Monday, March 31, 2014
More on the Fairness of Contractual Penalties
By Myanna Dellinger
In my March 3 blog post, I described how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just held that contractual liquidated damages clauses in the form of late and overlimit fees on credit cards do not violate due process law. A new California appellate case addresses a related issue, namely whether the breach of a loan settlement agreement calling for the repayment of the entire underlying loan and not just the settled-upon amount in the case of breach is a contractually prohibited penalty. It is.
In the case, Purcell v. Schweitzer (Cal. App. 4th Dist., Mar. 17, 2014), an individual borrowed $85,000 from a private lender and defaulted. The parties agreed to settle the dispute for $38,000. A provision in the settlement provided that if the borrower also defaulted on that amount, the entire amount would become due as “punitive damages.” When the borrower only owed $67 or $1,776 (depending on who you ask), he again defaulted, and the lender applied for and obtained a default judgment for $85,000.
Liquidated damages clauses in contracts are “enforceable if the damages flowing from the breach are likely to be difficult to ascertain or prove at the time of the agreement, and the liquidated damages sum represents a good faith effort by the parties to appraise the benefit of the bargain.” Piñon v. Bank of Am., 741 F.3d 1022, 1026 (Ninth Cir. 2014). The relevant “breach” to be analyzed is the breach of the stipulation, not the breach of the underlying contract. Purcell. On the other hand, contractual provisions are unenforceable as penalties if they are designed “not to estimate probable actual damages, but to punish the breaching party or coerce his or her performance.” Piñon, 741 F.3d at 1026.
At first blush, these two cases seem to reach the same legally and logically correct conclusion on similar backgrounds. But do they? The Ninth Circuit case in effect condones large national banks and credit card companies charging relatively small individual, but in sum very significant, fees that arguably bear little relationship to the actual damages suffered by banks when their customers pay late or exceed their credit limits. (See, in general, concurrence in Piñon). In 2002, for example, credit card companies collected $7.3 billion in late fees. Seana Shiffrin, Are Credit Card Law Fees Unconstitutional?, 15 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 457, 460 (2006). Thus, although the initial cost to each customer may be small (late fees typically range from $15 to $40), the ultimate result is still that very large sums of money are shifted from millions of private individuals to a few large financial entities for, as was stated by the Ninth Circuit, contractual violations that do not really cost the companies much. These fees may “reflect a compensatory to penalty damages ratio of more than 1:100, which far exceeds the ratio” condoned by the United States Supreme Court in tort cases. Piñon, 741 F.3d at 1028. In contrast, the California case shows that much smaller lenders of course also have no right to punitive damages that bear no relationship to the actual damages suffered, although in that case, the ratio was “only” about 1:2.
The United States Supreme Court should indeed resolve the issue of whether due process jurisprudence is applicable to contractual penalty clauses even though they originate from the parties’ private contracts and are thus distinct from the jury-determined punitive damages awards at issue in the cases that limited punitive damages in torts cases to a certain ratio. Government action is arguably involved by courts condoning, for example, the imposition of late fees if it is true that they do not reflect the true costs to the companies of contractual breaches by their clients. In my opinion, the California case represents the better outcome simply because it barred provisions that were clearly punitive in nature. But “fees” imposed by various corporations not only for late payments that may have little consequence for companies that typically get much money back via large interest rates, but also for a range of other items appear to be a way for companies to simply earn more money without rendering much in return.
At the end of the day, it is arguably economically wasteful from society’s point of view to siphon large amounts of money in “late fees” from private individuals to large national financial institutions many of which have not in recent history demonstrated sound economic savvy themselves, especially in the current economic environment. Courts should remember that whether or not liquidated damages clauses are actually a disguise for penalties depends on “the actual facts, not the words which may have been used in the contract.” Cook v. King Manor and Convalescent Hospital, 40 Cal. App. 3d 782, 792 (1974).
Monday, March 3, 2014
Contracts between credit card holders and card issuers typically provide for late fees and “overlimit fees” (for making purchases in excess of the card limits) ranging from $15 to $40. Since these fees are said to greatly exceed the harm that the issuers suffer when their customers make late payments or exceed their credit limits, do they violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution?
They do not, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (In re Late Fee & Over-Limit Fee Litig, No. 08-1521 (9th Cir. 2014)). Although such fees may even be purely punitive, the court pointed out that the due process analyses of BMW of North America v. Gore and State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Campbell are not applicable in contractual contexts, but only to jury-awarded fees. In Gore, the Court held that the proper analysis for whether punitive damages are excessive is “whether there is a reasonable relationship between the punitive damages award and the harm likely to result from the defendant's conduct as well as the harm that actually has occurred” and finding the award of punitive damages 500 times greater than the damage caused to “raise a suspicious judicial eyebrow”. 517 U.S. 559, 581, 583 (1996). The State Farm Court held that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages … will satisfy due process. 538 U.S. 408, 425 (2003).
Contractual penalty clauses are also not a violation of statutory law. Both the National Bank Act of 1864 and the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act provide that banks may charge their customers “interest at the rate allowed by the laws of the State … where the bank is located.” 12 U.S.C. s 85, 12 U.S.C. S. 1831(d). “Interest” covers more than the annual percentage rates charged to any carried balances, it also covers late fees and overlimit fees. 12 C.F.R. 7.4001(a). Thus, as long as the fees are legal in the banks’ home states, the banks are permitted to charge them.
Freedom of contracting prevailed in this case. But should it? Because the types and sizes of fees charged by credit card issuers are mostly uniform from institution to institution, consumers do not really have a true, free choice in contracting. As J. Reinhardt said in his concurrence, consumers frequently _ have to_ enter into adhesion contracts such as the ones at issue to obtain many of the practical necessities of modern life as, for example, credit cards, cell phones, utilities and regular consumer goods. Because most providers of such goods and services also use very similar, if not identical, contract clauses, there really isn’t much real “freedom of contracting” in these cases. So, should the Due Process clause apply to contractual penalty clauses as well? These clauses often reflect a compensatory to penalty damages ratio higher than 1:100, much higher than the limit set forth by the Supreme Court in the torts context. According to J. Reinhardt, it should: The constitutional principles limiting punishments in civil cases when that punishment vastly exceeds the harm done by the party being punished may well occur even when the penalties imposed are foreseeable, as with contracts. Said Reinhardt: “A grossly disproportionate punishment is a grossly disproportionate punishment, regardless of whether the breaching party has previously ‘acquiesced’ to such punishment.”
Time may soon come for the Supreme Court to address this issue, especially given the ease with which companies can and do find out about each other’s practices and match each other’s terms. Many companies even actively encourage their customers to look for better prices elsewhere via “price guarantees” and promise various incentives or at least matched, lower prices if customers notify the companies. Such competition is arguably good for consumers and allow them at least some bargaining powers. But as shown, in other respects, consumers have very little real choice and no bargaining power. In the credit card context, it may be said that the best course of action would be for consumers to make sure that they do not exceed their credit limits and make their payments on time. However, in a tough economy with high unemployment, there are people for whom that is simply not feasible. As the law currently stands in the Ninth Circuit, that leaves companies free to virtually punish their own customers, a slightly odd result given the fact that contracts law is not meant to be punitive in nature, but rather to be a resource allocation vehicle in cases where financial harm is actually suffered.
Monday, February 17, 2014
This afternoon, since school is out (for reasons that are unclear to us), my daughter is going with a group to a "famly fun center" featuring laser tag, a laser maze, go carts, bumper cars and something called the Sky Trail. The organization that is arranging the group outing sent me the fun center's standard waiver form which, not surprisingly these days, states that I waive any claims I might have against the fun center for, among other things, serious injury, including the death of my daughter while she does whatever one does on a Sky Trail, even if that serious injury or death is the result of the fun center's negligence.
I took the liberty of crossing out the offensive language, which I would hope would be unenforceable in any case. Since I will not be with my daughter when she hands in the waiver form, there will be nothing to do if the fun center refuses to accept it, but I am counting on them not noticing. I guess I will find out when she gets home and either tells me how awesome the Sky Trail was or slams her door and doesn't speak to me for a week.
The truth is, if my daughter were killed due to the fun center's negligence, a law suit would not improve my life in any way, help me heal or make me feel somehow that justice had been done. Wrangling over responsibility for her death would only prolong the agony of losing a child. Still, I cannot sign the form as is and it seems farcical to me to suggest that any parents would really want to turn their children over to the custody of strangers and then pardon those strangers in advance for their deadly negligence.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
If you applied for credit, but got turned down with the reason “Your worst bankcard or revolving account status is delinquent or derogatory,” would you understand what that means?
Probably not, at least not for sure. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, lenders are required to send applicants written explanations of why they are denied credit outright or given less favorable terms than those for which they applied. This requirement is aimed at helping consumers understand what they need to do to improve their credit scores. But many of the explanations provided to consumers are drafted by the credit score developers themselves and use confusing terminology or are too short to be useful.
