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Restatement of Consumer Contracts—On-Line Symposium

posted by Adam Levitin

The Yale Journal on Regulation is holding an on-line symposium about the draft Restatement of the Law of Consumer Contracts, which is scheduled for a vote at the American Law Institute's annual meeting this May.  The launching point for the symposium are a pair of articles in JREG that take sharp issue with the empirical studies that underlie the draft Restatement.

The American Law Institute (ALI) is a self-appointed college of cardinals of the American legal profession.  It's a limited size membership organization that puts out various publications, most notably "Restatements" of the law, which are attempts to summarize, clarify, and occasionally improve the law.  Restatements aren't actually law, but they are tremendously influential.  Litigants and courts cite them and they are used to teach law students.  In other words, this stuff matters, even if its influence is indirect. 

The draft Restatement of Consumer Contracts is founded on a set of six quantitative empirical studies about consumer contracts.  This is a major and novel move for a Restatement; traditionally Restatements engaged in a qualitative distillation of the law.  Professor Gregory Klass of Georgetown has an article that attempts to replicate the Reporters' empirical study about the treatment of privacy policies as contracts.  He finds pervasive problems in the Reporters' coding, such as the inclusion of b2b cases in a consumer contracts restatement.  

A draft version of Professor Klass's study inspired me and a number of other advisors to the Restatement project to attempt our own replication study of the empirical studies of contract modification and clickwrap enforcement.  We found the same sort of pervasive problems as Professor Klass.  While the ALI Council completely ignored our findings, we wrote them up into a companion article to Professor Klass's.  

Some of the pieces posted to the symposium so far have been focused on replication study methodology (sort of beside the point given the very basic nature of the problems we identified) or defenses of the Reporters including mixed statutory-contract decisions in their data sets (which is no defense to inclusion of b2b cases or duplicate cases or vacated cases, etc.). But Mel Eisenberg has contributed an important piece that highlights some of the substantive problems with the draft Restatement, namely that it guts consumer protections.  For example, it would require findings of both procedural and substantive unconscionability for a contract to be unconscionable, while many states only require substantive unconscionability. Not surprisingly, I am unaware of any consumer law expert (other than the Reporters) who supports the project.  

But this thing that should really be a wake up call that something is very, very off with this Restatement project is the presence of outside opposition, which is virtually unheard of in the ALI process.  Every major consumer group (also here, here, and here), weighed in in opposition as well as 13 state attorneys general (and also here), and our former co-blogger (and also former ALI Vice-Chair), Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Nor has the opposition been solely from consumer-minded groups.  The US Chamber of Commerce and the major trade associations for banking, telecom, retailers, and insurers are also opposed (albeit with very different motivations).  Simply put, it's hard to find anyone other than the Reporters (and the ALI Council, which has a strong tradition of deference to Reporters) who actually likes the draft Restatement.  

So, if you're an ALI member, get informed.  If you know an ALI member, make sure that s/he is informed.  This is coming for a vote in May and if enacted would be bad policy, based on the legal equivalent of "junk science."  This isn't what the ALI should be doing.  

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