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, May 5, 2014
Sunday's New York Times had a lengthy article on a custody battle that has raged for two years. Danielle Schreiber, who runs a massage practice in California, and Jason Patric, a known but not well-known actor, conceived a child through articifial insemination in 2009. The two had dated for a while, but they were not a couple at the time of the insemination, which resulted in a son named Gus.
Mr. Patric was a part of Gus's early life, as the baby rekindled the romance between the biological parents. The couple never co-habited, but Mr. Partric claims that he played a parentral role until 2012 when the pair split up. Mr. Patric filed a paternity suit and sought shared custody. For a while thereafter, Ms. Schreiber allowed Mr. Patric to visit Gus, but then she cut off such visits.
The Times story does not make especially clear what the case turns on. California law is clear, according to the Times, that sperm donors are not treated as "natural fathers" unless a written agreement so provides. The Times states that the parties had no such agreement, but did they have any agreement at all? Both parties seem to have considered their options carefully, and both clearly have the means to consult attorneys when they need to. Is it really possible that they did not imagine anything could possibly go wrong? Did they not discuss the possibility that Mr. Patric would want to be invovled in his son's life, even if not as a father? Not that a contract could eliminate all possible legal difficulties going forward, but they certainly could have used a writing to clarify their intentions at the time the child was conceived.
In any case, it does not seem from the Times' account that Mr. Patric's custody and paternity claims are based solely on the fact that he was the sperm donor. Rather, he seems to be claiming that he acted as a parent during the child's first years and that the child regarded him as his father. Ms. Schreiber won at the trial level, and Mr. Patric has appealed; not only in the courts, but also through the media.
I'm have trouble embedding the videos, so you can follow this link to watch Mr. Patric tell his side of the story to Katie Couric and this link to watch Ms. Schreiber tell her side of the story on the Today Show.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A class-action lawsuit filed recently against Amazon asserts that the giant online retailer did not honor its promise to offer “free shipping” to its Prime members in spite of these members having paid an annual membership fee of $79 mainly in order to obtain free two-day shipping.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Amazon would covertly encourage third-party vendors to increase the item prices displayed and charged to Prime members by the same amount charged to non-Prime members for shipping in order to make it appear as if the Prime members would get the shipping for free. Amazon would allegedly also benefit from such higher prices as it deducts a referral fee as a percentage of the item price from third-party vendors.
The suit alleges breach of contract and seeks recovery of Prime membership costs for the relevant years as well as treble damages under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. Most states have laws such as consumer fraud statutes, deceptive trade practices laws, and/or unfair competition laws that can punish sellers for charging more than the actual costs of “shipping and handling." In some cases that settled, companies agreed to use the term “shipping and processing” instead of “shipping and handling” to be more clear towards consumers.
On the flip side of the situation is how Amazon outright prevents at least some private third-party vendors from charging the actual shipping costs (not even including “handling” or “processing” charges). For example, if a private, unaffiliated vendor sells a used book via Amazon, the site will only allow that person to charge a certain amount for shipping. As post office and UPS/FedEx costs of mailing items seem to be increasing (understandably so in at least the case of the USPS), the charges allowed for by Amazon often do not cover the actual costs of sending items. And if the private party attempts to increase the price of the book even just slightly to not incur a “loss” on shipping, the book may not be listed as the cheapest one available and thus not be sold.
This last issue may be a detail as the site still is a way of getting one’s used books sold at all whereas that may not have been possible without Amazon. Nonetheless, the totality of the above allegations, if proven to be true, and the facts just described till demonstrate the contractual powers that modern online giants have over competitors and consumers.
A decade or so ago, I attended a business conference for other purposes. I remember how one presenter, when discussing “shipping and handling” charges, got a gleeful look in his eyes and mentioned that when it came to those charges, it was “Christmas time.” When comparing what shipping actually costs (not that much for large mail-order companies that probably enjoy discounted rates with the shipping companies) with the charges listed by many companies, it seems that not much has changed in that area. On the other hand, promises of “free” shipping have, of course, been internalized in the prices charged somehow. One can hope that companies are on the up-and-up about the charges. Again: buyer beware.
Monday, April 7, 2014
My student, Cecelia Harper (pictured), recently ordered television service. The representative for the service provider offered a 2-year agreement, which he said was “absolutely, positively not a contract.” Learned in the law as she is, Cecelia asked the representative what he thought the difference was between a contract and an agreement. He wasn't sure, but he did read her what he called "literature," which surprisingly enough was not a Graham Greene novel but the terms and conditions of the agreement, which included a $20/month "deactivation" fee should Cecelia terminate service before the end of the contract -- oops, I mean agreement -- term.
I have seen said agreement, and it includes the following charming terms:
- Service provider reserves the right to make programming and pricing changes;
- Customer is entitled to notice of changes and is free to cancel her service if she does not like the changes, but then she will incur the deactivation fee;
- Customer must agree in advance to 12 categories of administrative fees that may be imposed on her;
- Service provider reserves right to change the terms of the agreement at any time, and continued use of the service after notice constitutes acceptance of new terms;
- An arbitration clause that excludes certain actions that the service provider might bring; and
- A class action waiver
If the agreement had a $20/month deactivation fee in it, I could not find it. All I see is a deactivation fee of "up to $15." Rather, the "customer agreement" references a separate "programming agreement," and suggests that there are cancellation fees associated with termination prior to the term of the programming agreement.
So in what sense is this not a contract? My guess is that this is service providers trying to emulate what cell phone service providers have done with their "no contract phone" campaigns. For example, there's this one:
I'm guessing that the television service providers have learned that these ad campaigns have made "contract" into a dirty word. They are now seeking to seduce new customers by insisting that they do not offer contracts. Oren Bar-Gill will have to write a sequel to his last book and call it Seduction by Agreement.
If anyone has any other theories for why representatives for service providers are insisting that their contracts are really agreements, please share!
Monday, March 31, 2014
More on the Fairness of Contractual Penalties
By Myanna Dellinger
In my March 3 blog post, I described how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just held that contractual liquidated damages clauses in the form of late and overlimit fees on credit cards do not violate due process law. A new California appellate case addresses a related issue, namely whether the breach of a loan settlement agreement calling for the repayment of the entire underlying loan and not just the settled-upon amount in the case of breach is a contractually prohibited penalty. It is.
In the case, Purcell v. Schweitzer (Cal. App. 4th Dist., Mar. 17, 2014), an individual borrowed $85,000 from a private lender and defaulted. The parties agreed to settle the dispute for $38,000. A provision in the settlement provided that if the borrower also defaulted on that amount, the entire amount would become due as “punitive damages.” When the borrower only owed $67 or $1,776 (depending on who you ask), he again defaulted, and the lender applied for and obtained a default judgment for $85,000.
Liquidated damages clauses in contracts are “enforceable if the damages flowing from the breach are likely to be difficult to ascertain or prove at the time of the agreement, and the liquidated damages sum represents a good faith effort by the parties to appraise the benefit of the bargain.” Piñon v. Bank of Am., 741 F.3d 1022, 1026 (Ninth Cir. 2014). The relevant “breach” to be analyzed is the breach of the stipulation, not the breach of the underlying contract. Purcell. On the other hand, contractual provisions are unenforceable as penalties if they are designed “not to estimate probable actual damages, but to punish the breaching party or coerce his or her performance.” Piñon, 741 F.3d at 1026.
At first blush, these two cases seem to reach the same legally and logically correct conclusion on similar backgrounds. But do they? The Ninth Circuit case in effect condones large national banks and credit card companies charging relatively small individual, but in sum very significant, fees that arguably bear little relationship to the actual damages suffered by banks when their customers pay late or exceed their credit limits. (See, in general, concurrence in Piñon). In 2002, for example, credit card companies collected $7.3 billion in late fees. Seana Shiffrin, Are Credit Card Law Fees Unconstitutional?, 15 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 457, 460 (2006). Thus, although the initial cost to each customer may be small (late fees typically range from $15 to $40), the ultimate result is still that very large sums of money are shifted from millions of private individuals to a few large financial entities for, as was stated by the Ninth Circuit, contractual violations that do not really cost the companies much. These fees may “reflect a compensatory to penalty damages ratio of more than 1:100, which far exceeds the ratio” condoned by the United States Supreme Court in tort cases. Piñon, 741 F.3d at 1028. In contrast, the California case shows that much smaller lenders of course also have no right to punitive damages that bear no relationship to the actual damages suffered, although in that case, the ratio was “only” about 1:2.
The United States Supreme Court should indeed resolve the issue of whether due process jurisprudence is applicable to contractual penalty clauses even though they originate from the parties’ private contracts and are thus distinct from the jury-determined punitive damages awards at issue in the cases that limited punitive damages in torts cases to a certain ratio. Government action is arguably involved by courts condoning, for example, the imposition of late fees if it is true that they do not reflect the true costs to the companies of contractual breaches by their clients. In my opinion, the California case represents the better outcome simply because it barred provisions that were clearly punitive in nature. But “fees” imposed by various corporations not only for late payments that may have little consequence for companies that typically get much money back via large interest rates, but also for a range of other items appear to be a way for companies to simply earn more money without rendering much in return.
At the end of the day, it is arguably economically wasteful from society’s point of view to siphon large amounts of money in “late fees” from private individuals to large national financial institutions many of which have not in recent history demonstrated sound economic savvy themselves, especially in the current economic environment. Courts should remember that whether or not liquidated damages clauses are actually a disguise for penalties depends on “the actual facts, not the words which may have been used in the contract.” Cook v. King Manor and Convalescent Hospital, 40 Cal. App. 3d 782, 792 (1974).
Monday, March 3, 2014
Contracts between credit card holders and card issuers typically provide for late fees and “overlimit fees” (for making purchases in excess of the card limits) ranging from $15 to $40. Since these fees are said to greatly exceed the harm that the issuers suffer when their customers make late payments or exceed their credit limits, do they violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution?
They do not, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (In re Late Fee & Over-Limit Fee Litig, No. 08-1521 (9th Cir. 2014)). Although such fees may even be purely punitive, the court pointed out that the due process analyses of BMW of North America v. Gore and State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Campbell are not applicable in contractual contexts, but only to jury-awarded fees. In Gore, the Court held that the proper analysis for whether punitive damages are excessive is “whether there is a reasonable relationship between the punitive damages award and the harm likely to result from the defendant's conduct as well as the harm that actually has occurred” and finding the award of punitive damages 500 times greater than the damage caused to “raise a suspicious judicial eyebrow”. 517 U.S. 559, 581, 583 (1996). The State Farm Court held that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages … will satisfy due process. 538 U.S. 408, 425 (2003).
Contractual penalty clauses are also not a violation of statutory law. Both the National Bank Act of 1864 and the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act provide that banks may charge their customers “interest at the rate allowed by the laws of the State … where the bank is located.” 12 U.S.C. s 85, 12 U.S.C. S. 1831(d). “Interest” covers more than the annual percentage rates charged to any carried balances, it also covers late fees and overlimit fees. 12 C.F.R. 7.4001(a). Thus, as long as the fees are legal in the banks’ home states, the banks are permitted to charge them.
Freedom of contracting prevailed in this case. But should it? Because the types and sizes of fees charged by credit card issuers are mostly uniform from institution to institution, consumers do not really have a true, free choice in contracting. As J. Reinhardt said in his concurrence, consumers frequently _ have to_ enter into adhesion contracts such as the ones at issue to obtain many of the practical necessities of modern life as, for example, credit cards, cell phones, utilities and regular consumer goods. Because most providers of such goods and services also use very similar, if not identical, contract clauses, there really isn’t much real “freedom of contracting” in these cases. So, should the Due Process clause apply to contractual penalty clauses as well? These clauses often reflect a compensatory to penalty damages ratio higher than 1:100, much higher than the limit set forth by the Supreme Court in the torts context. According to J. Reinhardt, it should: The constitutional principles limiting punishments in civil cases when that punishment vastly exceeds the harm done by the party being punished may well occur even when the penalties imposed are foreseeable, as with contracts. Said Reinhardt: “A grossly disproportionate punishment is a grossly disproportionate punishment, regardless of whether the breaching party has previously ‘acquiesced’ to such punishment.”
Time may soon come for the Supreme Court to address this issue, especially given the ease with which companies can and do find out about each other’s practices and match each other’s terms. Many companies even actively encourage their customers to look for better prices elsewhere via “price guarantees” and promise various incentives or at least matched, lower prices if customers notify the companies. Such competition is arguably good for consumers and allow them at least some bargaining powers. But as shown, in other respects, consumers have very little real choice and no bargaining power. In the credit card context, it may be said that the best course of action would be for consumers to make sure that they do not exceed their credit limits and make their payments on time. However, in a tough economy with high unemployment, there are people for whom that is simply not feasible. As the law currently stands in the Ninth Circuit, that leaves companies free to virtually punish their own customers, a slightly odd result given the fact that contracts law is not meant to be punitive in nature, but rather to be a resource allocation vehicle in cases where financial harm is actually suffered.
Monday, February 17, 2014
This afternoon, since school is out (for reasons that are unclear to us), my daughter is going with a group to a "famly fun center" featuring laser tag, a laser maze, go carts, bumper cars and something called the Sky Trail. The organization that is arranging the group outing sent me the fun center's standard waiver form which, not surprisingly these days, states that I waive any claims I might have against the fun center for, among other things, serious injury, including the death of my daughter while she does whatever one does on a Sky Trail, even if that serious injury or death is the result of the fun center's negligence.
I took the liberty of crossing out the offensive language, which I would hope would be unenforceable in any case. Since I will not be with my daughter when she hands in the waiver form, there will be nothing to do if the fun center refuses to accept it, but I am counting on them not noticing. I guess I will find out when she gets home and either tells me how awesome the Sky Trail was or slams her door and doesn't speak to me for a week.
The truth is, if my daughter were killed due to the fun center's negligence, a law suit would not improve my life in any way, help me heal or make me feel somehow that justice had been done. Wrangling over responsibility for her death would only prolong the agony of losing a child. Still, I cannot sign the form as is and it seems farcical to me to suggest that any parents would really want to turn their children over to the custody of strangers and then pardon those strangers in advance for their deadly negligence.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
If you applied for credit, but got turned down with the reason “Your worst bankcard or revolving account status is delinquent or derogatory,” would you understand what that means?
Probably not, at least not for sure. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, lenders are required to send applicants written explanations of why they are denied credit outright or given less favorable terms than those for which they applied. This requirement is aimed at helping consumers understand what they need to do to improve their credit scores. But many of the explanations provided to consumers are drafted by the credit score developers themselves and use confusing terminology or are too short to be useful.
What’s worse: lenders are aware of this problem, but apparently choose to do nothing about it. According to one survey, 75% of lenders “worry” that consumers don’t understand the disclosure notices. Only 10% of lenders said that their customers understand reason codes “well.” This problem is, of course, not isolated to the credit industry, but also prevails in the health care industry and beyond.
Contracts law is not helpful for consumers in this respect either: there is a clear duty to read and understand contracts, even if they are written in a language (typically English) that one does not understand. Perhaps that’s why only 10% of lenders bother to translate documents into Spanish with the effect that many Spanish-speaking monolingual applicants are unable to read the explanations at all.
Some companies offer websites offering “translations” into easier-to-understand and longer explanations of the codes behind credit refusals and what one can do to improve credit. There’s a website for almost anything these days, but for that solution to be sufficiently helpful in the lending context, it must be presumed that these websites are relatively easy to find, free or inexpensive, and easy to use; all quite far from always the case.
As law professors, most of us probably require our students to write in clear, plain English. We don’t take it lightly if they write incomprehensible sentences. The desirability of writing well should be obvious in corporate as well as academic contexts.
Friday, January 31, 2014
I like to remind my 1Ls Contracts students that a contract is private law between two parties, but it doesn't override public law. This story is last week's news, but I thought I'd blog about it anyway because it provides a pretty good example of this point. In 2009, William Marotta responded to a Craigslist ad posted by two women for a sperm donor. All three parties agreed - and signed an agreement to the effect - that Marotta waived his parental rights and responsibilities. The Kansas Department for Children and Families sought to have Marotta declared the father and responsible for payments of $6,000 that the state had already paid and for future child support.
Unfortunately for Marotta, a Kansas state statute requires a physician to perform the artificial insemination procedure. The Shawnee County District Court Judge Mary Mattivi ruled that because the parties "failed to conform to the statutory requirements of the Kansas Parentage Act in not enlisting a licensed physician...the parties' self-designation of (Marotta) as a sperm donor is insufficient to relieve (Marotta) of parental rights and responsibilities."
Note that the couple was not seeking to invalidate the contract - it was the Kansas state agency.
It's unclear whether the parties will appeal.
Monday, January 20, 2014
In the mid-1990s, the Walt Disney Company hired Michael Ovitz to be its #2 executive. After slightly over a year in the position, Disney's Board of Directors fired Ovitz, having determined that he was an ineffective executive for the company. He received over $100 million in severance pay. After years of litigation, the Delaware courts found that Disney's Board of Directors did not breach its duty of care in approving an excecutive compensation scheme that made Ovitz better off for having been terminated than he would have been had he stayed on the job. The Delaware Supreme Court noted that Disney's corporate governanace was far from optimal and should not pass muster in a post-Enron/WorldCom etc., world. I have written about the case here.
According to this article in The New York Times, Yahoo! was not paying attention. In 2012, Yahoo! hired Henrique de Castro to be its #2 executive. He lasted a little over a year and is now walking away with at least $88 million. The Times quotes Charles M. Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, who says that such hiring decisions are usually made by the corporation's CEO and that the Board can't tell the CEO whom to hire. However, Professor Elson also notes that Boards have an obligation to "ask hard questions," especially when executive compensation seems "out of whack." Mr. de Castro was the eighth highest paid executive in the region, earning more than Yahoo!'s CEO.
I suppose it is usually true that a Board cannot tell a CEO whom to hire, but the Board and its Compensation Committee do set executive pay. And nobody at that level can be hired without Board approval. In order to lure an executive of de Castro's experience, a corporation must offer "downside protection." That is, a business person of de Castro's experience is not going to leave a secure, well-compensated position without a guarantee that he will be well-compensated at the new position, even if the relationship sours. However, as the Times points out, de Castro's record at Google was mixed. He had been demoted and then promoted again, which suggests his position was not that secure. In any case, his compensation seems to have been well in excess of what was necessary to protect his potential downside.
Board capture apparently is still a major problem in U.S. public companies, and the Times suggests that the problem is especially bad in Silicon Valley. The real problem is that executive pay remains absurdly, stratospherically high in this country. No pay package should be structured to guarantee millions in dollars of severance even in cases of abject failure.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
$350,000. That’s the value an anonymous American big game hunter is willing to pay to shoot one of the world’s last 5,000 black rhinoceroses. 1,700 of these live in Namibia, which recently auctioned off a permit to kill an old bull through the Dallas Safari Club.
Contracts are meant to assign market values to various items and services in order to facilitate commercial exchanges of these. But does this make sense with critically endangered species?
Namibia and the Safari Club tout the sustainability of the sale claiming that the bull is an “old, geriatric male that is no longer contributing to the herd.” All $350,000 will allegedly go to conservation measures. That is, of course, unless some of the funds disappear to corruptness, not unheard of in the USA and perhaps not in Namibia either. Although the male may no longer be contributing to his herd, he does contribute to the enjoyment of, just as one example, people potentially able to see him and his likes on safari trips as well as to a much greater number of people around the world who simply enjoy the rich diversity of nature as it still is even if unable to personally see the animals.
Conservationists thus decry the sale, claiming that it is “perverse” to kill even one of a species that is so rapidly becoming extinct. The argument has been made that critically endangered species should not be valued more dead than alive. If humans cull the aging, natural predators will have to go one step “down the ladder” for the next one; a healthier one. Who are we to continually mess with nature in these ways? Counterarguments are made that poachers are the real problem, not a “single sale.” And so it goes.
At bottom, the irony in killing such an animal to “increase” the population is, indeed, great. This particular contract was not.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Over at the Huffington Post, Sam Fiorella takes note of the egregious terms in Facebook Messenger's Mobile App Terms of Service. These terms include allowing the app to record audio, take pictures and video and make phone calls without your confirmation or intervention. It also allows the app to read your phone call log and your personal profile information. Of course, an app that can do all that is also vulnerable to malicious viruses which can share that information without your knowledge. But, of course, this is allowed only with your "consent."
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Today’s mini-review is of Dysfunctional Contracts and the Laws and Practices that Enable Them: An Empirical Analysis, 46 Ind. L. Rev. 797 (2013), by Debra Pogrund Stark, Dr. Jessica M. Choplin, and Eileen Linnabery.
Apparently, many real estate contracts limit buyers’ remedies to return of earnest money, and many courts enforce such limitations. The problem is that if a buyer’s only remedy for breach of contract is the return of earnest money, then the seller hasn’t really bound himself to anything. If the seller doesn’t want to perform, all he has to do is return the earnest money. This encourages the kind of strategic behavior that contracts are supposed to prevent. For example, a seller may agree to sell real estate, but if the property's market value increases, the seller can breach the contract, return the earnest money, and sell the property to a second buyer at a higher price. The seller essentially gets to speculate on the buyer's dime.
Further, many buyers don’t understand the meaning of these limitation of remedy clauses, even if they read them. The authors conducted a study which suggests more than a third of people who read a limitation of remedies clause fail to comprehend that their remedies have been limited. The authors use this finding to challenge some courts’ reasoning that buyers knowingly consent to the limitation of their remedies.
The authors offer several reforms, and two are particularly interesting: (1) enacting legislation that prohibits limiting buyers’ remedies to the return of earnest money, and (2) replacing the exacting standards of unconscionability with a "reasonable limitation of remedy” test similar to that used in evaluating liquidated damages.
This article is state-of-the-art in its use of empirical research to aid legal analysis. It not only provides interesting data, but it also marshals that data against flimsy intuitive arguments still common wherever people talk about contracts.
[Image by thinkpanama]
Thursday, November 21, 2013
It’s my pleasure to respond to Tuesday’s posts from Juliet Moringiello and Woodrow Hartzog. Juliet Moringiello asks whether wrap contracts are different enough to warrant different terminology. Moringiello’s knowledge in this area of law is both wide and deep and her article (Signals, Assent and Internet Contracting, 57 Rutgers L. Rev. 1307) greatly informed my thinking on the signaling effects of wrap contracts. The early electronic contracting cases involved old- school clickwraps where the terms were presented alongside the check box and their signaling effects were much stronger than browsewraps. Nowadays, the more common form of ‘wrap is the “multi-wrap,” such as that employed by Facebook and Google with a check or click required to manifest consent but the terms visible only by clicking on a hyperlink. Because they are everywhere, and have become seamlessly integrated onto websites, consumers don’t even see them. Moringiello writes that today’s 25-year old is more accustomed to clicking agree than signing a contract. I think that’s true and it’s that ubiquity which diminishes their signaling effects. Because we are all clicking constantly, we fail to realize the significance of doing so. It’s not the act alone that should matter, but the awareness of what the act means. I’m willing to bet that even among the savvy readers of this blog, none has read or even noticed every wrap agreement agreed to in the past week alone. I wouldn’t have made such a bold statement eight years ago.
Woodrow Hartzog provides a different angle on the wrap contract mess by looking at how they control and regulate online speech. With a few exceptions, most online speech happens on private websites that are governed by “codes of conduct.” In my book, I note that the power that drafting companies have over the way they present their contracts should create a responsibility to exercise that power reasonably. Hartzog expands upon this idea and provides terrific examples of how companies might indicate “specific assent” which underscore just how much more companies could be doing to heighten user awareness. For example, he explains how a website’s privacy settings (e.g. “only friends” or authorized “followers”) could be used to enable a user to specifically assent to certain uses. (His example is a much more creative way to elicit specific assent than the example of multiple clicking which I use in my book which is not surprising given his previous work in this area).
Hartzog also explains how wrap contracts that incorporate community guidelines may also benefit users by encouraging civil behavior and providing the company with a way to regulate conduct and curb hate speech and revenge porn. I made a similar point in this article. I am, however, skeptical that community guidelines will be used in this way without some legal carrot or stick, such as tort or contract liability. (Generally, these types of policies are viewed in a one-sided manner, enforceable as contracts against the user but not binding against the company). On the contrary, the law – in the form of the Communications Decency Act, section 230- provides website with immunity from liability for content posted by third parties. Some companies, such as Facebook, Twitter or Google, have a public image to maintain and will use their discretionary power under these policies to protect that image. But the sites where bad stuff really happens– the revenge porn and trash talking sites – have no reason to curb bad behavior since their livelihood depends upon it. And in some cases, the company uses the discretionary power that a wrap contract allocates to it to stifle speech or conduct that the website doesn’t like. A recent example involves Yelp, the online consumer review company that is suing a user for posting positive reviews about itself. Yelp claims that the positive reviews are fake and is suing the user because posting fake reviews violates its wrap contract. What’s troubling about the lawsuit, however, is that (i) Yelp almost never sues its users, even those who post fake bad reviews, and (ii) the user it is suing is a law firm that earlier, had sued Yelp in small claims court for coercing it into buying advertising. To make matters worse, the law firm’s initial victory against Yelp (where the court compared Yelp’s sales tactics to extortion by the Mafia) for $2,700 was overturned on appeal. The reason? Under the terms of Yelp’s wrap contract, the law firm was required to arbitrate all claims. The law firm claims that arbitration would cost it from $4,000-$5,000.
I agree with Hartzog that wrap contracts have the potential to shape behavior in ways that benefit users, but most companies will need some sort of legal incentive or prod to actually employ them in that way.
Monday, November 18, 2013
I'm enjoying the posts from Ryan Calo and Miriam Cherry about my book, Wrap Contracts: Foundations and Ramifications and plan to post a response later this week. A common question I get (after, Are these things really legal?) is What harm can these contracts cause anyway? Well, one woman claims that a company can use them to ruin your credit. The woman, Jen Palmer, ordered some trinkets from KlearGear.com but she claims that she never received them and canceled the payment. After she allegedly failed to reach someone at the company, she wrote a negative review of KlearGear.com on a consumer reporting website stating that they have "horrible" customer service. KlearGear allegedly emailed her, claiming that her negative review ran afoul of a non-disparagement clause in their online terms of sale. She says that they told her to remove the post or face a $3500 fine. Ms. Palmer was unable to get the post removed and alleges that KlearGear.com reported her to a credit bureau! She claims that she is now fighting the negative mark on her credit report which is preventing her from getting loans for a new car and house repairs.
I don't think the terms of sale are enforceable against Ms. Palmer but that's almost beside the point. Contracts are used in a variety of ways - one of those ways is to deter problems. Not many consumers are willing to fight to test the enforceabilty of a contract in court.
But I have a question: Why would a credit agency ding someone's record simply because they received a call from an online retailer about someone who wasn't even a customer breaching the terms of sale? I checked KlearGear's website and couldn't find the non-disparagement clause in their terms of sale- they might have removed it after the negative publicity or it might not be in another agreement that doesn't appear until a customer places an order. There's got to be more to this story...or else we've just entered a new era of abuse by wrap contracts.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
In a situation that underscores the importance of thinking twice about very long term contracts, the NBA wants to end a contract which requires it to pay two brothers a percentage of its broadcast revenues. Back in 1976, the Silna brothers owned an ABA franchise, the Spirits of St. Louis. When the ABA merged with the NBA, the Silnas agreed to this bargain - they would dissolve their team in exchange for 1/7 of the television revenues for the four ABA teams that were merged. The four teams were the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, the Brooklyn Nets and the Denver Nuggets.
Sure, back in 1976, the Silnas might have looked silly for giving up a huge buyout for something that seemed pretty worthless (the NBA wasn't even televised prime time) but now the deal is being called "the greatest sports deal of all time."
Not kidding about that "all time" either - the Silvas reportedly received $19 million under the contract last season and the contract term is "in perpetuity." Fat chance the NBA will be able to scream foul on the basis of lack of mutuality...
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Breaking Bad, I just thought I would never again have anything to which I could look foward. I did just turn 50, so there is AARP membership and a colonoscopy, but I thought there would be nothing in my future that I would anticipate enjoying.
But then came this in today's New York Times. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad just sigend an agreement for a new show on CBS. The timing of the announcement speaks well of both Mr. Gilligan and CBS, capitalizing on the current fan feeding frenzy surrounding the end of the series. But the fact that CBS is belatedly pouncing on a Gilligan script originally offered to CBS ten years ago speaks less well of that party to the deal.
Mr. Gilligan has an exclusive deal with Sony Pictures Television, which negotiated for him an unsual deal in which CBS agreed up front to air 13 episodes of Mr. Gilligan's series, Battle Creek. There's a lot of money involved, but who cares? If Battle Creek is anything like Breaking Bad, I will forgive CBS for not airing a single show that I have wanted to watch in the last 25 years.
Or am I forgetting something? Has CBS had any good comedies or dramas in prime time?
Friday, September 20, 2013
"By now, you’ve heard the stories of passengers urinating in bags, slipping on sewage, and eating stale cereal aboard the Carnival Cruise ship that was stranded in the Gulf of Mexico — not exactly the fun-filled cruise for which the passengers had signed up and paid." My post on "Carnival Cruise and the Contracting of Everything" is available here.
Friday, September 13, 2013
Over the summer, hte UK's National Audit Office presented to the BBC Trust Finance Committee this Report on executive severance payments made to fromer BBC executives. The BBC has reduced its management staff signficantly since 2009. In so doing, it expects savings totalling £92 million. However, the BBC also has made severance payments to the 150 ousted executives totalling £25 million.
According to the Report, the BBC plans changes going forward. From now on severance pay will not exceed 12-months salary or £150,000, whichever is less.
The drama of Parliamentary hearings into the payments is well described here in the UK's The Guardian. The BBC's Director General at the time of the payments was Mark Thompson, who recently moved on to The New York Times, where he is Chief Executive. Thompson defended the payments before Parliament, although they exceeded by £1.4 million (£2 million in The Independent's account) the BBC's contractual obligations to its former executives. The largest single payment was just over £1 million, and it went to Thompson's deputy, Mark Byford. According to the BBC, the investigation into severance payments was triggered by a £450,000 payment to one BBC executive who resigned in connection with a scandal after just 54 days on the job.
From an American perspective, it is a bit hard to see what the fuss is all about. Sure, capping severance for executives at publicly-owned entities is certainly a reasonable policy, but even without the cap, exceeding contractual obligations by something less than 10% while achieving significant savings overall seems pretty tame on the overall scales of both wasteful public-sector spending and executive severance packages. As Brad Pitt's character puts it in Inglorious Bastards, that should just get you a chewing out. But perhaps we have been desensitized by the size of severance packets, even at public corporations, on this side of the pond.
1. It is perhaps telling that the Report begins with three blank pages (after the cover page) followed by two mostly blank pages. Apparently they don't audit their own use of paper.
2. UK usage seems to have completely abandoned the hyphenated compound adjective. Thus, after all the blank pages, the Report begins, "The BBC Trust receives value for money investigations into specific areas of BBC activity." I had to read this sentence three times before I could make any sense of it. That's because "value for money" is a compound adjective rather than two nouns separated by a preposition. To my eyes, the sentence would have been far more readable if it had been written: "The BBC Trust receives value-for-money investigations into specific areas of BBC activity. " Am I the only one? My inquiry also relates to changes going on in Law Review offices in the US, as I have tussled with student editors who have grown hostile to hyphens in recent years. I like the little fellas.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
In July, Centre College announced that the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust had pledged the largest gift in the history of small, liberal arts colleges. The fund would be used to create 160 scholarships for students majoring in the natural sciences, computational sciences or dismal sciences (aka economics). Eugene Brockman died in 1986, but his son, Robert T. Brockman attended Centre College and is now a principal in Reynolds & Reynolds, a car dealership support company.
Earlier this week, Centre College announced that the gift had been withdrawn. The gift was contingent, as it turns out, on "a significant capital market event." The event was a $3.4 billion loan deal involving Reynolds & Reynolds. The proceeds from the deal would go to Reynolds & Reynolds shareholders, including the Brockman Trust. But the rating agencies did not like the deal and downgraded Reynolds & Reynolds. As a result, no deal, no proceeds, no revenues to the Brockman Trust and then none to the College.
For our purposes, there are two money quotes in the Times coverage from Centre College's President John Roush. First, “In retrospect, we might have put a big asterisk on this thing . . . ." And second “We had a lot of people who have poured mountains of time into this . . . ."
No doubt, Centre College would like to maintain its good relations with the Brockman Trust. It has received money from the Trust in the past; it would like to continue to do so in the future. But if there were a clean break, is the pledge enforceable?
The answer may turn on where that astserisk should be. Was there an asterisk attached to the gift or an asterisk attached to the announcement of the gift? If Brockman made clear that its gift was contingent on the significant capital market event, then its pledge is not binding. There was no promise. But if the condition was not clear, there may still be a representation that one would reasonably expect to induce reliance and that apparently induced actual reliance when the Centre College people "poured mountains of time" into the gift. Even the announcement of the gift, its purposes and its source, might be consideration, rendering the gift pledge enforceable (if there was indeed a promise), because the Trust got something of value (publicity) in exchange for its pledge.
One also wonders about other donors. If the Brockman Charitable Trust pledge was used to attract other donors, those donors might now be experiencing donor's remorse. If the other donors now renege on their pledges, might the College have a cause of action against the Trust?