Tag Archives: Contracts

Daughter’s Facebook post costs dad $80,000

A recent case illustrates why (1) it is important for parties to abide by the confidentiality provisions of settlement agreements, and (2) people who learn confidential information should keep their social media mouths shut.

Plaintiff sued his former employer (a private school) for age discrimination and retaliation. The parties later settled the case and entered an agreement containing the following provision:

13. Confidentiality … [T]he plaintiff shall not either directly or indirectly, disclose, discuss or communicate to any entity or person, except his attorneys or other professional advisors or spouse any information whatsoever regarding the existence or terms of this Agreement … A breach … will result in disgorgement of the Plaintiffs portion of the settlement Payments.

After the parties signed the settlement agreement, plaintiff’s college-age daughter posted this on Facebook:

Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.

facepalmDefendant school district refused to pay a portion of the settlement payments ($80,000), claiming plaintiff’s disclosure of the settlement to his daughter violated the confidentiality provision. Plaintiff asked the trial court to enforce the settlement agreement, which it did. Defendant sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court agreed with the school and reversed.

The court found that “before the ink was dry on the [settlement] agreement, and notwithstanding the clear language of section 13 mandating confidentiality, [plaintiff] violated the agreement by doing exactly what he had promised not to do.” And his daughter “then did precisely what the confidentiality agreement was designed to prevent, advertising . . . that plaintiff had been successful in his age discrimination and retaliation case against the school.”

Gulliver Schools, Inc. v. Snay, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 769030 (Fla.App. 3 Dist. Feb 26, 2014)

Photo credit Flickr user haikus under this Creative Common license.

“Right to audit” provisions in technology services agreements can benefit both parties

“Right to audit” provisions in technology services agreements are common. You’ve seen them. A typical section will read something like this:

Vendor will keep accurate and complete records and accounts pertaining to the performance of the Services. Upon no less than seven (7) days’ written notice, and no more than once per calendar year, Customer may audit, or nominate a reputable accounting firm to audit, Vendor’s records relating to its performance under this Agreement, including amounts claimed, during the term of the Agreement and for a period of three months thereafter.

Clearly these provisions generally benefit the customer, to give it some transparency and assurance that the vendor is performing the services according to the agreement and that vendor is charging customer for the services appropriately.

But a right to audit provision can benefit the vendor (and go against the customer) as well. As a recent court decision shows (Carlson, Inc. v. IBM, 2013 WL 6007508 (D. Minn. November 13, 2013)), a customer’s comprehensive audit rights can preclude it from claiming that vendor owes it a fiduciary duty.

In the case, the customer sued its software vendor alleging, among other things, that the vendor breached its fiduciary duty. The customer argued that it had to essentially “hand over the keys” of its operations to the vendor. But the court ruled that vendor did not owe customer a fiduciary duty because the customer had several important rights to know about and control the vendor’s performance.

The master services agreement between the parties reserved for the customer the right to audit the vendor’s performance and challenge its pricing and delivery of services. Under the agreement, customer had:

  • regular and recurring access to vendor personnel;
  • access to complete records and supporting documentation underlying vendor’s services;
  • the right to conduct operational audits to examine vendor’s performance of the services;
  • the right to audit performance for comparison to standards in the service level agreement;
  • the right to financial audits to verify the accuracy and completeness of invoiced charges.

The court found that “[t]hese audit and oversight provisions [were] meaningless if [customer] was as helpless as it [claimed].”

So while vendors may find right to audit clauses to be a nuisance, they should remember that the presence of such a clause could provide an important defense in litigation over the technology agreement.

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses negotiate and draft technology services and development contracts. He also handles many other issues involving the internet, copyright and trademarks, and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com.

Jury finds in favor of IMDb in case brought by actress over published age

Hoang v. IMDb.com, No. 11-1709, W.D.Wash. (Jury verdict April 11, 2013)

Actress Junie Hoang was upset that IMDb published her real age (she was born in 1971). She sued IMDb claiming it breached its Subscriber Agreement (particularly its privacy policy) by using information she provided to cross-reference public records, and thereby ascertaining her correct age.

The case went to trial on the breach of contract claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of IMDb.

Though we don’t know the jury’s thinking (we only have a simple verdict form), IMDb had argued, among other things, that its investigations of plaintiff’s birthday were in response to requests she had made. In 2008, plaintiff had asked IMDb to remove a false (1978) birthdate plaintiff had submitted a few years earlier. When IMDb conducted its own research, it found plaintiff’s real birthdate in public records, and published that. The jury found this did not violate IMDB’s Subscriber Agreement.

