Category: Consumer Protection Law


Supreme Court Arbitration Rhetoric v. Reality and AT&T

Lawyers keep telling clients that arbitration is a matter of contract, not coercion. That follows Supreme Court rhetoric that’s belied by Supreme Court practice.  The Court’s pending case in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion gives the Court a final chance to resolve the gap between its talk and action concerning arbitration. 

 I doubt, however, the Court will seize the opportunity.  Instead, the Court likely will continue to tell us that its arbitration jurisprudence is merely applied contract law, while its applications will continue to coerce people into arbitration because the Court has established a national policy favoring arbitration. 

That is the lamentable assessment provided in my new article on the subjectRhetoric versus Reality in Arbitration Jurisprudence: How the Supreme Court Flaunts and Flunks Contracts (and Why Contracts Teachers Need Not Teach the Cases).

As with practicing lawyers, legal scholars have generally ignored this rhetoric-reality gap too, many routinely repeating that arbitration is all about contract (a notable  exception is David Horton).  As a teacher of Contracts for 20 years, I began to hear this rhetoric last summer, beginning with my receipt of a reprint of an Illinois Law Review article by noted arbitration scholar Thomas Stipanowich

In a comprehensive review of the state of arbitration law and practice, the piece criticized editors of Contracts casebooks for paying too little attention to arbitration and especially to how the attention given was often extremely negative. With modest exceptions, including in Ian Ayres’ casebook, Contract law books and courses have not generally treated arbitration much and the treatment often is in the context of illustrating doctrines like unconscionability or lopsided terms not comporting with reasonable expectations of a community. 

I began following pending Supreme Court cases on the subject and scrutinizing those handed down in preceding terms. I found the talk about contracts and contract law intriguing because it made it sound as if arbitration was at the center of contract law and that contract law was at the center of arbitration law. That made it seem irresponsible for me, Contracts casebook editors, and other teachers, to leave arbitration at the margins of the Contracts course or outside it altogether.

Alas, the truth is that contract and contract law have so little to do with what happens in arbitration jurisprudence, particularly compared to Court rhetoric, that it would confuse or mislead students taking Contracts to provide it as an illustration. To that extent, arbitration warrants the glancing treatment in the Contracts course it gets, followed by an optional upper-level course.  

Among the many costs of the Court’s rhetoric-reality gap are those manifest in the AT&T case, on which the Court is now struggling to write an opinion.

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IP vs. Auto Safety

Two items of note on this topic recently. First, the NYT reports on NHTSA’s lazy approach to IP overreach by automakers:

For years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has declined to post on its Web site reports from automakers about problems with their cars and about specialized warranty extensions that could save consumers large sums on repairs. . . . The technical service bulletins . . . provide information on unusual problems with vehicles . . . . Special service campaigns are a form of technical service bulletin that often tell dealers of warranty extensions for particular repairs. “Many manufacturers have asserted that technical service bulletin information is copyrighted and will not waive those copyrights,” [said] an agency spokeswoman . . . . “N.H.T.S.A. has a legal obligation to abide by copyright law.”

NHTSA could easily excerpt the gist of bulletins as fair use. Or it could communicate facts in them without using any of the actual language or diagrams they contain. Anyone who has taken a week of copyright knows about the idea/expression or fact/expression dichotomy. But copyfraud obfuscates this obvious workaround.

Second, ongoing legal battles over Toyota’s sudden acceleration incidents may lead to “security measures typically reserved for classified government secrets:”

The fight centers on access to Toyota’s source code, the software that controls sophisticated engine management and other electronics in its vehicles. Plaintiffs’ attorneys believe the code might contain evidence that could bolster their cases. The Japanese auto maker has been fighting to restrict access to the software, saying it needs to protect what it calls the “crown jewel” of its global enterprise.

Toyota said the attorneys should only be allowed to view parts of the code in a highly secure room, the likes of which is used by members of Congress or in trials against terrorists and spies for viewing classified information.

As I note in the piece, this kind of “qualified transparency” will become more and more common in tech disputes. Debates about “channeling” innovation protection (to patent or trade secret law) will increasingly need to take into account how patent law’s disclosure function could help more people understand potentially dangerous products.


Sprint ETFs Invalidated on Appeal

Earlier this month a California appellate court affirmed a lower court ruling invalidating early termination fees in cell phone service contracts.  The affirmance stressed different reasoning than the lower court (which I discussed here). To the appellate court, Sprint’s ETFs were invalid because it set them without regard for their relation to the company’s actual damages; the trial court rested its ruling in part on how the fees were vastly lower than Sprint’s actual damages.  

In a dozen lawsuits nationwide, champions of cell phone customers argued that ETFs penalize them by trapping them with a single provider. Most of the lawsuits settled before final resolution and few judicial opinions addressed the merits. The Sprint case is an exception.  Both sides agreed that Sprint’s damages would be difficult to determine with reasonable certainty, meeting prong one of the traditional test for the validity of liquidated damages clauses. 

Proponents of liquidated damages clauses, especially in consumer contracts, must show that they made a reasonable endeavor to set them with some relation to actual damages, however difficult they are to fix. Inquiry focuses on both what the party intended and the effects. In Sprint’s case, it couldn’t point to any intention to relate the ETFs to its losses. Rather, the entire ETF program was created and implemented by the company’s marketing department as a way to keep customers. Though Sprint may not have intended to set fees exceeding losses, as it contended, that argument gained it nothing because it showed no intention whatsoever concerning the relationship between the ETFs and its losses.

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Perhaps a Sign of Things to Come

A Federal Reserve staffer suggested this week that the Fed will defer a key consumer decision to the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). That decision concerns homeowners’ rights of rescission. The rescission right gives a homeowner a certain period of time (in some cases up to three years) to challenge a mortgage on the grounds of misrepresentation or inadequate disclosure and requires the mortgagor to release its lien on the subject property. As you might guess, the rescission remedy has been invoked extensively in the recent economic downturn.

The mortgage industry has been encouraging the Federal Reserve to address the rescission issue with a sense of urgency, perhaps fearing what might happen to the rule after July 21, 2011—the date that authority on such issues is transferred to the CFPB. The Federal Reserve looked poised to make a move, having proposed a rule in September 2010 that would significantly restrict the circumstances under which a homeowner could seek to rescind a mortgage. The comment period for the proposed rule closed on December 23rd, and, despite opposition by consumer groups, many thought the Federal Reserve would continue to pursue the proposal. 

A decision by the Federal Reserve to defer this particular issue to the CFPB would be consistent with the CFPB’s objective to consolidate the oversight and implementation of consumer protection regulations in a single agency. It may not, however, produce a result consistent with the intent of the Federal Reserve’s proposed rule and the desires of many in the mortgage industry. One of the CFPB’s charges is to oversee the mortgage and credit card industries, including the language and substance of consumer disclosures. Given the CFPB’s preemption provisions (which favor enforcing state consumer protection laws), the CFPB’s proposed partnership with state attorneys general and the robo-signing and related concerns swirling around the mortgage industry, I doubt that weakening consumers’ rescission rights is high on the priority list.

I look forward to seeing how this and other pressing consumer issues play out, particularly after July 21st. The CFPB is starting to take shape (see here and here), and it appears that it will hit the ground running. (For interesting Q&A with Elizabeth Warren on the CFPB, see here and here.) In any event, the agency certainly has its work cut out for it.


Three Policy Interventions for Reducing Privacy Harms

Thanks so much to Danielle and Concurring Opinions for inviting me to blog. This is an exciting opportunity and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you. Hopefully you will find these posts interesting.

There are many policy interventions that legislators can impose to reduce harms caused by one party to another. Two that are very often compared are safety regulations (mandated standards) and liability. They lend themselves well to comparison because they’re generally employed on either side of some harmful event (e.g. data breach or toxic spill): ex ante regulations are applied before the harm, and ex post liability is applied after the harm.

A third approach, one that we might consider ‘sitting between’ regulation and liability, is information disclosure (e.g. data breach disclosure (security breach notification) laws). I’d like to take a few paragraphs to compare these alternatives in regards to data breaches and privacy harms.

Three Interventions


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Gambling? In Casablanca?

With each passing week, there are more embarrassing revelations about foreclosure practices. Here’s a mind-boggling chart, limning failures to follow “obligations . . . from secured credit and trust law.” Adam Levitin argues that most legal observers are slow to recognize how bad things have gotten, because they believe “there’s no way there were massive screw-ups because thousands of top Wall Street legal minds were working on securitization deals.” Levitin responds: “the best legal minds in the country weren’t doing diligence on endorsements on securitization deals.”

After reading Levitin’s testimony, and much of Michael Hudson’s book The Monster, I was reminded of a Global Witness report called Undue Diligence: How Banks Do Business with Corrupt Regimes. The report shows how major financial institutions have enhanced their profits by not looking too carefully into the details of transactions they engage in. As Global Witness concludes:
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Argument in Class Waiver Case Favors Consumers, States

Power between enterprises and individuals hangs in the balance as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether organizations can prevent people from banding together to challenge crooked practices that involve stealing small sums from large numbers of people. The judges and lawyers engaged in a riveting oral argument on the hot topic in a case pitting the mighty AT&T against a couple of California citizens. The case also pits the federal government against the states.

At issue are the clauses that companies now routinely include in standard form consumer contracts requiring disputes to be resolved in one-on-one arbitration. People give up the right to mount class claims in arbitration or court. Some unscrupulous companies use this as a way to cheat large numbers of people out of small amounts of money.

Companies following this route benefit from a strict federal law (the Federal Arbitration Act, or FAA) saying states cannot treat arbitration clauses differently than they treat other contracts. Courts nationally have struggled to evaluate whether these clauses pass standard contract tests of unconscionability. Yesterday’s case will determine whether those states are taking the right approach.

The principal theme of questioning probed how the Justices could tell if a state’s judges comply with the FAA’s mandate to treat arbitration clauses like other contracts. The company’s lawyer (Andrew Pincus) said it was simple: look at the general unconscionability doctrine applied to all contracts and compare it to the unconscionability doctrine applied to arbitration clauses.

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Nicolas Cage Broke on $20 Million A Year

Include the Hollywood-based actor Nicolas Cage on the list of victims amid the real estate crisis and ensuing foreclosure flood. A California court last week ordered him to honor the judgment of a Nevada court by paying $2.4 million to a lender who foreclosed on the actor’s Las Vegas resort home. As with many other borrowers, though, Cage doesn’t have the money to pay.

That may sound astonishing for an actor whose 50 roles in big films over 20 years make him among the highest paid people in the world. Cage’s problem apparently is that, despite the massive cash, he still lives beyond its means.

Besides an apparent spending compulsion, during the real estate boom of the 2000s, he acquired dozens of properties whose prices seem to have risen catastrophically just before he bought them, and fell to the depths in the last three years. Not having any savings to buffer the losses, he’s in default not only on housing bills but owes millions in back taxes.

Financial embarrassment is compounded by bad publicity about his lifestyle. Some he brought on himself. By filing a $20 million lawsuit blaming his straits on his manager, Samuel Levin, Cage provoked a counterclaim with mortifying allegations of a life out of control, even by Hollywood standards.

The allegations in Cage’s complaint sound far-fetched; Levin’s counterclaim sought a mere $120,000 for unpaid fees, small under a contract that paid Levin 5% of Cage’s income since 2001 (running to many millions). That may explain reports saying the suit and countersuit have been dismissed. But some of the pleadings are salacious–with lessons for everyone.

NOTE: For more stories like this about celebrities and their dealings, see the author’s new book CONTRACTS IN THE REAL WORLD: STORIES OF POPULAR CONTRACTS AND WHY THE MATTER.
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Future of the Internet Symposium: Will Robotics Be Generative?

I don’t know that generativity is a theory, strictly speaking. It’s more of a quality. (Specifically, five qualities.) The attendant theory, as I read it, is that technology exhibits these particular, highly desirable qualities as a function of specific incentives. These incentives are themselves susceptible to various forces—including, it turns out, consumer demand and citizen fear.

The law is in a position to influence this dynamic. Thus, for instance, Comcast might have a business incentive to slow down peer-to-peer traffic and only refrain due to FCC policy. Or, as Barbara van Schewick demonstrates inter alia in Internet Architecture and Innovation, a potential investor may lack the incentive to fund a start up if there is a risk that the product will be blocked.

Similarly, online platforms like Facebook or Yahoo! might not facilitate communication to the same degree in the absence of Section 230 immunity for fear that they will be held responsible for the thousand flowers they let bloom. I agree with Eric Goldman’s recent essay in this regard: it is no coincidence that the big Internet players generally hail from these United States.

As van Schewick notes in her post, Zittrain is concerned primarily with yet another incentive, one perhaps less amenable to legal intervention. After all, the incentive to tether and lock down is shaped by a set of activities that are already illegal.

One issue that does not come up in The Future of the Internet (correct me if I’m wrong, Professor Zittrain) or in Internet Architecture and Innovation (correct me if I’m wrong, Professor van Schewick) is that of legal liability for that volatile thing you actually run on these generative platforms: software. That’s likely because this problem looks like it’s “solved.” A number of legal trends—aggressive interpretation of warranties, steady invocation of the economic loss doctrine, treatment of data loss as “intangible”—mean you cannot recover from Microsoft (or Dell or Intel) because Word ate your term paper. Talk about a blow to generativity if you could.

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Future of the Internet Symposium: Preserving Open Space for User Innovation

First off, thanks to Concurring Opinions and Danielle Citron for hosting this online symposium on Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop it.  Before I launch into my own thoughts, I want to add my own version of the praise that the book has already won.  It is an immensely readable work that succeeds in showing us where we’ve been, how we got to where we are, and the steps to take to avoid going where we’d rather not be.

I have three brief points, involving a comparison with Japan, some thoughts about competition, consumer protection and innovation, and finally, a somewhat different take on the lessons of Wikipedia.

This symposium is incredibly timely, particularly given the concern in recent weeks about the Google/Verizon agreement.  In TFOTI, Zittrain highlights the risks that threaten the Internet’s future, and explains how the net neutrality debate is in some ways a mismatch for those risks.  For example, he points out that the migration from the Internet to, in his words, tethered appliances like the iPhone and TiVo, ultimately provide an end-run around net neutrality on the Internet (pp. 177-185).  Accordingly, he argues that preserving generativity is a better-tailored principle.

The lead in The Economist this week also takes on the Google/Verizon agreement, and critiques net neutrality from a different angle calling America’s “vitriolic net-neutrality debate” “a reflection of the lack of competition in broadband access.”  If you’re reading this symposium, you probably already know, possibly because you read this, that in many other industrialized countries incumbent telcos were forced years ago – and not just in a superficial way – to open up wholesale broadband to competitors.

I’m in Tokyo this academic year thanks to Temple’s long reach across the globe and to my gracious hosts at Keio University Law School.  I’ve been travelling to Japan repeatedly since the late 1980s, and one of the changes I’ve been  struck by is how a country that in the 1990s was generally held to be well behind the U.S. in telecommunications now seems ahead in broadband and mobile Internet.  Read More