Two different panels of the Second Circuit issued opinions about class arbitration on the same day last week.  One creates a circuit split over how specific parties must be to delegate the availability of class arbitration to arbitrators, and the second addresses when bankruptcy law can preempt the federal arbitration act.

In Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC v. Sappington, 2018 WL 1177230 (2d Cir. March 7, 2018), a putative class of former Wells Fargo employees brought suit for unpaid overtime (FLSA).  Wells Fargo moved to compel “bilateral” (individual) arbitration.  The district court denied the motion, finding that the arbitrator was authorized to decide whether class arbitration was available.   The Second Circuit affirmed.

As you may recall from this blog, at least four federal circuit courts have found that whether class arbitration is available is a gateway issue of arbitrability, meaning that it is presumptively for the courts to determine.  (The 8th, 6th, 4th, and 3d.)  And, while parties can delegate gateway issues to the arbitrator if they do so clearly and unmistakably, at least three of those circuits have held that a higher standard applies to the class arbitration issue.  (For example, the Eighth Circuit found that incorporating AAA rules was not sufficient to delegate class arbitrability, while it is sufficient to delegate other gateway issues.)

In the Wells Fargo matter, the Second Circuit “assume[d] without deciding” that the availability of class arbitration is a gateway question.  (Wimps.  Just decide.)  It then considered whether the delegation of that issue to an arbitrator was clear and unmistakable under Missouri law.  One set of plaintiffs had an agreement stating that “any controversy relating to your duty to arbitrate hereunder, or to the validity or enforceability of this arbitration clause, or to any defense to arbitration, shall also be arbitrated.”    The court found that was clear and unmistakable delegation of the class arbitration issue to an arbitrator.

More surprisingly, the court found that a second set of plaintiffs had also clearly and unmistakable delegated class arbitration to an arbitrator, even though their agreement only agreed to arbitrate “any dispute” and adopted either FINRA rules or alternatively 1993 Securities Arbitration Rules of the AAA.  In its analysis, the court noted that because some types of disputes were excluded from arbitration (unemployment), but class arbitration was not excluded, Missouri law would consider it included.  And the court found that more recent iterations of the AAA rules applied, which allow an arbitrator to determine whether a class can proceed.  This decision creates a circuit split on the issue of whether class arbitration is special enough to deserve its own rules for delegation.

As if creating a circuit split on class arbitrability wasn’t exciting enough, the Second Circuit also allowed another putative class action to go forward, despite an arbitration clause.  In In re Anderson, 2018 WL 1177227 (2d Cir. March 7, 2018), Mr. Anderson went through Chapter 7 bankruptcy and his debts were released.  One of those debts was to his credit card company.  However, Mr. Anderson alleged that the credit card company refused to update his credit reports after the bankruptcy.  So, he filed a putative class action.  The credit card moved to compel arbitration under the cardholder agreement, but the bankruptcy court found it was non-arbitrable because it “was a core bankruptcy proceeding that went to the heart of the ‘fresh start’ guaranteed to debtors.”  On appeal, the Second Circuit agreed.

In today’s post, we pick up where the 4th Circuit left off a few weeks ago — with federal circuit courts finding ways to avoid enforcing arbitration agreements that are obtained years after litigation has commenced.

In Dasher v. RBC Bank (USA), __ F3d. ___, 2018 WL 832855 (11th Cir. Feb. 13, 2018), the plaintiffs alleged the bank had processed debit card transactions in such a way that it would increase overdraft charges.  Although the date is not listed, the case appears to have begun in 2009.  During the course of the litigation, the first bank was acquired by another bank (“new bank”) and issued new customer account agreements in 2012 which lacked arbitration agreements.  A motion to compel based on the arbitration clause in the earlier agreement was denied, and the new bank appealed.  At about the same time, the new bank sent customers an amended agreement that included an arbitration provision.  The amended agreement was effective in February 2013.

The new bank lost its appeal.  After the case was remanded to district court, the new bank again moved to compel arbitration, this time based on the February 2013 amendment.  The motion was made in December of 2014.  The district court denied the motion, finding the new bank had waived its right to arbitrate under the 2013 amendment.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed that the new bank could not compel arbitration, but for a different reason.  It held that the new bank failed to prove that the parties had agreed to the 2013 amendment.  The opinion found that under North Carolina law, it could consider the parties’ words and actions to determine whether the parties intended to amend the 2012 customer agreement.  And here, it concluded that the named plaintiff gave mixed responses to the proposed 2013 amendment.  Through counsel, the named plaintiff was fighting the motion to arbitrate in the courts.  But his “uncounseled response” was silence.  The court was clearly bothered by the fact that the new bank sent its proposed amendment directly to all of its customers, without advising either the plaintiffs’ attorney or the court.  Therefore, while it did not want to write “an ethics opinion,” it still refused to find the 2013 amendment was enforceable.

This is an important decision for many reasons.  First, it offers future courts an alternative argument to  “waiver” in situations like this one.  (As the 4th Circuit decision showed, waiver didn’t seem to sit well.)  Second, it offers an important reminder to defendants that courts do not take kindly to repeated motions to compel arbitration based on evolving arbitration agreements.  While they may be willing to overlook it if the “redo” motion is due to a change in the legal landscape, that’s probably the only good reason.  That means the left hand (the litigators and the in-house counsel overseeing them) always need to know what the right hand (whomever is deciding what goes in the customer contracts) is doing.

In a recent opinion, the Fourth Circuit cited waiver as its basis to refuse to compel arbitration, but the result seems animated by a sense that the arbitration agreements were unenforceable.  Degidio v. Crazy Horse Saloon & Restaurant, Inc., __ F.3d __, 2018 WL 456905 (4th Cir. Jan. 18, 2018).

The case involved a putative collective and class action case by “exotic dancers” at a club in South Carolina, alleging they were wrongly classified as independent contractors and thereby denied minimum wages and other statutory protections.  The complaint was filed against the club in August of 2013.  [I can’t call it a saloon.  We aren’t in the wild west.]  At that point, it is undisputed that none of the potential plaintiffs had arbitration agreements with the club.

The club participated in discovery for a year.  In November and December 2014, the club obtained arbitration agreements with some of its dancers “as a condition of performing.”  In December of 2014, the club moved for summary judgment on the merits, arguing the dancers were properly classified as independent contractors.  Then in January of 2015, the club brought a motion to compel arbitration against plaintiffs who had signed arbitration agreements.  The district court denied the motion, raising concerns about the enforceability of the arbitration agreements.  The club brought a new summary judgment motion on the merits in October of 2015.  When that was denied, the club sought additional discovery on the merits, attempted to certify questions to the South Carolina Supreme Court, and then moved to compel arbitration against nine plaintiffs who had opted into the litigation after its last motion.  That motion was also denied.

The Fourth Circuit set the stage for its discussion by noting that litigants may waive their rights to arbitration by “substantially utilizing the litigation machinery.”  Without citing any further case law about waiver, the opinion proceeded to review the significant extent of the club’s use of “litigation machinery” (summarized above).  The court was particularly upset at the apparent gamesmanship:

The only possible purpose of the arbitration agreements, then, was to give [the club] an option to revisit the case in the event that the district court issued an unfavorable opinion [on summary judgment].  In other words, Crazy Horse did not seek to use arbitration as an efficient alternative to litigation; it instead used arbitration as an insurance policy in an attempt to give itself a second opportunity to evade liability.

In response to the club’s argument that it could not have moved to compel arbitration until the entertainers who had actually signed the agreements opted into the case, the court suggested that it should have informed the district court of its intentions so that the court did not waste judicial resources.  In addition, the court did not want to “give defendants a perverse incentive to wait as long as possible to compel arbitration.”

At the close of this waiver discussion, the court veers into what seems to be the heart of the matter: its conclusion that the arbitration agreements were “misleading” and “sham agreements.”  The arbitration agreements told the dancers that they only reason they could keep tips and set their own schedules was because they were independent contractors, and that would change if they joined the Degidio lawsuit.  The court noted that information was false.  Furthermore, the court was upset that the agreements were presented to plaintiffs “in a furtive manner,” evading the district court’s ability to supervise contact between the potential plaintiffs and counsel.  “The setting here was ripe for duress.”  However, the court does not undertake any analysis of unconscionability or other bases to find the agreements unenforceable under South Carolina law.  It just affirms the decision to deny the motion to compel arbitration.

I find this a puzzling case.  Normally, parties are allowed to agree to arbitrate a dispute that has already begun.  And litigation conduct before that agreement can’t count as a waiver.  Furthermore, parties don’t usually tell the judge about motions that they don’t yet have a basis to bring.  So, unless FLSA cases are really so different, this seems like a case that should have been analyzed on the validity of the arbitration agreements.  It is decidedly underhanded to convince people to sign arbitration agreements by misrepresenting the law.  Maybe South Carolina unconscionability doctrines are very difficult?

Last Thursday, the Second Circuit found that the arbitration agreement in Uber’s Terms of Service was conspicuous enough to be binding and enforceable.  As a result, the claims of a putative class of consumers will be dismissed unless they can show that Uber waived its right to arbitrate their claims.  Meyer v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 2017 WL 3526682 (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2017).  [This proves my point from last week, that formation is one of the big issues this year in arbitration law.]

For those of you who still take yellow taxis, Uber is a “ride-hailing service,” where customers use an “app” on their smart phones to alert a nearby Uber driver that the customer wants a ride to a specific location. Critically to this case, when customers open an account with Uber, they see black text at the bottom of the registration screen advising that “by creating an Uber account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.”  The phrase “terms of service” is in blue font and hyperlinked to a page where the customer can read those terms.  The terms include an arbitration agreement that waives the right to any class or consolidated action.

A potential class of Uber customers started a lawsuit in New York alleging that Uber allows illegal price fixing.  In response, Uber first moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim.  Upon losing that motion, Uber moved to compel arbitration and the federal district court denied that motion also, finding that the parties never formed an arbitration agreement because the consumers did not meaningfully consent.

On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated and remanded.  It applied California contract law in its de novo review, and applied California’s rule that a customer who lacks actual notice of the terms of an agreement can be bound if a “reasonably prudent user would be on inquiry notice of the terms.”  In its analysis, the court noted that Uber did not use a “clickwrap” agreement, which involves consumers having to click “I agree” after being presented with a list of terms and conditions, and which is “routinely uph[e]ld” by courts.  Even so, the court concluded that the design of the registration screens were clear enough to put the plaintiff on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision.  What were those design features?

  • Hyperlinked text to terms and conditions appears right below the registration button;
  • The entire screen is visible at once (no scrolling required);
  • The screen is “uncluttered”; and
  • Although font is “small,” dark print contrasts with white background.

Therefore, the Second Circuit concluded that the named plaintiff “agreed to arbitrate his claims with Uber.”  However, the Court threw the class a bone by remanding on the question of whether Uber waived its right to arbitrate by bringing the motion to dismiss on the merits.

What’s fascinating about this opinion is not just that Uber is a famous company that is facing intriguing antitrust allegation.  No, what’s fascinating from the arbitration angle is that the Second Circuit came out on the opposite side of this same issue almost exactly one year ago in Nicosia v., Inc., 2016 WL 4473225 (Aug. 25, 2016).  The same judge wrote both opinions.

In Nicosia, the named class representative had placed an order on Amazon in 2012.  Instead of a true “clickwrap” agreement, there was simply language on the Order Page stating that “by placing your order, you agree to’s privacy notice and conditions of use.” The conditions of use were hyperlinked to the relevant terms.  Sounds pretty much the same as Uber’s setup, right?  Well, applying Washington law, the Second Circuit found that reasonable minds could differ about whether that notice was sufficiently conspicuous to be binding.  It complained that the critical sentence was in a “smaller font,” that there were too many other distracting things taking place on the order page (summary of purchase and delivery information, suggestions to try Amazon Locker, opportunity to enter gift cards and have a free trial of Amazon Prime, for example.)  There were other links on the page, in different colors and fonts.  Critically, it found “[n]othing about the’Place your order’ button alone suggests that additional terms apply, and the presentation of terms is not directly adjacent to the ‘Place your Order” button…”  Therefore, the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal based on the arbitration provision.

As the fundamental context of on-line purchases has not changed in the last year, and the Second Circuit’s recitation of California and Washington law appears pretty similar, one has to conclude that the difference between these two cases is the graphic design of the key pages.  In particular, the level of “clutter” on Amazon’s page is the primary difference-maker between these two cases.  I imagine many internet retailers will reconsider the number of fonts, colors, and promotions on their final “order” pages this next week…


Class action arbitration continues to be a hot topic among the federal appellate courts this summer.

The 8th Circuit followed the lead of other circuit courts, finding that courts, not arbitrators, presumptively decide whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allows for class arbitration. Catamaran Corporation v. Towncrest Pharmacy, 2017 WL 3197622 (July 28, 2017).   In support of its decision, the court raised concerns about class arbitration, including loss of confidentiality, due process concerns for absent parties, and a concern about the lack of appellate review.  [Interesting that it didn’t cite any of CFPB’s report on this, but just cited other case law… ] Therefore, unless the parties have “clearly and unmistakably delegated” the class arbitration issue to the arbitrator, a court will decide the issue.  Furthermore, the court said that incorporating the AAA rules is not a clear and unmistakable delegation of the class arbitration decision, even though citing the AAA rules is sufficiently clear in analogous issues in regular “bilateral arbitration.”  The court remanded to the district court to determine whether there was a contractual basis for class arbitration.

Halfway across the country, the 9th Circuit held that employees could bring their claims related to a data breach as a class action in arbitration.  Varela v. Lamps Plus, Inc., 2017 WL 3309944 (Aug. 3, 2017).  The employees had first brought their class claims to federal court, and the employer moved to compel individual arbitration.  The district court found the arbitration agreement was valid, but ambiguous about whether class actions were waived.  Construing that ambiguity against the employer who drafted the agreement, the district court ordered class arbitration.  On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the finding of ambiguity, sending the class to arbitration as a group.  One judge issued a two sentence dissent, noting “we should not allow Varela to enlist us in this palpable evasion of Stolt-Nielsen

The CFPB today issued a consumer-friendly rule that is likely to significantly curtail the use of arbitration in consumer financial agreements.  That rule has two major components.  First, it prohibits institutions from relying on arbitration clauses to avoid class actions.  And second, it mandates the submission of redacted data on consumer financial arbitrations that will be accessible on the internet.

The rule was originally proposed in May of 2016, roughly a year after the CFPB issued its report on the use of arbitration in the financial industry.  During the required 90-day period, the CFPB received around 110,000 public comments on its proposal.  Yet, the CFPB waited over a year to finalize and issue the rule.  During that time, President Trump took office and his administration reversed course on three previous arbitration-related rules/positions from the Obama Administration.  That context lead to speculation that the CFPB might weaken its proposed rule or otherwise take a safer course.

Yet today the rule was issued and it appears substantially the same as the initial proposal.  Maybe the CFPB wisely spent the past year gearing up for the challenges that similar pro-consumer arbitration rules have faced — like lawsuits challenging the rule’s validity or Congress using its ability to pull the plug on rules within the first 60 days.  Or maybe it just took a year to draft this 775 page behemoth of a rule with all its arguments in favor of its issuance (and responses to its detractors).  (Note that the Trump Administration has been trying to convince a federal court that the President has the authority to fire the CFPB director without cause, which probably did not help any negotiations over the proposed rule.)

In any case, the result is a very far-reaching rule that will likely lead to an uptick in class actions in the financial industry.  It applies to all consumer lending, credit card agreements, auto leases, debt management services, check cashing services, and debt collectors.  Starting six months after the effective date of the rule (assuming no court injunction), it will affect all new agreements within its scope.

The text of the key provisions of the rule follows:

(a) Use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements in class actions—(1) General rule. A

provider shall not rely in any way on a pre-dispute arbitration agreement entered into after the

date set forth in § 1040.5(a) with respect to any aspect of a class action that concerns any of the

consumer financial products or services covered by § 1040.3, including to seek a stay or

dismissal of particular claims or the entire action, unless and until the presiding court has ruled

that the case may not proceed as a class action and, if that ruling may be subject to appellate

review on an interlocutory basis, the time to seek such review has elapsed or such review has

been resolved such that the case cannot proceed as a class action.

(2) Provision required in covered pre-dispute arbitration agreements. Upon entering

into a pre-dispute arbitration agreement for a consumer financial product or service covered by

  • 1040.3 after the date set forth in § 1040.5(a):

(i) Except as provided elsewhere in this paragraph (a)(2) or in § 1040.5(b), a provider

shall ensure that any such pre-dispute arbitration agreement contains the following provision:

“We agree that neither we nor anyone else will rely on this agreement to stop you from being

part of a class action case in court. You may file a class action in court or you may be a member

of a class action filed by someone else.”

(ii) When the pre-dispute arbitration agreement applies to multiple products or services,

only some of which are covered by § 1040.3, the provider may include the following alternative

provision in place of the one required by paragraph (a)(2)(i) of this section: “We are providing

you with more than one product or service, only some of which are covered by the Arbitration

Agreements Rule issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The following provision

applies only to class action claims concerning the products or services covered by that Rule: We

agree that neither we nor anyone else will rely on this agreement to stop you from being part of a

class action case in court. You may file a class action in court or you may be a member of a

class action filed by someone else.”

(iii) When the pre-dispute arbitration agreement existed previously between other parties

and does not contain either the provision required by paragraph (a)(2)(i) of this section or the

alternative permitted by paragraph (a)(2)(ii) of this section:

(A) The provider shall either ensure the pre-dispute arbitration agreement is amended to

contain the provision specified in paragraph (a)(2)(i) or (a)(2)(ii) of this section or provide any

consumer to whom the agreement applies with the following written notice: “We agree not to

rely on any pre-dispute arbitration agreement to stop you from being part of a class action case in

court. You may file a class action in court or you may be a member of a class action filed by

someone else.” When the pre-dispute arbitration agreement applies to multiple products or

services, only some of which are covered by § 1040.3, the provider may, in this written notice,

include the following optional additional language: “This notice applies only to class action

claims concerning the products or services covered by the Arbitration Agreements Rule issued

by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

(B) The provider shall ensure the pre-dispute arbitration agreement is amended or provide

the notice to consumers within 60 days of entering into the pre-dispute arbitration agreement.


(b) Submission of arbitral and court records. For any pre-dispute arbitration agreement

for a consumer financial product or service covered by § 1040.3 entered into after the date set

forth in § 1040.5(a), a provider shall comply with the requirements set forth below.

(1) Records to be submitted. A provider shall submit a copy of the following records to

the Bureau, in the form and manner specified by the Bureau:

(i) In connection with any claim filed in arbitration by or against the provider concerning

any of the consumer financial products or services covered by § 1040.3:

(A) The initial claim and any counterclaim;

(B) The answer to any initial claim and/or counterclaim, if any;

(C) The pre-dispute arbitration agreement filed with the arbitrator or arbitration


(D) The judgment or award, if any, issued by the arbitrator or arbitration administrator;


(E) If an arbitrator or arbitration administrator refuses to administer or dismisses a claim

due to the provider’s failure to pay required filing or administrative fees, any communication the

provider receives from the arbitrator or an arbitration administrator related to such a refusal;

(ii) Any communication the provider receives from an arbitrator or an arbitration

administrator related to a determination that a pre-dispute arbitration agreement for a consumer

financial product or service covered by § 1040.3 does not comply with the administrator’s

fairness principles, rules, or similar requirements, if such a determination occurs; and

(iii) In connection with any case in court by or against the provider concerning any of the

consumer financial products or services covered by § 1040.3:

(A) Any submission to a court that relies on a pre-dispute arbitration agreement in

support of the provider’s attempt to seek dismissal, deferral, or stay of any aspect of a case; and

(B) The pre-dispute arbitration agreement relied upon in the motion or filing.

(2) Deadline for submission. A provider shall submit any record required pursuant to

paragraph (b)(1) of this section within 60 days of filing by the provider of any such record with

the arbitrator, arbitration administrator, or court, and within 60 days of receipt by the provider of

any such record filed or sent by someone other than the provider, such as the arbitration

administrator, the court, or the consumer.

(3) Redaction. Prior to submission of any records pursuant to paragraph (b)(1) of this

section, a provider shall redact the following information:

(i) Names of individuals, except for the name of the provider or the arbitrator where

either is an individual;

(ii) Addresses of individuals, excluding city, State, and zip code;

(iii) Email addresses of individuals;

(iv) Telephone numbers of individuals;

(v) Photographs of individuals;

(vi) Account numbers;

(vii) Social Security and tax identification numbers;

(viii) Driver’s license and other government identification numbers; and

(ix) Passport numbers.

(4) Internet posting of arbitral and court records. The Bureau shall establish and

maintain on its publicly available internet site a central repository of the records that providers

submit to it pursuant to paragraph (b)(1) of this section, and such records shall be easily

accessible and retrievable by the public on its internet site.

In National Labor Relations Board v. Alternative Entertainment, Inc., No. 16-1385, 2017 WL 2297620 (6th Cir. May 26, 2017), the Sixth Circuit joined the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in upholding the NLRB’s decision that barring an employee from pursuing class action or collective claims violates the NLRA. Already lined up on the other side of a growing Circuit split are the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits.

In Alternative Entertainment, Inc., the NLRB claimed that language in both the employment contract and the employee handbook used by Alternative Entertainment, Inc. (“AEI”) “violated the NLRA by barring employees from pursuing class-action litigation or collective arbitration of work-related claims.” Alternative Entertainment, Inc., 2017 WL 2297620 at *1.

Joining the Seventh Circuit’s critique of the Fifth Circuit’s logic in D. R. Horton, the Sixth expressly takes on the Fifth stating “the Fifth Circuit started with the wrong question.” When the Sixth asks the question it believes is the right one–if the NLRA is compatible with the FAA–the Court finds them in “harmony” and holds the employer’s ban on concerted action violates the NLRA. As a result, the court found the ban is also unenforceable under the FAA’s saving clause. According to the Sixth, the NLRA bans contracts that interfere with “employees’ right to engage in concerted activity, not because they mandate arbitration.” Any contract provision that interfered in this way would be illegal, which is in full accord with the FAA’s rejection of any contract that “undermine[s] employees’ right to engage in concerted legal activity.”

The Sixth’s second disagreement with the Fifth Circuit is expressed by the Sixth’s use of Chevron deference (arguing in the alternative, after stating there is no statutory ambiguity). The Sixth accepts the NLRB’s permissible construction of the NLRA’s right to concerted activity as a substantive, not procedural right.

In a partial dissent, and referring to the “manifestation of hostility toward arbitration,” Justice Sutton references the history of judicial protection and support of arbitration agreements provided over time. Specifically, the dissent objects to the majority’s overreaching use of Chevron, and states the majority opinion ignores Concepcion’s rejection of similar arguments harmonizing the NLRA with the FAA. (The majority opinion, however, distinguishes the kind of arbitration provision used by AEI and the kind of arbitration provision used by the employer in Concepcion.)

One question here is why would the Sixth Circuit bother drafting and filing this opinion when SCOTUS has already accepted review of this issue? It is possible the Sixth decided to issue this opinion in an effort to intentionally level the sides of this split by adding its voice to the Seventh and Ninth Circuits. It is also possible that since arguments had been heard in November 2016, opinions had already been formed by the time SCOTUS granted cert. on the question in January 2017. Either way, SCOTUS is expected to opine later this year on cases consolidated as National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., which will resolve the growing divide among the circuits. In granting cert., SCOTUS acknowledged the extent of the Circuit split as it existed in January—and footnoted this Sixth circuit case along with four other potential cases from the Third, Fourth, Eleventh and the D.C. Circuits. SCOTUS saw this one coming their way. I look forward to reading the resolution of this split.

ArbitrationNation thanks Jaclyn Schroeder, a law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, for researching and drafting this post.

The Federal Arbitration Act has been in effect for nearly 100 years (92, to be precise).  Nevertheless, the First Circuit found two issues of first impression to address this month.  In Oliveira v. New Prime, Inc., 2017 WL 1963461 (1st Cir. May 12, 2017), the court refused to compel arbitration of a class action complaint, because it interpreted Section One of the FAA to exempt contracts for independent transportation contractors.

Mr. Oliveira brought a putative class action suit against the interstate trucking company for which he worked–Prime–for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, Missouri minimum wage statute, and other labor laws.  Prime moved to compel arbitration under the FAA.  In response, Plaintiffs argued that the FAA had no application to their contracts because they are transportation workers. Prime argued that that issue–the applicability of the FAA–should be decided by an arbitrator.  Furthermore, it argued that the FAA does not exempt independent contractors and these workers had been classified as independent contractors.  The district court agreed it must decide the threshold question, but then ordered discovery on the question of whether the named plaintiff was an independent contractor.

On appeal, the First Circuit decided to tackle both the tough legal issues head on, and not wait to see if discovery mooted either of them.

First, it analyzed whether an arbitrator or a court should decide whether the FAA applies to a plaintiff’s contract.  It noted that the 8th Circuit had concluded an arbitrator should decide, while the 9th Circuit had concluded a court should decide.  Finding the 9th Circuit’s analysis more persuasive, it held that “the question of whether the [Section] 1 exemption applies is an antecedent determination that must be made by the district court before arbitration can be compelled under the FAA.”

Second, it interpreted the language in Section 1 in order to answer the question of whether the exemption “extends to transportation-worker agreements that establish or purport to establish independent-contractor relationships.”  (Recall that the truckers were arguing they were exempt from the FAA, whether they were independent contractors or not.)  The FAA says it does not apply to “contracts of …any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” and the Supreme Court interpreted that language in 2001 to mean that “contracts of employment of transportation workers” are exempted from the FAA.  After noting that multiple courts have found the exemption does not extend to independent contractor relationships, the First Circuit brushed that aside with this gem: “Interpreting a federal statute is not simply a numbers game.”

Instead of playing a numbers game, the First Circuit played a “pull out the antique dictionary” game.  It looked at definitions of contracts of employment from 1925, when the FAA was enacted, and concluded the phrase means any agreement to perform work, and is broad enough to include independent contracting.  Therefore, because Prime had conceded Mr. Oliveira was a transportation worker, “the contract in this case is excluded from the FAA’s reach.”

However, the court inserted a footnote allowing that a state arbitration act may provide a basis to compel arbitration in a future scenario like this one. . . which raises interesting preemption issues.

It is not uncommon for lenders to exempt small claims actions from their arbitration provisions. The question confronted by the Court of Appeals of Maryland in a recent case was: when a lender opts for small claims court, does that waive any later right to enforce the arbitration clause?  The court’s answer was yes, if the claims are related.

In Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, __ A.3d__, 2017 WL 1101804 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017), the lender pursued its collection action against the credit card holder in small claims court in 2009.  It obtained a default judgment for $4,520.  In 2013, that same credit card holder filed a class action complaint against the lender, arguing the lender had been an unlicensed collection agency. The lender moved to compel arbitration.  The trial court compelled arbitration, finding the lender had not waived its right to arbitrate by bringing the 2009 case, and the intermediate appellate court agreed.

A five-member majority of Maryland’s highest court applied a de novo standard of review and reversed on the issue of waiver (two judges dissented).  It applied Maryland case law that holds participating in a judicial proceeding only constitutes a waiver of the right to arbitrate issues raised in that proceeding, but not “unrelated issues.”  Therefore, the court looked at whether the lender could have arbitrated its collection action, and if so, whether that was related to the licensing issue raised in 2013.

The arbitration agreement at issue states that “claims filed in a small claims court are not subject to arbitration, so long as the matter remains in such court and advances only an individual. . . Claim.” The court found that language, along with the broad language that “all Claims . . . are subject to arbitration,” gave the lender the choice to litigate or arbitrate the collection issue.

The court also found the 2009 and 2013 claims were sufficiently related to apply the waiver doctrine. “Put simply, if Midland had not pursued its 2009 collection action, Cain’s current claims would not exist.”  The majority noted that 2016 cases from both Nevada and Utah had reached similar conclusions.  Finally, the court refused to require a showing of prejudice: “Cain does not have to demonstrate that he will suffer prejudice if the arbitration clause is enforced.”

This issue is an important one for lending institutions. If the small claims court option is generally efficient, it may be worthwhile adding a clause to those arbitration provisions that pursuit of a claim in small claims court does not waive the right to raise arbitration as a defense in any later action.


Maryland did not make my list of 5 states most hostile to arbitration last summer (and still wouldn’t). BUT, some of the states on that list have recently issued surprisingly pro arbitration decisions.  Check these out:

  • WEST VIRGINIA recently reversed a lower court’s refusal to enforce arbitration. It found the employee had failed to show the arbitration provision was unconscionable. It wasn’t all sunshine and arbitration butterflies, though.  One justice wrote a concurring opinion asking Congress to take action. “We can only hope that…Congress will implement better safeguards to the FAA to ensure that the legal rights of unsophisticated employees are protected.” Employee Resource Group, LLC v. Harless, 2017 WL 1371287 (W.Va. April 13, 2017).
  • WEST VIRGINIA also enforced an arbitration clause waiving class actions in Citizens Telecommunications Co. v. Sheridan, 2017 WL 1457006 (W.Va April 20, 2017). In that case, the class action waiver had been added via notice to all consumers pursuant to a modification clause in the original terms of the agreement. Because the new terms and conditions were distributed with a paper billing statement and “accepted” via continued use of the internet service, the court found they were a valid unilateral contract, just like an employee handbook. Therefore, the court enforced individual arbitration of the claims.
  • HAWAII confirmed an arbitration award in RT Import v. Torres, 2017 WL 1366999 (Ha. April 13, 2017), although reversed the trial court’s award of additional costs above the award. The court did get a jab in at arbitration in a footnote, though. It noted that the arbitrator awarded damages for emotional distress to a corporation. After commenting that there is no legal authority allowing such damages, the opinion states: “parties who submit their claims to binding arbitration assume all the hazards of the arbitration process, including the risk that the arbitrator may make mistakes in the application of law and in their findings of fact.”
  • ALABAMA found the arbitration agreement between a family and a funeral home was not unconscionable in Newell v. SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC, 2017 WL 1034469 (March 17, 2017).

I really should have titled this post “State Court Smorgasbord”…

One of the few “get out of arbitration free” cards that SCOTUS offers litigants is this: find another federal statute that clearly entitles plaintiff(s) to a court trial. In a recent 8th Circuit case, that court carefully considered, and then rejected, the argument that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) constituted that type of “get out of arbitration free” statute.

The claims in McLeod v. General Mills, Inc., 2017 WL 1363797 (8th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017), stem from a 2012 reduction in force at General Mills.  In exchange for severance packages, terminated employees released the company from claims relating to their termination, and agreed to individual arbitration of future disputes.  In McLeod, 33 of those employees sued the company alleging violations of the ADEA.  In response, the company moved to compel arbitration on an individual basis.

The Chief Judge of the District of Minnesota denied General Mills’ motion. He found that the plain language of the statute at issue “requires General Mills to defend the validity of the plaintiffs’ release agreements in court, not in an arbitral forum.” The statute reads: “any dispute that may arise over whether any of the requirements, conditions, and circumstances set forth in [Section 626(f)(1) ] have been met, the party asserting the validity of a waiver shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction that a waiver was knowing and voluntary.” 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(3) (emphasis added).

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed. It found that the statute relied upon by the district court was not applicable, because General Mills was not asserting the validity of a waiver within the meaning of that statute.  Furthermore, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the ADEA does not grant employees the substantive right to a jury trial or to a class action, but only provides procedural rights that can be waived.

**Yikes – three weeks since my last post. Where was I?  In arbitration of course!