Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label contract. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contract. Show all posts

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 Our woefully outdated measures of employment fail to reflect this problem, which is why media pundits and Washington pointy-heads scrunch their faces in confusion over how we can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.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Families retain common law rights over loved ones' remains when a church sells a graveyard, court holds

Principles of common law trust give families a say over the disposition of their loved ones' remains when a church closes and sells its burial ground, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in May.

The chronic closure of churches and sale of their buildings has spun off a collateral issue of what happens to human remains and who gets to decide.

The 2015 closure of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland, Mass., generated such a problem. The diocese decided to close the church and agreed to sell the property to the Coptic Church.

The Coptic Church was not keen, though, to take over and maintain the churchyard burial grounds as they were. The Coptics were interested in developing the property, and they have a religious objection to cremation, which was the state of some of the deceased.

The Episcopal Church explored disinterment and relocation options with families of the deceased. The last burial there was in 2006. Not all families were willing to get on board; some wanted their loved ones to stay put. The Episcopal Church therefore endeavored to move the remains without consent, to see the sale to the Coptic Church go through, and litigation ensued.

The court reviewed the potentially applicable law of property and contract. Both parties made good arguments, and none persuaded the court dispositively. In essence, the church claimed conventional property ownership, and the families pointed to a contractual promise of "perpetual care."

The court instead decided to hang its hat on the amorphous but persuasive notion of common law trust. Some kind of right clearly persists in family over members over the disposition of loved ones' remains, the court reasoned, because we don't think twice in entertaining disputes between family members when there is a question about where a loved one should be laid to rest. Something more than mere property must be going on; the court quoted a New York court's "eloquent" reasoning in an 1844 case:

"When these graves shall have worn away; when they who now weep over them shall have found kindred resting places for themselves; when nothing shall remain to distinguish this spot from the common earth around, and it shall be wholly unknown as a grave-yard; it may be that some one who can establish a 'paper title,' will have a right to its possession; for it will then have lost its identity as a burial-ground, and with that, all right founded on the dedication must necessarily become extinct."

The instant case is hardly akin to that distant day, the court countered; rather, the complainants here are first-degree survivors. "For these reasons," the court concluded, "we now hold that in the absence of a governing statute, common law trust principles apply to the disinterment of human remains from a dedicated burial ground until the families of the deceased have abandoned the remains or the burial ground is no longer recognizable as such."

The court made short work of the Coptic Church's claim that its freedom of religious exercise would be violated by the presence of cremated remains. Essentially, the court reasoned, the bodies are already there. And the family's religious rights might as well be implicated were the court to countenance disinterment.

The court acknowledged that many questions would arise from this decision, for example, regarding the family's right to visit their loved ones' graves under new ownership. But those are questions for another day.

The unusual case is Church of the Holy Spirit of Wayland v. Heinrich, Nos. 21-P-7 & 21-P-8 (Mass. App. Ct. May 5, 2022). Justice James R. Milkey wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Tort-contract distinction cannot block damage multiplier, Mass. high court holds in lease dispute

Photo by Yonkers Honda CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A landlord may not rely on a limitation-of-liability provision in a commercial lease to evade a damage multiplier under Massachusetts consumer protection law, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in January, regardless of whether the case is characterized as tort or contract.

The dispute arose between plaintiff-tenant Majestic Honda and its LLC landlord, owned by Alfredo Dos Anjos. Majestic accused the defendant of bad-faith lease termination, and the trial court agreed.

Massachusetts General Laws chapter 93A, under which Majestic brought its case, is a famously potent statutory remedy. Ostensibly its section 11 is a consumer protection law like any of the unfair trade practices prohibitions found throughout the states. But the statute has been read broadly in Massachusetts to operate at or beyond the margins of what lawyers usually regard as "consumer protection."

Moreover, section 11 authorizes double and treble damage awards upon "willful or knowing" misconduct. Massachusetts does not recognize punitive damages at common law, only by statute. Chapter 93A also has a four-year statute of limitations, sometimes an advantage to plaintiffs over the usual Massachusetts limitations period of three years for most tort actions.

Thus, as a result of permissive construction and powerful incentives for plaintiffs, chapter 93A is invoked frequently in what would be merely common law tort cases in other states, even to the exclusion of the common law claim in Massachusetts. Chapter 93A also is used in public enforcement, as in the Attorney General's present litigation to hold Big Oil accountable for climate change.

Tort and contract claims can be subsumed into the same 93A framework, blurring the classical distinction. The distinction is especially weak in product liability cases, in which Massachusetts plaintiffs almost always rely on 93A, in part because the commonwealth has recognized strict product liability as an extension of quasi-contractual warranty rather than as an evolution of common law negligence.

I am not a Massachusetts lawyer, and I am careful to disclaim to my 1L torts students that I am not well versed in 93A practice. It is its own field and cannot be folded into tort fundamentals. But, I admonish, they should endeavor to learn more if they intend to practice tort litigation in Massachusetts. My supremely talented colleague Professor Jim Freely once regularly taught a 93A course, but I don't think it's been offered since he was drafted (no pun intended) into the legal skills program.

Insofar as section 93A's damage multiplier is punitive in nature, it should not be disclaimable by a tort defendant, else the legislature's intended deterrent effect would be rendered moot. Upon this logic, the Massachusetts Appeals Court looked in past cases to discern whether the plaintiff's claim analogized more closely to tort or contract, to determine whether a limitation-of-liability provision should be allowed to nullify extraordinary statutory damages.

In fairness to the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court did roughly the same thing in 2018 when it applied a statute of repose for tort claims arising from real property to a 93A action, even though 93A itself has no repose period; three justices dissented from that ruling.

Here, the analogical approach is wrong, the Supreme Judicial Court decided unanimously. The court wrote, per Justice Scott Kafker, "Because G. L. c. 93A establishes causes of action that blur the distinction between tort and contract claims, incorporating elements of both, we do not adopt this formulation." The court further explained,

Our cases have also pointed out that a c. 93A claim is difficult to pigeonhole into discrete tort or contract categories, as c. 93A violations tend to involve elements of both tort and breach of contract, blurring the lines between the two. As we explained in [prior cases], "[t]he relief available under c. 93A is 'sui generis,'" being "neither wholly tortious nor wholly contractual in nature." Hence, a "cause of action under c. 93A is 'not dependent on traditional tort or contract law concepts for its definition.'"

After all, the court reasoned, the legislative intention to deter willful or knowing misconduct is not a function of whether the wrong is a tort or a breach of contract.

At a theoretical level, the vast gray area of 93A in Massachusetts law might have broader implications for the classical distinction between tort and contract, namely, whether the distinction will or should persist at all in contemporary common law. Massachusetts 93A practice might prove instructive as courts in many common law jurisdictions, such as Canada, reconsider the vitality of the so-called "economic loss rule," a historic marker of the tort-contract distinction that forbade tort actions in the absence of physical injury or damage.

The case is H1 Lincoln, Inc. v. South Washington Street, LLC, No. SJC-13088 (Mass. Jan. 24, 2022).

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Belgian-waffle makers battle over whose doughy goodness won pride of place on Oprah's list

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Two Massachusetts business are embroiled in a mouth-watering lawsuit over waffles and Oprah.

Oprah's 2021 "favorite things" featured "Eastern Standard Provisions Gourmet Liège Belgian Waffle Gift Box." Yum.

Eastern Standard Provisions is based in Waltham, Mass., and lists its "Classic Liège Belgian Waffles" for sale online. Here's the pitch:

Our artisanal Classic Liège Belgian Waffles are crafted with real butter and pearl sugar imported from Belgium for a light, sweet crunch. Our Classic Liège Belgian Waffles are different than other waffles you may be used to. Most waffles are made with batter, but our Classic Liège Belgian Waffles are made from dough delivering a soft, brioche-like texture and a one-of-a-kind waffle experience.

This is not Eastern Standard's Oprah debut. Its "artisanal soft pretzels" made the grade in 2019.

But wait. Based in Attleboro, Mass., the Burgundian gourmet street-food brassiere claims in a lawsuit (via WCVB) that Oprah picked Burgundian waffles for the list, because Eastern Standard ripped off the Burgundian recipe it had learned under a non-disclosure agreement when the two explored a co-branding venture.

According to the lawsuit, Burgundian founder Shane Matlock learned how to make the Liège waffles while serving in the U.S. Army, when, for three of 15 years, he was stationed on the France-Belgium border, and, the Burgundian website says, he premiered the waffles in Providence, Rhode Island (my home state, near Attleboro) in 2017.

All I know for sure is that I now have a craving for waffles.

The case is The Burgundian LLC v. Hawthorne Food Co. (Mass. Super. Ct. Suffolk Dep't Bus. Litig. Sess. filed Feb. 3, 2022).  The plaintiff alleges, inter alia, breach of contract, violation of state trade secret law, passing off, false advertising, and unfair trade practices.

Court: Even upon liability for mere negligence, insurer may refuse to cover statutory attorney-fee award

Gerd Altmann licensed by Pixabay
An insurer is not obliged to reimburse an insured for attorney fees awarded in a quasi-tort action under Massachusetts statute, the commonwealth high court held today.

The insured was a cleaning business operating under the "Servpro" banner. In the dispute underlying the instant case, the insured cleaned up a sewage spill and was held liable to a client who suffered respiratory injury from exposure to disinfectant chemicals.

The personal-injury complainant sued under the unusually broad unfair commercial practices statute, Massachusetts chapter 93A. Chapter 93A affords prevailing parties attorney fees, as well as double or treble damages for complainants able to prove "willful or knowing" violation.

Those powerful incentives tend to cause plaintiffs to abandon common law tort claims when the 93A claim is viable. So here, the plaintiff declined to prosecute her common law negligence claim and was awarded attorney fees on a prevailing 93A theory, an implied warranty of merchantability.

Subsequently, Vermont Mutual Insurance Co. declined to pay the full sum of the award, asserting that the policy did not cover the attorney-fee award.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed, finding the plain meaning of the insurance contract controlling. The policy covered liability for "bodily injury" and "costs," the court acknowledged. But attorney fees are not "costs 'taxed' against the insured in the suit," the court held; rather, "costs" refers to "the narrower, technical meaning of court-related or nominal costs recoverable as a matter of course to prevailing parties."

The outcome is potentially devastating to small businesses that believe themselves to be insured against negligence liability. An attorney-fee award is enough to put a small business into bankruptcy, yet personal-injury liability insurance typically excludes coverage for fees. 

That exclusion arises, I posit, upon the logic that fees typically are awarded in the states, if at all under "the American rule," only in cases of intentional or reckless wrongdoing, for which insurers also exclude liability. Chapter 93A makes fees much more readily accessible to prevailing plaintiffs and thereby burdens business with an unanticipated transaction cost, while affording multi-state insurers with a windfall.

Notwithstanding my principled objection to deviations from the American rule as an incoherent remedy to our problem of runaway transaction costs, I see no meaningful distinction between a personal injury award and an accompanying fee award when both are predicated on conduct indistinguishable from common law negligence. Vermont Mutual was let off the hook on a technicality, to my mind, and insureds should be entitled to the coverage they reasonably believe they bargained for. 

At minimum, going forward, the commonwealth insurance regulator should compel clear articulation of the risk to insureds of such a coverage limitation specially under chapter 93A. I won't hold my breath.

The case is Vermont Mutual Insurance Co. v. Poirier (Mass. July 6, 2022). Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote the unanimous opinion.

Monday, December 27, 2021

After dog bites postman, $375k jury award fits between floor and ceiling of high-low settlement agreement

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In a dog-bites-postman case in Massachusetts, the Appeals Court in late October held that the parties' "high-low" settlement agreement was a "contract like any other" and did not bar the defendants' appeal.

The plaintiff-postman in the case was covering an unfamiliar route when he was bit in the wrist and thigh by German shepherd-golden retriever mix "Chewbacca." At trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $375,000 in damages. The defendants asked for a new trial, arguing that the jury was tainted by improper admission of information about the plaintiff's federal worker compensation benefits, in violation of the collateral source rule.

Before the jury verdict, on the last day of trial, the parties had struck a handwritten "high-low" settlement agreement.  They set a floor recovery of $150,000, if the jury verdict were anything less, and a ceiling of $1,000,000, if the jury verdict were anything more.

The plaintiff argued that the settlement agreement precluded appeal.  But it didn't say that.  Holding that the settlement agreement was to be construed as a "contract like any other," the Appeals Court found no language convincingly demonstrating defendants' waiver of appeals.  At the same time, the court held that the evidentiary admission in violation of the collateral source rule was harmless error, affirming the denial of new trial.

Regarding the high-low agreement, the court found "little law in Massachusetts."  More than 20 years ago, two New York attorneys described the agreements as "[a]n often underutilized and misunderstood litigation technique." At NYU in 2014, a research fellow examined the agreements' potential and limits in New York, Maryland, and Virginia; see also the ABA Journal in 2005.  An Illinois attorney wrote favorably about the "misunderstood" agreements in 2019, after a medmal plaintiff-baby's verdict was halved by a high-low from $101 million.  Virginia attorneys advised on drafting the agreements in 2007.

In a harder scholarly vein, research published in The Journal of Law & Economics in 2014 reported empirical research on high-low conditions and posited optimal conditions for their appearance.  Published soon thereafter, a Michigan law student argued that high-low agreements should be disclosed to juries.

The Massachusetts case is David v. Kelly, No. 20-P-706 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 25, 2021). Justice Mary Thomas Sullivan wrote the opinion of the court, which Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. joined.  Justice Sabita Singh dissented as to the court's conclusion that the error on the collateral source rule was harmless rather than prejudicial.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Latest installment of Trump family litigation saga includes tortious interference claim against media

A leaked Trump 1040 from 2005
Former President Donald Trump has sued his niece, Mary Trump, and The New York Times Co. in the latest installment of intrafamilial litigation related to Mary's 2020 book, Too Much and Never Enough.

Filed yesterday in Dutchess County, New York, this latest lawsuit (complaint at CNS; Times's own coverage) mainly alleges breach of contract in the earlier settlement of litigation by Mary against Donald over the handling of the estate of Donald's father, Fred, who died in 1999.  I wrote on the course blog for my Trump Litigation Seminar in 2020 about another lawsuit, which is ongoing, by Mary against Donald over the estate of her father, Fred, Jr.; and about a suit by Donald's brother Robert, who died in 2020, which failed to enjoin publication of Mary's book.

The instant complaint alleges that Mary Trump was the source of Trump tax records published by The New York Times in its 2020 exposé.  The bits that interest me are counts of tortious interference with contract and of "aiding and abetting" tortious interference—or the civil equivalent of aiding and abetting, more accurately described as "providing substantial assistance or encouragement"—against the Times.  The complaint alleges that the Times "relentlessly" encouraged Mary to leak the tax records while knowing full well that doing so would breach her confidentiality agreement.

An intentional tort, tortious interference is not confined to business or media, though it's often classified as a "business tort," its usual injury being economic loss.  And it's often included in mass comm law treatments as a "media tort," because it's sometimes deployed against news media.

The paradigmatic case of an interference tort leveled against news media is the threat of Brown & Williamson Tobacco to sue CBS for its 1995 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand in violation of Wigand's non-disclosure agreement.  There is a classic scene in the feature film about the matter, The Insider, in which CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) loses his marbles upon admonition by CBS counsel Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) that truth is not a defense to interference, rather is an aggravating factor.  "What is this, Alice in Wonderland?" Bergman wonders aloud.  The instant Trump case is compelling for its similarity to the Insider facts.  

Interference as a media tort in the public imagination, or at least the lawyer-public imagination, surfaces periodically.  I wrote about the issue in 2011 when Wikileaks for a while threatened to spill the secrets of big banks.  (That fizzled.)  The high incidence of non-disclosure agreements in settlements of Me Too matters, and the former President's enthusiasm for NDAs combined to fuel another spurtive engagement with the issue in recent years. 

The issue prompts sky-is-falling missives from media because the role of, or any role for, the First Amendment as a defense to tortious interference is fuzzy.  In reality, the problem rarely gets that far.  Without unpacking the nitty gritty, it suffices to say that tortious interference has public policy built into its rigorous heuristic.  It is prohibitively difficult to press the tort against a publisher operating with at least a gloss of public interest.

The Trump complaint tries to circumnavigate that problem by accusing the Times of profit motive in its pursuit and publication of the tax records.  But the history of tort litigation against mass media is littered with failed attempts to drive the stake of profit-making through the heart of the journalistic mission.  Whatever degradations have afflicted mass media in our age of misinformation, no court is going to buy the argument against the Times on that score, at least not on these facts—cf. Palin v. N.Y. Times (N.Y. Times), in which the alleged editorial misconduct is substantially more egregious.

The case is Trump v. Trump, Index No. 2021-53963 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Sept. 21, 2021).

Monday, May 17, 2021

Statute of repose fells tort claim dressed in contract

A farm house in Glocester, R.I.

Immersed in grading perdition in recent weeks, I fell behind in my usually steady diet of popular culture.  Better late than never, I offer, here and in two subsequent posts, for your amazement and amusement, an overdue eclectic assortment of three savory news pickins.

Back in January, remember January? Capitol Riot, Inauguration, that one, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the state's 10-year statute of repose and three-year statute of limitations on tort actions for latent defects in real property apply to homeowners who purchased from the builder.  The plaintiff-homeowners purchased their lakefront home in northwestern Rhode Island from the builder in 1997, and they discovered extensive water damage to the lake-facing wall of the house in 2012.  They attributed the damage to improper workmanship and materials.  Because they purchased from the builder, the plaintiffs tried to escape the statute of repose by characterizing their action for breach of implied warranty of habitability as sounding in contract law rather than tort law.  The court disagreed, deciding that the design of the law was to limit builder liability, regardless of whether the plaintiff was an original or subsequent purchaser.  The case is Mondoux v. Vanghel, No. 2018-219-Appeal (R.I. Jan. 27, 2021).  Hat tip to Nicole Benjamin and Crystal Peralta of Adler Pollock & Sheehan, via the Appellate Law Blog at JD Supra.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Uber suffers high court loss, but binding arbitration, blanket disclaimers still devastate consumer rights

Image by Mike Lang CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Signs of life were spotted on the dead planet of consumer rights in click-wrap agreements. But don't get too excited; the life is microbial and already has been exterminated by the corporatocracy.

A blind man who was refused Uber service because he had a guide dog was successful in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week in voiding loss of his disability discrimination claim because Uber failed to give him sufficient notice of its terms and conditions compelling defense-friendly arbitration.

Uber can easily correct its notice problem—and likely has already; this plaintiff signed up in 2014—so the rest of us are out of luck if we have an Uber problem.  But the plaintiff's rare win exposes the abject failure of federal and state law to protect consumer rights against gross overreach by online service providers.  And the case arises amid a deluge of reported ride-share sexual assaults, from which service providers have been widely successful in washing their hands of legal responsibility.

In the instant case, the Massachusetts high court followed 2018 precedent in the First Circuit, also applying Massachusetts law to the same Uber interface, to conclude that Uber's means of obtaining the plaintiff's consent to the app's terms and conditions (T&C) in 2014 fell short of the notice required to bind a consumer to a contract.

Uber required ride-share passengers to assent to the T&C by clicking "DONE" after entering payment information.  The court explained that the focus of the app's virtual page was on payment, and the language about the T&C, including the link to the terms themselves, was marginalized in page location and diminished in type size.  (The law gives the plaintiff no special treatment because of his blindness, and the case suggests no contrary argument.)  Uber knew how to do better, the Court reasoned, because drivers signing up with the app plainly must click "I AGREE" to their T&C: an easy fix for app makers.

The Court adopted for the Commonwealth what has become widely accepted as the two-part test for online T&C contract enforcement, "[1] reasonable notice of the terms[,] and [2] a reasonable manifestation of assent to those terms."  It is not necessary that a consumer actually read, or even see, the terms.  The Court acknowledged research (Ayres & Schwartz (2014); Conroy & Shope (2019)) showing that a vanishing number of consumers ever read, much less understand, T&C.  But the law requires only that the consumer be given the opportunity.

This approach to "click-wrap" agreements, kin to "browse-wrap" agreements, dates back to "shrink-wrap" agreements, by which a consumer could be bound to hard-copy license terms upon opening a product box, and earlier to the simple doctrine in analog contract law that a person's mark can bind the person to a contract that she or he has not read.

The rule works well to smooth commerce.  But the problem for consumer rights is that T&C have become unspeakably onerous.  British retailer GameStation made headlines in 2010 when it was reported that 7,500 online shoppers unwittingly(?) sold their "immortal soul[s]" as a term of purchase; that demonstration is not unique.  Legendary cartoonist Robert Sakoryak turned the infamously voluminous iTunes "terms and conditions" into a graphic novel (2017) years after South Park mocked Apple mercilessly (2011).  On a more serious note, the problem has generated ample scholarship, including at least two books (Kim (2013); Radin (2014)), and has been a flashpoint of controversy in European privacy law, which, unlike American law, requires a bit more than a token click-box to signify a person's consent to process personal data, especially when the person is a child.

The Massachusetts Court recognized the scope of Uber's T&C as a factor to be weighed in the sufficiency of notice.  "Indeed," the Court wrote, "certain of the terms and conditions may literally require an individual user to sign his or her life away, as Uber may not be liable if something happened to the user during one of the rides."  Uber's terms "indemnify Uber from all injuries that riders experience in the vehicle, subject riders' data to use by Uber for purposes besides transportation pick-up, establish conduct standards for riders and other users, and require arbitration."

Though arguably subject to a rare override in the interest of public policy, such terms still can prove prohibitive of legal action when a passenger becomes a crime victim.  And that's been happening a lot.  Uber itself reported in 2019 that over the preceding two years, the company had received about 3,000 claims of sexual assault each year (NPR).  The problem is so prevalent that ride-share sex assault has become a plaintiff's-attorney tagline.  Yet recovery is easier promised than won.  Even if a consumer somehow prevails in arbitration, a process hostile to consumer rights, T&C such as Uber's also limit liability awards.

Litigants have struggled to circumvent ride-share app providers' disavowal of responsibility.  In November, the federal district court in Massachusetts rejected Uber liability as an employer, because drivers are set up as independent contractors, a convenience that has summoned some heat on app service providers in the few states where legislators worry about employment rights in the gig economy.  Lyft won a case similarly in Illinois.  Meanwhile a Jane Doe sex-assault claim filed in New York in 2020 takes aim at Uber upon a direct-negligence theory for failure to train or supervise drivers (N.Y. Post).

In 2018, Uber and Lyft relaxed enforcement of compelled arbitration clauses in sex-assault claims (NPR)—if they hadn't, they might eventually have suffered a humiliating blow to their T&C, as unconscionability doctrine is not completely extinct in contract law—so hard-to-prove direct-negligence cases such as N.Y. Doe's are hobbling along elsewhere too.  Oh, Uber also relaxed its gag on sex-assault victims who settle, allowing them to speak publicly about their experiences (NPR).  How generous.

All of this is tragic and avoidable, if routine.  But in the Massachusetts case, I saw a troubling legal maneuver that goes beyond the pale: Uber counter-sued its passenger.

In a footnote, the Massachusetts Court wrote, "In arbitration, Uber brought a counterclaim for breach of contract against the plaintiffs, alleging that they committed a breach of the terms and conditions by commencing a lawsuit and pursuing litigation in court against Uber. Through this counterclaim, Uber sought to recover the 'substantial unnecessary costs and fees' it incurred litigating the plaintiffs' lawsuit."

So it's not enough that our warped American enslavement to corporatocracy allows Uber and its ilk to impose crushing, if industry-norm, T&C on customers, depriving them of rights from Seventh Amendment juries to Fourteenth Amendment life.  Uber moreover reads its own indemnity clause with the breathtaking audacity to assert that it is entitled to recover attorney's fees from a consumer who dares to make a claim—a claim of disability discrimination, no less. This reactionary strategy to chill litigation by weaponizing transaction costs exemplifies my objection to fee-shifting in anti-SLAPP laws.  Uber here shamelessly pushed the strategy to the next level.

Nader (2008)
Photo by Brett Weinstein CC BY-SA 2.5
Compelled consumer arbitration has stuck in the craw of consumer and Seventh Amendment advocates, such as Ralph Nader, for decades.  Nader is widely quoted: "Arbitration is private. It doesn't have the tools to dig into the corporate files. It's usually controlled by arbitrators who want repeat business from corporations not from the
injured person."  As the c
orporatocracy is wont to do, it pushes for more and more, ultimately beyond reason.  Industry pushing got a boost when the Trump Administration set about dismantling the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  Make no mistake that compelled arbitration is somehow about a free market; a free market depends on a level playing field, a fair opportunity to exercise bargaining power, and transparency of transactional information.  The unilateral imposition of an absolute liability disclaimer upon penalty of fee-shifting in a secret tribunal is none of that.

I'm tempted to say something like "enough is enough," but I would have said that 20 years ago, to no avail.  So I can only shake my head in amazement as we double down on the abandonment of civil justice in favor of secret hearings to rubber-stamp rampant venality.

Full disclosure: I use Uber, and I like it.  Taxis got carried away with their market monopolization, and a correction was needed.  Now that's feeling like a Catch-22.

The case is Kauders v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. SJC-12883 (Jan. 4, 2021) (Justia).  Justice Scott Kafker wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.  In amicus briefs, the ever vigilant U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the "free market"-advocating New England Legal Foundation squared off against plaintiffs' lawyers and "high impact lawsuit"-driving Public Justice.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Secret civil justice undermines employee rights

Pintera Studios
A story investigated by ProPublica and featured on Planet Money highlights the problem of secret justice in perpetuating the willful abuse of at-home gig workers.

I expected that "Call Center Call Out," reported by Planet Money's Amanda Aronczyk and ProPublica's Ariana Tobin, Ken Armstrong, and Justin Elliott, based on the ProPublica story, would be a sad and frustrating tale of work-from-home gig economy labor being exploited, principally by the misclassification of employees as independent contractors to reap savings in compensation, work conditions, and employee benefits.

Turns out, there is even worse dissimulation afoot.  And there are worrisome implications for the health of the civil justice system.

To work these call-center jobs, for intermediary contractors such as Arise Virtual Solutions, the not-quite-employees are compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), arbitration agreements, and class action waivers.  These all are enforceable, even when the workers do not fully understand their implications.

When a worker has the temerity to commence arbitration proceedings, challenging misclassification as an independent contractor, the worker wins.  In one example in the story, a worker easily qualified as an employee under the labor test applied by the arbiter.  A worker can win thousands of dollars in reimbursement of expenses—they have to pay out-of-pocket for the privilege of their training and then buy their own computers and telecomm equipment—and back wages to bring their compensation history up to minimum wage.  

But here's the rub: the workers already are bound by their NDAs, and the arbitration is secret, too.  So there is no public record of the misdeeds of the employer.  The arbitration-winning complainant cannot even tell other mistreated workers that their labor rights are being violated.

According to the reporters, the secret justice system of arbitration is actually part of the business model for enterprises such as Arise.  They can pay liability to a small percentage of workers while willfully exploiting most others.  Because of the NDAs, arbitration clauses, and, most importantly, class action waivers, a lawyer said in the program, she can fight this abuse only behind a veil of secrecy, one case at a time, amounting to thousands of cases, even though every case is winnable on precisely the same analysis.

There's a classic scene from Fight Club (1999) when the Narrator (Ed Norton) is telling an airliner seatmate about his car company's "formula" for issuing a recall only when it's cost effective, regardless of the cost of human life.  (Think GM ignition switch recall.)

"Which car company do you work for?" the seatmate asks.

The Narrator pauses, staring her in the eyes.  Then, nodding knowingly, he answers,

"A major one."

So what companies use these call centers to take advantage of the cheap and ill-begotten labor forces organized by companies such as Arise?

Major ones.  Ones you've talked to.

Have a magical day.

 

The stories are Amanda Aronczyk & Ariana Tobin, Call Center Call Out, Planet Money, Oct. 2, 2020; and Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott, & Ariana Tobin, Meet the Customer Service Reps for Disney and Airbnb Who Have to Pay to Talk to You, ProPublica, Oct. 2, 2020.


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Court rejects deep-brain-stimulation patient's contract, IIED claims against Boston nonprofit hospital

A patient dissatisfied with deep-brain stimulation (DBS) to treat her depression could not prevail against her nonprofit hospital, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday, in part because she sued in contract rather than medical malpractice.

The plaintiff-patient sued Brigham & Women's Hospital, Inc. (BWH), in Boston over her DBS treatment, which is experimental with respect to depression, but is approved to treat Parkinson's.  BWH paid for the $150,000+ treatment, which the plaintiff's insurance would not cover, with the design of expanding a program in psychosurgery.

CT scan of DBS implants
(Dr. Craig Hacking, A. Prof Frank Gaillard CC BY-SA 4.0)
The plaintiff initially reported favorable results.  But the relationship between patient and hospital "sour[ed]," the court explained.  The plaintiff became dissatisfied with the repeated interventions required to replace batteries and refine the DBS.  She believed that the hospital was short-changing her treatment because the psychosurgery program was not taking off as hoped.  The hospital pledged to do what was needed to support plaintiff's continued treatment, but the fulfillment of that pledge incorporated some cost-benefit analysis.  And the hospital would not accede to the plaintiff's demand that BWH pay for her treatment elsewhere.

The plaintiff sued BWH for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).  The trial court entered summary judgment for the hospital, and the Appeals Court affirmed.

BWH (Jim McIntosh)
The court's opinion spends most of its pages establishing that there was no broken promise to support the breach of contract and promissory estoppel claims.  The hospital promised to treat the plaintiff for free, and it never charged her.

Of salience here, the court also concluded that the plaintiff had misstated a medical malpractice claim as a breach of contract claim, possibly to get around the $100,000 state cap on medmal liability for charitable organizations (not to mention the claims-vetting process of the commonwealth's medical malpractice tribunal).  The plaintiff asserted medmal would not be the appropriate cause of action for an experimental treatment and a dispute over cost.  But the court pointed to the plaintiff's repeated claims of the defendant's failure to comply with "scientific and ethical standards."

Finally, the court's treatment of IIED was instructive, if routine:

To prevail on this claim, [plaintiff] must prove "(1) that the actor intended to inflict emotional distress or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was 'extreme and outrageous,' was 'beyond all possible bounds of decency' and was 'utterly intolerable in a civilized community'; (3) that the actions of the defendant were the cause of the plaintiff's distress; and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was 'severe' and of a nature 'that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it'" (citations omitted) [gendered references in original] ....

BWH's actions do not constitute the sort of extreme and outrageous conduct that would allow [plaintiff] to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress. BWH's alleged wrongdoing arose in the context of its oral agreement to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in free care to a patient who otherwise could not afford treatment. Even putting "as harsh a face on [BWH's] actions ... as the basic facts would reasonably allow" [citation omitted], no jury could find it utterly intolerable in a civilized society for BWH to discuss alternative treatment options with [plaintiff], to take cost into account in determining what treatment to provide, or to refuse to pay for her treatment at another hospital (without interfering with her ability to transfer her care at her own expense).

Thus, the court rejected IIED as a matter of law.

The case is Vacca v. The Brigham & Women's Hospital, Inc., No. 19-P-962 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 21, 2020) (oral argument).  Justice Eric Neyman wrote the unanimous opinion for a panel that also comprised Justices Englander and Hand.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Claim to Facebook fortune dismissed in Mass. appeal

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals Wednesday affirmed dismissal in tort, contract, and equity claims by a software developer against principals behind Facebook-predecessor company ConnectU.

The Winklevosses (CC BY-SA 2.0 cellanr)
Wayne Chang (commencement address at UMass Amherst in 2016) alleged that he was entitled to a some portion of the $65m in cash and stock received by ConnectU's twin brothers and "bitcoin billionaires" Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in settlement with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  That mediated settlement ended litigation in California and Massachusetts in 2008; Chang initiated the instant action in 2009.  Bringing the case to a close at last, the Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed with the lower court that Chang had severed business ties with the Winklevosses before they entered settlement negotiations with Zuckerberg.  The court also affirmed award to the Winklevosses of $30,000 in costs.

The case is Chang v. Winklevoss, No. AC 18-P-329 (Mass. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2019).

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Despite IP exclusion, insurer bound to defend in right-of-publicity case over running shoes, Mass. high court holds

Upon an underlying case involving the right of publicity coupled with consumer protection and equity claims, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today held insurers duty-bound to defend an insured running-shoe maker, despite the exclusion of intellectual property claims from coverage.

Abebe Bikila in Rome, 1960
Massachusetts-based Vibram USA, through its affiliate Vibram FiveFingers, named a line of "minimalist" running shoes after Ethiopian Olympic athlete Abebe Bikila, who ran barefoot when he set a marathon world record in Rome in 1960.  (See clips from 1960 and Bikila's 1964 marathon win in Tokyo on the Olympic Channel).  Seriously injured in a car accident in 1969, Bikila died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1973.  Since then, the family has made commercial use of the Bikila name in enterprises including a Spanish retail sporting goods chain, a Bikila biography, a Japanese commercial, and a biographical feature film.  The family objected to Vibram's association of its shoe with Bikila without permission.

The complaint comprised four counts: (1) right of publicity under the Washington Personality Rights Act, (2) violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act, (3) unfair competition under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), and (4) unjust enrichment.  Vibram's general insurance and liability policies with two providers, Salem-based Holyoke Mutual and Maryland Casualty, covered "personal and advertising injury liability," without defining "advertising injury"; however, the coverage excluded intellectual property liability.  The insurers sought, and the superior court granted, declaratory relief from coverage.  The SJC reversed.

To trigger an insurer's duty to defend, the insured need show only "a possibility that the liability claim falls within the insurance coverage."  The duty to defend is broader than the duty to indemnify.  The Bikila complaint alleged that Vibram used Bikila as "an advertising idea."  Bikila family members alleged that they had "intentionally and specifically connected the name to running-related ventures, and the name itself conveys a 'barefoot dedication to succeed under any circumstances,' a desirable quality for any of these ventures."  The insurers were mistaken in arguing that the claim was limited to the right of publicity, or was synonymous with trademark infringement, both IP theories excluded from coverage.  Rather, the essence of the Bikila claim was that Vibram sought to profit from Bikila-associated ideas.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Running Shoes (by Fuzzy Gerdes, CC BY 2.0)
From the court's opinion, it is not clear to me which or what combination of claims ensures that a complaint such as this one rises beyond the coverage exclusion.  Count 1 right of publicity by itself would not have been covered by the policy, and it is informative to see that the privacy tort now resides firmly in the IP household.  I suspect that count 3 under the Lanham Act also constitutes an excluded IP claim.  So perhaps statutory consumer protection and equitable quasi-contract each could do the trick.  Yet those theories, in any given case, could overlap wholly with IP claims.  The court's opinion suggests that there is something special about the misappropriation of an "advertising idea" that sets this case apart qualitatively from IP claims.  I'm not sure I see it.

Apparently the "advertising injury" language of the insurance coverage here is not without precedent, and the court gave an informative catalog of the "wide variety of concepts, methods, and activities related to calling the public's attention to a business, product, or service [that have] constitute[d] advertising ideas":
  • logo and brand name, Street Surfing, LLC v. Great Am. E&S Ins. Co., 776 F.3d 603, 611-612 (9th Cir. 2014);
  • patented telephone service enabling sale and promotion of products, Dish Network Corp. v. Arch Specialty Ins. Co., 659 F.3d 1010, 1022 (10th Cir. 2011);
  • advertising strategy of "trad[ing] upon a reputation, history, and sales advantage" associated with Native American made products, Native Am. Arts, Inc. v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 729, 733 (7th Cir. 2006);
  • concept of "Psycho Chihuahua" obsessed with Taco Bell food to advertise business, Taco Bell Corp. v. Continental Cas. Co., 388 F.3d 1069, 1072 (7th Cir. 2004);
  • word "NISSAN" to promote vehicles to public, constituting "quintessential example of trademark functioning to advertise a company's products," State Auto Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. The Travelers Indem. Co. of Am., 343 F.3d 249, 258 (4th Cir. 2003);
  • use of internet domain, CAT Internet Servs., Inc. v. Providence Wash. Ins. Co., 333 F.3d 138, 142 (3d Cir. 2003);
  • artwork and product model numbers designed to promote products (claim for trade dress infringement), Hyman v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 304 F.3d 1179, 1189 (11th Cir. 2002);
  • word "fullblood," connoting desirable quality, to advertise Simmental cattle breed, American Simmental Ass'n v. Coregis Ins. Co., 282 F.3d 582, 587 (8th Cir. 2002);
  • agent misrepresenting himself as working for another company for purposes of inducing customers to make purchases, Gustafson v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 901 F. Supp. 2d 1289, 1301 (D. Colo. 2012); and
  • patented technology used to market music for online sales, Amazon.com Int’l, Inc. v. American Dynasty Surplus Lines Ins. Co., 120 Wash. App. 610, 616-617, 619 (2004).
 "Advertising injury" is not "injury caused by other activities that are coincidentally advertised" (quoting Couch treatise).  "Otherwise stated, '[i]f the insured took an idea for soliciting business or an idea about advertising, then the claim is covered ... [b]ut if the allegation is that the insured wrongfully took a ... product and tried to sell that product, then coverage is not triggered'" (quoting Washington precedent and offering authorities in accord from other states).  Thus coverage is excluded in cases such as:

  • use related to manufacture and not marketing, Winklevoss Consultants, Inc. v. Fed. Ins. Co., 991 F. Supp. 1024, 1034 (N.D. Ill. 1998);
  • conspiracy to fix egg prices, Rose Acre Farms, Inc. v. Columbia Cas. Co., 662 F.3d 765, 768-769 (7th Cir. 2011);
  • disparagement of competitor's pineapples to undermine their advertising, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc. v. Transp. Ins. Co., 500 F.3d 640, 643, 646 (7th Cir. 2007);
  • advertising another's patented method for cutting concrete, Green Mach. Corp., v. Zurich-American Ins. Group, 313 F.3d 837, 839 (3d Cir. 2002);
  • design of product, Ekco Group, Inc. v. Travelers Indemnity Co. of Ill., 273 F.3d 409, 413 (1st Cir. 2001);
  • misappropriation of product design, Frog, Switch & Mfg. Co. v. Travelers Ins. Co.,
    193 F.3d 742, 749-750 (3d Cir. 1999);
  • taking of customer list and solicitation of customers from it, Hameid v. National Fire Ins. of Hartford, 31 Cal. 4th 16, 19-20 (2003);
  • manufacture and sale of patented product, Auto Sox USA Inc. v. Zurich N. Am., 121 Wash. App. 422, 427 (2004).

So memorize those, and let me know when you're ready for the exam.

The case is Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co. in Salem v. Vibram USA, Inc., No. SJC-12401 (Mass. Sept. 12, 2018).  Suffolk Law has the oral argument video of Feb. 6.  The case was heard by the full court upon granting direct appeal, and the unanimous opinion was authored by Associate Justice David A. Lowy, a Boston University law grad and former ADA and Goodwin Proctor litigator.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Statute of repose bars tort-like consumer claim, Mass. high court rules

Yesterday the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that a statute of repose bars a claim under the Commonwealth's key consumer protection statute, chapter 93A.  The case examines the oddly "contort" (contracts-torts) role of 93A and occasions a majority-dissent dispute over judicial construction of statute vs. "usurpation of ... legislative prerogative," i.e., corrective justice vs. distributive justice.

Chapter 93A is important in Massachusetts tort law because it is drawn much more broadly than the usual state consumer protection statute.  In a Massachusetts tort case, chapter 93A often provides a parallel avenue for relief and can afford a plaintiff double or treble damages, as well as fee shifting.  That makes it a powerful accountability tool in areas such as product liability, well beyond the usual consumer protection fare in trade practices.

The SJC, per Justice Cypher, published a sound primer on statutes of limitation and repose:

Statutes of repose and statutes of limitations are different kinds of limitations on actions. A statute of limitations specifies the time limit for commencing an action after the cause of action has accrued, but a statute of repose is an absolute limitation which prevents a cause of action from accruing after a certain period which begins to run upon occurrence of a specified event....  A statute of repose eliminates a cause of action at a specified time, regardless of whether an injury has occurred or a cause of action has accrued as of that date....  Statutes of limitations have been described as a "procedural defense" to a legal claim, whereas statutes of repose have been described as providing a "substantive right to be free from liability after a given period of time has elapsed from a defined event." Bain, Determining the Preemptive Effect of Federal Law on State Statutes of Repose, 43 U. Balt. L. Rev. 119, 125 (2014). The statutes are independent of one another and they do not affect each other directly as they are triggered by entirely distinct events.  [Citations omitted.]

Chapter 93A is covered by a four-year statute of limitations.  A six-year statute of repose covers tort actions arising from deficiencies in improvements to real property: "after the earlier of the dates of: (1) the opening of the improvement to use; or (2) substantial completion of the improvement and the taking of possession for occupancy by the owner."

In the instant case, the plaintiff sought relief for damage resulting from a fire 15 years ago.  The plaintiff attributed the fire to multiple deficiencies in electrical work completed by defendant contractors.  Arguing that the electrical work was not done in compliance with the state code, the plaintiff characterized 93A as "neither wholly tortious nor wholly contractual in nature."  The court, however, found the plaintiff's claim "indistinguishable from a claim of negligence," so barred by the statute.

Three justices dissented.   Chief Justice Gants in dissent pointed out that the general statute of repose does not mention chapter 93A, while the general limitations provision does.  And yet another statute, stating terms of both limitation and repose, purports to govern both contract and tort malpractice actions against doctors.  So the legislature knew how to write what it meant.  The general statute of repose, the chief observed, predated chapter 93A, so could not have anticipated it.  Moreover, statutes of limitation and repose have distinct policy objectives:

In short, as is alleged in this case, the property owner may be barred by the statute of repose from bringing a claim before he or she knows, or reasonably should know, that he or she even has a claim -- even where the defendant has fraudulently concealed the claim from the plaintiff. Consequently, a statute of repose reflects a legislative decision that it is more important to protect certain defendants from old claims than it is to protect the right of plaintiffs to enforce otherwise valid and timely claims.

Thus a statute of repose should not be construed to cover 93A absent plain legislative direction.  The chief concluded: "[T]his is a usurpation of a distinctly legislative prerogative."

The case is Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Construction, Inc., No. SJC-12352 (Mass. Aug. 29, 2018) (PDF opinion; oral argument via Suffolk Law School).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Decedent's reps fight Yahoo! for email access, beat federal preemption argument in state high court

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has rendered a thought-provoking judgment about postmortem access to a decedent's Yahoo! e-mail account.  The case is Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., No. SJC-12237, Oct. 16, 2017, per Justice Lenk.  The SJC nabbed the case sua sponte from Mass. App.  The case will be available soon from Mass.gov new slip opinions.

Yahoo! denied access to the personal representatives of the decedent's estate on two grounds: (1) that access was prohibited by the preemptive, federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) (1986), essentially a sectoral privacy statute, and (2) that the representatives' common law property interest in digital assets was superseded by Yahoo! terms of service (ToS).

The trial court ruled in favor of Yahoo! on the SCA grounds and opined only indeterminately on the ToS argument.  The SJC reversed and remanded.  The Court employed a presumption against implied preemption to find the representatives outside the "lawful consent" terms of statutory exemption in the SCA, which would require actual owner consent.  The SCA therefore provided no barrier to access under state law on these facts. This is an important precedent in state construction of federal law to limit the reach of the SCA.

Tantalizingly on the ToS front, the trial court held that it could not opine definitively on Yahoo!'s position because of unresolved questions about the formation and enforceability of the ToS as contract.  The SJC reiterated that the trial judge had not established whether a "meeting of the minds" had occurred as purported prerequisite to contract.  That's a compelling observation in our world, awash as it is with click-wrap adhesion agreements being held enforceable by the courts without serious scrutiny.  "Meeting of the minds," however much a staple of 1L Contracts, has been pretty much read out of the analysis in today's boilerplate world.

The case will be one to watch if it generates another appeal, but I'll be surprised if on these facts, Yahoo! goes to the mat if that means risking the ToS on the record.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Death of Civil Justice: It Was a Good Run, 900 years



Opening panel at Anglia Ruskin University Sports Law 2016: Leonardo Valladares Pacheco de Oliveira, Ian Blackshaw, Tom Serby, Andrew Smith, and Antoine Duval
Last week I was privileged to attend a tremendous one-day Sports Law program at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, focusing on the question, “the future of ‘the legal autonomy’ of sport.”  Experts in the academy and in practice gave timely and informative commentary on contemporary sport governance from perspectives of contract law, politics, and dispute resolution. 

Though justifiably through the lens of sport, the program raised a broader and important question concerning the future of civil justice.  Dispute resolution in international sport today is the province of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), in Lausanne, Switzerland, under the very loose supervision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal.  CAS has a complicated relationship with international sport governance organizations such as the IOC and FIFA.  Certainly the court is not their stooge.  At the same time, through the magic of contract law, the mandatory use of the arbitration system carries down through the echelons of world sport from the IOC to the national sporting federation, and all the way to the athlete.

Transnational sport governing bodies, such as the IOC and FIFA, want their disputes handled in this single channel, because it renders them largely immune to oversight by the democratic instrumentalities of the world’s governments, especially the courts.  The transnationals have legitimate and less legitimate motivations.  They fairly worry about potential liability in multitudinous courts, each national judiciary applying its unique domestic law anchored in local priorities and prejudices.  Bypassing national legal systems, the transnationals can conserve resources for objectives in the public interest, such as sport for development and peace, and the promotion of human health and competitive achievement.  The logic supporting consolidation of international dispute resolution under one supra-national banner is the same by which the U.S. Constitution places interstate commercial disputes in U.S. federal courts, supervening the potential vagaries and favoritisms of the states.

But international arbitration has its dark side—in fact, nearly literally, as CAS operates in the opacity that typically surrounds arbitration.  Observers, including journalists and NGO watchdogs, grow frustrated and skeptical, as secrecy breeds unfairness and unaccountability.  This problem is the same that has generated angst within the United States over the “secret justice” system that has so thoroughly superseded the civil trial—see the excellent work of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in its Secret Justice series, linked from here. 

Further threatening the integrity of these proceedings, the contracts that bind parties to arbitration, and are then construed in arbitration, generally are adhesion contracts: drawn up by the transnationals themselves, weighted to their favor, and presented as fait accompli to young athletes with Olympic gold medals dancing in their dreams.  Barrister Andrew Smith, Matrix Chambers, conceded that these contracts are not meaningfully negotiated.  Their acceptance at the international level apparently marks the same phenomenon that has been documented with alarm, but as yet no serious reform, at the consumer level within the United States in works such as Nancy Kim’s Wrap Contracts and Margaret Jane Radin’s Boilerplate.

Upon my inquiry, Smith pointed out that for many reasons, athletes, given the choice, would themselves prefer arbitration to redress in the courts.  A plaintiff often desires secrecy as much as a defendant.  An expert arbiter might be more likely than a civil court to reach a conclusion that recognizes the nuances of divided merits, rather than erring in favor of dismissal as against the plaintiff’s burden of proof.  Though affordable representation for claimants has been a problem for the CAS system, organized arbitration systems still do a better job looking out for claimant’s access to representation than the usual civil court.  And most important to potential litigants are the time and costs of civil justice, often prohibitive deterrents that make faster and cheaper arbitration more appealing.

Nevertheless, panelists agreed that for the arbitration system to work fairness, stakeholders including athletes must take part in developing the process.  Conference organizer Tom Serby of Anglia Law School emphasized the need for democratization of sport governing bodies.  Smith said that organization of athletes into representative bodies is essential, noting with approval that “the United States is farther along with collective bargaining.”

With disparate levels of enthusiasm for the merits of judicial abstention, three speakers—Serby; Antoine Duval of the Asser Institute,Den Haag; and Simon Boyes of the Centre for Sports Law atNottingham Law School—all opined that national courts have been generously deferential to private dispute resolution in international jurisdiction.  Quotes from the iconic British jurist Lord Denning were offered both for and against the position.  Denning on the one hand bemoaned the courts’ relative lack of expertise in matters of private regulation, respecting the brightly formalist lines of conserved judicial power.  On the other hand, he declared, as quoted in Baker v. Jones, [1954] 1 W.L.R. 1005, “‘If parties should seek, by agreement, to take the law out of the hands of the courts and put it into the hands of a private tribunal, without any recourse at all to the courts in case of error of law, then the agreement is to that extent contrary to public policy and void.’”  Duval and Boyes mapped the ground between, where court intervention seems justified.  Boyes boiled down viable grounds to the protection of natural justice, human rights, and free competition and trade.

Incidentally the same autonomy question was taken up in similar dichotomy by Judge Richard Matsch and then the Tenth Circuit in Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 435 F. Supp. 352 (D. Colo. 1977), rev’d & remanded, 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979).  Asked to intervene after an on-field altercation, Judge Matsch opined, on the “larger question” of “the business of professional football” and “the business of the courts,” that “the courts are not well suited” to allocate fault or probe causation.  For fear of excessive litigation and inconsistent rulings, any “government involvement” in the “self-regulated industry” of professional football was, in Matsch’s view, “best considered by the legislative branch”—Denning-like formalism.  Instead applying the law of recklessness to the dispute at hand, the Tenth Circuit disagreed.  Persuasive was the oft quoted reasoning of the Illinois Appellate Court in Nabozny v. Barnhill, 334 N.E.2d 258, 260—if a decision about teen athletes playing that other kind of football—that “some of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field.”

Well intentioned aspirations for meaningful athlete-as-stakeholder involvement and debate about the selective intervention of courts all gloss over the broader and more troubling trend of public, civil justice eclipsed by the private sphere.  I confess that what troubled me most about the sports lawyers’ commentaries on arbitration and autonomy was a problem beyond the scope of their charge: the disappearance of civil justice in our society at large.

Plenty has been written at the national level about vanishing civil justice and the rise of private dispute resolution.  But as the realities of globalization decree that every dispute becomes an international one—whether a youthful athlete against an international federation, or a homeowner against a floorboard makerit it seems that public civil justice is dying.  Blind deference to adhesion contracts is hastening the trend, and the courts seem plenty eager to stand by and cede power.  They purport to further the laudable aims of deference to experts or freedom of contract.  But courts have always been in the business of second-guessing professed experts, and the contemporary commercial contract is hardly a product of free choices.

Dystopian science fiction in popular culture has in recent years flourished upon an obsession with burgeoning social angst over the corporatization of public life.  In 2013 and 2014, the Canadian TV series Continuum traced the personal struggle of an anti-terrorism agent who came to doubt the virtue of the corporate-dominated future she was sent back in time to protect.  Themes of abusive corporate supremacy and submissive, corrupted government dominate the visions of current hits, such as Killjoys and The Expanse, the latter based on the novels of James S.A. Corey.  The next year will see the premieres of Incorporated, a dark Matt Damon-Ben Affleck project, and the plainly titled Dystopia, which imagines 2037: “Governments are now powerless puppets for the biggest corporations.”

Western democracy has 900 years of experience developing a public system of civil justice to patrol the boundaries of right and wrong among us.  We ought not jettison that system so readily, nor so casually.  We ought not capitulate to the conveniences of globalization, nor certainly to the burdens of transaction costs.  Would that we spend more time and energy trying to fix the public system that we have rather than ushering it into the past and replacing it with the corporatized private justice of our nightmares.