ContractsProf Blog

Editor: D. A. Jeremy Telman
Valparaiso Univ. Law School

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Contracts for Trophy Hunting A Bad Idea

I earlier blogged on an American TV personality's contract to hunt and kill one of the most highly endangered species on earth: a black rhino.  That hunt has now been completed at a price tag of $350,000.  The asserted reasoning for wanting to undertake the hunt: the money would allegedly help the species conservation overall and the local population. Studies, however, show that only 3-5% of that money goes to the local population. Some experts believe that the money could be much better spent for both the local population and the species via, for example, tourism to see the animals alive.  This brings in three to fifteen times of what is created through so-called "trophy hunting."

This past week, the world community was again outraged over yet another American's hunt - this time through a contract with a local rancher and professional assistant hunter - of Cecil the Lion.  The price? A mere $50,000 or so.  This case has criminal aspects as well since the landowner involved did not have a permit to kill a lion. The hunter previously served a year of probation over false statements made in connection with his hunting methods: bow and arrow.

This is also how the locally famous and collared Cecil - a study subject of Oxford University - was initially hunted down, lured by bait on a car to leave a local national park, shot, but not killed, by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, and eventually shot with a gun no less than 40 hours after being wounded by Palmer.

Comments by famous and regular people alike have  been posted widely since then.  For example, said Sharon Osbourne: ""I hope that #WalterPalmer loses his home, his practice & his money. He has already lost his soul."

I recognize that some people - including some experts - argue for the continued allowance of this kind of hunting. Others believe it is a very bad idea for many biological, criminal, ethical, and other reasons to allow this practice.  If you are interested in signing a petition to Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe to stop issuing hunting permits to kill endangered animals, click here.  It will take you less than 60 seconds. 

 

July 30, 2015 in Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Science, Travel, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Porn, Perry and the Pope

You cannot say that we are boring you this week.  Our blogs have included considerations on advertising on porn sites and having one’s illicit affairs forgotten contractually. Add to that the news that this week, Roman Catholic nuns, the archdiocese of Los Angeles, the formerly Jesuit student turned California Governor Brown and Pope Francis all had something to say about contracting about major and, admittedly, some minor issues.

To start with the important: Pope Francis famously issued his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ “On Care for our Common Home.”  In it, he critiques “cap and trade agreements,” which by some are considered to be a mere euphemism for contractual permits to pollute and not the required ultimate solution to CO2 emissions. In the Pope’s opinion, “The strategy of buying and selling carbon credits can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” Well said.

Governor Brown, however, disagrees: Brown shrugged off Francis' comments. "There's a lot of different ways," he told reporters, "that cap and trade can be part of a very imaginative and aggressive program."  Brown, however, does agree with the Pope that we are “dealing with the biggest threat of our time. If you discount nuclear annihilation, this is the next one. If we don’t annihilate ourselves with nuclear bombs then it's climate change. It’s a big deal and he’s on it.”

In less significant contractual news, Roar, Firework, and I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It singer Katy Perry is interested in buying a convent owned by two Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin. Why? Take a look at these pictures. The only problem is who actually has the right to sell the convent to begin with: the Sisters or the archdiocese. When two of the sisters found out the identity of the potential buyer (Perry), they became uninterested in selling to her because of her “public image.” They now prefer selling to a local restaurateur whereas the archdiocese prefers to complete the sale to Perry, although she bid less ($14.5 million) on the property than the restaurateur ($15.5 million). Perry may be about to learn that image is indeed everything in California, even when it comes to the Divine. Perry is no stranger to religion herself as she was, ironically, raised in a Christian home by two pastor parents. 

July 23, 2015 in Commentary, Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Music, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Honda Enters into $24 Million Consent Order with CFPB over Discriminatory Loan Practices

CfpbOn July 14th, American Honda Finance Corporation (Honda) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) entered into a consent order (the Order).  The CFPB and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that Honda had violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and its implementing legislation by permitting dealers to charge higher interest rates on auto loans on the basis of race and national origin.  

DOJAccording to the Order, after a joint investigation, the DOJ and the CFPB made found that, during the time period covered, on average, African-American borrowers were issued loans that resulted in an extra $250 in interest payments over the course of the loan compared to loans issued to non-Hispanic whites.   Hispanics paid an extra $200 and Asians and Pacific Islanders paid an extra $150.  This result was the product of Honda's specific policy and practice.  

The Order gives Honda three options that it can pursue in order to prevent future violations of the ECOA in the future.  Honda will also pay $24 million into an escrow account.  The funds will be used to compensate borrowers for the excessive interest payments they were required to make.

As the CFPB notes on its website:

Today’s action is part of a larger joint effort between the CFPB and DOJ to address discrimination in the indirect auto lending market. In December 2013, the CFPB and DOJ took an action against Ally Financial Inc. and Ally Bank that ordered Ally to pay $80 million in consumer restitution and an $18 million civil penalty.

Hat tip to Michael Gibson of the OKCU School of Law.  Professor Gibson suggests that legal scholarship by Ian Ayres and others laid the foundation for this Order and others like it.

July 20, 2015 in Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Congress Considering Federal Legislation on Non-Competes

Franken MurphyAs reported in the Washington Post here, Senators Al Franken (left) and Chris Murphy (right) have introduced the Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerable Employees (MOVE) Act.  The purpose of the Act is 

To prohibit employers from requiring low-wage employees to enter into covenants not to compete, to require employers to notify potential employees of any requirement to enter into a covenant not to compete, and for other purposes. 

The bill would prohibit non-compete clauses in the contracts of workers who earn $15/hour or less, unless the minimum wage is higher in the relevant jurisdiction.   According to the Post, 12.3% of all workers' contracts include non-compete clauses, including some workers who make minimum wage or a bit more.  The non-competes trap such workers in their current low-wage jobs when they could build in their work experience to pursue higher-paying jobs in the same field.  California law already prohibits enforcement of non-competes.

There are counter-arguments,.  Non-compete clauses protect employers and thus incentivize them to invest in their employees and give them on-the-job training in their fields.  If that training becomes portable, employers might be less willing to provide it.  However, as the Post story suggests, California's ban on non-competes has not prevented Silicon Valley from becoming a synonym for success in innovative, high-tech industries.  No doubt Congress will weigh the pros and cons in a matter fitting the dignity we associate with that august institution and, after mature deliberation, take decisive action.

Hat tip to Rachel Arnow-Richman, one of many academics consulted in the drafting of the MOVE Act.

June 8, 2015 in Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Airbnb Update

We have previously blogged about “sharing economy” short-term rental company Airbnb at various times here.  Time for an update: The City of Santa Monica, California, just passed an ordinance that prohibits property owners and residents from renting out their places unless they remain on the property themselves.  This is estimated to prohibit no less than 80% of Airbnb’s Santa Monica listings (1,400 would be banned).  

The city plans to spend $410,000 in the first year to enforce the rule using three new full-time employees.  Violators may be fined by up to $500.  However, because Airbnb does not list addresses, staff will have to look at photos of the properties and drive around the city streets to try to identify the violators.   Doing so sounds awfully invasive and awkward, but that is nonetheless the plan.  Adds Assistant Planning Director Salvador Valles: “We can issue citations just based on the advertisement alone when we're using our business regulations.”  Other major cities are also trying to crack down on short-term rentals.

But why, you ask?  Good question.  In times when, as I have blogged about before and as is common knowledge, medium- and low-income earners are falling behind higher-income earners to a somewhat alarming extent, you would think the government could let people earn some additional money on what is, after all, their own property.  Cities, however, claim that short-term rentals drive up the rental prices by cutting into the number of residences that are available for long-term rentals.  “Even a study commissioned by Airbnb itself earlier this year found that Airbnb increases the price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco by an average of $19 a month.”    Traffic concerns are also often mentioned in this context as are potential tax avoidance issues, although Airbnb has now started to deduct taxes from rental fees before transferring these to the landlords.

Airbnb’s end goal?  To go IPO.  The goal for at least some landlords?  Eighty-year-old Arlene Rosenblatt, for example, rents out her home in Santa Monica whenever she and her husband leave town to visit their seven grandchildren. She charges anywhere from $115 to $220 a night for her home, listing it on Airbnb and other sites and thus earning as much as $20,000 a year.  "I'm a retired schoolteacher," Rosenblatt says. "We don't get a lot of retirement income. My husband, all he has is his Social Security." 

Time will tell what happens in this latest clash between private property and contractual rights and government regulations. 

May 26, 2015 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Travel, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Retirement Investment Brokers Contractually Bound to Act as Fiduciaries

Under a United States Labor Department plan, investment brokers may be required to bind themselves contractually as fiduciaries for their clients in the future.  Only a few states such as California and Missouri require brokers to act as fiduciaries at all times.  In others, brokers must simply recommend investments that are “suitable” for investors based on various factors, but are not required to adhere to the higher fiduciary “best-interest” standard.

The contemplated advantages are two-fold.  First, the rule is thought to better protect investors from broker recommendations that, if followed, would help the brokers earn more or higher fees, but fail to meet investors’ best interests.  A contractually stipulated duty would also help “deflate arguments that brokerages typically raise to deflect blame for bad advice, such as that an investor has in-depth financial know-how.  

Second, arbitration cases would be easier to prove.  This is so because arbitrators currently rely on state laws when determining the standard of conduct to be followed by the brokers, which is one of the threshold issues to be analyzed in investor cases.  A uniformly required fiduciary standard would, it is thought, be more investor-friendly.

Needless to say, there are also contrary views.  For example, some attorneys fear that investors’ lawyers will start or increase a hunt for more retirement account cases to represent.  Others worry about an increased amount of class action cases.

Regardless, given the complexity of today’s investment world, requiring brokers to act as fiduciaries for their clients does indeed seem like the “good step in the right direction” as the president of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association recently called the initiative. 

May 18, 2015 in Current Affairs, Legislation, True Contracts | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Fixing Your Car Yourself Maybe a Violation of Contractual Rights in the Future

If it were up to General Motors, it may soon be illegal for you to tinker with your own car.  That’s because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), an Act that started as anti-piracy legislation about a decade ago, now also protects coding and software in a range of products more broadly.  Your car is one such product if it, as many cars do nowadays, it has an onboard computer.  Vehicle makers promotes two arguments in their favor: first, that it could be dangerous and even malicious to alter a car’s software programming.  Second, per the tractor maker John Deere, that “letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system.”  “Will”?!  As the Yahoo article mentioning this story smartly pointed out, “[t]hat’s right— pirating music. Through a tractor.” 

Isn’t that an example of a company getting a little too excited over its own products?  Or am I just an incurable city girl (although one that occasionally likes country music)?  Judging from the lyrics to a recent Kenny Chesney hit (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy"), I see that opinions differ in this respect.  To each her own.

Hat tip to Professor Daniel D. Barnhizer of the AALS listserve for sharing this story.

April 27, 2015 in Contract Profs, Current Affairs, Legislation, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Weekly News Roundup

DouglasMollThe Texas Lawyer reports that Texas has amended a statute that allows plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees in breach of contract claims.  The statute originally allowed for recovery from an individual or a corporation.  The amendment permits recovery from any non-government entity.  As law Prof. Doug Moll (pictured) explains, the purpose of the policy is to encourage settlement and permit parties that could not pay their own attorneys' fees to sue for breach. "There is not a policy justification I can see for distinguishing between business forms in an attorney fee-shifting statute,"  Moll noted in defending the amendment.  The bill faced some opposition from groups that would not want to exempt state entities and from others who wanted the law to allow either side, not just plaintiffs, to collect attorneys' fees.  But lawmakers did not want to mess with Texas law.  

From the Philadelphia Business Journal, we get yet another classic municipal contracting case.  City meets company, city hires company to do some fancy, technical thing it can't do itself, city and company exchange allegations of breach of contract, and the parties settled for $4.8 million.  In this case, the city is Baltimore and the company is Unisys.  

As reported here in USA Today, one bi-product of the new nuclear deal with Iran is that Russia now feels free to send Iran S-300 missiles for use in its air-defense system.  The missile deal has been suspended since 2010, and Iran had sued Russia in Geneva, alleging breach of contract and seeking $4 billion in damages.  Iran now says that it will drop the case if Russia delivers the missiles.

April 20, 2015 in In the News, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Playing Fair Down Under

In New Zealand, a ban on unfair terms in consumer contracts has taken effect and will, according to the Commerce Commission, will be enforced starting immediately.   The regulation forms part of the 2013 Fair Trading Act.  Australia introduced a similar ban in 2010.

The Consumer Organization “Consumer NZ” has launched its “Play Fair” campaign to increase awareness of the new law and related consumer issues.   According to Consumer NZ, companies had been given plenty of notice of the upcoming ban and thus to review their contracts in order to remove unfair terms, but had to a large extent failed to do so.

The Act will apply to standard-form consumer contracts often used by electricity retailers, gyms, TV service providers and many others.

But what makes a term “unfair”?  The Act defines a term as unfair if it would “would cause a significant imbalance between the rights of the company and the consumer, is not reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the company, [or] would cause detriment, whether financial or otherwise, to the consumer if it were to be applied or relied on.”   The Act contains a list of terms that courts are likely to regard as unfair.  This covers terms that would allow a company to unilaterally vary the terms of the contract, renew or terminate it, penalize consumers for breaching or terminating the contract, vary the price without giving consumers the right to terminate the contract, or vary the characteristics of the goods or services to be supplied.  

After intense lobbying by the insurance industry, that industry was exempted from the ban.

Even though this Act is a consumer protection device, only the New Zealand Commerce Commission can, for now, enforce it.  The contemplated fine for violations is $600,000.

In the USA, there are, of course, various statutory and common law protections against unfair terms such as those contained in the UCC as well as fraud protections.  However, the deterrence effect of these does not seem effective in relation to at least some industries.  Alternatively, perhaps the protections are not broad enough, sufficiently well-known, or sufficiently easy to enforce.  Or perhaps people just give up and deal with other companies, or pay what they are asked to do by the companies. 

I personally just spent no less than two hours chatting online with a major health care provider over their sudden allegation that a certain doctor I had used was “not in network” (with me thus allegedly owing a few thousand dollars to the insurance company) despite that particular provider being listed on the provider’s own website as “in network” and the doctor having confirmed this.  Eventually and after numerous contractual and factual arguments, I was able to persuade provider that I was right.  But how many others in my situation would simply give up and cave in to, as was the case, the provider’s repeated bootstrapping arguments that “their ultimate price was fair”?

Only two days later, I heard from a moving company that had agreed to move a car for me for $500 (and confirmed this twice) that the “price is actually $600.”  When I told them no, it is not, they repeated their allegation that “we did not have a contract.”  After telling them a few things about contract formation and modification principles and after declining listening to their attempted, time-consuming warnings about using other companies that were “scam artists,” I am now looking for a new contract another vendor.

Despite whatever legal protections we may officially have in this country against consumer fraud, it is still rampant.  New Zealand’s government enforcement system is interesting, but time will tell if they have more success preventing consumer fraud than we do here.

April 3, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Legislation, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When Contractual Consent Isn't Enough

The problem with constructive consent, or substituting "manifestations of assent" for actual assent, in consumer contracts is that consumers often aren't aware what rights they've relinquished or what they have agreed to have done to them.  Too bad for consumers, right?  Well, it's also too bad for companies.  Companies that rely on contracts to obtain consumer consent may find that what suffices for consent in contract law just won't cut it under other law that seeks actual consumer consent.  Michaels, the arts and crafts store chain, found that out the hard way.  They were recently hit with two class action lawsuits alleging that their hiring process violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).  Job applications clicked an "I Agree" box which indicated "consent" to the terms and conditions which authorized a background check on the applicant.  As this article in the National Law Review explains, the FCRA requires that job applicants receive "clear and conspicuous" standalone notice if they are seeking consent from applicants to obtaining a background report.  A click box likely won't (and shouldn't) cut it.  Contracts that everybody knows nobody reads shouldn't be considered sufficient notice.  It would, of course, be much simpler if contractual consent were more aligned with actual human behavior....

March 19, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Contract Modifications – Differing Standards for Pop Stars?

2012 American Idol winner Phillip Phillips has lodged a “bombshell petition” with the California Labor Commissioner seeking to void contracts that Phillips now finds manipulative, oppressive, and “fatally conflicted.”  

Before winning season 11 of “American Idol,” Phillips signed a series of contracts with show producer “19 Entertainment” governing such issues as his management, recording and merchandising activities.  These contracts are allegedly very favorable to 19 Entertainment, for example allowing the company as much as a 40% share of any moneys made from endorsements, withholding information from Phillips about aspects of his contractual performance such as the name of his album before it was announced publicly, and  requiring Phillips to (once) perform a live show once without compensation.  19 Entertainment has also lined up such gigs for Phillips as performing at a World Series Game, appearing on “Ellen,” the “Today Show,” and “The View.”

It is apparently not unusual for those on successful TV reality shows to renegotiate deals at some point once their career gets underway.  Phillips claims that he too frequently requested this, but that 19 Entertainment turned his requests down.  Can he really expect them to agree to post-hoc contract modifications?

Very arguably not.  Under the notion of a pre-existing legal duty, a party simply cannot expect that the other party to a contract should have to or, much less, should be willing to change the contractually expected exchange of performances.  This seems to be especially so in relation to TV reality shows where the entire risk/benefit analysis to the producer is that the “stars” may or may not hit it big.  For hopeful stars, the same considerations apply: their contracts may lead them to fame and fortune… or not.  That’s the whole idea behind these types of contracts.  Of course, if industry practice is to change the contracts along the way and if both parties are willing to do so, they are free to do so.  Otherwise, the standards for contractual modifications are probably the same for entertainment stars as for “regular” contractual parties. 

Another issue in this case is whether an “agent” is a company or a physical person.  Under the California Talent Agencies Act (“TAA”), only licensed “talent agents” can procure employment for clients.   Phillips is attempting to apply the TAA to entertainment companies like 19 Entertainment.  If Phillips is successful, the ramifications may be significant for the entertainment industry in which companies very often negotiate deals with performers without taking the TAA into account.  In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court famously gave personal rights to corporations, albeit only in the election context.   Time will tell how California looks at the issue of corporate personhood and responsibilities in the entertainment context.

Adjudications under the controversial TAA are notoriously slow and could leave contractual parites in “limbo” for a very long time.  Time and patience is not what Hollywood parties are known to have a lot of, so stay tuned for the outcome of this dispute.

February 23, 2015 in Celebrity Contracts, Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Television, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Recent Scholarship: Mark Burge

Burge_Mark_100webTexas A & M School of Law Contracts Prof Mark Burge (pictured) has posted a new article on SSRN: 

Too Clever by Half: Reflections on Perception, Legitimacy, and Choice of Law Under Revised Article 1 of the Uniform Commercial Code

The Abstract is provided below, and the article is available for download here

The overwhelmingly successful 2001 rewrite of Article 1 of the Uniform Commercial Code was accompanied by an overwhelming failure: proposed section 1 301 on contractual choice of law. As originally sent to the states, section 1-301 would have allowed non-consumer parties to a contract to select a governing law that bore no relation to their transaction. Proponents justifiably contended that such autonomy was consistent with emerging international norms and with the nature of contracts creating voluntary private obligations. Despite such arguments, the original version of section 1-301 was resoundingly rejected, gaining zero adoptions by the states before its withdrawal in 2008. This article contends that this political failure within the simultaneous success of Revised Article 1 was due in significant part to proposed section 1-301 invoking a negative visceral reaction from its American audience. This reaction occurred, not because of state or national parochialism, but because the concept of unbounded choice of law violated cultural symbols and myths about the nature of law. The American social and legal culture aspires to the ideal that “no one is above the law” and the related ideal of maintaining “a government of laws, and not of men.” Proposed section 1-301 transgressed those ideals by taking something labeled as “law” and turning on its head the expected norm of general applicability. Future proponents of law reform arising from internationalization would do well to consider the role of symbolic ideals in their targeted jurisdictions. While proposed section 1-301 made much practical sense, it failed in part because it did not—to an American audience—make sense in theory.

January 22, 2015 in Legislation, Recent Scholarship | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Payback for Payday Lenders

The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. plans to create hurdles for lenders of payday and direct deposit advance loans.  Both types of loans are short-term loans intended to help consumers through a rough patch.  Payday loans are available at various storefront locations whereas direct deposit advance loans are for banks’ existing customers.

The problem with these types of loans is that they often trap people into cycles of mounting debt with annual interest rates of more than 500% and the need by some to take out an average of 10 loans a year amounting to a total of more than $3,000.

This is a crackdown on organizations that may be seen to pry on the already weak.  But is it also a setback for financially underprivileged consumers?  After all, if you need money now, you need money now.  I think the new proposed regulations are a step in the right direction as consumer protection, but at the same time, more is needed.  That “more” is a decent living wage so that so many people do not have to live not only paycheck to paycheck, but in fact pre-paycheck to pre-paycheck. 

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to highlight the nation’s economic growth and falling unemployment rate.  However, as I have written here before, most people in the U.S. still do not see or feel the economic recovery.  Perception is reality.  Let’s hope that the economy soon improves so much that most people feel it.

Hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry for alerting me to this story.

January 6, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, December 29, 2014

No-tipping policies and increased minimum salaries

CNN reports that more and more restaurants are implementing no-tipping policies as, perhaps, a way of differentiating themselves from competitors.  For example, one restaurant builds both tax and gratuity into menu prices, allegedly resulting in its servers averaging about $16.50 an hour.  I have argued here before that it seems fair to me that the burden of compensating one’s employees should fall on the employer and not on, as here, restaurant patrons feverishly having to do math calculations at the end of a meal.

The law does not yet support employment contracts ensuring fair compensation of restaurant and hotel employees.  For example, federal law requires employers to pay tipped workers only $2.13 an hour as long as the workers earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.  Talk about burden shifting…

But change seems to be on the way with private initiatives such as the restaurant no-tipping policy.  In Los Angeles, the City Council has approved an ordinance that raises the minimum wage for workers in hotels of more than 300 rooms to $15.37 an hour.  Of course, this will mainly affect large hotel chains, which predictably resisted the ordinance citing to issues such as the need to stay competitive price-wise and threatened circumventing the effect of the new law by laying off or not hiring workers to save money.  Funny since many of these hotels have been making vast amounts of money for a long time on, arguably, overpriced hotel rooms attracting a clientele that does not seem overly concerned about paying extra for things that are free in most lower-priced hotels (think wifi) and thus probably could somehow internalize the cost of fairly compensating its blue-collar workers. 

Much has been said about the “1%” problem and a fair living wage.  No reason to repeat that here.  However, it is thought-provoking that whereas the U.S. recession officially ended in June 2009 – five years ago - 57% of the U.S. population still believed that the nation was in a recession in March 2014.

Contracting and the economy is, of course, to a large extent a matter of seeking the best bargain one can obtain for oneself.  But even in industrialized nations such as ours, there is something to be said for also ensuring that not only the strongest, most sophisticated and wealthiest reap the benefits of the improved economy.  So here’s to hoping that more initiatives such as the ones mentioned above are taken in 2015.  At the end of 2014, it’s still “the economy, s$%^*&.”

December 29, 2014 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Labor Contracts, Legislation | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Out with the Old… the Really Old

In the UK, two sections of the Statute of Marlborough are facing repeal after being in force for 747 years.  That’s right: the Statute was passed in 1267 and is thus older than the Magna Carta, which – although having been drafted in 1215 – was not copied into the statute rolls to officially become law until 1297.  Two sections, however, still remain good law.

Why the suggested repeal?  The two potentially obsolete sections address the ancient British power of “distress,” which allowed landlords to enter a debtor’s property and seize his/her goods.  However, distress was abolished by new legislation this past March.

But don’t worry, our British colleagues are not about to do anything rash or unpopular.  Although the Law Commission has proposed the repeal, a public consultation has been initiated to make sure that no one actually uses the two sections anymore.

Other newer, but nonetheless obsolete, laws are also being earmarked for removal.  One is from the 1990s and was drafted to regulate the “increasing popularity of acid house parties.”   Apparently, acid house parties are not in anymore and thus, the law is no longer needed.

In spite of the above, two sections of the Statute of Marlborough still remain in effect.  One forbids individuals from seeking revenge for debt non-payment without being sanctioned to do so by the court (you gotta love the fact that in the UK, one can apparently get courts to approve one seeking revenge against one’s debtors).  Another prevents tenants from ruining or selling off the landlord’s land.  Fair enough…

December 13, 2014 in Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Documentary on Forced Arbitration

The Alliance for Justice has released a documentary on forced arbitration called Lost in the Fine Print.  It's very well-done, highly watchable (meaning your students will stay awake and off Facebook during a viewing), and educational.  I recently screened the film during a special session for my Contracts and Advanced Contracts students.  It's only about 20 or so minutes and afterward, we had a lively discussion about the pros and cons of arbitration.  We discussed the different purposes of arbitration and the pros and cons of arbitration where the parties are both businesses and where one party is a business and the other a consumer.  Many of the students had not heard about arbitration and didn't know what it was.  Many of those who did know about arbitration didn't know about mandatory arbitration or how the process worked.  Several were concerned about the due process aspects.  They understood the benefits of arbitration for businesses, but also the problems created by lack of transparency in the process.  I thought it was a very nice way to kick start a lively discussion about unconscionability, public policy concerns, economics and the effect of legislation on contract law/case law.  

I think it's important for law students to know what arbitration is and it doesn't fit in easily into a typical contracts or civil procedure class so I'm afraid it often goes untaught.  The website also has pointers and ideas on how to organize a screening and discussion questions.

October 17, 2014 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Film, Legislation, Miscellaneous | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

California law against non-disparagement clauses

This is big - Governor Jerry Brown just signed a bill into law that would prohibit non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts.  The law states that contracts between a consumer and business for the "sale or lease of consumer goods or services" may not include a provision waiving a consumer's right to make statements about the business.  The section is unwaivable. Furthermore, it is "unlawful" to threaten to enforce a non-disparagement clause.  Civil penalties for violation of the law range from up to $2500 for a first violation to $5000 for each subsequent violations.  (Violations seem to be based upon actions brought by a consumer or governmental authority, like a city attorney.  They are not defined as each formation of a contract!)  Furthermore, intentional or willful violations of the law subject the violator to a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

We've written about the dangers of non-disparagement clauses on this blog in the past.  It's nice that one state (my home state, no less!) is taking some action.  Will we see a California effect as other states follow the Golden State's lead?  As I've said before, those non-disparagement clauses aren't such a good idea- now would be a good time for businesses to clean up their contracts.

