So now General Mills is forcing you to arbitrate disputes simply by engaging with them in an online forum, or even using a coupon to purchase one of its products! Could you imagine that using a coupon for .25c off a box of cereal meant that you give up your legal rights relating to the seller? That’s what General Mills is now contending by updating its legal terms on its company website.
While the legal enforceability of the General Mills policy has yet to be tested, the social media backlash against General Mills has been swift. Already, General Mills has responded trying to calm the storm. In a follow up post on its company blog (careful, does simply clicking on the website subject you to arbitration?) General Mills attempts to explain itself and limit the fallout. General Mills states “[n]o one is precluded from suing us merely by purchasing our products at the store or liking one of our brand Facebook pages.” It does, however, state that “should an individual agree to the terms, they would then apply.” Taking a look at the actual terms of the legal policy shows that it is not as clear cut as General Mills’ interpretation:
“PLEASE NOTE THAT SECTION 3 BELOW CONTAINS A BINDING ARBITRATION CLAUSE AND CLASS ACTION WAIVER. IT AFFECTS THE RIGHTS YOU HAVE IN ANY DISPUTE WITH GENERAL MILLS (INCLUDING ITS AFFILIATED COMPANIES AND BRANDS), INCLUDING DISPUTES ARISING OUT OF YOUR PURCHASE OR USE OF ANY GENERAL MILLS PRODUCT OR SERVICE FOR PERSONAL OR HOUSEHOLD USE, INCLUDING GENERAL MILLS PRODUCTS PURCHASED AT ONLINE OR PHYSICAL STORES.”
1. Your agreement to these legal terms
These terms are a binding legal agreement (“Agreement”) between you and General Mills. In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.
Of course, your decision to do any of these things (i.e., to use or join our site or online community, to subscribe to our emails, to download or print a digital coupon, to enter a sweepstakes or contest, to take advantage of a promotional offer, or otherwise participate in any other General Mills offering) is entirely voluntary. But if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement.”
Note how broad this provision is. The scope of the covered events that trigger your supposed “agreement” to arbitrate could be interpreted to mean anything. What is a “benefit” that is received from “using our websites”? If you click on their website to download a recipe, is that a “benefit”? How about “benefiting” by simply reading their blog post? They can certainly track your IP address to confirm that you have visited the site. It would be a simple matter to check their logs against your home computer to confirm that you have, in the past, visited their site, and so, arguably, have agreed to arbitration.
How about “otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering….”? This conceivably could mean that simply by clipping a coupon in the Sunday paper, you are agreeing to arbitration. An interesting question is how they would ever find out you have done something like this, or the extent to which they could go to do so. Does this broad, sweeping, arbitration policy make your general browsing history and internet habits fair game in the discovery process? How would you like them requesting to analyze your hard drive? Or how long does this supposed agreement last? If you use a coupon today, but buy another General Mills product next week, does your coupon use today subject you to arbitration for all time, or until you opt out?
In sum, this is an incredibly overbroad arbitration “agreement”. In light of the recent Supreme Court decisions enforcing arbitration clauses, you can bet that companies such as General Mills will be chomping at the bit to have a clause such as this upheld at the Supreme Court level. The scary part is, they just might succeed. This is another reason, among many, that we need to get the Arbitration Fairness Act passed through Congress. Senator Franken has been instrumental in keeping this bill alive. Hopefully, its time has come. I would encourage you to contact your local Senator and express your views on this new front that has opened up in the war against forced arbitration. Urge them to pass the Arbitration Fairness Act today.