Today’s post covers three new developments from this past week. The Fifth Circuit found a defendant waived its right to arbitrate a class action; the Second Circuit found arbitrators retain power to clarify ambiguous awards; and Jay-Z found his list of potential arbitrators sorely lacking in diversity.

In Forby v. One Technologies, 2018 WL 6191349 (5th Cir. Nov. 28, 2018), a class of plaintiffs filed an action for consumer fraud. The defendant waited two years before compelling arbitration. In the meantime, it removed the case to federal court, transferred venue, and filed a Rule 12 motion to dismiss, which was only partially successful.

In response to the motion to compel, the plaintiffs argued the defendant had waived its right to arbitrate. The district court disagreed, finding that “delay alone is insufficient” to establish the prejudice required to prove waiver. On appeal, however, the Fifth Circuit found prejudice because the plaintiff would “have to re-litigate in the arbitration forum an issue already decided by the district court in its favor”, i.e. the Rule 12 issue. Even if defendant did not make another motion to dismiss in arbitration, the court disapproved of the tactic of “check[ing] the district court’s temperature” on the dispositive issue, before moving the case to another forum.

In General Re Life Corp. v. Lincoln Nat’l Life Ins Co., 2018 WL 6186078 (Nov. 28, 2018), the Second Circuit examined whether a panel of arbitrators can clarify their own award. In the underlying reinsurance arbitration, the arbitrators had ordered the parties to unwind their agreement, and work together to figure out how much money had to be repaid. In the award, the arbitrators retained jurisdiction to resolve any dispute over the payments. The parties did not agree on the amount of repayment, or even how to calculate it. So, more than three months after the final award, one party wrote the arbitrators, seeking resolution of the payment dispute. The other side objected, characterizing the request as one to reconsider the final award. The panel clarified its award, after finding the award had ambiguities.

The Second Circuit confirmed the clarified award. Although usually an arbitration panel loses authority after issuing the final award, five circuits have recognized an exception to that “functus officio” doctrine where the final award is “susceptible to more than one interpretation”. The Second Circuit adopted the same exception, but limited it to when three conditions are present: the award is ambiguous; the clarification only clarifies the award, and does not substantively modify the award; and the clarification comports with the parties’ arbitration agreement.

Finally, making headlines across the country, Jay-Z has asked a New York state court to stay his arbitration, due to a lack of available African-American arbitrators. I will let you know when I hear of a decision. But, the underlying premise is one I have wondered about – are large arbitration providers a place of “public accommodation”? In the meantime, maybe Jay-Z will write a rap about arbitration… then it could be my theme song!

The Seventh Circuit issued an opinion last week that sounded like it would be a big deal.  The case, Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp., 2018 WL 5116905 (7th Cir. Oct. 22, 2018), dealt with the fallout from SCOTUS’s Epic Systems, and addressed a class arbitrability issue of first impression, which meant it could have been epic indeed.  But instead, the decision is a fizzle that punts all the truly exciting issues back to the district court.

Herrington began in court as a collective action for minimum wages and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The named plaintiff had an arbitration clause which included this statement “Such arbitration may not be joined with or join or include any claims by any persons not party to this Agreement.”  So, the defendant moved to compel individual arbitration.  But, based on the 7th Circuit’s precedent finding that class waivers in employment agreements violated federal labor laws (the NRLA), the court sent the parties to arbitration with an order instructing the arbitrator to allow the plaintiff “to join other employees to her case.”

In arbitration, the parties continued to fight over what type of suit could proceed.  The arbitrator concluded that the arbitration agreement evinced the parties’ intent to allow class arbitration, because it incorporated AAA employment rules, which the arbitrator interpreted to also include the supplementary rules for class arbitration.   In the end, however, the group proceeded as a collective arbitration with 175 members, and the arbitrator awarded them $10 million.

While the issue was on appeal, SCOTUS overruled the 7th Circuit’s precedent (in Epic Systems), which upended this entire proceeding.  On its face, it seemed as if the initial decision not to enforce the arbitration clause precluding joinder should be un-done, which would vacate the entire award.  However, the plaintiffs argued that despite the language precluding joinder, the arbitration clause still contained other language that authorized the collective arbitration.  At that, the 7th Circuit pivoted and framed the question as: who decides whether the arbitration clause allows collective arbitration?  The court or the arbitrator?

Noting it was “an open question in our circuit,” the 7th Circuit agreed with “every federal court of appeals to reach the question” that the “availability of class arbitration is a question of arbitrability” and therefore presumptively for courts to decide.  But, the 7th Circuit did not address the next logical question that must be answered to resolve the case: does or does not the parties’ choice of AAA rules delegate even the availability of class arbitration to an arbitrator?  Because that is not only an open question in the 7th Circuit, but one on which the other federal circuits are split.

That issue is important because if the parties validly delegated that question to the arbitrator, then the arbitrator’s decision finding the parties’ arbitration clause allowed collective action is entitled to deference.  At that point, isn’t it just like Sutter?  The arbitrator allowed the class action, and the courts have to live with that construction, “good, bad or ugly”?

Well, all those issues will have to be worked out by the district court.  The 7th Circuit found “the district court should conduct the threshold inquiry regarding class or collective arbitrability to determine whether [plaintiff’s] agreement with [defendant] authorized the kind of arbitration that took place.”

Happy Halloween!  (Or, by the time most of you read this, Day of the Dead.  Can you believe my husband carved this cool pumpkin?)

Usually the plaintiffs in a class action want to stay out of arbitration, but in the recent case of JPAY v. Kobel, 2018 WL 4472207 (11th Cir. Sept. 19, 2018), it was the class representatives who were fighting for arbitration.  In particular, they wanted the arbitrator to decide whether they could have a class action.  And they won.

In a case that reads as if it is charting significant new ground, even though the court reached almost the same conclusion just a few weeks ago, the Eleventh Circuit clarified a few holdings.  First, the availability of class arbitration is a “gateway issue” that is presumptively for courts to decide.  [To be fair, in the earlier decision, it had assumed that result without actually reaching that holding.]  Second, the availability of class arbitration can be delegated to arbitrators just as easily as other gateway questions.  In other words, the 11th Circuit reaffirmed its opposition to the rule adopted by three other circuits: that the question of class arbitrability takes special delegation language, and incorporating JAMS or AAA rules is not enough.

In this case, the court found that the parties had delegated the question of whether the action could proceed on a class basis in arbitration in two independent ways.  First, they had agreed to arbitrate under AAA rules (the agreement mentions both consumer and commercial rules).  Because the AAA rules authorize arbitrators to determine their own jurisdiction, the 11th Circuit found this was sufficient to authorize the arbitrator to decide whether a class action was available under the language of the parties’ arbitration agreement.  It disagreed that the parties needed to have adopted or referenced the AAA Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitrations.

Second, the parties had included this language in the arbitration clause: “the ability to arbitrate the dispute, claim or controversy shall likewise be determined in the arbitration.”  The court found that was sufficient, even without the incorporation of AAA rules, to take the class arbitrability decision out of the court’s ambit.

The court also took on some of the public policy arguments made in favor of keeping class arbitrability in the courts.  It said “[t]he arbitrator’s decision whether a class is available will be more efficient and more confidential than a court’s would be.  The determination of class availability has the same stakes and involves the same parties whether it is decided in a court or in arbitration.”  And while the arbitrator’s decision is “somewhat less reviewable than a court’s,….it will be no less reviewable than any other decision made in arbitration, and the law generally favors arbitration of many high-stakes questions.”  This is one of the most respectful, positive statements I have seen about arbitration in a court decision in a long time.  Curious though that the court did not address the frequent rebuttal to these arguments: that there could be financial incentive for an arbitrator or administrator to find a class can proceed.

The decision was not unanimous.  The lone dissenter from the panel wrote that “without a specific reference to class arbitration the court should presume that the parties did not intend to delegate to an arbitrator an issue of such great consequence.”

I am taking bets on how quickly SCOTUS grants cert to decide this circuit split.

Today’s post concerns a perennially hot topic: class actions.  In particular, do courts decide whether an arbitration agreement allows for class actions?  Or do arbitrators?  (Because, it turns out, there are actually some corporations who have not inserted class action waivers in their consumer contracts.)  To date, four circuit courts have held that class arbitrability is an issue that is presumably for courts (not arbitrators) to decide, even if the parties incorporate rules that generally delegate issues of arbitrability to an arbitrator (3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th).  In recent weeks, the Tenth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit disagreed.  Because the Second Circuit had also previously disagreed, there is now a 4-3 split among the circuits over whether the incorporation of AAA (or similar) rules is sufficient to authorize an arbitrator to decide whether arbitration can proceed on a class-wide basis.

In Spirit Airlines v. Maizes, 2018 WL 3866335 (11th Cir. Aug. 15, 2018), members of Spirit Airlines’ “$9 Fare Club” started a class arbitration with the AAA.  Spirit then brought an action to federal court, seeking a declaration that the arbitration clause did not authorize class arbitration.  (You may recall that the outcome of the Stolt-Nielsen and Sutter cases is that there can be no class arbitration unless the parties agreed to that process in their arbitration clause, but the language does not have to be explicit.)  The district court found that the arbitrator should determine the issue of whether a class action could proceed in arbitration.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found that no special rules apply to class arbitration.  It assumed that class arbitration is a gateway issue of arbitrability, such that the court has presumptive authority to decide it.  Here, the Spirit agreement called for the AAA rules, which the court found included the Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitration, and those supplementary rules empower an arbitrator to decide whether claimants may proceed as a class action.  The court found that incorporation of AAA rules was clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties intended the arbitrator to decide the availability of a class action in arbitration.  It relied on earlier precedent finding that AAA rules are sufficient to delegate jurisdictional issues to arbitrators, and disagreed that SCOTUS rulings provide for any different outcome in the case of class arbitration.

In Dish Network v. Ray, 2018 WL 3978537 (10th Cir. Aug. 21, 2018), a former employee of Dish Network started a class and collective arbitration with the AAA.  The appointed arbitrator issued a Clause Construction Award, finding that he had authority to decide the issue and that the arbitration agreement permitted a collective action.  The arbitrator’s award included ten pages of analysis interpreting the text of the arbitration agreement to shed light on whether they agreed to allow class/collective actions in arbitration.  The district court denied Dish’s motion to vacate the Clause Construction Award, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision.

On appeal, the court assumed without deciding that the availability of class arbitration is a gateway dispute for court to decide.  Even so, it found that the parties’ selection of AAA rules to govern the arbitration was sufficient to clearly and unmistakably delegate the issue of class arbitration to the arbitrator.  It acknowledged that four circuits had “require[d] more specific language delegating the question of class wide arbitrability,” but noted that the Second Circuit had disagreed with that holding earlier this year.  Following the lead of the Second Circuit, the court relied on precedent from Colorado and the Tenth Circuit finding that incorporation of AAA rules is sufficient to delegate arbitrability to the arbitrator.  Having concluded that the arbitrator had authority to determine whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allowed for class/collective actions, the court had little trouble finding that the arbitrator’s Clause Construction Award could not be vacated.  The court found that the arbitrator “interpreted the parties’ contract, which is all we are allowed to consider” and did not manifestly disregard the law.

The fact that this circuit split is heating up is interesting in light of one of the arbitration cases that SCOTUS will hear on October 29.  That case, Lamps Plus, presents the question of how specific the language of an arbitration agreement must be in order to authorize class arbitration.

_______________________________

A class action postscript.

A putative class of plaintiffs sued Bluestem Brands in federal court in Minnesota for claims related to its credit programs.  In response to a motion to compel arbitration, the district court compelled arbitration of some claims, but denied others, finding they fell outside the scope of the credit agreement’s arbitration clause.  On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found all claims fell within the arbitration clause.  Parm v. Bluestem Brands, 2018 WL 3733424 (8th Cir. Aug. 7, 2018).  After finding the arbitration clause was “broad” (because it used the magic phrase “arise out of”), it found the factual allegations for all claims “touch[ed] matters covered by the arbitration agreement,” because all allegations related to the financing agreements.

And, in further fallout from Epic Systems, roughly 1600 employees of Kelly Services alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act in federal court.  Gaffers v. Kelly Services, 2018 WL 3863422 (6th Cir. Aug. 15, 2018).  Kelly Services compelled individual arbitration with the employees who had arbitration agreements (about half).  As those employees’ only defense was that the Federal Arbitration Act should take a backseat to the FLSA or NLRA, the employees lost on appeal and will have to arbitrate.

Almost a year ago, the Second Circuit praised the clean, readable design of Uber’s app.   Because the reference to Uber’s terms of service was not cluttered and hyperlinked to the actual terms, the Second Circuit held Uber could enforce its arbitration agreement and the class action waiver within it.  But, just last week, the First Circuit disagreed.  In Cullinane v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 2018 WL 3099388 (1st Cir. June 25, 2018), it refused to enforce an arbitration clause in Uber’s terms of service and allowed a putative class action to proceed.  The First Circuit found customers were not reasonably notified of Uber’s terms and conditions, because the hyperlink to those terms was not conspicuous.

The Cullinane opinion was applying Massachusetts law on contract formation.  Massachusetts has not specifically addressed online agreements (or smart phone apps), but in analogous contexts has held that forum selection clauses should be enforced if they are “reasonably communicated and accepted.”  In particular, there must be “reasonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent.”  The Meyer opinion was applying California law on contract formation.  But the test was identical, because both states had borrowed it from a Second Circuit decision about Netscape.  So, the state law at issue does not explain the different outcome.

The one thing that might explain the different outcome is that the two federal appellate courts appear to have analyzed slightly different versions of Uber’s app.  In Cullinane, the lead plaintiffs had signed up between Dec. 31, 2012 and January 10, 2014.  (The court reproduced the actual screen shots early in its opinion.)  In Meyer, the lead plaintiff had signed up in October, 2014, and Uber had altered the design of its sign-up screens.  (There, the screen shot is an addendum to its opinion.)  For example, the background was now white in late 2014, instead of black, and the “Terms of Service & Privacy Policy” were in teal, instead of white text.

And, those are some of the aspects of the design that the First Circuit pointed to as critical.  It noted that hyperlinked terms are usually in blue text and underlined, but that the Cullinane plaintiffs’ were faced with hyperlinked “Terms of Service” that were not blue or underlined.  Instead, they were in white text in a gray box, no different than other non-hyperlinked text like “scan your card” on the same screen.   In addition, the First Circuit found the text stating “by creating an Uber account you agree to the [Terms]” was insufficiently conspicuous for similar reasons.  For those reasons, the Cullinane opinion found “the Plaintiffs were not reasonably notified of the terms of the Agreement, they did not provide their unambiguous assent to those terms.”

This is another example of how unsettled some aspects of arbitration law are (and maybe consumer contracting in general).  In Meyer, the district court had denied Uber’s motion to compel arbitration, and the appellate court reversed, granting the motion to compel arbitration.  And in Cullinane, the district court had granted Uber’s motion to compel arbitration, and the appellate court reversed, denying the motion to compel arbitration.  Those four courts were applying the exact same legal standard of conspicuousness, and reached opposite conclusions in the span of less than a year.

The lesson here is two-fold.  First, there is no clear standard for when terms on a website (or on a receipt, or in a box) are sufficiently conspicuous, so judges are left to their own devices (pun intended) to answer that question.  Second, unless an on-line provider wants judges — who are likely untrained in the psychology of consumer design related to five inch screens (and may not even have any apps) — to keep on getting to whatever result they please, the only solution is to require a consumer to actually click “I agree” after viewing a screen of the terms and conditions.  Unless, of course, SCOTUS grants certiorari of this new “circuit split” and issues guidance…

 

Lots of folks are writing about the long-term impact of SCOTUS’s recent decision in Epic Systems, but it is also important to note that there has been immediate, short-term impact.

For example, a lead plaintiff agreed to take her sex discrimination case against a law firm  to individual arbitration, abandoning her putative class action, after the Epic decision was released.  A federal judge is ready to dismiss a separate class action against Epic Systems (regarding overtime pay) as a result of the new decision.  And a class action against Chipotle may get sliced and diced up, with about 30% of employees being sent to individual arbitration, while 70% of the class can proceed in court (because they started working for the chain before it instituted the arbitration program). There must be dozens (hundreds?) of similar employment class actions around the country.

Speaking of the trickle down effects of SCOTUS’s arbitration cases, last year’s Kindred decision is certainly a relevant headwater for the Supreme Court of West Virginia’s recent opinion upholding the arbitration agreement in nursing home admission documents.  Although West Virginia used to be reliably anti-arbitration, its recent decisions are pro-arbitration.  So, it’s not too surprising that in AMFM LLC v. Shanklin, 2018 WL 2467770 (W. Va. May 30, 2018), that court reversed a trial court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement signed by the resident’s daughter was not enforceable.  Careful not to interpret its statutes and common law regarding power of attorney in a way that stands as an obstacle to the FAA, West Virginia’s high court found that the daughter’s role as understudy in the POA document (fine, it says “successor” or “alternate”) was sufficient to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement.  The position drew a spirited dissent from one lone justice.

 

I have been making my way through the rest of the May arbitration cases (the photo shows how high my stack got), and one thing that stands out is this: I was right.  Delegation clauses remain a hot topic in arbitration law.

Three recent cases demonstrate the power of having a delegation clause in an arbitration agreement.

The Fifth Circuit enforced a delegation clause in Edwards v. DoorDash, 2018 WL 1954090 (5th Cir. Apr. 25, 2018), a case involving a putative FLSA class action brought by “Dashers.”  Not to be confused with reindeers who pull Santa’s sleigh, these Dashers  deliver restaurant food to people’s homes.  And they all signed an Independent Contractor Agreement with an arbitration agreement.  That agreement called for AAA rules and waived class and collective actions.  In response to the filing of the class action, DoorDash successfully moved to compel individual arbitration. On appeal, the class representative argued the arbitration agreement was unconscionable.  But once the Fifth Circuit was satisfied that the independent contractor agreement was validly formed, it found the incorporation of AAA rules was a valid delegation clause that the plaintiffs had failed to challenge.  The case was sent to arbitration.

In another Fifth Circuit case, Arnold v. HomeAway, Inc., 2018 WL 2222661 (5th Cir. May 15, 2018), incorporation of AAA rules also served as the parties’ delegation clause.  In that case, consumers filed putative class action complaints against a company that facilitates short-term vacation rentals.  HomeAway argued that its 2016 terms and conditions applied, which contained an arbitration clause providing that arbitration would be governed by AAA rules and that awards would be “on an individual basis.”  The consumers argued that the 2015 terms and conditions applied, which lacked an arbitration agreement (and that any subsequent modification was invalid).  The district court denied the motion to compel arbitration, finding the arbitration agreement illusory.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit faulted the district court for ignoring the delegation clause in the terms and conditions.  It found the incorporation of AAA rules was a clear and unmistakable delegation of questions relating to the validity of the arbitration agreement to an arbitrator.  Because the plaintiffs’ challenge to the arbitration agreement was not specific to the delegation clause, arbitration must be compelled.

Not far away, in the Supreme Court of Alabama, another delegation clause was enforced.  Eickhoff Corp. v. Warrior Met Coal, LLC, 2018 WL 2075985 (Alabama May 4, 2018), did not involve a putative class action, but something just as sexy: five agreements between the parties, only two of which had arbitration clauses (both calling for AAA rules).  When one party filed in court, the other moved to compel arbitration.  The party opposing arbitration claimed that its court claims were based on the three contracts without arbitration clauses and the trial court agreed.  The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the incorporation of AAA Rules was an enforceable delegation clause, delegating questions of scope to an arbitrator, and it should have resulted in an order compelling arbitration.

SCOTUS finally delivered its decision today in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the consolidated case that addresses whether employers can require employees to give up their right to class or consolidated litigation as part of an arbitration agreement.  In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Court found that class action waivers are enforceable under the FAA, and nothing in the labor laws preclude that conclusion.

As usual, how the Court frames the question gives away its answer.  Justice Gorsuch began the majority opinion by asking: “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?”* In contrast, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent frames the issue as “Does the [FAA] permit employers to insist that their employees, whenever seeking redress for commonly experienced wage loss, go it alone, never mind the right secured to employees by the National Labor Relations Act . . . ‘to engage in . . . concerted activities’ for their ‘mutual aid or protection'”?

The majority opinion started by painting the NLRB’s opposition to class action waivers as a sudden shift after 77 years of peaceful coexistence with the FAA.  It then finds that the NLRA cannot be applied via the savings clause of Section 2 of the FAA because it interferes with one of arbitration’s fundamental attributes — individual resolution — and therefore is not the type of defense that applies to any contract. (It cites Concepcion for the proposition that individual resolution is fundamental to arbitration.)

After finding nothing in the FAA itself that would prevent enforcement of the class action waivers at issue, the majority opinion looks to see if the NLRA clearly and manifestly indicates that Congress intended to override the FAA.  It finds no statutory or contextual evidence of that clear intent.  It also made short work of the employees’ argument for Chevron deference to the NLRB.  [One of the best lines from the opinion is in that section.  Noting that Chevron was based, in part, on the idea that policy choices should be left to the executive branch which voters can hold accountable, the majority writes: “whatever argument might be mustered for deferring to the Executive on grounds of political accountability, surely it becomes a garble when the Executive speaks from both sides of its mouth, articulating no single position on which it might be held accountable.”]

Interestingly, the majority decision acknowledges that there is a vigorous policy debate over the merits of class action waivers in arbitration.  At multiple points during the opinion Justice Gorsuch bows to the possibility that the FAA could be flawed: “You might wonder if the balance Congress struck in 1925 between arbitration and litigation should be revisited in light of more contemporary developments.”  And later “This Court is not free to substitute its preferred economic policies for those chosen by the people’s representatives.”  But each time he returns to the idea that the Court is bound by the law to rigidly enforce arbitration agreements.  In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg agrees that Congress is now the right branch of government to act.  The dissent states: “Congressional correction of the Court’s elevation of the FAA over workers’ rights to act in concert is urgently in order.”

The dissent would hold that Section 7 of the NLRA does guarantee the right to pursue collective litigation and trumps the FAA.  The dissent reviews the text and legislative history of the NLRA to support its conclusion and addresses the majority’s arguments.  What I found most interesting in the dissent, however, was its review of the legislative history behind Section 1 of the FAA.  Apparently, organized labor was concerned about the FAA’s impact, and Herbert Hoover amended the legislation to specifically exclude workers’ contracts.  Congress passed the amended version and labor withdrew its opposition.  [Justice Ginsburg’s research on that topic may come in handy next term when the Court addresses the New Prime case.]

This is the result that everyone expected based on oral argument and the current politics of the court.  But still, when I read the “Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court,” I can’t help feeling like it should say “Justice Gorsuch delivered on President Trump’s promises of a conservative court.”  Would it have been better to just let the new appointments to the NLRB reverse the Board’s course of action, much like the reversals of other agencies, and save the Court from this particular insertion into politics?

*  (Do you hear that growly “one on one” from this song when you read that?   Maybe it’s just me.)

 

Today the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari in another case involving the Federal Arbitration Act.  The case, Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, comes from the Ninth Circuit and raises a variation of the question from Sutter: how clear does an arbitration agreement need to be to show the parties authorized class arbitration?

My initial summary of the Ninth Circuit opinion is here.  It didn’t even merit an entire post of its own, but shared time with another circuit court opinion.  In my view, the issue of class arbitration has largely been hammered out.  SCOTUS ruled in Stolt-Nielsen that class arbitration is only allowed if the parties’ arbitration agreement authorizes it.  More recently, courts have generally concluded that courts, not arbitrators, should decide whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allows for class arbitration.  Finally, state law governs the question of how to interpret whether the parties’ arbitration agreement authorizes class arbitration.  Yet, now we will have a new decision on whether an interpretation of state law (interpreting ambiguity against a drafter to find class arbitration is authorized) should be preempted by the federal policy favoring arbitration (and particularly, favoring non-class arbitration).

In fact, the other two arbitration cases on SCOTUS’s docket also relate to class actions.  The NLRB case (whether forcing employees to waive their right to class actions in arbitration agreements is a violation of labor statutes) is still under consideration (it was argued last October).  And another upcoming case, New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, stems from a putative class action brought by independent contractors, even though the narrow issue before SCOTUS is whether an arbitrator or court should determine the applicability of the FAA.

If any Supreme Court clerk or justice had called me and asked “what are some of the really hot arbitration questions that this Court should resolve in order to ensure consistent decision-making around the country?,” class arbitration would not have been on my list.  I read every arbitration opinion that issues from the federal circuit courts and state high courts, and the issues I see courts struggling with most often include delegation clauses and issues relating to non-signatories.  Maybe I am not giving enough credit to the few class action opinions that come out (despite the fact that they impact many people), or alternatively maybe the Court’s emphasis on class arbitration highlights a political aspect of the cert process, or a particular interest of a majority of justices, or just the persuasiveness of this team.

 

A new Seventh Circuit case answers the age-old question: if a fourteen-year-old swipes her mom’s credit card to complete a smoothie purchase at the mall, is she bound to the credit card agreement?

The case, A.D. v. Credit One Bank, N.A., __ F.3d __, 2018 WL 1414907 (Mar. 22. 2018), addressed whether the lead plaintiff in a putative TCPA class action was bound to an arbitration agreement.  The lead plaintiff was a teenager when the case was filed, and she alleged that the defendant bank called her cell phone multiple times to collect on her mother’s credit card debt.  (A practice which is precluded by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).)  During the course of discovery, the defendant bank realized that it had linked the teenager’s cell phone number to the mother’s credit card account when the mother used the teen’s cell phone to call the defendant.   It also discovered that the teenager had completed a few smoothie purchases at the mall using her mother’s credit card.  The defendant bank then made a motion to compel arbitration  (and to deny class certification) based on the arbitration agreement in the mother’s cardholder agreement.  The district court granted the motion, but the Seventh Circuit reversed.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit tried to clear up any ambiguity in its previous treatment of cases regarding non-signatories.  It established two analytical steps needed to resolve the arbitrability question: whether the daughter is directly bound by the arbitration agreement; and if not, whether any of the arguments for binding non-signatories apply.

With respect to whether the daughter was bound by the plain language of the arbitration agreement, the Court had no trouble concluding she was not.   The arbitration agreement specifically applied to claims made by authorized users of the account.  The district court had relied on one sentence in the paragraph defining “Authorized Users” of the card: “If you allow someone to use your Account, that person will be an Authorized User.”  That, plus the fact that the mother had ordered smoothies, but then sent her daughter up to the counter to swipe the credit card when the smoothies were ready, led the district court to conclude the daughter was an “authorized user” bound by the cardholder agreement.  The appellate court, however, noted that the full definition of Authorized User required multiple steps for someone to qualify, none of which had been completed for the teenage plaintiff.  Furthermore, the cardholder agreement limited authorized users to people over fifteen, and the relevant state law also did not allow fourteen-year-olds to enter into binding contracts.    Therefore, the Seventh Circuit found the “terms of the cardholder agreement do not bind” the teenage plaintiff.

With respect to the second analytical step, the Court found the principles of equitable estoppel (which can bind non-signatories to arbitration agreement) did not bind the daughter to the cardholder agreement.  Critically, equitable estoppel requires the bank to prove that the teenage daughter received a “direct benefit” from the cardholder agreement.  In this case, the bank’s whole argument hinged on the smoothie.  [I wonder if there was testimony about how much it cost, and how delicious it was!  Did it have vitamin boosters?!]  And the Court was not impressed.  It reasoned:

“any ‘benefit’ that [daughter] received with respect to the credit card was limited to following her mother’s directions to pick up the smoothies that her mother had ordered previously. . . Her mother, [] benefited from the agreement, which allowed her, not [the daughter] to buy the smoothies.”

The Court also concluded that the class action claims did not seek benefits under the cardholder agreement, which would have been a separate basis for estoppel.

As a result, the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision to grant the motion to compel arbitration and directed the district court to reconsider its denial of the class certification as well.