On January 17, the Russian Federation became the fourth party to the United Nations Convention on the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts, joining The Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Singapore. The Convention will take effect for Russia on August 1, 2014. It is intended to enhance legal certainty and commercial predictability where electronic communications are used in relation to international contracts, including by addressing, among other things, (i) the determination of a party’s location in an electronic environment; (ii) the time and place of dispatch and receipt of electronic communications; and (iii) the use of automated message systems for contract formation. The Convention builds on the fundamental legal principles and provisions contained in the UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Commerce by providing criteria for establishing functional equivalence between electronic communications and paper documents, as well as between electronic authentication methods and hand-written signatures. Fifteen other states have signed the Convention but have not yet ratified it.
On January 30, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2014-03, announcing that FHA will now treat electronic signatures as equivalent to handwritten signatures for certain mortgage documents. The announcement sets forth FHA’s first authorization of electronic signatures on mortgage documents (other than certain third party documents – see Mortgagee Letter 2010-14) and applies to FHA Single Family Title I and II forward mortgages and Home Equity Conversion Mortgages. The announcement is consistent with other government agency initiatives to promote a more streamlined and efficient mortgage process for consumers, particularly through the use of technology such as electronic signatures. Earlier this month, for example, the CFPB issued a request for information containing a questionnaire focused on improving the home loan closing process. “By extending our acceptance of electronic signatures on the majority of single family documents, we are bringing our requirements into alignment with common industry practices,” said FHA Commissioner Carol Galante. “This extension will not only make it easier for lenders to work with FHA, it also allows for greater efficiency in the home-buying and loss mitigation process.”
The announcement indicates that, effective immediately, FHA will accept electronic signatures on (i) any documents associated with servicing or loss mitigation; (ii) any documents associated with the filing of a claim for FHA insurance benefits; (iii) the HUD Real Estate Owned Sales Contract and related addenda; and (iv) all documents included in the case binder for mortgage insurance except the Note. FHA will begin accepting electronic signatures on the Note for forward mortgages, but not Home Equity Conversion Mortgages, on December 31, 2014. FHA already allows electronic signatures on documents originated and signed outside of the lender’s control, such as the sales contract.
FHA requires lenders that accept electronic signatures to comply with the ESIGN Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 7001-7006). The ESIGN Act mandates that the signer be presented the document before the electronic signature is obtained, that the document is true and correct at the time it is signed, and that the signature is attached to, or logically associated with, the documents being electronically signed. Lenders must also take steps to confirm the identity of the signer as a party to the transaction and to establish that the signature may be attributed to the purported signer. Lenders must have systems in place to ensure that information generated to confirm the identity of signers is secure and that electronically signed documents cannot be altered without detection.
In addition to citing the requirements of ESIGN, FHA sets some more specific requirements for certain elements of the signing process. These include requirements for establishing attribution of the signature and authentication of the signer. FHA also sets requirements for maintaining audit logs, computer systems, controls and documentation, and making them available for FHA inspection.
* * *
Questions regarding the matters discussed in this alert may be directed to any of the lawyers in our Electronic Signatures and Records practice, or to any other BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have consulted in the past.
On December 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an online marketing company cannot compel arbitration in a suit brought by a putative class of consumers who claim they were improperly charged for a subscription service they never intended to purchase. Lee v. Intelius, Inc. No. 11-35810, 2013 WL 6570899 (9th Cir. Dec. 16, 2013). The named plaintiffs sued a company that performs background checks after noticing regularly monthly charges for a report they allegedly did not intend to purchase. The background check company added an online marketing firm as a third-party defendant, arguing it was that firm whose subscription service the consumers were allegedly misled into purchasing. The district court explained that the background check company provided the marketing company space on its website and used the now illegal “data pass” method of sharing credit card information to assist the marketing company in enrolling consumers in free trial subscription offers, which converted to a monthly billed subscription without cancellation. The district court held that the consumers entered into a contract for the subscription service, but denied the marketing company’s motion to compel arbitration. On appeal the Ninth Circuit disagreed, determining that the subscription service website to which consumers were directed after purchasing background reports was designed to deceive consumers. The appellate court reasoned that under Washington law, a contract requires mutual assent to its essential terms—including the names of the parties—in order to be binding, and in this case the web page through which the consumers allegedly purchased the subscription service did not sufficiently identify the marketing company as the contracting entity. The court expressed skepticism that the consumers assented to the contract by providing their email addresses and clicking a “yes” button, but given that Washington law is not settled on whether a website “click” can constitute an electronic signature, the court did not rest its conclusion on whether the consumers objectively manifested consent to the contract. Further, the court held that even on the assumption that consumers did enter a contract to purchase the subscription service by clicking on the “yes” button, they did not agree to arbitration because the arbitration terms were included in a separate hyperlink that consumers did not click.
Recently, the Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama upheld an agreement executed electronically, overturning a trial court’s order invalidating a divorce agreement on the grounds that the agreement filed with the court was executed electronically. Ex parte Mealing, No. 2120973, 2013 WL 5776053 (Ala. Civ. App. Oct. 25, 2013). In this case, a husband asked the trial court to vacate a divorce agreement he had willingly entered without legal representation, claiming that his wife’s attorney orchestrated an agreement more favorable to the wife. The trial court decided that the divorce agreement was invalid because it was signed electronically. The appellate court disagreed and held that the trial court erred in relying on an alternative basis—one not even presented by the husband—in an attempt to create for itself an opportunity to render equitable judgment of the matter. The court explained that relevant court rules allow for electronic signatures, and that there was no contention from the husband that the electronic signatures were shams or false. The appellate court directed the trial court to set aside its order and reinstate the electronically signed divorce agreement.
On October 16, new rules took effect that require businesses to obtain express written consent before making certain telemarketing calls to customers. The rules arise from a February 2012 Report and Order issued pursuant to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), in which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC): (i) required that businesses obtain prior express written consent for all autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing calls to wireless numbers and residential lines, (ii) allowed consumers to opt out of future robocalls during a robocall, and (ii) limited permissible abandoned calls on a per-calling campaign basis. While the consumer opt-out and abandoned calls limitations are already in effect, compliance with the express written consent requirement was not mandated until now. The rules require that the written consent be signed and be sufficient to show that the customer: (i) receives “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of the consequences of providing the requested consent and (ii) having received this information, agrees unambiguously to receive such calls at a telephone number the consumer designates. In addition, the rules require the written agreement to be obtained “without requiring, directly or indirectly, that the agreement be executed as a condition of purchasing any good or service.” The FCC rule allows electronic or digital forms of signatures obtained in compliance with the E-SIGN Act—e.g. agreements obtained via a compliant email, website form, text message, telephone keypress or voice recording—to satisfy the written requirement. The FCC also removed an exemption that allowed businesses to demonstrate consent based on an “established business relationship” between the caller and customer.
On October 1, the Oregon Secretary of State published a final rule to implement numerous changes to the state’s notaries public regulations, including providing for electronic notarizations and electronic journals. The Secretary also released a summary of the changes. Notaries may notarize documents electronically after informing the Secretary of State of the format the notary will use by submitting notice via email, using the Electronic Notarization Notice form, along with an example of an electronic notarization. Any change to the way a notary conducts electronic notarizations—e.g. new vendor, new technology, changed appearance—requires a notary to provide notice of the change to the Secretary of State. A notary also may document an electronic notarization in either a paper or electronic journal, or both. The new rules took effect on September 1, 2013.
On July 23, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a revised digital standard used to ensure the integrity of electronic documents and the identity of the signer. The revised standard includes no major changes, but does update the standard to align it with other publications so that all NIST documents offer consistent guidance regarding the use of random number generators. Another revision concerns the use of prime number generators, which requires random initial values for searching for prime numbers.
Fourth Circuit Relies on E-Sign Act to Hold Electronic Agreement May Effect A Valid Transfer of Copyright
Texas Appeals Court Affirms Holding that Certain Emails Read Together Can Be Construed as One Contract
On March 7, the Texas Court of Appeals of the Thirteenth District affirmed a trial court’s holding that the essential terms of an option contract for the purchase of real estate were present when three e-mail messages exchanged by the parties were read together. Dittman v. Cerone, No. 13-11-00196-CV, 2013 WL 865423 (Mar. 7, 2013). The defendant sued for specific performance pursuant to the terms of the three emails, and the trial court ultimately concluded that the e-mails constituted a valid option contract and ordered the plaintiffs to convey the property. The Texas Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that the option contract complied with the statute of frauds because (i) the emails construed together provided the essential terms of the contract, (ii) the property was sufficiently identified and confirmed by extrinsic evidence, (iii) the parties’ actions evidenced an intent to conduct certain business electronically, and (iv) the real estate broker had authority to act for the sellers.
On January 21, the Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth released the Virginia Electronic Notarization Assurance Standard. Citing challenges faced by notaries to “preserve and strengthen the role of the notary in the rapidly emerging digital economy and to ensure reliability and cross-border recognition of notarized electronic documents in a global economy,” the standards are intended to support transition of notaries in Virginia to performing electronic notarizations that have the same legal effect as traditional notarizations. They set forth registration and performance requirements, electronic signature and seal requirements, online notarization procedures, and notarized electronic document requirements. According to the Secretary, the Virginia standards (i) reflect the National Association of Secretaries of State Electronic Notarization Standard for Document Security; (ii) incorporate aspects of standards previously adopted by seven other states; and (iii) are consistent with the federal ESIGN Act, the UETA, and the Uniform Real Property Electronic Recording Act.
On January 10, President Obama signed H.R. 6671, which amends the Video Privacy Protection Act to facilitate compliance for modern video service providers. The Act was originally passed in 1988 to limit the disclosure of information about consumers’ “video tape rental or sales records,” and its application to certain modern video service providers (e.g. Netflix) is not clear. The amendments allow such providers to obtain consumer consent to disclosure through electronic means using the Internet. Such consent must be in a form distinct and separate from any form setting forth other legal or financial obligations of the consumer. Consumers can provide consent in advance, but not for more than two years or until consent is withdrawn by the consumer, and service providers must provide an opportunity for the consumer to withdraw consent on a case-by-case basis or to withdraw from ongoing disclosures, at the consumer’s election.
On December 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims concerning AT&T’s U-Verse services, based on forum selection and arbitration clauses in the agreements between the parties. Hancock v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., Inc., 11-6233, 2012 WL 6132070 (10th Cir. Dec. 11, 2012). In support of the motion to dismiss, AT&T offered declarations from its employees concerning its standard practices for entering into agreements with customers obtaining U-Verse services. Under those practices, customers purchasing U-Verse TV and Voice services agreed to terms of service (TV Terms) that included a forum selection clause. The TV Terms were provided to customers in writing by the installation technician at the time the services were installed. The customers agreed to the TV Terms by clicking on an acknowledgement and acceptance box on the technician’s laptop after being given the printed terms – the acknowledgement and acceptance stated that the customer had received and reviewed the TV Terms. Details of each acceptance were captured and stored on AT&T’s servers at the time of acceptance. Also under AT&T’s standard practices, customers purchasing U-Verse Internet Services agreed to separate terms of service (Internet Terms) during the online registration process – to complete registration, customers had to click on an “I Agree” button underneath the Internet Terms. For two of the plaintiffs, the Internet Terms included a mandatory arbitration clause at the time of registration. For another plaintiff, the mandatory arbitration clause was added after a notice of amendment, describing the new arbitration clause, was provided to the plaintiff via email. On appeal, the court held that the declarations concerning AT&T’s standard practices were admissible in evidence, and since they were not contradicted by the plaintiffs’ affidavits, the district court did not abuse its discretion by accepting the declarations as true. The court went on to hold that under AT&T’s standard practices both the TV Terms and the Internet Terms were clearly presented, and that enforceable contracts were formed between the plaintiffs and AT&T. The court also concluded that the e-mail notification process used to add the arbitration clause to the Internet Terms was sufficient to make the amendment effective.
Recently, the Internal Revenue Service issued Electronic Signature Requirements that will allow applicants to electronically sign and submit IRS Forms 4506-T and 4506T-EZ (4506-T) beginning January 7, 2013. IRS regulations permit taxpayers to order a tax transcript using a form 4506-T through the IRS Income Verification Express Services (IVES). Under the Requirements, IVES participants may accept and submit an electronically signed 4506-T if the electronic signature process includes: (i) a structure that places creation of the signature under the signer’s sole control; (ii) a signature technology that permits the signature to be verified, either through the use of software algorithms or forensic analysis; (iii) the ability to establish that the signature was created by a specific individual; (iv) a signature block on the document with a symbol, logically associated with the 4506-T, that allows validation of the signer’s name against the name listed on the 4506-T; (v) a process flow or communication with the signer establishing the intent to sign and the purpose of the signature; and (vi) application of the signature in a tamper-evident manner. In addition, the process used to present and sign the 4506-T must include each of the following: (i) authentication, (ii) consent, (iii) tamper-proofing, and (iv) an audit log. Each IVES participant accepting electronically signed 4506-Ts must determine that the electronic signature process adheres to the Requirements, and must also retain a copy of each signed 4506-T and accompanying audit log for at least two years. Such participants also must implement a third-party audit program and comply with specific monthly and annual third-party audit and reporting requirements. BuckleySandler’s Electronic Signatures and Records Team has substantial experience assisting entities seeking to comply with electronic signature requirements.
Recently, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) published the Report of Working Group IV (Electronic Commerce), reflecting the group’s work during its forty-sixth session, held in late October and early November. The report describes the Working Group’s continued efforts to explore issues related to electronic transferable records and to address the need for an international regime to facilitate the cross-border use of such records. During this most recent session, the Working Group considered in detail the legal issues relating to the use of electronic transferrable records, and developed parameters for a set of rules to address those issues. Working Group members expressed broad support for a draft model law that would incorporate the parameters identified, while allowing for flexibility when addressing differences in national substantive laws. Some members also expressed support for the preparation of guidance texts, such as a legislative guide, and Working Group members discussed the possible consideration of a binding instrument, such as a treaty, to establish a legal framework for the cross-border transfer of electronic records. The Working Group will follow up on these issues during its forty-seventh session to be held in New York from May 13-17, 2013.