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Getting to “yes”: Ninth Circuit provides guidance on formation of “browsewrap” arbitration agreements

Posted in Arbitration

In the three years since AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, courts have largely been rejecting substantive attacks on arbitration agreements that waive class actions.  By contrast, in some cases plaintiffs have succeeded in avoiding arbitration by arguing that they never agreed to it in the first place.

The latest case to address such questions of contract formation comes from the Ninth Circuit, which held last week in Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble, Inc. that  plaintiff Kevin Nguyen had not agreed to arbitration because he and similarly situated consumers lacked sufficient notice of the company’s online “browsewrap” terms of use.  Because the Ninth Circuit applied New York law governing contract formation—and because the court indicated that it would have come to the same conclusion under California law—the decision is an important one for all businesses that engage in online commerce in the United States.

In the opinion, the Ninth Circuit distinguished between the familiar “clickwrap” process—in which a user affirmatively accepts terms by, for example, clicking “I agree” after receiving notice of the terms—and “browsewrap,” in which a company makes the relevant terms available to users on the web site (usually by providing a hyperlink), but does not require a customer to record his or her assent to the terms.

In Nguyen, each page on Barnes and Noble’s web site included a link to the applicable terms of use. If followed, the link would direct a user to the terms, which provided that a user accepts the terms by “visiting any area in the Barnes & Noble.com Site, creating an account, [or] making a purchase.” The terms, among other things, provided that parties would resolve their disputes by arbitration on an individual basis.

In determining whether Nguyen had agreed to those terms, the court of appeals focused on whether he had received “reasonable notice” of them.  The court pointed out that Nguyen was not “required to affirmatively acknowledge the Terms of Use before completing his online purchase” —the “clickwrap” model.  Nor was there “any evidence in the record that Nguyen had actual notice of the Terms of Use.”  The court said, however, that if there had been “actual notice”—presumably meaning proof that the plaintiff had in fact read (or at minimum was aware of) the terms—“the outcome of this case might be different,” because “courts have consistently enforced browsewrap agreements where the user had actual notice of the agreement.”

But in the absence of “actual notice,” the Ninth Circuit  held, “the validity of the browsewrap agreement turns on whether the website puts a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the terms of the contract.” The answer to that question depends on website “design and content,” including the “conspicuousness and placement of the ‘Terms of Use’ hyperlink” and other design characteristics. Browsewrap agreements will not be enforceable, according to the court of appeals, when the hyperlink is “buried at the bottom of the page or tucked away in obscure corners of the website where users are unlikely to see it.” In the court’s view, “consumers cannot be expected to ferret out hyperlinks to terms and conditions to which they have no reason to suspect they will be bound.”

Certainly not every court would agree with the Ninth Circuit’s approach to “browsewrap” agreements.  As the court itself admitted, Barnes & Noble’s web site provided a “conspicuous hyperlink” to the terms of use “on every page of the website”—and in some places, the “link appears either directly below the relevant button a user must click on to proceed in the checkout process or just a few inches away.”  While the Ninth Circuit held that even this degree of notice is insufficient under California and New York law, the decisions of other courts suggest that they would take a different approach.

Nonetheless, Nguyen is likely to have a significant impact on the enforceability of online contracts, both in the Ninth Circuit and elsewhere.   Accordingly, businesses may wish to consider reviewing their online contracting processes; in many cases, it may be relatively straightforward to adopt changes that satisfy the Nguyen court’s concerns.