Thursday, April 16, 2015
A potential class-action lawsuit against SeaWorld was filed in Florida on April 8 just two weeks after the company was sued over its killer whale care in San Diego in another purported class action suit. The Florida lawsuit alleges unjust enrichment and fraud, among other issues. The lawsuit claims that if members of the public knew about SeaWorld’s mistreatment of the orcas, they would not visit the theme parks. Plaintiffs asks the court to require SeaWorld to reimburse ticket prices to all the people who purchased tickets to the Orlando park in the past four years. Visitors to the park pay much as $235 per person. The complaint states that more than five million people attended the Florida theme park in the years 2010 through 2012.
SeaWorld finds itself in a lot of trouble these days over its treatment of its killer whales. The park was, for example, subjected to heavy criticism in the CNN documentary “Blackfish” and in a book written by one of its former orca trainers. Perhaps as a result, its shares have been tanking recently…
SeaWorld, in turn, claims that the criticism and in particular the most recent lawsuit “appears to be an attempt by animal [rights] extremists to use the courts to advance an anti-zoo agenda. The suit is baseless, filled with inaccuracies, and SeaWorld intends to defend itself against these inaccurate claims.” It also claims that it is a leader in orca care. SeaWorld’s parks are regularly inspected by the U.S. government and two organizations. The accreditations of the California and Florida parks expire in 2020.
As part of the experience park visitors purchase, they unquestionably expect to see relatively healthy and happy whales kept under standards of good animal husbandry. But in reality, according to the lawsuits and other statements about the park, SeaWorld does not live up to this end of the bargain. Frequent allegations have been made that SeaWorld’s orcas have a shorter lifespan than wild orcas (usually, animals in captivity live longer than their wild counterparts), are kept in chemical-filled and way too small pools, are drugged with antipsychotic medicines, are not provided with sufficient shade, and are subjected to forced breeding.
Either somebody is not telling the truth here or people’s expectations of what constitutes good ethics in relation to keeping and displaying orcas as well as other show and zoo animals, for that matter. Does this matter under the law? Of course, the general public has a purely legal right to buy tickets to see various performance and exhibit animals as long as no state or federal law is violated as regards how the animals are treated. Ethics are a different story. But misrepresentation is actionable under contracts law. If the above allegations made by TV producers, former trainers, and numerous consumers are correct, SeaWorld has indeed not lived up to the wholesome, animal-friendly image it portrays of itself in order to sell tickets. Its alleged questionable conduct has been going on for years. It’s been almost twenty since a friend of mine (otherwise not very interested in animals) visited SeaWorld San Diego and went on a backstage tour. He told me about the deplorably small pools in which the animals were kept after their performances. In this area, ethics and contracts law interface and have finally come head-to-head. The eventual outcome may be that SeaWorld will not be able to continue making money off its orca shows as it has in the past. Ringling Bros. is voluntarily phasing out its use of elephants after similar protests about their treatment. This may not be a bad thing from a public policy point of view. Time has come to consider how we treat animals in many contexts, and certainly so for mere entertainment and profit-making motives.
See the Florida complaint here: http://ia902707.us.archive.org/24/items/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289/gov.uscourts.flmd.309289.1.0.pdf
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
We all know the feeling of having to pay twice as much - or more - for food and drink in airports compared to most other places. Two vendors at the Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”) are now taking this practice to the next level: they are suing each other for alleged contracts violations and price gouging.
Boutique retailer Kitson Stores runs two stores at LAX. It apparently charges around $2.55 for a liter of water (roughly a quart) at those stores. Competitor Hudson Group charges $5 a bottle (size unknown, but presumably roughly the same and expensive at any rate). Kitson is alleging that Hudson is gouging passengers with its “hugely inflated” water prices and is trying to force Kitson out of business at the airport. Hudson is countering that Kitson is hardly concerned about consumer price protections, but that this lawsuit is really a diversion from Kitson’s alleged contractual violations.
Whichever turns out to be the case, airport prices are well known to be very high for everything from chewing gum to dinner. Perhaps higher-than-usual rent prices are to blame, at least in part. Of course, airport retailers also enjoy a captive market (almost literally). Consumers are, however, still allowed to bring an empty bottle to the airport and fill it with free water from, for example, the increasing number of “bottle filling stations” that are thankfully also appearing in more and more airports. This does seem to be a case of fake altruism, but is nonetheless a lawsuit that may resolve an important issue.
Monday, February 2, 2015
We have had quite a few posts about Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services, but they just keep popping up in the news, and the wrinkles are always unexpected and fascinating. Saturday's New York Times reported that the companies allow drivers to rate their passengers. If you get a bad rating, you'd better hail a cab or [shudder] take public transportation. It's not such a strange thing to be rated by a service-provider you pay, the Times point out. After all, students pay tuition to attend law school, and yet we grade them. But of course, students know that going in. Probably most passengers don't expect to be rated. What a wonderful century we inhabit -- so many opportunities to pass judgment on perfect strangers!
And what sort of behavior will get you a bad rating? It may be simple things like asking the driver to turn the heat/air conditioning/radio up or down. One rider expressed her angst about being thought insensitive or lacking in interpersonal skills if she took a call or did work while riding. Even Uber's CEO, one of the few riders with access to his own rating, was downgraded from five stars as a passenger to four. He attributes the lackluster reviews to work stress. He blames himself. "I was not as courteous as I should have been.” He should watch out. You can be banned from Uber, which siad in a blog post that it only wants to serve "the most respectful riders."
The article suggests that two-way review systems are inevitable, even though they may be inaccurate. A comparison of a site that allowed two-way reviews with one that allowed only one-way review found that the two-way system leads to far more positive reviews.
What goes around comes around. I would not put it past these companies to monitor their drivers' ratings of passengers. The company may find its own ways to retaliate against drivers who complain about passengers who do nothing more offensive than behaving like busy people who are getting a ride from a stranger as part of a commercial transaction.
Friday, January 2, 2015
A few days ago, I blogged on the recent lawsuit by United Airlines and Orbitz against the developer of Skiplagged. One of the causes of action alleged is breach of contract for encouraging the purchase of a ticket to certain destinations only to get off at an interim point to save money.
The airlines themselves may be breaching their contracts with flyers. For example, when we buy tickets to be flown from point A to point B, that arguably implies being done so without undue delays and, in particular, possibly having to spend the night at your own cost and without your personal belongings in random cities around the world if connections are missed because of flight delays (unless, of course, you choose to spend the night sitting upright in the airport). Needless to say, if you seek to change your ticket, airlines will either charge extreme high fees and the “difference in price” for doing so or outright prohibit this practice. I’ve had to change tickets many times in the past, and it has typically only taken an agent about five minutes to do so. Unconscionabiliy, anyone?
Here’s what happened to me one cold winter night a few years back: On my way to Denmark from St. Croix, the airline was late taking off and got even more delayed when it “had to” make an unplanned “quick landing” for gas, which was cheaper at the interim airport than at the end destination, and… ice cubes for people’s drinks! I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I missed the once-daily connection out of Atlanta to Copenhagen and had to spend the night in Atlanta in December. As I was living in tropical St. Croix at the time, I had some warm clothes with me on board the airplane to stay warm there, but had packed my winter gear in my suitcase. The airline paid for my hotel, but would, in spite of my desperate pleas, not let me have my suitcase back for the night. Result: I had to travel to and from the hotel, etc., in indoor clothes on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold winter day in Atlanta (yes, I should have brought a warmer jacket on board the plane, but planes to and from the Caribbean are often very small and I always try not to bring too much carry-on items).
Before 1978, U.S. airlines were required under “Rule 240” to offer seats on a competitor’s next flight if that would be the fastest way of getting the traveler to his or her destination. Airlines created after deregulation were never required to follow that rule, but older airlines such as Delta, United and Continental apparently still adhere to the rule. Funny that they never seem to mention that when they delay you significantly. Next time you fly, it may pay to scrutinize your contract of carriage more carefully to ascertain your rights in case of a delay.
It may be time for Congress to reintroduce a Rule 240-type requirement on airlines, especially as these have become extremely good at flying full – even at overcapacity - and thus often do not have extra space for passengers that have missed their flights. Good customer service often seems to have given way to airlines’ “me first” attitude in the name of hearing the highest profits possible by nickel-and-diming most aspects of airline travel on, at least, economy class.
Feeling empathetic towards the airlines? Don’t. Full or nearly full flights in conjunction with declining gas prices have enabled U.S.-based airlines to earn the highest profit margins in decades. One trade group estimates that airline made 6% profit margins in 2014, higher than the highest rates in the 1990s. Of course, the task of businesses is to make as much money as they can. But at least they should live up to their own contracts of carriage and other contracts principles just as they claim passengers and website developers should.
Here’s a hat tip to Professor Miriam Cherry and other contracts professors on a well-known industry list serve for news about this story. All opinion and thoughts above are my own.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
Monday, December 29, 2014
On December 18th, the District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled on defendant's motion to dismiss in In re: Target Corporation Customer Data Security Breach Litigation. The case relates to the hacking of 110 million Target customers last December. Plaintiffs allege violations of state consumer protection laws, negligence and breach of contracts, both express and implied, among other things. The court dismissed most claims with prejudice. The breach of an implied contract claim survived, as a jury will have to determine whether plaintiffs can establish the terms of an implied contract. The court dismissed the breach of an express contract claim without prejudice. Plaintiffs will be given an opportunity to specify what federal laws Target allegedly breach through its allegedly inadquate measures for safeguarding its customers' data.
And if you are looking for evidence that airlines really don't care what we think of them, look no further than United's motion to dismiss in Mamakos v. United Airlines, Inc. In the case, plaintiff alleges the following:
- She moved into that seat;
- Stewardesses informed her that she would have to pay a $109 premium for the seat;
- She did not want to pay and so moved back to her original seat;
- United then removed her from the aircraft and, when she resisted had her arrested; and
- United then cancelled her ticket and her return ticket.
United accepts the truth of these allegations for the purposes of its motion but maintains that it still did not breach its contract with plaintiff because of Rule 5(B) of United's Contract of Carriage (incorporated by reference into plaintiff's ticket), which permits United to cancel a reservation if the passenger refuses to pay for the applicable Ticket. Apparently, once plaintiff's behind made contact with a premium seat, she was bound to pay or be forcibly ejected form the aircraft. Sheesh.
Really United? Worth litigating?
Thursday, November 27, 2014
This is a rather unconventional list. I have just gone back into our archives and picked out one my favorite Meredith posts from each of the ten years since she started blogging here. It's amazing how well I remember each of these posts!
Meredith Vintage 2014: John Oliver and Sarah Silverman Tackle Payday Loans
Meredith Vintage 2013: Breaking: Bieber Requires NDA of Guests in His Home
Meredith Vintage 2012: Markets on the Mekong
Meredith Vintage 2011: Don't Buy This: 'Tis the Cyber Season of Reverse Psychology
Meredith Vintage 2010: A Hairy Breach of Contract Suit against Paris Hilton
Meredith Vintage 2009: Can Mad Men Bring Sexy Back to Contracts?
Meredeith Vintage 2008: Brown on Halloween, Promises & Signed Documents
Meredith Vintage 2007: Law Prof Takes on Cell Phone Company
Meredith Vintage 2006: British Court Must Watch Jerry Springer Show
Meredith Vintage 2005: The Commonality of Computers, French Fries and Arbitration
It was hard to make these choices. Lots of competition in the Meredith archives!
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
According to this story in the Mirror, a couple was charged an extra £100 for posting a review on TripAdvisor describing the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool as a "rotten, stinking hovel." According to the report, the hotel believes that it is permitted to charge guests up to a maximum of £100 for negative comments, as the hotel's booking document so states.
According to the Mirror, this policy may violate unfair trade practices regulations.
For those of you curious about the hotel, you can find it TripAdvisor site here.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
In a couple of previous posts I've described the International Commerical Arbitration Moot (ICAM) and detailed some aspects of this year's problem. None of this is news to the contracts, sales, and arbitration professors around the country who are involved in this activity. Still I am surprised at how many schools do not have teams. I have also noted the possible use of the yearly ICAM problem as a source or inspiration of exam questions.
For professors who are interested in starting a team there are many things to consider other than substance. These involve selecting and preparing a team. Here at Florida this means trimming a class of 30 or so hopeful students down to a team of 4 to 6. It is a complicated task. We try as much as possible to hold try outs that resemble the actual competition in Vienna. Other coaches know that the ICAM competition requires students to know the facts and law with precision and to have certain mannerisms that the mainly European judges find appealing. For example, speaking slowly is critical since many if not most judges will have English as a second language. Also, the closer the English spoken is to British English, the better. Why? Most of the arbitrators will have learned English abroad. The use of virtually any slang means you should move up your departure date from Vienna because you will not go far in the competition. "Gonna" must be "going to." "Wanna" must be "want to." No "big bucks." No "you guys." etc. If there such a thing as an eloquent yet casual style, that seems to work best. Yes, theater is involved and the coaches are directors as much as teachers. Even "costumes" seem to count. I watched a rather uncomfortable session in which an arbitrator dressed down a competitor who had, well, "dressed down" by not having the top button of his shirt buttoned. I think most coaches would agree the competition starts when the students arrive at the U.S. departure airport because from that point forward they may be rubbing shoulders with the arbitrators they will encounter in Vienna.
Monday, November 10, 2014
According to this report on the International Business Times website, two children, through their mother, are suing Malaysia Airlines for breach of contract and negligence in connection with their father's death on Flight MH370. Plaintiffs allege that the airline breached a safety agreement that it entered into with their father and the other passengers on the flight.
As reported here in the Bellingham Herald, the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments on October 30th about the state's contract with IBM to privatize its welfare services. The state was so disappointed with IBM's performance that it cancelled the contract three years into a $1.3 billion, ten-year deal. Friend of the blog, Wendy Netter Epstein (pictured), has written about this case in the Cardozo Law Review.
Sunday's New York Times Magazine has a cover story pondering whether lawyers are going to do to football what they did to tobacco. As an example of what this might look like we have this case filed on October 27, 2014 on behalf of Julius Whittier and a class of plaintiffs who played NCAA football from 1960-2014, never played in the NFL, and have been diagnosed with latent brain injury or disease. Mr. Whittier suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's. The complaint alleges, among other things, breach of contract, based on NCAA documents requiring each member instittuion to look after the physical well-being of student athletes.
Monday, October 13, 2014
We have posted previously about business entities that try to go after customers that give them negative reviews here and here. It seems, based on our limited experience, that threatening to sue customers for writing negative reviews is not a great business model.
Fortunately, there is a market solution. As reported in this weekend's column in The New York Times's "The Ethicist," businesses that recieve negative online reviews can just contact the reviewers and pay them to take down the review. According to the account in The Times, the author of a TripAdvisor review of a hotel entitled it "An Overpriced Dung Heap," but then accepted a 50% discount in return for removing the review. He should have bargained down to "Dung Heap," since the hotel probably was still a dung heap but perhaps was no longer overpriced.
The reviewer asked The Ethicist who was most unethical: himself, the hotel or TripAdvisor for hosting a system so easily corrupted. We don't get paid to weigh in on ethical matters. Actually, we don't get paid at all. But we do have opinions to vent, so here are some.
As The Ethicist acknowledged, what the hotel owner did was not illegal. An economist might reduce the question to one of efficiency. If the hotel owner thinks her money is well spent making bad publicity go away, rather than actually improving the quality of her hotel, that is a choice she can make as a business owner. The market may prove her wrong. The lack of negative reviews on TripAdvisor may not help if in fact one is greeted by a kickline of cockroaches and bedbugs when entering the guest rooms. The Ethicist dodges the stickier problem that TripAdvisor may contain only positive reviews of The Dung Heap Inn because the owners and their supporters flood the site with fake reviews. One would think that TripAdvisor's value would be correlated to its accuracy, but it is hard to see what measure TripAdvisor could take to insure that posts on its site are the real deal.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Today's New York Times features a story about a new ride-sharing service called BlaBlaCar. The idea is simple -- it's just an internet ride board. Riders share with drivers the cost of travel between two cities. Drivers are forbidden from profiting from the ride share; BlaBlaCar takes a 12% cut. Cost savings over common carriers are significant, ranging according to the NY Times from 33% to 67%
The gimmick is the BlaBla part. Riders can indicate how much they want to talk en route. If you mark Bla, you want to ride in silence (or perhaps you want everyone to know that they can talk all they want but you will be hooked in to your iPod). If you mark BlaBlaBla, other riders (and the driver) are on notice that you will not shut up for six straight hours.
I don't think this would work for me. It's a question of etiquette and signaling. This might be useful if one could be more specific: e.g., BlaBla#WorldCup or BlaBlaBla#Kardashians or BlaBlaBla#MyElderlyMother'sHealthProblemsandMyRecentBreak-up would be useful to know in advance. If I were being honest, I would proclaim BlaBlaBla#HansKelsen, but that would guarantee me a train ticket. I might strategize and put Bla, because it seems more likely than not that I would not find all that much in common with my fellow passengers. But what if they turn out to be interesting? Can I BlaBlaBla, if I promised only Bla? Then, the next time I use BlaBlaCar, I might regret my misanthropy and commit to BlaBlaBla. Would I be a jerk if, after half an hour of conversations about pop stars or the best gear for rock climbing, I pulled out my iPod?
Of course, the odds are that most users of BlaBlaCar are young and interesting (to me), but I am old and boring (to them). So I should put BlaBlaBla because I am interested in hearing what 20- or 30-somethings are doing these days as they commute between European cities, but I would advise them to Bla me, because they likely do not want to hear about Hans Kelsen. This is based on my recent visit with my niece and three nephews whose BlaBlaBla fascinated me (when I could follow it) but who found my Bla, well, blah, or even bleh, but certainly nothing above meh.
But the question of legal liabilities does nag. BlaBlaCar seems rather blithe about the issues. The driver's insurance covers the possibility of injuries to passengers, and women who are wary of sharing cars with strange men can opt to ride only with other women. As for the rest, riders can rely on reviews of drivers and steer away from those who seem sketchy. This is all certainly an improvement over the level of risks assumed by, say, hitchhikers.
BlaBlaCar's terms of service put passengers on notice that the site cannot guarantee that they will be insured:
However BlaBlaCar gives no warranty or assurance in this regard and it is the Driver’s responsibility to verify that their insurance provides adequate cover.
As for other concerns, BlaBlaCar attempts to cover them under its Good Conduct Charter.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Yesterday's New York Times features a story about the costs associated with hotel boycotts when an organization has booked a hotel to host a conference or meeting long in advance. This issue ought to be a familiar to anyone who attended the 2011 annual AALS meeting in San Francisco, for which the conference hotel was a Hilton whose workers were on strike.
The article details the costs involved in cancellations. Often the organization is contractually obligated to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the hotel even if the conference ulimately takes place at a different venue. According to the Times, if the cancellation is on short notice, the organization is typically obligated to pay 90% of expected room costs and 90% of expected banqueting services. And then there are, of course, the costs of finding an alternative venue in proxity to the original choice on relatively short notice. Major conferences can be booked years in advance.
Sometimes it is possible to mitigate the harm -- by booking at a related hotel or by promising to return to the original hotel if the policy that causes offenese is revoked. The former is unlikely in cases where the problem is with the entity that owns the hotel. But it is more likely in cases like those that arose in connection with anti-immigrant legislation passed in Arizona. Organizations could punish the state by moving to related hotels in states that did not have similar legislation.
Monday, May 12, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
The United States Supreme Court recently held that airlines are allowed to revoke the membership of those of their frequent flyers who complain “too much” about the airline’s services (see Northwest v. Ginsberg). Contracts ProfBlog first wrote about the case on April 3.
In the case, Northwest Airlines claimed that it removed one of its Platinum Elite customers from the program because the customer had complained 24 times over a span of approximately half a year about such alleged problems as luggage arriving “late” at the carousel. The company also stated that the customer had asked for and received compensation “over and above” the company guidelines such as almost $2,000 in travel vouchers, $500 in cash reimbursements, and additional miles. According to the company, this was an “abuse” of the frequent flyer agreement, thus giving the company the sole discretion to exclude the customer. The customer said that the real reason for his removal from the program was that the airline wanted to cut costs ahead of the then-upcoming merger with Delta Airlines. He filed suit claiming breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his contract with Northwest Airlines.
The Court found that state law claims for breaches of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing are pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 if the claims seek to enlarge the contractual relations between airlines and their frequent flyers rather than simply seeking to hold parties to their actual agreement. The covenant is thus pre-empted whenever it seeks to implement “community standards of decency, fairness, or reasonableness” which, apparently, go above and beyond what airlines promise to their customers.
Really? Does this mean that airlines can repeatedly behave in indecent ways towards frequent flyer programs members (and others), but if the members repeatedly complain, they – the customers – “abuse” the contractual relationship?!.. The opinion may at first blush read as such and have that somewhat chilling effect. However, the Court also pointed out that passengers may still seek relief from the Department of Transportation, which has the authority to investigate contracts between airlines and passengers.
The unanimous opinion authored by J. Alito also stated that passengers can simply “avoid an airline with a poor reputation and possibly enroll in a more favorable rival program.” These days, that may be hard to do. First, most airlines appear to have more or less similar frequent flyer programs. Second, what airline these days has a truly “good” reputation? Granted, some are better than others, but when picking one’s air carrier, it sometimes seems like choosing between pest and cholera.