What’s worse: lenders are aware of this problem, but apparently choose to do nothing about it. According to one survey, 75% of lenders “worry” that consumers don’t understand the disclosure notices. Only 10% of lenders said that their customers understand reason codes “well.” This problem is, of course, not isolated to the credit industry, but also prevails in the health care industry and beyond.
Contracts law is not helpful for consumers in this respect either: there is a clear duty to read and understand contracts, even if they are written in a language (typically English) that one does not understand. Perhaps that’s why only 10% of lenders bother to translate documents into Spanish with the effect that many Spanish-speaking monolingual applicants are unable to read the explanations at all.
Some companies offer websites offering “translations” into easier-to-understand and longer explanations of the codes behind credit refusals and what one can do to improve credit. There’s a website for almost anything these days, but for that solution to be sufficiently helpful in the lending context, it must be presumed that these websites are relatively easy to find, free or inexpensive, and easy to use; all quite far from always the case.
As law professors, most of us probably require our students to write in clear, plain English. We don’t take it lightly if they write incomprehensible sentences. The desirability of writing well should be obvious in corporate as well as academic contexts.
Friday, January 31, 2014
I like to remind my 1Ls Contracts students that a contract is private law between two parties, but it doesn't override public law. This story is last week's news, but I thought I'd blog about it anyway because it provides a pretty good example of this point. In 2009, William Marotta responded to a Craigslist ad posted by two women for a sperm donor. All three parties agreed - and signed an agreement to the effect - that Marotta waived his parental rights and responsibilities. The Kansas Department for Children and Families sought to have Marotta declared the father and responsible for payments of $6,000 that the state had already paid and for future child support.
Unfortunately for Marotta, a Kansas state statute requires a physician to perform the artificial insemination procedure. The Shawnee County District Court Judge Mary Mattivi ruled that because the parties "failed to conform to the statutory requirements of the Kansas Parentage Act in not enlisting a licensed physician...the parties' self-designation of (Marotta) as a sperm donor is insufficient to relieve (Marotta) of parental rights and responsibilities."
Note that the couple was not seeking to invalidate the contract - it was the Kansas state agency.
It's unclear whether the parties will appeal.
Monday, January 20, 2014
In the mid-1990s, the Walt Disney Company hired Michael Ovitz to be its #2 executive. After slightly over a year in the position, Disney's Board of Directors fired Ovitz, having determined that he was an ineffective executive for the company. He received over $100 million in severance pay. After years of litigation, the Delaware courts found that Disney's Board of Directors did not breach its duty of care in approving an excecutive compensation scheme that made Ovitz better off for having been terminated than he would have been had he stayed on the job. The Delaware Supreme Court noted that Disney's corporate governanace was far from optimal and should not pass muster in a post-Enron/WorldCom etc., world. I have written about the case here.
According to this article in The New York Times, Yahoo! was not paying attention. In 2012, Yahoo! hired Henrique de Castro to be its #2 executive. He lasted a little over a year and is now walking away with at least $88 million. The Times quotes Charles M. Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, who says that such hiring decisions are usually made by the corporation's CEO and that the Board can't tell the CEO whom to hire. However, Professor Elson also notes that Boards have an obligation to "ask hard questions," especially when executive compensation seems "out of whack." Mr. de Castro was the eighth highest paid executive in the region, earning more than Yahoo!'s CEO.
I suppose it is usually true that a Board cannot tell a CEO whom to hire, but the Board and its Compensation Committee do set executive pay. And nobody at that level can be hired without Board approval. In order to lure an executive of de Castro's experience, a corporation must offer "downside protection." That is, a business person of de Castro's experience is not going to leave a secure, well-compensated position without a guarantee that he will be well-compensated at the new position, even if the relationship sours. However, as the Times points out, de Castro's record at Google was mixed. He had been demoted and then promoted again, which suggests his position was not that secure. In any case, his compensation seems to have been well in excess of what was necessary to protect his potential downside.
Board capture apparently is still a major problem in U.S. public companies, and the Times suggests that the problem is especially bad in Silicon Valley. The real problem is that executive pay remains absurdly, stratospherically high in this country. No pay package should be structured to guarantee millions in dollars of severance even in cases of abject failure.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
$350,000. That’s the value an anonymous American big game hunter is willing to pay to shoot one of the world’s last 5,000 black rhinoceroses. 1,700 of these live in Namibia, which recently auctioned off a permit to kill an old bull through the Dallas Safari Club.
Contracts are meant to assign market values to various items and services in order to facilitate commercial exchanges of these. But does this make sense with critically endangered species?
Namibia and the Safari Club tout the sustainability of the sale claiming that the bull is an “old, geriatric male that is no longer contributing to the herd.” All $350,000 will allegedly go to conservation measures. That is, of course, unless some of the funds disappear to corruptness, not unheard of in the USA and perhaps not in Namibia either. Although the male may no longer be contributing to his herd, he does contribute to the enjoyment of, just as one example, people potentially able to see him and his likes on safari trips as well as to a much greater number of people around the world who simply enjoy the rich diversity of nature as it still is even if unable to personally see the animals.
Conservationists thus decry the sale, claiming that it is “perverse” to kill even one of a species that is so rapidly becoming extinct. The argument has been made that critically endangered species should not be valued more dead than alive. If humans cull the aging, natural predators will have to go one step “down the ladder” for the next one; a healthier one. Who are we to continually mess with nature in these ways? Counterarguments are made that poachers are the real problem, not a “single sale.” And so it goes.
At bottom, the irony in killing such an animal to “increase” the population is, indeed, great. This particular contract was not.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Over at the Huffington Post, Sam Fiorella takes note of the egregious terms in Facebook Messenger's Mobile App Terms of Service. These terms include allowing the app to record audio, take pictures and video and make phone calls without your confirmation or intervention. It also allows the app to read your phone call log and your personal profile information. Of course, an app that can do all that is also vulnerable to malicious viruses which can share that information without your knowledge. But, of course, this is allowed only with your "consent."
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Today’s mini-review is of Dysfunctional Contracts and the Laws and Practices that Enable Them: An Empirical Analysis, 46 Ind. L. Rev. 797 (2013), by Debra Pogrund Stark, Dr. Jessica M. Choplin, and Eileen Linnabery.
Apparently, many real estate contracts limit buyers’ remedies to return of earnest money, and many courts enforce such limitations. The problem is that if a buyer’s only remedy for breach of contract is the return of earnest money, then the seller hasn’t really bound himself to anything. If the seller doesn’t want to perform, all he has to do is return the earnest money. This encourages the kind of strategic behavior that contracts are supposed to prevent. For example, a seller may agree to sell real estate, but if the property's market value increases, the seller can breach the contract, return the earnest money, and sell the property to a second buyer at a higher price. The seller essentially gets to speculate on the buyer's dime.
Further, many buyers don’t understand the meaning of these limitation of remedy clauses, even if they read them. The authors conducted a study which suggests more than a third of people who read a limitation of remedies clause fail to comprehend that their remedies have been limited. The authors use this finding to challenge some courts’ reasoning that buyers knowingly consent to the limitation of their remedies.
The authors offer several reforms, and two are particularly interesting: (1) enacting legislation that prohibits limiting buyers’ remedies to the return of earnest money, and (2) replacing the exacting standards of unconscionability with a "reasonable limitation of remedy” test similar to that used in evaluating liquidated damages.
This article is state-of-the-art in its use of empirical research to aid legal analysis. It not only provides interesting data, but it also marshals that data against flimsy intuitive arguments still common wherever people talk about contracts.
[Image by thinkpanama]
Thursday, November 21, 2013
It’s my pleasure to respond to Tuesday’s posts from Juliet Moringiello and Woodrow Hartzog. Juliet Moringiello asks whether wrap contracts are different enough to warrant different terminology. Moringiello’s knowledge in this area of law is both wide and deep and her article (Signals, Assent and Internet Contracting, 57 Rutgers L. Rev. 1307) greatly informed my thinking on the signaling effects of wrap contracts. The early electronic contracting cases involved old- school clickwraps where the terms were presented alongside the check box and their signaling effects were much stronger than browsewraps. Nowadays, the more common form of ‘wrap is the “multi-wrap,” such as that employed by Facebook and Google with a check or click required to manifest consent but the terms visible only by clicking on a hyperlink. Because they are everywhere, and have become seamlessly integrated onto websites, consumers don’t even see them. Moringiello writes that today’s 25-year old is more accustomed to clicking agree than signing a contract. I think that’s true and it’s that ubiquity which diminishes their signaling effects. Because we are all clicking constantly, we fail to realize the significance of doing so. It’s not the act alone that should matter, but the awareness of what the act means. I’m willing to bet that even among the savvy readers of this blog, none has read or even noticed every wrap agreement agreed to in the past week alone. I wouldn’t have made such a bold statement eight years ago.
Woodrow Hartzog provides a different angle on the wrap contract mess by looking at how they control and regulate online speech. With a few exceptions, most online speech happens on private websites that are governed by “codes of conduct.” In my book, I note that the power that drafting companies have over the way they present their contracts should create a responsibility to exercise that power reasonably. Hartzog expands upon this idea and provides terrific examples of how companies might indicate “specific assent” which underscore just how much more companies could be doing to heighten user awareness. For example, he explains how a website’s privacy settings (e.g. “only friends” or authorized “followers”) could be used to enable a user to specifically assent to certain uses. (His example is a much more creative way to elicit specific assent than the example of multiple clicking which I use in my book which is not surprising given his previous work in this area).
Hartzog also explains how wrap contracts that incorporate community guidelines may also benefit users by encouraging civil behavior and providing the company with a way to regulate conduct and curb hate speech and revenge porn. I made a similar point in this article. I am, however, skeptical that community guidelines will be used in this way without some legal carrot or stick, such as tort or contract liability. (Generally, these types of policies are viewed in a one-sided manner, enforceable as contracts against the user but not binding against the company). On the contrary, the law – in the form of the Communications Decency Act, section 230- provides website with immunity from liability for content posted by third parties. Some companies, such as Facebook, Twitter or Google, have a public image to maintain and will use their discretionary power under these policies to protect that image. But the sites where bad stuff really happens– the revenge porn and trash talking sites – have no reason to curb bad behavior since their livelihood depends upon it. And in some cases, the company uses the discretionary power that a wrap contract allocates to it to stifle speech or conduct that the website doesn’t like. A recent example involves Yelp, the online consumer review company that is suing a user for posting positive reviews about itself. Yelp claims that the positive reviews are fake and is suing the user because posting fake reviews violates its wrap contract. What’s troubling about the lawsuit, however, is that (i) Yelp almost never sues its users, even those who post fake bad reviews, and (ii) the user it is suing is a law firm that earlier, had sued Yelp in small claims court for coercing it into buying advertising. To make matters worse, the law firm’s initial victory against Yelp (where the court compared Yelp’s sales tactics to extortion by the Mafia) for $2,700 was overturned on appeal. The reason? Under the terms of Yelp’s wrap contract, the law firm was required to arbitrate all claims. The law firm claims that arbitration would cost it from $4,000-$5,000.
I agree with Hartzog that wrap contracts have the potential to shape behavior in ways that benefit users, but most companies will need some sort of legal incentive or prod to actually employ them in that way.
Monday, November 18, 2013
I'm enjoying the posts from Ryan Calo and Miriam Cherry about my book, Wrap Contracts: Foundations and Ramifications and plan to post a response later this week. A common question I get (after, Are these things really legal?) is What harm can these contracts cause anyway? Well, one woman claims that a company can use them to ruin your credit. The woman, Jen Palmer, ordered some trinkets from KlearGear.com but she claims that she never received them and canceled the payment. After she allegedly failed to reach someone at the company, she wrote a negative review of KlearGear.com on a consumer reporting website stating that they have "horrible" customer service. KlearGear allegedly emailed her, claiming that her negative review ran afoul of a non-disparagement clause in their online terms of sale. She says that they told her to remove the post or face a $3500 fine. Ms. Palmer was unable to get the post removed and alleges that KlearGear.com reported her to a credit bureau! She claims that she is now fighting the negative mark on her credit report which is preventing her from getting loans for a new car and house repairs.
I don't think the terms of sale are enforceable against Ms. Palmer but that's almost beside the point. Contracts are used in a variety of ways - one of those ways is to deter problems. Not many consumers are willing to fight to test the enforceabilty of a contract in court.
But I have a question: Why would a credit agency ding someone's record simply because they received a call from an online retailer about someone who wasn't even a customer breaching the terms of sale? I checked KlearGear's website and couldn't find the non-disparagement clause in their terms of sale- they might have removed it after the negative publicity or it might not be in another agreement that doesn't appear until a customer places an order. There's got to be more to this story...or else we've just entered a new era of abuse by wrap contracts.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
In a situation that underscores the importance of thinking twice about very long term contracts, the NBA wants to end a contract which requires it to pay two brothers a percentage of its broadcast revenues. Back in 1976, the Silna brothers owned an ABA franchise, the Spirits of St. Louis. When the ABA merged with the NBA, the Silnas agreed to this bargain - they would dissolve their team in exchange for 1/7 of the television revenues for the four ABA teams that were merged. The four teams were the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, the Brooklyn Nets and the Denver Nuggets.
Sure, back in 1976, the Silnas might have looked silly for giving up a huge buyout for something that seemed pretty worthless (the NBA wasn't even televised prime time) but now the deal is being called "the greatest sports deal of all time."
Not kidding about that "all time" either - the Silvas reportedly received $19 million under the contract last season and the contract term is "in perpetuity." Fat chance the NBA will be able to scream foul on the basis of lack of mutuality...
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Breaking Bad, I just thought I would never again have anything to which I could look foward. I did just turn 50, so there is AARP membership and a colonoscopy, but I thought there would be nothing in my future that I would anticipate enjoying.
But then came this in today's New York Times. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad just sigend an agreement for a new show on CBS. The timing of the announcement speaks well of both Mr. Gilligan and CBS, capitalizing on the current fan feeding frenzy surrounding the end of the series. But the fact that CBS is belatedly pouncing on a Gilligan script originally offered to CBS ten years ago speaks less well of that party to the deal.
Mr. Gilligan has an exclusive deal with Sony Pictures Television, which negotiated for him an unsual deal in which CBS agreed up front to air 13 episodes of Mr. Gilligan's series, Battle Creek. There's a lot of money involved, but who cares? If Battle Creek is anything like Breaking Bad, I will forgive CBS for not airing a single show that I have wanted to watch in the last 25 years.
Or am I forgetting something? Has CBS had any good comedies or dramas in prime time?
Friday, September 20, 2013
"By now, you’ve heard the stories of passengers urinating in bags, slipping on sewage, and eating stale cereal aboard the Carnival Cruise ship that was stranded in the Gulf of Mexico — not exactly the fun-filled cruise for which the passengers had signed up and paid." My post on "Carnival Cruise and the Contracting of Everything" is available here.
Friday, September 13, 2013
Over the summer, hte UK's National Audit Office presented to the BBC Trust Finance Committee this Report on executive severance payments made to fromer BBC executives. The BBC has reduced its management staff signficantly since 2009. In so doing, it expects savings totalling £92 million. However, the BBC also has made severance payments to the 150 ousted executives totalling £25 million.
According to the Report, the BBC plans changes going forward. From now on severance pay will not exceed 12-months salary or £150,000, whichever is less.
The drama of Parliamentary hearings into the payments is well described here in the UK's The Guardian. The BBC's Director General at the time of the payments was Mark Thompson, who recently moved on to The New York Times, where he is Chief Executive. Thompson defended the payments before Parliament, although they exceeded by £1.4 million (£2 million in The Independent's account) the BBC's contractual obligations to its former executives. The largest single payment was just over £1 million, and it went to Thompson's deputy, Mark Byford. According to the BBC, the investigation into severance payments was triggered by a £450,000 payment to one BBC executive who resigned in connection with a scandal after just 54 days on the job.
From an American perspective, it is a bit hard to see what the fuss is all about. Sure, capping severance for executives at publicly-owned entities is certainly a reasonable policy, but even without the cap, exceeding contractual obligations by something less than 10% while achieving significant savings overall seems pretty tame on the overall scales of both wasteful public-sector spending and executive severance packages. As Brad Pitt's character puts it in Inglorious Bastards, that should just get you a chewing out. But perhaps we have been desensitized by the size of severance packets, even at public corporations, on this side of the pond.
1. It is perhaps telling that the Report begins with three blank pages (after the cover page) followed by two mostly blank pages. Apparently they don't audit their own use of paper.
2. UK usage seems to have completely abandoned the hyphenated compound adjective. Thus, after all the blank pages, the Report begins, "The BBC Trust receives value for money investigations into specific areas of BBC activity." I had to read this sentence three times before I could make any sense of it. That's because "value for money" is a compound adjective rather than two nouns separated by a preposition. To my eyes, the sentence would have been far more readable if it had been written: "The BBC Trust receives value-for-money investigations into specific areas of BBC activity. " Am I the only one? My inquiry also relates to changes going on in Law Review offices in the US, as I have tussled with student editors who have grown hostile to hyphens in recent years. I like the little fellas.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
In July, Centre College announced that the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust had pledged the largest gift in the history of small, liberal arts colleges. The fund would be used to create 160 scholarships for students majoring in the natural sciences, computational sciences or dismal sciences (aka economics). Eugene Brockman died in 1986, but his son, Robert T. Brockman attended Centre College and is now a principal in Reynolds & Reynolds, a car dealership support company.
Earlier this week, Centre College announced that the gift had been withdrawn. The gift was contingent, as it turns out, on "a significant capital market event." The event was a $3.4 billion loan deal involving Reynolds & Reynolds. The proceeds from the deal would go to Reynolds & Reynolds shareholders, including the Brockman Trust. But the rating agencies did not like the deal and downgraded Reynolds & Reynolds. As a result, no deal, no proceeds, no revenues to the Brockman Trust and then none to the College.
For our purposes, there are two money quotes in the Times coverage from Centre College's President John Roush. First, “In retrospect, we might have put a big asterisk on this thing . . . ." And second “We had a lot of people who have poured mountains of time into this . . . ."
No doubt, Centre College would like to maintain its good relations with the Brockman Trust. It has received money from the Trust in the past; it would like to continue to do so in the future. But if there were a clean break, is the pledge enforceable?
The answer may turn on where that astserisk should be. Was there an asterisk attached to the gift or an asterisk attached to the announcement of the gift? If Brockman made clear that its gift was contingent on the significant capital market event, then its pledge is not binding. There was no promise. But if the condition was not clear, there may still be a representation that one would reasonably expect to induce reliance and that apparently induced actual reliance when the Centre College people "poured mountains of time" into the gift. Even the announcement of the gift, its purposes and its source, might be consideration, rendering the gift pledge enforceable (if there was indeed a promise), because the Trust got something of value (publicity) in exchange for its pledge.
One also wonders about other donors. If the Brockman Charitable Trust pledge was used to attract other donors, those donors might now be experiencing donor's remorse. If the other donors now renege on their pledges, might the College have a cause of action against the Trust?
Monday, September 2, 2013
Comedian Dave Chappelle (pictured) is edgy, and people like that about his comedy. His edge is what makes his comedy sophisticated, challenging and -- when it really works -- thrilling. But edgy comedy can easily go awry. Audiences might miss the fact that Mr. Chappelle often plays upon racial stereotypes rather than simply indulging or reenacting them. Edgy comedy makes demands of its audience, and sometimes the audience is not up to the challenge. That is what appears to have happened last week in Hartford, Connecticut. The other theory is that Mr. Chappelle had "a meltdown" in the face of a loud audience that wanted Mr. Chappelle's routine to be more interactive than he intended. Aisha Harris has a balanced report on Slate, including some YouTube videos that might help people judge for themselves which version is accurate.
Apparently, Mr. Chappelle was so disturbed, distracted, annoyed, and frustrated by an audience that would not stop shouting at him -- even though the shouts started as encouragement -- that he decided not to perform. However, people speculate that he felt contractually obligated to remain on the stage for a full 25 minutes, and so he read aloud from a book, smoked a cigarette and variously occupied himself in ways that people have concluded were not his act until the time expired.
The event raises interesting contractual questions whether one believes that Mr. Chappelle himself or Mr. Chappelles audience was to blame for what transpired. Some of those questions run as follows:
- Regardless of Mr. Chappelle's reasons, did he in fact abide by his contract simply by remaining on stage for 25 minutes?
- Is there any argument that could be made that what happend in Hartford was a performance? Could anyone have claimed breach of contract upon witnessing the premiere of John Cage's 4'33?
- If heckling actually motivated a comedian (any comedian) to leave the stage early, would that be a breach of contract?
- But if the shouting at Mr. Chappelle's show was actually intended to be encouraging or simply cries of affection for the comedian, does that change the analysis in the previous question? [The Beatles stopped touring because all that could be heard at their concerts were the screams of their teenaged fans, so if they stopped touring in the middle of a concert, would they be justified?]
- Is there a remedy for individual ticket-holders in such a case, and against whom is their remedy? They were not in privity with Mr. Chappelle, so they might sue the concert organizers who in turn could attempt to recover from Mr. Chappelle.
- But if in fact the dynamic at the show in Hartford replayed the dynamic that motivated Mr. Chappelle to end his television show, is that a legitimate defense? Can an African American comedian defend himself against a breach of contract suit on the ground that too many audience members were laughing at his jokes for the wrong reasons?
Being an observant type, I noticed that the Starbucks that I wandered into this weekend was festooned in pink. Breast cancer awareness? Nope. Starbucks has "partnered" with a San Francisco-based chain of bakeries called La Boulange, and since La Boulange's color is pink, Starbucks is celebrating its new "partnership" with a complementary color scheme. The barista who explained all this to me characterized the transaction as an acquisition rather than a partnership, and that seems more accurate, since that's what Starbucks called the transaction when it announced last summer that it acquired La Boulange for $100 million.
This is a very interesting transaction. La Boulange had about 20 cafes in the San Francisco area. How does La Boulange ramp up its operations to supply 8000 Starbucks outlets with its baked goods without degrading quality? Working all that out might have been the reason beyond the 14-month delay between the announcement of the partnership and the arrival of the chocolate croissants on my plate.
San Francisco's Business Times suggests that the creator of La Boulange, Pascal Rigo, still thinks there is a lot to sort out. His bakeries will continue to exist, and it seems that he plans to double the number of La Boulange outlets in the Bay area. Meanwhile, he hopes that Starbucks will become known as a cafe and bakery and that it could even become a lunch destination. That may be a challenge, since people are attracted to Starbucks becasue they can buy a coffee and a snack and spread out at a table for four for four hours while they work on their laptops. That use of space might not be optimal if Starbucks wants to pack in the lunch crowd.
The other thing about this transaction that interests me is why it took Starbucks, the company that realized that you can charge people $2 for a small coffee, so long to realize that people who like gourmet coffee also like high-quality baked goods, something the Viennese have known since the 17th century. Perhaps they were just waiting for the right parntner or perhaps they realized that people who are willing to pay $5 for a fancy coffee-based dessert drink do not want to pay $10 for a fancy coffee-based dessert drink plus a fancy dessert. Also, some regulars have to avoid the place entirely if it is going to tempt them with delicious desserts each time they enter.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Ars Technica provides a nice summary of the state of affairs in the case of the New York City dentist who attempted to contract around the criticism of her patients. It even includes a shout out to law profs Eric Goldman (Santa Clara) and Jason Schultz (Berkeley). Open wide, here's a taste:
A lawsuit regarding a dentist and her ticked-off patient was meant to be a test of a controversial copyright contract created by a company called Medical Justice. Just a day after the lawsuit was filed, though, Medical Justice backed down, saying it was “retiring” that contract.
Now, more than a year after the lawsuit was filed, the case against Dr. Stacy Makhnevich seems to have turned into a case about a fugitive dentist. Makhnevich is nowhere to be found, won’t defend the lawsuit, and her lawyers have asked to withdraw from the case.
In 2010, Robert Lee was experiencing serious dental pain. He went to see Dr. Stacy Makhnevich, the “Classical Singer Dentist of New York,” in part because she was a preferred provider for his dental insurance company. Before Makhnevich treated him, she asked him to sign a contract titled “Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy.”
The contract worked like this: in return for closing “loopholes” in HIPAA privacy law, Lee promised to refrain from publishing any “commentary” of Makhnevich, online or elsewhere. The contract specified that Lee should “not denigrate, defame, disparage, or cast aspersions upon the Dentist.”
And the kicker: if he did write such reviews, the copyright would be assigned to the dentist. She’d own it.
This “I own your criticism” contract would soon be put to the test, because Lee was an extremely unhappy customer. “Avoid at all cost!” he wrote in a one-star Yelp review. “Scamming their customers! Overcharged me by about $4000 for what should have been only a couple-hundred dollar procedure.”
The forms Makhnevich was using, provided to her by a company called Medical Justice, were already the subject of considerable controversy. Two tech-savvy law professors, Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University and Jason Schultz of UC Berkeley, launched a website to fight the contracts, which garnered considerable press. Former Ars Technica writer Tim Lee chronicled his own experience with a Philadelphia dentist who was using the contract.
The “Mutual Agreement” was essentially a work-around to try to stifle patient reviews. Doctors, or any other business, who believe that an online review is, say, defamatory, can go ahead and sue a reviewer—but they don’t have an easy way to get the review down. Review sites like Yelp are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes the platforms hosting such user-generated content, as long as they don’t edit it heavily. Review sites in the US don’t typically remove posts when a business claims defamation.
Copyright, however, is a different story. Section 230 doesn’t cover intellectual property laws, and Yelp has to react quickly to claims that a user has violated copyright law.
Users of the Medical Justice form were counting on that, and it worked. In September 2011, staff members of Dr. Makhnevich sent DMCA takedown notices to Yelp and DoctorBase. That was followed up with invoices sent to Robert Lee, saying he owed $100 per day for copyright infringement. Accompanying letters threatened to pursue “all legal actions” against him.
Of course, the dentist's disappearance and considerable negative press leads Paul Levy of Public Citizen to remark:
“It’s quite possible that the consequence of her having this contract is that she had to give up her dental practice,” said Levy. “It’s the Streisand effect gone bonkers.”
Yes, indeed. More from Ars Technica here.
[Meredith R. Miller]
Thursday, July 18, 2013
We reported in May here about Northwest Inc. v. Ginsberg, a case on which the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. so that it can decide "Whether the court of appeals erred in holding, in contrast with the decisions of other circuits, that respondent’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was not preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act because such claims are categorically unrelated to a price, route, or service, notwithstanding that respondent’s claim arises out of a frequent-flyer program (the precise context of American Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens ) and manifestly enlarged the terms of the parties’ undertakings, which allowed termination in Northwest’s sole discretion."
Stephen Colbert reports on another tragic case of lost air miles, this time involving a frequent-flying cello. The report is provided below: