Monday, June 9, 2014
Today's New York Times reports on the extension of non-compete agreements to categories of employment not previously subject to them. This isn't really news, but it is nice to see the Times giving serious space to the issue, which I view as just another one-sided boilerplate term that employers are imposing on their employees. The difference here is that courts don't enforce non-competes if they overreach. However, the reality is that courts rarely get the opportunity to review non-competes, either because employees don't have the resources to fight them or because, as illustrated in the Times article, competitors are sometimes reluctant to risk a suit and so they do not hire people subject to non-competes, even if those non-competes might be unreasonable.
The over-the-top example with which the Times starts its story is about a woman whose job offer as a summer camp counselor was withdrawn because of a non-compete. She had worked three previous summers at a Linx-operated summer camp, and her terms of employment there included a non-compete of which she was (of course) unaware. Here is what Linx's founder had to say in defense of the non-compete:
“Our intellectual property is the training and fostering of our counselors, which makes for our unique environment,” he said. “It’s much like a tech firm with designers who developed chips: You don’t want those people walking out the door. It’s the same for us.” He called the restriction — no competing camps within 10 miles — very reasonable.
A few points. First, if your training and fostering of counselors creates a unique environment, then that training and fostering will not transfer when counselors switch to other camps that will presumably train and foster their counselors in other ways. If that's not the case, then there is nothing special or unique about the way you train and foster your counselors and thus no reason (except throwing up barriers to competition) not to allow counselors to work elsewhere.
Second, I just put my daughter on a bus for summer camp. I was a counselor at a summer camp for two years. Most camps now belong to a trade organization that sets down strict rules about safety and counselor training. It is unlikely that what Linx does is unique, and again, to the extent that it is unique, it is not transferable.
Third, a ten mile non-compete would be reasonable except that it is ten miles from any Linx camp, and Linx operates 30 camps in the area. So seen, the rule means that counselors who work at Linx camps cannot then work at any other camp in the region. There is no justification for this. If Linx has intellectual property to protect, it can do so, but Linx's founder's comparison of his camps to a tech firm strikes me as farfetched. I doubt that Linx has any intellectual property relating to its training of counselors. It is not as if a 19-year-old camp counselor comes to her new camp and impresses the people there with her knowledge from her past counseling experience. Each camp has its own traditions. If she says it is better to discard the leeches one pulls off the campers after a lake swim, they are not going to listen to her if the camp tradition is to move the leeches to the infirmary so that they can be "repurposed." What Linx is trying to do with this non-compete likely has less to do with protecting intellectual property than it does to establishing a stranglehold on the market of qualified camp counselors.
The Times story contrasts the employment situation in California, which does not enforce non-competes with that of Massachusetts, which does. But freedom of contract nad free enterprise still seem to have the upper hand in Massachusetts, as the following quote form the Times illustrates:
Michael Rodrigues, a Democratic state senator from Fall River, Mass., said the government should not be interfering in contractual matters like noncompetes. “It should be up to the individual employer and the individual potential employee among themselves,” he said. “They’re both adults.”
This is the typical nonsense underlying the enforcement of boilerplate. The camp counselor in the story was 19 years old, which means she was actually an infant when she signed the non-compete. But even if she could match the sophistication of the business that hired her, how does Mr. Rodrigues expect the negotiation to take place? In his mind it would go something like this:
Business: Here's the contract.
Employee: Okay, let me read it over and strike out all the terms that I don't like.
Business: Sure, take as long as you like and then we can negotiate over each term to which you object.
And here's the reality:
Business: Here's the contract.
Employee: Okay, let me read it over and strike out all the terms that I don't like.
Business: Well, actually, this is a form contract, and it's take it or leave it. Even if you wanted to object, I don't have any authority to change any of the terms. Either you sign this or you don't work here.
But even that is an exaggeration of the amount of consideration that goes in to the signing of employment contracts. They are not read at all and they are not expected to be read at all. And not reading them is the rational thing to do as potential employees have no bargaining power that they could deploy to challenge objectionable terms.
Friday, May 23, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
In California, the Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of divvying up water contracts in the California River Delta between the general public and senior local water rights owners. Years ago, it signed off on long-term contracts that determined “the quantities of water and the allocation thereof” between the parties. About a decade ago, it renewed these contracts without undertaking a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) to find out whether the contract renewals negatively affected the delta smelt, a small, but threatened, fish species. The thinking behind not doing so was that since the water contracts “substantially constrained” the Bureau’s discretion to negotiate new terms, no consultation was required.
Not correct, concluded an en banc Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel recently. By way of brief background, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions jeopardizes threatened or endangered species or their habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a). Among other things, federal agencies must consult with the FWS if they have “some discretion”"some discretion" to take action on behalf of a protected species. In this case, since the contractual provision did not strip the Bureau of all discretion to benefit the species, consultation should have taken place. For example, the Bureau could have renegotiated the pricing or timing terms and thus benefitted the species, said the court.
In 1993, the delta smelt had declined by 90% over the previous 20 years and was thus listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Of course, fish is not the only species vying for increasingly scarce California water. Man is another. The current and ongoing drought in California – one of the worst in history – raises questions about future allocations of water. Who should be prioritized? Private water right holders? People in Southern California continually thirsty and eager to water their often overly water-demanding garden plants? Industry? Farmers? Not to mention the wild animals and plants depending on sufficient levels of water? There are no easy answers here.
The California drought is estimated to cost Central Valley farmers $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. While that seems drastic, the drought is still not expected to have any significant effect on the state economy as California is no longer an agricultural state. In fact, agriculture only accounts for 5% of jobs in California. Still, that is no consolation to people losing their jobs in California agriculture or consumers having to pay higher prices for produce in an increasingly warming and drying California climate.
The 1974 movie Chinatown focused on the Los Angeles water supply system. 40 years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse. The game as to who gets water contracts and for how much water is still on.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, Jeremy Telman blogged here about the insanity of having to pay for hundreds of TV stations when one really only wants to, or has time to, watch a few.
Luckily, change may finally be on its way. The company Aereo is offering about 30 channels of network programming on, so far, computers or mobile devices using cloud technology. The price? About $10 a month, surely a dream for “cable cutters” in the areas which Aereo currently serves.
How does this work? Each customer gets their own tiny Aereo antenna instead of having to either have a large, unsightly antenna on their roofs or buying expensive cable services just to get broadcast stations. In other words, Aereo enables its subscribers to watch broadcast TV on modern, mobile devices at low cost and with relative technological ease. In other words, Aereo records show for its subscribers so that they don’t have to.
That sounds great, right? Not if you are the big broadcast companies in fear of losing millions or billions of dollars (from the revenue they get via cable companies that carry their shows). They claim that this is a loophole in the law that allows private users to record shows for their own private use, but not for companies to do so for commercial gain and copyright infringement.
Of course, the great American tradition of filing suit was followed. Most judges have sided with Aero so far, the networks have filed petition for review with the United States Supreme Court, which granted the petition in January.
Stay tuned for the outcome in this case…
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Yesterday's New York Times features a story about the costs associated with hotel boycotts when an organization has booked a hotel to host a conference or meeting long in advance. This issue ought to be a familiar to anyone who attended the 2011 annual AALS meeting in San Francisco, for which the conference hotel was a Hilton whose workers were on strike.
The article details the costs involved in cancellations. Often the organization is contractually obligated to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the hotel even if the conference ulimately takes place at a different venue. According to the Times, if the cancellation is on short notice, the organization is typically obligated to pay 90% of expected room costs and 90% of expected banqueting services. And then there are, of course, the costs of finding an alternative venue in proxity to the original choice on relatively short notice. Major conferences can be booked years in advance.
Sometimes it is possible to mitigate the harm -- by booking at a related hotel or by promising to return to the original hotel if the policy that causes offenese is revoked. The former is unlikely in cases where the problem is with the entity that owns the hotel. But it is more likely in cases like those that arose in connection with anti-immigrant legislation passed in Arizona. Organizations could punish the state by moving to related hotels in states that did not have similar legislation.
Monday, May 12, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
The United States Supreme Court recently held that airlines are allowed to revoke the membership of those of their frequent flyers who complain “too much” about the airline’s services (see Northwest v. Ginsberg). Contracts ProfBlog first wrote about the case on April 3.
In the case, Northwest Airlines claimed that it removed one of its Platinum Elite customers from the program because the customer had complained 24 times over a span of approximately half a year about such alleged problems as luggage arriving “late” at the carousel. The company also stated that the customer had asked for and received compensation “over and above” the company guidelines such as almost $2,000 in travel vouchers, $500 in cash reimbursements, and additional miles. According to the company, this was an “abuse” of the frequent flyer agreement, thus giving the company the sole discretion to exclude the customer. The customer said that the real reason for his removal from the program was that the airline wanted to cut costs ahead of the then-upcoming merger with Delta Airlines. He filed suit claiming breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his contract with Northwest Airlines.
The Court found that state law claims for breaches of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing are pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 if the claims seek to enlarge the contractual relations between airlines and their frequent flyers rather than simply seeking to hold parties to their actual agreement. The covenant is thus pre-empted whenever it seeks to implement “community standards of decency, fairness, or reasonableness” which, apparently, go above and beyond what airlines promise to their customers.
Really? Does this mean that airlines can repeatedly behave in indecent ways towards frequent flyer programs members (and others), but if the members repeatedly complain, they – the customers – “abuse” the contractual relationship?!.. The opinion may at first blush read as such and have that somewhat chilling effect. However, the Court also pointed out that passengers may still seek relief from the Department of Transportation, which has the authority to investigate contracts between airlines and passengers.
The unanimous opinion authored by J. Alito also stated that passengers can simply “avoid an airline with a poor reputation and possibly enroll in a more favorable rival program.” These days, that may be hard to do. First, most airlines appear to have more or less similar frequent flyer programs. Second, what airline these days has a truly “good” reputation? Granted, some are better than others, but when picking one’s air carrier, it sometimes seems like choosing between pest and cholera.
One example is the airlines’ highly restrictive change-of-ticket rules in relation to economy airfare, which seem almost unconscionable. I have flown Delta Airlines almost exclusively for almost two decades on numerous trips to Europe for family and business purposes. A few times, I have had the good fortune to fly first or business class, but most times, I fly economy. Until recently, it was possible to change one’s economy fare in return for a relatively hefty “change fee” of around $200 and “the increase, if any, in the fare.” - Guess what, the fares always had increased the times I asked for a change. Recently, I sought to change a ticket that I had bought for my elderly mother, also using KLM (which codeshares with Delta) as my mother is also frequent flyer with Delta. I was told that it was impossible to change the ticket as it was “deeply discounted.” I had shopped extensively online for the ticket, which was within very close range (actually slightly more expensive than that of Delta’s competitors. I asked the company what my mother could do in this situation, but was told that all she could do was to “throw out the ticket (worth around $900) and buy another one.” Remember that these days, airfare often has to be bought months ahead of time to get the best prices. In the meantime, life happens. Unexpected, yet important events come about. Changes to airline tickets should be realistically feasible, but are currently not on these conditions.
What airlines and regulators seem to forget in times of “freedom of contracting and market forces” is that some of us do not have large business budgets or fly only to go on a (rare, in this country) vacation. My mother is elderly and lives in Europe. I need to perform elder care on another continent and need flights for that purpose just as much as others need bus or train services. Such is life in a globalized world for many of us. In some nations, airlines feature at least quasi-governmental aspects and are much more heavily regulated than in the United States. Here, airfare seems to be increasing rapidly while the middle (and lower) incomes are more or less stagnant currently. I understand and appreciate the benefits of a free marketplace, but a few more regulations seem warranted in today’s economy. It should be possible to, for example, do something as simple as to change a date on a ticket (if, of course, seats are still available at the same price and by paying a realistic change fee) without having to buy extravagantly expensive first class or other types of “changeable” tickets.
Other “abuses” also seem to be conducted by airlines towards their passengers and not vice versa. For example, if one faces a death in the family, forget about the “grievance” airfares that you may think exist. Two years ago, my father was passing and I was called to his deathbed. Not having had the exact date at hand months earlier, I had to buy a ticket last minute (that’s usually how it goes in situations like that, I think…). The airline – a large American carrier - charged a very large amount for the ticket, but attempted to justify this with the fact that that ticket was “changeable” when, ironically, I did not need it to be as I needed to leave within a few hours.
In the United States, “market forces” are said to dictate the pricing of airfare. In Europe, some discount airlines fly for much lower prices than in the United States (think round-trip from northern to southern Europe for around $20 plus tax, albeit to smaller airports at off hours). Strange, since both markets are capitalist and offer freedom of contracting. Of course, these discount airlines also feature various fees driving up their prices somewhat, although not nearly as much as in the United States. A few years back, one discount European airline even announced that it planned to charge a few dollars for its passengers to use … the in-flight restrooms. Under heavy criticism, that plan was soon given up. In the United States, some airlines seem to be asking for legal trouble because of their lopsided business strategies. Sure, companies of course have to remain profitable, but when many of them claim in their marketing materials to be “family-oriented” and “focused on the needs of their passengers,” it would be nice if they would more thoroughly consider what that means.
