Court holds browsewrap agreement not enforceable

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Plaintiff filed a consumer fraud class action lawsuit against defendant, the operator of an ecommerce website. Defendant moved to have the case heard by arbitration, arguing that the arbitration provision in its website’s terms of use required the dispute to be arbitrated instead of heard in court. The terms of use were in the form of a “browsewrap” agreement — viewable by a hyperlink displayed at the bottom of each page of defendant’s website.

The court denied the motion, finding that the hyperlink to the terms of use (containing the arbitration provision) was too inconspicuous to put a reasonably prudent internet consumer on inquiry notice. Since the agreement was not enforceable, plaintiffs were not bound by the arbitration provision. Defendant sought review with the California Court of Appeal. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court.

It observed that for a browsewrap agreement to be enforceable, a court must infer that the end user assented to its terms. This may be more difficult to show than in situations involving “clickwrap” agreements, which require the user to affirmatively do something, such as check a box, to indicate his or her assent to the terms of use.

In this case, the court held that although an especially observant internet consumer could spot the defendant’s terms of use hyperlinks on some checkout flow pages without scrolling, that quality alone was not all that was required to establish the existence of an enforceable browsewrap agreement. Rather, as the Second Circuit observed in Specht v. Netscape, 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir.2002), “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility.”

Here, the defendant’s terms of use hyperlinks — their placement, color, size and other qualities relative to defendant’s website’s overall design — were simply too inconspicuous to meet that standard.

Long v. Provide Commerce, Inc., — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2016 WL 1056555 (Cal Ct. App., March 17, 2016)

About the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Patrick Finnegan under this Creative Commons license.

Website terms and conditions were unenforceable because of fraud

Duick v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 2011 WL 3834740 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. August 31, 2011)

Someone signed plaintiff up through a Toyota website to take part in a “Personality Evaluation.” She got an email with a link to a website, and on the second page that she had to click through, she was presented with the well-known check box next to the words “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions.”

Later plaintiff started getting creepy emails from an unknown male calling himself “Sebastian Bowler” who indicated that he was on a cross-country road trip to come and visit plaintiff. He even listed plaintiff’s physical address. One of the emails had a link to Bowler’s MySpace page, which revealed he “enjoyed drinking alcohol to excess.” A few days later plaintiff got another email from someone purporting to be the manager of the hotel in which Bowler had trashed a room, and attempted to bill plaintiff for the damage.

As one would expect, plaintiff was disturbed by these messages. She finally got an email with a link to a video that said Bowler was a fictional character and that the emails were part of an elaborate prank, all to advertise the Toyota Matrix.

Plaintiff sued Toyota for, among other things, infliction of emotional distress. Toyota moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the online terms and conditions contained an arbitration provision, so the case did not belong in court but before an arbitrator. The court rejected this argument, finding that the terms and conditions were void, because plaintiff’s agreement to them was procured by “fraud in the inception or execution.”

The court found that the terms and conditions led plaintiff to believe that she was going to participate in a personality evaluation and nothing more. A reasonable reader in plaintiff’s position would not have known that she was signing up to be the target of a prank. For example, the terms and conditions were under the heading “Personality Evaluation Terms and Conditions” and made vague and opaque references to terms such as “interactive experience” and a “digital experience.” Simply stated, plaintiff, through no fault of her own, did not know what she was getting herself into.

For these reasons, the court held that the terms and conditions were void, and all the provisions contained in those terms and conditions, including the purported agreement to arbitrate any disputes, did not bind the parties.

Forum selection clause in clickwrap agreement enforceable

Meier v. Midwest Recreational Clearninghouse, LLC, 2010 WL 2738921 (E.D. Cal. July 12, 2010)

Plaintiffs live in California and bought an RV online from a vendor in Minnesota. The vendor’s website terms of service had a provision requiring that all disputes “arising out of or related to the use” of the website be brought in state court in Minnesota.

When plaintiffs — who were unhappy about the RV — brought a lawsuit in federal court in California, defendants moved to dismiss for improper venue. The court granted the motion.

The court noted that under the Bremen case, forum selection clauses are prima facie enforceable. And the Carnival Cruise Lines case takes that notion even further, giving forum selection clauses this presumption of enforceability in preprinted agreements.

In this case, plaintiffs argued that the court shouldn’t enforce the forum selection clause because it wasn’t freely bargained for. And they claimed that enforcing it would effectively deny them their day in court.

But that did not sway the judge. The court found that there was no bad faith motive that put the forum selection clause in the clickwrap agreement. And even though litigating in Minnesota might be inconvenient for California residents, it was not enough to bar them from the judicial system.

Moreover, just like the Supreme Court noted in Carnival Cruise Lines, the presence of forum selection clauses can reduce the costs of litigation because they cut down on the number of pretrial motions arguing over venue. And they also help consumers — this cost savings should ostensibly be passed on.

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