Showing posts with label gig economy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gig economy. Show all posts

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.