Monday, September 5, 2016
A few days ago, I posted a blog here on Amtrak raising the rent on backyard lots neighboring Amtrak's railroad lines in New York. The rent in some cases went up by 100,000% (!) according to the website of Congressman Joseph Crowley.
Professor Bruckner posed the relevant question of whether the now hotly contested leases are truly new leases or the renegotiation of existing ones. I've been trying to find out, but not having seen the actual letter from Amtrak (yet), I've dug through news reports and website of legislators. This is the upshot as best as I can find out right now: It looks like Amtrak is upping the price on _existing_ leases after having had very low prices for years. See, e.g., these statements: "For decades, Amtrak has leased the property underneath the trusses to homeowners for a nominal fee which releases the agency from the burden of maintaining the premises. Residents were given a 30-day notice to accept an unconscionable annual rent increase – in some cases as much as 100,000 percent or tens of thousands of dollars" and "[i]n a letter addressed to homeowners, Amtrak argues that a review of the lease and the premises it covers, indicates the lease is substantially undervalued. For some, the rent will go up from $25 annually to over $26,000 annually. Failure to approve the new rental amount would result in the termination of the lease 30 days from the notice."
To me, that does indeed seem if not outright unconscionable, then certainly in violation of reasonable contractual expectations and the contractual terms what appears to be an already existing contract.
As mentioned, Amtrak does have a good argument in its prices having been exceptionally low for decades, but perhaps market prices should be introduced over time as the lessees get replaced over time with the existing leases somehow being grandfathered in? Granted, the turnover in the NYC real estate market may not be high in the case of lucrative deals, but on the other hand, nobody lives in any home forever. Underlying this story does seem to be the fact that Amtrak got upset not so much about the low rents per se, but the fact that some renters were making profits off them.
Saturday, September 3, 2016
You heard about Epipen, the “price of which has climbed sixfold over the last several years. At drug price-comparison website GoodRx, the cheapest price today is $614 for a package containing two, or more than $300 per EpiPen, up from about $100 for two.”
Now there’s Amtrak. The company just raised the prices for renting backyard spaces underneath the Hell Gate Bridge in New York from, in one case, $25 to $25,560 a year (that’s not a typo) and, in another, from $50 to $45,000 a year.
The homeowners that rent these “additional” spaces have been given 30 days to accept the new leases or else give up the land. Some use it for recreational purposes but others rent it out as parking lots, which has allegedly caused Amtrak to reconsider these contracts. The company has confirmed the rent hikes, stating that “some lease holders have not seen an increase in more than 70 years” and that renters can still expect to pay only “a fraction (less than 1 percent) of the fair market rental rates.” Amtrak will be “working with each person individually to determine the exact terms of their lease.”
Is this fair? Many of the renters have decks, pools, and established plants on the land. They also clear snow, remove falling bricks and other debris from the land. They’ve been able to enjoy the land for years, perhaps creating a reasonable “course of performance” expectation that the rents would not be increased to such a high extent.
On the other hand, the rent is exceptionally low for New York and has not been increased for many decades. Then again, if the intent of these contracts was for them to serve mainly recreational purposes, what about people that now convert the land into commercial use (parking lots, of all things)? Does that matter?
This case raises interesting issues of contract interpretation, unilateral contract modification, good faith obligations by both parties, etc. It seems to me that Amtrak might, depending on the wording of these contracts, be able to now increase the rent somewhat, but to the extent done here, the intent seems to be an arguably contractually impermissible penalty rather than, perhaps, a good-faith renegotiation of contract terms.
Hat tip to Shubha Ghosh for alerting my attention to this issue.
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
Friday, August 26, 2016
I have witnessed with interest the evolving story of what exactly happened in Rio involving Ryan Lochte the morning of August 14. Initially Lochte claimed he had been robbed at gunpoint. I later heard through the gossip mill that that story was untrue and that Lochte had in fact beat up some security guards. That turned out, it seems, just to be rumor-mongering, but the story has continued to evolve from there, with both Lochte and the Rio police making statements that later seem untrue, or only partially true, or exaggerated. Slate has a good run-down of the changing versions of Lochte's story, although it's from a week ago. Now Lochte has been charged with filing a false police report, since it does seem clear at this point that no robbery happened. Even that, however, is confusing to parse if you read a lot of articles about it: It seems like the crime is more accurately making a false communication to police, as some articles have eventually stated, since there are conflicting reports about whether a police report was ever filed.
In the wake of this whole mess, Lochte has lost several of his sponsorship deals (although he's also picked one up). It's unclear, because the contracts don't seem to be public, whether this is a choice of just not renewing the contract (apparently that's the case with Ralph Lauren) or if a violation of a morals clause is being invoked to allow cancellation of the contract (which might be what's going on with Speedo). All of this provokes an interesting morals-clause conversation to me, and we had a bit of discussion about it on the Contracts Professors listserv. It seems clear that Lochte engaged in some sort of inappropriate behavior, and it seems also clear that whatever that behavior was, even the most minor version of the story is arguably a violation of any morals clause out there.
What is most clear is that, no matter what really happened, this has definitely served to tarnish his reputation, and that's is what's striking to me. This story has taken on an enormous life of its own, with many differing versions of it floating around the Internet. This situation has been caused, of course, by Lochte's many differing stories, together with some apparent conflicting statements by the Rio police, coupled with reporting that may have been less than precise itself in describing what was going on. One online story details all the conflicting information and asks the individual reader what they believe about the story.
While this particular maelstrom seems to have some basis in fact, it's not difficult to imagine something like this getting out of control without such justifying behavior at the root of it. Morals clauses tend to be about perception, but does that mean you can manipulate the perception of someone, through no real fault of their own? Take, for instance, the "Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer" meme that was popular on the Internet earlier this year. Ted Cruz wasn't born until after some of the Zodiac killings had happened, so he obviously could not have been the Zodiac Killer, and in fact some people interviewed about the meme noted that was the point: what they were saying was impossible. Nevertheless, it was reported that polls indicated 38% of those surveyed thought he might, in fact, be the Zodiac Killer, despite the impossibility. If a substantial number of people start thinking you did something you absolutely did not do, is that enough for a morals clause to be violated, because of the perception that you did it?
Thursday, August 25, 2016
The New York Times reports here (paid access) on the increasing use of so-called “rent-to-own” housing contracts. Under these contracts, companies from big Wall Street giants to a slew of small landlords hoping to strike it rich lend or, should I say, purport to sell homes to tenants who contractually commit to make all repairs on the homes no matter how major or minor (yes, you read that right: all repairs… and it gets more extreme than that, read on!). Typically, tenants under such contracts are not told what repairs are needed, yet face a contractual deadline for making sure that the houses in question are brought up to local code. Unlike most typical home purchases, rent-to-own contracts do not require the tenant/buyer to obtain an independent home inspection.
We probably all know how many things can go wrong with older homes, even newer ones. Examples of how bad things can go in this context thus abound. One tenant moved into a home not having been told that it had several unresolved building code violations and had to remain vacant by city order. Another moved into a home that had no heat, no water, and major problems with its sewage system that led to nearly $10,000 in repairs (many of these homes have been purchased by the lender for less than $10,000 and are not worth very much more than that, if any). A third example describes a woman moving into a home with her three children and partner in Michigan, living in the house during cold winter with the only heat sources being one electric heater and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, only to be evicted and charged $3,100 in overdue rent after she stopped paying rent because of the heat issue.
People who accept these kinds of contracts often do not qualify for mortgages. Banks have virtually stopped making mortgages on homes worth less than $100,000, which leaves millions of people with few options for - now or one day - owning their own homes.
One company that rents homes on a rent-to-own basis does so “as is,” calling the contracts “hybrid leases” that allow people to build up “implied equity.” If tenants are evicted during the contract (typically of a seven-year-duration), they get no credit for money spent on repairs or renovations. Neither do they receive any equity unless they actually end up buying the home at the end of the contract term. At that point, they still need financing for the home which, as mentioned, many people just cannot obtain.
A number of legal questions arise in this context, among them several contractual ones such as the role of caveat emptor vs. the violation of a possible duty to disclose. If the landlords know of the problems from which many of these houses suffer, should they disclose this knowledge? On the other than, shouldn’t these potential (long-term) buyers be presumed to have at least enough savvyness to not promise to bring a home that they do not own outright up to Code by a certain deadline? Then again, are landlords fraudulent in their dealings with these folks when the landlords require such potentially extensive repairs when, as the owners of the homes, they presumably if not actually have actual knowledge of the problems from which these houses suffer? What about the statement that renters get “implied equity?” What in the world does that mean, if anything? Do low-income folks that may never have been homeowners truly understand what it means to bring a home “up to Code” and buying “as is?” Does it matter? And what about the doctrine of unconscionability, which is alive and well in some states such as California? If nothing else, this case seems to smack of both procedural and substantive issues.
In some states, landlords are required to keep homes and apartments in habitable condition. But rent-to-own contracts have, for good reason, been said to reside in a gray area of the law: are they rental contracts? - Or purchase contracts? Or something else?
Further, rent-to-own contracts may, to some extent, resemble contracts for deeds. However, the latter are subject to basic consumer-lending regulations such as the Federal Truth in Lending Act.
The housing market again seems to host highly questionable practices. This story almost reads as a contract or property law issue-spotting exam. Meanwhile, housing sharks seem to be swimming relatively freely in some areas of the nation.
For further information, see Alexandra Stevenson and Matthew Goldstein, Rent-to-own Homes: A Win-Win for Landlords, a Risk for Struggling Tenants, the New York Times, Aug. 21, 2016.
Monday, August 22, 2016
In a move that demonstrates how contracts for various aspects of marijuana products and services are going mainstream, Microsoft Corp. has accepted a contract to make marijuana-tracking software available for sale on its cloud computing platform. The software is developed by “cannabis compliance technology” Kind Financial and allows regulators to track where and how much marijuana is being grown, sold or produced in real time. In turn, this lets the regulators know how much sales and other tax they should be collecting and from whom (maybe this is the beginning of the end of some growing marijuana plants in state and national parks to hide their activities from the government).
This contract – called a “breakthrough deal” because it is the first time that Microsoft ventures into the marijuana business - may end up enabling the software developer to capture as much as 60% of this very lucrative market. (Other companies with government contracts often end up with such a large market share.)
How did the company strike such a lucrative deal? You guessed it: by networking. Kind’s CEO was introduced by a board member to an inside contact in Microsoft.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Which is exactly what Australia's swimming sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell have tried to do. Apparently after their father gave a number of effusive interviews to the press, the sisters turned to contract law in an attempt to protect them from further such events. As this article reports, the sisters entered into a contract with their father in which he promised, "to the best of [his] ability," "not to embarrass [his] daughters on national television."
No word on what their father received in exchange for this promise.
Monday, July 11, 2016
A group of 1L students recently caused a stir-up at an anonymous law school by posting an anonymous complaint after their criminal law professor wore a "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt "on campus" (not "to class," apparently). See the letter and the professor's great response here. (For full disclosure, our colleagues on the TaxProf Blog also wrote about the story here ).
Do students, because they enter into a contract with a private law school (or even a public one), have a legitimate reason to complain that their professors wear t-shirts with a socially and legally provocative or at least thought-provoking message? The students wrote, "We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors."
Is this reasonable, in your opinion? First, this comparison is not apt. In fact, it is an extreme over-exaggeration that barely needs commenting on. The students also comment that the "BLM" movement does not have anything to do with the law, which demonstrates the sad state of ignorance about the law and society in which many of our students - and perhaps especially those in conservative areas such as Orange County, California - find themselves (that's where the anonymous law school is thought to be located). The movement is clearly about very little but the law and policy. Second, students can and should expect to get a quality legal education when attending an ABA-accredited law school, but simply because they pay money for it does not entitle them to only hear about the version of the law that _they_ prefer. In fact, as the professor so correctly notes in his response, the consumer theory should not apply to the content of one's legal education. In other words, students don't pay to only hear part of the message. And as the professor said: students certainly don't pay us _not_ to have an opinion about the classes we teach (note that the Tshirt was worn in connection with a criminal procedure class).
What are your thoughts on this? And why does the law school not publish its name?
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."
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Have you ever tried buying concert tickets right when they were made available for sale on the Internet, only to find out mere minutes later that they were all sold out? Or, for that matter, highly coveted camping reservations in national or some state parks?
Where once, we all competed against the speed of each other’s fingertips and internet connections, nowadays, “ticket bots” quickly snatch up tickets and reservations making it virtually impossible for human beings to compete online. Ticket bots are, you guessed it, automatic computer programs that buy tickets at lighting speed. They can even read “Captcha boxes;” those little squiggly letters that you have to retype to prove that you are not a computer. Yah, that didn’t work too well for very long.
“A single ticket bot scooped up 520 seats to a Beyonce concert in Brooklyn in three minutes. Another snagged up to more than 1,000 U2 tickets to one show in a single minute, soon after the Irish band announced its 2015 world tour.”
Ticket bots scoop up tickets for scalpers who then resell them on other websites, marking the tickets up many times the original price. (I’m actually not saying that state and national parks are cheated that way, maybe camping reservations in those locations are just incredibly popular as hotel prices have increased and incomes are staggering. I personally used to be able to, with t he help of a husband and several computers, make campground reservations for national holidays, but those days are long gone…”we are now full.”).
Ticket bots are already illegal in more than a dozen states. New York is considering cracking down on this system as well. However, the most severe penalty under New York law is currently fines in the order of a few thousand dollars where ticket scalpers make millions of dollars. A new law proposes jail time for offenders. This is thought to better deter this type of white-collar crime in the ticket contract market.
Everyone else is talking about Donald Trump, so I guess why shouldn't we hop in, right?
This recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece introduced me to an ongoing contract dispute involving Trump that I hadn't been paying attention to, even though now I see it's been widely reported by various news outlets, including food blogs, because it involves restaurants. So if you don't normally like to read political stuff but you consider yourself a foodie, this blog entry is also for you!
It turns out that Trump is embroiled in breach of contract lawsuits with a couple of famous chefs who pulled out of commitments to put restaurants into one of Trump's new developments. According to the reports, the impetus for pulling out of the business deal was Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric during his presidential campaign. Jose Andres, himself an immigrant, was not too happy about Trump's statements. As seems to be the case with Trump, his business concerns don't necessarily track his political rhetoric when the bottom line is at issue. Faced with an immigrant refusing him rather than the other way around, Trump sued Andres for breach of contract. Andres counter-sued, alleging that Trump's many derogatory remarks about Hispanics rendered Andres's proposed Spanish restaurant "extraordinarily risky."
The chefs sought partial summary judgment, which a court recently denied, finding that material facts were still in dispute.
The crux of this lawsuit revolves around the covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Did Trump breach that covenant when he made his remarks, which would make him the one in breach of contract? Or were Trump's remarks not a breach of the covenant, either because they're not relevant to the contract or because they did not harm the prospects for success of Andres's restaurant? I don't know if the parties will continue to litigate this question but I'm curious what the result would be. In the current climate where rhetoric is frequently extremely inflammatory, could there be contract implications to such statements? How far, policy-wise, do we want the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to extend?
The case is Trump Old Post Office LLC v. Topo Atrio LLC, 2015 CA 006624 B (behind paywall), in District of Columbia Superior Court.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The Olympics are almost here, and as we all know, they're big business: lots of television ratings, lots of advertising, lots of endorsements.
Today the District of Oregon is hearing an argument on a preliminary injunction in a contract case with Olympic implications (or an Olympic case with contract implications), Nike USA, Inc. v. Berian, Docket No. 3:16-cv-00743 (behind paywall).
The dispute, which has been widely reported online, is based on Nike's endorsement contract with Boris Berian, a track and field competitor with Olympic hopes. The contract, according to the complaint, gave Nike the right to match any offers made to Berian during a particular period of time. During that time, Berian received an endorsement offer from New Balance. Nike claims in its complaint to have matched the offer, and that Berian breached his contract with Nike when he refused to continue his relationship with Nike.
Berian kept racing. And kept winning. While wearing New Balance gear. So Nike, to keep Berian from furthering his relationship with Nike's competitor New Balance, sued him, serving him with the lawsuit during a big track meet.
Nike's allegations have been countered by Berian, who claims that New Balance's offer to him did not contain a number of restrictions that Nike's offer did contain. However, Nike has countered that by arguing that Berian did not make that clear to Nike and that Nike would have dropped its restrictions if necessary. (Nike seems to have just assumed there had to be restrictions and that any statement otherwise couldn't possibly be true.)
Endorsements are big money, of course. The Nike and New Balance offers are $125,000 for the year. While he's embroiled in the legal dispute, Berian's agent asked for donations to Berian's legal fund.
The judge has already approved a TRO in the case, prohibiting Berian from racing with any equipment other than Nike's. The hearing for the preliminary injunction is today.
In Strumlauf et al. v. Starbucks Corp., No. 16-01306, a federal district court judge based in San Francisco just ruled that a class action lawsuit against Starbucks.The complaint alleges breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and violations of California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act, the California Unfair Competition Law, and the California False Advertising Law.
The company allegedly overcharged its customers by “systematically serving lattes that are 25% too small” in order to save milk. Baristas were allegedly required to use pitchers for heating milk with etched “fill to” lines that are too low. Further, they were told to leave ¼ inch of free space in drink cups. Said U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson: "This is not a case where the alleged deception is simply implausible as a matter of law. The court finds it probable that a significant portion of the latte-consuming public could believe that a 'Grande' contains 16 ounces of fluid." Starbucks’ cups for “tall,” “grande,” and “venti” lattes are designed to hold exactly 12, 16 and 20 ounces.
Starbucks so far counters that “if a customer is not satisfied with how a beverage is prepared, we will gladly remake it.” Right, but how many customers would really complain that their drink is .25 inch (6 mm) too small?... And does it really matter? Much of what one pays for with a Starbucks drinks is, arguably, the knowledge of what the retail outlets offer, the ambience, convenience, “free” wifi, etc. Having said that, I am certainly not one to promote consumer fraud and recognize that little by little, the alleged milk-saving scheme could, of course, bring even more money into the coffers of already highly profitable Starbucks.
Monday, June 20, 2016
It isn't something we typically think about but as our world shifts to digital and as more and more of us leave behind large social media footprints, what happens to those accounts when we die? I have thought about it briefly, mostly in thinking that I should give my passwords to someone, so that, if something happens to me unexpectedly, someone will be able to get onto my social media to let my followers know. I have had social media friends vanish with no explanation, and it's always haunted me that maybe something happened to them and I had no way of knowing.
Also of concern to me is that, even if someone is designated as a legacy contact, it still might not allow the kind of access that Rosemary was looking for, or that you might want to grant to someone. Facebook limits what a legacy contact can do, meaning that your power over what happens to your Facebook account really ultimately lies with Facebook, not you or your wishes. Which is a reminder, of course, that our control over our Facebook accounts is limited to begin with and pretty much at the whim of Facebook.
Monday, June 6, 2016
I'm one of those apparently rare people who doesn't really use Facebook. But Facebook was evidently very important to City Park Apartments in Salt Lake City, whose management company presented all of the tenants with a "Facebook addendum" to their lease. The addendum allegedly stated that all residents had to befriend the complex on Facebook or be found in breach of their lease agreement.
This seems like an alarming development that I hope is going to be very limited. Is a Facebook account going to start being like a telephone number or an e-mail address, something it's assumed by everyone that you have and should hand over access to in exchange for goods or services? The reason I stopped using Facebook was because of privacy concerns. I wouldn't be thrilled about being told that I'm required by my lease to make sure my landlord can watch my Facebook activities (which often correspond, as we all know, to our real-life activities; if your landlord asked to follow you around through your daily life, or to get e-mailed your vacation photos, I would think many people would consider that a weird request).
And, since I don't do anything on Facebook, does that mean that I wouldn't be allowed to rent an apartment there unless I opened an account? Many people have legitimate, important, in some cases necessary reasons to limit their online presence. Let's hope "Facebook addendums" don't start sweeping the nation.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
Donald Trump is currently attacked on many fronts, one of which for the potential re-launch as President of his now-defunct for-profit real estate training classes. The “playbook” used by the corporate recruiters for the business unit required them, among other things, to use such arguably despicable and potentially fraudulent recruiting language as the following:
“As one of your mentors for the last three days, it’s time for me to push you out of your comfort zone. It’s time for you to be 100% honest with yourself. You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals. I’m looking at your profile and you’re not even close to where you need to be, much less where you want to be. It’s time you fix your broken plan, bring in Mr. Trump’s top instructors and certified millionaire mentors and allow us to put you and keep you on the right track. Your plan is BROKEN and WE WILL help you fix it. Remember you have to be 100% honest with yourself!”
“Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.”
(Can you imagine reading those statements allowed for a living?)
Does promising potential students too much constitute fraud in the inducement? In a not entirely dissimilar case in our own field, law student Anna Alaburda recently lost her lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Ms. Alaburda had argued that the law school had committed fraud by publishing deceptive post-graduation employment statistics and salary data in order to bait new students into enrolling. Alaburda claimed that despite graduating at the top of her class and passing the California bar exam, she was unable to find suitable legal employment, and had racked up more than $150,000 in student loan debt. An attorney for the school rejected the claims and said Alaburda never proved them. The attorney also reminded jurors that she had turned down a job offer, and that many Thomas Jefferson alumni have had successful careers. The verdict in that case was 9-3 in favor of Thomas Jefferson.
The cases are of course not similar, yet similar enough to remind us of the importance of not promising too much in the for-profit educational field (in Thomas Jefferson’s case, the school won, but a dozen other lawsuits have allegedly been filed against other schools). This makes sense from both an ethical and business risk-avoidance angle.
What about the use of the very word “University”? The media seems to stubbornly – probably for “sound bite” reasons – continue using the phrase even though the business was, in effect, forced to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” after government pressure around 2010. The business was just that, and not a certified university.
If Trump decides to start up the business again, does the media not help him do so again by using a much too favorable term? It seems like it. Linguistics matter in the law and beyond. May media PR inadvertently (or not) contribute to a potential fraud? Comment below!
Monday, May 23, 2016
Is it unthinkable to you that George Zimmerman would seek to profit from killing Trayvon Martin? No? How about reneging on one contract if he were to get an even more lucrative one?
The latter has recently been shown to be the case. The former Florida neighborhood watchman who shot the unarmed teenager in 2012 has confirmed that he has accepted an auction bid for $250,000 for the gun with which he killed Mr. Martin. Before that, he had accepted a bid for $150,000 from a Florida bar owner for the same gun, but backed out of that deal when he got a better one. Says the bar owner, “I thought [Mr. Zimmerman] was a man of his word.”
The sale drew heavy criticism from people claiming that Mr. Zimmerman was seeking to profit from the sale. Gun rights advocates claim that Mr. Zimmerman is simply exercising his legal rights under the law.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zimmerman has displayed his apparent usual lack of social skills by accusing one gun auction website that refused to sell the gun of being “Nazi loving liberal liars ” (Huh? How would that work?). At least he promises to give some of the proceeds of the sale to “fight Black Lives Matter violence against law enforcement officers”…
No further comments are needed for this story.
From a Colonial Cemetery to a World War II Factory to Condos and a Spa: Environmental Concerns, Contract Releases, and Secret Underground Containers Are Just the Latest Chapter
(Photo from northjersey.com)
I use a lot of hypos in my class based on undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards, and I feel like sometimes my students wonder if this is a thing that actually happens. Unfortunately, yes, as a recent case out of New Jersey, North River Mews Associates v. Alcoa Corp., Civil Action No. 14-8129, proves.
The case centers around a piece of land on which Alcoa had operated a manufacturing facility from 1917 to 1968, a facility once so central to East Coast industry that it had actually been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The piece of land had been vacant since 1978 and became a popular site for people looking to photograph "modern ruins." It was eventually sold to North River Mews Associates and 38 COAH Associates (the Plaintiffs). Twenty years ago, the New York Times reported optimistically that the development deal would be a "win-win" the would help clean up the Hudson River shoreline. The site, however, has been plagued by a number of challenges and tragedies (several fires, workman injuries from freak accidents, etc.) that have led some people to talk about curses. (Well, it apparently had been built on an old graveyard dating back to colonial times.) The latest obstacle has now emerged in the form of, yes, previously undiscovered buried containers of environmental hazards.
The parties were well aware that the land would have environmental contamination, as the Times article makes clear. But the Plaintiffs had worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and believed that the property had been remediated. In 2013, however, the Plaintiffs discovered two previously unknown underground storage tanks filled with hazardous materials. The property around the tanks seemed to indicate that at one point the tanks had attempted to be burned instead of properly disposed of. The presence of these tanks, needless to say, was never disclosed by Alcoa to the Plaintiffs.
Alcoa's stance, however, is that the purchase contracts for the land released them from liability for various claims brought against them. The court disagreed at this motion to dismiss stage, finding that the language was ambiguous. The release in the contract stated that the Plaintiffs waived the rights "to seek contribution from [Alcoa] for any response costs or claims." The court said that it was unclear whether the contribution language modified only response costs or whether it modified both response costs and claims. Was this a blanket release of all claims, or only a release of the right to seek contribution? This question, the court concluded, could not be determined on a motion to dismiss.
At any rate, the Plaintiffs also alleged that Alcoa concealed the presence of the underground tanks, fraudulently inducing them to enter into the contracts, and the court concluded that, if true, that would be grounds for the release to be vitiated.
This case is a great example of how long environmental issues, development deals, and contractual disputes can drag on. In 1997, the parties signed the purchase contract. Today, the parties are still trying to clean up the site and fighting over which of them ought to pay for it, with language drafted twenty years ago taking center stage. As the case continues, it will of course likely become relevant who knew about the storage tanks and when, and I am curious to see if the tanks can be dated. Since Alcoa apparently ceased using the site for manufacture in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how much knowledge from that time period still exists. It's the latest chapter in the history of a plot of land that seems to have been a busy place for centuries.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Another one bites the dust. GM is the most recent car company having to admit that it has reported overly optimistic figures about the gas mileage of, in this case, some of its 2016 SUVs sold in retail trade. Before GM, there was obviously VW, but also Mitsubishi, Hyundai, and Ford, all in the span of the past two years.
GM is temporarily halting sales of about 60,000 new 2016 SUVs because the vehicles' labels overstated their fuel efficiency. The 1-2 miles per gallon mileage overstatement was the result of improper calculations, according to GM. The company plans to compensate owners for the difference in miles per gallon and announce the program in the coming week.
Does this suffice as a remedy? Arguably, no one buys an SUV because of its low gas mileage, so in this case in contrast to the VW “dieselgate,” an argument that a customer bought a car because of its fuel efficiency is less plausible. But should that let GM off the hook in this case simply by saying that it will compensate for the fuel difference? How can an accurate prediction of what that will be over the time the SUV owners keep the car even be made? - For presumably, GM is not only planning to compensate the owners for the past difference, thinking that owners can now simply sell the cars if they are no longer satisfied with them? That seems unfair to the buyers as it is common knowledge that one cannot recover the value paid for a brand new case as with these 2016 models. Should criminal liability lie? OK, perhaps not for the 1-2 mile difference, but what about the systematic fraud committed by VW? Shouldn’t someone be held criminally liable for that?
Of course, a class-action lawsuit has been brought by some buyers. Has time come for everyone – the EPA, car makers, and car buyers – to realize that there is really only so much that can be done with the fuel efficiency of regular-engine cars? After all, hybrids and now electric cars are widely available and will probably cover the needs of the vast majority of car buyers, few of whom really need an SUV. They get much better “fuel” mileage than cars with traditional engines. Still, extreme consumer fraud is committed by at least some (or one…) of these car makers. Reckoning time seems to have come.