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Saturday, May 16, 2009

District Court Holds Blockbuster Arbitration Provision Unenforceable

By Mehmet Munur

A District Court in Texas recently held Blockbuster’s website terms and conditions arbitration provision illusory and therefore unenforceable due to Blockbuster’s right to unilaterally modify it. The District Court cited to established Texas precedent to argue that nothing in the website terms prevented the arbitration provision's retroactive application.

The plaintiff sued blockbuster in connection with the controversial Facebook beacon program and its integration with Blockbuster as a violation of “the Video Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2710, which prohibits a videotape service provider from disclosing personally identifiable information about a customer unless given informed, written consent at the time the disclosure is sought.” The plaintiffs argued and the court held that the arbitration provision was illusory and therefore unenforceable.

The district court analyzed the Blockbuster Terms and Conditions under Texas law. The terms and conditions state:

Blockbuster may at any time, and at its sole discretion, modify these Terms and Conditions of Use, including without limitation the Privacy Policy, with or without notice. Such modifications will be effective immediately upon posting. You agree to review these Terms and Conditions of Use periodically and your continued use of this Site following such modifications will indicate your acceptance of these modified Terms and Conditions of Use. If you do not agree to any modification of these Terms and Conditions of Use, you must immediately stop using this Site.

In finding this run-of-the-mill terms of use provision illusory, the court relied not on another business-to-consumer case, but Fifth Circuit case analyzing business-to-business agreements.

More specifically, the District court relied on Morrison v. Amway where the distributors signed Amway’s standard distributorship agreement. Facing disputes relating to the calculation of profits, Amway instituted an arbitration provision and published it in its magazine as well as other media sent to the distributors. Amway required that the distributors sign an acknowledgement form and send it back to Amway. Though all distributors renewed their agreements with Amway, two different groups sued Amway in federal as well as state court, both of which were stayed pending litigation. The arbitrator issued judgments and awards without opinions and the district court confirmed these opinions. The parties appealed their case to the Circuit Court.

The Circuit Court examined Amway’s arbitration policy to determine whether it was a valid agreement to arbitrate under Texas law. While the distributors had agreed to conduct their business according to Amway’s Code of Ethics, which would be amended from time to time, “the only express limitation on that unilateral right [was] published notice.” The Circuit Court was concerned that this unqualified right to amend the arbitration policy might apply to disputes arising before as well as after its publication. The Circuit Court held that this unqualified right to modify the Code of Ethics was unenforceable.

The Circuit Court relied on two Texas Supreme Court decisions. In one case, Texas Supreme Court had concluded that application of the arbitration policy 10 days after reasonable notice would be enforceable. In another case, however, the Texas Supreme Court plainly stated that “if the defendant-employer retained the right to ‘unilaterally abolish or modify’ the arbitration program, then the agreement to arbitrate was illusory and not binding on the plaintiff-employee.”

The District Court, relying on Morrison v. Amway and the underlying Texas precedent, concluded that the Blockbuster arbitration provision was illusory. Based on this web of Texas Supreme Court, Circuit Court, and District Court opinions, companies using arbitration policies—either in human resources policies, supplier agreements, or website terms of use—should qualify them. Such qualification should include at least a 10 day delayed application period and an explicit statement that makes the arbitration provisions applicable only to disputes arising after reasonable notice to counter any arguments that the contracts are illusory.

The cases are Harris v. Blockbuster Inc., No. 09-217, (N.D. Texas Apr. 15, 2009) and Morrison v. Amway, 517 F.3d 248 (5th Cir. 2008).

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