing the franchisees of fraud and by strong-arming them to “voluntarily” surrender their franchise contracts based on such false accusations. The franchisees claim that the tactic, which is known in the franchise community as “churning,” is aimed at retaking stores in up-and-coming areas where the franchise can now be sold at a higher contractual value or from franchisees who are too outspoken against the company.
Franchisees split their gross profits evenly with 7-Eleven. The chain claims that it has hours of in-store covert footage showing franchisees voiding legitimate sales and not registering others to keep gross sales lower than the true numbers in order to pay smaller profits to 7-Eleven. Similarly, the chain uses undercover shoppers to spot-check the recording of transactions. This level of surveillance is uncommon among similar companies, says franchise attorney Barry Kurtz. A former corporate investigations supervisor for 7-Eleven calls the practice “predatory.”
Japanese-owned 7-Eleven asserts that a few of their franchisees are stealing and falsifying the sales records, thus depriving the company of its full share of the store profits. It maintains in court records that its investigations are thorough and lawful. It also complains that groups of franchisees often group together to create a “domino of lawsuits, pressuring the company to settle.”
It seems that a company installing hidden cameras to monitor not customers for safety reasons, but one’s own franchisees raises questions of whether or not these people had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their work-related efforts under these circumstances. If not, the issue certainly raises an ethical issue: once one has paid not insignificant franchise fees and continue to share profits with the franchisor at no less than 50-50%, should one really also expect to be monitored in hidden ways by one’s business partner, as the case is here? That has an inappropriate Big-Brother-is-Watching-You feel to it.
In the 1982 hit Dire Straits song Industrial Disease, Mark Knopfler sings that “Two men say they're, Jesus one of them must be wrong.” When it comes to this case, the accusations of “bogus” reasons asserted by the franchisees and returned fire in the form of theft accusations by 7-Eleven, somebody must not follow the contractual duty of good faith and fair dealings.
This case seems thus to be one that could appropriately be settled… oh, wait, the company apparently perceives that to be inappropriate pressure. Perhaps a fact finder will, then, have to resolve this case of mutual mud-slinging. In the meantime, 7-Eleven prides its “good, hardworking, independent franchisees” of being the “backbone of the 7-Eleven brand.” That is, until the company itself deems that not to be the case anymore, at which point in time it imposes a $100,000 “penalty” on those of its franchisees who do not volunteer to sign away their stores. The company does not reveal how it imagines that its hardworking, but probably not highly profitable, franchisees will be able to hand over $100,000 to a company to avoid further trouble.
Friday, May 23, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
In California, the Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of divvying up water contracts in the California River Delta between the general public and senior local water rights owners. Years ago, it signed off on long-term contracts that determined “the quantities of water and the allocation thereof” between the parties. About a decade ago, it renewed these contracts without undertaking a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to find out whether the contract renewals negatively affected the delta smelt, a small, but threatened, fish species. The thinking behind not doing so was that since the water contracts “substantially constrained” the Bureau’s discretion to negotiate new terms, no consultation was required.
Not correct, concluded an en banc Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel recently. By way of brief background, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions jeopardizes threatened or endangered species or their habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a). Among other things, federal agencies must consult with the FWS if they have “some discretion”"some discretion" to take action on behalf of a protected species. In this case, since the contractual provision did not strip the Bureau of all discretion to benefit the species, consultation should have taken place. For example, the Bureau could have renegotiated the pricing or timing terms and thus benefitted the species, said the court.
In 1993, the delta smelt had declined by 90% over the previous 20 years and was thus listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Of course, fish is not the only species vying for increasingly scarce California water. Man is another. The current and ongoing drought in California – one of the worst in history – raises questions about future allocations of water. Who should be prioritized? Private water right holders? People in Southern California continually thirsty and eager to water their often overly water-demanding garden plants? Industry? Farmers? Not to mention the wild animals and plants depending on sufficient levels of water? There are no easy answers here.
The California drought is estimated to cost Central Valley farmers $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. While that seems drastic, the drought is still not expected to have any significant effect on the state economy as California is no longer an agricultural state. In fact, agriculture only accounts for 5% of jobs in California. Still, that is no consolation to people losing their jobs in California agriculture or consumers having to pay higher prices for produce in an increasingly warming and drying California climate.
The 1974 movie Chinatown focused on the Los Angeles water supply system. 40 years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse. The game as to who gets water contracts and for how much water is still on.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
On May 8, 2014, Vermont became the first state in the nation to require foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled accordingly. The law will undoubtedly face several legal challenges on both First Amendment and federal pre-emption grounds, especially since giant corporate interests are at stake.
Scientists and companies backing the use of GMOs claim that GMOs are safe for both humans and the environment. Skeptics assert that while that may be true in the short term, not enough data yet supports a finding that GMOs are also safe in the long term.
In the EU, all food products that make direct use of GMOs at any point in their production are subjected to labeling requirements, regardless of whether or not GM content is detectable in the end product. This has been the law for ten years.
GMO stakeholders in the United States apparently do not think that we as consumers have at least a right to know whether or not our foods contain GMOs. Why not, if the GMOs are as safe as is said? A host of other food ingredients have been listed on labels here over the years, although mainly on a voluntary basis. Think MSGs, sodium, wheat, peanuts, halal meat, and now gluten. This, of course, makes perfect sense. But why should GMOs be any different? If, for whatever reason, consumers prefer not to eat GMOs, shouldn’t we as paying, adult customers have as much a say as consumers preferring certain other products?
Of course, the difference here is (surprise!) one of profit-making: by labeling products “gluten free,” for example, manufacturers hope to make more money. If they had to announce that their products contain GMOs, companies fear losing money. So why don’t companies whose products don’t contain GMOs just volunteer to offer that information on the packaging? The explanation may lie in the pervasiveness of GMOs in the USA: the vast majority (60-80%, depending on the many sources trying to establish certainty in this area) of prepared foods contain GMOs just as more than 80% of major crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Maybe GMOs are entirely safe in the long run as well, maybe not, but we should at least have a right to know what we eat, it seems.
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
This just in from University of Minnesota Contracts Prof. Carol Chomsky:
The Antique Wine Company (AWC), a London-based wine dealer, is being sued for $25 million by Julian LeCraw Jr., an Atlanta real estate investor and wine collector, for allegedly selling 15 bottles of counterfeit rare old Bordeaux wine. The suit claims fraud and breach of contract based on sales of a bottle of Château d’Yquem 1787, a Yquem 1847, a 6-liter bottle of Château Margaux 1908, and 12 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild ranging in vintage from 1784 to 1906.
Stephen Williams, founder and managing director of AWC, says “it duly researched the provenance of the wines it supplied and fully disclosed that information” to the buyer at the time of the purchases, but some of those claims are contested by statements made the château merchants themselves.
An “authenticity ticket” relied upon by AWC for the 1787 Yquem (purchased for $91,400, including insurance) was not an endorsement of the wine’s authenticity, according to those statements. “I signed it the way people sometimes sign a menu or a post card,” said Count Alexandre de Lur Salces; “I simply put a signature on it. It is out of the question that I could identify it as authentic.” There is also dispute over whether the logo on some of the buyer’s bottles was registered after the date on which the wine was allegedly rebottled and whether two bottles of Yquem 1847 allegedly identical to those sold to LeCraw still exist in the cellars of the Cruse family in Bordaux.
AWC’s lawyer suggests the issue is not whether the bottles are counterfeit, but whether the seller used a standard of care in keeping with the then-current industry practices in researching the provenance of the bottles. For more information, see the article in The Wine Spectator here. Makes me wonder if proving authenticity will include drinking one bottle of each!
