Contracts. Agreements. Mouse Print.

Have you ever tried to read those contracts or terms of use from a utility company or an app for your phone or software for your computer? More often than not, the text on those contracts/agreements is so small you literally need a magnifying glass if not a microscope. This is referred to as “mouse print.”
For years now, companies have been using mouse print in their contracts, agreements and terms of service with their customers. There is a solid method behind these tactics. The truth is that companies know that most people don’t like to read long-winded contracts and terms of agreements loaded with confusing language and legalese. Then add tiny mouse print to the equation and you have a document that very few people want to bother reading.

AT&T. Legal Issues.

Telecommunications giant, AT&T, is no stranger to the legal battles and controversies over the use of mouse print. The problem for customers is that the mouse print prohibits them from participating in lawsuits against the company. Legal issues with customers are instead, pushed into binding arbitration, which involves a supposed neutral arbitrator who makes a ruling that both parties agree to abide to.
Lower court rulings regarding AT&T’s use of mouse print leading to binding arbitration have often sided with the plaintiffs. The opinion of the courts was that AT&T used this deceptive practice to save money by making it harder for customers to cancel their service without paying hefty cancellation charges.
In 2011, this issue finally made its way up all the way to the Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. The court ruled on the side of AT&T opining that binding arbitration is an efficient alternative to class-action lawsuits. In essence the ruling said AT&T did nothing illegal, siding with the old adage, buyer beware – emptor cavete.
Since the 2011 Supreme Court ruling, numerous customers of DirecTV have been filing lawsuits against the satellite provider over its early termination fee (ETF) policies. DirecTV is owned by none other than AT&T. Finally, a California court nullified the binding arbitration clause in DirecTV’s contract with its customers based on language in the contract, which states that the binding arbitration clause was not enforceable if it runs contrary to state law.
This week the Supreme Court revisited this issue in DirecTV v. Imburgia. They ruled 6 to 3 that their 2011 ruling in AT&T v. Concepcion stands under the Supremacy Clause and states must abide by the decision. Speaking for the majority, Justice Breyer wrote:
“No one denies that lower courts must follow this Court’s holding in Concepcion. The fact that Concepcion was a closely divided case, resulting in a decision from which four Justices dissented, has no bearing on that undisputed obligation. Lower court judges are certainly free to note their disagreement with a decision of this Court. But the “Supremacy Clause forbids state courts to dissociate themselves from federal law because of disagreement with its content or a refusal to recognize the superior authority of its source.”

So what does this mean for consumers?

It means that we must be extremely careful to the terms of agreement when we go into contracts with service providers. We must read the fine print – the mouse print and understand fully what we are agreeing to. If you are not comfortable with the terms, don’t sign on the dotted line and look for alternatives to the service you want.
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