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Category: Contract Law & Beyond

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Misunderstanding General Mills

On April 15, General Mills added language to its website which purported, “in exchange for benefits, discounts,” to subject consumers’ claims for use of General Mills products to arbitration and a class-waiver. General Mills, notably, was free to sue in court at will. When the Times noted the change, General Mills reversed course, stating:

[W]e never imagined this reaction. Similar terms are common in all sorts of consumer contracts, and arbitration clauses don’t cause anyone to waive a valid legal claim. They only specify a cost-effective means of resolving such matters. At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.

 Like Jeremy Telman, I found the emphasized sentence to be mysterious. There are only two ways to square the historic facts with “mischaracterization — or just very misunderstood” claim:

(1) General Mills thinks that “suing us” and “brining a claim in our bespoke arbitral forum” are the same thing; or

(2) General Mills believes that liking “one of our Facebook pages” isn’t the same as “joining our sites as a member [or] joining our online community.”

The first claim is sophistry, the second is frivolous. Roderick Palmore, GC of General Mills, Chicago Law grad, and head of compliance, had a bad week.

But what’s triply irritating about this whole saga is the lack of precision in the Times and elsewhere as to what, exactly, is wrong with the terms. General Mills is right to point out that many consumer contracts contain arbitral class action waivers, though many do not.  Contrary to the other speculation, there’s nothing per se illegal about provisions which shift costs in litigation. General Mills’ arbitration proceeding is actually quite generous about cost shifting, waiving a filing fee for disputes under $5000, and paying for the arbitrators themselves. Though proceduralists generally recoil from arbitration trumping procedure, what’s obviously at stake here isn’t individuals losing “their” right to sue, it’s class action lawyers losing their right to act as private attorneys general in quasi-regulatory cases. The ultimate question here – are class actions in federal court required for consumer protection – is harder than the commentariat has acknowledged.

But there is a legal problem with these particular Terms.  I don’t think they create a contract which binds consumers. Here’s the now-deleted triggering paragraph:

In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.

The problem is that most people who participate in such activities are probably not actively required to click to agree to these terms, and consequently aren’t bound to them under traditional (or Principles of Software Contracts) doctrinal rules. They will lack notice, and consequently not be contractually engaged. Even the FAA requires a contractually enforceable arbitration clause to subject claims to binding arbitration – such terms can’t be imposed absent agreement. That is, the terms are unenforceable not because of their content but because of the process of their adhesion.

General Mills obviously knows this. Indeed, I bet that Mr. Palmore has a memo in his file from some aGC, or associate at a law firm, saying so.  But he proceeded with the term rollout anyway because he knows that the issue will be required to be presented to an arbitrator first under the FAA. [Update: I'm informed that assent issues are instead usually reserved to courts in the first instance.]  Maybe that arbitrator will ignore the law!  And, he hopes, the in terrorem effects of the purported class-waiver of the clause will sufficiently deter plaintiffs in large false-labeling cases so as to make the terms’ eventual defeat cost-justified.

Or, to put it differently, contract law provides a clear path to enforceability of terms just like these. General Mills attempt to shortcut that path should be seen as an attempt to leverage consumers’ ignorance of the law, and lawyers’ risk aversion, to drive down claims. It’s bad – not good – news for consumer advocates that General Mills withdrew this sally. It would have been a excellent test case of the limits of Carnival Cruise and Concepcion.

Now you can insist on control of your material. You can insist on veto power over everything; down to casting and choice of directors and script approval, you can insist on all those things. J.K. Rowling insisted on all those things. And J.K. Rowling got all those things because there were enough people interested in that. Now if you’re not J.K. Rowling, and you insist on all those things, the studios are not going to be very interested or less studios will be interested in it so you’ll get less money or none at all. Or alternatively, you can not insist on everything and you can just sell them the book and what they do with it is what they do with it and you have to live with it. You no longer have approval over anything, you no longer have…you know what I mean? And those are the two extremes. In between of course there’s a vast area of shades of gray.

— George R. R Martin

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George R. R. Martin on Copyright, Inheritance, and Creative Control

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

This is Part 3 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For Part 2, click here. For the audio file, click here.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, but you just generally right. The trope something that really speaks to folks. I guess maybe that raises a question about your fans generally. You’ve obviously got a huge fan base and I’ve been reading a little bit about them. One question that comes up a bunch of different times is fan fiction and what do you think about fan fiction?

MARTIN: I’m opposed to fan fiction.

HOFFMAN: Why?

MARTIN: Well number one, its copyright infringement and it can potentially endanger my copyrights and my trademarks if I were to allow it. Also, yes maybe it’s a gesture of love that they love your characters and they love your world and all that but it’s not the kind of gesture of love that I really want. And for aspiring writers and some of these people, sure it’s a wide range of fan fiction writers, some who are terrible. Some of them are actually talented writers. I think for the talented writers it’s particularly tragic because they should be doing their own material.

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[If] you read some fantasy, the magic is omnipresent. In Harry Potter the magic is omnipresent, a primarily magic universe. They got magic for everything there. Every time you turn around there’s a new magic thing that’s popping up. A magic hat or a magic sword or a spell to solve something. Because magic is so omnipresent, you don’t have to [resort] to mundane ways to…solve a murder mystery. “Who murdered Joe? Well we’ll just give him the truth spell and he’ll tell us who murdered Joe,” or “We’ll just cast this other spell and open the veil of time and we’ll be able to see who murdered Joe.” If those options exist then it’s very difficult to write a traditional John Grisham type novel or a detective novel or anything that depends on evidence and all that because there are all these magical ways of getting it.

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Lawyers in Westeros

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner's office?

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner’s office?

This is Part 2 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For the audio file, click here.

 HOFFMAN: Are there lawyers in your books that are just in the wings off stage that haven’t yet appeared?

MARTIN: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really considered that until I started reading those links that you sent me. There are certainly laws but are there special classes of advocates who make their living by interpreting those laws? My inclination is probably not because the laws my books are administered by lords. In some ways it’s government as much for men than law. We like to say our government in the United States is a government of laws not men. In some ways the Seven Kingdoms I think is the reverse. There is basis of a law but also a lot depends on who is interpreting it and who is sitting in the Lord’s seat, who is sitting on the Iron Throne and how they settle these disputes.

HOFFMAN: Well those are ultimate questions but I think in two places one could have imagine lawyers and one of them again will be this church trial because there were church lawyers in the ecclesiastical church system there were lawyers who specialized in canon law. And the second one was at least twice I can think of in the books there’re trials by combat. And I don’t really know what the other alternative would be but I assume would be trial by jury – the path that Tyrion did not choose both times. And I was thinking –

MARTIN: Well he does choose in the first…in the second…second of his two trials, he is being tried – it’s not by jury – it’s by lord. There’s no jury of his peers, no twelve people that are randomly picked but there are three lords sitting on his case and hearing the evidence.

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Why the Mirror Image Rule Still Matters

This story, which took the academic world by storm, demonstrates the continued vitality of the mirror image rule:

“[A philosophy tenure track job] candidate . . . sent the following email to search committee members at Nazareth College, in Rochester, N.Y., after receiving a tenure-track job offer in philosophy:

“As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier[:]

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.”

She ended the email by saying “I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.”

In a reply, the search committee said it had reviewed the requests, as had the dean and vice president of academic affairs.

“It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered,” the email continues. “Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.”

The search committee ended by thanking the candidate for her “interest” and wishing her “the best in finding a suitable position.”

As many have pointed out, an employment lawyer might be able to make some hay if emails within the department discussed #2 in any detail. (Which they likely did, since academics have no email discipline.)

Why did our subjects sometimes behave like 19th century legal formalists, and other times like realists from the Wisconsin School of relational contract theory?

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Intuitions About Contract Formation

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan and I have a new paper up on SSRN, titled Intuitions About Contract Formation.  In the great Redyip tradition, I thought I’d blog about it. From the abstract:

Legally, much depends on the moment that a negotiation becomes a deal.  Unlike torts or civil procedure or any area of public law, the laws of  promissory exchange only apply to parties who have manifested their assent to be bound. Even so, the moral norms of exchange and promise are quite firmly  entrenched and more broadly applicable than just legal contracts. Norms of promise-keeping and reciprocity, interpersonal courtesy, community reputation—these kinds of intangible goods have real effects on contract behavior. For this reason it is especially surprising that intuitions about formation have gotten so little attention from legal and behavioral scholars. This paper offers five new empirical studies of commonsense approaches to contract formation. The first section of this Article surveys intuitions about what the law of formation is. In a world in which the vast majority of contracts are signed without the advice of counsel, most people have to draw inferences based on their background knowledge and beliefs. It turns out that the colloquial understanding of contract formation is about the formalization of an agreement rather than actual assent.

In the second part of the Article, we tease out the intuitive relationship between formation and obligation. The law of contracts is very clear that  parties’ obligations to one another turn entirely on whether or not they have mutually manifested assent to be bound. And, in fact, we find that behavioral results suggest that legal (or legalistic) formation does enhance commitment to a deal irrespective of its power to impose sanctions; it seems that the law has freestanding normative force. However, we also find that the subjective sense of obligation is not as black or white as the law would predict. Parties are influenced by the natural, informal obligations to one another that build over the course of a transaction, increasing their commitment to the partnership in stages rather than all at once at the moment of formation.

To set the paper up a bit, Tess and I had previously found that when subjects are told they are in legally binding contracts, they lower their guard against exploitation & treat contracting parties like partners.  This raised a question that Intuitions tries to answer:  what are subjects’ naive views about formation?  We show that they differ systematically from the operative doctrinal rules, which creates a window for exploitation — when consumers believe themselves to be in contracts but aren’t. For example, individuals think that payment is contract, not agreement.  In one experiment, for example, we asked:

“Peter is ordering new custom speakers from Audionuts, a mail-order sound system retailer. Peter calls the company and speaks at length to a customer service representative, hashing out the details of his order, which include speakers for his main media unit (TV and stereo system) as well as his portable devices (phone and iPad). Peter and the customer service representative arrive at a final product specification, including a price and delivery date. Peter gives the rep his credit card number, and the charge is immediately posted to his account. Eight days later, Peter receives his speakers in the mail. Inside the box is a piece of paper headed “Terms and Conditions.” The Terms and Conditions sheet includes information about the duration of the warranty (90 days), the dispute resolution process (mandatory arbitration) and the return policy (return within 14 days for full refund for any reason). The Terms and Conditions sheet states at the bottom, “If you do not agree to these terms and conditions, please return the product within 14 days for a full refund.” Peter uses the speakers with no problems for two months.”

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Note: payment & acceptance without return dominate over the oral agreement, or reading terms.  (Other experiments replicate this finding on payment, and expand it to signature.)

At the same time, we find that, in the absence of information about law or legal rules, individuals tend to begin to act like partners significantly earlier than the moment where they’ve concluded a deal.  Indeed, a mere offer appears to motivate feelings of reciprocity by the offeree. Why did our subjects sometimes behave like 19th century legal formalists, and other times like realists from the Wisconsin School of relational contract theory? Our tentative conclusion is that subjects themselves draw a distinction between legal and moral obligations. They view their legal obligations as heavily dependent on formal manifestation of assent via signature. But their moral obligations are attendant to both legal formalism and also to more fine-grained moral norms. This is an interesting case in which we see some evidence of a legal context, contract, in which moral norms are not entirely determined by legal norms. But when subjects are told that they are in a contract, in a sense it makes it so.

 

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Some Rather Good Advice

rasberry martiniFrom the 6th edition of the Summers/White/Hillman Treatise on the UCC, section 2:20.

“Under the present state of the law we believe that there is no language that a lawyer can put on a form that will always assure the client of forming a contract on the client’s own terms . . . If a seller must have a term to reduce its liability but cannot strike a bargain for it, the only answer may be to raise the price, buy insurance, or, as a last resort, have an extra martini every evening and not capitalize the corporation too heavily.”

This is exactly correct, though I can’t recommend martinis.

 

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The End of the ABA

The American Basketball Association, that is.  The NBA has finally negotiated a buyout of their crazy contract with the Silna brothers (which I’ve posted about before) that gave these former owners of the St. Louis Spirits a share of the league’s TV revenue in perpetuity.  How much will the buyout cost?  At least $500 million (on top of the money the NBA has shelled out since 1976).

Read those contracts carefully folks.

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Contracts Casebook Survey Results

The frightful stress gripping legal education is one reason why all law professors may be interested in the newly-released results of the Washington Law Review survey of law teachers of Contracts conducted in mid-2013.

Available here, the results from 138 respondents consist of numerical summaries of multiple choice questions and synthesis of their written comments that I culled.  A sampling from the latter appears below.

The results are of inherent interest to those teaching Contracts and speak to broader questions of legal pedagogy of value to others, including the allocation of time in the first year, the utility of the case method of instruction, and desire for change versus the tug of tradition.

(The survey was done in connection with a symposium inspired by my recent book, Contracts in the Real World, which has also just been published, here, featuring contributions from Aditi Bagchi, Brian Bix, Larry DiMatteo, Erik Gerding, Charles Knapp, Jake Linford, and Jennifer Taub.)

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Stipulated Damages, Exculpatory Clauses and Unconscionability

On re-reading Discover Bank v. Superior Court (Cal. 2005) I found myself getting hung up on a conceptual problem you might be able to help me with.  The Discover Bank court considered the validity of class action arbitration waivers. Holding such waivers unconscionable as a matter of law, the court halted (that is, until Concepcion) arbitration’s inexorable conquest of consumer litigation.  The court reasoned was that such waivers presented issues of both procedural and substantive unconscionability.  Procedural, the waivers were default-forcing “bill stuffers” and consequently not meaningfully chosen.  Substantively, “they may operate effectively as exculpatory contract clauses . . . because . . . damages in consumer cases are often small . . and the class action is often the only effective way to halt and redress [wrongdoing.]“

The question I have is what distinguishes “exculpatory clauses” – typically thought to be against public policy – from ordinary “stipulated damages” clauses, which are subject to reasonableness review. I unaware of any scholarship that tries to define exactly what stipulated damages are (and are not). Consider two possibilities:

  • To the extent that stipulated clauses are broadly defined, so as, for example, to include bespoke procedure, courts’ permissive treatment of stipulated damage clauses would seem to then imply vastly more private-party control over remedies than the traditionally-narrow scope that the term stipulated damage implies.
  • But perhaps such clauses are narrowly defined – that is, the stipulation must relate only to damages flowing from the contract (i.e., a term that limited parties’ ability to seek specific performance would not count as a stipulated damages clause, nor would a waiver of damages for a tort). In that case the Discover Bank court’s categorical move is more defensible, but it’s not obvious that the line between damage and remedy makes sense analytically.

A third possibility is that stipulate damage reasonableness review is limited to scenarios where some remedies remain on the table, regardless of whether the remedy arises out of a claim related to the contract or not; the categorical public policy bar from Discover Bank applies when all remedies are precluded.  Discover Bank is, again, a bad case for that claim, since not all contract remedies were precluded, only those which would deter future harms.

Anyway, it’s a puzzle.  Thoughts?

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Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.