Thursday, April 17, 2014
According to this article in today's New York Times, General Mills has added language to its website designed to force anyone who interacts with the company to disclaim any right to bring a legal action against it in a court of law. If a consumer derives any benefit from General Mills' products, including using a coupon provided by the company, "liking" it on social media or buying any General Mills' product, the consumer must agree to resolve all disputes through e-mail or through arbitration.
The website now features a bar at the top which reads:
The Legal Terms include the following provisions:
- The Agreement applies to all General Mills products, including Yoplait, Green Giant, Pillsbury, various cereals and even Box Tops for Education;
- The Agreement automatically comes into effect "in exchange for benefits, discounts," etc., and benefits are broadly defined to include using a coupon, subscribing to an e-mail newsletter, or becoming a member of any General Mills website;
- The only way to terminate the agreement is by sending written notice and discontinuing all use of General Mills products;
- All disputes or claims brought by the consumer are subject to e-mail negotiation or arbitration and may not be brought in court; and
- A class action waiver.
The Times notes that General Mills' action comes after a judge in California refused to dismiss a claim against General Mills for false advertising. Its packaging suggests that its "Nature Valley" products are 100% natural, when in fact they contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. The Times also points out that courts may be reluctant to enforce the terms of the online Agreement. General Mills will have to demonstrate that consumers were aware of the terms when they used General Mills products. And what if, when they did so, they were wearing an Ian Ayres designed Liabili-T?
Friday, April 11, 2014
I opened the box of wine for this case out of N.Y. Civil Court (where else?!):
In January 2013, defendants sent plaintiff, via email, an advertisement advising plaintiff of the availability for purchase of up to 240 bottles of 2009 Cune Vina Rioja Crianza wines. The advertisement stated:
Yesterday, we sampled the 2009 Cune Vina Real Crianza and we were very impressed. The old world style of Rioja is on a roll. Much to the chagrin of Jorge Ordonez and Eric Solomon. Even Robert Parker [ed note: wikipedia bio] could not hide his approval of this wine, blasting out a 91 point score on this one. I am not sure what 91 points means these days, but you probably do…
The rest of the advertisement contained a WA score of 91 and a quotation from Robert Parker describing the wine and the $12.99 per bottle price of the wine. Based upon this advertisement and believing that the 2009 Cune Vina Rioja Crianza was the equivalent of a Marquis Riscal, plaintiff purchased six bottles of the offered wine. After receiving the wine, plaintiff did not like the wine, found it mediocre and to be of poor quality and determined based upon his own opinions that the wine was worth no more than seven dollars per bottle. Plaintiff then demanded a refund for the six bottles he purchased. Citing store policy, defendants refused to refund plaintiff but offered to allow plaintiff to return the five unopened bottles for store credit.
After an email exchange of name calling, plaintiff then commenced a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that defendants fraudulently induced plaintiff into purchasing the wine. The court dismissed plaintiff's claim as flabby and austere, with hints of barnyard:
In order to plead a prima facie case of fraud, a plaintiff must allege each of the elements of fraud with particularity and must support each element with an allegation of fact (Fink v. Citizens Mortg. Banking Ltd., 148 AD2d 578 [2nd Dept 1989]). To plead a prima facie case of fraud the plaintiff must allege representation of a material existing fact, falsity, scienter, deception and injury (Lanzi v. Brooks, 54 AD2d 1057 [3rd Dept 1976]). Plaintiff has not made out a prima facie case on several of the elements. Plaintiff has focused his fraud claim on the fact that defendant represented the wine as a 91 point wine. The advertisement states that even Robert Parker rated this as a 91 point wine and continued that defendants were not sure what a 91 point wine wasanymore. Plaintiff alleges that this advertisement fraudulently induced him into buying the wine. However, plaintiff does not provide even a scintilla of evidence that the advertisement contained any fraud at all. Plaintiff does not allege that Robert Parker did not rate this wine 91 points and plaintiff has acknowledged that defendants did not themselves give the wine a rating. Rather, plaintiff assumed on his own that the wine was "even better than a Marquis de Riscal" and decided to purchase the wine based upon this. When the wine did not measure up to his subjective tastes, he decided that the wine was not as advertised. However, plaintiff has not demonstrated at even the minimum prima facie level that any deception took place, that there was any falsity or anything other than plaintiff's assumptions were incorrect. Thus, the second cause of action is dismissed.
This makes a fun fact pattern if you change the claims to breach of express or implied warranties. In particular, is a 91 wine score (whatever that means) a statement of opinion or fact?
Seldon v. Grapes, CV-20953/13-NY, NYLJ 1202650165299, at *1 (Civ., NY, Decided March 20, 2014).
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Running out of examples of offers to enter into a unilateral contract? This story from California comes just in time and, like all good ideas, it was inspired by television:
A pizza parlor specializing in take-out business is offering a special challenge to any two people who choose to eat in the dining room: A check for $2,500 if they can finish a giant pizza in less than an hour.
"I call it Da Big Kahuna," said Glenn Takeda, owner of 8 Buck Pizza, whose $60 extra, extra, extra large pizza is 30 inches in diameter and weighs 15 pounds.
The 8.5 lbs of dough is covered with 3.5 lbs of cheese and a choice of any three toppings, one of which must be meat.
Takeda got the idea for Da Big Kahuna challenge in January from watching other food-eating contests on TV.
He initially offered $100 cash per person plus a year's worth of free pizza, but got no takers.
Contestants started lining up when Takeda boosted the prize to $2,500. So far, 15 teams have taken -- and failed -- the challenge.
Among those who have left the table without finishing Da Big Kahuna is well-known competitive eater Naader Reda, who drove more than 400 miles from his home in Joshua Tree Wednesday to tackle the monster pizza with eating partner John Rivera.
"John and I make a great team, but that day, the 15-pound Big Kahuna was too much," Reda tweeted to News10. "It is a very tough opponent."
Reda was equally gracious in his review of the pizza's quality.
"It was the thickest, doughiest pizza I've ever encountered. It was also one of the two or three most delicious pies I've sampled," he wrote.
Takeda said Reda and Rivera came as close as anyone to finishing Da Big Kahuna, and admits he was preparing to part with $2,500.
"I swear I thought they were going to do it," he said.
At the end of the hour, the pair left with enough pizza to fill a 14-inch takeout box.
Based on Wednesday's close call, Takeda knows it's only a matter of time before he's forced to write the check.
"I'm sure somebody will surface," he said.
Not a bad marketing strategy. So long as Takeda sells about 42 of these $60 pizzas, he's got the $2500 prize covered.... and he's already half way there. Though, that assumes a 100% profit margin. We can call his cost per pizza "advertising" - and at a really good price given that his business is already all over the Internets.
[Update: I thought more about this and perhaps it isn't a unilateral contract but, rather, a bilateral contract with a condition. Customer pays $60 in exchange for a large pizza and the opportunity to win the $2500. The condition precedent to winning the $2500 is eating the whole pizza in an hour. If the customer did not have to pay for the pizza, then it looks more like a unilateral contract.]
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
As a follow-up on Nancy's post from last week on Nutrition Labels and Wrap Contracts, I would like to call attention to a new paper posted on SSRN by my colleague Nicole Negowetti (pictured). The paper is called Defining "Natural" Foods: The Search for a "Natural" Law, and here is the abstract:
Because the FDA has refused to codify a uniform or enforceable definition of “natural” food, each food manufacturer determines its own standard for the term. Unlike the certified organic label, no government agency, certification group, or other independent entity ensures that “natural” claims have merit. Generally, the term “natural” means that a food has been minimally processed, contains no artificial ingredients or preservatives, is healthy and wholesome. However, food producers are not prohibited by law from using pesticides, genetically modified crops, fumigants, solvents, and toxic processing aids. Consumers and food producers are both disadvantaged by the inconsistent meanings and uses of the term. Recent surveys demonstrate that while consumers demand “natural” products, they are confused regarding the term’s meaning. A proliferation of consumer protection lawsuits against food producers has flooded the courts over the past two years. Food producers truly committed to producing “natural” products are competing with manufacturers who loosely interpret the term, produce and sell cheaper, inferior, and not-so-“natural” products. In light of the FDA’s reluctance to codify a “natural” definition, this Article will evaluate the recent decisions in the “natural” lawsuits and the attempts by courts, legislatures, the food industry, and retailers to establish a “natural” standard. The Article concludes that the search for an enforceable and comprehensive “natural” standard is futile. It predicts that the term “natural” has proven to be so confusing to consumers that the significance of the term has likely been diluted. Furthermore, because the claim has been so legally troublesome for food manufacturers, use of “natural” on food labels will surely be on the decline.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Severe Economic Disruptions from Climate Change
For many, climate change remains a far off notion that will affect their grandchildren and other “future generations.” Think again. Expect your food prices to increase now, if they have not already. Amidst the worst drought in California history, the United Nations is releasing a report that, according to a copy obtained by the New York Times, finds that the risk of severe economic disruptions is increasing because nations have so dragged their feet in combating climate change that the problem may be virtually impossible to solve with current technologies.
The report also says that nations around the world are still spending far more money to subsidize fossil fuels than to accelerate the urgently needed shift to cleaner energy. The United States is one of these. Even if the internationally agreed-upon goal of limiting temperature increases to 2° C, vast ecological and economic damage will still occur. One of the sectors most at risk: the food industry. In California, a leading agricultural state, the prices of certain food items are already rising caused by the current drought. In times of shrinking relative incomes for middle- and lower class households, this means a higher percentage of incomes going to basic necessities such as food, water and possible medical expenses caused by volatile weather and extreme heat waves. In turn, this may mean less disposable income that could otherwise spur the economy.
Disregarding climate change is technologically risky too: to meet the target of keeping concentrations of CO2 below the most recently agreed-upon threshold of 500 ppm, future generations would have to literally pull CO2 out of the air with machinery that does not yet exist and may never become technically or economically feasible or with other yet unknown methods.
Of course, it doesn’t help that a secretive network of conservative billionaires is pouring billions of dollars into a vast political effort attempting to deny climate change and that – perhaps as a consequence – the coverage of climate change by American media is down significantly from 2009, when media was happy to report a climate change “scandal” that eventually proved to be unfounded.
The good news is that for the first time ever, the United States now has an official Climate Change Action Plan. This will force some industries to adopt modern technologies to help combat the problem nationally. Internationally, a new climate change treaty is slated for 2015 to take effect from 2020. Let us hope for broad participation and that 2020 is not too late to avoid the catastrophic and unforeseen economic and environmental effects that experts are predicting.
Assistant Professor of Law
Western State College of Law
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
After a night on the town, you decide to hire not a traditional taxi company, but rather a new and similar service provider that uses third-party private drivers operating their individually owned, unmarked cars and smart application payment technology. The app says, “Gratuity is included.” Would you expect the tips you give to go in full to the drivers or for the tips to be shared with the taxi-like company? Probably the former, although tipping tactics and expectations seem to be changing.
The question of whether the drivers in the above situation have a viable claim to the full amount of the tips will soon be resolved in California in O’Connor v. Uber Techs, 2013 BL 338258 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 5, 2013). After determining that no implied-in-fact contract can be said to exist between the drivers and the taxi-like company “Uber,” the court so far determined that Uber and its passengers may have entered into an implied agreement regarding the tips from which the drivers were ultimately intended to benefit as third parties to the contract between Uber and passengers.
In the USA, tipping is widely considered a fair way for service personnel to earn a more decent living than if they had to rely on base salaries. This intersects with the current debate about whether the federal minimum wage should be increased. According to recent CNN TV news, if salaries reflected the productivity levels of United States workers, the minimum salary should be $28/hr. It is currently $7.25.
But what about consumers? Tipping seems to rising more rapidly than both salaries and inflation rates in general. Not long ago (ten years or so), tipping 10% in restaurants was considered the norm, at least in California and parts of the Western USA. Now, food servers, the drivers in the above case and undoubtedly others expect 20%; a 100% increase in ten years or so. Many Los Angeles restaurants have begun to automatically add this 20% gratuity to their guest checks (some still leaving an additional line open for tips…). In comparison, the average inflation rage was 2.5% per year over the past ten years. During the 12-month period ending November 2013, inflation was 1.2%. Of course, salaries may be a more accurate yardstick. According to the Social Security Administration’s Average Wage Index, salaries increased by approximately 33% over the past ten years (approx. 3% from 2011 to 2012).
To be sure, service personnel and other workers deserve a decent income for their efforts in a wealthy, industrialized nation such as the USA. The question is whether the burden of this should be placed on consumers in the form of more or less “hidden” costs such as tax and tips in somewhat uncertain amounts or whether the employers should be expected to more openly list the true bottom-line costs of their services as is the case in other nations. A better route may be to increase the federal minimum salary to the much-discussed (e.g., here) “living wage.” At a minimum, it would seem that all tips given should go to the workers and not be a mere way for companies to award themselves more money.
Assistant Professor of Law
Western State College of Law
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Starbucks lost an arbitration fight with Kraft Foods and is being fined nearly $2.8 billion. Yes, you read that right - that's billion with a B. At the center of a dispute was a 1998 contract that required Kraft to distribute and market Starbucks brand coffee to U.S. retailers. The agreement was supposed to terminate in 2014 but Starbucks didn't want to wait that long. It complained that Kraft wasn't doing a good job promoting its coffee and offered Kraft $750 million to terminate the contract. Kraft rejected but Starbucks ended it in 2011 anyway (and entered into a deal with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) which led Kraft to commence arbitration proceedings.
Another reminder to think carefully about those long durations in contracts - you can never predict how things will go and it's a good idea to really think about those termination provisions.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
According to this scary report from National Public Radio, children are not entirely rational. Well, perhaps we should not overstate the conclusions one can draw based on the relevant research. Children are only boundedly rational when it comes to Halloween candy.
A psychologist at Dartmouth College discovered that children were happier when they got a candy bar than they were when they got a candy bar and a piece of gum. This research calls into question our earlier assumption that more is better.
And it turns out that, according ot the same NPR report, Halloween candy is not the only realm in which people's responses to experiences can defy our expectations. It turns out that, while colonoscopies are bad, colonoscopies in which a tube is left inserted in the patient for a while, causing additional discomfort, are . . . (if you guessed worse, you're getting colder), at least according to a survey of patients on what they thought of the experience.
The trick (or treat) is to save the best (or the least bad) for last. If y0u are handing out candy tonight, and you don't want to get your house egged back into the stone ages, give the children some prunes, and then as they reach for their mace, offer a candy bar. They will leave happy and nominate you for a Nobel Prize. Similarly, if you are going to perform an invasive procedure on someone, make sure you have something less bad with which to follow it up.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Our Founding Editor Frank Snyder (pictured) sent us this story from the Fort Worth Business Press about a dispute over the "chef-inspired" offeerings at the three-store Texas Taco chain. Another chain, Torchy's Taco, is alleging that Texas Taco's menu is based on Torchy's "Taco Bible."
The alleged Edward Snowden of this taco thriller is an ex-Torchy's grill cook who is now working for Texas Taco. The employee allegedly attempted to steal Torchy's Taco Bible by slipping it under his shirt. Torchy's caught this on video camera and ordered the employee to return to Bible. He surrendered the Bible and was fired. Apparently, Torchy's neglected to confiscate the microfilm (or flash drive or whatever device the employee allegedly used to copy the recipes). Some months later, some of Torchy's descriptions of its tacos appeared on Texas Taco menus that gave the creations new names.
