Showing posts with label Ralph Nader. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ralph Nader. Show all posts

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Foul-ball injuries persist at baseball games

Pixabay CC0 1.0 via Get Archive
The American Museum of Tort Law (AMTL) hosted a Zoom panel Thursday on the problem of foul balls injuring baseball fans.

American tort law students usually are acquainted with the so-called "baseball rule." The "rule" represents the legal supposition that fans who attend baseball games understand and accept the risk that a foul ball might fly into the stands and cause injury. More accurately stated in contemporary terms in American tort law, the "rule" is that a professional baseball enterprise does not have a duty to avert injuries that are part of the game of baseball.

You can tell from my quote marks that I don't like the characterization of "the baseball rule" as a rule, because it's not. The "rule" is oft stated as such in popular culture and too often in law. But it does not represent a consistent "rule" of decision in tort cases. Plaintiff lawyers have circumnavigated it many times, justifiably so. And if the "rule" were a rule, it would be a bad one. Horrific injuries happen too often, such as shattered eye sockets and blinding. Two children were critically injured in the minor leagues in the past season.

You can see the problems even on the face of the "rule." Not everyone who goes to a baseball game knows that there is a danger of being hit by a foul ball, especially the risk of substantial bodily harm in a line drive with a 100-mph exit velocity. Baseball clubs put up some nets specifically to protect fans from these injuries in some places, such as behind home plate, but the nets fall far short of full coverage. Fans sitting in unprotected seats might not see the difference. Certainly fans might not know the scope of potential injury. Finally, the assumption-of-risk doctrine that animates the "baseball rule" was crafted to preclude lawsuits by sport participants. The doctrine has been extended tentatively and sometimes dubiously to fans.

As in many tort cases, the functioning of the tort system in foul-ball cases is being disrupted by arbitration clauses in baseball ticket terms and conditions, and by non-disclosure agreements in settlements. Secrecy impedes tort's norm-setting and deterrence functions. If fans don't understand the danger and frequency of foul ball injuries, they're unlikely to find out from reported cases.

Hosted by Melissa Bird for the AMTL, the panel comprised Ken Reed, Jordan Skopp, and Greg Wilkowski. Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans, a Ralph Nader project that covers the foul-ball problem. Skopp, a New York realtor, is the activist-founder of the grassroots Foul Ball Safety Now!, which hosts a trove of information. Wilkowski is a Chicago lawyer presently representing plaintiffs in a class action against the Peoria Chiefs (e.g., Journal Star).

Friday, September 1, 2023

Acuerdo en inglés para arbitrar vincula al firmante de habla hispana aunque no lo entendió, tribunal concluye

(English translation by Google: Agreement in English to arbitrate binds Spanish-speaking signatory even though he did not understand it, court rules.)

Un hombre de habla hispana se comprometió a un acuerdo de arbitraje en inglés incluso si no lo entendía, dictaminó ayer el Tribunal de Apelaciones de Massachusetts.

El día de su cirugía para corregir la visión con Lasik, el demandante Lopez firmó cuatro formularios en inglés, incluido el consentimiento y el acuerdo para arbitrar cualquier disputa. Más tarde, insatisfecho con la cirugía, Lopez presentó una demanda, alegando negligencia médica.

CC0

Revocando la decisión del Tribunal Superior, el Tribunal de Apelaciones ordenó la desestimación tras la moción del demandado de obligar al arbitraje.

Las cláusulas de arbitraje obligatorio han sido un punto de dolor para los defensores de consumidores durante décadas. Son una parte del problema de los términos de servicio densos y no negociables que son omnipresentes en las transacciones de consumo contemporáneas, tema de libros como Wrap Contracts (2013), por Nancy Kim, y Boilerplate (2012), por Margaret Jane Radin.

Los defensores de consumidores como Ralph Nader lamentan la eliminación masiva de disputas del sistema de justicia civil, un impacto en la Séptima Enmienda y una propagación democráticamente problemática de la justicia secreta. Y detrás de las puertas cerradas del arbitraje, las probabilidades favorecen a los negocios de manera tan abrumadora que alimentan dudas sobre la justicia. Los árbitros que no dictaminan la forma en que los demandados recurrentes corren el riesgo de quedarse sin trabajo.

A pesar de estos potentes motivos de preocupación, los legisladores y los tribunales se han puesto del lado de las empresas para proteger y hacer cumplir el arbitraje obligatorio, supuestamente para proteger al comercio de los intolerables costos de transacción de los litigios.

En el ley común de daños, el consentimiento y la asunción expresa del riesgo niegan la responsabilidad, porque se debe permitir que dos personas establezcan los términos de su propia relación. Podrán apartarse del contrato social siempre que los términos que fijen no violen el orden público; es posible que, por ejemplo, no acepten cometer una herida. En teoría, ambas defensas se basan en el acuerdo voluntario y consciente del demandante.

El demandante que firma un contrato sin leerlo cuestiona esta teoría. La firma evidencia el acuerdo subjetivo del demandante. De hecho, no existe ningún acuerdo subjetivo; el conocimiento y la comprensión de los términos acordados no se pueden encontrar en la mente del demandante.

La regla general es que la firma vincula de todos modos. Y en gran medida, esta regla es necesaria, incluso si significa que las personas están obligadas a cumplir términos que no habrían aceptado si los hubieran entendido. El comercio depende de la fiabilidad de los contratos. Si una parte del contrato  siempre pudiera impugnar la aplicabilidad basándose en testimonios interesados de malentendidos, entonces el litigio sería tan gravoso que paralizaría los negocios.

Un malentendido subjetivo puede causar un incumplimiento del contrato en el derecho de daños si mitiga la evidencia de la aquiescencia del demandante. Así, por ejemplo, las empresas a veces buscan establecer la asunción expresa del riesgo por parte de los clientes con un cartel que diga que "cualquiera que proceda más allá de este punto asume el riesgo de sufrir daños por negligencia." (A veces, tales carteles son exigibles por ley.) En tal caso, el demandante puede al menos argumentar que no vio el cartel, o, mejor, no lo entendió debido al lenguaje.

Desafortunadamente para Lopez, no conocía esos datos. El tribunal relató: "Lopez testificó que había vivido en Massachusetts durante doce años en el momento de su cirugía y había aprendido 'un poco' de inglés 'en las calles.'" (Las opiniones de los tribunales y el testimonio citado están en inglés; todas las traducciones aquí son mias.) El Tribunal Superior había determinado que "Lopez no tenía un comprensión suficiente del inglés para permitirle leer el Acuerdo de Arbitraje." Al mismo tiempo, la oficina de cirugía tenía un traductor de español disponible; Lopez no pidió ayuda. El hecho de su firma era inequívoco.

El tribunal razonó:

"Los contratos escritos tienen como objetivo preservar los términos exactos de las obligaciones asumidas, de modo que no estén sujetos a la posibilidad de una falta de recuerdo o una declaración errónea intencionada." [Grace v. Adams (Mass. 1868).] Esta regla de larga data 'se basa en la necesidad fundamental de seguridad en las transacciones comerciales." [Williston on Contracts (4a ed. 2022).] Estos principios legales subrayan que existe una "solemnidad [para] firmar físicamente un contrato escrito" que hace que una firma sea algo más que un simple adorno elegante en un documento. [Kauders v. Uber Techs., Inc. (Mass. 2021).]

Lopez testificó que no habría firmado el acuerdo de arbitraje si hubiera podido entenderlo. El mayor problema político para la protección del consumidor en Estados Unidos es que esta afirmación probablemente sea falsa, sin el beneficio de la retrospectiva. Es prácticamente imposible vivir en el mundo moderno—tarjetas de crédito, teléfonos móviles, sitios web, servicios públicos, viajes—sin aceptar un arbitraje obligatorio todos los días.

El caso es Lopez Rivera v. Stetson, No. 22-P-904 (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 31, 2023). El juez Christopher P. Hodgens redactó la opinión del panel unánime, en el que también estaban los jueces Wolohojian y Shin.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Americans chase dream of air passenger rights, while EU consumer protection reaches age of majority

Boarding a flight in Ilorin, Nigeria, in December 2022.
RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
A Savory Tort Investigation

The Christmastime Southwest meltdown has prompted tongue wagging in Congress over a "Passenger Bill of Rights" to redress the radical imbalance of market power that has left Americans at the mercy of an oligopolist airline industry for decades.

Don't get your hopes up. In the United States, airlines have been playing cat and mouse with regulators since the mail took to the air in the 1920s. And the cat has never been enthusiastic about the chase. 

Passenger protection from exploitative practices in the airline industry has been a congressional dog whistle since overbooking became a business model in the 1960s. Ralph Nader took on the issue, along with so many others, in the 1970s. We've swung back and forth between transparent pricing and the piling on of surprise fees enough times to make you use your sick bag. Over the years, more passenger bills of rights have died in Congress than we have airlines. Well, that's a low bar, but you take my point.

As in all things when corporatocracy clashes with simple equity in the marketplace, the European Union is doing a better job than the United States to level the playing field. The crown jewel of more robust European consumer protection is Regulation 261/2004, which has been on the job for almost twenty years. When flights are delayed or canceled, EU 261 requires compensation to customers in cold, hard cash.

The circumstances that lead to an EU 261 payout are well circumscribed. But when it happens, an airline feels the pinch. The regulation pertains upon delay or cancellation, EU guidance explains (bold in original), when:

  • the flight is within the EU and is operated either by an EU or a non-EU airline;
  • the flight arrives in the EU from outside the EU and is operated by an EU airline; or
  • the flight departs from the EU to a non-EU country operated by an EU or a non-EU airline.

Here is the compensation schedule, per passenger:

  • Type 1: €250 for a delay of two-plus hours, or €125 if re-routed to arrive fewer than four hours late, for flights of 1,500 kilometers or less.
  • Type 2: €400 for a delay of three-plus hours, or €200 if re-routed to arrive fewer than four hours late, for intra-EU flights of more than 1,500 kilometers and for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,000 kilometers.
  • Type 3: €600 for a delay of four-plus hours, or €300 if re-routed to arrive fewer than four hours late, for all other flights.

There need be no compensation when the delay can be attributed to a cause extrinsic to the carrier, such as weather. A passenger's receipt of compensation, including non-monetary assistance, pursuant to the law of a non-EU country precludes an EU claim.

Cash compensation is a welcome recognition that airline passengers suffer real costs when flights are delayed or cancelled—more than what is covered by a meal voucher or even, when necessary, an overnight stay. Ours is now a world of nonrefundable reservations for hotels, cars, and tours. Travel insurance is becoming a must, and yet another expense. Vacation time meanwhile is increasingly scarce, especially for Americans.

Meaningful compensation incentivizes airlines to work smarter. For example, scheduling departures too tightly, failing to anticipate mechanical needs, or simply de-prioritizing the correction of problems all become decisions with bottom-line consequences.

The outer jurisdictional limits of EU 261 are not spelled out on the face of the regulation, but European regulators and courts largely have construed silence expansively. EU 261 claims are not limited to EU citizens and airlines, as long as an EU country can exercise jurisdiction. EU 261 has an exception for "extraordinary circumstances," but courts have construed the exception narrowly, excluding technical problems. Court rulings in the late 2010s led to the application of EU 261 to U.S. carriers operating international connections to and from the EU.

At the same time, compliance has been a mixed bag. The fuzziness at the margins of EU 261 application, along with the reality that not all domestic authorities have been prepared to invest fully in enforcement, has afforded airlines room to fudge fulfillment of their obligations.

In the event of a maloccurrence, airlines are obliged to make passengers aware of their EU 261 rights, and passengers file claims with the airlines, not with regulators. The airlines can be less or more forthcoming with notifications and the ease with which consumers can file claims. There are reports, moreover, of airlines simply not paying what's owed. As a result, a cottage industry has arisen of intermediary companies that facilitate consumer claims in exchange for significant contingency fees.

As an American citizen traveling to, from, and through the EU, I’ve made some EU 261 claims in recent years, since the regulation expanded to reach foreign flight legs. I tested different options to make my claims, and I promised to share some outcomes.

No-Coverage Cases

It’s first important to articulate unfortunately ever more common passenger experiences that are not covered by EU 261—and, needless to say, precipitate no consumer protection in U.S. law.

My fellow Lagos-bound passengers and I wait in Paris.
RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

CLAIM DENIED by Air France: EU transit.  In December 2022, I traveled from Boston, Massachusetts, to Lagos, Nigeria, via New York and Paris.  Because of a mechanical problem, after several hours’ delay, the connection from Paris to Lagos was canceled and rescheduled for the following day.  My booking was with Delta; KLM owned the itinerary; and the canceled connection was operated by Air France. EU 261 charges the operator with responsibility. Air France provided a €15 meal voucher and overnight accommodation, including a shuttle after quite a long wait. Such intermediate compensations do not preclude EU 261 awards.

Air France denied the type-3 compensation claim I filed directly with the airline. An Air France agent wrote:

I am really sorry to have to inform you that the EU Regulation 261/2004 does not apply when flight departs from a point outside the EU or EEA and travels to a final destination outside EU or EEA, via a connection in an airport in the EU or EEA.

Since your flight departs from Boston and arrives in Lagos via New York and Paris, we regret our inability to accede to your request for compensation on this occasion.

To be clear, every leg of this journey was a different "flight," with its own flight number; this was not a continuation "flight." My itinerary originated and terminated outside the EU. At the same time, Air France's interpretation of "flight" in EU 261 seems consistent with my other claim experiences. I suppose Air France was obliged to pay compensation to passengers who originated in Paris; I don’t know. I was not given any particular notice of EU 261 rights; maybe passengers originating in Paris were.

NO CLAIM against Air France: Advance cancellation. In November 2022, I traveled from Boston, Massachusetts, to Kraków, Poland, via Amsterdam.  I booked through Egencia; Air France owned the itinerary; KLM operated the connection to Kraków.

A month after my purchase, but still a month before the departure, KLM canceled the connection to Kraków. KLM rebooked me on another flight, lengthening my layover by five hours and putting me late into Kraków. Air France offered a full refund, in the alternative, but refused to book me on another carrier that would arrive earlier into Kraków.

Patriotic illumination aboard an Air France flight.
RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The problem here was that I had paid more for a morning arrival in Kraków, because I had to work there that day. I could have booked for the midday or later arrival with another carrier for less money at the time I purchased, had I wanted to. I chose the SkyTeam Alliance specifically for the early arrival. In the month since the purchase, the alternatives had risen exorbitantly in price as international itineraries. I could still buy a replacement connection to Kraków for midday arrival from another carrier, but Air France also refused to release me from the KLM connection. If I failed to appear for the KLM connection, Air France would cancel my ticket home.  I had no choice but to accept the change and miss most of my work day.

KLM claimed that it canceled the morning connection—a month in advance—because of a "mechanical problem." Apparently, no regulation requires an airline to tell the truth. I rather believe that KLM canceled the flight because SkyTeam's multiple flights to Kraków were undersold.

I could not make an EU 261 claim, because airlines are permitted to make whatever changes they please more than seven days before departure. This is a big gap in consumer protection, because passengers have no ability to rebook with another carrier so close to the departure date.

I did complain to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), because it is impermissible, even under U.S. regulations, for a carrier to cancel a flight merely because it's undersold. Unfortunately, this rule is rarely enforced, because it's so easy for a carrier to point to another reason for the cancellation. KLM continued to claim mechanical failure, never explaining how that hurdle could not be overcome with a month's advance notice.

DOT took no action, but entered my complaint in its "industry monitoring system." I suppose this is the same system through which, a mere 16 years after Southwest began A-B-C boarding, it seems finally to have dawned on federal regulators that maybe children should not be forced to sit next to strangers. That would have been a nice policy change to have had when my daughter was growing up.

NO CLAIM against Turkish Airlines: Airport change.  This is an older matter, but I’m throwing it in here because it's a variation on the problem of advance cancellation that might well happen to other people in today's tight market. 

In November 2020, I was to travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Khartoum, Sudan, via Istanbul, on Turkish Airlines.  Within a week of departure, Turkish canceled my Boston flight and rebooked me on a departure from New York JFK. That’s not an easy or costless transit, from my home to JFK: a four- to five-hour drive each way, or a slow train with multiple transfers. Turkish refused any compensation, offering only complete cancellation as an alternative, and that only when I asked.

This was not an EU 261 matter, because there was no point of contact with Europe.  If the same thing happened, though, with a transit in Europe, EU 261 would not have applied, at least according to the reasoning of Air France in the above-described claim denial. If Turkish made such a change for an EU-bound flight, I hope that EU 261 would apply. I wonder what would happen if Turkish changed the airport, but not the flight number; that's not a delay or a cancellation.

I'll never find out, because I now exclude Turkish Airlines from my fare searches. I suggest you do the same.

Coverage Cases

CLAIM SETTLED with SATA Air Açores: Delayed flight within EU. In July 2022, I traveled within Portugal, from Lisbon to Terceira Island, on SATA Air Açores. Because of a mechanical failure, my 4:15 p.m. departure was delayed to 9:55 p.m. SATA gave me a €10 food voucher. I incurred some additional expense having to get a nighttime transfer on the island, and I lost some daylight leisure time.

My SATA rights notice.
Lisbon to Terceira maps out at 1,555 kilometers, so just over the threshold for a type-2 claim. When I received the voucher at the airport, the agent also gave me a well copied notice of rights in paper. The notice was in Portuguese with no translation.  In Portuguese, the notice accurately described the three types of EU 261 events, but conspicuously omitted any numerical amounts of compensation. In late July, I filed a €400 claim directly with SATA via email.

In September, SATA responded via email with a counteroffer: €300. I accepted. SATA sent me a form to provide my banking information for a wire transfer. I did so, but SATA wrote subsequently to say that it couldn't get the transfer to go through—foreign payers often struggle to align their parameters with U.S. bank data—and that it would send a check. In November, I received a paper check in the mail for US$322.

I accepted the SATA offer because I thought it was more than fair, even though I was entitled to €400 under EU 261. SATA implicitly acknowledged as much by offering more than €250. But my roundtrip ticket with SATA had cost me only €255. And I didn't feel there was any misfeasance on SATA's part. There was no indication that the mechanical failure could have been anticipated; airport agents acted quickly and efficiently to reschedule; and SATA tasked the flight to another plane the same day, if later. Overall, I remained happy with SATA service, despite my lost time. I don't know what SATA would have done had I refused the offer and insisted on €400.

CLAIM PAID by American Airlines: Delayed flight in United States. Also in July 2022, I traveled from Lisbon, Portugal, to Boston, Massachusetts, via Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I booked on Egencia, and American Airlines operated all flights. The connection from Philadelphia to Boston was delayed more than three hours, but less than four.

Had American Airlines not made such a mess of this delay, I probably would not have thought to apply for EU 261 compensation. This was the kind of straightforward poor customer service that, sadly, Americans have simply come to expect. The delay seemed to have resulted from the unavailability of crew. Passengers actually boarded the plane, and then we were ordered to deboard and return to the terminal. Gate agents offered conflicting explanations. They seemed to be arguing with each other. The tension was contagious, and information was scarce. Space around the gate was overcrowded. The scene was chaotic, ugly, and frustrating.

It's not immediately apparent that EU 261 applies. The flight was a domestic connection; there were passengers on board with no passports. This was the inverse of the Air France claim-denial situation I described above. My point of origin in the EU was dispositive, even when the problem arose on a domestic connection in the United States. My American citizenship was immaterial. The relevant facts under EU 261 were that my itinerary started in the EU, and I arrived more than three hours late to my final destination.

Even insofar as EU 261 applied, I wasn't sure what type of claim mine was. The overall travel distance, the "flight," defined by itinerary, was more than 5,000 kilometers. But the "flight," defined by a leg with unique flight number, from Philadelphia to Boston was less than 500 kilometers. 

Under the circumstances, I expected that if I made a claim, American would deny it. After all, I might notionally be entitled to make a claim under European law, but where would I enforce? The U.S. DOT barely enforces U.S. regulations; it's not likely to expend resources to enforce foreign law. The relevant EU jurisdiction was Portugal. But would I, a non-European, have standing before a Portuguese regulatory authority? 

With so much uncertainty, I was inclined to let the matter drop. But over the next couple of days, I became angry again that American never reached out with any kind of apology for its mess. What the heck, I thought. At least filing a 261 claim would let me vent.

At the same time, because I seriously doubted that I would see a dime, I decided to try using an intermediary. After reading some reviews, I chose AirHelp, a 10-year-old startup from Berlin that is now global. AirHelp promises to make the claims process easy, and it did. In late July, I uploaded my documents and provided a short description of what happened. I got to vent.

AirHelp kept me apprised of my claim status. It sent me an email saying it had determined that I had a valid claim for €300. That seems right, using the itinerary as the measuring stick to reach type 3, and acknowledging that the delay in the end was under four hours. AirHelp said that it would make that demand of American Airlines. Thereafter, AirHelp periodically let me know that it was still waiting to hear back.

To my surprise, in mid-November, AirHelp told me that American had agreed to pay €300. AirHelp sent me an invoice showing that it was deducting its 35% contingency fee of €105. AirHelp sent me a check for the difference in U.S. dollars, $201.38. The fee was hefty, but maybe not bad for a claim I never thought would be honored.

✈     ✈     ✈

In sum, EU 261 is a powerful accountability tool, even if, 18 years on, it leaves some wide gaps in consumer protection. Americans should have at least as good a mechanism at their disposal. Our airlines meanwhile are fighting against accountability, trotting out the usual "be careful what you ask for" warning that our mere expectation of market equity will make air travel unaffordable. Seems to me that if American consumers are going to lose either way, misery loves company.

Sponsored in the present U.S. Congress by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the "Passenger Bill of Rights" now pending as S. 178 calls for a ticket refund and re-routing, even on another carrier, for delays of one to four hours, and, additionally, $1,350 cash compensation for delays of more than four hours.

I'm sure the check's in the mail.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Grubhub drivers signed away right to sue, court rules

Haydn Blackey via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Grubhub drivers signed away their right to sue on unfair wage claims, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today.

Plaintiff Grubhub drivers complained that the company is stiffing them on minimum wages and tips under state law and, worse, retaliating against drivers who complain.

I have no knowledge of the validity of these claims, but I worry a lot about the exploitation of gig workers in our economy. This exploitation is a big slice of the broader problem of employers' over-classification of personnel as independent contractors to avoid having to provide fair wages and benefits. Sometimes employers cross the legal line and sometimes they don't; regardless, the effect of even the lawful leeway contributes to our glut of working people who cannot make ends meet, put us all at risk with insufficient insurance for healthcare and accidents, and spend so much on necessities as to have paralyzed American socioeconomic mobility. Our woefully outdated measures of employment fail to reflect this problem, which is why media pundits and Washington pointy-heads scrunch their faces in confusion over how we can have favorable job numbers and an "it's the economy, stupid" political crisis happening at the same time.

Collateral to labor exploitation, we have long had the problem of our court system being subverted by the supposed freedom to contract. At this point, we all know without even having to read the fine print that every terms-and-condition box we check, just like every product we liberate from shrinkwrap, binds us to arbitrate any disgruntlement and frees our adversaries from ever having to answer to us in the courts, which were designed for that very purpose. Many of us know furthermore that the terms of arbitration profoundly favor the respondent companies, both substantively, evidenced empirically by companies' overwhelming win rates, and, often, procedurally, by way of inconvenient venues, arcane procedures in contrast with small claims courts, and the burdens of transaction costs.  I've cited the definitive books on this subject by Nancy Kim and Margaret Jane Radin so many times, that, frankly, I just don't have the energy today to look up their URLs again.  Let's instead invoke the tireless Ralph Nader and his persistent admonition that we have undermined the Seventh Amendment, to which point I add humbly that anti-vigilantism is an important function of our civil dispute resolution system, and maybe we ought remember that in a society in which the least mentally stable among us apparently have ready access to firearms.

So it's the confluence of these two socio-legal problems that interests me in the present case, more than the merits. On the merits, the Grubhub complainants tried to work around their 2017 clickwrap agreement to arbitrate by characterizing themselves as a kind of interstate transportation worker that is exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act. But Grubhub drivers are not long-haul truckers. A for creativity, F for achievement. The court held that the drivers indeed signed away their right to sue.

F is likely to be the final disposition of the complaints in arbitration after remand, too.

You can read more in Archer v. Grubhub, Inc., No. SJC-13228 (July 27, 2022). Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt wrote the unanimous opinion (temporarily posted).  The case in Suffolk County Superior Court is no. 1984CV03277 (class action complaint filed Oct. 21, 2019).

The U.S. Chamber, dependable opponent of transparency and accountability, was among the amici on the prevailing side.  The Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic was among the amici for the workers. The office of Commonwealth Attorney General Maura Healey entered an appearance as amicus, but filed no brief. Healey's office sued Grubhub one year ago, alleging the company overcharged Massachusetts restaurants during the pandemic (complaint, press release). That case, no. 2184CV01719 in Suffolk County Superior Court, is pending currently on cross motions for summary judgment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Whitehouse laments mandatory arbitration, civil jury woes; SCOTUS-nominated Jackson does not engage

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I., one of my state senators) just questioned U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on the importance of the civil jury.

(I wrote recently about Judge Jackson's trial court record, here and here.)

Tort law does not usually figure much into U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so when it does, it's worth paying attention. While tort law can be implicated directly in the work of the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, in the application of federal common law in admiralty, tort law is more likely to make an appearance ancillarily to constitutional law, the area of senators' greatest interest in the confirmation process.  

Those appearances of tort law usually are indicative of the interests of the day.  When gun control and the Second Amendment were hot topics in the 20-aughts, tort law made cameos in questioning about the defenses of self and property.  Senators have been interested periodically in the scope of civil rights law to combat gender discrimination.  Dialog on that point has imported principles of causation, because civil rights law, especially in private remedies, borrows both procedural and substantive machinery, including limiting principles, from common law tort.

At about quarter to one in the extended morning of today's confirmation hearings, Senator Whitehouse sought Judge Jackson's endorsement, which she gave, of statements on the importance of the civil jury.  The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right, if qualifiedly, to a civil jury, and the mechanism was famously admired by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835).  Yet the institution has been a waning feature of American civil justice, largely as an incidental function of the dramatic decline in civil trials during the 20th century, but also as a deliberate effect of corporate America's embrace of mandatory arbitration.

Mandatory arbitration, removing cases from the courts upon the purported consent of consumers and victims of tortious wrongdoing and breach of contract, has been a preoccupation of consumer protection advocates and anti-tort reformers (or plaintiff-side "tort reformers"), such as Ralph Nader.  (The issue was among those addressed by the documentary Hot Coffee in 2011, particularly in the painful context of purported consent to dispute resolution in event of criminal sexual assault.  Unfortunately, because the point hardly diminishes the problem on the merits, the story highlighted in the film was later challenged as a possible fabrication.)  Among the many shortcomings of arbitration as a mechanism in the service of justice that rub me the wrong way, besides its overwhelming favoritism for corporate respondents, is the lack of transparency, which allows wrongdoers to persist in misconduct in defiance of public accountability.

Senator Whitehouse has been focused lately on what he perceives to be politicization of the judiciary through the use of "dark money," that is, money of unknown or vague origin, to influence the appointment (and in some states, election) of judges, typically to further the interests of big business.  Whitehouse wrote about the problem in the Yale Law Forum in 2021, and I recently wrote about Whitehouse writing about the problem.  He talked about that issue both in his opening remarks on the Judiciary Committee yesterday and at the start of his questioning today.  This focus is a natural extension, and broadening, of his concern over civil juries, about which he wrote also, in a law review article for William & Mary in 2014.

I created a C-SPAN clip from today's hearing.  C-SPAN has a transcript below it, but be warned, the automated system made some egregious errors, e.g., reading "civil juries" as "simple majorities."


Frankly, I didn't care for Judge Jackson's response.  Her initial reflection about citizens sitting in judgment over one another seemed to speak to the criminal trial.  She failed to acknowledge the separate, separately important and separately threatened, civil dimension on which Whitehouse was focused.  When he pressed her again on the question, in relation to the risk of jury tampering, her response, again, was painfully generic and indicated no recognition of the particular problem of the vitality of the civil jury.  On a third go, Whitehouse explicitly cited mandatory arbitration, the Seventh Amendment, the employment context, and corporate power.  Judge Jackson had no opportunity to respond.

I simply can't tell whether Judge Jackson was unclear on what it is Whitehouse is worried about, or she was simply trying, presumably upon handlers' instructions, to remain utterly bland and uncontroversial in any declaration.  Whitehouse thanked Jackson for answering his questions with clarity and expressly recognizing the importance of the civil jury.  But she had not. 

After the exchange, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted pending legislation that would override purported consent to mandatory arbitration in sexual assault matters.  The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 was signed by the President on March 3: a welcome change, a long time coming (since Hot Coffee; #MeToo revived the appetite), though redressing only a sliver of the mandatory arbitration problem.  Durbin was talking about, I assume, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, which, as H.R. 963, narrowly passed in the House, 222-209, just last week.  Its companion S.505 has been long pending in the Judiciary Committee.  The FAIR Act would apply to employment and consumer disputes.

Incidentally, just before the jury discussion, Senator Whitehouse asked Judge Jackson whether it is ever appropriate for an appellate court to do fact-finding outside the record.  She said that she knew of no such occasion.  Neither of them referred to, nor, doubtless, even thought about, the latitude afforded appellate courts to research the law of foreign jurisdictions, which is treated for most purposes as a question of fact.  I note the issue only because American appellate courts' unwillingness to investigate foreign law in cases in which it is implicated often impedes the attainment of justice in the jurisdictionally transnational cases increasingly generated by globalization, not only in corporate matters such as business contract disputes, but in family law and civil rights.

The Sullivan question has come up today, too, this afternoon by Senator Klobuchar (D-Minn.).  She seemed to suggest that journalists' lives will be put at risk without the "actual malice" standard.  Never mind the reputations and careers that have been ruined in the name of protecting press negligence and blissful ignorance.  I don't have the stomach today to tackle such uninformed melodrama.  As one might expect, Judge Jackson stuck close to tried-and-true principles of stare decisis.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Whistleblowers call foul, Play the Game

Marcus Carmichael
(Chris Turner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Whistleblowers are basking in an adoring limelight in the United States right now. They better enjoy it while it lasts, because the American taste for whistleblowing is fickle.

All the attention being paid to whistleblowing in Washington, you would think that whistleblowers are heroes of democratic liberty, Paul Reveres on midnight rides of revelation. Now there’s a second whistleblower, and maybe a third, and, why, people just can’t get in line fast enough to become whistleblowers.

I have to roll my eyes when I hear people waxing poetic over the great tradition of the American whistleblower. Catch those same people on a different day, different issue, or different side of the fence, and they’ll be lashing the whistleblower to the stake and setting their torches to the kindling like it’s the Spanish Inquisition. For much of American history, whistleblowing has been synonymous with disloyalty and treachery.

The Washington whistleblower caused WNYC’s On the Media to replay a 2015 segment in which Brooke Gladstone interviewed language writer Ben Zimmer and consumer protection advocate and civil rights crusader Ralph Nader. The early-20th-century word whistleblowing, Zimmer explained, comes from what it sounds like: a referee blowing the whistle to stop play in event of a penalty. (See Transparency International for the word’s translations, born of other cultural contexts.) No sooner did the word come about that it acquired a dark connotation. It meant, Gladstone said, “to snitch, to rat, to steal.” You can hear that usage, Zimmer pointed out, in the classic film On the Waterfront (1954), in reference to the enemies of organized labor. In this sense, Trump’s “spy” notion is not so far off the mark.



Nader was responsible for turning the word around in the 1970s. He pleaded for insiders to break ranks in his public safety crusade against Big Auto, and he repurposed the term whistleblowing with the positive spin of serving the greater good, despite disloyalty in the short term. So the word is not the thing. Gladstone nailed the salient distinction, which is whether the whistleblowing accords with one’s value judgments. Trump’s traitor is Pelosi’s star witness. Ed Snowden deserves either a presidential medal or an espionage prosecution. Even Upton Sinclair was a duplicitous meatpacking worker.

Blow the Whistle


Our ambivalence about whistleblowers finds expression in law. When we protect whistleblowers at law—common law usually does not—it’s usually a legislative reaction to something awful that happened, when we wonder why no one in the know said anything. While whistleblower protection statutes are prevalent in the United States at state and federal levels, they are often controversial, hardly comprehensive, and likely to pertain only to the public sector. Protection tends to be narrow and sectoral in scope; to depend upon abundant and variable technical prerequisites; and to offer scant shield from the full range of consequences, formal and informal, that the whistleblower faces. Woe to the would-be whistleblower who fails to hire a lawyer in advance to navigate the legal process. The Washington whistleblower was meticulous. The person either is a lawyer or consulted one.

Far from the glamorous escapades of the Hollywood Insider, the real-life whistleblower’s lot in life is lousy. More whistleblowers become infamous than famous, and most become no one significant at all. Typically whistleblowers find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a catch-22. Behind door number one, go with the flow, stay with the pack, look the other way, and sell out your principles. Behind door number two, stand on principle, and probably lose your job, your livelihood, your home, and your friends, alienate your family, and maybe put your life at risk.

To be fair, not all whistleblowers are motivated by altruism, and not all whistleblower motives are altruistic. Sometimes whistleblowers themselves are victims of the misconduct they are reporting. Sometimes they are grinding an unrelated ax against a perpetrator—which doesn’t make the perpetrator less an offender. Whistleblowers’ motives can be complicated. People are complicated. Altruism is a factor. Courage is a constant.

Play the Game


Last week, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting some whistleblowers in world sport. For me, it was the highlight of Play the Game, an initiative and biennial conference of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, its first meeting outside Europe.  Play the Game aims to raise ethical standards and to promote democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport.

Whistleblowing in sport might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Consider that transnational sport governors such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are among the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world. Technically they are “nonprofits,” but no one says that with a straight face. Until recently, FIFA and IOC execs sashayed into the offices of presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors like they were Regina George’s mean girls on a tear at North Shore High. There were real costs to their shameless greed: global contrails of worthless constructions, impoverished populations, and broken dreams.

That started to change when FIFA and IOC were exposed as corrupt at their cores. Their corruption was exposed by whistleblowers.

Bonita Mersiades (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Bonita Mersiades was a top exec with the Australian Football Federation from 2007 to 2010, when she worked on Australia’s failed bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments. She blew the whistle on the extraordinary demands that FIFA placed on would-be hosts and her own country’s willingness to bend the public interest to conform. Those tournaments we know now were awarded to Russia and Qatar upon such rank corruption as resulted in a 2015 raid by U.S. and Swiss law enforcement and dozens of criminal indictments. Mersiades herself was outed when the investigative report of Assistant U.S. Attorney (now N.Y. Judge) Michael Garcia was made public.

At Play the Game, Mersiades described social ostracism in her community, loss of her career in sport administration, burglary of her home, and hacking and online harassment. She wrote about FIFA corruption and her experience in a 2018 book, Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way.

Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Also on the whistleblower panel (below in full) were Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov. Yuliya was a Russian Olympic runner, and Vitaly worked for the Russian anti-doping agency. Together they blew the whistle on Russian doping, breaking open a massive scandal that rocked Russia and the world, exposing not just systematic Russian doping but reckless, if not criminal, indifference in the World Anti-Doping Agency. With good reason, the Stepanovs feared for their lives.  They applied for Canadian asylum and now live in the United States (with their adorable little boy, also in attendance).


Vitaly told a spellbound audience that the stress of the couple’s situation had them on the verge of divorce when, at last, they took the leap into whistleblowing history together. They would have to leave homeland and family behind, and their lives would never be the same. But it was OK, he said, because “after that, … we were united.”

My dinner companions: Mersiades and Dr. Joel Carmichael,
chiropractor to U.S. Olympic athletes
When, over dinner, I lamented the state of patchwork American whistleblower protection law, Mersiades was quick to correct me. It’s much better than Australia, she said. [See UPDATE below.]  In the United States, we do have a somewhat vigorous qui tam field. (Read more at Troxel, Krauss, & Chapman.)  And the federal whistleblower law now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is better than the yawning void of jeopardy into which FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley stepped when she testified in the Senate on 9/11 failures in 2002. She retired from the FBI two and a half years later.

Mersiades book
Still, it seems to me that as a society, we should be able to do better. When the dust settles around the peculiarly technically adept Washington whistleblower, we might ought wonder why whistleblowers aren’t all around us—at every level of government, and in the private sector. Did no one at Purdue Pharma know about aggressive opioid peddling? We should wonder why, in the land of the First Amendment, there are so many disincentives—legal, social, economic—for anyone to speak out as a citizen on a matter of urgent public interest.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” Sinclair said in 1934. That’s why the rule of law must support the apostate who speaks the truth.

The documentary Icarus tells the Russian doping story.
Director Bryan Fogel also spoke on the whistleblowing panel (above) at Play the Game 2019.


For more from Play the Game 2019, see the conference website and the #ptg2019 Twitter feed.

[UPDATE, Oct. 21, at 10:50 a.m. U.S. EDT: A testament to Mersiades's lament that Australian whistleblower protection lags behind democratic demands, witness today's remarkable protest action by Australian newspapers.] 

Friday, October 14, 2016

'Goliath' bursts onto Amazon scene


Tonight marks the premiere of Goliath on Amazon TV/Video.  Billy Bob Thornton, a native of Bill-Clinton-"Boyhood Home" Hot Springs, Arkansas, stars as a tort lawyer, presumably our David, in the saga of a wrongful death lawsuit against big-money interests.

The story line is far from unprecedented, but my expectations are high.  This show comes to us from producers David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro.  We have Kelley to thank for a pantheon of my most beloved TV lawyers, including Arnie Becker, Douglas Wambaugh, Ally McBeal, Alan Shore, and Denny Crane.  Jonathan Shapiro has been a key writer behind some of those characters, having worked on James Spader projects from The Practice to The Blacklist.

Goliath comes at a good time, as the election cycle has heightened American angst about dysfunctional institutions.  With the Supreme Court opening its new term with only eight justices, Citizens United and the role of wealth in politics looms large over the weird dynamics playing out in all three branches of government right now.  When Kelley and Shapiro appeared at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in August to talk about Goliath, they said that dysfunction in the civil litigation system would be a central theme in the new show.  The trial, figurative and literal, of protagonist Billy McBride (Thornton) would expose the impact on our justice system of dramatic resource disparities between individual plaintiffs and "Goliath" corporate defendants, as well as the related, gradual extinction of our jury system.  I'll paste below my tweets from that event, which convey a flavor of the presentation.

Reviews of the show so far are positive, if guarded.  The consensus seems to be that the haggard lawyer fighting for justice and thereby his own redemption is a tired cliché.  Yet the Kelley/Shapiro-led execution of the show and the small-screen mastery of Thornton--whose understated lead as Malvo in TV's Fargo s1 was a morbid joy--make Goliath irresistible viewing nonetheless.

I'm tied up this weekend with a couple of projects and might not be able to binge Goliath off the bat.  So no spoilers!

--
Kelley & Shapiro at ABA (Aug. 2016)



My tweets from ABA Annual, Aug. 5:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Guest post: Where is tort (anti)reform in politics now?

Alex Nee, a student in my Torts I class, posted to the class website links to Ralph Nader in Harper's (April 2016) and Michael Shammas's reaction at The Huffington Post (May 2016), reflecting on the latter in the context of our study of American tort law.  Alex's opinions are of course his own.  I think his revival of these pieces and his comments speak to something of the voter's frustration in this election cycle, as linked to questions about dysfunction in tort law.

When our class watched the special on New Zealand's lack of fault-based tort law [excerpt from Adrenalin Nation], I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would be nice to have a more efficient system in place to ensure damages were looked after in a timely manner and without the need for costly trials. On the other hand, lawsuits and trials serve as a deterrent to negligence and malpractice. So how can America balance the two?

Tort reform is something that is always being tossed around in political and legal circles. What is needed to accomplish efficiency, advocacy, and deterrence is something that can be debated. What Shammas, the author of The Huffington Post article, suggested, however, is that there is no debate that the tort system in America is broken.

Shammas suggested that the demand for reform comes from a number of factors including lobbyists, political polarization, the lack of a functioning jury system, and a number of "deforms" ranging all the way back to the 1960s. I am of the opinion, coming from a political science major, that a lot of these problems stem from a broken political system. Few people will debate that something is wrong with American politics; just look at whom we nominated for President.

The constant polarization of the parties and the greed for power and re-election (over the need for advocacy of constituents) forces politicians to act unreasonably. Rather than advocate, they want money and power. Jury trials take too long and are not viewed favorably by Big Money. If I ran a company that could be sued for negligence, I would want the "system" rigged (or at least very lenient) against plaintiffs so I would not have to pay damages easily. To that end I would donate and support candidates who oppose trials, juries, and reforms that might favor them. Like Nader, Shammas concluded that this position is not in the best interest of the American people.

Shammas cited Ralph Nader's article in Harper's about the lack of a functioning jury system in American tort law.  Juries were designed to democratize courts. Rather than a few elites deciding the fates of the laymen, the laymen themselves would decide the facts. The verdict would be skewed toward Big Money and elites if the jury were not present. This is why our Founders framed the jury right in the Seventh Amendment.

Shammas ended on a note that common law is lagging even farther behind than it should. In today's day and age, technology and information is changing on a daily basis. New tech comes out faster and faster. Last year's model is obsolete, time to upgrade. The common law cannot keep up with our fast-paced society looking for modern answers to law. This is another weakness perpetuated by the broken political system.

The Legislature is supposed to step in and assist where common law lags behind. But the inefficiency of Congress and the constant bickering of States results in a sub-par system of balancing common law. It seems that a majority of politicians would rather talk about how amazing they are and the sins of the other party than talk about how we can fix broken systems or update the laws to reflect society's standards for right and wrong.

Alex Nee has a B.A. in political science from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, and is a J.D. candidate at UMass Law School. He has worked most recently as a service associate for Mid-Cape Home Centers, a communications officer for the American Red Cross, a legal clerk for Cape Cod Media Group, and a parking enforcement officer for the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts.