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Posts Tagged ‘Rent-a-Center West v. Jackson’

Federal Arbitration Act Section 1: SCOTUS Says Courts Decide Whether FAA Applies to Contract and this Time Answer is “No”

January 25th, 2019 Appellate Practice, Applicability of Federal Arbitration Act, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 3, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Separability, Severability, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, United States Supreme Court 1 Comment »

Section 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act exempts from the FAA’s scope disputes involving “contracts of employment of . . . workers engaged in . . . interstate commerce.”  9 U. S. C. § 1. If parties to an arbitration agreement clearly and unmistakably delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator, who decides whether a contract containing the arbitration agreement is such a “contract of employment?”   

Federal Arbitration Act Section 1 1
United States Supreme Court

In New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 586 ___ U.S. ___, slip op. (Jan. 15, 2019), the nation’s highest court held that courts decide whether a contract is within the scope of the FAA’s coverage, even where the parties clearly and unmistakably delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator. Slip op. at 4. Addressing the merits of the FAA’s applicability to the contract, the United States Supreme Court held that under Section 1 it was exempt from the FAA because in 1925, the year Congress enacted the FAA, the term “contracts of employment” was ordinarily understood to include not only contracts establishing an employer-employee (or master and servant) relationship, but also independent contractor relationships. Slip op. at 15.

Federal Arbitration Act Secction 1 2
Who gets to decide whether the Federal Arbitration Act applies to the parties’ agreement?

Today we’ll focus on the first issue addressed by the Court: who gets to decide whether a contract falls within the Section 1 “contracts of employment” exemption when the parties have delegated arbitrability disputes to the arbitrators. In a later post we’ll look at how the Court decided the contract before it was under Section 1 a “contract of employment of a “worker[] engaged in interstate commerce[,]” and thus outside the scope of the FAA.  

Background

Federal Arbitration Act Secction 1 3
Dispute between a trucker and a trucking company

New Prime was a dispute between a truck driver and a trucking company. The relationship between the two was established by a written contract which, at least in form, established an independent contractor, rather than an employer-employee relationship. The contract contained an arbitration clause which provided that “any disputes arising out of the parties’ relationship should be resolved by an arbitrator—even disputes over the scope of the arbitrator ’s authority.” Slip op. at 1-2.

The trucker commenced a federal-court class action, which alleged that, irrespective of what the trucking company called its drivers, the trucking company “treat[ed] them as employees and fail[ed] to pay the statutorily due minimum wage.” Slip op. at 2.

The trucking company asked the district court to compel arbitration of the dispute. In response the trucker contended that his contract was outside the scope of the FAA because it was a “contract[] of em­ployment of . . . [a] worker[] engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” 9 U.S.C. § 1. Thus, said the trucker, the FAA “supplied the district court with no authority to compel arbitration….” Slip op. at 2.

The trucking company replied that the parties had agreed to submit to arbitration the question whether the Section 1 “contracts of employment” exemption applied to the contract. The trucking company alternatively contended that, if the question was for the Court, then the term “‘contracts of employment’ refers only to contracts that establish an employer-employee relationship[,]” and the trucker was an independent contractor, not an employee, of the trucking company. Accordingly, said the trucking company, the Section 1 exclusion did not apply, the FAA applied, and the Court should stay the litigation and compel arbitration under FAA Sections 3 and 4. See 9 U.S.C. §§ 3 & 4; slip op. at 2-3.

The district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found in favor of the trucker. The First Circuit “held, first, that in disputes like this a court should resolve whether the parties’ contract falls within the Act’s ambit or [Section 1’s] exclusion before invoking the [FAA’s] au­thority to order arbitration.” Slip op. at 3. The First Circuit further “held that [Section 1’s] exclusion of certain ‘contracts of employ­ment’ removes from the Act’s coverage not only employer-employee contracts but also contracts involving independ­ent contractors.” Slip op. at 3. Accordingly, irrespective of whether the parties’ agreement established an employer-employee or independent contractor relationship, the district court lacked FAA authority to compel arbitration. Slip op. at 3.

In an 8-0 Opinion written by Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the First Circuit’s decision (Associate Justice Brett Michael Kavanaugh took no part). Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg penned a brief concurring opinion.

The Court Must Decide Whether Section 1 Exempts the Contract from the FAA’s Scope

The Broad Authority the FAA Confers on Courts does not Extend to All Private Contracts 

Federal Arbitration Act Secction 1 4
SCOTUS: Judicial authority to compel arbitration under the FAA “may be considerable[,]” but it is not “unconditional”

The answer to the “who” question was “immediately” “clear” to the Court. Slip op. at 3. Though “a court’s authority under the [FAA] to compel arbitration may be considerable, it isn’t unconditional.” Slip op. at 3. FAA Sections 3 and 4 “often require a court to stay litigation and compel arbitration ‘according to the terms’ of the parties’ agreement[,]” “[b]ut this authority doesn’t extend to all private contracts, no matter how emphatically they may express a preference for arbitration.” Slip op. at 3.

Sections 1 and 2 are Antecedent Provisions that Limit Judicial Power to Stay Litigation and Compel Arbitration under Sections 3 and 4

Federal Arbitration Act Secction 1 5
Court must apply FAA Sections 1 and 2 to determine whether it has the authority to stay litigation or compel arbitration under Sections 3 and 4

Sections 1 and 2, the Court explained, are “antecedent statutory provisions” that “limit the scope of the scope of the court’s powers under [Sections] 3 and 4.” Slip op. at 3. Section 2 “applies only when the parties’ agreement to arbitrate is set forth as a ‘written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce.’” Slip op. at 3. Section 1, which “helps define [Section] 2’s terms[,]” provides that “‘nothing’ in the [FAA] ‘shall apply’ to ‘contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.’” Slip op. at 3-4 (quoting 9 U.S.C. § 1).

According to the Court, Section 1’s exemption was included in the FAA, which was enacted in 1925, because “Congress had already prescribed alternative employment dispute resolution regimes for many transportation workers[,]” [a]nd it seems Congress ‘did not wish to unsettle’ those arrangements in favor of whatever arbitration procedures the parties’ private contracts might happen to contemplate.” Slip op. at (quoting Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U. S. 105, 121 (2001)).

The FAA’s “Terms and Sequencing” Demonstrates that Courts Decide whether a Contract Falls Under the FAA

The FAA’s “terms and sequencing” supported the Court’s conclusion that “a court should decide for itself whether [Section] 1’s ‘contracts of employment’ exclusion applies before ordering arbitration.” Slip op. at 4. Before a Court can “invoke its statutory powers under [Sections] 3 and 3 to stay litigation and compel arbitration according to a contract’s terms, a court must first know whether the contract itself falls within or be­yond the boundaries of [Sections] 1 and 2.” Slip op. at 4. That is so even if the “parties’ private agreement [is] crystal clear and require[s] arbitration of every question under the sun….” See slip op. at 4.  

The Court’s Prior Decisions have Stressed the Significance of the FAA’s “Sequencing”

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SCOTUS says its “holding” should come as no “surprise[,]” because its prior decisions require that a contract fall within the scope of Sections 1 and 2 before litigation may be stayed or arbitration compelled under Sections 3 or 4.

The Court said “[n]othing in our holding on this score should come as a surprise[,]” because the Court has “long stressed the significance of the statute’s sequencing.” By way of example the Court cited and quoted Bernhardt v. Polygraphic Co. of America, 350 U. S. 198, 201–202 (1956), Circuit City, and Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465  U. S. 1, 10–11, and n. 5 (1984). In Bernhardt the Court explained that “‘Sections 1, 2, and 3 [and 4] are integral parts of a whole. . . . [Sections] 1 and 2 define the field in which Congress was legislating,’ and §§3 and 4 apply only to contracts covered by those provisions.” Slip op. at 4 (quoting Benhardt, 350 U.S. at 201-202). In Circuit City, the Court “acknowledged that ‘Section 1 exempts from the [Act] . . . contracts of employment of transportation workers.’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting Circuit City, 532 U. S., at 119). In Keating the Court “noted that ‘the enforce­ability of arbitration provisions’ under §§3 and 4 depends on whether those provisions are ‘ part of a written mari­time contract or a contract “evidencing a transaction in­volving commerce”’ under §2—which, in turn, depends on the application of §1’s exception for certain ‘contracts of employment.’” Slip op. at 4-5. (quoting Keating, 465  U. S. at 10–11, and n. 5).

The Trucking Company’s Delegation and Severability Arguments Put the Proverbial Cart before the Horse

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The trucking company’s arguments put the Section 3 and 4 cart before the Section 1 and 2 horse. Admittedly, the above photo doesn’t accurately depict that idiomatic scenario, but why make hay of it?

The trucking company contended that an arbitrator should decide the parties’ Section 1 dispute, relying on the delegation provision in the contract and the severability doctrine. “A delegation clause,” said the Court, “gives an arbitrator authority to decide even the initial question whether the parties’ dispute is subject to arbitration.” Slip op. at 5 (citing Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U. S. 63, 68–69 (2010)).

Under the severability doctrine, the Court “treat[s] a challenge to the validity of the arbitration agreement (or a delegation provision) separately from a challenge to the validity of the entire contract in which it appears.” Slip op. at 5. If a party does not “specifically challenge[] the validity of the agreement to arbitrate, both sides may be required to take all their disputes—including disputes about the validity of their broader contract—to arbitration. Slip op. at 5 (citing Rent-a-Center).  

The trucking company argued that: (a) the trucker did not “specifically challenge[] the parties’ delegation clause. . .”; and, therefore, (b) the parties had to arbitrate their dispute over whether the contract fell within Section 1’s exemption.

The Court explained that this argument “overlooks the necessarily antecedent statutory inquiry we’ve just discussed.” Slip op. at 5. “A delegation clause,” said the Court, “is merely a specialized type of arbitration agreement, and the [FAA] ‘operates on this additional arbitration agreement just as it does on any other.’” Slip op. at 5 (quoting Rent-a-Center, 561 U. S. at 70.) To “use [Sections] 3 and 4 to enforce a delegation clause[,]” “the clause” must “appear[] in a ‘written provision in . . . a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce’ consistent with [Section] 2[,]” “[a]nd only if the contract in which the clause appears doesn’t trigger [Section] ’s ‘contracts of employment’ exception.” Slip op. at 5.

“In exactly the same way,” said the Court, the FAA’s “severability principle applies only if the parties’ arbitration agreement appears in a contract that falls within the field [Sections] 1 and 2 describe.” Slip op. at 5-6. Indeed, the Court “acknowledged as much some time ago, ex­plaining that, before invoking the severability principle, a court should ‘determine[] that the contract in question is within the coverage of the Arbitration Act.’” Slip op. at 6 (citing and quoting Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U. S. 395, 402 (1967)).

Federal Arbitration Act Section 1 8

More to follow on New Prime

But if in the meantime you want to learn more now about arbitrability and delegation provisions, see prior posts here, here, here, here, and here.

Photo Acknowledgments:

The photos featured in this post were licensed from Yay Images and are subject to copyright protection under applicable law. 

Delegation Provisions: SCOTUS Says Courts Must Compel Arbitration of Even “Wholly-Groundless” Arbitrability Disputes

January 16th, 2019 American Arbitration Association, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Authority of Arbitrators, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Exceeding Powers, Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Stay of Litigation, United States Supreme Court 1 Comment »
Wholly Groundless 1

Arbitrability questions are ordinarily for courts to decide, but parties may, by way of a “delegation provision,” clearly and unmistakably agree to submit them to arbitration. See, e.g., First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 942-46 (1995); Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 130 S. Ct. 2772, 2777 (2010). (See, e.g., Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum posts here, here, and here.)

But suppose parties to a delegation provision disagree about whether they are required to arbitrate a dispute, yet their contract clearly excludes the dispute from arbitration. Can a Court preemptively decide the merits of an arbitrability question delegated to the arbitrators, and refuse to compel arbitration of the arbitrability question, if the Court decides that the argument for arbitration of the underlying dispute is wholly groundless?

Some federal courts have held that a federal court can, despite a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability, refuse to compel arbitration of a “wholly groundless” arbitrability question, but others have held that the FAA requires Courts to refer to arbitration even “wholly groundless” arbitrability questions. Compare Simply Wireless, Inc. v. T-Mobile US, Inc., 877 F. 3d 522 (4th Cir. 2017); Douglas v. Regions Bank, 757 F. 3d 460 (5th Cir. 2014); Turi v. Main Street Adoption Servs., LLP, 633 F. 3d 496 (6th Cir. 2011); Qualcomm, Inc. v. Nokia Corp., 466 F. 3d 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2006), with Belnap v. Iasis Healthcare, 844 F. 3d 1272 (10th Cir. 2017); Jones v. Waffle House, Inc., 866 F. 3d 1257 (11th 2017); Douglas, 757 F. 3d, at 464 (Dennis, J., dissenting).

On January 8, 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, held that where parties have clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability disputes, courts must compel arbitration even if the argument in favor of arbitration is “wholly groundless.” Schein v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 586 U.S. ____, slip op. at *2, 5, & 8 (January 8, 2019).

Wholly Groundless Exception 2

The Court said that “[t]he [FAA] does not contain a ‘wholly groundless’ exception, and we are not at liberty to rewrite the statute….” Slip op. at 2; see also slip op. at 8. “When,” said the Court, “the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.” Slip op. at 2; see also slip op. at 8. The “wholly groundless” exception, said the Court, “is inconsistent with the statutory text and with precedent[,]” and “confuses the question of who decides arbitrability with the separate question of who prevails on arbitrability.” Slip op. at 8.

Facts and Procedural History

Wholly Groundless Exception 3

Schein was a dispute between a dental equipment manufacturer and a distributor. The parties’ contract contained an arbitration agreement, which required arbitration of “[a]ny dispute arising under or related to [the Parties’] Agreement (except for actions seeking injunctive relief and disputes related to trademarks, trade secrets, or other intellectual property of [the manufacturer]….” Slip op. at 2. Arbitration was to be “in accordance with the arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association [(the “AAA”)].” Slip op. at 2.

Continue Reading »

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 »

International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution Publishes Philip J. Loree Jr.’s September 2010 Article on Rent-A-Center, West Inc. v. Jackson

September 12th, 2010 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Practice and Procedure, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution Publishes Philip J. Loree Jr.’s September 2010 Article on Rent-A-Center, West Inc. v. Jackson

The September 2010 issue of Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation, the excellent newsletter of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (”CPR”), featured an article I wrote on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Rent-A-Center, West Inc. v. Jackson, No. 09-497 (June 21, 2010).  The article is entitled “Rent-A-Center‘s Roadmap Extends Beyond Contracts.  .  .  To Congress and the Supreme Court’s New Term,” 28 Alternatives 154 (September 2010).   

The article discusses Rent-A-Center in detail, explores its implications and argues, among other things, that:

There are divergent opinions on Rent-A-Center‘s significance.  Some apparently believe that it heralds the end of alternative dispute resolution as we know it, and others, including Supreme Court guru, Carter G. Phillips — a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Sidley Austin who was a member of the employer’s Supreme Court legal team — suggest that the opinon is so narrow that it will have little or no meaningful influence on future cases.

Both views have some merit, but neither is 100% on the mark.

28 Alternatives at 168 (citation omitted). 

The article is the first of a two-part series.  The second part will discuss and critically analyze the Supreme Court’s decision in Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, No. 08–1214 (June 24, 2010), and will be published in the October 2010 edition of Alternatives

Alternatives also recently published two other articles I wrote earlier this year, both of which were featured as cover stories:  “Stolt-Nielsen Delivers a New FAA Rule — And then Federalizes the Law of Contracts,” 28 Alternatives 121 (June 2010), and “It’s Time for Doctrines:  The Supreme Court Wrestles with ‘Severablility’ and the ‘Clear and Unmistakable Standard,” 28 Alternatives 73 (March 2010).  (See Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum posts here and here.)

Alternatives is a subscription-only publication. Subscription information is available at this page, as well as at the publisher’s, John Wiley & Sons’s,  website here.

I would like once again to take this opportunity to thank CPR, and Russ Bleemer, Editor of Alternatives, for their kind assistance and support in featuring my article.   CPR is one of the most prestigious ADR organizations in the United States, and, as I have said before, Russ is a very intelligent, dedicated and professional editor with whom it is a pleasure to work.

What to Make of the Second Circuit Voiding a Class Action Waiver Under California’s Discover Bank Rule?

July 23rd, 2010 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, California State Courts, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Practice and Procedure, 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 What to Make of the Second Circuit Voiding a Class Action Waiver Under California’s Discover Bank Rule?

After deciding Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds, Inc. and Rent-A-Center West v. Jackson, the United States Supreme Court left federal arbitration law at a crossroads.  In both cases the Court adhered quite faithfully to its prior Federal Arbitration Act jurisprudence, under which it enforces arbitration agreements according to their terms, without regard to other considerations.  In Rent-A-Center the Court implicitly reaffirmed that these pro-enforcement rules apply equally to contracts of adhesion. 

We will find out whether the Court intends to continue down the same path when it decides AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion next term, a case that raises the question whether California’s Discover Bank  unconscionability rule is pre-empted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  That rule deems unconscionable under California law class-action or class-arbitration waivers where:  (a) “the waiver is found in a consumer contract of adhesion in a setting in which the disputes between the contracting parties predictably involve small amounts of damages”; and (b) “it is alleged that the party with the superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money.  .  .  .”  Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148, 162-63 (2005) (citing Cal. Civ. Code § 1668). 

The Discover Bank rule is grounded in a California-law principle – embodied in Cal. Civ. Code § 1668 – that “contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud.  .  .  are against the policy of the law.”   See Cal. Civ. Code § 1668.  If a company is allegedly engaging in fraudulent acts designed to cheat numerous consumers out of small amounts of money, a class action or class arbitration waiver may, if enforced, effectively act as an exculpatory provision that insulates the company from the consequences of its small scale, but widespread fraud, because the individual, allegedly defrauded consumers have little incentive to pursue separate actions or arbitrations to recoup trivial amounts of damages.  See Discover Bank, 36 Cal. 4th at 162-63.  Any contract that had that effect – whether it is a class action waiver in an arbitration clause, an exculpatory agreement or a contract that simply forbids class actions  — would be unconscionable under the rule.  

In Fensterstock v. Education Finance Partners, No. 09-1562-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. July 12, 2010), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit suggested one path that the United States Supreme Court might take on Discover Bank preemption.  In an interesting opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Amalya Lyle Kearse, joined by Circuit Judges José A. Cabranes and Chester J. Straub, held that the Discover Bank rule was not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  According to the Second Circuit, California’s  Discover Bank rule “’places arbitration agreements on the exact same footing as contracts that bar class action litigation outside the context of arbitration,’” and for that reason the rule is not preempted by the Act.  Slip op. at 16-17 (quoting Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Serv., Inc., 498 F.3d 976, 990 (9th Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original)). 

On first blush the Second Circuit’s decision seems reasonable.  But there are some important issues lurking beneath the surface that the Supreme Court will need to address when it decides AT&T MobilityContinue Reading »

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 »

When Do Cost Provisions in an Arbitration Agreement Effectively Deny a Party a Forum in Which to Vindicate Statutory Rights?

April 6th, 2010 Arbitrability, Authority of Arbitrators, Employment Arbitration, New York Court of Appeals, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on When Do Cost Provisions in an Arbitration Agreement Effectively Deny a Party a Forum in Which to Vindicate Statutory Rights?

Introduction

Under the federal Federal Arbitration Act statutory claims are generally arbitrable if they fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement, but arbitrator and arbitration-service-provider fees that may impose undue financial burdens on employees or other individuals seeking to vindicate those rights.   Cost provisions in arbitration agreements allocate these fees and costs, and even when the allocation is 50-50, disputes may arise concerning whether they are so burdensome as to effectively deny one of the parties a forum in which to pursue his or her claims.   

In Green Tree Financial Corp v Randolph, 531 U.S. 79 (2000), the United States Supreme Court acknowledged that “the existence of large arbitration costs could preclude a litigant from effectively vindicating her federal statutory rights in the arbitral forum.”  531 U.S. at 90.  And it said that “where, a party seeks to invalidate an arbitration agreement on the ground that arbitration would be prohibitively expensive, that party bears the burden of showing the likelihood of incurring costs that would deter the party from arbitrating the claim.”  531 U.S. at 92.   While the Court did not purport to enunciate the standards courts should apply in evaluating challenges to cost provisions, it held that the “risk” of  “prohibitive costs is too speculative to justify the invalidation of an arbitration agreement.”  531 U.S. at 91. Continue Reading »

Professor Aaron Bruhl’s Analysis of Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson (No. 09-497)

February 24th, 2010 Arbitrability, Authority of Arbitrators, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Professor Aaron Bruhl’s Analysis of Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson (No. 09-497)

Professor Aaron Bruhl, an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, recently published in PrawfsBlawg a thought-provoking and insightful article on Rent-A-Center West v. Jackson (No. 09-497).  (Post here)  Regular readers no doubt remember that the United States Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Rent-A-Center, and will be hearing argument on April 26, 2010.  (See our prior posts here and here).

Professor Bruhl points out that, in addition to being of interest to those practicing employment, consumer or plain old arbitration law, Rent-A-Center “is just as interesting for those who study federal courts and judicial politics.”   He reminds us that one of the few remaining “safety valves” for challenging arbitration agreements is unconscionability:     

In the last few years, as other routes for challenging arbitration have been closed off, unconscionability has become a surprisingly common and surprisingly effective way of attacking arbitration agreements.  The challenges do not attack arbitration per se – federal law favors arbitration – but instead target various aspects of a particular arbitration process:  a given clause might forbid class arbitrations, bar punitive damages or otherwise restrict remedies, sharply curtail discovery, require a consumer to pay hefty arbitrator’s fees, etc.  There have been many cases on these topics in recent years, and a good number of them sustain the challenge to the arbitration clause.

He notes that the United States Supreme Court has consistently denied certiorari in cases where lower courts have invalidated arbitration agreements on state-law unconscionability grounds and the question is whether the invalidation offended the Federal Arbitration Act.  He suspects “the Court has avoided these cases because it feels ill-equipped to resolve whether a lower court is discriminating against arbitration:” 

First, unconscionability analysis often requires a fact-intensive inquiry.  Second, and more important, determining whether a lower court is using unconscionability differently when it comes to arbitration requires an engagement with the details of state law and a comparison of lots of prior unconscionability cases.  Third, and maybe most important of all, a holding that the lower court is applying unconscionability unfairly, especially when the lower court says it is applying the same analysis it applies elsewhere, carries with it some serious expressive baggage.  Essentially, it requires the Supreme Court to say that the lower court is being dishonest.  That happens, but when it does so, it is a big deal (think cases like Bush v. Gore or the cases from the 50s/60s rejecting supposed procedural defaults in the state courts).

 But the Court granted certiorari in Rent-A-Center, a case involving not the merits of a state law unconscionability challenge, but the question who gets to decide unconscionability when the parties clearly and unmistakably submit it to the arbitrators.  Professor Bruhl believes certiorari was granted because addressing the “who” question, and resolving it in favor of arbitration, will cleanly dispose of the unconscionability problem from the standpoint of the federal courts, at least in cases where the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability: 

That doesn’t require diving into the weeds of state law and the record. If the Court assigns the issue to the arbitrator, that will be a very easy rule to monitor for compliance (unlike deciding whether the lower court applied unconscionability correctly).  All of those unconscionability cases out there will instantly become not wrong but irrelevant – because courts won’t be deciding the issue anymore.  And it won’t matter whether some lower courts can be trusted to apply unconscionability correctly, because they will be cut out of the picture. Continue Reading »