One example is the airlines’ highly restrictive change-of-ticket rules in relation to economy airfare, which seem almost unconscionable. I have flown Delta Airlines almost exclusively for almost two decades on numerous trips to Europe for family and business purposes. A few times, I have had the good fortune to fly first or business class, but most times, I fly economy. Until recently, it was possible to change one’s economy fare in return for a relatively hefty “change fee” of around $200 and “the increase, if any, in the fare.” - Guess what, the fares always had increased the times I asked for a change. Recently, I sought to change a ticket that I had bought for my elderly mother, also using KLM (which codeshares with Delta) as my mother is also frequent flyer with Delta. I was told that it was impossible to change the ticket as it was “deeply discounted.” I had shopped extensively online for the ticket, which was within very close range (actually slightly more expensive than that of Delta’s competitors. I asked the company what my mother could do in this situation, but was told that all she could do was to “throw out the ticket (worth around $900) and buy another one.” Remember that these days, airfare often has to be bought months ahead of time to get the best prices. In the meantime, life happens. Unexpected, yet important events come about. Changes to airline tickets should be realistically feasible, but are currently not on these conditions.
What airlines and regulators seem to forget in times of “freedom of contracting and market forces” is that some of us do not have large business budgets or fly only to go on a (rare, in this country) vacation. My mother is elderly and lives in Europe. I need to perform elder care on another continent and need flights for that purpose just as much as others need bus or train services. Such is life in a globalized world for many of us. In some nations, airlines feature at least quasi-governmental aspects and are much more heavily regulated than in the United States. Here, airfare seems to be increasing rapidly while the middle (and lower) incomes are more or less stagnant currently. I understand and appreciate the benefits of a free marketplace, but a few more regulations seem warranted in today’s economy. It should be possible to, for example, do something as simple as to change a date on a ticket (if, of course, seats are still available at the same price and by paying a realistic change fee) without having to buy extravagantly expensive first class or other types of “changeable” tickets.
Other “abuses” also seem to be conducted by airlines towards their passengers and not vice versa. For example, if one faces a death in the family, forget about the “grievance” airfares that you may think exist. Two years ago, my father was passing and I was called to his deathbed. Not having had the exact date at hand months earlier, I had to buy a ticket last minute (that’s usually how it goes in situations like that, I think…). The airline – a large American carrier - charged a very large amount for the ticket, but attempted to justify this with the fact that that ticket was “changeable” when, ironically, I did not need it to be as I needed to leave within a few hours.
In the United States, “market forces” are said to dictate the pricing of airfare. In Europe, some discount airlines fly for much lower prices than in the United States (think round-trip from northern to southern Europe for around $20 plus tax, albeit to smaller airports at off hours). Strange, since both markets are capitalist and offer freedom of contracting. Of course, these discount airlines also feature various fees driving up their prices somewhat, although not nearly as much as in the United States. A few years back, one discount European airline even announced that it planned to charge a few dollars for its passengers to use … the in-flight restrooms. Under heavy criticism, that plan was soon given up. In the United States, some airlines seem to be asking for legal trouble because of their lopsided business strategies. Sure, companies of course have to remain profitable, but when many of them claim in their marketing materials to be “family-oriented” and “focused on the needs of their passengers,” it would be nice if they would more thoroughly consider what that means.
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Supreme Court Finds Breach of the Implied Duty of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Claim Barred by the Airline Deregulation Act
We have been following this case, Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, which departed from the Ninth Circuit and arrived in the Supreme Court, which heard oral argument in the case in December. The facts are amusing and all-too-familiar.
Mr. Ginsberg joined Northwest's frequent flyer program in 1999 and in 2005 he achieved "Platinum Elite" status. In June 2008, Northwest Airlines (Northwest) sent Mr. Ginsberg a letter revoking his Platinum Elite membership with Northwest for "abuse." This was done, Northwest alleged, in accordance with its contractual right to terminate membership for abuse, as determined in its sole discretion. The letter noted that Mr. Ginsberg has contacted Northwest 24 times over a roughly six-month period to report, among other things, "9 incidents of your bag arriving late at the luggage carousel. . . ."
At this point, we interrupt this blog post for a bit of a rant. . . .
Wait a minute! Northwest compensated Mr. Ginsberg with travel vouchers, points and $491 in cash reimbursements, so one might think that Mr. Ginsberg's complaints were, at least in part, justified. So, over the course of six months, his bags were delayed or lost nine times, and Northwest accuses him of abuse. That, I think Mr. Ginsberg would agree, takes chutzpah!
We now return to our more sober summary of the case . . . .
The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Mr. Ginsberg's claim that Northwest had vioalted the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act (the Act). The Act includes a preemption provisions which provides that . . .
a State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of at least 2 States may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation under this subpart.
The Act thus should preclude claims related to a price, route, or service. The Court had twice previously struck down state statutory schemes that regulated practices in the arline industry, including practices related to frequent flyer programs. The central issue before the Supreme Court was whether Northwest had voluntarily taken on additional contratual duties pursuant to its frequent flyer program. The Supreme Court, unanimously reversing the Ninth Circuit, held that it had not. Because the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing is implied, the Court held, it was imposed upon Northwest by the state and thus constituted a form of state regulation preempted by the Act.
The Court suggested that Ginsberg, or at least other, similarly situated plaintiffs, are not without alternative remedies. If Northwest really is abusing its discretion in administering its frequent flyer program, the Court suggests, airline passengers can choose to join some other airline's frequent flyer program (assuming there are significant differences and Mr. Ginsberg lives near an airport serviced by multiple airlines), and the Department of Transportation has authority to investigate and sanction the airline. Finally, the Court noted that while Mr. Ginsberg's good faith and fair dealing claim was pre-empted, his abandoned breach of contract claim might not have been.
Friday, February 21, 2014
A number of us from the blog are here at KCON 9 in Miami -- the 9th Annual International Conference on Contracts. We may do some live blogging on the panels, or we may just reflect afterwards on the sessions. But for now, let's just say, highs in the 80s, lows in the 70s.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Myanna's post about Uber got me thinking about a recent trip to New York City. New York City was the first city in which I took the occasional cab. I went to college and to law school there. When I was in college, some kindly relative told me that cabbies should get a 10% tip, and I have lived by that ever since. Turns out my kindly relative was a cheapskate.
As this article from The New York Times from about a year ago indicates, as early as 1947, cabbies expected at least 12½%, and until recently average tips exceeded 20%. Tips have come down as fares have gone up, and as of a year ago they averaged just over 15%.
New York City cabs are now equipped with credit card readers that offer riders the option to leave a tip. The reader will automatically add a tip, and it gives riders the option of tipping 15%, 20% or 25%. Behavioral economics suggests that most people will choose the middle one, and so it seems that the aim of the screen is to get cabbies' tips back up to where they were before the fares increased. When I saw these three options, I felt oppressed and manipulated, since I was still operating on the assumption that 10% is what is expected. Now I feel guilty that I did not tip more reasonably. In my own defense, I didn't save myself any money, since the my law school reimbursed me for my travel expenses on that trip. So you see, I wasn't being cheap; I was being a responsible steward of my law school's resources. But no more stingy tips for me.
I am a work in progress. I was as astonished as was Jerry Seinfeld (the character) to learn that chambermaids expect $5 a night (see the scene below, starting about 1:40 in).
Ann Landers is an even bigger cheapsake than my relative. Before we saw this, I would tip $2 a night, and I still think $5 a night is rather high. After all, Jerry Seinfeld (the character) is an experienced traveler, and he seems pretty free with his money. If he gives $1, $2 seems okay. But my wife and daughter agree with the suspected serial killer. Five dollars it is. It would have been interesting to see if chambermaids noticed an increase in generosity following the airing of this episode. And I wonder if they now wish that cable channels would stop showing Seinfeld reruns. The episode is now at least fifteen years old, so if $5 a night was a good tip then, one should expect $10 /a night now.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
For those who don't want to click on the links, here is our earlier summary of the facts of the case:
Plaintiff, Rabbi, S. Binyomin Ginsberg had been a member of Northwest's frequent flyer program, WorldPerks, since 1999. By 2005, he was such a macher, Northwest granted him Platinum Elite Status (oy, what nachas!). In 2008, Northwest revoked his membership. Ginsberg claims that Northwest took this action because he was a kvetch. . . .
The official reason provided for the termination was that Northwest had discretion "in its sole judgment," to cancel a member's account due to abuse of the program. Apparently, such judgment includes the ability terminate a membership if complaints persist after the "Enough with the complaining already!" warning. Ginsberg sued, asserting four causes of action, but Northwest moved for dismissal, arguing that the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) preempted all of Ginsberg's claims.
According to the The New York Times' synopsis of oral argument, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor expressed concern that the airline's frequent flyer program was either an illusory contract or subject to the airline's "whim and caprice." Justice Breyer, however, seemed inclined to think that claims sounding in breach of contract are preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which was supposed to allow airlines to compete based on, among other things, price. Since frequent flyer programs are price discounts, Breyer suggested that such programs are governed by the Deregulation Act and cannot be subject to claims based on state laws aimed at regulating the airlines. However, in 1995, the Court exempted contracts claims from federal preemption in American Airlines v. Wolens.
The distinction between regulating airlines through state law and regulating airlines through breach of contract claims is a subtle one. It seems to turn on whether Rabbi Ginsberg's claim is construed as a breach of contract claim or a claim that the airline breached a duty of good faith and fair dealing. Paul Clement, arguing for the airline (on page 13 of the transcript) claimed that to permit a claim based on the duty of good faith and fear dealing would "enlarge the bargain." Since the contract gave the airline discretion to terminate Rabbi Ginsberg's membership, Clement argued, invoking the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing takes his claim outside of the contract. The claim implicates state policies because in some states the implied duty is not merely a rule of construction but a means of imposing public policy standards of "fairness and decency" on private agreements.
The Solicitor General joined the case as amicus curiae on behalf of the airline and attempted to clarify the federal uniformity concerns implicated in the case. Counsel for the Solicitor General contended that state contracts law is fine to help adjudicate the intent of the parties, but where states impose public policy concerns in areas such as implied covenants and the unconscionability defense, there preemption is necessary.
This is very strange territory, and it was clear that Justices and counsel alike struggled to work out how to put such fine distinctions into place. It is odd for the Court to say in Wolens that contracts claims are not preempted by the Deregulation Act but for the Court to now say that certain types of contracts claims, like breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing or unconscionability defenses are still preempted.
And what about Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preemption? One of the few ways that parties can get out of arbitration clauses is by arguing that such clauses are unconscionable, because the FAA does not preempt defenses sounding in common law contracts doctrine. But since unconscionability doctrine varies from state to state, parties seeking to enforce arbitration clauses could argue that the same uniformity concerns that govern preemption in the Deregulation Act context should also apply in the FAA context. If so, good-bye unconscionability challenges to arbitration clauses.
The Times provides this link to the transcript of oral argument.
Friday, November 15, 2013
On November 2, 2013, Judge Dearie of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied British Airways' motion to dismiss a putative class action suit in Dover v. British Airways, PLC. Plaintiffs, British Airways Executive Members, allege that British Airway was charging fuel charges on rewards flights that were not actually based on the cost of fuel. British Airways moved to dismiss based on federal preemption and based on the claim that plaintiffs could not show that the surcharge was not based on fuel costs.
The terms and conditions of the Executive Membership agreement provide as follows:
Members will be liable for all taxes and other charges associated with Reward travel on British Airways or a Service Partner airline, including without limitation, airport departure tax, customs fines, immigration fees, airport charges, customer user fees, fuel surcharges, agricultural inspection fees, security and insurance surcharge or other incidental fees or taxes charged by any person or relevant authority or body.
Despite British Airways' claim on its website that fuel surcharges "reflect the fluctuating price of worldwide oil," plaintiffs allege that the fuel surcharges are just an excuse for British Airways to increase revenue by charging passengers hundreds of dollars on free flights. For example, one plaintiff paid $854 for two "free" round-trip tickets between San Francisco and London. Another plaintiff paid nearly $3300 in fees, including fuel surcharges, for five tickets from Los Angeles to London. Plaintiffs put in evidence suggesting that the fuel surcharges are a hedging mechanism that bear little relationship to the actual cost of fuel. The District Court found these allegations sufficient to surive a motion to dismiss.
British Airways also argued that dismissal was warranted because plainiffs' claims are preempted by the Federal Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), which forbids states from "enact[ing] or enforc[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier[.]" 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(l). The District Court found this argument foreclosed by Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens, 513 U.S. 219, 222 (1995), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "the ADA does not preempt contract claims, whether or not they relate to pricing or would otherwise be precluded if articulated under state consumer protection laws."
The District Court also rejected British Airways' argument that plaintiffs claims are preempted because enhanced or enlarged by state laws or policies external to the agreement. The District Court found that plaintiffs, like those in Wolens, were merely seeking to enforce the terms of their agreement with the airline. Finally, the District Court rejected an implied preemption based on the ADA's occuption of the field on the ground that the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to recognize any such preemption.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
We reported in May here about Northwest Inc. v. Ginsberg, a case on which the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. so that it can decide "Whether the court of appeals erred in holding, in contrast with the decisions of other circuits, that respondent’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was not preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act because such claims are categorically unrelated to a price, route, or service, notwithstanding that respondent’s claim arises out of a frequent-flyer program (the precise context of American Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens ) and manifestly enlarged the terms of the parties’ undertakings, which allowed termination in Northwest’s sole discretion."
Stephen Colbert reports on another tragic case of lost air miles, this time involving a frequent-flying cello. The report is provided below: