Monday, March 7, 2016
As Stacey writes just below this post, much is happening in the arbitration arena currently.
In December, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state law. Thus, when parties have executed agreements calling for arbitration rather than court resolutions, the arbiration clause will be upheld. The case was DirectTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, No. 14-462.
In the case, Imburgia’s contract stated that “[i]f ... the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures unenforceable, then this entire Section 9 [the arbitration section] is unenforceable.” http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-462_2co3.pdf
The Supreme Court noted that when DIRECTV drafted the contract, the parties likely believed that the words “law of your state” included California law that then made class-arbitration waivers unenforceable. But the Court’s subsequent holding in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Conception found that the Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state law on the issue. Thus, parties cannot contractually bind themselves to invalid state law. When they refer to “state law,” this means only valid state law.
These rulings favor businesses, not consumers. This is so particularly so in cases between consumers and banks or credit card companies. A 2007 report found that over four years, arbitrators ruled in favor of the financial institutions in no less than 94% of the cases. Of course, in the typical take-it-or-leave it style contract, consumers have the choice only of agreeing to arbitrate or not getting the desired service.
As for the belief that arbitration saves scarce judicial resources, it is noteworthy that businesses file four times as many lawsuits as individuals. “It is hard to imagine any company giving up its own right to sue another company in a business dispute.” Double standards abound here.
Meanwhile, in early February, Senators Leahy and Franken introduced the Restoring Statutory Rights Act. This would create an exception in the Arbitration Act for disputes involving individuals and small businesses. The only way individuals would enter into arbitration is if they agreed to do so after the dispute has been filed. That’s very different from the current process, which automatically shunts all customer disputes into binding arbitration.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is also considering a ban in mandatory-arbitration provisions in contracts for credit cards and other financial services. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is looking to do the same in relation to nursing home contracts.
Acts and regulations are highly warranted in this context. We know where the Supreme Court currently stands on the issue. We do not know where it will go with a new justice soon to be appointed, but judicial branch action in this area may not be forthcoming any time soon.
People keep challenging arbitration provisions, and they keep losing. In this instance, a case out of Washington called Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services of Seattle, Inc. v. Yates, Wood & MacDonald, Inc., No. 73199-8-I.
This time, the parties were both voluntary members of the Commercial Broker's Association (the "CBA"), the bylaws of which contained a clause that CBA members agreed to arbitrate disputes with each other according to the CBA's arbitration procedure. Neither party ever signed any sort of membership agreement to belong to the CBA, which Marcus focused on in its argument that the arbitration provision therefore wasn't enforceable. Marcus argued that, without a signed agreement, there was no evidence that it had manifested assent to the arbitration provision. However, well-established Washington law held that membership in the voluntary organization was evidence enough that Marcus and Yates assented to abide by its bylaws. There was no requirement that there be a signed agreement.
Marcus didn't confine its arguments to just asserting that there should have been a signed agreement, however. Marcus then tried to argue that it wasn't even a member of the CBA, because of the fact that no one had been able to produce a membership agreement signed by Marcus. This was a bad move on its part and lost it a lot of credibility. The court pointed out that Marcus had paid all of the CBA's required fees and dues since 1993 and had in fact on two previous occasions taken advantage of the CBA's arbitration tribunal to resolve disputes, a procedure only available to CBA members. The court also pointed out that, despite testifying that he did not believe Marcus was a member of the CBA, Marcus's regional manager had routinely provided other brokers with Marcus's "CBA Office ID" number.
Marcus was willing to fight hard to keep this dispute out of arbitration, to the point of having to be scolded by the court for "prevaricating." At the point when that is happening, I'm not sure winning the case and staying in front of that judge is what you want!
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
This case out of California, Gilkyson v. Disney Enterprises, Inc., B260103, involves the song "The Bare Necessities," which, as you can see from the above, is readily available on YouTube. The song was written by Terry Gilkyson (this might come up in a trivia competition someday, you never know). His adult children are the plaintiffs in this case.
In the 1960s, Gilkyson wrote several songs for Disney pursuant to a work-for-hire contract under which Disney was deemed the author and owner of the songs and Gilkyson was paid $1,000 per song together with ongoing royalties for certain licensing. The contract specifically excluded royalties for use of the songs in "motion pictures, photoplays, books, merchandising, television, radio and endeavors of the same or similar nature." Disney has paid royalties on the song to Gilkyson and his heirs but Disney has never paid royalties for use of the songs in any audiovisual medium, including DVDs. The Gilkyson heirs disagree with Disney's interpretation of the contract and believe that they are entitled to royalties for use of the songs on VHS tapes and DVDs. Disney argues that the four-year statute of limitations on breach of contract actions bars all of the Gilkysons' claims, because all of the VHS tapes and DVDs complained about were first issued sometime prior to 2007. Therefore, according to Disney, Gilkyson should have brought this claim by 2011, not, as it did, in 2013.
Disney loses this argument, however, based on the continuous accrual doctrine: "[E]ach breach of a recurring obligation is independently actionable." Basically, California law interprets the contract with Disney as being divisible, with each breach of that contract actionable and subject to its own statute of limitation period. Therefore, the court concluded that the Gilkysons could seek recovery of the royalties that were due for a period beginning four years from the filing of their complaint (so, from 2009 onward). According to this court, the California state court jurisprudence on this appears to be clear (although note that, at the trial court level, this case was dismissed without applying the continuous accrual doctrine). Disney pointed to a Central District of California case from 2001 that rejected the plaintiff's continuous accrual doctrine argument, but this California state court noted that it did so without any citation to any California case and that this court disagreed with that case's conclusion.
So it's on to the next step for these parties: fighting over the interpretation of the contract. Or settlement.
Monday, February 29, 2016
Are arbitration provisions binding against exotic dancers? Well, if you're wondering, in this Connecticut case, Horrocks v. Keepers, Inc., CV156054684S (behind a paywall), the answer is yes.
The plaintiffs here filed the lawsuit alleging that they were employees, not independent contractors as the gentleman's club maintained, and as such the club had violated plaintiffs' legal rights as employees, including failing to pay minimum wage. The club moved to stay the proceedings arguing that it had signed an entertainment lease agreement with all of the dancers that required binding arbitration to resolve disputes.
The plaintiffs' main argument was that the entire entertainment lease agreement was void because it had an illegal purpose in seeking to implement the club's violation of labor laws as alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint. Because the entire agreement was void, the argument went, the arbitration clause wasn't enforceable. In the alternative, the plaintiffs argued that the arbitration provision was unconscionable.
On the plaintiffs' first point, the court concluded that the legality of the overall entertainment lease agreement was a matter for the arbitrator to decide. According to Connecticut precedent, the courts' job is only to determine if the arbitration clause is valid; every other issue is left to the arbitrator. Therefore, all of the arguments about the illegality of the entertainment lease agreement were left to the arbitrator, and the court focused its analysis on the alleged unconscionability of the arbitration provision.
We've seen this story before. And, in fact, courts have seemed pretty determined to find arbitration provisions enforceable, even when other parts of the contract were unconscionable (or, as here, where it was questionable whether the contract was enforceable at all). There was actually Connecticut precedent about another set of exotic dancers suing another gentlemen's club with similar allegations, and in that case, D'Antuono v. Service Road Corp, 789 F. Supp. 2d 308 (D. Conn. 2011), the court upheld the arbitration provision against attacks of unconscionability. The court in this case follows the precedent, finding this case indistinguishable from D'Antuono.
The court here allows for the possibility that this arbitration clause was part of an unenforceable adhesion contract presented in bad faith with a knowing illegal purpose, but says that alone isn't enough to deny enforcement of the arbitration clause, because that would only be procedural unconscionability. As far as substantive unconscionability went, the cost and fee shifting provisions provided in the arbitration clause weren't unreasonable, and the class action waiver included in the arbitration provision was also not unconscionable according to precedent: "Requiring the plaintiffs to pursue their claims individually is not an ineffective vindication of their rights."
I admit that I'd never really given a lot of thought to class action waivers, but it does seem odd to assert that class action waivers do not harm the plaintiffs' ability to vindicate their rights. After all, class actions are frequently understood to exist to correct the problem that, sometimes, individual pursuit of claims isn't effective.
At any right, individual pursuit through arbitration is what these plaintiffs are left with.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
We've looked at arbitration provisions and unconscionability before. In this recent case out of California, Yeotis v. Warner Pacific Insurance Services Inc., No. B245770, the agreement in question was found to be unconscionable in places, but that didn't doom the arbitration provision contained within it.
There was an element of procedural unconscionability to the contract. The court concluded that the contract was an adhesion contract, because the plaintiff was required to sign it in order to keep her job. There was, therefore, some procedural unconscionability attached to the formation of the contract. Additionally, there was some substantive unconscionability in the contract's provisions that gave the court pause. The wording of the contract required the plaintiff to pay fees in arbitration that she wouldn't have had to pay in a court of law. The defendant tried to argue that that was only the impression given and that the plaintiff would never have had to pay those fees in reality, but the court was concerned that the plaintiff would assume, under the contract's language, that she would be responsible for the fees and therefore might hesitate to pursue her remedy against the employer.
So the court directed the costs provision to be severed from the contract, but it found that the rest of the contract was enforceable. The procedural unconscionability was slight, it thought, and did not permeate the whole contract. The plaintiff's allegation that she had never been provided with the relevant arbitration rules prior to signing the contract was unpersuasive to the court as a more serious procedural unconscionability problem because the court thought she could have found the rules herself very easily and there was no contention otherwise. As for the rest of the arbitration procedures as explained in the contract, the court found that they were not substantively unconscionable and so could be enforced.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
American Airlines has nonsuited (i.e., dismissed without prejudice to refilling the lawsuit) its declaratory judgment claim against Gogo. American had recently asked a Texas state court to determine whether the provision of the availability of "better service" (or some similar term) in its 2012 contract had been triggered such that American could force Gogo to submit a competitive bid to retain its service.
As discussed in a previous post, American's negotiating leverage arose as much from the publicity surrounding it filing of a lawsuit as it did from the actual contract term. The term was apparently vague enough that Gogo could (and did) take the position that its rights as American's exclusive in-flight service provider had not been called into question by American's request for a new proposal. Upon American's filing of a declaratory judgment lawsuit in Texas state court, however, Gogo's stock price dropped 27 percent.
Today, the word is out that Gogo has changed its position and accepted American's interpretation of the contract. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports:
[American Airlines had said] that its contract with Gogo allowed it to renegotiate or terminate its agreement if another company offered a better service. Gogo had disputed that clause in the contract, but Friday agreed to the contract provision and said it would provide a competitive bid within 45 days.
“American is a valued customer of Gogo, and Gogo looks forward to presenting a proposal to install 2Ku, our latest satellite technology, on the aircraft that are the subject of the AA Letter,” Gogo said in a government filing Friday. “We acknowledge the adequacy of the AA Letter and that our receipt of the AA Letter triggered the 45 day deadline under the agreement for submission of our competitive proposal.”
* * *
Once American reviews Gogo’s proposal, if it does not beat out a competitor’s proposal, American can terminate Gogo’s contract with 60 days’ notice.
Shares of Gogo [ticker: GOGO] jumped on the news of the dropped lawsuit, up almost 10 percent....
The swift manner in which this episode had played out emphasizes the extent to which contract doctrine and interpretation it frequently not the principal driver of business relationships. Gogo could have marshalled a team of lawyers and stood on its interpretation of the contract up to final judgment--likely a summary judgment based on a question of law. But what would be the reputational and business cost? Eventually, the marketplace won't allow contract rights to serve as a substitute for proof of the quality of a product.
A challenge I find in teaching future transactional lawyers is to ensure that they do not become enamored with legal rights as being the be-all and end-all of deal making. Law is important, but a business lawyer must employ practical wisdom, as well. That wisdom includes the fact that law itself is only one part of practicing law... and it sometimes isn't even the most important part.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
American Airlines wants out of its 2012 contract with Gogo to provide internet service for about 200 of American's planes. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports on the airline's use of a declaratory judgment claim to construe the contract:
In the lawsuit, American says its contract with Gogo allows it to renegotiate or terminate its agreement if another company offers a better service. The airline is asking a judge to declare that it provided proper notice under its contract and that Gogo’s rejection is without basis.
“After carefully evaluating the new technology and services in the marketplace, American has decided to exercise its rights under the Agreement and recently notified Gogo that ViaSat offers an in-flight connectivity system that materially improves on Gogo’s air-to-ground system,” the suit says.
American says ViaSat offers a faster service that is currently installed on United Airlines, Jet Blue and Virgin America planes. American uses Gogo for its regional aircraft and on domestic flights, primarily Boeing 737s. The carrier uses Panasonic to provide satellite-based Internet services for international flights on its wide-body fleet, including Boeing Dreamliners and 777s.
The story is an interesting object lesson on several fronts. First, the use of an indeterminate term like "better service" or its ilk as the trigger for termination of the original agreement was probably a dispute waiting to happen at its inception. Still, could a 2012 transactional lawyer have really done any better? The most forward-thinking contract lawyer for American Airlines in 2012 could not have known what the state of in-flight wireless technology would be in 2016 beyond what actually happened--something "better" might come along.
A second lesson is that the litigation and attendant publicity may already have accomplished more for American Airlines than the legal system ultimately will. News of the litigation "sent shares of Chicago-based Gogo plummeting on Wall Street. Gogo stock [ticker: GOGO] declined 27 percent, or $3.81 to close at $10.08 on Tuesday." Gogo is now at the bargaining table in a way that apparently was not going to happen before the litigation. Contract law is important to the operation of commerce, but market forces are much more important.
Finally, the publicity also speaks to the wisdom of not including arbitration clauses and confidentiality provisions in certain commercial contracts--at least not without carefully weighing the costs and benefits. Would American be better off if it did not have the court system (Texas state courts, at the moment) available as a forum? The answer is obvious, but certainly not the same one Gogo would reach at the moment. Transactional lawyers have a great deal to consider when judging the mists of an uncertain future. (H/T to my colleague Wayne Barnes for the story).
It's not a secret that some colleges and universities out there are really struggling. At Lake Superior State University in Michigan, where enrollment has been declining, two professors were recently denied tenure, as Josh Logue reported for InsideHigherEd. As required by the faculty association's agreement with the university, the denials set forth the reason tenure had been denied, and the reason given was the need for the university to reduce staffing in the face of the declining enrollment. The professors took issue with this reason for denial, however, because the agreement contained the following clause:
Recommendations for tenure shall be based on:
a) Careful review of the Tenure Application File [letters of support, CV, and evaluations].
b) Consideration of the faculty member’s collegiality in their relation to faculty, students, staff, and administration.
The professors are saying that that doesn't allow for denial of tenure based on another consideration, such as financial.
It's unclear whether there was a communication with the candidates beforehand that institutional need might impact the tenure decision. The contract doesn't seem to ever mention financial considerations impacting the faculty, or institutional need, or indeed any kind of catch-all, at first glance. It does, however, provide for an appeal of a tenure decision, so I'm curious if the denied candidates will take advantage of this, and what the eventual outcome will be.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Forward-thinking deal lawyers draft contracts addressing contingencies that clients might not perceive or address if left to their own devices. Amazon has, however, now taken contingency planning--if I may borrow from esteemed legal scholar Buzz Lightyear---to infinity and beyond.
One of Amazon's many businesses is Amazon Web Services, and one of the available services from AWS is Lumberyard, a game development system which, according to Amazon, "consists of an engine, integrated development environment, and related assets and tools we make available at aws.amazon.com/lumberyard/downloads or otherwise designate as Lumberyard materials (collectively, 'Lumberyard Materials')." See AWS Service Term 57.1.
So far so good. But then, perhaps recognizing the possibility of dire emergencies requiring use of a video-game development engine, we reach section 57.10 (with emphasis added):
57.10 Acceptable Use; Safety-Critical Systems. Your use of the Lumberyard Materials must comply with the AWS Acceptable Use Policy. The Lumberyard Materials are not intended for use with life-critical or safety-critical systems, such as use in operation of medical equipment, automated transportation systems, autonomous vehicles, aircraft or air traffic control, nuclear facilities, manned spacecraft, or military use in connection with live combat. However, this restriction will not apply in the event of the occurrence (certified by the United States Centers for Disease Control or successor body) of a widespread viral infection transmitted via bites or contact with bodily fluids that causes human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue and is likely to result in the fall of organized civilization.
Here at Texas A&M, my colleague (and Blog Editor Emeritus) Frank Snyder raised some quibbles with this provision's drafting: "First, why does it apply only to a viral infection and not to bacterial infections, mutation-causing chemicals, or (as in Night of the Comet) weird alien space rays? And is the last clause ('likely to result in the fall of organized civilization') modified by the clause that requires CDC certification, or is that an independent determination that can be made by the judge?"
All good questions. I'll also note that the answer to whether a zombie outbreak would constitute commercial impracticability in a sale-of-goods case has just edged a closer to "no." Apparently, this is precisely the sort of contingency that parties can foresee and should contract around with appropriate force majeure clauses.
What are your thoughts on this significant outbreak of zombie-contingency contracting? Leave your answer in the comments below. H/T to Henry Gabriel via Bill Henning for highlighting this provision.
As a companion piece to the Delaware Planet Fitness case I discussed a few days ago, here's another case about negligence liability releases and gyms, this one involving a Gold's Gym in Pennsylvania: Hinkal v. Pardoe, No. 165 MDA 2014 (behind paywall).
In this case, the plaintiff was a member of Gold's Gym who used the personal trainer services offered by the gym. She was injured while working with weights under the direction of her Gold's Gym personal trainer. (Here, unlike in the Planet Fitness case, we get some details about her injury. It was a serious neck injury and required two separate surgeries, and it was alleged the injury resulted from there being too much weight on the equipment she was instructed to use and that she was told to continue using even after she complained of injury, because the personal trainer, it was alleged, didn't recognize the seriousness of the injury.) As in the Planet Fitness case, the Gold's Gym membership agreement that the plaintiff signed contained a release from liability for negligence.
The court went through an analysis of whether this release was enforceable, noting that in Pennsylvania such releases are enforceable where they do not contravene public policy, they entirely concern two private individuals and their private affairs, and both parties bargain freely and the contract is not one of adhesion. Here, the court found that this contract was between a private individual and an entity concerning the individual's private affairs, and it was not against public policy because it did not concern any matter of public interest, which the court defined as "employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carrier, and hospitals." In addition, the court found that the plaintiff was not required to enter into a membership with Gold's Gym, so the plaintiff could not complain that she did not have bargaining power, because her decision to sign the membership agreement was purely voluntary and she could have walked away.
Interestingly, the plaintiff didn't really seem to argue against any of those conclusions on the part of the court. What the plaintiff seemed to argue was that the release wasn't valid because she never read it and Gold's Gym never mentioned it to her or explained to her that she was exposing herself to the risk of being unable to sue based on negligence. She asserted that she signed the contract without reading it (as, let's face it, we almost all do) and without any in-depth discussion of it with Gold's Gym and that therefore the clause couldn't be enforced against her. The court, however, was unsympathetic. It pointed out that she had a duty to read the contract before she signed it and that her signature not only indicated that she knew she should have read it but also appeared directly after a line directing her to make sure she read both sides of the agreement. The release was written in ambiguous and straightforward language and she would have understood it had she read it, according to the court.
There was, however, a dissent in this case, and while that dissent wasn't on the plaintiff's side with regard to not reading the contract, it did believe that allowing a release of liability for negligence in this situation was against public policy. As far as the dissent was concerned, gyms "implicate health and safety concerns," and so should therefore be a matter of public concern in the same way hospitals are. In fact, there was precedent that Pennsylvania had refused to allow a waiver of negligence liability in a case involving health treatments at a spa under the reasoning that it involved health and safety, and the dissent thought this case should fall under the same umbrella. Because Gold's Gym purported to provide for the physical health of its members, the dissent thought the public had an interest in ensuring that the services offered by Gold's Gym were qualified and held to a duty of care. The dissent also pointed out that other states would reach this same public policy conclusion, pointing specifically to New York as a state that would have held this release invalid, which we just saw in the trampoline park case.
So there you have it: Another gym case, and another opinion supporting the release of liability for negligence, but this one with a dissent raising the question that such releases might be against public policy.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Change is coming to the energy field, finally. As the realization is broadening that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground, solar and wind energy are becoming more popular to investors and private households alike.
The problem is still the types of contracts and financing options available. An average solar system costs $14,700. If paying that in cash, homeowners would typically save around $50 a month on their electric bills. However, most people cannot afford to pay that in cash. Financing options will reduce the monthly savings to about $20-30 a month. “Net metering,” which allows homeowners to sell electricity back to the utilities, may result in bigger savings.
Problems still loom on the horizon with contracts in this area. A new financing program known as the “Property Assessed Clean Energy” financing program (“PACE”) allows solar panel buyers to finance the system and add the loan to the property as a tax assessment. Some are criticizing that for making it difficult or sell the homes or refinance mortgages.
More importantly, utility companies are complaining that the electric grids were designed to send electricity to consumers, but not receive it back. The utility industry is even referring to individually owned power systems as “disruptive technologies.” This new interaction will force changes in the market and infrastructure. But so what? Utilities have had a chance to make quite a lot of money for years on end, often in pure or monopoly-like situations. Now the market is changing. Utilities must adapt to necessary societal changes. This is clearly one of them. The resentment towards new technological change by parties in an industry that is per se technological is inexpedient and childish. Yes, utilities have invested much money in the existing electricity infrastructure, but they have surely never been promised that the market wouldn’t change and that users won’t demand other product sources than what has been the case for, now, more than a hundred years. Time has come to innovate.
The industry is also complaining that in the future, new rules are going to force the industry to provide more services, which will cost more money and thus result in fewer savings via alternative energy sources. Yeah, let’s see about that one. That still sounds like a contrarian, outmoded argument against inevitable progress.
What could be more troublesome is the expected erosion of benefits such as solar credits. For example, the existing 30% federal solar tax credit will end in 2019 unless, of course, Congress renews it. Hopefully under the new Paris Agreement on climate change and with the looming risks, financial and otherwise, on continually rising global temperatures (2015 was yet another hottest year on record), such and other benefits will be increased, not decreased.
For anyone wishing to buy a solar system, the best deal on the market still seems to be buying outright, even if via a property tax assessment. Many of the still-typical 20-year lease contracts are still too lengthy in nature. Too many things could change in this marketplace to make them seem like a viable option.
It is too bad that with as many hours of sunshine as many parts of this nation has, there still is not a really good, viable option for solar energy contracts for middle- or low-income private homeowners.
Monday, February 8, 2016
This case is a lesson in: Do what the judge tells you to do.
Ruiz v. Millennium Square Residential Association, Civil Action No. 15-1014 (JDB), out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is a fairly staid dispute over whether a condominium owner complied with the condominium association bylaws when he made changes to his unit. The bylaws contained an arbitration provision for disputes like this, which the plaintiff argued was unconscionable.
The court didn't seem to think much of the unconscionability argument. First of all, procedurally, it was unpersuaded by the plaintiff's allegation that, because he had to accept the bylaws as they were and couldn't negotiate them, they were unconscionable. The court pointed out that this would make all condominium bylaws everywhere unconscionable, which the court termed "at odds with common sense." The court pointed out that some very powerful buyers might in fact have the ability to negotiate condominium bylaws (which would seem to me to present a different case altogether, and so not very relevant to this case at all). The court also pointed out that the plaintiff could have chosen to buy real estate elsewhere if he didn't like the bylaws at Millennium Square.
As for substantive unconscionability, the plaintiff raised three separate problems with the arbitration structure set forth in the agreement: (1) it didn't require a written decision; (2) it didn't provide for discovery; and (3) it didn't allow the plaintiff to participate in selecting the arbitrators. The court was dismissive of the first two arguments, saying that precedent doesn't require arbitration to have those characteristics, so there was no reason to find a clause not requiring them to be unconscionable.
The third argument is where the defendant dropped the ball in this litigation, apparently. The defendant tried to argue that the plaintiff did have a role in selecting the arbitrators under the agreement. This argument hinged on reading together two separate provisions of the agreement. The court, however, was unconvinced by this reading. The court then specifically requested that the defendant address whether the arbitration procedure would be unconscionable if the defendant's reading was wrong and the plaintiff didn't have a role. The court actually invited supplemental briefing on that issue. The defendant, however, declined to make that argument. Maybe the precedent was really bad for the defendant, but it's generally a good idea to give the court supplemental briefing when it requests it, I think. The court concluded that the defendant's behavior was a concession that the clause was unconscionable. Faced with a failure to argue by the defendant, the court concluded that the defendant's reading of the contract was wrong; plaintiff had no role in selecting the arbitrators under the agreement; and that was unconscionable because the court had been given no ability to rule otherwise.
The court therefore severed the unconscionable arbitration procedure in the arbitration clause but upheld the rest of the clause. It requested that the parties work together to arrive at new, detailed, acceptable arbitration procedures.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
In a case that is a sad testament to today’s apparently increasing loneliness in the Western world despite much technological progress that could have alleviated some of that, but instead only seems to have made it worse, a woman created a YouTube channel bearing the rather uncharming name “bulbheadmyass.” On it, she posted 24 music videos of her band. These videos gathered almost half a million views and many favorable comments. There was no commercial component to the videos. The woman was not trying to sell video or audio versions of the band’s music. Instead, her “sole reward was the acclaim that she received from the YouTube community and the opportunity to make new friends.” (The case is Lewis v. YouTube, H041127, California Court of Appeal .)
Claiming that this woman had breached the company’s Terms of Service, YouTube removed the videos from its website. The woman filed suit claiming breach of contract and seeking specific performance. She alleged that YouTube breached the contract with her when it removed her videos from the website against her will and without notice. The trial court sustained YouTube’s demurrer on the basis that the Terms of Service contained a liability limitation stating that “[i]n no event shall YouTube … be liable … for any … errors or omissions in any content.” Plaintiff had argued that the case was not one of errors or omissions in any content, but rather a deletion of content without prior notice. The appellate court, however, held that the liability limitation governed the issue and that the trial court had correctly sustained the demurrer.
YouTube did, though, agree to restore plaintiff’s video content. YouTube, of course, does not charge for featuring anyone’s videos. Rather, it makes money off the advertising it can generate because of the many hits it receives. (Its revenue is several billion dollars a year.) However, YouTube did not restore the videos to their pre-deletion status, i.e. with comments, URLs from other users who had linked to it, and view counts. (Compare this to SSRN resetting your scholarship records: you’ll lose your view count and all other tracking data should that happen). The court contrasted the case with another where the contract had set forth exactly how to grant specific performance in case of a breach (also a technology case). But in the YouTube case, said the court, “no provision in the Terms of Service can serve as the basis for the relief that [plaintiff] seeks.”
Really? Does it take all that much technological savvy by a court to simply ask YouTube to restore plaintiff’s accounts to their “as were” condition? YouTube may actually not simply have deleted the accounts altogether. If they had, they would undoubtedly have backups. Instead, various technological accounts are simply “turned off” and are thus not accessible to the general public, but they still exist. What really seems to have been at issue here was an annoying plaintiff who was unlikeable to both the court and YouTube. It seems that the court was too eager to dismiss plaintiff’s specific performance claim and chose the too-easy way out by claiming lack of technological knowledge. In 2016, it does not seem to strain the imagination too much to expect billion-dollar IT companies to have ways of doing just what plaintiff sought here. Then again: with a name such as “bulbheadmyass,” maybe it was a case of “you got what you asked for.”
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
A recent case out of New York, Gosh v. RJMK Park LLC, No. 155024/2015 (thanks to reader Frank for the non-paywall link!), tackled the familiar issue of negligence liability release provisions, this time in the context of a trampoline park that the plaintiffs' child was injured at while playing "trampoline dodgeball." I had no idea what this was, so I looked it up. Here's a video:
It mainly looks like something people who don't get motion-sick should play (i.e., people who are not me).
The plaintiffs had signed an agreement with the trampoline park with a clause under which they waived all claims against the trampoline park arising out of negligence. Under New York law, such a clause is unenforceable when "a place of amusement or recreation" with an entry fee is involved as against public policy.
However, that didn't mean the plaintiffs got everything they wanted in this case. The plaintiffs' argument was that the presence of the negligence liability release clause rendered the entire agreement with the trampoline park unenforceable, including the venue provision that required them to bring suit in Westchester County. The court disagreed: Just because that one provision was unenforceable didn't mean the entire agreement got thrown out. Rather, the court severed the negligence liability release provision as "unrelated" to the main goal of the agreement. It didn't actually clarify what the main objective of the agreement was, just dismissed the release provision as being related to "legal stuff," basically. At any rate, the agreement had contained the standard boilerplate provision stating that any illegal clause should be severed from the agreement and the rest of the agreement enforced, which also supported the court's conclusion. So venue was transferred to Westchester County.
Monday, February 1, 2016
Okay, there's actual contract stuff to talk about in this case, but mostly I was fascinated to learn that IMAX theaters rent the movie-showing equipment from IMAX and, in 2004 at least, the cost was $41,400 in annual maintenance fees plus the greater of $75,000 or 7% of the box office receipts in annual rent. So, if you win the lottery and want an IMAX theater in your house, there's a rough idea of the kind of costs you're looking at.
And now that we've learned that fascinating tidbit of information, what happens when you get into a fight with IMAX about whether the equipment it's leased you is capable of playing "Hollywood" movies?
That's what happened in a recent case out of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, IMAX Corp. v. The Capital Center, Civ. No. 1:15-CV-0378. In that dispute, Capital Center alleged that it told IMAX it wanted to rent its equipment so it would be able to show "Hollywood" movies. In 2004, it entered into a fifteen-year lease of IMAX's movie-showing equipment/software/etc. Apparently around 2014, IMAX announced that it had developed new technology that rendered the equipment Capital Center had rented obsolete, interfering with Capital Center's ability to play "Hollywood" movies. (I keep putting "Hollywood" in quotation marks because it's in quotation marks in the opinion. Clearly Capital Center considered it a direct quote and an important characterization.)
In reaction to the new technology, Capital Center stopped paying rent on the old technology, apparently because it felt its equipment was now valueless. IMAX pointed out that Capital Center had therefore breached the contract and IMAX was entitled to the remainder due under the lease in liquidated damages (a clause in the contract). Capital Center gave the equipment back to IMAX, and IMAX sued to collect the money it claimed it was due under the contract. Capital Center raised in response defenses of mutual mistake and frustration of purpose. It also claimed IMAX had no right to demand the further rent amounts because Capital Center no longer had possession of the equipment. Finally, it claimed that IMAX had not properly disclaimed its warranty that the equipment was fit for a particular purpose, i.e., playing "Hollywood" movies. Unfortunately for Capital Center, none of these defenses succeeded.
Capital Center's mutual mistake defense centered on the "mistake" that both parties made that the equipment that was the subject of the lease would still be capable of playing "Hollywood" movies fifteen years later. However, the mutual mistake defense exists to vindicate mistakes of fact, not errors in predicting the future; this situation was the latter. There was no "fact" that IMAX thought it knew that the equipment would still be valid in fifteen years. And, in fact, the agreement itself contemplated as much, because the agreement contained a clause noting that IMAX might upgrade its equipment and setting forth the terms by which Capital Center could receive the improved equipment. Difficult for Capital Center to argue that the parties were mistaken about the future viability of the equipment in question when the agreement itself noted that the equipment in question might not be viable in the future.
The frustration of purpose defense failed for a similar reason. Here, the purpose of the contract might have been to play "Hollywood" movies but there was no unforeseen event that occurred after the signing of the contract that frustrated that purpose. The agreement itself predicted that the equipment might not continue to be viable for the showing of "Hollywood" movies. Therefore, the continued viability of the equipment could not be said to have been a basic assumption of the contract.
As for the argument that IMAX shouldn't be entitled to future rent payments because IMAX was in possession of the equipment, under Pennsylvania law, IMAX was entitled to choose either future rent payments or repossession of the equipment. However, IMAX didn't seek to repossess the equipment; Capital Center gave the equipment back to IMAX of its own volition. Therefore, IMAX wasn't seeking repossession, only the future rent payments: a choice it was allowed to make.
Finally, the contract between the parties had contained a clause in which IMAX disclaimed all of the usual warranties, including suitability to a particular use, i.e., showing "Hollywood" movies. Under Pennsylvania law, such a disclaimer is valid as long as it is "conspicuous." Capital Center tried to argue that the disclaimer in question wasn't conspicuous, but it was the only clause in the seven-page Schedule B of the agreement that was in bold font, which, according to the precedent, rendered it "sufficiently conspicuous."
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
No, it's not legal-education-related, but rather real-estate-education-related. Which, according to the plaintiff, didn't actually teach her what it promised to teach her. So she sued. The defendant, however, noted that she'd signed a contract with an arbitration clause and so they shouldn't be in court. And the court agreed, in Kane v. Yancy, CIVIL ACTION NO. H-15-1861 (behind paywall), a recent case out of the Southern District of Texas.
Arbitration clauses are, of course, generally looked upon favorably by courts. In this case, there was no dispute that the contract contained an arbitration clause and that the plaintiff signed the contract. Rather, the plaintiff argued that the arbitration clause was unconscionable. The plaintiff claimed the arbitration clause was on the back of the piece of paper that she signed and she never saw it. She further claimed that the arbitration clause required each party to bear their own costs and attorneys' fees, which made the cost of arbitration unconscionably prohibitive for her.
All of the plaintiff's arguments failed. Texas precedent indicated that the question of whether the costs and attorneys' fees portion of the arbitration clause was enforceable was a question for the arbitrator to decide, not the court. At any rate, the court didn't feel that the fees were so exorbitant as to cause concern.
In addition, the court didn't really care about her allegation that she had never seen the arbitration clause because the plaintiff's signature was under a statement indicating that she had read everything on the back of the piece of paper she signed. As we all know, on virtually a daily basis we attest that we've read terms and conditions that we have maybe only barely glanced at, if that. Clearly, that's what the plaintiff in this case did, too. This court didn't care from a legal unconscionability standpoint.
The plaintiff made a couple of other interesting arguments. She tried to argue that, by answering her complaint in court, the defendant had waived its right to arbitration. The court, unsurprisingly, didn't buy it. She also tried to argue that the defendant's breach of the contract excused her from being bound by the arbitration clause. The court, however, noted that the defendant's alleged breach of the contract had nothing to do with the arbitration clause itself, and thus that clause was not excused by the defendant's alleged conduct.
The defendant actually moved for sanctions but the court said that the plaintiff's actions weren't frivolous or intended to harass. So the plaintiff may have lost everything else, but at least she didn't get sanctioned. Hashtag-finding-a-silver-lining.
Monday, January 25, 2016
The average price for a movie ticket in the United States is apparently $8.61. A recent case out of Ohio, Capital City Community Urban Development v. Columbus City, Case No. 13CVH-01-833 (behind a paywall), dealt with the question of whether a dollar movie is still feasible when most movies cost more than $8.00.
The contractual provision at issue was: "The Buyer agrees to provide Saturday movies for children once the theater is operational, and for as long as feasible. The cost is to be $1.00 or less for a double feature." (So, in fact, it was fifty cents a movie.) The clause actually wasn't that old (from what I could discern from the facts, it seems to have only been written in 2002), so it wasn't as if the dollar price was intended to be profitable, which both parties acknowledged. However, the issue was that the defendant had sought donations to offset the cost of the features and been unsuccessful. That meant that the theater would suffer a loss of $100,000 a year to fulfill the contractual provision, which would have been a substantial hardship to the theater. Moreover, the double feature wasn't very popular in the community. In a theater with a capacity of 400, it usually only attracted a few dozen patrons.
The parties fought over whether the definition of feasibility included a consideration of the economics of the issue. There was some precedent that feasibility required looking at the finances of the situation. Also, compellingly in the court's view, feasibility had to take into account the finances or else it had no meaning. The argument that "feasible" meant "capable of being done" without looking to the finances meant that it would be "feasible" basically as long as the theater was open, i.e., as long as the theater had a projection. That would mean that it would be "feasible" until the theater closed down entirely. If that was the meaning of the word "feasible," there was really no reason to have that specification in the contract: it would have just been a clause in effect until the theater closed.
This all makes sense to me, especially considering that there didn't seem to be much public interest in having the double feature continue. However, what's really striking to me about this opinion is the statement that "Columbus never showed a Saturday children's movie." So apparently Columbus's argument was really that it was never feasible to have the double feature. This meant Columbus agreed to a provision in the contract that it apparently never intended to comply with? That's not a wrinkle that gets introduced in this case--in fact, the line that no double feature had ever been shown is basically a throwaway line--but I found it to be the most striking detail.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
This relatively new and unknown funding idea is being tested by Purdue University in cooperation with financial services company Verno Education. The loans are called “Income-share Agreements” or “ISAs.” Investors lend money to students in return for a certain percentage of the student’s future income for a set number of years. A few companies and NGOs in the United States are offering contracts on a limited, pilot basis, although the idea itself is not new: Economist Milton Friedman introduced the idea in the 1950s.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels has touted the idea, claiming that the loans “shift the risk of career shortcomings from student to investor: if the graduate earns less than expected, it is the investors who are disappointed; if the student decides to go off … to Nepal instead of working, the loss is entirely on the funding providers….” Voila, truly “debt-free-college” according to Daniels.
Not so fast. First, most college students of course end up finding a job. They will thus have to repay something. That something could easily be very expensive. For example, if a student borrowed $10,000 via a contract to repay 5% of her income for five years after graduation and ends up getting a $60,000 job, she or he will have to pay back $15,000 without compounded interest.
Student protections are currently poor. For example, there is no clarity as to whether the Fair Credit Reporting Act would apply. Further regulations of this area are necessary. Meanwhile, students will have to individually bargain these types of contracts very carefully.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
When I was in law school, I remember starting to be really struck by how often I had to sign liability releases: going to play paintball, renting skis, etc. A recent case out of the Tenth Circuit, Espinoza v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, had to deal with just such a release in the context of a tragic whitewater rafting accident.
The plaintiff's mother drowned when her raft capsized during a rafting trip organized by the defendant. She had signed a contract that released the defendant from liability for negligence. The plaintiff agreed that his mother had signed the release but tried to argue that the release was unenforceable. As a matter of Colorado law, though, he lost. The court found the release enforceable both as a matter of public policy and under the particular circumstances of the mother's signing.
The court explained that Colorado uses four facts to determine whether a release of liability for negligence is enforceable:
(1) the existence [or nonexistence] of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.
The court concluded that, while other states were free to disagree on this, Colorado had decided that corporations providing recreational activities are allowed to protect themselves from liability for negligence. The court stated that this is a valid policy choice for Colorado to make because it arguably encourages the active, outdoorsy lifestyle that the state of Colorado cherishes and wants to protect and promote. Without such ability to protect themselves, companies might be discouraged from offering recreational activities like horseback riding, snowboarding, or whitewater rafting. And in fact other courts in Colorado had explicitly found that companies offering whitewater rafting trips can protect themselves from liability for negligence using a contractual release. The court stated that the Colorado legislature was free to introduce a statute that would change this legal precedent, but, as it stood, the court was bound to follow the precedent.
Having decided that the release was not against public policy according to the first two factors of the balancing test, the court then further decided that the plaintiff's mother had fairly entered into the contract with full knowledge of the risks at stake. The court dismissed the plaintiff's expert testimony that the rapids his mother was exposed to were too advanced for a beginner (in contrast to what the defendant had assured her) by pointing to the fact that the defendant had expert testimony that the rapids were suitable for beginners. Finally, the court noted that the release had the typical all-caps language that you see on these sorts of contracts. You know: "HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH" and "THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS." The truth is, seldom does any consumer seeing that stuff really take it a serious communication of a great risk of death, I think. Especially not when there was some evidence that the consumer has been assured the trip in question was suitable for families with children. Nonetheless, the court found that the language of the release unambiguously informed the plaintiff's mother of the risks of the activity and the fact that she was releasing the defendant from liability should those risks come to pass.
There was a dissent in this case, however, who agreed that the release wasn't against public policy but disagreed on the conclusion that the contract had been fairly entered into. In the dissent's view, the contradictory testimony about the level of difficulty of the rapids meant that the question should have gone to the jury.
I don't spend a lot of time in my Contracts class talking in detail about liability releases for negligence, but this case made me think that I should talk about them more, because they really do seem to arise in the context of so many activities.
Monday, January 18, 2016
The plaintiff in this case had a bunch of videos on YouTube. One day, she found that YouTube had deleted them. The videos had had close to 500,000 views at the time YouTube deleted them. The plaintiff claimed that she spent a lot of time and money promoting them but there was no commercial aspect to the videos; she didn't make any money off of them.
Upon realizing YouTube had deleted her videos, she sent YouTube an e-mail asking what had happened and if her videos could be restored. She received in response what appeared to be a form e-mail informing her that she'd violated YouTube's terms and conditions but not giving any truly specific information. The best that I can discern is that YouTube thought she was a spammer.
The plaintiff replied to the e-mail from YouTube saying that she had not engaged in any behavior violating the terms and conditions. She received another response from YouTube identical to the first. She filed a formal appeal with YouTube, and received another identical response.
So that brings us to the lawsuit in question, in which the plaintiff was alleging that YouTube violated the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implicit in its terms and conditions when it deleted her videos unjustifiably and without any notice.
To be honest, I see the plaintiff's point and I'm kind of on her side. It's frustrating when you have no idea what you've done wrong and you can't get a website to explain anything to you and you just feel kind of powerless. The good news is that at some point she did get YouTube's attention enough that it did restore her videos. I don't know if that happened before or after the lawsuit was filed.
It seems, therefore, like the plaintiff got what she wanted, which was restoration of her videos. The lawsuit appears to have really been about trying to get damages, but the court pointed out that YouTube's terms and conditions (which, let's face it, none of us reads) contained a limitation of liability clause that is valid in California, so the plaintiff couldn't seek any damages.
I think this is a situation where the court just thought that plaintiff had what she wanted and was just being greedy. I would be curious to see another case challenging the limitation of liability clause where the plaintiff could prove actual damages that might sway a sympathetic judge. But, for now, YouTube's terms and conditions do act to protect YouTube from having to pay out damages. If you find yourself a victim of YouTube's apparently aggressive anti-spamming patrol, you might just have to settle in for a bit of a fight in getting YouTube's attention, without much hope of compensation for any of that time and effort.