Monday, August 20, 2018
California warranty case against Google illustrates the work the covenant of good faith and fair dealing does for consumers
A recent case out of the Northern District of California, Weeks v. Google LLC, Case No. 18-cv-00801 NC (behind paywall), involves Google's Pixel phones, which the plaintiffs allege are defective. The phones were covered by a warranty that permitted Google to either repair, refund, or replace the phones, at its discretion. When the plaintiffs complained about the defective phones, Google offered to replace the phones, but the plaintiffs weren't happy with that result: Their allegations are that their defective phones would just be getting replaced with more defective phones, until the point when the warranty expired.
The court agreed with Google that, under the terms of the warranty, Google had every right to do exactly that: "The Court understands plaintiffs' outrage at Google's being able to replace a defective Pixel with another defective Pixel for 365 days straight. . . . It beggars reason and would appear to make hash of the spirit of the warranty. But the warranty provided a remedy, and as far as the Court can tell, Google abided by its remedy. . . . The question of whether it was valid under the express warranty to replace a defective Pixel with another defective Pixel must be answered in the affirmative based on a plain reading of the Limited Warranty."
However, all was not lost for the plaintiffs, because the court then turned to allegations that Google had breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, a claim which the court allowed to survive Google's motion to dismiss. The court found that, while Google's conduct might not have been in violation of the terms of the contract, its conduct was not "expressly permitted" under the contract, nor did it meet "reasonable expectations" as to what its behavior would be. Therefore, the covenant of good faith and fair dealing acted as a backstop here against the dismissal of the breach of warranty claims.
(The court also allowed fraudulent concealment and California consumer protection law claims to survive.)
Friday, August 3, 2018
Watch out for relevant statutes when entering into contracts (but also, read your own contract language)
A recent case out of the Eastern District of Virginia, K12 Insight LLC v. Johnston County Board of Education, Civil Action No. 1:17-cv-1397, is a cautionary tale for being aware of how statutes can affect contracts. But, also, it could have been decided just on the contractual language alone.
In the case, the Board of Education signed an Order Form with K12 Insight that provided for an annual fee for three one-year terms. After signature, the school district realized that it could not afford the final two years of the subscription to K12's software and so attempted to terminate the subscription. K12 sued for breach of contract, alleging that the school district was obligated to maintain its subscription for the full three years.
The court declared the Order Form contract to be void. First, there was a statute that required a pre-audit certification to be affixed to the Order Form in order to ensure that there would be funding for the school district's contract. This contract lacked the pre-audit certification (which maybe explains why there wasn't funding). The court found that the contract was also outside the scope of the superintendent's authority.
But, finally, even if the contract had been properly made, the Board was permitted under the contract's own terms to terminate it if it didn't have sufficient funds. That was exactly what happened here, so the termination was proper.
Friday, July 27, 2018
23andMe, one of the services that takes your saliva and analyzes your DNA for you, has announced a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline to use its DNA database to develop targeted drugs. I've written before about the fairly broad consent Ancestry.com's similar home DNA service elicited under its terms and conditions, which 23andMe also enjoyed. According to the article, 23andMe considers itself to have gained consent from its users, and is allowing users to opt out if you wish.
I think most of us have little problem with our DNA being used to find cures for terrible diseases and afflictions. If my DNA could be used to cure cancer, I am happy to line right up. (And, in fact, when my father had cancer, we did provide express consent to his doctors for us to assist in their DNA research.) But I think most of us, if asked, would have said something like, "I want my DNA to be used to cure cancer so people with cancer can be cured."
However, the way the pharmaceutical industry works in this country, that's not exactly what happens. The cure, as we know because we talk about health insurance A LOT, is then available to those who can afford it. Many of Wikipedia's drug entries keep track of the cost of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. against the cost of producing the drug, as can be seen here. So I don't want to sound like a terrible person trying to stall progress, but, well, the users in the database paid to use 23andMe, and now their DNA is being sold to a pharmaceutical company, so 23andMe has now made money off of the DNA twice, and then it's going to get used to develop into medications that will then be sold again, back to the people who need the medications, who may be the same people whose DNA was used to develop the drug. At that point your DNA has been profited off of three times, and never by you, and possibly twice at your own personal expense. And, if history is anything to go by, that pharmaceutical is your DNA coming back to you at a tremendous mark-up. So you could find yourself in a position where you paid to have a pharmaceutical company take your DNA, turn it into the drug that could save your life, and then ask you to pay, again, much more money than you have, to gain access to the drug. You paid to donate your DNA so they could charge you for the benefits it provides. And, according to the terms and conditions, you consented to that.
