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Archive for the ‘Unconscionability’ Category

Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter—SCOTUS Reaffirms FAA Section 10(a)(4) Manifest Disregard of the Agreement Outcome Review Standard and Elaborates on Its Scope: Part II.C

August 19th, 2013 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Consolidation of Arbitration Proceedings, Contract Interpretation, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter—SCOTUS Reaffirms FAA Section 10(a)(4) Manifest Disregard of the Agreement Outcome Review Standard and Elaborates on Its Scope: Part II.C

Part II.C

Does Oxford Portend Judicial Reconsideration of

Whether Class-Arbitration Consent is a Question of Arbitrability?      

In Stolt-Nielsen and Oxford the parties voluntarily submitted the class-arbitration-consent question to arbitrators because a four-Justice plurality ruled in Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444 (2003), that the class-arbitration-consent issue was not a question of arbitrability for the court to decide.   While “courts assume that the parties intended courts, not arbitrators” to decide certain “gateway matters, such as whether the parties have a valid arbitration agreement at all or whether a concededly binding arbitration clause applies to a certain type of controversy,” the Court found that the issue did not fall into “this narrow exception.” 539 U.S. at 452 (citations omitted).  According to the Court, “the relevant question . . . is what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to:”

That question does not concern a state statute or judicial procedures. It concerns contract interpretation and arbitration procedures. Arbitrators are well situated to answer that question. Given these considerations, along with the arbitration contracts’ sweeping language concerning the scope of the questions committed to arbitration, this matter of contract interpretation should be for the arbitrator, not the courts, to decide.

539 U.S. at 452-53 (citations omitted).

Bazzle was well received by the lower courts, and even though it was only a plurality opinion, many courts, parties and practitioners apparently thought that the arbitrability of consent-to-class-arbitration was a foregone conclusion after Bazzle even though the plurality’s rationale was endorsed by only four justices – a hat-tip to Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s clearly and persuasively written plurality opinion. Some also apparently thought that Associate Justice John Paul Stevens’ concurring opinion was, for all intents and purposes, an endorsement of the plurality’s rationale, and that accordingly, Bazzle established precedent binding on the lower courts.

In 2003, prompted in part by Bazzle, the American Arbitration Association promulgated its Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitrations, Rule 3 of which directs the arbitrator or panel to “determine as a threshold matter, in a reasoned, partial, final award on the construction of the arbitration clause, whether the applicable arbitration clause permits the arbitration to proceed on behalf of or against a class.  .  .  .”  AAA Supplementary Rules, Rule 3.  The “Clause Construction” awards in Stolt-Nielsen and Oxford were made under Rule 3 of the AAA Supplementary Rules.

In light of Bazzle and the AAA Supplementary Rules, class-arbitration-consent-related disputes in cases where the relevant arbitration agreements did not expressly prohibit class arbitration – e.g., cases not involving class-arbitration waivers – were generally submitted to arbitration, usually pursuant to the AAA Supplementary Rules.  Most of the class-arbitration-related litigation concerned challenges to class arbitration waivers, rather than the arbitrability of class-arbitration-consent-related issues.

But Stolt-Nielsen explained that Bazzle did not establish binding precedent on any issue—including class-arbitration-consent arbitrability—because it “did not yield a majority decision.  .  .  .” See Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1772.  The Court said that “[u]nfortunately the opinions in Bazzle appear to have baffled the parties in this case at the time of the arbitration proceeding[,]” because “[f]or one thing, the parties appear to have believed that the judgment in Bazzle requires an arbitrator, not a court, to decide whether a contract permits class arbitration.”  Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1772 (citation omitted).  The Court did “not revisit that [allocation of decision-making power] question [in Stolt-Nielsen] because the parties’ supplemental agreement expressly assigned this issue to the arbitration panel, and no party argues that this assignment was impermissible.”  Id.

The Court underscored that same point in Oxford, noting that it “would face a different issue if Oxford had argued below that the availability of class arbitration is a so-called ‘question of arbitrability,’” an issue “Stolt-Nielsen made clear that [the Supreme Court] has not yet decided.  .  .  .”  Oxford, Slip op. at 4 n.2.    But Oxford gave the Court “no opportunity to do so because Oxford agreed that the arbitrator should determine whether its contract with Sutter authorized class procedures.”  Id Oxford submitted the issue to arbitration “not once but twice—and the second time after Stolt-Nielsen flagged that it might be a question of arbitrability.”  Id. Continue Reading »

SCOTUS Decides AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion!

April 27th, 2011 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on SCOTUS Decides AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion!

This morning the United States Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, No. 09-893, slip op. (April 27, 2011).  The Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts California’s Discover Bank rule, which deems unconscionable class waivers in adhesive contracts under certain circumstances, because it “‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.  .  .  .'”  Slip op. at 18 (quoting Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67 (1941)).  (The majority, concurring and dissenting opinions are here.)    

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr.  Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion and Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented, joined by Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  

Stay tuned for more….

AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion: What is the Scope of Federal Preemption in Class Waiver Cases?

September 30th, 2010 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion: What is the Scope of Federal Preemption in Class Waiver Cases?

Part II

Introduction

Part I of this two-part post (here) briefly discussed the background of  AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, No. 09-893, a case pending before the United States Supreme Court that will be argued on November 9, 2010.  We now delve into the details of the preemption questions before the Court and take a guess at the outcome. 

Federal Arbitration Act Preemption

The Federal Arbitration Act does not preempt all state law applicable to arbitration agreements, but it expressly preempts state law that conflicts with Section 2, and impliedly preempts all state law that “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes of Congress”  embodied in the Federal Arbitration Act.  See Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Serv., Inc., 498 F.3d 976, 988 (9th Cir. 2007) (citations and quotation omitted). 

Does Section 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act Expressly Preempt the Discover Bank Rule?

Section 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act declares that arbitration agreements within its scope “shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.”  9 U.S.C. § 2.  Section 2 establishes substantive federal law that expressly preempts all conflicting state law, except for state law that permits “the revocation of any contract” or governs the formation, interpretation, or construction of contracts generally. 

The exception to federal preemption is exceedingly narrow, for it saves from preemption only state laws that apply equally across the board to all contracts.  The United States Supreme Court summarized it well when it said:

States may regulate contracts, including arbitration clauses, under general contract law principles and they may invalidate an arbitration clause ‘upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.  What States may not do is decide that a contract is fair enough to enforce all its basic terms (price, service, credit), but not fair enough to enforce its arbitration clause.  The Act makes any such state policy unlawful, for that kind of policy would place arbitration clauses on an unequal footing, directly contrary to the Act’s language and Congress’s intent.

Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265, 281 (1995) (citations and quotations omitted; emphasis in original).   Continue Reading »

Introducing Guest Blogger John (Jay) McCauley

June 23rd, 2010 Arbitrability, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Guest Posts, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Introducing Guest Blogger John (Jay) McCauley

Today we are pleased and honored to feature an article by our good friend John (Jay) McCauley, a distinguished arbitrator, mediator, attorney and professor of arbitration law.  Jay’s article is entitled “A Commercial Arbitrator’s Take on Rent-A-Center v. Jackson,” and can be found here

Jay debunks the media hype surrounding the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, ___ U.S. ___, slip op. (June 21, 2010), and argues (persuasively) that the case is a reasonable, natural and modest interpretation of the Court’s prior Federal Arbitration Act jurisprudence.  With one minor caveat we agree wholeheartedly with his insightful and pragmatic view of the case.

Our view of the decision may differ very slightly in that we believe that its scope is broader than the holding might suggest.  Jay is absolutely correct when he says that the decision permits parties to challenge delegation agreements (agreements to arbitrate arbitrability) on unconscionability grounds.  He says that there may be “dozens” of grounds on which to make such a challenge, and we think he is right about that, too. 

But we think that it will be very difficult to mount a successful challenge specifically directed at a delegation agreement.  And if we are right about that, then the practical effect of the decision will be that delegation agreements will usually be enforced, enabling arbitrators to decide most unconscionability challenges.  The scope of the decision is, in our view, therefore quite broad. 

We nevertheless agree with Jay that the decision makes perfect sense in light of the Court’s prior Federal Arbitration Act jurisprudence, and apart from our caveat about the decision’s scope, we are otherwise on the same page as Jay.  Of course, it may turn out that challenges to delegation agreements prove more successful than we think they will.

Jay is an American-Arbitration-Association certified arbitrator and mediator, and serves on the AAA’s Large Complex Case Panel.  He is a Fellow of the College of Commercial Arbitrators and a Distinguished Fellow of the International Academy of Mediators.   He offers arbitrator and mediator services through Judicate West and Professional Mediation Associates

Jay also serves as an adjunct professor of arbitration law at Pepperdine Law School, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School and the Werner Institute of Creighton Law School.  An AV-rated attorney, he is a member of the California bar and is admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.  He is listed in “Best Lawyers in America” for ADR, and in “Southern California Super Lawyers,” also for ADR.  You can visit his website here.

We hope you enjoy Jay’s article.

Guest Post: A Commercial Arbitrator’s Take on Rent-A-Center v. Jackson

June 23rd, 2010 Arbitrability, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Guest Post: A Commercial Arbitrator’s Take on Rent-A-Center v. Jackson

By John (Jay) McCauley

Despite all the alarmist reaction already showing up in the press, the holding in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, ___ U.S. ___, slip op. (June 21, 2010) is both modest and predictable.   Arbitration agreements always do one thing:  take decisions from judges and give them to arbitrators.  Ever since 1925, such agreements have always been enforced to exactly the same extent as any other agreement is enforced.   Not less so, but also not more so.  Are they enforced even when the decision in question is the “gateway” decision of whether the parties must arbitrate their dispute?  Yes, as long as the agreement delegating even that decision to the arbitrator is explicit and unmistakeable.  Is that news? No. See, e.g., First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995) (dictum).

Should it matter that this delegation language is physically located within the challenged arbitration agreement itself?  No.  (If the answer were “Yes,” any contract drafter could “solve” the problem by plucking out the delegation provision and pasting it onto another sheet of paper to be separately executed as the “delegation agreement.”)  What does matter is whether the challenge brought against the arbitration agreement is the kind that goes to the enforceability of the delegation provision itself.  Are there such challenges in theory?  Sure, dozens of them.  Does that fact put severe brakes on the implications of the Rent-a-Center holding for other cases?  Yes, that’s the point.  Were there any such challenges in the Rent-a-Center case?  No.  None whatsoever.  As the Court noted, the party challenging arbitration in this particular case did not even attempt to raise one.  Would the Court have been open to listening to such a challenge?  Yes.  Not just by implication.  It expressly said it would.

Some of the alarmist commentary stands on the cynical premise that law is pure politics, such that the statement “the outcome of this case is pro-business” is thought to serve as a principled basis the court should have used to distinguish the precedent it is required to honor.  Some of these commentaries, remarkably enough, even come from lawyers.

The more sophisticated of the alarmist commentaries made a more sophisticated mistake.  They took the way Justice Scalia framed the issue in the first sentence of the decision, and leaped to the conclusion that that sentence could serve as the entire holding.

Justice Scalia said:  “We consider whether.  .  .  a district court may decide a claim that an arbitration agreement is unconscionable, where the agreement explicitly assigns that decision to the arbitrator.”

His answer (the holding) was not exactly “It may not.”  His answer was really, “It may not, unless, of course, the provision assigning the decision to the arbitrator is itself subject to any challenge whatsoever  (including unconscionability) recognizable to anyone familiar with the common law of contracts.

To which I would only add the not very dramatic commentary:  “Nothing very remarkable about that.”

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: John (Jay) McCauley is an American-Arbitration-Association certified arbitrator and mediator, and serves on the AAA’s Large Complex Case Panel.  He is a Fellow of the College of Commercial Arbitrators and a Distinguished Fellow of the International Academy of Mediators.   He offers arbitrator and mediator services through Judicate West and Professional Mediation Associates

Jay also serves as an adjunct professor of arbitration law at Pepperdine Law School, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School and the Werner Institute of Creighton Law School.  An AV-rated attorney, he is a member of the California bar and is admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.  He is listed in “Best Lawyers in America” for ADR, and in “Southern California Super Lawyers,” also for ADR.  You can visit his website here.

Our post introducing Jay is here.

The United States Supreme Court Adopts Severability Analysis in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson

June 21st, 2010 Arbitrability, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on The United States Supreme Court Adopts Severability Analysis in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court decided Rent-A-Center West v. Jackson, ___ U.S. ___, slip op. (June 21, 2010).  Rent-A-Center raised the question whether “a district court may decide a claim that an arbitration agreement is unconscionable, where the agreement explicitly assigns that decision to the arbitrator.”  The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had said “yes,” but the Supreme Court said “no.”

In a 5-4 opinion by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, joined in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr , the Court held that the employee had to arbitrate its claim that certain provisions of an arbitration agreement were allegedly unconscionable because the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions, and the employee did not specifically claim that that agreement was unconscionable.  The Court said that the parties’ clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability was, as a matter of federal law, severable from the other provisions of the arbitration agreement, including the ones the employee said were unconscionable.  

Prior to the decision we had advocated in the Forum (here and here), and in our cover story published in the March 2010 issue of Alternatives to the High Cost of  Litigation (blogged here), that the Court should resolve the case in favor of Rent-A-Center using a severability analysis of sorts derived from Buckeye Check Cashing v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. ___ (2006) and Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395 (1967).   And that’s exactly what happened, even though neither side advocated or addressed the severability argument before the Court, a point made by Associate Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion, which was  joined in by Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.  See Dissenting Op. at 1.  (The district court’s analysis, however, which was reversed by the Ninth Circuit, was, according to the Court, consistent with the Buckeye Check Cashing and Prima Paint severability principle.  See Slip op. at 9.)  Continue Reading »

SCOTUS Update: United States Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc. Arbitration Unconscionability Case

January 18th, 2010 Unconscionability, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court 5 Comments »

On September 23, 2009 we reported on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, slip op. (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2009), petition for cert. granted  Jan. 15, 2010 (No. 09-497).  (Prior post here)  As reported in Disputing, on January 15, 2010, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Rent-a-Center West’s appeal.  (Disputing post here

As we discussed nearly four months ago Rent-A-Center concerns an important “who” question that arises in unconscionability cases:  When the parties clearly and unmistakably agree that the arbitrators will decide arbitrability questions, who gets to decide whether the arbitration clause is unenforceable on unconscionability grounds? 

We think the question answers itself.  But the Ninth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, held that the court decides the unconscionability question irrespective of the parties clearly expressed intent to the contrary.  We argued that the Ninth Circuit should have applied a severability analysis of sorts, and referred the unconscionability question to the arbitrators.  The “Analysis” section of our prior post is reprinted in pertinent part below:  

There is logic to the rule adopted by the majority in that unconscionability is a state law defense that goes to the enforceability of an agreement.  When a party challenges the enforceability of an arbitration agreement, the court ordinarily decides it – unless the parties clearly and unmistakably agree otherwise.  And while the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability,  that agreement was – as is often the case – simply a component of the rest of the arbitration agreement.  If the entire arbitration agreement is unenforceable because of unconscionability, then so too must be the agreement to arbitrate arbitrability. 

The problem with the majority’s logic is that it does not distinguish between the enforceability of the clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability and the enforceability of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate all other disputes.  The Rent-A-Center parties envisioned that a dispute concerning the enforceability of their agreement to arbitrate all other disputes would be decided by the arbitrators.  That is what the parties’ agreement said, and the United States Supreme Court has said that parties can enter into such agreements, provided they are clear and unmistakable. 

We think courts would better advance the purposes of the Federal Arbitration Act by engaging in a severability analysis of sorts when confronting questions like the one in Rent-A-Center.   When parties agree not only to arbitrate the merits of controversies unrelated to the arbitration clause, but also clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability, the latter agreement is tantamount to an arbitration agreement within an arbitration agreement.  One agreement concerns who decides disputes concerning the existence, formation or enforceability of the other agreement.  And the other agreement concerns the parties’ obligation to arbitrate all other disputes.  Each should be analyzed separately under Federal Arbitration Act Section 2. 

What the court did in Rent-A-Center was assume that, if any part of the arbitration agreement was unenforceable for any reason, then the entire arbitration agreement – including the clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability – must fail.  Perhaps ironically, the Court found support for this analysis in the Prima Paint/Buckeye Check Cashing line of cases that hold that an enforceability challenge directed at the contract as a whole – as opposed to the arbitration agreement specifically – must be decided by the arbitrators rather than the court.  Because the challenge here was to a stand-alone arbitration agreement that included a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability, the Court simply assumed that Federal Arbitration Act Section 2 required the Court to decide it.  But doing so was inconsistent with the parties’ clearly expressed intent that the arbitrators would decide arbitrability questions, at least arbitrability questions that did not concern the enforceability of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate arbitrability. 

The Court should have limited its inquiry to whether the parties’ agreement to arbitrate arbitrability was substantively unconscionable.  If not, then the Court should have directed that the arbitrators decide the question whether the remainder of the arbitration clause was substantively unconscionable.  Had the Court looked at the problem from that perspective, we believe it would have concluded that the unconscionability defense did not apply to the parties’ clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate, and that, accordingly, the arbitrators had to decide whether the challenge to the remainder of the arbitration clause had merit.  

.  .  .  . 

So we think the Court should have enforced the agreement to arbitrate arbitrability by committing to the arbitrators the question whether the parties’ agreement to arbitrate all other claims was unconscionable because it was allegedly one-sided.  Had it done so, it would have given full force and effect to the parties’ clearly expressed intentions, the pro-enforcement policies of Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, and the letter and spirit of First Options.

 We shall keep readers apprised of developments as and when they occur.  It will be interesting to see how the United States Supreme Court decides this case.

Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc.: Who Gets to Decide Whether an Arbitration Agreement is Unconscionable when the Parties Clearly and Unmistakably Say the Arbitrators Decide Arbitrability?

September 23rd, 2009 Arbitrability, Unconscionability, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit 4 Comments »

I.            Introduction

We have explained in prior posts the First Options/AT&T Technologies rule that arbitrators get to decide arbitrability when the parties clearly and unmistakably so agree.  (See, e.g., here and here.)  That’s all well and good, but what happens when:  (a)  two parties sign an arbitration agreement which says, among other things, that the arbitrators shall decide any claim, including any claim concerning the applicability, formation or enforceability of the arbitration agreement; and (b) despite that clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability, one of the parties challenges the arbitration agreement in court on unconscionability grounds?      

That is, for all practical purposes, what happened in Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, slip op. (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2009) (here).  And the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 that the court gets to decide the question.  Continue Reading »