It is not entirely clear whether the employee is now being sued for beach of a covenant not to compete, for theft of trade secrets or both. Both the cook and Texas Taco deny any wrongdoing.
Monday, September 2, 2013
Being an observant type, I noticed that the Starbucks that I wandered into this weekend was festooned in pink. Breast cancer awareness? Nope. Starbucks has "partnered" with a San Francisco-based chain of bakeries called La Boulange, and since La Boulange's color is pink, Starbucks is celebrating its new "partnership" with a complementary color scheme. The barista who explained all this to me characterized the transaction as an acquisition rather than a partnership, and that seems more accurate, since that's what Starbucks called the transaction when it announced last summer that it acquired La Boulange for $100 million.
This is a very interesting transaction. La Boulange had about 20 cafes in the San Francisco area. How does La Boulange ramp up its operations to supply 8000 Starbucks outlets with its baked goods without degrading quality? Working all that out might have been the reason beyond the 14-month delay between the announcement of the partnership and the arrival of the chocolate croissants on my plate.
San Francisco's Business Times suggests that the creator of La Boulange, Pascal Rigo, still thinks there is a lot to sort out. His bakeries will continue to exist, and it seems that he plans to double the number of La Boulange outlets in the Bay area. Meanwhile, he hopes that Starbucks will become known as a cafe and bakery and that it could even become a lunch destination. That may be a challenge, since people are attracted to Starbucks becasue they can buy a coffee and a snack and spread out at a table for four for four hours while they work on their laptops. That use of space might not be optimal if Starbucks wants to pack in the lunch crowd.
The other thing about this transaction that interests me is why it took Starbucks, the company that realized that you can charge people $2 for a small coffee, so long to realize that people who like gourmet coffee also like high-quality baked goods, something the Viennese have known since the 17th century. Perhaps they were just waiting for the right parntner or perhaps they realized that people who are willing to pay $5 for a fancy coffee-based dessert drink do not want to pay $10 for a fancy coffee-based dessert drink plus a fancy dessert. Also, some regulars have to avoid the place entirely if it is going to tempt them with delicious desserts each time they enter.
Monday, October 29, 2012
At right is a drawing of the Ballantine brewery in Newark as it appeared in the late 19th century. Founded in 1840, the brewery grew to be one of the largest in the United States by the end of the 19th century. Recognizing that nobody without a gut full of beer could enjoy the American passtime, Ballantine cleverly partnered with the New York Yankees. Through its partnership of that storied team, Ballantine grew to become the third most popular beer in the United States.
Sadly, in the 1960s the brand declined. As Judge Friendly recounts in his opinion for the Second Circuit in Bloor v. Falstaff Brewing Corp., in 1969, the brewery suffered the indignity of acquisition by a real estate conglomerate with no experience in brewing. After bleeding money for a few years, the conglomerate sold Ballantine to Falstaff Brewing Corporation in return for some cash and a promise to use "its best efforts to promote and maintain a high volume of sales" of Ballantine beer. If it ceased to sell the beer entirely, the contract provided for liquidated damages.
Falstaff chose not to promote Ballantine beer. It's marketing strategy was summarized by Falsataff's controlling shareholder as follows: We sell beer, F.D.B. the brewery. You come and get it. That didn't work very well for Ballantine, and its volume of sales plummeted. The trustee of what remained of Ballantine sued alleging breach of the best efforst clause and seeking liquidated damages. Judge Friendly's conclusion is summarized below:
Bloor v. Falstaff Brewing Corp. Limerick
Falstaff had to adhere
To its deal to sell Ballantine beer.
Volume’s not killer
When there’s Bud, Coors and Miller.
Still, its efforts must be sincere.