Know the Fine Print – Dispute Resolution

Fine Print by CJ Sorg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Fine Print by CJ Sorg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Every contract needs a dispute resolution clause – every contract. It’s something you should look for in every contract you read. If you’re given a contract to sign that doesn’t have one, I strongly recommend adding one in. That’s what I would do.

The dispute resolution clause in a contract is the how-we’re-going-do-deal-with-problems provision. It lays out how and where problems will be resolved when they occur.

How Problems will be Resolved
There are three main ways people general resolve problems in a contract:

  • Mediation: Hire a mediator to help you resolve the problem – more likely to results in “splitting the baby” and not a winner and loser.
  • Arbitration: Hire an arbitrator (or panel of arbitrators) to hear/review your arguments and make a decision. (This is what they used in Erin Brockovich.) Sometimes arbitration is faster and more cost effective than litigation, but not always.
  • Litigation: This is the traditional civil lawsuit. This is what I recommend for most contracts I write for clients.

You’re not limited to only these three options. You can have anything in your dispute resolution clause as long as it’s legal. So if you want to resolve disputes by throwing darts or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, you can.

Where Problems will be Resolved
The dispute resolution clause should specify in which county and state disputes will be resolved. If you’re writing the contract, you want the opposing party to have to fight you on your turf if there’s a problem. This is why most contracts I write for clients require them to resolve all disputes in Maricopa County, Arizona and that all parties agree to that jurisdiction. Without such a provision, you may find yourself having to travel to fight disputes in the opposing party’s state, and possibly needed to employ a local lawyer for additional assistance.

Which Law Applies
The laws in each state are slightly different. This is why it’s imperative that your contract state which state’s law will govern the contract for all non-federal claims. Federal claims (like many intellectual property issues) are governed by federal law. You don’t want to have a dispute within the dispute about which law applies to the state-law claims.

There may be other provisions in the dispute resolution clause like a requirement to notify the other party in writing if you believe they’ve breached the agreement and a set time in which they have to cure/fix it before you can take further action against them. Another clause to look for is a provision that requires the loser in a dispute to pay for the winner’s attorney’s fees. I like to add this into contracts I write. It makes people think twice before going after the other.

Next time you buy a ticket for a show, professional sports, travel, or sign up for an account on a website – read the fine print. See what the dispute resolution clause requires. You’ll quickly see that whoever writes the contract, does so with their (or their client’s) best interests (not yours) in mind.

If you need help writing or reviewing a contract, speak to a business lawyer about your needs and options. If you have questions about contracts that you want to discuss with me, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

What was up with General Mills’ Legal Terms?

General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I got lots of messages last week when it came out that General Mills’ legal terms said that if you downloaded their coupons, connected with them on social media, entered a contest, or purchased any of their products that you agreed to resolve all disputes with the company through binding arbitration or informal negotiation via email.

And everybody lost their minds.

I can understand requiring arbitration for disputes related to contests. I write terms of service for websites all the time and I also include a dispute resolution where my client specifies where, how, and using which state’s law problems will be resolved. I would never tell a client to write their terms in a way that dictates how they’re going to resolve problems that are not related to a website.

I think it’s ridiculous that they’d even try to tell consumers that making a purchase forces them to resolve disputes in arbitration unless those provisions are available on the packaging and in print that might make a consumer take notice. I’ve never thought to examine a cereal box for contract terms.

Thankfully General Mills saw the light and reversed its decision and voided the offensive terms this past Saturday. In a blog post, General Mills spokesperson Kirstie Foster wrote, “No one is precluded from suing us by purchasing our products at a store, and no one is precluded from suing us when they ‘like’ one of our Facebook pages.”

General Mills still supports arbitration for resolving disputes and I understand why. It can be a faster and more cost-effective way to resolve problems. However, some disputes are better left to litigation where there is the option to pursue a class-action lawsuit when the situation warrants it.

We agree to contract terms all the time. Every time we click the “I agree” button for an online service or to create an account on a social media platform, we are agreeing to the terms of the contract (even if we don’t read the terms). The next time you go to a concert or a professional sporting event, flip over your ticket and read the fine print on the back. That’s a contract. I have no problem with these contracts as long as they make sense for the situation and don’t overreach into scenarios where it would be unreasonable for the terms to extend.

My Neighborhood Whataburger

My Neighborhood Whataburger

For example, I recently heard that there was a sign at a Whataburger restaurant that put consumers on notice that by eating in the restaurant, they agreed to resolve all disputes related to their dining experience via arbitration. I tried to confirm this but I didn’t see such a sign in my neighborhood Whataburger. I visited their website and didn’t see such a provision; however, I was perturbed to see terms and conditions that said:

By giving us permission to use your post or tweet, you agree that we may, at our discretion, use your real or social media user name and the content of your post or tweet (including all accompanying images) on our website to promote our company, products and services for such time period as we wish. You give us the right to edit your post or tweet for brevity, clarity and the like and to modify any image in any manner we deem necessary to use it on our website. You will not have the advance right to review or approve what we post on our website….You will not receive any compensation for granting us the above rights. We agree that you may withdraw the permission you have given us at any time by sending us an email at customerrelations@wbhq.com.

Whataburger’s Facebook page says they can use anything you post on their page but I didn’t see any similar verbiage on their Twitter profile. I think they’re trying to set themselves up so they can use anything you post about the company on social media, including editing it which I’m not too keen about the verbiage they used.

This is a topic that is worth watching to see what becomes the norm in social media marketing. I f you want to talk more about terms of service or social media law, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.