Friday, July 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A woman owes $20 to Kohl’s on a credit card. The debt collector allegedly started to “harass” the woman over the debt, calling her cell phone up to 22 times per week as early as 6 a.m. and occasionally after midnight. What would a reasonable customer do? Probably pay the debt, which the woman admits was only a “measly $20.” What did this woman do? Not to pay the small debt, telling the caller that they had “the wrong number,” and follow the great American tradition of filing suit, alleging violations of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act which, among other things, makes it illegal to call cell phones using auto dialers or prerecorded voices without the recipient’s consent.
Consumer protection rules also prohibit collection agencies from calling before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., calling multiple times during one day, leaving voicemail messages at a work number, or continuing to call a work phone number if told not to.
Last year, Bank of America agreed to pay $32 million to settle claims relating to allegations of illegally using robo-debt collectors. Discover also settled a claim alleging that they violated the rules by calling people’s cell phones without their consent. Just recently, a man’s recorded 20-minute call to Comcast pleading with their representative to cancel his cable and internet service went viral online.
The legal moral of these stories is that companies are not and should, of course, not be allowed to harass anyone to collect on debt owed to them or refuse to cancel services no longer wanted. However, what about companies such as Kohl’s who are presumably owed very large amounts of money although in the form of many small debts? Is it reasonable that customers such as the above can do what she admits doing, simply saying “screw it” to the company and in fact reverse the roles of debtor and creditor by hoping for a settlement via a lawsuit on a questionable background? Surely not.
I once owned a small company and can attest to the difficulty of collecting on debts even with extensive accurate documentation. The only way my debt collecting service or myself were able to collect many outstanding amounts was precisely to make repeat requests and reminders (although, of course, in a professional manner). As a matter of principle, customers should not be able to get away with simply choosing not to pay for services or products they have ordered, even if the outstanding amounts are small. If companies have followed the law, perhaps time has come for them to refuse settling to once again re-establish the roles of debtor and creditor. This, one could hope, would lead irresponsible consumers to live up to their financial obligations, as must the rest of society.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
So I hadn't really thought about Crossfire since Jon Stewart shut them down. It was the pinnacle of Stewart's career thus far.
But I guess it's just hard to keep a terrible idea down when you have 24 hours of time to kill every day.
I don't know what CNN's little segment on sex contracts is supposed to accomplish. I guess it is intended to introduce its audience to one of its contributors, S. E. Cupp No doubt, Ms. Cupp has lots of interesting ideas and is telegenic and all that, but this segment reads like a Ms. America question gone wrong. "Ms. Louisiana, do you think colleges and universities ought to require written assent from both (or all) parties to any sexual act in which a student participates?"
Ms. Cupp starts, because her brand is "smart conservative," by lashing out at a culture that "disarms" students on college campuses. Her claim is that women can't protect themselves with pepper spray because of weapons bans on campuses. Of course, most of those bans do not include defensive weapons and anyway, if a woman used her pepper spary defensively in defiance of such a ban, she would 1) escape an assault and 2) perhaps face reprimand. It's not clear that the disarmament has occurred, nor does Ms. Cupp address the very real possibility that women are safer when men can't carry weapons on campus, but I digress.
Then she seems to complain about resources going to crisis centers and hotlines rather than to rape prevention but she is careful to say that crisis centers and hotlines are a good thing (way to give a balanced perspective, Ms. Louisiana!). Then comes the segue to the University of California's consideration of sex contracts. This is not news. Antioch College did it for years. Even we blogged about the subject two years ago.
What's Cupp's take? The idea is silly, but good for California for at least trying! Alright audience. Ms. Louisiana! Isn't she a great sport?
Cupp actually makes me feel nostalgic for the days when Camille Paglia would not just strike provocative intellectual poses but would actually take provocative intellectual positions on the right. I didn't agree with Paglia, but she expressed her original and outlandish ideas with verve and panache. She challenged her readers to consider their positions and think things anew. If anyone actually watches the new Crossfire, let me know if you see any signs of an ability to do so over there.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
Such is the rhetorical power of a contract, even one that nobody reads.
They also say "your trust is important to us."
Did Facebook act in bad faith by manipulating users' data feeds? It's at least arguable that they did.
Now, about the research results - as far as what the results showed, I'm not sure that the study did prove that positive posts enhanced users moods (and vice versa). A user may have changed the nature of a post in order to conform to the prevailing mood, but that doesn't mean they actually felt happier. Positive posts from others might have forced users to "fake it" by writing more positive posts and vice versa. So I'm not convinced that the research refuted the claim that happy Facebook posts depressed some FB users...
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.
Friday, June 27, 2014
Several months back, I blogged about KlearGear's efforts to enforce a $3500 nondisparagement clause in their Terms of Sale against the Palmers, a Utah couple that had written a negative review about the company. It was a case so bizarre that I had a hard time believing that it was true and not some internet rumor. Even though the terms of sale most likely didn't apply to the Palmers --or to anyone given the improper presentation on the website-- KlearGear reported the couple's failure to pay the ridiculous $3500 fee to a collections agency which, in turn, hurt the couple's credit score. The couple, represented by Public Citizen, sued KlearGear and a court recently issued a default judgment against the company and awarded the couple $306,750 in compensatory and punitive damages. Consumerist has the full story here.
Congratulations to the Palmers and Scott Michelman from Public Citizen who has been representing the couple. And let this be a warning to other companies who might try to sneak a similar type of clause in their consumer contracts....
Thursday, June 19, 2014
This week, I received notice that I am a member of the plaintiff class in Schlesinger, et. al. v. Ticketmaster. After ten years of litigation, the parties' proposed settlement is pending before the Superior Court in Los Angeles. If you purchased tickets through Ticketmaster between 1999 and 2013, you most likely are also a part of the class. The case alleges (in short) that Ticketmaster overcharged customers for fees. Ticketmaster claims that its processing fees were necessary for it to recover its costs, while plaintiffs allege that those fees were actually a means of generating profits for Ticketmaster. Shocking, no?
The terms of the settlement are actually pretty sweet. Class members will get a discount code that they can use on the Ticketmaster website entitling them to $2.25 off future Ticketmaster transactions. Class members get to use the code up to 17 times in the next four years. The value of the discount codes is about $386 million, and if the money is not used up, class members will be eligible for free ticket to Live Nation events. Ticketmaster's website will also now include disclosures about how it profits from its fees.
But then there's THIS:
Ticketmaster will pay $3 million to the University of California, Irvine School of Law to be used for the benefit of consumers like yourself. In addition to the benefits set forth above, Ticketmaster will also make a $3 million cy pres cash payment to the University of California, Irvine School of Law’s Consumer Law Clinic. The money will establish the Consumer Law Clinic as a permanent clinic, and it will be used to: (i) provide direct legal representations for clients with consumer law claims, (ii) advocate for consumers through policy work, and (iii) provide free educational tools (including online tutorials) to help consumers understand their rights, responsibilities, and remedies for online purchases.
The settlement strikes me as masterly. It gets a beneift to people who, if the allegations are true, were actually harmed by the alleged conduct, but it does so in a way that will generate more business for Ticketmaster going forward, and Ticketmaster may value that new business stream at around $386 million in any case. Ticketmaster has had to make changes to its website to eliminate the risk of deception going forward. And the world gets a consumer protection clinic funded the sort of business against whom consumers need to be protected.
Congratulations to the attorneys who came up with this settlement and to the UC Irvine Conumser Protection Clinic on its new endowment.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Over the past few years, more than a dozen 7-Eleven franchisees have sued the company claiming that it operated in bad faith by untruthfully accusing the franchisees of fraud and by strong-arming them to “voluntarily” surrender their franchise contracts based on such false accusations. The franchisees claim that the tactic, which is known in the franchise community as “churning,” is aimed at retaking stores in up-and-coming areas where the franchise can now be sold at a higher contractual value or from franchisees who are too outspoken against the company.
Franchisees split their gross profits evenly with 7-Eleven. The chain claims that it has hours of in-store covert footage showing franchisees voiding legitimate sales and not registering others to keep gross sales lower than the true numbers in order to pay smaller profits to 7-Eleven. Similarly, the chain uses undercover shoppers to spot-check the recording of transactions. This level of surveillance is uncommon among similar companies, says franchise attorney Barry Kurtz. A former corporate investigations supervisor for 7-Eleven calls the practice “predatory.”
Japanese-owned 7-Eleven asserts that a few of their franchisees are stealing and falsifying the sales records, thus depriving the company of its full share of the store profits. It maintains in court records that its investigations are thorough and lawful. It also complains that groups of franchisees often group together to create a “domino of lawsuits, pressuring the company to settle.”
It seems that a company installing hidden cameras to monitor not customers for safety reasons, but one’s own franchisees raises questions of whether or not these people had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their work-related efforts under these circumstances. If not, the issue certainly raises an ethical issue: once one has paid not insignificant franchise fees and continue to share profits with the franchisor at no less than 50-50%, should one really also expect to be monitored in hidden ways by one’s business partner, as the case is here? That has an inappropriate Big-Brother-is-Watching-You feel to it.
In the 1982 hit Dire Straits song Industrial Disease, Mark Knopfler sings that “Two men say they're, Jesus one of them must be wrong.” When it comes to this case, the accusations of “bogus” reasons asserted by the franchisees and returned fire in the form of theft accusations by 7-Eleven, somebody must not follow the contractual duty of good faith and fair dealings.
This case seems thus to be one that could appropriately be settled… oh, wait, the company apparently perceives that to be inappropriate pressure. Perhaps a fact finder will, then, have to resolve this case of mutual mud-slinging. In the meantime, 7-Eleven prides its “good, hardworking, independent franchisees” of being the “backbone of the 7-Eleven brand.” That is, until the company itself deems that not to be the case anymore, at which point in time it imposes a $100,000 “penalty” on those of its franchisees who do not volunteer to sign away their stores. The company does not reveal how it imagines that its hardworking, but probably not highly profitable, franchisees will be able to hand over $100,000 to a company to avoid further trouble.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
(The next John Grisham?)
Another way to provoke interest in the subject might be to write an imaginative futuristic tale of a world controlled by EULAs, like Miriam Cherry has done here. Her fast-paced story is a mashup of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Boilerplate and Ender's Game - beach reading for contracts profs!
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
- they limit workers' opportunities to seek better jobs within their profession;
- workers subject to non-competes change jobs less frequently and earn less money over time;
- states like California that refuse to enforce non-competes create a better environment for entrepreneurship; and
- low-level employees who are now being subjected to non-compete agreements have no bargaining power with which to challenge them and do not willingly consent to them.
There may be economic studies that dispute the first three bullet points. On the blog, we have tended to emphasize the fourth bullet point. The argument against that point is not empirical. Rather, those who support the enforcement of one-sided boilerplate terms contend that it is generally more efficient to enforce such terms than to expect that each agreement will be negotiated on an individual basis.
As Nancy Kim has argued, that might be okay, so long as the creators of boilerplate contracts are subject to a duty to draft those agreements reasonably. One interesting approach along similar lines is the solution proposed in Ian Ayres & Alan Schwartz, The No-Reading Problem in Consumer Contract Law, 66 Stan. L. Rev. 545 (2014).
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
What would you say if you found out that Facebook used your kids’ names and profile pictures to promote various third-party products and services to other kids? Appalling and legally impossible as minors cannot contract? That’s just what a group of plaintiffs (all minors) attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against Facebook argued recently, but to no avail. Here’s what happened:
Kids sign up on Facebook, “friend” their friends and add other information as well as their profile pictures. Facebook takes that information and display it to your kids’ friends, but alongside advertisements. The company insists that they do “nothing more than take information its users have voluntarily shared with their Facebook friends, and republish it to those same friends, sometimes alongside a related advertisement.” How does this happen? A program called “Social Ads” allows third parties to add their own content to the user material that is displayed when kids click on each other’s information.
The court dismissed the complaint, finding no viable theory on which it could find the user agreements between the kids and Facebook viable. In California, where the case was heard, Family Code § 6700 sets out the general rule for minors’ ability to contract: “… a minor may make a contract in the same manner as an adult, subject to the power of disaffirmance.” The plaintiffs had argued that as a general rule, minors cannot contract. That, said the court, is turning the rule on its head: minors can, as a starting point, contract, but they can affirmatively disaffirm the contracts if they wish to do so. In this case, they had not sought to do so before bringing suit.
Plaintiffs also argued that under § 6701, minors cannot delegate their power to, in effect, appoint Facebook as their agent who could then use their images and information. Wrong, said the court. Kids signing up on Facebook is “no different from the garden-variety rights a contracting party may obtain in a wide variety of contractual settings. Facebook users have, in effect, simply granted Facebook the right to use their names in pictures in certain specified situations in exchange for whatever benefits they may realize from using the Facebook site.”
In its never-ending quest to increase profits, Corporate America once again prevailed. Even children are not free from being used for this purpose. The only option they seemed to have had in this situation would have been to disaffirm the “contract;” in other words, to stop using Facebook. To me, that does not seem like a difficult choice, but I imagine the vehement protests instantly launched against parents asking their kids to stop using the popular website. Of course, kids are a highly attractive target audience. Some already have quite a bit of disposable income. They are all potential long-time customers for products/services not directed only at kids. Corporate name recognition is important in connection with this relatively impressionable audience. But is this acceptable? After all, there is an obvious reason why minors can disaffirm contracts. This option, however, would often require intense and perhaps undesirable parent supervision. In 2014, it is probably unreasonable to ask one’s kids not to be on social media (although the actual benefits of it are also highly debatable).
Although the legal outcome of this case is arguably correct, its impacts and the taste it leaves in one’s mouth are bad for unwary minors and their parents.
Monday, June 9, 2014
Today's New York Times reports on the extension of non-compete agreements to categories of employment not previously subject to them. This isn't really news, but it is nice to see the Times giving serious space to the issue, which I view as just another one-sided boilerplate term that employers are imposing on their employees. The difference here is that courts don't enforce non-competes if they overreach. However, the reality is that courts rarely get the opportunity to review non-competes, either because employees don't have the resources to fight them or because, as illustrated in the Times article, competitors are sometimes reluctant to risk a suit and so they do not hire people subject to non-competes, even if those non-competes might be unreasonable.
The over-the-top example with which the Times starts its story is about a woman whose job offer as a summer camp counselor was withdrawn because of a non-compete. She had worked three previous summers at a Linx-operated summer camp, and her terms of employment there included a non-compete of which she was (of course) unaware. Here is what Linx's founder had to say in defense of the non-compete:
“Our intellectual property is the training and fostering of our counselors, which makes for our unique environment,” he said. “It’s much like a tech firm with designers who developed chips: You don’t want those people walking out the door. It’s the same for us.” He called the restriction — no competing camps within 10 miles — very reasonable.
A few points. First, if your training and fostering of counselors creates a unique environment, then that training and fostering will not transfer when counselors switch to other camps that will presumably train and foster their counselors in other ways. If that's not the case, then there is nothing special or unique about the way you train and foster your counselors and thus no reason (except throwing up barriers to competition) not to allow counselors to work elsewhere.
Second, I just put my daughter on a bus for summer camp. I was a counselor at a summer camp for two years. Most camps now belong to a trade organization that sets down strict rules about safety and counselor training. It is unlikely that what Linx does is unique, and again, to the extent that it is unique, it is not transferable.
Third, a ten mile non-compete would be reasonable except that it is ten miles from any Linx camp, and Linx operates 30 camps in the area. So seen, the rule means that counselors who work at Linx camps cannot then work at any other camp in the region. There is no justification for this. If Linx has intellectual property to protect, it can do so, but Linx's founder's comparison of his camps to a tech firm strikes me as farfetched. I doubt that Linx has any intellectual property relating to its training of counselors. It is not as if a 19-year-old camp counselor comes to her new camp and impresses the people there with her knowledge from her past counseling experience. Each camp has its own traditions. If she says it is better to discard the leeches one pulls off the campers after a lake swim, they are not going to listen to her if the camp tradition is to move the leeches to the infirmary so that they can be "repurposed." What Linx is trying to do with this non-compete likely has less to do with protecting intellectual property than it does to establishing a stranglehold on the market of qualified camp counselors.
The Times story contrasts the employment situation in California, which does not enforce non-competes with that of Massachusetts, which does. But freedom of contract nad free enterprise still seem to have the upper hand in Massachusetts, as the following quote form the Times illustrates:
Michael Rodrigues, a Democratic state senator from Fall River, Mass., said the government should not be interfering in contractual matters like noncompetes. “It should be up to the individual employer and the individual potential employee among themselves,” he said. “They’re both adults.”
This is the typical nonsense underlying the enforcement of boilerplate. The camp counselor in the story was 19 years old, which means she was actually an infant when she signed the non-compete. But even if she could match the sophistication of the business that hired her, how does Mr. Rodrigues expect the negotiation to take place? In his mind it would go something like this:
Business: Here's the contract.
Employee: Okay, let me read it over and strike out all the terms that I don't like.
Business: Sure, take as long as you like and then we can negotiate over each term to which you object.
And here's the reality:
Business: Here's the contract.
Employee: Okay, let me read it over and strike out all the terms that I don't like.
Business: Well, actually, this is a form contract, and it's take it or leave it. Even if you wanted to object, I don't have any authority to change any of the terms. Either you sign this or you don't work here.
But even that is an exaggeration of the amount of consideration that goes in to the signing of employment contracts. They are not read at all and they are not expected to be read at all. And not reading them is the rational thing to do as potential employees have no bargaining power that they could deploy to challenge objectionable terms.
Friday, May 23, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
In California, the Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of divvying up water contracts in the California River Delta between the general public and senior local water rights owners. Years ago, it signed off on long-term contracts that determined “the quantities of water and the allocation thereof” between the parties. About a decade ago, it renewed these contracts without undertaking a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to find out whether the contract renewals negatively affected the delta smelt, a small, but threatened, fish species. The thinking behind not doing so was that since the water contracts “substantially constrained” the Bureau’s discretion to negotiate new terms, no consultation was required.
Not correct, concluded an en banc Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel recently. By way of brief background, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions jeopardizes threatened or endangered species or their habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a). Among other things, federal agencies must consult with the FWS if they have “some discretion”"some discretion" to take action on behalf of a protected species. In this case, since the contractual provision did not strip the Bureau of all discretion to benefit the species, consultation should have taken place. For example, the Bureau could have renegotiated the pricing or timing terms and thus benefitted the species, said the court.
In 1993, the delta smelt had declined by 90% over the previous 20 years and was thus listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Of course, fish is not the only species vying for increasingly scarce California water. Man is another. The current and ongoing drought in California – one of the worst in history – raises questions about future allocations of water. Who should be prioritized? Private water right holders? People in Southern California continually thirsty and eager to water their often overly water-demanding garden plants? Industry? Farmers? Not to mention the wild animals and plants depending on sufficient levels of water? There are no easy answers here.
The California drought is estimated to cost Central Valley farmers $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. While that seems drastic, the drought is still not expected to have any significant effect on the state economy as California is no longer an agricultural state. In fact, agriculture only accounts for 5% of jobs in California. Still, that is no consolation to people losing their jobs in California agriculture or consumers having to pay higher prices for produce in an increasingly warming and drying California climate.
The 1974 movie Chinatown focused on the Los Angeles water supply system. 40 years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse. The game as to who gets water contracts and for how much water is still on.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, Jeremy Telman blogged here about the insanity of having to pay for hundreds of TV stations when one really only wants to, or has time to, watch a few.
Luckily, change may finally be on its way. The company Aereo is offering about 30 channels of network programming on, so far, computers or mobile devices using cloud technology. The price? About $10 a month, surely a dream for “cable cutters” in the areas which Aereo currently serves.
How does this work? Each customer gets their own tiny Aereo antenna instead of having to either have a large, unsightly antenna on their roofs or buying expensive cable services just to get broadcast stations. In other words, Aereo enables its subscribers to watch broadcast TV on modern, mobile devices at low cost and with relative technological ease. In other words, Aereo records show for its subscribers so that they don’t have to.
That sounds great, right? Not if you are the big broadcast companies in fear of losing millions or billions of dollars (from the revenue they get via cable companies that carry their shows). They claim that this is a loophole in the law that allows private users to record shows for their own private use, but not for companies to do so for commercial gain and copyright infringement.
Of course, the great American tradition of filing suit was followed. Most judges have sided with Aero so far, the networks have filed petition for review with the United States Supreme Court, which granted the petition in January.
Stay tuned for the outcome in this case…
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.
Today is later, and cleaning out my inbox is one way I take a break from term-end grading. Here is part of the e-mail:
- We’re adding an arbitration section to our updated Terms of Service. Arbitration is a quick and efficient way to resolve disputes, and it provides an alternative to things like state or federal courts where the process could take months or even years. If you don’t want to agree to arbitration, you can easily opt out via an online form, within 30-days of these Terms becoming effective. This form, and other details, are available on our blog.
D'oh. If I had read this when I got it, I could have opted out of the arbitration policy! Today, when I tried to click on the opt-out link, I got a screen that said, in effect, "Sorry sucker, you missed the boat!" I had already accepted the new terms of service, including the arbitration clause, by using Dropbox for 30 days without reading the e-mail. If anybody has attempted to opt out, please share your experience. I really wonder how easy it is to opt out or if Dropbox is just counting on people not to bother.
Fortunately, most of Dropbox's terms are pretty reasonable as such things go. Dropbox will pay all fees on claims under $75,000 and will pay a $1000 bonus to anybody who wins an arbitral award in excess of Dropbox's settlement offer. Dropbox promises not to seek its own fees and costs unless the arbitrator determines that the claim is frivolous. There are also exceptions to the arbitration provision for small claims and for injunctive relief, but the latter would have to be brought in San Francisco. There is also the now-unavoidable ban on class actions, as well as consolidated or representative actions.
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!