Today is later, and cleaning out my inbox is one way I take a break from term-end grading. Here is part of the e-mail:
- We’re adding an arbitration section to our updated Terms of Service. Arbitration is a quick and efficient way to resolve disputes, and it provides an alternative to things like state or federal courts where the process could take months or even years. If you don’t want to agree to arbitration, you can easily opt out via an online form, within 30-days of these Terms becoming effective. This form, and other details, are available on our blog.
D'oh. If I had read this when I got it, I could have opted out of the arbitration policy! Today, when I tried to click on the opt-out link, I got a screen that said, in effect, "Sorry sucker, you missed the boat!" I had already accepted the new terms of service, including the arbitration clause, by using Dropbox for 30 days without reading the e-mail. If anybody has attempted to opt out, please share your experience. I really wonder how easy it is to opt out or if Dropbox is just counting on people not to bother.
Fortunately, most of Dropbox's terms are pretty reasonable as such things go. Dropbox will pay all fees on claims under $75,000 and will pay a $1000 bonus to anybody who wins an arbitral award in excess of Dropbox's settlement offer. Dropbox promises not to seek its own fees and costs unless the arbitrator determines that the claim is frivolous. There are also exceptions to the arbitration provision for small claims and for injunctive relief, but the latter would have to be brought in San Francisco. There is also the now-unavoidable ban on class actions, as well as consolidated or representative actions.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
On May 8, 2014, Vermont became the first state in the nation to require foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled accordingly. The law will undoubtedly face several legal challenges on both First Amendment and federal pre-emption grounds, especially since giant corporate interests are at stake.
Scientists and companies backing the use of GMOs claim that GMOs are safe for both humans and the environment. Skeptics assert that while that may be true in the short term, not enough data yet supports a finding that GMOs are also safe in the long term.
In the EU, all food products that make direct use of GMOs at any point in their production are subjected to labeling requirements, regardless of whether or not GM content is detectable in the end product. This has been the law for ten years.
GMO stakeholders in the United States apparently do not think that we as consumers have at least a right to know whether or not our foods contain GMOs. Why not, if the GMOs are as safe as is said? A host of other food ingredients have been listed on labels here over the years, although mainly on a voluntary basis. Think MSGs, sodium, wheat, peanuts, halal meat, and now gluten. This, of course, makes perfect sense. But why should GMOs be any different? If, for whatever reason, consumers prefer not to eat GMOs, shouldn’t we as paying, adult customers have as much a say as consumers preferring certain other products?
Of course, the difference here is (surprise!) one of profit-making: by labeling products “gluten free,” for example, manufacturers hope to make more money. If they had to announce that their products contain GMOs, companies fear losing money. So why don’t companies whose products don’t contain GMOs just volunteer to offer that information on the packaging? The explanation may lie in the pervasiveness of GMOs in the USA: the vast majority (60-80%, depending on the many sources trying to establish certainty in this area) of prepared foods contain GMOs just as more than 80% of major crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. Maybe GMOs are entirely safe in the long run as well, maybe not, but we should at least have a right to know what we eat, it seems.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Sunday's New York Times had a lengthy article on a custody battle that has raged for two years. Danielle Schreiber, who runs a massage practice in California, and Jason Patric, a known but not well-known actor, conceived a child through articifial insemination in 2009. The two had dated for a while, but they were not a couple at the time of the insemination, which resulted in a son named Gus.
Mr. Patric was a part of Gus's early life, as the baby rekindled the romance between the biological parents. The couple never co-habited, but Mr. Partric claims that he played a parentral role until 2012 when the pair split up. Mr. Patric filed a paternity suit and sought shared custody. For a while thereafter, Ms. Schreiber allowed Mr. Patric to visit Gus, but then she cut off such visits.
The Times story does not make especially clear what the case turns on. California law is clear, according to the Times, that sperm donors are not treated as "natural fathers" unless a written agreement so provides. The Times states that the parties had no such agreement, but did they have any agreement at all? Both parties seem to have considered their options carefully, and both clearly have the means to consult attorneys when they need to. Is it really possible that they did not imagine anything could possibly go wrong? Did they not discuss the possibility that Mr. Patric would want to be invovled in his son's life, even if not as a father? Not that a contract could eliminate all possible legal difficulties going forward, but they certainly could have used a writing to clarify their intentions at the time the child was conceived.
