New provisions in online terms of service of no effect without notice to customer

Questions remain, however, as to whether right to notice may be waived

Douglas v. U.S. Dist. Court for the Central Dist. of Ca, — F.3d —-, No. 06-75424, 2007 WL 2069542 (9th Cir. July 18, 2007)

Plaintiff Douglas signed up for long distance service with AOL. Some time later, Talk America acquired AOL’s rights under the contract, and changed the terms, which were posted online. Talk America added provisions relating to additional charges, a waiver of the right to class action suits, an arbitration clause, and a forum selection clause providing for suits to be brought in New York. Douglas claimed he was not provided with notice of the changed provisions when they purportedly became effective.

Douglas did not find out about the new charges until four years later, and when he finally did, he filed a federal class action suit against Talk America. Citing to the later-modified agreement, Talk America moved to compel arbitration. The district court granted the motion. Because the Federal Arbitration Act at 9 U.S.C. 16 does not authorize interlocutory appeals of a district court order compelling arbitration, Douglas sought a writ of mandamus from the Ninth Circuit. The court granted the writ, vacating the district court’s order compelling arbitration.

The Ninth Circuit applies a five-factor test, from Baughman v. U.S. Dist. Court, 557 F.2d 650 (9th Cir. 1977), to determine whether a writ of mandamus should be issued. The most important factor in this test is whether the district court’s order was “clearly erroneous as a matter of law.”

The appellate court held that the district court erred in holding that Douglas was bound by the terms of the revised contract, through a “fundamental misapplication[] of contract law,” going “to the heart of [Douglas's] claim.” The court cited to cases holding that a party cannot unilaterally change the terms of a contract, but must obtain the other party’s consent before doing so, as a revised contract is merely an offer and does not bind the parties until it is accepted. Further, citing to Williston on Contracts, the court held that “an offeree cannot actually assent to an offer unless he knows of its existence.” In this case, “[e]ven if Douglas’s continued use of Talk America’s service could be considered assent, such assent [could] only be inferred after he received proper notice of the proposed changes.”

The case is silent on what might constitute proper notice. It is also not clear from the opinion (and the district court pleadings are not available on PACER), whether the original AOL terms of service included a provision stating that continued use of the service after changes had been posted would constitute acceptance of those changes. So although the case establishes that an e-commerce customer has the right to receive notice of changes to online terms of service, the question of whether that right can be waived is not answered in the opinion.