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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

2nd Circuit requires second look at “design and content” of online user agreement

Courts State Issues Appellate Second Circuit Arbitration Overdraft Fees Consumer Finance New York Class Action

Courts

On September 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a district court’s order denying a credit union’s motion to compel arbitration in a case involving the “unique question” of “whether and how to address incorporation by reference in web-based contracts under New York law.” The plaintiff claimed that the credit union wrongfully assessed and collected overdraft and insufficient funds fees on checking accounts that were not actually overdrawn. After the credit union moved to compel arbitration pursuant to a mandatory arbitration clause and class action waiver provision contained in the account agreement, the plaintiff argued that she was not bound by these provisions because they were not included in the original agreement and the credit union did not notify her when it added them to the agreement. According to the credit union, the plaintiff was on inquiry notice of the modified agreement because she separately agreed to an internet banking agreement that incorporated the modified account agreement by reference, and because the modified account agreement was published on the credit union’s website, which the plaintiff used for online banking. The district court disagreed, finding, among other things, that the hyperlink and language related to the account agreement appeared to be “buried” in the internet banking agreement.

On appeal, the 2nd Circuit held that the district court “erred in engaging in the inquiry notice analysis, which requires an examination of the ‘design and content’ of the webpage, without reviewing the actual screenshots of the web-based contract.” Recognizing that the internet banking agreement was a “clickwrap” or a “scrollwrap” agreement, the appellate court explained that it has “consistently upheld such agreements because the user has affirmatively assented to the terms of the agreement by clicking ‘I agree’ or similar language.” While the plaintiff did not dispute that she signed up for internet banking, this did not end the court’s analysis; according to the 2nd Circuit, when addressing questions concerning digital contract formation, “courts also evaluate visual evidence that demonstrates ‘whether a website user has actual or constructive notice of the conditions.’” The credit union did not provide evidence showing how the internet banking agreement was presented to users—thereby preventing the district court from assessing whether the relevant language and hyperlink were clear and conspicuous. The 2nd Circuit, therefore, instructed the district court to consider on remand the design and content of the internet banking agreement “as it was presented to users” to determine whether the plaintiff agreed to its terms, and to assess whether the account agreements are “clearly identified and available to the users” based on applicable precedents regarding inquiry notice of terms in web-based contracts.

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