Wednesday, November 4, 2020
One of the things that the current pandemic emphasizes is the importance of prevention. As Benjamin Franklin remarked a long time ago, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While Franklin had fire prevention in mind, and while the pandemic brings to mind the context of health, this maxim is true in many other walks of life.
We all teach our contract law students the core principles of ‘meeting of minds’ and ‘assent.’ We explain that contracts reflect the preferences and desires of the contracting parties. At the same time, we acknowledge that consumer contracting realities misalign with these fundamental assumptions (here’s a humorous take on that). We realize that consumers cannot be expected to read these lengthy and unreadable contracts. We are aware that they in fact don’t. We also know that these contracts often contain one-sided, if not plainly illegal and unenforceable, contract terms. Yet, we pretend that contract law can somehow efficiently deal with consumer form contracts.
The American approach to consumer form contracts is a bit puzzling. In many other countries and jurisdictions – including the UK, the EU, Australia, New Zealand and Israel – there are specific, detailed laws and regulations pertaining to unfair terms in consumer contracts. But not so much in the U.S. As a result, a great deal of the burden of disciplining unscrupulous firms falls on consumers and courts.
But those institutions cannot do so effectively, because consumers are not sufficiently motivated to litigate unfair contract terms. The small money typically involved in consumer transactions, the costs of litigation, the fear of unequal bargaining power, and the common belief in the validity and enforceability of consumer contracts, all suggest that most consumers will not successfully challenge exploitative boilerplate. In the current environment, even if consumers wanted to litigate, they would probably be prevented from doing so by an arbitration clause that would block their access to the judicial system and by a class action waiver that would deprive them of the ability to sue as a class.
Furthermore, even if consumers do litigate unfair terms, courts are not well-positioned to police such terms using the unconscionability doctrine. The doctrine requires terms to be so biased as to “shock the conscience of the court,” thus excluding many one-sided terms that might not reach this threshold. Furthermore, the doctrine can generally be used only as a shield, not as a sword. Since unconscionability is a vague legal norm (rather than a well-defined rule) with no clear legislative guiding principles, courts have very little guidance in designing its boundaries. All in all, and as Arthur Leff noted decades ago: “One cannot think of a more expensive way and frustrating course than to seek to regulate…‘contract’ quality through repeated lawsuits against inventive ‘wrongdoers.’”
Against this somewhat gloomy reality, we suggest taking prevention more seriously. According to the model we envisage, administrative agencies will be empowered to oversee the content of consumer form contracts and tackle any kind of exploitation – be it in the form of unfair, unconscionable, or illegal terms. The agencies (at the federal and state levels) will focus on the markets or contracts where contractual exploitation is most frequent and severe. They will be authorized to negotiate suspect terms with the relevant firms, ensure any exploitation is removed at the macro level, and enforce their decisions using either consent orders or administrative (or judicial) orders.
We believe that the time is right to consider a supplementary tool in the form of ex ante administrative enforcement. To be sure, implementing such a mechanism entails serious practical and political challenges. These may pertain to institutional capacity, budgeting, legitimacy, regulatory capture and the need to analyze complex markets and contracts. But while not a panacea, such a regime has the promise of shifting the burden of confronting exploitation in consumer contracts from a feeble and ineffective system of private enforcement to a sophisticated and robust system of public oversight.
This post is based on our working paper, Taking Boilerplate Seriously: Tackling Exploitation in Consumer Contracts, available here. Any comments or suggestions are most welcome.