In any case, it does not seem from the Times' account that Mr. Patric's custody and paternity claims are based solely on the fact that he was the sperm donor. Rather, he seems to be claiming that he acted as a parent during the child's first years and that the child regarded him as his father. Ms. Schreiber won at the trial level, and Mr. Patric has appealed; not only in the courts, but also through the media.
I'm have trouble embedding the videos, so you can follow this link to watch Mr. Patric tell his side of the story to Katie Couric and this link to watch Ms. Schreiber tell her side of the story on the Today Show.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A class-action lawsuit filed recently against Amazon asserts that the giant online retailer did not honor its promise to offer “free shipping” to its Prime members in spite of these members having paid an annual membership fee of $79 mainly in order to obtain free two-day shipping.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Amazon would covertly encourage third-party vendors to increase the item prices displayed and charged to Prime members by the same amount charged to non-Prime members for shipping in order to make it appear as if the Prime members would get the shipping for free. Amazon would allegedly also benefit from such higher prices as it deducts a referral fee as a percentage of the item price from third-party vendors.
The suit alleges breach of contract and seeks recovery of Prime membership costs for the relevant years as well as treble damages under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. Most states have laws such as consumer fraud statutes, deceptive trade practices laws, and/or unfair competition laws that can punish sellers for charging more than the actual costs of “shipping and handling." In some cases that settled, companies agreed to use the term “shipping and processing” instead of “shipping and handling” to be more clear towards consumers.
On the flip side of the situation is how Amazon outright prevents at least some private third-party vendors from charging the actual shipping costs (not even including “handling” or “processing” charges). For example, if a private, unaffiliated vendor sells a used book via Amazon, the site will only allow that person to charge a certain amount for shipping. As post office and UPS/FedEx costs of mailing items seem to be increasing (understandably so in at least the case of the USPS), the charges allowed for by Amazon often do not cover the actual costs of sending items. And if the private party attempts to increase the price of the book even just slightly to not incur a “loss” on shipping, the book may not be listed as the cheapest one available and thus not be sold.
This last issue may be a detail as the site still is a way of getting one’s used books sold at all whereas that may not have been possible without Amazon. Nonetheless, the totality of the above allegations, if proven to be true, and the facts just described till demonstrate the contractual powers that modern online giants have over competitors and consumers.
A decade or so ago, I attended a business conference for other purposes. I remember how one presenter, when discussing “shipping and handling” charges, got a gleeful look in his eyes and mentioned that when it came to those charges, it was “Christmas time.” When comparing what shipping actually costs (not that much for large mail-order companies that probably enjoy discounted rates with the shipping companies) with the charges listed by many companies, it seems that not much has changed in that area. On the other hand, promises of “free” shipping have, of course, been internalized in the prices charged somehow. One can hope that companies are on the up-and-up about the charges. Again: buyer beware.
Monday, April 7, 2014
My student, Cecelia Harper (pictured), recently ordered television service. The representative for the service provider offered a 2-year agreement, which he said was “absolutely, positively not a contract.” Learned in the law as she is, Cecelia asked the representative what he thought the difference was between a contract and an agreement. He wasn't sure, but he did read her what he called "literature," which surprisingly enough was not a Graham Greene novel but the terms and conditions of the agreement, which included a $20/month "deactivation" fee should Cecelia terminate service before the end of the contract -- oops, I mean agreement -- term.
I have seen said agreement, and it includes the following charming terms:
- Service provider reserves the right to make programming and pricing changes;
- Customer is entitled to notice of changes and is free to cancel her service if she does not like the changes, but then she will incur the deactivation fee;
- Customer must agree in advance to 12 categories of administrative fees that may be imposed on her;
- Service provider reserves right to change the terms of the agreement at any time, and continued use of the service after notice constitutes acceptance of new terms;
- An arbitration clause that excludes certain actions that the service provider might bring; and
- A class action waiver
If the agreement had a $20/month deactivation fee in it, I could not find it. All I see is a deactivation fee of "up to $15." Rather, the "customer agreement" references a separate "programming agreement," and suggests that there are cancellation fees associated with termination prior to the term of the programming agreement.
So in what sense is this not a contract? My guess is that this is service providers trying to emulate what cell phone service providers have done with their "no contract phone" campaigns. For example, there's this one:
I'm guessing that the television service providers have learned that these ad campaigns have made "contract" into a dirty word. They are now seeking to seduce new customers by insisting that they do not offer contracts. Oren Bar-Gill will have to write a sequel to his last book and call it Seduction by Agreement.
If anyone has any other theories for why representatives for service providers are insisting that their contracts are really agreements, please share!
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.