November 2014

The UETA: Are Attorneys Automatically Authenticating Every Email?

Dylan Quinn, MJLST Lead Note Comment Editor

The work week is winding down and you are furiously trying to reach an agreement with opposing counsel on some issue or dispute. You email back and forth until it appears you have reached an agreement – at least for the weekend. You will tell your client about the essential terms next week to see if you should “finalize” everything with the other side.

I don’t want to ruin your weekend, but you may have already bound the client to an enforceable agreement. How, you ask, can this be possible if I did not sign anything? Well, in light of the UETA and developing case law, that automatic signature block at the bottom of all your emails might be enough.

Minnesota Statutes Section 481.08 provides that an “attorney may bind a client, at any stage of an action or proceeding, by agreement made … in writing and signed by such attorney.” In addition, Minnesota has long joined almost every other state by adopting a variation of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA). The purpose of the UETA is to provide a legal framework for the use of electronic signatures and records in government of business transactions, making them as legal as paper and manually signed signature. In sum, the UETA will apply to agreements reached under Section 481.08.

Minnesota Statutes Section 325L(h), defines “electronic signature” as “an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.” Furthermore, Section 325L.05 (b), makes clear that the UETA in Minnesota only applies to transactions between parties where they both have “agreed to conduct transactions by electronic means,” which is determined by the “context and surrounding circumstances, including the parties’ conduct.” However, any attorney negotiating a settlement or other stipulation via email will open themselves up to the argument that they intended to transact business electronically, so the central question is whether or not an attorney intended the signature block to constitute a legally significant act that authenticates the email, thus binding the client to a settlement or other agreement.

It has long been held that an email chain can constitute a binding agreement. This past summer, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, held that “an electronic signature in an email message does not necessarily evidence intent to electronically sign a document attached to the e-mail.” See SN4, LLC v. Anchor Bank, fsb, 848 N.W.2d 559, 567 (Minn. Ct. App. 2014). While the decision adds to a growing body of jurisprudence in this area, the question of automated signature blocks was tabled by the decision and the parties involved were not attorneys. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied review this past September.

Other jurisdictions can offer some guidance. For example, In New York, where another law outside the UETA effectively serves the same purpose, it has long been held that automated imprints or signatures were insufficient to authentic every document. See Parma Tile Mosaic & Marble Co. v. Estate of Fred, 663 N.E.2d 633, 635 (NY Ct. App. 1996) (finding for Statute of Frauds purposes, automatic imprint of “MRLS Construction” on every faxed document did not amount to “sender’s apparent intention to authentic every document subsequently faxed.”).

In Texas, there is a split among the Courts on the issue of an attorneys signature block creating an enforceable agreement. Compare Cunningham v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 352 S.W.3d 519, 529-30 (Tex. App. 2011) (determining settlement agreement had not been reached because the Court declined “to hold that mere sending … of an email containing a signature block satisfies the signature requirement when no evidence suggests that the information was typed purposefully rather than generated automatically.”), with Williamson v. Bank of New York Mellon, 947 F. Supp. 2d 704, 710 (N.D. Tex. 2013) (disagreeing with Cunningham because (1) the attorney must have typed in the signature block information “at some point in the past,” (2) a broad view of the electronic signature definition comports with UETA’s purpose, and (3) “email communication is a reasonable and legitimate means of reaching a settlement in this day and age.”).

On the one hand, it seems like a strong argument to point out the fact that all emails contain the signature block. How can that possibly evidence the requisite intent to authenticate statements or agreements? Do we really want to allow attorneys to use this argument any time they get close enough to reaching an agreement when emailing back and forth? In response, one must ask: in what instance should we allow an attorney to seemingly agree with opposing counsel via email, but get out of it because they did not use “/s/”, and just had their automated signature block?

Regardless of the outcome, the potential impact of a decision one way or the other will have far reaching impacts on legal practice, and more specifically litigation, in Minnesota. As the Court recognized in Williamson, “email communication is a reasonable and legitimate means of reaching a settlement in this day and age.” If the entire purpose of the UETA was to facilitate electronic transactions, and the Minnesota Supreme Court is in charge of providing professional and ethical guidance for the profession within the state, they should grant review as opposed to tabling the issue.

Until then, all parties transacting business electronically, but especially attorneys, should be conscious of that little signature block they typed in the first day they set up their email account.


An Authorship-Centric Approach to the Authentication of Social-Networking Evidence

Sen “Alex” Wang, MJLST Staff Member

In Volume 13 Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Ira P. Robbins called for special attention for social-networking evidence used in civil and criminal litigation and proposed an authorship-centric approach to the authentication of such evidence. In recent years, social-networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become an ingrained part of our culture. However, at least as it appears to Robbins, people are stupid with regard to their online postings since they document their every move no matter how foolish or incriminating on social-networking sites. The lives and careers of not only ordinary citizens, but also lawyers, judges, and even Congress members have been damaged by their own social-networking postings.

Social-networking sites are designed to facilitate interpersonal relationships and information exchanges, but they have also been used to harass, intimidate, and emotionally abuse or bully others. With no effective check on fake accounts or false profiles, the anonymity of social-networking sites permits stalkers and bullies to take their harmful conduct above and beyond traditional harrying. The infamous Lori Drew and Latisha Monique Frazier cases provide excellent examples. Moreover, hackers and identity thieves have also taken advantages of the personal information posted on social-networking sites. Thus, Robbins argued that the growth in popularity of social-networking sites and the rising number of fake accounts and incidents of hacking signal that information from social-networking sites will begin to play a central role in both civil and criminal litigation.

Often unbeknownst to the social-networking user, postings leave a permanent trail that law-enforcement agents and lawyers frequently rely upon in crime solving and trial strategy. Robbins argued that the ease with which social-networking evidence can be altered, forged, or posted by someone other than the owner of the account should raise substantial admissibility concerns. Specifically, Robbins stated that social-networking postings are comparable to postings on websites rather than e-mails. Thus, the authentication of social-networking evidence is the critical first step to ensuring that the admitted evidence is trustworthy and, ultimately, that litigants receive a fair and just trial.

Robbins, however, further argued that the current judicial approaches to authentication of such evidence have failed to require rigorous showings of authenticity despite the demonstrated unreliability of information on social-networking sites. In the first approach, the court effectively shirks its gate-keeping function, deflecting all reliability concerns associated with social-networking evidence to the finder of fact. Under the second approach, the court authenticates a social-networking posting by relying solely on testimony of the recipient. The third approach requires testimony about who, aside from the owner, can access the social-networking account in question. With the fourth approach, the court focuses on establishing the author of a specific posting but failed to provide a thorough framework.

As a solution, Robbins proposed an authorship-centric approach that instructs courts to evaluate multiple factors when considering evidence from social-networking websites. The factors fall into three categories: account security, account ownership, and the posting in question. Although no one factor in these categories is dispositive, addressing each will help to ensure that admitted evidence possesses more than a tenuous link to its purported author. For account security, the inquiry should include at least the following questions: (1) Does the social-networking site allow users to restrict access to their profiles or certain portions of their profiles? (2)Is the account that was used to post the proffered evidence password protected? (3) Does anyone other than the account owner have access to the account? (4) Has the account been hacked into in the past? (5) Is the account generally accessed from a personal or a public computer? (6) How was the account accessed at the time the posting was made? As to account ownership, a court should address, at a minimum, the following key questions: (1) Who is the person attached to the account that was used to post the proffered evidence? (2) Is the e-mail address attached to the account one that is normally used by the person? (3) Is the alleged author a frequent user of the social-networking site in question? Finally, the court should ask at least these questions regarding the posting in question: (1) How was the evidence at issue placed on the social-networking site? (2) Did the posting at issue come from a public or a private area of the social-networking website? (3) How was the evidence at issue obtained from the website?

