Long v. Provide Commerce: Arbitration Clause in Browsewrap Agreement Held Unenforceable

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A California Court of Appeal affirmed an order issued by Judge Jane Johnson denying a motion to compel arbitration where the arbitration agreement was contained in an online “browsewrap” agreement. Long v. Provide Commerce, Inc., No. B257910, 2016 WL 1056555 (March 17, 2016) (slip op. available here). The plaintiff had purchased flowers through ProFlowers.com, a website operated by the defendant. In his putative consumer class action lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that, despite being advertised as a completed, assembled product, the flowers were delivered in a “do-it yourself kit requiring assembly.” Slip op. at 3. The defendant moved to compel arbitration based on an arbitration clause in the website’s Terms of Use.

In Long, the Terms of Use were available via a hyperlink at the bottom of each page on the website—what is known in e-commerce as a browsewrap agreement. A browsewrap agreement does not require any express manifestation of agreement to the Terms of Use; rather, the user agrees to the Terms simply by using the website. Slip op. at 7. This is in contrast to a “clickwrap” agreement, where the consumer must click on a checkbox indicating his assent to be bound by the Terms of Use in order to continue using the website. Id. As there was no dispute that the plaintiff had no “actual knowledge” of the Terms of Use when he made his online purchase, the court analyzed the design and placement of both the hyperlink and the website to determine whether they were “sufficient to put a reasonably prudent Internet consumer on inquiry notice of the browsewrap agreement’s existence and contents.” Id. at 8.

The question of “what sort of website design elements would be necessary or sufficient to deem a browsewrap agreement valid in the absence of actual notice” was an issue of first impression in California. Slip op. at 9. While the hyperlink to the Terms of Use appeared on every page of the website and was visible without scrolling down, the hyperlink was nonetheless deemed too inconspicuous to provide the plaintiff with inquiry notice. Id. at 12-13. First, the hyperlink was light green-colored on a lime green background, and thus could blend in. Id. at 13. Additionally, there was nothing on the ProFlowers.com website to notify the consumer that, in using the website to buy flowers, “he should also be on the lookout for a reference to ‘Terms of Use’ [elsewhere] on the website[].” Id. at 12. Also, when a consumer selected his purchase and proceeded to checkout, the hyperlinks were not, contrary to the defendant’s characterization, “located next to” the form fields that a consumer would fill out to complete his order. Rather, there were several layers of other text and images that a consumer would need to look past to find the Terms. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Terms of Use hyperlink in a confirmation email did not remedy the problem; in the email, the Terms of Use hyperlink appears in inconspicuous grey font on a white background and was “located on a submerged page,” forcing the recipient to scroll down past layers of information, advertisements, logos, and other hyperlinks. Id. at 13.

The opinion expressly focused on the “practical reality” of how a consumer would interact with the website and the confirmation email. Slip op. at 13. Although it did not need to decide this issue, the court opined that, even if the hyperlink had been displayed conspicuously on the website, “without notifying consumers that the linked page contains binding contractual terms, the phrase ‘terms of use’ may have no meaning or a different meaning to a large segment of the Internet-using public.” Id. The court thus “advised” online retailers to include a conspicuous textual notice rather than just a hyperlink. Id. at 12-13 (agreeing with Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 763 F.3d 1171 (9th Cir. 2014)). Finally, the Court of Appeal also held that, as the plaintiff was not bound by the Terms of Use browsewrap agreement, the plaintiff also was not bound by the forum selection clause included therein. Id. at 14-15.

Authored By:
Katherine Kehr, Senior Counsel