Monday, July 2, 2018
An "exceedingly rare" case where a court discounted testimony, relying in part on the witness's admitted "habit of routinely lying" in the course of business
A recent case out of Michigan, Strategy and Execution Inc. v. LXR Biotech LLC, No. 337105, speaks to the perils of not putting agreements in writing (or doing so and subsequently losing the writing). The parties had a written contract that stated that they would arrive at performance criteria at a later time. But the parties disputed ever entering into a later agreement over the performance criteria. No party produced any written document. LXR's principal testified that the parties reached an oral agreement that he memorialized in writing but the writing was later lost. However, this testimony was not corroborated by any other witness except for one who gave "conflicting testimony" regarding the document. LXR's principal had admitted to "routinely lying" because he apparently thought it to be "good business practice." Furthermore, none of the "voluminous" emails exchanged between the parties ever referenced any agreement on the performance criteria. The court therefore agreed that "this is one of the exceedingly rare cases in which a witness's testimony is insufficient to find a jury question." Despite the testimony, the court was permitted to enter a directed verdict on the breach of contract claim.
Written contracts are not always required, but this case is an example of why they are often desirable to have, and to keep safe!
(There were other points of appeal in the case relating to other clauses of the contract and some jury instruction issues.)
Friday, June 29, 2018
A recent case out of the Second Circuit, Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics Bermuda Co. Ltd. v. FMC, LLC, No. 17-2400-cv (behind paywall), is another case about interpretation of contract terms -- twice over. Because here the parties entered into a contract, fought over breach of that contract, and then entered into a settlement agreement, which they were also fighting over. The moral is that, if you want something specific, you should ask for it rather than relying on unspoken industry practices.
The initial agreement between the parties was about an IT operating system. Although the system was going to cost $70 million, the contract wasn't very detailed, with no technical specifications or description of building methods. The parties' relationship deteriorated and they eventually entered into a Settlement Agreement to terminate the project. Under these new terms, FCM would be released from its obligation to provide the system to Ortho, while providing assistance while Ortho transitioned to a different contractor. After execution of the Settlement Agreement, Ortho apparently realized that FCM was not as far along as Ortho had thought and had not prepared certain items that Ortho had assumed it had prepared, and so Ortho claimed that as a result the IT system cost more and took longer.
The court, however, noted that there was nothing in the contract requiring FCM to produce the certain deliverables Ortho had been looking for. Ortho claimed it was "standard practice in the industry," but the court said that wasn't the equivalent of it being a contractual obligation. FCM was contractually required to provide assistance -- no more, no less. There was nothing in the contract about the job having to be at a particular stage of completion, or that any particular deliverables or documentation had to exist.
The court also pointed out that Ortho had released its claims regarding the original agreement in the Settlement Agreement. Ortho tried to argue that it had released claims but not damages but the court called that "a nonsensical reading."
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
A recent case out of the Southern District of New York, Treasure Chest Themed Value Mail, Inc. v. David Morris International, Inc., 17 Civ. 1 (NRB), deals with a digital marketing contract, presenting a variety of straightforward interpretation questions that could be helpful for basic examples for some things to look out for in contract drafting.
The parties entered into a contract in which Treasure Chest was required to provide "greater than 300,000 follow up weekly digital impressions." The first dispute was over whether "digital impressions" was too ambiguous to be enforced. The court, however, easily defined "digital impression" with reference to investopedia.com. The court distinguished "digital impression" from "email," saying if the parties had meant "email" they would have used the word "email." A lesson in just using what you wish to say if that's indeed what you want; fancier terms are not always necessary and might just leave some room open for arguments about ambiguity and interpretation.
There was also a dispute over whether it was ambiguous that compensation was "up to" a certain amount. But the court disagreed, saying it was clear that this simply meant the contract would not exceed a certain amount.
Therefore, the court found there was a valid contract, that Treasure Chest fulfilled all of its obligations under the contract, and David Morris did not, so Treasure Chest was entitled to damages. Treasure Chest also sought attorneys' fees, but the court found that the contract was not clear enough to justify attorneys' fees. The contract said that "costs necessary to collect" past due balances could be awarded, but the court said that did not satisfy the "high standard" for collection of attorneys' fees via contract. Again, if attorneys' fees are what you want, attorneys' fees are probably what you should say.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Recently a video went viral showing a 2016 altercation around an umpire ejecting Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard after he threw a fastball behind the Dodgers' Chase Utley. Umpires wear microphones during Major LeagueBaseball games, and the resulting (often loud and profane) discussions with Mets players and especially Mets manager Terry Collins was recorded.
The video recently surfaced in an apparent leak, because MLB has announced its intention to try to scrub the video from the internet. MLB's reason for this is that it violates a "commitment" that "certain types of interactions" involving umpires during baseball games would not be made public, claiming it was "in the collective bargaining agreement" and that there was "no choice" but to scrub the video from the internet. Indeed, according to one report it had already been scrubbed.
Not so fast, though, because I found it still embedded in news reports about it. It's hard to get anything to vanish from the internet, especially once it's gone viral, but it's not that difficult to locate this video at all.
And it's not hard to see why it went viral. It's a fascinating glimpse into a part of the game fans seldom get to see. As others have pointed out, the umpire does a fantastic job in the clip, so it's hardly like he's being cast in a bad light. The manager doesn't even come across all that poorly. In fact, in my opinion, the party that comes out of the clip looking the worst is Major League Baseball and its confusing way of handling the explosive Chase Utley situation.
It's unclear what "interactions" were agreed to be withheld from the public, but this one is certainly an interesting one. I'd love to know what the contract terms actually are.
Monday, June 18, 2018
A recent case out of the District of Arizona, Colocation America Corporation v. Mitel Networks Corporation, No. CV-17-00421-PHX-NVW (behind paywall - h/t to reader D.C. Toedt for the non-paywall link!), is, in its own words, "a poster child for the rule of Section 201(2) of the Restatement."
The dispute was over whether or not an agreement between the parties to transfer a domain name also involved the transfer of IP addresses. The section at issue was ambiguously worded: "Mitel hereby agrees to quit claim . . . the goodwill of the business connected with and symbolized by [the] Domain Name and the associated IPv4 18.104.22.168/16 and any associated trade dress . . . ." Mitel claimed this required it to quit claim the goodwill of the business associated with the IP addresses. Colocation contended Mitel was required to quit claim the goodwill AND the IP addresses AND the trade dress.
The court found that the wording was ambiguous but that the rest of the contract supported Mitel's interpretation, since the contract did not mention the IP addresses anywhere else. At every other point the contract discussed the transfer only of the domain name. There were no clauses about the transfer of the IP addresses other than that one mention in the clause quoted.
Furthermore, the court found that Mitel had no reason to know Colocation thought it was acquiring the IP addresses. By contrast, though, Colocation did have reason to know that Mitel thought the agreement was not about the IP addresses. In fact, evidence showed that Colocation "intentionally misled" Mitel by pretending to wish to buy only the domain name and keeping all discussions domain-name focused, while "nebulously" slipping the IP addresses into the contract. The IP addresses were worth far more than the amount the parties agreed on for transferring the domain name, and the court found that this was further proof Colocation knew that Mitel only intended to transfer the domain name, not the IP addresses.
As the court summarized,
"Colocation's objective from the outset was to acquire the IPv4 addresses. But it purported to negotiate only for a domain name without ever leveling with Mitel Networks. Colocation not only had 'reason to know' Mitel Networks attached a 'different meaning' to their agreement, it created and promoted that different meaning on the part of Mitel Networks. Thus, the Domain Name Assignment Agreement must be interpreted in accordance with the meaning attached by Mitel Networks, that is, as an agreement to assign a domain name and goodwill and not as an agreement to transfer IPv4 addresses."
Monday, June 4, 2018
Here's a parol evidence case if you're looking for a recent example for teaching purposes. It's out of the Northern District of Illinois, Eclipse Gaming Systems, LLC v. Antonucci, 17 C 196.
The case concerned licensing agreements for source code for casino gaming software. The court found that the written agreement was facially unambiguous and complete and contained an integration clause. Nonetheless, the counter-plaintiffs argued that evidence of a contemporaneous oral agreement should be permitted. But the court refused, finding that Illinois law, which governed the contract, required the parties to put any contemporaneous oral agreements into the four corners of their unambiguous integrated contract if they wished them to be enforced. The counter-plaintiffs argued that they should be allowed to present their parol evidence to show the contract was in fact ambiguous, but the Illinois Supreme Court had rejected that approach where the contract contained an explicit integration clause, as was the case here.
Counter-plaintiffs claimed that their parol evidence would establish that no contract was ever formed between the parties but the court found that such evidence would contradict the terms of the contract, which contained explicit terms regarding its effectiveness, and parol evidence was inadmissible to "contradict the clear written provisions of an integrated contract." The written licensing agreement, the court found, was not equivalent to a letter of intent that provided some question on the parties' intent to be bound, but instead was clear on the parties' intent to be bound.
Counter-plaintiffs tried to turn to promissory estoppel but the court noted that promissory estoppel should be used to rescue promises that didn't rise to the level of an enforceable contract. The counter-plaintiffs were instead trying to use the doctrine to vary the terms of their written contract.
There were other allegations and analyses, including pertaining to mutual mistake and unconscionability, but these also failed.
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
I just blogged about the Ninth Circuit case of Morris v. Ernst & Young, and the Supreme Court has now come out with its decision, reversing the Ninth Circuit (shorter analysis here). Where the Ninth Circuit found that arbitration clauses prohibiting concerted actions by employees violated the National Labor Relations Act, the Supreme Court found that permitting concerted actions by employees where arbitration clauses existed would violate the Federal Arbitration Act. Justice Ginsburg wrote a long dissent; the majority opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch. The trend out of the Supreme Court has been that arbitration trumps every other policy. The Federal Arbitration Act is like the royal flush of statutes.
In a world where contracts with arbitration clauses govern almost every imaginable transaction, courts are forced into interesting decisions to press against the primacy of arbitration. So, for instance, on the same day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the Western District of Pennsylvania declined to enforce an arbitration provision in Jones v. Samsung Electronics America, Case No. 2:17-cv-00571-MAP (behind paywall). Jones sought to bring a class action against Samsung based on alleged defects in its S3 cell phones. Samsung sought to arbitrate, citing the contract allegedly contained in the instruction booklet included with the phone. But the court disagreed that the arbitration clause was enforceable. It found that the clause was "tucked away" in a section entitled "Manufacturer's Warranty" contained in a 64-page booklet. The court agreed that the clause might possibly have been more inconspicuous, but found that
the degree of prominence of the Arbitration Agreement here seems calibrated with dual goals: on the one hand, just enough to persuade a court to smother potential litigation; on the other hand, not enough to make it likely that a consumer will actually notice the Agreement and perhaps hesitate to buy. It is one thing to hold consumers to agreements they have not read; it is another to hold them to agreements that, perhaps by design, they will probably never know about.
The court's decision here makes some sense, but it seems rooted in a somewhat fictional hypothetical. I don't know but I feel like Samsung could sell its phones with an instruction booklet with "ARBITRATION CLAUSE" in big, bold, red letters with exclamation points on the front of it, and I'm not sure it would in fact cause most consumers to "hesitate to buy," especially not if the majority of other cell phones contain similar arbitration clauses (the major cell phone carriers do).
But the bigger fiction at issue here is the idea that we're all "voluntarily" entering into these contracts. I mean, we are, to the extent that it's "voluntary" to have a cell phone in today's world. The answer to that question is: It is, to some extent, but not to the extent that we're willing to forego one entirely based on the mere possibility we might want to sue someday and can't. We all take risks, and maybe the court's view is this a risk that doesn't pay off for the consumer, oh, well, but it seems like the consumer has almost no power to take any other kind of risk. (This is, of course, not limited to cell phone contracts. So the real question is: is it "voluntary" to be a consumer in our capitalist society?) Likewise, is it "voluntary" to accept a job that require arbitrations, if you need a job to survive and jobs without arbitration clauses might be tough to come by?
There are statutory ways to shift the supremacy of arbitration, of course, as the Supreme Court's decision acknowledges. And at one point the FCC was contemplating doing something about the type of arbitration clause the court looked at in Jones. Maybe add it to your list of things to contact your representatives about, if you so desire.
Monday, May 14, 2018
In a copyright-ish case falling under the contract umbrella, Broker Genius, Inc. v. Volpone, 17-cv-8627 (SHS), a recent case out of the Southern District of New York, is a contract case where the likelihood of irreparable harm leads to the court granting a preliminary injunction.
The court concluded this meant that the products would be similar and that the similarities in the second product would be traceable to the first. The court found the defendants' software to be "extraordinarily similar" to Broker Genius's software, and those similarities were traceable to Broker Genius, due to the defendants' access to Broker Genius's software and the fact that the defendants' creation of their software happened "immediately" after accessing Broker Genius's software. The court acknowledged that some of the similarities predated Broker Genius's software, or were "logical or obvious," and that defendants had prior knowledge and experience in the industry. However, the weight of the evidence led to a finding that Broker Genius was likely to succeed on its breach of contract claim.
The court also found that defendants' derivative product was causing Broker Genius to suffer a loss of reputation and good will, which could not be compensated with monetary damages. Therefore, the court issued a preliminary injunction.
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
I never spend a lot of time on minors and contracts, because I teach a one-semester Contracts course and it just has to keep moving, but this is an interesting case delving into the issue in much more detail than I can get around to, recently out of the Northern District of California, T.K. v. Adobe Systems Inc., Case No. 17-CV-04595-LHK (behind paywall).
T.K. was a minor who was given a license to access Adobe's Creative Cloud Platform. In order to access the platform, T.K. agreed to the terms of service. The license auto-renewed after a year, and T.K. contacted Adobe to disaffirm renewal of the license. Adobe eventually (although apparently not immediately) refunded T.K.'s money for the renewal, but T.K. sued alleging injury because she was deprived for some time of use of the funds auto-debited by Adobe. T.K. alleged that Adobe initially refused to allow T.K. to disaffirm the auto-renewal, in contravention of law. (T.K. also alleged that Adobe's terms of service implied that users still had to pay even after cancellation, also in contravention of law. I'm not going to focus on that, but the allegation did survive the motion to dismiss.)
Adobe argued that T.K. was relying on the choice of law provision in the disaffirmed contract and so should also be held to the arbitration provision of that contract, because minors cannot cherry-pick which portions of a contract they disaffirm. The court, however, said that T.K. was not cherry-picking. Rather, T.K. had disaffirmed the entire contract. The reference to the choice of law provision was only to buttress her independent choice of California law to resolve the dispute between the parties. Therefore, T.K. was not bound by the arbitration provision.
The opinion discusses lots more causes of action, if you're curious.
Monday, April 30, 2018
Opting out of Facebook once you've opted in (or, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave)
In the earlier years of the twenty-first century, I did what now literally billions of people have done and opened a Facebook account. I didn't use it for very long, and in fact I stopped using it probably almost ten years ago at this point. I stopped for a variety of reasons, but I left the account up because of that rule about how bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, I suppose. I didn't use it, it was just a passively existing thing, and it seemed like effort to get rid of it.
With everything coming out about Facebook and data, I started wondering why I still had that account sitting there. I didn't think Facebook had a whole lot of data on me since I'd stopped using it so many years ago, but I figured, What was the point of giving it any info on me at all? Why not just delete the account?
I don't know if you've ever tried to delete your Facebook account. There are two options: deactivation, which deactivates your account but continues its existence, or deletion, which actually deletes your account. I wanted the latter, which requires you to fill out a contact form saying you would like to delete your account. So, in January, I filled out the form and received a verification email saying that my account would be deleted within the next two weeks, and I moved on with my life.
Except. No, I didn't. Because Facebook kept emailing me little updates about my friends on Facebook, even though I kept clicking the "unsubscribe" link to try to get out of the emails. And then an email came in saying that someone had sent me a message. Which seemed like something they shouldn't be able to do if my account was deleted. I asked a friend still on Facebook to check for me, and she said that yup, I was still on Facebook. My account had never been deleted.
And now's where the confusion really started, because, well, after literally months of dealing with this, I have to admit: I have no idea how to contact Facebook without being on Facebook. It's so convoluted that in fact an entire scam has mushroomed up around it, taking advantage of people who just want to try to get in touch with Facebook.
Facebook's log-in page (if you're logged out of Facebook) has no real contact info on it. The "About" link takes you to Facebook's Facebook page (so meta!), which contains links to a "website" and "company" info, both of which take you to "Page Not Found" pages, which is kind of hilarious to me. It seems to recommend you use Facebook Messenger to contact them, but...I'm not on Facebook Messenger. That's the whole point.
When you click on the "Help" link, it takes you to a FAQ page divided by topics, some of which are about account deletion but it seems to just be a bunch of people complaining about how Facebook won't delete their accounts. Or, what's worse, suggesting you call a customer service number that seems to be a scam, as evidenced by complaints here and here; by the fact that NPR did a previous story on the fact that Facebook has no customer service number; and the fact that Facebook itself appears to say it's a scam, as the below Google snippet shows:
That link looked to me like exactly what I'm trying to track down, so I clicked on it, but, alas, it's only available to me if I join Facebook.