GoDaddy outage reminds us why limitation of liability clauses are important

The legal team at GoDaddy today probably had more than one conversation about Section 13 of the company’s Universal Terms of Service. That Section contains pretty widely used language which limits how badly GoDaddy could get hurt by an epic failure of its system like the one that happened today.

We are conspicuously told that:

IN NO EVENT SHALL Go Daddy, ITS OFFICERS, DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, OR AGENTS BE LIABLE TO YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON OR ENTITY FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, PUNITIVE, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES WHATSOEVER . . .

Language like this is critical to technology service agreements. Today’s huge blackout illustrates the extent to which GoDaddy would be on the hook if such a limitation were not in place. Thousands of sites were offline for hours, losing uncountable pageviews and ecommerce sales. Holding GoDaddy responsible for those millions of lost dollars (which would be in the categories of indirect, special and consequential damages) could put a company into bankruptcy. GoDaddy would be big enough (probably) to pick up the tab in such a situation once or twice. Smaller enterprises would likely not be as lucky.

This kid is like GoDady inasmuch as he's trying to limit his liability.

To illustrate the effect of limitation of liability clauses, I have often used the example of similar language in Microsoft’s end user license agreement for Office. Because that is there, you cannot go after Microsoft for the business you lose if Word fails on your computer and you miss the deadline for submitting that big proposal. After today we have a new, perhaps more relevant example. GoDaddy would be pretty protected if you claim that you missed out on that million dollar client because your website was down.

So if you were looking for me through my site today, let me know, so I can send a bill for what you would have paid me to GoDaddy. Then again, I guess I’ve already shown why that won’t get paid.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Mikol under this Creative Commons license.

Wedding photographer not responsible for risque photos of bride posted online

Bostwick v. Christian Oth, Inc., 2012 WL 44065 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. January 10, 2012)

Plaintiff bride logged onto her wedding photographer’s website and saw photos of herself wearing only underwear. She emailed an employee of the photographer, who promised to take the offending photos down. But they remained on the website even after plaintiff shared the online password with her family and friends.

So she sued the photographer for breach of contract, fraud and concealment, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court threw the case out on summary judgment. Plaintiff sought review, but the appellate court affirmed.

Breach of contract

The court found that defendant was authorized by agreement to post the photos. Defendant owned the copyright in the photos and otherwise had the right to put the proofs online. Any demand by plaintiff that the photos be taken down did not serve to revoke any of defendant’s rights, as plaintiff never had the rights to make such a determination to begin with. Moreover, the court found that because the agreement between the parties had an integration clause which provided that any amendments had to be in writing, the subsequent communications between plaintiff and defendant’s employee did not serve to amend the contract. (This decision by the court is puzzling, as the communications about taking the photos down were apparently by email. Other New York courts have held emails sufficient to amend written contracts.)

Fraud and concealment

To have been successful on her fraud and concealment claim, plaintiff was required to show, among other things, that she reasonably relied on defendant’s statement that the underwear photos had been taken offline before she gave the password to her friends and family. The court found in favor of defendant on this point because plaintiff could have checked to see whether the photos were actually taken down before she allowed others to access the photos. What’s more, the court found that the failure to take the photos down was not “concealment” but merely an oversight.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress

Despite its sympathy with plaintiff, and an acknowledgment that having others see the photos would be embarrassing and upsetting, the court found that plaintiff failed to establish a case of negligent infliction of emotional distress. This part of the case failed because plaintiff did not show that she had been exposed to an unreasonable risk of bodily injury or death. There was nothing in the record to cause plaintiff to fear that she was exposed to physical harm.

Facebook victorious in lawsuit brought by kicked-off user

Young v. Facebook, 2010 WL 4269304 (N.D. Cal. October 25, 2010)

Plaintiff took offense to a certain Facebook page critical of Barack Obama and spoke out on Facebook in opposition. In response, many other Facebook users allegedly poked fun at plaintiff, sometimes using offensive Photoshopped versions of her profile picture. She felt harassed.

But maybe that harassment went both ways. Plaintiff eventually got kicked off of Facebook because she allegedly harassed other users, doing things like sending friend requests to people she did not know.

When Facebook refused to reactivate plaintiff’s account (even after she drove from her home in Maryland to Facebook’s California offices twice), she sued.

Facebook moved to dismiss the lawsuit. The court granted the motion.

Constitutional claims

Plaintiff claimed that Facebook violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court dismissed this claim because plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the complained-of conduct on Facebook’s part (kicking her off) “was fairly attributable to the government.” Plaintiff attempted to get around the problem of Facebook-as-private-actor by pointing to the various federal agencies that have Facebook pages. But the court was unmoved, finding that the termination of her account had nothing to do with these government-created pages.

Breach of contract

Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was based on other users harassing her when she voiced her disapproval of the Facebook page critical of the president. She claimed that in failing to take action against this harassment, Facebook violated its own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

The court rejected this argument, finding that although the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities may place restrictions on users’ behavior, it does not create affirmative obligations on the part of Facebook. Moreover, Facebook expressly disclaims any responsibility in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities for policing the safety of the network.

Good faith and fair dealing

Every contract (under California law and under the laws of most other states) has an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, which means that there is an implied “covenant by each party not to do anything which will deprive the other parties . . . of the benefits of the contract.” Plaintiff claimed Facebook violated this implied duty in two ways: by failing to provide the safety services it advertised and violating the spirit of the terms of service by terminating her account.

Neither of these arguments worked. As for failing to provide the safety services, the court looked again to how Facebook disclaimed responsibility for such actions.

The court gave more intriguing treatment to plaintiff’s claim that Facebook violated the spirit of its terms of service. It looked to the contractual nature of the terms of service, and Facebook’s assertions that users’ accounts should not be terminated other than for reasons described in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. The court found that “it is at least conceivable that arbitrary or bad faith termination of user accounts, or even termination . . . with no explanation at all, could implicate the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”

But plaintiff’s claim failed anyway, because of the way she had articulated her claim. She asserted that Facebook violated the implied duty by treating her coldly in the termination process, namely, by depriving her of human interaction. The court said that termination process was okay, given that the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities said that it would simply notify users by email in the event their accounts are terminated. There was no implied obligation to provide a more touchy-feely way to terminate.

Negligence

Among other things, to be successful in a negligence claim, a plaintiff has to allege a duty on the part of the defendant. Plaintiff’s negligence claim failed in this case because she failed to establish that Facebook had any duty to “condemn all acts or statements that inspire, imply, incite, or directly threaten violence against anyone.” Finding that plaintiff provided no basis for such a broad duty, the court also looked to the policy behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230) which immunizes website providers from content provided by third parties that may be lewd or harassing.

Fraud

The court dismissed plaintiff’s fraud claim, essentially finding that plaintiff’s allegations that Facebook’s “terms of agreement [were] deceptive in the sense of misrepresentation and false representation of company standards,” simply were not specific enough to give Facebook notice of the claim alleged.

Software contractor not bound by EULA it clicked on behalf of client

BMMSOFT, Inc. v. White Oaks Technology, Inc., 2010 WL 3340555 (N.D.Cal. August 25, 2010)

Plaintiff, a software development company, sued defendant, a company that was performing software installation services for it client, the U.S. Air Force. Plaintiff alleged that defendant violated the End User License Agreement (“EULA”) for the software by copying and distributing the software in violation of the terms of the EULA.

Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it should not be bound by the EULA, since when it purportedly clicked on the “I Agree” button during installation, it was doing so as an agent on behalf of a disclosed principal, namely, the federal government.

The court agreed, finding that the purchase orders clearly disclosed that defendant would be installing the software on behalf of its government client. And the terms of the EULA were clear in designating that the “You” authorized to use the software was not the defendant, but the government, at the location specified in the order.

So the court threw out the breach of license claim. One is left to wonder why facts that support copying and distribution of the Software in a manner prohibited by the terms of the EULA would not also support copyright infringement. But apparently there was no such claim in this case. Perhaps there are some nuances of the defendant’s conduct that would not necessarily violate a condition, but be merely a breach of covenant.

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Browsewrap website terms and conditions enforceable

Major v. McAllister, — S.W.3d —, 2009 WL 4959941 (Mo. App. December 23, 2009)

The Missouri Court of Appeals has issued an opinion that reflects a realistic grasp of how people use the web, and also serves as a definitive nod to self-responsibility. The court refused to accept a website end user’s argument that she should not be bound by the website terms and conditions that were presented to her in the familiar “browsewrap” format.

Click

Ms. Major used a website called ServiceMagic to find some contractors to remodel her home in Springfield, Missouri. Each page she saw during the process had a link to the website terms and conditions. At the point where she submitted her contact information to facilitate the signup process, she was presented with a link to the website’s terms and conditions. We’ve all seen this countless times — the link read, “By submitting you agree to the Terms of Use.”

Major admitted she never clicked on the link and therefore never read the terms and conditions. But had she clicked through she would have read a forum selection clause providing that all suits against ServiceMagic would have to be brought in Denver, Colorado.

When Major sued ServiceMagic in Missouri state court, ServiceMagic moved to dismiss, citing the forum selection clause. The trial court granted the motion and Major sought review. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

Major relied heavily on Specht v. Netscape, 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002). The court in Specht held that end users of Netscape’s website who downloaded a certain application were not bound by the terms and conditions accompanying that download because the terms were not visible on the screen without scrolling down to see them.

But in this case the court found the terms and conditions (including the forum selection clause) to be enforceable. In contrast to Specht, the ServiceMagic site did give immediately visible notice of the existence of the terms of the agreement. Even though one would have to click through to read the terms, the presence of the link was sufficient to place the website user on reasonable notice of the terms, and subsequent use by the end user manifested assent to those terms.

Click image courtesy Flickr user smemon87 under this Creative Commons license.

Court upholds eBay forum selection clause

Tricome v. Ebay, Inc., 2009 WL 3365873 (E.D. Pa. October 19, 2009)

Everyone who signs up to use eBay has to assent to the terms of eBay’s User Agreement. Among other things, the User Agreement contains a forum selection clause that states all disputes between the user and eBay must be brought to court in Santa Clara County, California.

After eBay terminated plaintiff Tricome’s account, Tricome sued eBay in federal court in Pennsylvania. eBay moved to dismiss or to at least transfer the case, arguing that the forum selection clause required it. The court agreed and transferred the case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Plaintiff had argued that the court should not enforce the forum selection clause because it was procedurally and perhaps substantively unconscionable. The court found the agreement not to be procedurally unconscionable because Plaintiff did not have to enter into the agreement in the first place — he only did it to increase his online business. Furthermore, eBay did not employ any high pressure tactics to get Plaintiff to accept the User Agreement. Moreover, eBay had a legitimate interest in not being forced to litigate disputes all around the country.

The court likewise found the User Agreement was not substantively unconscionable either. It would not “shock the conscience” for a person to hear that eBay — an international company — would undertake efforts to focus litigation it is involved with into a single jurisdiction. Furthermore, having the forum selection clause would conserve judicial and litigant resources, in that parties and the courts would know in advance where the appropriate place for disputes concerning eBay would be heard. Finally (and rehashing an earlier point regarding procedural unconscionability), Plaintiff had a meaningful choice — he could have decided not to do business on eBay in the first place.

Map photo courtesy Flickr user sidewalk flying under this Creative Commons license.

Clickwrap binding despite claim of no opportunity to read terms

Via Viente Taiwan, L.P. v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 2009 WL 398729 (E.D. Tex. February 17, 2009)

A federal court in Texas held the clickwrap agreement between United Parcel Service and one of its customers was binding. After plaintiff Via Viente sued UPS in Texas, UPS moved to transfer venue to the Northern District of Georgia, citing to a forum selection clause in a license agreement governing Via Viente’s use of a UPS-provided software program that allowed Via Viente to print labels and manage product shipments.

Via Viente argued that the clickwrap agreement (and by extension the forum selection clause) was not binding because a UPS technician installed the application on a Via Viente computer, and therefore Via Viente never had a chance to agree to the terms. The court rejected that argument for the following three reasons:

  • Via Viente was a sophisticated company and “should have been aware that terms of service were forthcoming” after having signed the general Carrier Agreement with UPS that required the use of the software;
  • It was “difficult to believe” that Via Viente would have left the UPS technician installing the software unsupervised. Moreover, it was not UPS’s practice to install the software unsupervised;
  • Via Viente had kept the benefit of the bargain (convenience and “palatable” shipping costs) so it would have been inequitable to allow it to disavow provisions it did not like.

After finding the clickwrap agreement to be binding, the court went on to find the forum selection clause enforceable, and transferred the matter to the Northern District of Georgia.

EULA photo courtesy Flickr user johntrainor under this Creative Commons license.