 

September 11, 2014 in Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Miscellaneous | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Presidential Executive Order Refuses Government Contracts to Companies that Mandate Employee Arbitration

This informative post from Jean Sternlight (via Art Hinshaw) over at ADR Prof Blog:

President Obama today signed a new Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order refusing to grant government contracts of over a million dollars to companies who mandate their employees arbitrate disputes involving discrimination, accusations of sexual assault, or harassment.  This new order mirrors protections Congress already provided to employees of Defense Department contractors in 2011 in the so-called “Franken amendment.” The order also requires prospective federal contractors to disclose prior labor law violations and will instruct agencies not to do business with egregious violators.

While the executive order is limited in its scope (only protects employees who work for companies with large government contracts and only applies to arbitration of certain kid of claims), it is a step toward the Arbitration Fairness Act, which would prohibit mandatory arbitration more braodly.  More here.  

August 11, 2014 in In the News, Legislation, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Warning: Burning Gasoline May Kill You

By Myanna Dellinger

The city of Berkeley, California, may become the first in the nation to require that gas stations affix warning stickers to gas pump handles warning consumers of the many recognized dangers of climate change.  The stickers would read:

Global Warming Alert!  Burning Gasoline Emits CO2

The City of Berkeley Cares About Global Warming

The state of California has determined that global warming caused by CO2 emissions poses a serious threat to the economic well-being, public health, natural resources, and the environment of California.  To be part of the solution, go to www.sustainableberkeley.com

Consumers not only in California, but worldwide are familiar with similar warnings about the dangers of tobacco.  The idea with the gas pump stickers is to “gently raise awareness” of the greenhouse gas impacts and the fact that consumers have alternatives.  In their book “Nudge,” Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein addressed the potential effectiveness of fairly subtly encouraging individual persons to act in societally or personally improved ways instead of using more negative enforcement methods such as telling people what not to do.  Gas pump stickers would be an example of such a “nudge.”

But is that enough?  World scientists have agreed that we must limit temperature increases to approximately 2° C to avoid dangerous climate change.  The problem is that we are already headed towards a no less than 5° C increase.  To stop this tend, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% or more (targets vary somewhat) by 2050.  Stickers with nudges are great, but in all likelihood, the world will need a whole lot more than that to reach the goal of curbing potentially catastrophic weather-related calamities.

Of course, the oil and gas industry opposes the Berkeley idea.  The Western States Petroleum Association claimsthat the labels would “compel speech in violation of the 1st Amendment” and that “far less restrictive means exist to disseminate this information to the public without imposing onerous restrictions on businesses.”  Why this type of sticker would, in contrast to, for example, labels on cigarette packaging, be so “onerous” and “restrictive” is not clear.  Given the extent of available knowledge of climate change and its potential catastrophic effects on people and our natural environment, the industry is very much behind the curve in hoping for “less restrictive means.”  More restrictive means than labels on dangerous products are arguably needed.  Even more behind the curve is the Association’s claim that the information on the stickers is merely “opinion” that should not be “accorded the status of ‘fact’”.   The Berkeley city attorney has vetted the potential ordinance and found the proposed language to be not only sufficiently narrow, but also to have been adopted by California citizens as the official policy of the state. 

It seems that instead of facing reality, the oil and gas industry would rather keep consumers in the dark and force them to adopt or continue self-destructive habits.  That didn’t work in the case of cigarettes and likely will not in this case either.  We are a free country and can, within limits, buy and sell what we want to.  But there are and should be restrictions.  In this case, the “restriction” is actually not one at all; it is simply a matter of publishing facts.  Surely, in America in 2014, no one can seriously dispute the desirability of doing that.

The Berkeley City Council is expected to address the issue in September.

July 15, 2014 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Legislation, Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Vermont First State to Require Labeling of GMOs

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.

Bon appétit!

 

May 8, 2014 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Food and Drink, In the News, Legislation, Science, True Contracts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)