So it looks like, once you've opted into Facebook, there really is no opting out. I've tweeted at them with no response and tried some general email addresses (info@facebook; support@facebook) with no response. The emails I keep trying to unsubscribe from give me a physical mailing address, so I guess I could send them a letter asking them to follow through and delete my account and also unsubscribe me from the email lists, but I'm not hopeful that will get a response, either.
I am hardly the first person to realize that Facebook is nearly impossible to get in touch with (the Sikhs for Justice case seems to have kicked off based at least in part on an inability to get any substantive responses from Facebook), but it seems like, in the wake of a lot of questions about control over our own data, our first step might at least make it a requirement that websites provide contact info for discussions about that data -- contact info that doesn't require you to first "opt in" to their terms and conditions (which is exactly what I'm trying to get out of!).
We've been doing a lot of talking about the terms and conditions we agree to without reading them, and I guess I always assumed that if I changed my mind, I could back out. Facebook's terms and conditions even allow for that, stating that I can delete my account at any time. But it has turned out not to be nearly so simple, and I am literally flummoxed as to what options I have, seeing as how I don't really feel like going to court in the State of California, as required by the terms and conditions. It looks like I have an account on Facebook, whether I like it or not, for the foreseeable future. You don't realize how much privacy you've already given up until you try to get just a bit of it back.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Thanks to Andy Feldstein of Huntington Technology Finance, who sent me an email after reading yesterday's IHOP post. Reading the opinion left me confused, but Andy points out that a visit to the Gunther Toody's website sheds a lot of light on the matter. Andy wrote that to the extent "similar in concept" has meaning, it's pretty clear IHOP and Gunther Toody's are two diners with extremely dissimilar concepts. Agreed. This was very helpful in clearing things up!
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Lots of people have been discussing the recent Central District of California ruling, Disney Enterprises v. Redbox Automated Retail, Case No. CV 17-08655 DDP (AGRx) (those links are a random selection), a lawsuit brought by Disney against Redbox's resale of the digital download codes sold within Disney's "combo pack" movies, which allow instant streaming and downloading of the movie. There is an obvious copyright component to the dispute, but I thought I'd highlight the breach of contract portion of the decision.
The DVD/Blu-Ray combo packs were sold with language on the box reading "Codes are not for sale or transfer," and Disney argued that Redbox's opening of the DVD box formed an enforceable contract around that term, which Redbox breached by subsequently selling the codes. However, the court found no likelihood of success on the breach of contract claim, based on the fact that the language on the box did not provide any notice that opening the box would constitute acceptance of license restrictions. The court distinguished other cases that provided much more specific notice. Redbox's silence could not be interpreted as acceptance of the restrictions. This was especially so because the box contained other language that was clearly unenforceable under copyright law (such as prohibiting further resale of the physical DVD itself). Therefore, the court characterized the language as "Disney's preference about consumers' future behavior, rather than the existence of a binding agreement."
The court ended up denying Disney's motion for preliminary injunction.
Friday, March 16, 2018
There's a class action going on over data breaches at Yahoo! between 2013 and 2016, and a recent decision in the case in the Northern District of California, In re: Yahoo! Inc. Customer Data Security Breach Litigation, Case No. 16-MD-02752-LHK (behind paywall), finds that Yahoo!'s limitation-of-liability provisions have been adequately pled to be unconscionable.
The provision at issue was found in Yahoo!'s terms of service and attempted to limit Yahoo!'s liability. The class action sought consequential damages, and Yahoo! moved to dismiss the claims for those damages, citing the provision. However, the plaintiffs argued that the provision was unconscionable, and the court agreed that they had sufficiently pled their argument to survive the motion to dismiss.
In terms of procedural unconscionability, Yahoo!'s terms of service were a non-negotiable adhesion contract, and the limitation-of-liability provision was found near the end of its twelve pages. The fact that the plaintiffs could have chosen other email services did not bar a finding of procedural unconscionability.
As far as substantive unconscionability goes, the plaintiffs alleged that the limitation-of-liability provision was one-sided and acted to block the plaintiffs from achieving adequate relief. The provision prohibited nearly every type of damages claim, virtually guaranteeing that the plaintiffs would not be able to be made whole in the event of a breach. In this case, consequential damages generally follow from data breaches, so the plaintiffs argued that consequential damages were necessary for their case. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the only party in a position to guard against data breaches was Yahoo!, yet the limitation-of-liability provision placed the risk on the plaintiffs should Yahoo! fail to maintain adequate security.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
I have the great honor and pleasure of posting the below guest blog written by noted environmental scholar Dan Farber, the Sho Sato Professor Of Law and the Faculty Director of the Center For Law, Energy, & The Environment at UC Berkeley.
There has been increasing interest in the environmental law community in the role that private firms can play in sustainability. For example, many major corporations bemoaned Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and pledged to continue their own environmental efforts. In fact, as a recent book by Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gillian documents, these firms already have their own programs to cut emissions. It’s worth thinking about the ways in which contracts between these companies could serve some of the same functions as government action.
Group action, based on contracting, could be a way of amplifying these efforts by individual firms. One possibility would stick pretty close to the structure of the Paris Climate Agreement. Under the Paris Agreement, nations agree to engage in certain types of monitoring and to implement emissions cuts that they set themselves. There are already ways that corporations can publicly register their climate commitments. The next step would be to
enter into contracts to engage in specified monitoring activities and report on emissions. The goal would be to make commitments more credible and discourage companies from advertising more emissions efforts than they actually undertake.
The contracts could be structured in different ways. One possibility is for each company to contract separately with a nonprofit running a register of climate commitments. The consideration would be the nonprofit’s agreement to include the company in the register and require the same monitoring from other registered companies. An alternative structure would be for the companies making the pledge to contract with each other, ensuring that there would be multiple entities with incentives to enforce the agreement against noncompliant firms. The biggest contract law issue is probably remedial. It would be difficult to prove damages, so a liquidated damage clause might be useful, assuming the court could be persuaded that significant liquidated damages are reasonable. An alternative set up would be to require representations by the company about compliance with monitoring protocols at they make their reports, providing a basis for a misrepresentation action.
We can also imagine something like a private carbon tax in which companies pledge to pay a nonprofit a fixed amount based on their carbon emissions. The nonprofit would use the funds to finance renewable energy projects, promote sustainability research, or fund energy efficiency projects such as helping to weatherize houses. Such pledges would probably be enforceable even without consideration under Cardozo’s opinion in Allegheny College. Damages would presumably be based simply on the amount of unpaid “taxes.”
It’s also possible to think in terms of a private cap-and-trade scheme, something like the ones used by California and by the Northeastern states. In these markets, governments set caps on total emissions and auction or otherwise distribution allowances, each one giving the owner the right to emit a single ton of carbon. In the contractual version, firms would agree to create a market in carbon allowances and to buy as many allowances as they need to cover their emissions. For instance, firms could agree to cut their emissions on a schedule of, say, 2% per year for five years. Every year, they would get allowances equal to their current target, which could be traded. Firms that were able to cut their emissions more than 2% could recoup the cost by selling permits to firms that found it too expensive to make their own cuts. Each firm would have to be bound contractually to pay for purchased allowances coupled with an enforceable obligation to achieve the target. If firms fail to buy the needed allowances, the measure of expectation damages seems to be the market price of the allowances the contract required them to purchase from other firms.
One advantage of government regulation is that the government can assess penalties, while contract law does not enforce penalties. For that reason, arguments for substantial compensatory damages will be crucial to provide an incentive for compliance. There will also be questions about how to structure the contracts (between firms or only between each firm and the nonprofit administering the scheme). And of course, all the usual issues of contract interpretation, materiality of breach, etc., will surface. (If nothing else, this could be the basis for an interesting exam question.)
Whether any of this is practical remains to be seen. There are also potential antitrust problems to contend with. But it is intriguing to think about ways that private contracting could be used to address societal issues such as climate change, particularly in situations where the government seems unlikely to act. There might be real gains from using private-law tools like contract to address public-law problems.
Monday, March 5, 2018
To the New Jersey native it happened to, well, a very costly mistake through several states.
According to this article, the man called an Uber after going out with friends in West Virginia. He was staying near West Virginia University, but he apparently requested an Uber to drive him to his home...which is in New Jersey. The drive was 300 miles, and problematically the man was drunk and so passed out upon getting into the car. He didn't wake up until two hours into the drive.
The news article is unclear as to the status of the trip. Uber claims the man has agreed to pay the fare; the man says he's contesting the fare because he never requested the Uber drive him to his home. It is true that Uber allows you to store a home address and also pulls up recent destinations when you request a ride, so one could foresee how such a mistake could happen.
It seems to me from the story that this was more likely user error, as the man was admittedly fairly drunk at the time he ordered the Uber. This also means that the man was probably too intoxicated to comprehend what he was doing as he entered into the agreement with Uber to order the car to take him home, but how was the anonymous Uber app to know? One could, however, foresee a separate confirmation page being necessary if the ride is going to cost more than, say, a thousand dollars (at least), but it's unclear that would have avoided the mistake, as the man may have been too drunk to grasp the import of the message. What should Uber do to try to avoid this sort of mishap? Anyone else have similar Uber mistakes?
h/t to reader Timothy Murray of Murray, Hogue & Lannis for sending this story to our attention!
Thursday, March 1, 2018
A recent case out of New York, Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries, Inc. v. Christie's, Inc., 651806/2014, deals with the world of luxury auctions. The plaintiff alleged, inter alia, that the defendant Rubinger breached the non-compete provision of his employment agreement when he resigned his position and went to work for Christie's Hong Kong office. The opinion is behind a paywall but the many points of contention between these companies has been documented in several places, including here, here, and here.
The employment agreement was governed by Texas law, so the court applied Texas law to determine that the non-compete provision was overly broad. The non-compete prohibited Rubinger from providing services for any business that participated, either directly or indirectly, in auctioning collectibles in North America in a manner competitive to the plaintiff's auction business. The problem was that the non-compete tried to prohibit Rubinger from providing any services for such business. As the court noted, Rubinger could have violated the agreement by working as a janitor at Sotheby's or in the mailroom at Christie's. The court therefore concluded that the non-compete was unreasonable.
However, under Texas law, the court reformed the provision to be enforceable, rewriting the provision to prevent Rubinger from providing services to competitors identical to those he provided to the plaintiff. Because that was exactly what Rubinger was doing, he was in violation of this rewritten non-compete provision.
The court found the time and geographic scope of the non-compete to be reasonable, and then found that the question of whether Rubinger's activities in Hong Kong violated it was a factual determination that could not be resolved.
Rubinger's employment agreement also contained a non solicitation covenant. When Rubinger resigned from the plaintiff to move to Christie's, two of Rubinger's staff resigned on the same day to make the identical move. The court found the non solicitation covenant enforceable, but nevertheless dismissed the claim because the non solicitation covenant, by its terms, prohibited Rubinger from soliciting the plaintiff's employees after termination of his employment. Because Rubinger's solicitation of his staff took place prior to termination of his employment, it was not prohibited by the terms of the contract.
There were many other claims in this complaint, including trade secret allegations and unjust enrichment. I focused on Rubinger's alleged breach of contract in this blog entry, but there were other aspects to the court's decision.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
A recent case out of Minnesota, Oberfoell v. Kyte, A17-0575, reminds all of us that noncompete agreements need to have a justification. Kyte worked for Oberfoell's online-auction business and signed a contract that contained a noncompete clause. He later left to start his own online-auction business and Oberfoell sued.
The lower court found the noncompete agreement to be unenforceable and this appellate court agreed. Oberfoell simply couldn't justify its necessity because he failed to assert a legitimate business interest protected by the noncompete clause. Oberfoell made general allegations that Kyte had personal relationships with many of Oberfoell's customers and thus possessed goodwill belonging to Oberfoell. But Oberfoell never identified any customers who he was worried about, nor did he ever introduce any evidence that Kyte had used any of Oberfoell's customer lists improperly. The court concluded that Kyte did not seem to be the "face" of the business nor was he the exclusive contact the customers had with the business. There was no evidence that any of Oberfoell's customers were concerned about Kyte leaving and no evidence that any of them followed Kyte to his new business. Therefore, Oberfoell failed to prove that the noncompete was protecting a legitimate business interest.
Oberfoell also tried to assert that his customer lists and other materials were taken by Kyte and qualified as a violation of the noncompete. The court pointed out that the customer lists weren't secret and weren't treated as secrets by Oberfoell, and so couldn't qualify as trade secrets. The other materials suffered from the same lack of confidential protection.
Finally, the noncompete also failed on the basis of reasonableness. It prohibited Kyte from competing in a radius of 150 miles for five years. The court found the 150-mile restriction to be "arbitrary," and Oberfoell produced no evidence justifying his choice of such a large radius. The five-year restriction was also unreasonable because the evidence showed Oberfoell could have replaced Kyte easily and quickly, so there was no reason to keep Kyte from competing for so long (in fact, Oberfoell apparently never hired anyone to replace Kyte, delegating his responsibilities to already-existing employees). There was no evidence that Kyte had received any extensive training that gave him an advantage in establishing his business, which took him a few months to get started.