Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Property development is often considered a way for local communities to earn more taxes and evolve with times in general. But when construction and other development is approved in geologically risk areas such as flood zones and things go awfully wrong, is this a mere property and contracts issue, or may criminal liability lie?
In France, the answer is the latter. The former mayor of the small French seaside town La Faute-sur-Mer was just sentenced to jail for four years for deliberately hiding flood risks so that he and the town could benefit from the “cash cow” of property development, a French court has held. His deputy mayor received a two-year sentence in the same plot.
In 2010, the cyclone Xynthia hit western Europe and knocked down seawalls in the French town, leading to severe floods and 29 deaths.
Wait… a cyclone in France? Yes. Climate change is real and it’s here. Unless we do something about it (which apparently we don’t), things will only get worse. As on-the-ground steps that could prevent extreme results such as the above are often simply ignored or postponed while more and more research is done and money saved at various government scales, lawsuits will necessarily follow. The legal disciplines, including contracts law, will have to conform to the new realities of a rapidly changing climate. For starters, we need to seriously question the wisdom and continued desirability of constructing more and more homes in coastal and other flood prone areas. Ignoring known risks is, well, criminal.
Monday, December 22, 2014
After years of conducting research on the genes of various animals, George Doe (a pseudonym), an accomplished biologist with a PhD in cellular and molecular biology, decides to have his own genes examined for fun and to discover whether he may be genetically predisposed to cancer. He buys a test kit online from one the many companies that provide such services these days. He is so excited about the process that he also buys a kit for his mother and father as gifts. They all have their genes tested. George finds out that he is not predisposed to cancer. But that’s not it. He also finds out that another male who has had his own genes tested and is thus registered with the same company is “50% related” to George. This can only mean one of three things: this other male is George’s grandfather, uncle or … half brother. After intense and testy family discussions, George’s father apparently admits that he had fathered this other male before marrying George's mother. George’s parents are now divorced and the entire family torn apart with no one talking to each other.
A very sad affair. Of course, nothing appears to be contractually wrong with this case: at the bottom of one’s profile with www.23andme.com, the company that provided the tests in this case, George and his family had checked a small box indicating for them to do so “if you want to see close family members in this search program.” The company is said to have close to one million people in its database. With modern science, close family members can easily be identified out of such data if opting into being notified.
Here, the company does not appear to have done anything wrong legally. Quite the opposite: if anything, the above shows that the buyers in these situations may not be sufficiently mentally prepared for the information they may discover through DNA testing. Arguably, they should be. After all, the old adage “watch out what you ask for, you may get it” still rings true.
But isn’t this situation akin to the various other situations we have blogged a lot about here this past year where customers buy various items online and click – or not – on various buttons, thus signaling at least alleged acceptance of, for example, terms of service requiring arbitration instead of lawsuits in case of disputes? As I have argued, many people probably just clicks such buttons without fully realizing what the legal or, in cases such as the above, factual results may be. Should online vendors be required either legally to make such check boxes or other online indicia of acceptance a lot more obvious? Or should they at least be required to do so for reasons of business ethics?
I think so. Most working people are exceptionally busy these days. Frankly, not many of us take the time to scrutinize the various implications - legal or otherwise – of the purchases we make online, especially because the agreements we accept in cyberspace are presented so very differently online, yet are so deceptively similar in legal nature that we probably feel pretty comfortable with simply clicking “I accept” as the vast majority of such transactions present no or only minor problems for us? And aren’t the vendors the party with the very best knowledge of some, if not most, of the problems that arise in these contexts? How hard would it really be for them to make sure that they use all the “bells and whistles” to truly put people on notice of what typical problems encountered may be, exactly to avoid legal problems down the road? One would think so, although, of course, customers also carry some of the burden of educating ourselves about what we buy and what that may mean. This is perhaps especially so when such delicate issues as the above are involved.
For George Doe, the above unfortunately turned out to be much more of a curse that kept on giving instead of a gift that kept on giving.
On behalf of your blogging team here at ContractsProfs Blog: Happy Holidays!
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
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.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
On May 8, 2014, Vermont became the first state in the nation to require foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled accordingly. The law will undoubtedly face several legal challenges on both First Amendment and federal pre-emption grounds, especially since giant corporate interests are at stake.
Scientists and companies backing the use of GMOs claim that GMOs are safe for both humans and the environment. Skeptics assert that while that may be true in the short term, not enough data yet supports a finding that GMOs are also safe in the long term.
In the EU, all food products that make direct use of GMOs at any point in their production are subjected to labeling requirements, regardless of whether or not GM content is detectable in the end product. This has been the law for ten years.
GMO stakeholders in the United States apparently do not think that we as consumers have at least a right to know whether or not our foods contain GMOs. Why not, if the GMOs are as safe as is said? A host of other food ingredients have been listed on labels here over the years, although mainly on a voluntary basis. Think MSGs, sodium, wheat, peanuts, halal meat, and now gluten. This, of course, makes perfect sense. But why should GMOs be any different? If, for whatever reason, consumers prefer not to eat GMOs, shouldn’t we as paying, adult customers have as much a say as consumers preferring certain other products?
Of course, the difference here is (surprise!) one of profit-making: by labeling products “gluten free,” for example, manufacturers hope to make more money. If they had to announce that their products contain GMOs, companies fear losing money. So why don’t companies whose products don’t contain GMOs just volunteer to offer that information on the packaging? The explanation may lie in the pervasiveness of GMOs in the USA: the vast majority (60-80%, depending on the many sources trying to establish certainty in this area) of prepared foods contain GMOs just as more than 80% of major crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Maybe GMOs are entirely safe in the long run as well, maybe not, but we should at least have a right to know what we eat, it seems.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Severe Economic Disruptions from Climate Change
For many, climate change remains a far off notion that will affect their grandchildren and other “future generations.” Think again. Expect your food prices to increase now, if they have not already. Amidst the worst drought in California history, the United Nations is releasing a report that, according to a copy obtained by the New York Times, finds that the risk of severe economic disruptions is increasing because nations have so dragged their feet in combating climate change that the problem may be virtually impossible to solve with current technologies.
The report also says that nations around the world are still spending far more money to subsidize fossil fuels than to accelerate the urgently needed shift to cleaner energy. The United States is one of these. Even if the internationally agreed-upon goal of limiting temperature increases to 2° C, vast ecological and economic damage will still occur. One of the sectors most at risk: the food industry. In California, a leading agricultural state, the prices of certain food items are already rising caused by the current drought. In times of shrinking relative incomes for middle- and lower class households, this means a higher percentage of incomes going to basic necessities such as food, water and possible medical expenses caused by volatile weather and extreme heat waves. In turn, this may mean less disposable income that could otherwise spur the economy.
Disregarding climate change is technologically risky too: to meet the target of keeping concentrations of CO2 below the most recently agreed-upon threshold of 500 ppm, future generations would have to literally pull CO2 out of the air with machinery that does not yet exist and may never become technically or economically feasible or with other yet unknown methods.
Of course, it doesn’t help that a secretive network of conservative billionaires is pouring billions of dollars into a vast political effort attempting to deny climate change and that – perhaps as a consequence – the coverage of climate change by American media is down significantly from 2009, when media was happy to report a climate change “scandal” that eventually proved to be unfounded.
The good news is that for the first time ever, the United States now has an official Climate Change Action Plan. This will force some industries to adopt modern technologies to help combat the problem nationally. Internationally, a new climate change treaty is slated for 2015 to take effect from 2020. Let us hope for broad participation and that 2020 is not too late to avoid the catastrophic and unforeseen economic and environmental effects that experts are predicting.
Assistant Professor of Law
Western State College of Law
Sunday, November 24, 2013
In California and a dozen other states, it is becoming increasingly popular to have solar panels installed on private properties to reduce household electric bills. In addition to potentially significant energy savings, solar panels also help private parties mitigate climate change at the very local level. However, solar panels are expensive. Instead of buying them outright (an average-size residential system costs about $35,000), many consumers choose to lease the systems instead. This option typically entails no upfront costs and, as many solar panel providers tout, “low monthly rental fees” that are supposedly offset by utility bills savings and the avoidance of maintenance and upgrading otherwise associated with individually owned systems.
So is this a contractual win-win situation? Not necessarily so. Solar panel leases typically comprise terms that may either surprise the unwary consumer or turn out to be more favorable to the solar panel owners than the homeowners in the long run.
For example, state or federal tax benefits, renewable energy credits sold to companies to offset carbon emissions, and state or utility cash incentives go to the solar panel owners and thus not the leasing homeowners. Some contracts contain escalator clauses increasing the initially low lease payments over time. What is also often left unsaid, at least upon initial conversations with solar panel providers, is that if a household already has low electricity bills, leases structured as is often typically the case may not pay at all or be financially beneficial enough to justify the risks inherently involved in transactions between consumers and sophisticated energy company for something as new and technologically risky as solar electric panels. This risk is enhanced by the fact that the contract duration used by many California solar panel providers is no less than twenty years. Much could happen over two decades in relation to both the technical and financial aspects of these types of contracts: technology could (and likely will) change so that in the years to come, more effective systems are developed that could have produced even greater benefits for homeowners then tied to contracts for “old” technology. Utilities could reduce their electric rates so that the leases are not as commercially viable anymore. State and federal subsidies and other rules could change the entire energy field. Could consumers down the road prevail on an argument that imposing contracts of such durations in field so rapidly evolving is sufficiently draconian to be unconscionable? Probably not.
In California as in many - if not most - other states, unconscionability consists of both procedural and substantive elements and are evaluated on a sliding scale. The procedural element addresses the circumstances of contract negotiation and formation, focusing on oppression or surprise due to, among other factors, unequal bargaining power and the lack of meaningful choice. Substantive unconscionability pertains to the fairness of the actual terms of an agreement and to assessments of whether these terms are overly harsh or one-sided. However, substantive unconscionability “turns not only on a ‘one-sided’ result, but also on an absence of ‘justification’ for it.” Several problems thus abound for consumers attempting this argument. First, no reasonable argument can be made that leasing solar panels rises to the level of “needed services” or “life necessities” that even perceivably liberal California courts have called for in connection with the lack-of-choice prong. Second, consumer choice does exist here: homeowners could, for example, simply not rent the panels if not sure of the ultimate advantageousness of the deal. They could buy the systems outright instead, or ask their utility providers if it is possible to increase the percentage of household power purchased from renewable sources if interested in acting on climate change. Substantively, twenty years is a long time, but far from uncommon in contractual contexts. Finally, the solar panel companies have an arguably justified cause for requiring a twenty-year duration, namely installing the equipment at no upfront payment, servicing it over years, and the chance to recover a good return on it.
Solar power is one of many solutions that could prove viable in mitigating climate change. In a nation with as much annual sunshine as the United States, solar power will hopefully quickly become much more prevalent than is currently the case and help us as a nation become more energy independent. Consumers may be well able to obtain current and significant energy savings if operating solar systems on their properties. But consumers should realize that twenty-year leases constitute a significant legal commitment that will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid if better technological solutions should be discovered in the next years to come.
Myanna Dellinger, JD, MA, Assistant Professor of Law, Western State College of Law
Monday, August 15, 2011
In March the National Football League Owners (NFL) elected to lockout the players organized through the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) as the parties could not agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). This lead to several star players, including Tom Brady and Payton Manning, brining an antitrust suit against the NFL. Four and a half months later, as reported here on National Football Post.com, the two sides have agreed to a new CBA that will last through the 2020 season and the 2021 draft. ESPN reports that as a condition of the new CBA, all pending litigation needed to be settled. In the end, as ESPN reports here, NFL players agreed to release their claims without any compensation.
National Football Post.com provides a detailed summary of the 300-page plus CBA. The new CBA introduces several changes from the prior agreement, focusing on the players’ health and safety, benefits for retired players, the draft and free agency, compensation for rookies entering the league, and the economics surrounding the salary cap. In order to promote player health and safety, the new CBA reduces the length of off-season programs and organized team activities. If limits on-field practice time and the amount of contact practices, and increases the number of days off for players. In addition, the CBA allows current players to remain in the player medical plan for life and offers enhanced financial protection for injured players. The NFL and NFLPA also agreed to a $50 million per year joint fund for medical research, healthcare programs and charities.
Increased benefits for retired players include the creation of a “Legacy Fund” devoted to increasing the pension for those players who retired before 1993. The two sides also agreed to improve post-career medical options, the disability plan, the 88 plan (which provides assistance to disabled players and those with certain diseases developed due to playing), career transition and degree completion programs, and player care plan.
Under the new CBA players become unrestricted free agents (UFA) after four accrued seasons in the league. Players can become restricted free agents (RFA) after three accrued seasons in the league. Teams with RFAs have a right of first refusal on players who sign an offer sheet with another team allowing teams the opportunity to match the offer or receive draft pick compensation for the players.
Another new element to the CBA is the creation of a rookie pay scale. Under the new agreement, all drafted players will receive 4 year contracts and all undrafted players receive 3 year contracts. The teams have a maximum total compensation they can spend for each draft class and there are limited contract terms within the rookie contracts. The CBA also contains strong rules against rookies holding out and not signing with the teams, and teams also have the option to extended the rookie contract of a first round draft pick to a fifth year based on an agreed upon tender amount. The money saved by teams based on this structure is creating a new fund starting in 2012 to redistribute the money to current and retired players as well as into a veteran player performance pool.
The two sides also agreed upon a new salary cap and revenue sharing agreement that will be in place over the length of the new CBA. Starting with the 2012 season the salary cap will now be based on a share of “all revenue,” and the players are to receive 55% of the national media revenue, 45 % of NFL ventures revenue, and 40% of local club revenue. Player minimum salaries also saw a 10% increase for this year and will continue to increase throughout the length of the agreement.
Finally, the agreement also stipulates that there is to be no judicial oversight of the CBA, and that if there are disputes the NFL and NFLPA will employ an independent third party arbitrator which they agree upon to settle the dispute. To insure labor peace, the new agreement contains a clause stating that the players will not strike nor will the owners lock out the players during the duration of the agreement.
Boogity, boogity, boogity, Amen.
[JT & Jared Vasiliauskas]