This authorship-centric approach properly shifts a court’s attention from content and account ownership to authorship, it underscores the importance of fairness and accuracy in the outcome of judicial proceedings that involve social-networking evidence. In addition, it fit within the current circumstantial-evidence authentication framework set out by Federal Rules of Evidence 901(b)(4) and will not require the courts to engage in a more exhaustive inquiry than is already required for other types of evidence.


Republicans Win, Earth Loses

Vinita Banthia, MJLST Staff Member

The results of last Tuesday’s midterm elections were somewhat of a victory for climate-change deniers around the country. In Iowa, Joni Ernst, a long-time climate change denier beat Democratic candidate Bruce Braley in the race for Senate. Ernst has remarked that she has “not seen proven proof that [climate change] is entirely man-made.” Meanwhile Colorado elected climate change skeptic Cory Gardner over Mark Udall and Oklahoma elected one of the environment’s biggest enemies: James Inhofe. Inhofe has long believed that the dangers of climate change are a hoax and recently wrote a book expressing the same sentiment. Ironically, Inhofe will also serve as the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

At the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014, President Obama pledged to world leaders that the United States is committed to doing its part in reducing carbon emissions while also maintaining economic growth. This extended Republican majority in the House will push back President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the nation’s environmental policy, and will increase resistance to the Environmental Protection Agency’s heightened regulations, but will not entirely seize efforts on that front because the White House remains dedicated to advancing its climate change agenda and the President’s veto will prevent drastic changes in the current law and policy.

In the last year, the U.S. has reduced its carbon production more than any other nation, and the President continues to push this trend to meet his office’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. As part of the Climate Action Plan, the White House aims to work with states and companies to cut the amount of carbon emissions from power plants, which will be the one of the biggest step in reducing carbon emissions in the nation’s history. In addition, new actions are being taken to encourage and implement alternative sources of energy (such as hydroelectric, solar and wind power generators) which will save consumers $10 billion on their bills and reduce carbon pollution by 300 million metric tons by 2030.

Finally, the U.S. aims to work with private companies to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in similar ways as they limited ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC). In addition to taking measures domestically, the U.S. is working with developing nations to find sustainable and clean ways to build infrastructure and create economic growth. For example, the President has formed partnerships with African farmers to implement sustainable agricultural practices.

Despite the recent elections of many Republicans who fail to appreciate the immediate dangers of climate change, many environmentalists, including David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, say that this kind of climate denial could have a negative impact on the party’s popularity in the long run. Colbert Report host, Stephen Colbert mocked several Republicans for adamantly denying the man-made nature of climate change while they repeatedly disclaimed that they are “not scientists.” Republicans adhering to this view ignore the glaring evidence linking human activity to the drastic rise in sea levels, global temperatures, and loss of biodiversity, without proposing alternative causes for these phenomena.

According to a recent poll conducted by the New York Times, over 54% of Americans believe that some part of global warming is caused by human activity–the greatest number in American history to share this belief. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that more than 70% of Americans believe climate change is an important threat to the interests of the country, and half of the respondents felt that the government needs to do more to curb the its effects.

As suggested by Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, most Republicans’ denial of the dangers of climate change is based on political pressure from their supporters in industries that contribute to environmental degradation. Since much of the Republican campaign funds come from some of the largest polluters , it is unlikely that Republican candidates will expressly change their views unless these culprit industries, such as the fossil fuel industry, move away from these damaging processes and adopt sustainable practices. This change may only be had by incentivizing “green” processes such as efficient and renewable energy sources, which is a key aspect of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Hence, even though the current House might try to push the Action Plan behind schedule, the nation is heading toward a more sustainable and green future whether James Inhofe and his fellow Republicans are onboard or not.


The Data Dilemma for Cell Phone Carriers: To Throttle or Not to Throttle? FTC Seeks to Answer by Suing AT&T Over Speed Limitations for Wireless Customers

Benjamin Borden, MJLST Staff Member

Connecting to the Internet from a mobile device is an invaluable freedom in the modern age. That essential BuzzFeed quiz, artsy instagram picture, or new request on Friendster are all available in an instant. But suddenly, and often without warning, nothing is loading, everything is buffering, and your once treasured piece of hand-held computing brilliance is no better than a cordless phone. Is it broken? Did the satellites fall from the sky? Did I accidentally pick up my friend’s blackberry? All appropriate questions. The explanation behind these dreadfully slow speeds, however, is more often than not a result of data throttling courtesy of wireless service providers. This phenomenon arises from the use of unlimited data plans on the nation’s largest cell phone carriers. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon phased out their unlimited data plans in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This came just a few years after requiring unlimited data plans for new smartphone purchases. Wireless companies argue that tiered data plans offer more flexibility and better value for consumers, while others suggest that the refusal to offer unlimited data plans is motivated by a desire to increase revenue by selling to data hungry consumers.

Despite no longer offering unlimited data plans to new customers, AT&T has allowed customers who previously signed up for these plans to continue that service. Verizon also allows users to continue, but refuses to offer discounts on new phones if they keep unlimited plans. Grandfathering these users into unlimited data plans, however, meant that wireless companies had millions of customers able to stream movies, download music, and post to social media without restraint, and more importantly, without a surcharge. Naturally, this was deemed to be too much freedom. So, data throttling was born. Once a user of an unlimited data plan goes over a certain download size, 3-5GB for AT&T in a billable month, their speeds are lowered by 80-90% (to 0.15 mbps in my experience). This speed limit makes even the simplest of smartphone functions an exercise in patience.

I experienced this data throttling firsthand and found myself consistently questioning where my so-called unlimited data had escaped to. Things I took for granted, like using Google Maps to find the closest ice cream shop, were suddenly ordeals taking minutes rather than seconds. Searching Wikipedia to settle that argument with a friend about the plot of Home Alone 4? Minutes. Requesting an Uber? Minutes. Downloading the new Taylor Swift album? Forget about it.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) understands this pain and wants to recoup the losses of consumers who were allegedly duped by the promise of unlimited data, only to have their usage capped. As a result, the FTC is suing AT&T for misleading millions of consumers about unlimited data plans. After recently consulting with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Verizon decided to abandon its data throttling plans. AT&T and Verizon argue that data throttling is a necessary component of network management. The companies suggest that without throttling, carrier service might become interrupted because of heavy data usage by a small group of customers.
AT&T had the opportunity to settle with the FTC, but indicated that it had done nothing wrong and would fight the case in court. AT&T contends that its wireless service contracts clearly informed consumers of the data throttling policy and those customers still signed up for the service. Furthermore, there are other cellular service options for consumers that are dissatisfied with AT&T’s terms. These arguments are unlikely to provide much solace to wireless customers shackled to dial-up level speeds.
If there is a silver lining though, it is this: with my phone acting as a paperweight, I asked those around me for restaurant recommendations rather than turning to yelp, I got a better understanding of my neighborhood by finding my way rather than following the blue dot on my screen, and didn’t think about looking at my phone when having dinner with someone. I was proud. Part of me even wanted to thank AT&T. The only problem? I couldn’t tweet @ATT to send my thanks.


Open Patenting, Innovation, and the Release of the Tesla Patents

Blake Vettel, MJLST Staff Member

In Volume 14 Issue 2 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Mariateresa Maggiolino and Marie Lillá Montagnani proposed a framework for standardized terms and conditions for Open Patenting. This framework set forth a standard system for patent holders to license their patents in order to encourage open innovation, in a way that was easy to administer for patent holders of all sizes. Maggiolino and Montagnani argued for an open patenting scheme in which the patent owner would irrevocably spread their patented knowledge worldwide, based on non-exclusive and no-charge licensing. Futhermore, the licensing system would be centrally operated online and allow the patentee to customize certain clauses in the licensing agreement; while maintaining a few compulsory clauses such as a non-assertion pledge that would keep the license open.

On June 12, 2014 Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, shocked the business world by announcing via blog post that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Musk described his reasoning for opening Tesla’s patents for use by others as a way to encourage innovation and growth within the electric car market, and depicted Tesla’s true competition as gasoline cars instead of electric competitors. By allowing use of their patented technology, Tesla hopes to develop the electric car market and encourage innovation. Some commentators have been skeptical about the altruistic motive behind releasing the patents, arguing that it may in fact be a move intended to entice other electric car manufacturers to produce cars that are compatible with Tesla’s patented charging stations in an effort to develop the network of stations around the country.

However, Musk did not unequivocally release these patents; instead he conditioned their subsequent use upon being in “good faith.” What constitutes a good faith use of Tesla’s technology is not clear, but Tesla could have instead opted for a standardized licensing system as proposed by Maggiolino and Montagnani. A clear standardized licensing scheme with compulsory clauses designed to encourage free movement of patented technology and spur innovation may have been more effective in promoting use of Tesla’s patents. An inventor who wants to use Tesla’s patents may be hesitant under Musk’s promise not to initiate lawsuits, where he could be much more confident of his right to use the patented technology under a licensing agreement. The extent to which Tesla’s patents will be used and their effect on the car market and open innovation is yet to be seen, as is the true value of Tesla’s open innovation.


Scientific Responsibility: Why Lawyers are Imperative in Scientifically Informed Neuro-ethics

Thomas Hale-Kupiec, MJLST Staff Member

In Volume 11, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Eagleman, et al. conclude that “the neuroscientific community should continue to develop rehabilitative strategies so that the legal community can take advantage of those strategies for a rational, customized approach” in Why Neuroscience Matters for Rational Drug Policy. Though perhaps this assertion is valid in the context of Drug Addiction, I believe it is necessary to limit this assertion to solely rehabilitative drug addiction studies; to allow a further extension of this conclusion would be sociologically detrimental. I postulate that beyond ideas of who we define as a “Neuroscientist,” legal experts need to be at the forefront of this debate in order to better define and formulate ideas of “rehabilitation.”

In a related reflection entitled ‘Smart Drugs’: Do they work? Are they ethical? Will they be legal?, researcher Stephen Rose poses a number of ethical and neurological impacts of mind enhancing substances. The author posits an interesting question: what is “normal” for a brain? If someone undergoes pharmacological manipulation, what should the standard be for “abnormal?” For instance, Rose poses that some substances could be used for patients with Down Syndrome to allow for cognitive enhancement. Is this a valid designation as “abnormal?” Inexorably linked to this issue would be Autism Spectrum Disorder — where on the spectrum does a cognitive “abnormality” manifest? Further, how do we define potentially less visible disorders such as “anxiety?” With this spectrum of diseases and mental health conditions, variety of measured “abnormalities,” and varying pharmacological treatment effectiveness, I think we need to be mindful that neuroscientific constructions are often blurry, but always need to be conceptualized within the paradigm of ethics.

More than ever, the question of “what is abnormal” and “what mandates treatment” needs to be addressed in pharmaceutical policy. For instance, federally designated controlled substances like marijuana may be effective at treating anxiety and other medical conditions. Should the legal community allow for Eagleman’s assertion to snowball? Imagine an increasing number of states embrace evidence that the active ingredients in marijuana could treat certain medical conditions? Should the scientific community solely argue the validity of these findings? Legal professionals, bioethicists, and regulators need to be included in these questions. It is not that the data driven outcomes need to be pursued; rather, that a level of ethics and sociological morals need to be layered above these decisions.