Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission acted to approve a number of proposals that update the TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act), popularly known as the "Do Not Call" law that prohibits companies from interrupting consumers' dinner time conversations with pesky telemarketing calls. They closed a number of existing loopholes and clarified that phone companies can now block robocalls and robotexts to cell phones. The ruling also makes it easier for consumers who have previously consented to withdraw consent.
So what does this have to do with contracts? We all know how easy it is to consent to online terms. PayPal does, too. PayPal recently informed its customers that it was unilaterally amending its User Agreement. As anyone reading this blog knows, there are serious problems with unilateral modification clauses, especially in the context of wrap contracts that nobody reads. Yet, some courts have found that these clauses are enforceable (others have found they are not because they lack consideration and/or notice/assent). PayPal's recent announced modifications caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC Chief expressed concern that PayPal's prospective agreement may run afoul of federal law. The TCPA requires express written consent before any company can make annoying prerecorded telemarketing calls to consumers. The written consent, however, isn't the ridiculous version of consent that suffices as contractual consent in some courtrooms. There are certain requirements including that the agreement be "clear and conspicuous" and that the person is "not required to sign the agreement...as a condition of purchasing the property, goods, or services." In other words, it can't be a "take it or leave it" situation. Pay Pal's amended User Agreement, however, appears to contain "take-it-or-leave-it" language as it doesn't indicate how customers may refuse to consent to receive calls without having their account shut down. Furthermore, unlike contract law where blanket assent is okay, blanket consent is not okay under the FCC rules. (This blog post provides a nice overview of the issues and also notes that eBay (PayPal's soon-to-be former parent) encountered similar problems with the New York Attorney General).
PayPal's agreement is not the only reason the FCC acted last week, but as Bob Sullivan points out in this post here, it may have been the reason it acted so quickly. Expect to see an updated version of PayPal's agreement in the near future.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
We used to count on Britney Spears as the leading source for blog fodder. Move aside Britney. Uber just passed you by. We have two new Uber stories just in California alone.
First, last week the District Court for the Northern District of California issued its opinion in Mohamed v. Uber Technologies. Paul Mollica of the Employment Law Blog called that decision a "blockbuster," because it ruled Uber's arbitration agreement with its drivers unconscionable and therefore unenforceable. The opinion is very long, so we will simply bullet point the highlights. With respect to contracts entered into in 2013, the court found:
- Valid contracts were formed between plaintiffs and Uber, notwithstanding plaintiffs' claims that they never read the agreements and that doing so was "somewhat onerous";
- While Uber sought to delegate questions of enforceability to the arbiter, the court found that its attempt to do so was not "clear and unmistakable" as the contract included a provision that "any disputes, actions, claims or causes of action arising out of or in connection with this Agreement or the Uber Service or Software shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the state and federal courts located in the City and County of San Francisco, California";
- In the alternative, the agreement was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable;
- The procedural unconscionability standard of "oppression," generally assumed in form contracting, was not overcome in this instance by an opt-out clause; the opt-out was inconspicuous and perhaps illusory;
- The procedural unconscionability standard of "surprise" was also met because the arbitration provision was "hidden in [Uber's] prolix form" contract; and
- Uber's arbitration provisions are substantively unconscionable because the arbitration fees create for some plaintiffs an insuperable bar to the prosecution of their claims.
The court acknowledged that the unconscionability question was a closer question with respect of the 2014 contracts but still found them both procedurally and substantively unconscionable.
There is much more to the opinion, but that is the basic gist.
In other news, as reported in The New York Times here, the California Labor Commissioner's Office issued a ruling earlier this month in which it found that Uber drivers are employees, not independent contractors as the company claims. The (mercifully short!) ruling can be found here through the good offices of Santa Clara Law Prof, Eric Goldman (pictured).
The issue arose in the context of a driver seeking reimbursement for unpaid wages and expenses. The facts of the case are bizarre and don't seem all that crucial to the key finding of the hearing officer. Although plaintiff''s claim was dismissed on the merits, Uber has appealed, as it cannot let the finding that its drivers are employees stand.
But the finding is a real blockbuster, especially as Uber claims that similar proceedings in other states have resulted in a finding that Uber drivers are independent contractors. Here's the key language from the ruling:
Defendants hold themselves out to as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation. The reality, however, is that Defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation. Defendants vet prospective drivers . . . Drivers cannot use Defendants' application unless they pass Defendants' background and DMV checks
Defendants control the tools the drivers use . . . Defendants monitor the Transportation Drivers' approval ratings and terminate their access to the application if the rating falls below a specific level (4.6 stars).
As the Times points out, few people would choose to be independent contractors if they had the option to be employees. Our former co-blogger Meredith Miller has written about similar issues involving freelancers, and we blogged about it here. So far, it appears that five states have declared that Uber drivers are independent contractors, while Florida has joined California in finding them to be employees. For more on the implications of this ruling, you can check out this story in Forbes, featuring insights from friend of the blog, Miriam Cherry.
Monday, June 8, 2015
I wanted to follow up on Jeremy Telman's posts about two cases, Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum and Berkson v. Gogo. Both cases involved consumers and standard form contracts. Both Sprint and Gogo sought to enforce an arbitration clause in their contracts and both companies presumably wanted to do so to avoid a class action. In Andermann v. Sprint Spectrum, there was no question regarding contract formation. The contract issue in that case involved the validity of the assignment of the contract from US Cellular to Sprint. The court found that the assignment was valid and consequently, so was the arbitration clause.
In Berkson v. Gogo, on the other hand, the issue was whether there was a contract formed between the plaintiffs and Gogo. As Jeremy notes in his post, this is an important case because it so thoroughly analyzes the existing wrap contract law. It also has important implications for consumers and the future of class actions.
Many arbitration clauses preclude class actions (of any kind). Judge Posner notes in his opinion in Andermann v. Sprint Spectrun:
"It may seem odd that (Sprint) wants arbitration....But doubtless it wants arbitration because the arbitration clause disallows class arbitration. If the Andermann's claims have to be arbitrated all by themselves, they probably won't be brought at all, because the Andermanns if they prevail will be entitled only to modest statutory damages."
Judge Posner may have been troubled by this if the facts were different. The Andermanns are claiming that Sprint's calls to them are unsolicited advertisements that violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but Sprint needed to inform them that their service would be terminated because U.S. Cellular's phones were incompatible with Sprint's network. How else would they be able to contact their customers whose service would soon be terminated, Posner rhetorically asks, "Post on highway billboards or subway advertisements?....Post the messages in the ad sections of newspapers? In television commercials?" Sprint's conduct here "likely falls" within an exception to the law and hence, Posner notes "the claims are unlikely to prevail."
It's a different situation in Berkson v. Gogo. In that case, Gogo is allegedly charging consumers' credit cards on a monthly recurring basis without their knowledge. The plaintiffs were consumers who signed up to use Gogo's Wi-Fi service on an airplane, thinking it was only for one month. When Welsh, one of the plaintiffs, noticed the recurring charges, he was given a "partial refund." Welsh then hired a lawyer. Welsh's lawyer sent Gogo a letter notifying the company of the intent to file a class action lawsuit if it did not correct its practices and notify everyone who might have been charged in this manner. Gogo then allegedly sent a refund check directly to Welsh, not his lawyer (which would violate the rule not to directly contact someone represented by counsel). When Berkson, another plaintiff, noticed the charges and complained, the charges stopped; however, when he requested a refund for the period he was charged for the service but did not use it, the company allegedly refused.
I think that most people would agree that, if the facts alleged are true, Gogo likely violated consumer protection statutes. It also acted poorly by making it so hard to get a refund. Companies should not be permitted to act like this and consumers shouldn't have to threaten class action lawsuits to get their money back. (Gogo doesn't seem to dispute that they were charged during months they did not use the service).
This is where contract formation becomes so important. The class action in Berkson v. Gogo was allowed to proceed because the court found that there was no valid contract formation.
If there was a contract formed between Gogo and the plaintiffs, the arbitration clause would likely have been effective. (I say "would likely have been" because it wasn't even included until after Berkson signed up for the service. But let's put that aside for now and continue....). The arbitration clause - you guessed it - contained the following clause:
"To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, NO ARBITRATION OR OTHER CLAIM UNDER THIS AGREEMENT SHALL BE JOINED TO ANY OTHER ARBITRATION OR CLAIM, INCLUDING ANY ARBITRATION OR CLAIM INVOLVING ANY OTHER CURRENT OR FORMER USER OF THE SITE OR THE SERVICES, AND NO CLASS ARBITRATION PROCEEDINGS SHALL BE PERMITTED. In the event that this CLASS ACTION WAIVER is deemed unenforceable, then any putative class action may only proceed in a court of competent jurisdiction and not in arbitration.
WE BOTH AGREE THAT, WHETHER ANY CLAIM IS IN ARBITRATION OR IN COURT, YOU AND GOGO BOTH WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO A JURY TRIAL INVOLVING ANY CLAIMS OR DISPUTES BETWEEN US."
Now, under the recent line of federal cases (AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, American Express v. Italian Colors, etc) interpreting the FAA, if a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, an arbitrator pretty much decides everything unless (1) the arbitration agreement is unconscionable; or (2) the agreement to arbitrate was never formed
Regarding (1), this doesn't mean that a court may determine whether any other contract provision was unconscionable - only the arbitration clause. So, if there's another clause that you want to argue is unconscionable -- let's say a recurring billing provision that is not conspicuous just as a random example -- you have to take that to the arbitrator. Furthermore, it's much harder now (after the line of US Supreme cases noted above) to argue that an arbitration clause is unconscionable. While many state courts had previously found mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers unconscionable, they may no longer find them unconscionable just because they impose arbitration. In other words, in order to be found unconscionable, the arbitration clauses have to be one-sided (i.e. only the consumer has to arbitrate) or impose hefty filing fees, etc. This, as I mentioned in a prior post, is why so many of these clauses contain opt-out provisions. Gogo's arbitration clause also contained an opt-out provision. But, as readers of this blog know, NOBODY reads wrap contract terms and I would be surprised if anyone opted out. The clause was also in capitalized letters and so would be conspicuous -- if only anyone clicked on the link and scrolled down to see it.
This is why Judge Weinstein's opinion is so important -he recognizes the burden that wrap contracts place on consumers:
"It is not unreasonable to assume that there is a difference between paper and electronic contracting....In the absence of contrary proof, it can be assumed that the burden should be on the offeror to impress upon the offeree -- i.e., the average internet user - the importance of the details of the binding contract being entered into...The burden should include the duty to explain the relevance of the critical terms governing the offeree's substantive rights contained in the contract."
If a contract contains a mandatory arbitration clause, a consumer who has been wronged and wants to argue that a standard form contract is unconscionable, would probably have to take it to an arbitrator unless there was no agreement to arbitrate in the first place. If there was no agreement formed at all, that would mean no agreement to arbitrate.
This is why it is so important not to find contract formation so easily and expect unconscionability to do all the heavy lifting of consumer protection. An arbitrator very well might do a good job - but we don't know that because an arbitration is a closed hearing. Arbitrators also don't go through the rigorous screening process that judges go through (both elected and appointed judges are thoroughly scrutinized). Furthermore, arbitral decsions are not generally made public, and so arbitration doesn't help with providing guidelines for acceptable business behavior. Judge Posner notes in his opinion, "It's not clear that arbitration, which can be expensive...and which fails to create precedents to guide the resolution of future disputes, should be preferred to litigation." Furthermore, if the arbitration clause contains a "no class" provision, it also forces a consumer to face a company's intimidating attorneys all alone ((because no lawyer is taking this type of case on a contingency basis and no consumer is going to pay a lawyer to attend this type of arbitration).
Berkson v. Gogo is notable for recognizing that website design and contract presentation matter in determining contract formation. Not every click is perceived the same way by consumers -- scrollwraps (where scrolling is required to read through all the terms) provides more notice than a "sign-in-wrap" which is merely a hyperlink next to a SIGN UP button. The reality is that nobody clicks on the Terms hyperlink with a sign-in wrap. As Judge Weinstein notes:
"The starting point of analysis must be the method through which an electronic contract of adhesion is formed. The inquiry does not begin, as defendants argue, with the content of the provisions themselves."
There are some who think that there's no harm in finding contract formation so easily because courts and the doctrine of unconscionability will protect consumers from really bad contract terms. They should think again. Mandatory arbitration clauses affect consumers' ability to seek redress which is why we should start taking contract formation seriously.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
In an 83-page memorandum and order of the case, available here, Judge Weinstein denied all three parts of Gogo's motion. Judge Weinstein identifies three policy questions raised by the suit. We are most interested in the first:
[H]ow should courts deal with hybrid versions of “browsewrap” and “clickwrap” electronic contracts of adhesion (referred to in this memorandum as “sign-in-wraps”) that do not provide internet users with a compelling reason to examine terms favoring defendants?
We note in passing that in defining his terms and throughout the opinion, Judge Weinstein relies on Nancy Kim's book, Wrap Contracts. He also takes note of other excellent work by scholars whose work has been featured on this blog, such as Oren Bar-Gill, Woodrow Hartzog Juliet Moringiello and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, among others.
After a truly impressive survey of the caselaw and the scholarly literature, Judge Weinstein emerges with some general principles:
A hearing on class standing is scheduled for July. Stay tuned.
Monday, June 1, 2015
ARBITRATION NOTICE: EXCEPT IF YOU OPT-OUT AND EXCEPT FOR CERTAIN TYPES OF DISPUTES DESCRIBED IN THE ARBITRATION SECTION BELOW, YOU AGREE THAT DISPUTES BETWEEN YOU AND INSTAGRAM WILL BE RESOLVED BY BINDING, INDIVIDUAL ARBITRATION AND YOU WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO PARTICIPATE IN A CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT OR CLASS-WIDE ARBITRATION.
(Side note - I found it rather lazy for Instagram not to include section numbers in its TOU. One of the reasons to have an opt-out provision is to guard against claims of unconscionability as in Hey, they had a choice! They could have opted out! It doesn't make sense then to make the user scroll through the entire agreement and try to find the arbitration clause instead of just referring to it).
The arbitration clause itself permits the user to opt-out "within 30 days of the date that you first became subject to this arbitration provision." Furthermore, the user has to provide written notice and send it to Instagram's offices.
Of course, very few users will opt-out. First of all, very few people read TOU. Second, a lot of people don't know what arbitration is so they don't know to opt-out. Finally, Instagram puts a "hurdle" in the user's way - they have to send a written notice. The last time I had to mail a card, it took me several days. I had to find an envelope, for one thing. Then I had to find some stamps. I don't even know where the post office is near my house and when I asked the cashier at the grocery store, he looked at me as though I were Rip Van Winkle --stamps?
Contrast the written notice requirement to opt-out with how Instagram updates its TOU:
"You agree that we may notify you of the Updated Terms by posting them on the Service, and that your use of the Service after the effective date of the Updated Terms (or engaging in such other conduct as we may reasonably specify) constitutes your agreement to the Updated Terms."
So, Instagram only has to post changes to its website but the user has to mail a notice to its headquarters in order to opt-out of arbitration? Why not have all notices be effective if sent via email? Maybe because some people might actually choose to opt-out of arbitration then.
Instagram's opt-out clause is not unusual - in fact, it's quite common. The CFPB recently issued its report on the use of arbitration clauses . It found that a fair number of banking and credit card agreements contained provisions allowing consumers to opt-out of arbitration clauses but that very few consumers chose to opt-out. There were a number of other interesting findings and the report is well worth reading although the report is rather long. Professor Jean Sternlight of University of Nevada - Las Vegas summarized some of the key findings here.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
We have previously blogged about “sharing economy” short-term rental company Airbnb at various times here. Time for an update: The City of Santa Monica, California, just passed an ordinance that prohibits property owners and residents from renting out their places unless they remain on the property themselves. This is estimated to prohibit no less than 80% of Airbnb’s Santa Monica listings (1,400 would be banned).
The city plans to spend $410,000 in the first year to enforce the rule using three new full-time employees. Violators may be fined by up to $500. However, because Airbnb does not list addresses, staff will have to look at photos of the properties and drive around the city streets to try to identify the violators. Doing so sounds awfully invasive and awkward, but that is nonetheless the plan. Adds Assistant Planning Director Salvador Valles: “We can issue citations just based on the advertisement alone when we're using our business regulations.” Other major cities are also trying to crack down on short-term rentals.
But why, you ask? Good question. In times when, as I have blogged about before and as is common knowledge, medium- and low-income earners are falling behind higher-income earners to a somewhat alarming extent, you would think the government could let people earn some additional money on what is, after all, their own property. Cities, however, claim that short-term rentals drive up the rental prices by cutting into the number of residences that are available for long-term rentals. “Even a study commissioned by Airbnb itself earlier this year found that Airbnb increases the price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco by an average of $19 a month.” Traffic concerns are also often mentioned in this context as are potential tax avoidance issues, although Airbnb has now started to deduct taxes from rental fees before transferring these to the landlords.
Airbnb’s end goal? To go IPO. The goal for at least some landlords? Eighty-year-old Arlene Rosenblatt, for example, rents out her home in Santa Monica whenever she and her husband leave town to visit their seven grandchildren. She charges anywhere from $115 to $220 a night for her home, listing it on Airbnb and other sites and thus earning as much as $20,000 a year. "I'm a retired schoolteacher," Rosenblatt says. "We don't get a lot of retirement income. My husband, all he has is his Social Security."
Time will tell what happens in this latest clash between private property and contractual rights and government regulations.
Monday, May 11, 2015
According to Philadelphia Magazine, two men who paid to watch the Mayweather-Paaquiano fight on pay-per-view are suing on behalf of a class of viewers who did not get their money's worth because Paquino had an undisclosed shoulder injury. The suit claims damages for breach of contract, fraud conspiracy and violation of consumer protection laws. Viewers paid between $89 and $100 to watch the fight. The suit alleges that the fight should have been cancelled or postponed.
The LA Times reports that a group of students who contracted Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that causes painful skin ulcers, while on a trip to Israel are suing the trip's organizers for failing to take adequate precautions to protect the students. The illness is allegedly caused by sand fly bites. The suit names the North American Federation of Temple Youth and the Union for Reform Judaism as defendants. It alleges that the organizations failed to take precautions such as providing the students with insecticides or insect netting and that the organizations provided the students with bug-infested bedding.
The LA Times also reports on a new trend on the hot, new social media: suing your co-founder. The report suggests that combining handshake deals undertaken in college dormitories, coupled with youthful hasted makes for a dangerous mix. We are all familiar with the strife among the founders of Facebook, but it turns out that Snapchat, Tinder, Maker Studios and Beats Electronics have all also experienced co-founder difficulties sounding in allegations of breaches of founders' agreements.
Monday, April 27, 2015
If it were up to General Motors, it may soon be illegal for you to tinker with your own car. That’s because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), an Act that started as anti-piracy legislation about a decade ago, now also protects coding and software in a range of products more broadly. Your car is one such product if it, as many cars do nowadays, it has an onboard computer. Vehicle makers promotes two arguments in their favor: first, that it could be dangerous and even malicious to alter a car’s software programming. Second, per the tractor maker John Deere, that “letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system.” “Will”?! As the Yahoo article mentioning this story smartly pointed out, “[t]hat’s right— pirating music. Through a tractor.”
Isn’t that an example of a company getting a little too excited over its own products? Or am I just an incurable city girl (although one that occasionally likes country music)? Judging from the lyrics to a recent Kenny Chesney hit (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy"), I see that opinions differ in this respect. To each her own.
Hat tip to Professor Daniel D. Barnhizer of the AALS listserve for sharing this story.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Back in 2013, we mused about the seeming disconnect between public outrage at NSA data mining and the lack of comparable outrage with respect to private data mining. Nancy Kim and I have been writing in this area, and a recent report in the ABA Journal provides additional fodder for our scholarship.
One of the things that makes television's "smart" these days is that they have the ability to respond to voice commands. If you have this feature on, the television transmits your information to a third party, according to Samsung. If you turn the voice recognition feature off, your television still gathers the data but it does not transmit it.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Earlier this month, the Contracts sections hosted a program on Contracts, Technology and Legal Gaps. We had an excellent line-up of expert panelists: Eric Goldman (Santa Clara), Woodrow Hartzog (Samford), Corynne McSherry (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Jane Winn (U. of Washington) and Deborah Zalesne (CUNY). For those of you who were unable to attend, the podcast for the program is now available here.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Last month, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a by-now famous lawsuit against the 22-year-old computer specialist who created the website Skiplagged.com. This website helps consumers find the cheapest round-trip airfare possible by buying tickets to a destination to which the traveler does not actually intend to travel, but instead getting off at a layover point which is the truly intended destination and discarding the last portion of the ticket. Roundtrip tickets to certain popular destinations are often much cheaper than to other destinations sought by fewer passengers even though the more popular destinations are further away from one’s point of origin.
To not cause the airline and other passengers undue trouble and delays, this practice, of course, requires not checking in luggage which, it seems, fewer and fewer travelers do anyway (next time you fly, notice the rush to get on board first with suitcases often much bigger than officially allowed and airline personnel deliberately ignoring this for reasons of “competition”).
The cause of action for this lawsuit? “Unfair competition,” and breach of contract because of “strictly prohibited travel,” and tortuous interference with contract.
Unfair competition? I admit that I have not yet read the rather long complaint, but I look forward to doing so very soon. At first blush, however, how can “unfair” can it really be to assist consumers in finding airfare that they want at the best prices available? United Airlines recognizes that there is a discrepancy between its prices to very popular destinations and others on the way, but claims [cite] that if many people “take advantage” of that price differential, it could “hurt the airlines.” Come again? Does it really matter that a customer – with no checked-in luggage – pays whatever price the airline itself has set but simply decides not to use up the entire item purchased? Doesn’t that simply let the airline save gas and potentially give the empty seat to potential stand-by customers? Does it matter to a newspaper that I choose to not read the sports pages? Must I eat the heal of my bread even though I don't like it? What if I really don't like my bread and would rather eat a donut instead, as I thought might be the case?
The issue of breach of contract is arguably a closer one. If airlines “strictly prohibit” the practice of only using part of a ticket, it may be promissory fraud to buy a ticket if one intends at the time of purchase to only use part of it. This could also relate to the purchase of a round-trip ticket only to use it one-way as that too is often cheaper than a one-way ticket, as Justice Scalia found out himself recently.
The Skiplagged.com creator argues that he is only taking advantage of “inefficiencies” in airline travel that travelers have known about for a long time. To me, it seems that airline contracting should work both ways as other types of contracting: airlines take advantage of their bargaining positions as well as their sophisticated knowledge of current and future air travel supply and demand structures. They should do so! I applaud them for that. Jet travel has certainly made my personal and professional life much better than without relatively cheap air travel. But every first year contracts law student also knows (or should know!) that contracting is not and should not be a one-way street. Consumers too are getting more and more sophisticated when it comes to airline travel and other types of online contracting. Websites enable us to inform ourselves about what we wish to spend our money on. As long as consumers do not break the laws or violate established contracting principles, that does not strike me as “unfair competition,” that is simply informed consumerism in a modern capitalist society from which airlines and others have already benefited greatly.
Airlines, wake up: how about working with your customers instead of trying to fight them and modern purchasing trends? How’s this for a thought: start offering one-way tickets for about half of a round-trip ticket just like other transportation vendors (trains, buses, subways) do. Don’t you think that could set you apart from your competition and thus even earn you more customers? If you can fly for a certain amount of money to a certain city, let people pay that only and then simply sell a second ticket for the remaining leg to the more popular end destination where the same plane is headed anyway. Let people off the bus if they want to! Let some one else on instead. It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out how to work with current purchasing trends and your customers instead of resisting the inevitable.
For another grotesquely inappropriate lawsuit by United Airlines against its own customer, see Jeremy’s blog here.
I will blog more on this issue over the days to come. For now, I’m glad I don’t have to head to an airport. Happy New Year!
Monday, December 22, 2014
After years of conducting research on the genes of various animals, George Doe (a pseudonym), an accomplished biologist with a PhD in cellular and molecular biology, decides to have his own genes examined for fun and to discover whether he may be genetically predisposed to cancer. He buys a test kit online from one the many companies that provide such services these days. He is so excited about the process that he also buys a kit for his mother and father as gifts. They all have their genes tested. George finds out that he is not predisposed to cancer. But that’s not it. He also finds out that another male who has had his own genes tested and is thus registered with the same company is “50% related” to George. This can only mean one of three things: this other male is George’s grandfather, uncle or … half brother. After intense and testy family discussions, George’s father apparently admits that he had fathered this other male before marrying George's mother. George’s parents are now divorced and the entire family torn apart with no one talking to each other.
A very sad affair. Of course, nothing appears to be contractually wrong with this case: at the bottom of one’s profile with www.23andme.com, the company that provided the tests in this case, George and his family had checked a small box indicating for them to do so “if you want to see close family members in this search program.” The company is said to have close to one million people in its database. With modern science, close family members can easily be identified out of such data if opting into being notified.
Here, the company does not appear to have done anything wrong legally. Quite the opposite: if anything, the above shows that the buyers in these situations may not be sufficiently mentally prepared for the information they may discover through DNA testing. Arguably, they should be. After all, the old adage “watch out what you ask for, you may get it” still rings true.
But isn’t this situation akin to the various other situations we have blogged a lot about here this past year where customers buy various items online and click – or not – on various buttons, thus signaling at least alleged acceptance of, for example, terms of service requiring arbitration instead of lawsuits in case of disputes? As I have argued, many people probably just clicks such buttons without fully realizing what the legal or, in cases such as the above, factual results may be. Should online vendors be required either legally to make such check boxes or other online indicia of acceptance a lot more obvious? Or should they at least be required to do so for reasons of business ethics?
I think so. Most working people are exceptionally busy these days. Frankly, not many of us take the time to scrutinize the various implications - legal or otherwise – of the purchases we make online, especially because the agreements we accept in cyberspace are presented so very differently online, yet are so deceptively similar in legal nature that we probably feel pretty comfortable with simply clicking “I accept” as the vast majority of such transactions present no or only minor problems for us? And aren’t the vendors the party with the very best knowledge of some, if not most, of the problems that arise in these contexts? How hard would it really be for them to make sure that they use all the “bells and whistles” to truly put people on notice of what typical problems encountered may be, exactly to avoid legal problems down the road? One would think so, although, of course, customers also carry some of the burden of educating ourselves about what we buy and what that may mean. This is perhaps especially so when such delicate issues as the above are involved.
For George Doe, the above unfortunately turned out to be much more of a curse that kept on giving instead of a gift that kept on giving.
On behalf of your blogging team here at ContractsProfs Blog: Happy Holidays!
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
In what seemed an inevitable turn of events, the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys filed a consumer protection lawsuit on 12/9/2010 against Uber for making false and misleading statements about Uber’s background checks of its drivers. George Gascon, the district attorney for San Francisco, calls these checks “completely worthless” because Uber does not fingerprint its drivers. Uber successfully fought state legislation that would have subjected the company’s drivers to the same rules as those required of taxi drivers. Allegedly, Uber has also defrauded its customers for charging its passengers an “airport fee toll” even though no tolls were paid for rides to and from SFO, and charging a “$1 safe ride fee” for Uber’s background check process. California laws up to $2,500 per violation. There are “tens of thousands” of alleged violations by Uber. However, even that will likely put only a small dent in Uber’s economy as it is now valued at $40 billion (yes, with a “b”).
Lyft has settled in relation to similar charges and has agreed to submit information to the state to verify the accuracy of its fares (although not its background checks). It has also agreed to stop picking up passengers at airports until it has obtained necessary permits. Prosecutors are continuing talks with Sidecar.
Time will tell what prosecutors around the nation decide to do against these and similar start-ups such as airbnb and vrbo.com, which are also said to bend or outright ignore existing rules.
The Los Angeles Times comments that the so-called “sharing economy” companies face growing pains that “start-ups in the past didn’t – dealing with municipalities around the world, each with their own local, regional and countrywide laws.” It is hard to feel too sorry for the start-ups on this account. First, all companies obviously have to observe the law, whether a start-up or not. Today’s regulations may or may not be more complex than what start-ups have had to deal with before. However, these companies should not be unfamiliar with complex modern-day challenges as that is precisely what they benefit from themselves, albeit in a more technological way. Finally, there is something these companies can do about the legal complexity they face: hire savvy attorneys! There are enough of them out there who can help out. But perhaps these companies don’t care to “share” their profits all that much? One has to wonder. Sometimes, it seems that technological innovation and building up companies as fast as possible takes priority over observing the law.
Friday, December 5, 2014
In today’s “sharing economy,” more and more private individuals attempt to earn some (additional) money in untraditional ways such as selling various things on eBay, driving cars for alternative passenger transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, and providing lodging in private homes on sites such as airbnb. Not only do these services raise many regulatory, licensing, insurance zoning and other issues, they also present a real risk to many hopeful 1099 workers who – as the relevant companies themselves – can vastly misjudge the potential of new attempted products or services.
Take, for example, Lyft drivers. In May, the shared ride company introduced luxury rides via its Lyft Plus program. At least in San Francisco, the drivers had to pay $34,000 out of their own pockets for the large, “loaded” Ford Explorers required by Lyft for drivers to participate in the program. The idea was that passengers would pay twice the normal Lynx rate to get the extra space and perceived luxury of being whisked around town in a large SUV. A bit behind the curve, you think? Indeed. The program was an instantaneous fiasco in San Francisco (the company still advertises the program, but at “only” 1.5 times the price of a regular ride and touting the program as having space enough for six people). Soon, drivers were back to simply getting regular rides– often just at $5 or $6 – just to stay busy. This is obviously not viable in a city with expensive gasoline and cars that get only around $14 miles per gallon, not to mention the purchase price of the new SUVs.
Responding to drivers’ initial concerns, Lyft had promised that they should “not worry about demand, we have that covered.” Realizing that many of its drivers were upset about being stuck with a huge, new gas guzzler without a realistic return on investment, Lyft has offered their Plus drivers help selling the SUVs or a $10,000 bonus… subject to income tax, no less. None of these options, of course, will bring the drivers back to the pre-contractual position. Some drivers admitted to having borrowed money from family members, selling existing cars, even “forgoing other job opportunities for the chance to make more money with Lyft Plus.”
A sad story all the way around. Companies are continually trying to introduce new products and services to find the next “big thing.” This, of course, is laudable, but not so much so when they seemingly cross the line and make unfounded promises to the less savvy or financially strong. Of course, this also does not mean that workers or customers should not exercise a hefty dose of “caveat emptor” in connections such as this, but it is a somewhat concerning aspect of today’s sharing economy that failed product launches can simply be shared with “smaller fish” with less bargaining power and, apparently, a dangerously high risk-willingness bordering desperation in trying to make a dollar in these financially tough times. Whether in this case, the promise that the demand was “covered” could be a contractual misrepresentation or whether it was simply puffery is another story best left to another forum.
Friday, October 31, 2014
A few weeks ago, we blogged here about how some businesses may pay customers to remove negative reviews from sites such as TripAdvisor.
The blog raised the question of just how reliable online reviews are given this practice and, potentially, the business itself (or friends/family) posting numerous positive reviews, thus making for an entirely fake overall review.
Here’s a twist on that: Yelp will actually remove posts without notifying either the reviewed business or the review poster if the latter has not posted enough other reviews on Yelp. Of course, Yelp decides just how many other reviews are “enough.”
This happened recently to my husband, who is an extremely busy IT professional, but who nevertheless got such a good experience from a small local business that he took the time to post a for him rare review of the business with pictures of the product we had bought. A few days later, the business owner contacted him to ask why he had taken the review down again. He had not, but Yelp had for the above reason.
Of course, Yelp probably wants to avoid the occasional rage posting or an overly rosy review. However, the above practice seems unethical and unreasonable. Review sites will by nature have both good and bad reviews. Yelp has chosen to believe that if a person only posts one thing, it must by definition by unreliable as being too far on either end of the spectrum. However, the truth of the matter is that a lot of busy professionals do not have the time for or interest in posting a large amount of reviews. That, of course, does not make an occasional review unreliable, perhaps quite the opposite: if you don’t post a lot of views, the ones you do must reflect truly good or bad experiences.
Not only does Yelp waste reviewer’s time like this, but it does not even explain this policy on its guidelines section of its website.
A healthy dose of skepticism towards review websites seems warranted, which probably does not surprise too many of us.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Conversely, given the above and similar confusion, why in the world wouldn’t companies simply use an “I agree” box to be on the safe side? Even after the case came out, the Barnes and Noble website does, granted, not feature its “TOS” hyperlink as conspicuously as other links on its website and certainly not as obviously as one would have thought the company would have learned to do after the case (see very bottom left-hand corner of website).
What is more, normally a failure to read a contract before agreeing to its terms does not relieve a party of its obligations under the contract. In the case, however, the court said that in online cases, “the onus must be on website owners to put users on notice of the terms to which they wish to bind consumers … they cannot be expected to ferret out hyperlinks to terms and conditions to which they have no reason to suspect they will be bound.” This is similar to a case we blogged about here.
However, it would probably be hard to find an online shopper in today’s world who would truly not expect that somewhere on the website, there is likely a link with terms that the corporation will seek to enforce. The duty to read should arguably be extended to reading websites carefully as well. Another medium is at stake than the paper contracts of yesteryear, but that doesn’t necessarily change the contents. But that is not the law in the Ninth Circuit as it stands today, as evidenced by this case, which unfortunately fails to clarify exactly what the courts think would be enough to constitute constructive notice. So for now, “something more” is the standard. Perhaps this is an issue of “millenials” versus a slightly older generation to which some of the judges deciding these cases belong.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
As we learned from reading Michelle Meyer on The Faculty Lounge today, Facebook has issued a Press Release on Research at Facebook. As we discussed previously here, Internet-based companies have decided that they will self-regulate their own research programs. Here are the highlights:
- Guidelines: we’ve given researchers clearer guidelines. If proposed work is focused on studying particular groups or populations (such as people of a certain age) or if it relates to content that may be considered deeply personal (such as emotions) it will go through an enhanced review process before research can begin. The guidelines also require further review if the work involves a collaboration with someone in the academic community.
- Review: we’ve created a panel including our most senior subject-area researchers, along with people from our engineering, research, legal, privacy and policy teams, that will review projects falling within these guidelines. This is in addition to our existing privacy cross-functional review for products and research.
- Training: we’ve incorporated education on our research practices into Facebook’s six-week training program, called bootcamp, that new engineers go through, as well as training for others doing research. We’ll also include a section on research in the annual privacy and security training that is required of everyone at Facebook.
- Research website: our published academic research is now available at a single location and will be updated regularly.
Based on the New York Times article we cited in our last post on this subject, we hoped that Internet companies would at least subject research designs to outside review. It looks like Facebook's review process is going to be entirely in-house.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Last week, I was sitting in a waiting room while awaiting an oil change. CNN was on (too loudly and inescapably for my tastes, but I know my tastes are idiosyncratic). In urgent tones, the anchors repeatedly warned us that they had disturbing and graphic video that we might not want to watch. And then they played it. And then they played it again. They played it at actual speed; they played it in slow motion. They dissected it and discussed it, with experts and authorities, between commercial breaks and digressions into other "news," for the entire time I waited for the mechanics to finish with my car. It took over an hour, but that's another story . . .
The video showed a now-former NFL player hit a woman in an elevator, knocking her unconscious. The woman was his fiancee, Janay Palmer, and she is now his wife. What are we to conclude based on the grainy images that we watch because we can't bring ourselves to look away? My first conclusion is that Janay Palmer would not want us to be watching. My more tentative conclusion would be that every time we watch that video, we add to her humiliation and degradation.
At what point did Ms. Palmer give her consent to be videotaped, and at what point did she give consent to have this videotape used in this manner? Let's assume that the surveillance video had a useful purpose -- policing the premises to create a record in case a crime was committed. Let's also assume that we all are aware that when we are in public spaces, we know that video cameras might be present. If this video tape were shared with the police and used to prosecute a criminal, I think there would be strong arguments that Ms. Palmer gave implicit consent for the use of the surveillance video for such purposes. But how did the tape get to TMZ and then on to CNN? Did somebody profit from trafficking in the market for mass voyeurism?
It may be that we think that her consent is not required. We all know that we can be digitally recorded whenever we appear in public. That's just life in the big city in the 21st century. But perhaps we think that because we suffer from heuristic biases and believe that we and people we care about will never end up being the one being shown degraded and humiliated over and over again on national television and the Internet. Perhaps if we were less blinkered by such biases we would not ask whether Ms. Palmer has a right not to be associated with those grainy elevator-camera images. We would ask whether we have any right to view them.
Friday, September 12, 2014
When he famously wrote 100 years ago, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” Justice Louis Brandeis began a century of disclosure law. How do we protect borrowers and investors? Disclosure! How do we help patients choose safe treatments and good health plans? Disclosure! How do we regulate websites’ privacy policies? Disclosure!
In area after area, mandated disclosure is lawmakers’ favorite way to protect people facing unfamiliar challenges. Truth in lending laws, informed consent, food labeling, conflicts-of-interests regulation, even Miranda warnings, all arose because lawmakers rightly worried that uninformed and inexperienced people might make disastrous choices.
Brandeis was wrong. True, these laws have a worthy goal – equipping us to make better decisions. But in sector after sector, studies steadily show that mandated disclosure has been almost as useless as it is ubiquitous. Financial crises have bred mandates for decades — the Securities Act of 1933, truth-in-lending laws in the 60s and 70s, Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002, and, after the 2008 crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act. But each new crisis occurred despite the old elaborate disclosure requirements.
In our new book MORE THAN YOU WANTED TO KNOW: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, we explain that mandated disclosure has become the regulatory default. It is politically easy for legislatures and convenient for courts.
Sunlight doesn’t disinfect because mandated disclosure is so ill-suited to address the problems it faces – and, in fact, can do more harm than good. Consider one of the most heroic efforts to get disclosure right. “Know Before You Owe” is a new regulation issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency responsible to reform consumer credit markets. The Bureau recognized that people took bad mortgages because they misunderstood the terms. To prevent this, the Bureau heeded the Dodd-Frank mandate to promote “comprehension, comparison, and choice.” After much intelligent work, the Bureau has a new, simpler form that has done well in laboratory tests:
Gone are the tiny fonts and the overloaded lines of the old form (on right). The new form (on left) is a masterpiece of design, declaring the dawn of a new era of smart and simplified disclosure, designed by lawmakers schooled in decision sciences and cost-benefit analysis.
But mortgage disclosure has to work in the bank, not in the regulators’ lab. When borrowers arrive at a real-world loan closing, they will get the Bureau’s new form and almost 50 other disclosure forms about issues like insurance, taxation, privacy, security, fraud, and constitutional rights. The new form is part of a stack more than 100 pages high, courtesy of many laws from many lawmakers over many years. Nobody plows through all this. And no single agency has the authority to pare down the stack.
Despite failures, disclosures are growing in number and in length. In health care, informed consent sheets now look like the fine print web users click “I Agree” to, thoughtlessly. Just reviewing the privacy disclosures received in one year would take a well-educated fast reader 76 work days, for a national total of over 50 billion hours and a cost in readers’ time greater than Florida’s GDP. In banking law, to describe the many fees in a garden variety checking account, the average disclosure is twice as long (and quite as dismaying) as Romeo and Juliet (111 pages).
In internet commerce, if you want to buy an iTunes song you are told (as the law requires) to click the agreement to the disclosed terms. Do you read before clicking? Of course not. Florencia Marotta-Wurgler and co-authors have showed that only one in a thousand software shoppers spend even one second on the terms page. And if you do print out the iTunes terms, you confront 32 feet of print in 8-point font (See Ben-Shahar’s photo with the iTunes Scroll below). Hard as you read, you can’t understand the words, what the clauses mean, or why they matter.
What about simplifying with just a few scores or letters, like A, B, and C grades for restaurant hygiene? Alas, boiling complex data down to a manageable form usually eliminates or distorts relevant factors. So a recent study by Daniel Ho at Stanford found that the volatility of restaurant cleanliness and the discretion given to inspectors make hygiene scores unreliable and even misleading – and do not detectably help public health. There is almost no evidence that the simplest of all scores – the loan’s APR – has helped people make better loan decisions, and there is plenty of evidence that it didn’t.
If disclosures are so futile, why do lawmakers keep mandating them? Because disclosure mandates look like easy solutions to hard problems. When crises occur, lawmakers must act. Regulation with bite provokes bitter battles (often stalemate); mandated disclosure wins sweet accord (near unanimity). Mandated disclosure appeals to both liberals (personal autonomy and transparency) and conservatives (efficient markets). And as one financier admitted, "I would rather disclose than be regulated."
But disclosures are not just inept. They can be harmful. Disclosure mandates spare lawmakers the pain of enacting more effective but less popular reforms. Disclosures help firms avoid liability, even when they act deceptively or dangerously. Disclosures can be inequitable, for complex language is likelier to be understood by those who are highly educated and to overwhelm and confuse those who aren’t. Mandated disclosures can crowd out better information (time spent “consenting” patients cannot be spent treating them).
We are often asked what should replace mandated disclosure. If it does not work, little is lost in abandoning it. And if it cannot work, the rational response is not to search for another (doomed) panacea, but to bite the bullet and ask which social problems actually require regulation and what regulation might actually lessen the problem. We do not envy lawmakers the hard work of helping people cope with the modern consumer’s life. But persisting in mandating disclosures is, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience.
Ben-Shahar is Leo and Eileen Herzel Professor of Law, University of Chicago.
Schneider is the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Law and Professor of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan.