Validity of Arbitration Agreement

The last post focused on three recent state appellate court decisions that refused to compel arbitration or vacated an award, and this follow-up post focuses on seven recent cases that are friendly to arbitration.

My favorite is from Montana.  Although none of its arbitration decisions have been addressed by SCOTUS, Montana decided to preempt any federal preemption issues by adjusting its stance on unconscionability.  (It waited five years after the 9th Circuit put it on notice, though.)  Lenz v. FSC Sec. Corp., 2018 WL 1603927 (Mont. April 3, 2018), involves claims by investors against investment advisors over “substantial losses.”  The defendants moved to compel arbitration and the district court granted the motion.  On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.  In its decision, it took the opportunity to clarify that the previous test it had used to determine unconscionability was improper, because it mixed unconscionability analysis with the reasonable expectations doctrine from the insurance context.  (Read this mea culpa: “We have continued to perpetuate confusion by inaccurately referencing [bad tests for unconscionability] …Even more problematic in particular regard to arbitration agreements, we have failed to recognize the manifest incompatibility of the insurance-specific reasonable expectations doctrine as a generally applicable contract principle.”)  I read that as “we do not want to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The others can be reviewed more quickly:

  • Substantive unconscionability cannot be established by showing only that the arbitration agreement is broad in scope.  SCI Alabama Funeral Servs. v. Hinton, 2018 WL 1559795 (Ala. March 30, 2018) [I’m a bit surprised that needed clarifying];
  • The Federal Arbitration Act applies to arbitration agreements within a common interest community’s covenants (and preempts conflicting state law).  In U.S. Home Corp. v. The Michael Ballesteros Trust, 2018 WL 1755536 (Nev. April 12, 2018), 12 homeowners argued that the FAA did not apply to the arbitration agreement in their covenants because land is traditionally a local concern.  The court found that the covenants’ larger purpose was to facilitate the creation of a community of multiple homes, and multiple out-of-state business contributed to construction of the homes.  Therefore, the FAA controlled and preempted Nevada rules requiring the same procedures as in court and requiring arbitration agreements to be more conspicuous than other text in a contract;
  • Non-signatories may compel arbitration if the plaintiff’s claims are based on facts that are “intertwined” with arbitrable claims.  Melendez v. Horning, 2018 WL 1191150 (N.D. March 8, 2018) (reversing district court order denying motion to compel arbitration);
  • Scope of arbitration agreement broad enough to encompass claims against related entity.  Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations v. Adams, 2018 WL 1355966 (Ala. March 16, 2018), concluded that where the employee’s arbitration agreement was with the “Company,” which was defined to include affiliate and related companies, the employee’s suit against a related company was arbitrable;
  • Arbitrator did not manifestly disregard contractual language in construction contract.  In ABC Building Corp. v. Ropolo Family, 2018 WL 1309761 (R.I. Mar. 14, 2018), the owner tried to vacate an arbitration award in favor of the general contractor.  It relied on contract language requiring submission of payroll records with payment applications in order to argue that the contractor could not receive additional compensation for labor without having provided that contemporaneous documentation.  However, the arbitrator considered that provision of the contract in his decision-making (and the owner had never complained), so vacatur was inappropriate (one judge dissented);
  • Delegation clause must be enforced if not specifically challenged.  Family Dollar Stores of W. Va. v. Tolliver, 2018 WL 1074947 (Feb. 27, 2018).  I know, it’s a stretch to call this one a spring decision.  But, it’s snowing in Minnesota on April 14th, so my seasons are totally confused.  That’s why we call it “Minnesnowta.”

 

The focus today is recent state appellate court decisions on arbitration. Because there are an awful lot of them, I am going to divide them roughly into those that are pro arbitration, and those that are hostile to arbitration.  This post focuses on the three relatively hostile cases (with the friendly cases coming in a sequel), on issues of scope, delegation clause, and vacatur.

In Keyes v. Dollar General Corp., 2018 WL 1755266 (Miss. April 12, 2018),  the Mississippi Supreme Court wrestled with whether claims of “malicious prosecution” are within the scope of an arbitration agreement.  Just as it did a few months ago, the court concluded those claims are not within the scope of the arbitration agreement.  Even though in Keyes, the employee’s arbitration agreement provided for arbitration of all disputes “arising out of your employment…or termination of employment” and the employee was accused of stealing a gift card, which led to a criminal complaint.  The court noted that there was no evidence the employee “contemplated” this situation and that the employer could have specifically included claims of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, etc. in the arbitration agreement.  [Can you imagine if we all had to list every possible claim for it to be covered by an arbitration agreement?  So.  Many.  Pages.]  On a similar issue, Texas reached the opposite result.

In Citizens of Humanity, LLC v. Applied Underwriters Captive Risk Assurance Co., Inc., 299 Neb. 545 (April 6, 2018), the Nebraska Supreme Court refused to enforce the delegation clause in the parties’ agreement.  [Yes, *that* Citizens of Humanity, of fancy jean fame.]  Just as in a similar 4th Circuit case, the party wanting to avoid arbitration alleged an anti-arbitration insurance statute precluded enforcement of the arbitration agreement (under the dreaded McCarran-Ferguson doctrine, which for a long time I refused to even acknowledge on this blog for fear of getting sucked into the morass).  The party seeking to arbitrate argued that the parties’ delegation clause assigned the issue of the anti-arbitration statute to the arbitrator, and that there had been no specific challenge to the delegation clause as required by Rent-A-Center. The Nebraska Supreme Court found the challenge was sufficiently specific in this case because the amended complaint mentioned the anti-arbitration statute and sought a declaration that the arbitration agreement was invalid, and because the challenger said during its hearing that its challenge included the delegation of arbitrability.  [Well, if you uttered the magic words at oral argument, then I guess that’s good enough…]  The court went on to find the delegation clause invalid and remanded the remaining arbitrability issues to the district court.

[The Third Circuit also found that a plaintiff had asserted a sufficiently specific challenge to a delegation clause in MacDonald v. Cashcall, Inc., 2018 WL 1056942 (Feb. 27, 2018).  But there, the complaint alleged that “any provision requirement that the enforceability of the arbitration procedure must be decided through arbitration is [] illusory and unenforceable.”  And the plaintiff’s brief at least stated that the delegation clause had the same defect as the arbitration provision.]

Last but not least, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision vacating an arbitration award for violating public policy. In City of Richfield v. Law Enforcement Labor Servs., Inc., 2018 WL 1701916 (Minn. Ct. App. April 9, 2018), the city terminated a police officer following his improper use of force in a traffic stop and failure to self-report that force.  The officer challenged his discharge in arbitration, and the arbitrator found the use of force was not excessive and that the failure to report it was not malicious, and ordered the city to reinstate him.  The city appealed the award.  The district court refused to vacate the award, but the appellate court found vacatur appropriate under the public-policy exception.  The court looked to the officer’s previous failures to report his use of force and found “the interest of the public must be given precedence over the arbitration award.”  The court noted its decision is rare and unusual, but that it did “not take this action lightly.”

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.

 

Sometimes current events provide an occasion perfect storm to educate about arbitration basics. This is one of those occasions.

Here are questions that friends and colleagues  storming mad people have asked me in the past day or so, with my best answers:

  • Does an arbitration agreement have to be signed by both parties to be enforceable (i.e. ride out the storm)?
    • The Federal Arbitration Act provides that an arbitration agreement must be “written,” but it does not also say it must be signed by all parties.  Whether a signature is required, along with all answers about the enforceability of arbitration agreements, depends on state contract law. In general, a contract requires an offer, acceptance, and consideration. And in most states, “acceptance” of an offer can take many forms. (See, for example,  this case (about Macy’s) finding a valid agreement without one party’s signature , but these cases finding no valid agreement where a signature was missing.)
  • Do arbitrators have authority to issue temporary or ex parte injunctions?
    • It depends. Arbitrators derive their authority from the parties’ arbitration agreement. If that arbitration agreement expressly grants the power to issue emergency, temporary, or ex parte injunctions, or if the arbitration agreement incorporates rules of an administrator (like the AAA) and those rules grant the power to issue those types of injunctions, then the arbitrator has power to enjoin the parties on an emergency or temporary basis (but only the parties, otherwise non-parties will kick up a storm and vacate the award).
  • How are injunctions from arbitrators enforced?
    • Within the arbitration proceeding, a party may seek sanctions from the arbitrator if the arbitrator’s temporary injunction is violated. Those sanctions can include anything authorized by the applicable rules. (Remember in this case, when the sanction was over $600 million?  Oh, that created a sh*tstorm.) Outside the arbitration proceeding, the party wanting to enforce the injunction (whether temporary or permanent) must first obtain a final arbitration award, and then have that award confirmed in federal court. (Remember, only “final” awards can be confirmed under the Federal Arbitration Act.) After that final award is confirmed in court, it is a judgment that can be enforced like any other court judgment.
    • However, when the winning party asks a court to confirm an award, the losing party often moves to vacate the arbitration award.  And the absence of a valid arbitration agreement is a solid basis to vacate the award.  For example, the Revised Uniform Arbitration Act authorizes vacatur if: “there was no agreement to arbitrate, unless the person participated in
      the arbitration proceeding without raising the objection.”

**Thanks for all the nudges about writing this post.  You convinced me that my desire to offer context to the news should trump my desire to storm off and pretend it is not happening.

Despite how often I talk about whack-a-mole and the tug-of-war between the state courts and SCOTUS on arbitration, the truth is that the majority of state supreme courts follow SCOTUS’s arbitration precedent (whether holding their noses or not, we don’t know). Recent weeks have given us multiple of those pro-arbitration state court decisions to highlight – from Alabama, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia.  Yes, that West Virginia.

In STV One Nineteen Senior Living, LLC v. Boyd, 2018 WL 914992 (Alabama Feb. 16, 2018), the Supreme Court of Alabama enforced the arbitration agreement in the admission documents of an assisted living facility.  The trial court had denied the facility’s motion to compel arbitration without explanation.  On appeal, the supreme court found the language of the arbitration agreement, which required arbitration of “any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to” the parties’ agreement, was broad enough to cover the tort claims asserted.

In Disano v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2018 WL 1076522 (R.I. Feb. 28, 2018), the Supreme Court of Rhode Island refused to vacate an arbitration award.  Although the losing party argued that the panel of arbitrators had miscalculated damages, the supreme court applied a very deferential standard of review and noted that even if the arbitrators’ math skills were lacking, that “does not rise to the level necessary to vacate such an award.”

In Henry v. Cash Biz, 2018 WL 1022838 (Tex. Feb. 23, 2018), the Supreme Court of Texas found that a pay day lender did not waive its right to arbitrate by alerting the district attorney’s office to the borrowers’ conduct (issuing checks that were returned for insufficient funds).  The trial court had denied the lender’s motion to compel arbitration, the court of appeals had reversed, and the supreme court affirmed the intermediate appellate court.  It found: 1) that the borrowers’ claims of malicious prosecution were within the scope of the arbitration clause; and 2) that the lender’s status as the complainant in the criminal charge was not sufficient to prove that it “substantially invoked the judicial process.”  [Recall that Mississippi’s high court reached the opposite result in a very similar case just a few months ago.]

In another waiver case, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia held that a party’s “pre-litigation conduct” did not waive its right to arbitrate. In Chevron U.S.A. v. Bonar, 2018 WL 871567 (W. Va. Feb. 14, 2018), the trial court had denied Chevron’s motion to compel arbitration.  It found that Chevron’s decision to take actions consistent with its interpretation of the parties’ agreement had waived the right to arbitrate, because Chevron had “unilaterally decided” the questions instead of posing them to an arbitrator.  On appeal, the supreme court found “such a result simply is unreasonable” and “absurd.”  Therefore, it reversed with instruction for the trial court to issue an order compelling arbitration.

Just two days later, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia enforced the arbitration agreement in a contract of adhesion, again reversing the decision of a trial court. In Hampden Coal, LLC v. Varney, 2018 WL 944159 (W. Va. Feb. 16, 2018), an employee sued his employer and the employer moved to compel arbitration.  In response, the employee argued the arbitration clause was unenforceable.  On appeal, the supreme court clarified that it applies “the same legal standards to our review of all arbitration agreements,” and not a special standard if they involve employees or consumers.  It then found that the mutual agreement to arbitrate was sufficient consideration for the arbitration clause and that the arbitration clause was not unconscionable.

In a fitting ending to a post about high courts,  our nation’s highest court has agreed to decide a new arbitration case.  The case, New Prime Inc. v . Oliveiracomes from the 1st Circuit and raises two questions: whether a court or arbitrator should decide if an exemption to the FAA applies; and whether the FAA’s exemption (in Section 1) includes independent contractors.

A recent decision from the 10th Circuit shows there is a whole new way to invalidate an arbitration agreement.  In Citizen Potawatomi Nation v. Oklahoma, 2018 WL 718606 (10th Cir. Feb. 6, 2018), the court found the arbitration agreement unenforceable because the parties provided for de novo review of any arbitration award in federal court, which is prohibited under the Hall Street decision from SCOTUS in 2008.

The agreement at issue was a Tribal-State gaming compact between the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the State of Oklahoma.  The Compact had a dispute resolution procedure providing for arbitration under AAA rules.  But it also stated that “notwithstanding any provision of law, either party to the Compact may bring an action against the other in a federal district court for the de novo review of any arbitration award …”

The parties then had a dispute over liquor licensing and taxes, which was heard in arbitration.  The Potawatomi Nation moved to confirm the award in federal court, and argued for narrow review under FAA Section 10.  Oklahoma moved to vacate the award,  seeking de novo review of the dispute under the Compact.  The district court applied the narrow review in Section 10 and confirmed the award.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit upended the entire arbitration agreement.  It noted that the 2008 Hall Street decision makes clear that parties cannot alter the standard of review in Section 10.  It also found that the provision for de novo review could not just be severed, because it was material to the parties’ decision to choose arbitration, as evidenced by a review of the Compact as a whole.  As a result, the court found the arbitration agreement as a whole unenforceable.

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If you are an arbitrator, litigator or in-house counsel ready to advance your knowledge and skills in arbitration, join me at the ABA’s 11th Annual Arbitration Training Institute this May!  I will present on Trends in Arbitration Law (plus, it is in Miami….)

 

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.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska gave an unpleasant surprise to its trial court judges last week: they cannot enforce arbitration agreements sua sponteBoyd v. Cook, 298 Neb. 819 (Feb. 2, 2018).

The case involved a messy shareholder dispute.  A key contract to the dispute contained an arbitration provision covering “any dispute or controversy arising out of” the agreement.  The suit began in April of 2014, and eventually included many parties and at least a dozen claims.  In 2016, the trial court granted partial summary judgment.  But then it had apparently had enough.  In January of 2017, the trial court “dismissed sua sponte all of the claims in the case” other than one, based on the arbitration provision in the contract.  It found it lacked jurisdiction.

After confirming its appellate jurisdiction, and noting that arbitration clauses can never defeat a court’s subject matter jurisdiction (Dude! Don’t get your hackles up), the Nebraska Supreme Court got around to the good stuff.  It found that because arbitration is a contractual right “it necessarily follows that this right may be enforced only by a party to the contract.”  Therefore, “it is improper for a court to try to enforce such a contractual right on behalf of the parties.”  Trial courts will have to resort to other tactics in getting irritating cases off their dockets.

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If the Boyd case can be described as parties ignoring their rights to arbitrate, then a Vermont case can be described as a party ignoring its potential right to litigate.  In Adams v. Barr Law Group, 2018 WL 671444 (Feb. 2, 2018), a law firm tried to recover unpaid fees from its client in arbitration.  The client participated in arbitration (without counsel) for seven months.  Then, one week before the hearing, it alleged for the first time that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable, because the law firm did not fully explain to the client the ramifications of agreeing to arbitration.  The arbitrator denied the motion to dismiss and issued an award in favor of the law firm.  The client then moved to vacate the award and lost.  On appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court explained that the client had waived its right to object to arbitration by participating fully for seven months without raising the issue.  It noted that the requirement is “designed to avoid unnecessary investments in time and resources of exactly these types.”

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Finally, another post script to the SCOTUS preview : a new cert petition raises the circuit split over the “wholly groundless” doctrine.  Maybe the Court will finally bite on one of my favorite issues!

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?

While I was busy writing deep thoughts about arbitration at the end of 2017 (see here and here), courts around the country rudely kept churning out new arbitration opinions.  Hmph.  So, I have some catching up to do.  I start with one that has most captured my attention, Snow v. Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, ___ A.3d ___, 2017 WL 6520900 (Me. Dec. 21, 2017).  It finds an arbitration agreement between a law firm and its client unenforceable, because the law firm did not specifically explain to the client that arbitration entails a loss of a jury trial, narrower appeal rights, and different evaluation of evidence.

Susan Snow hired the Bernstein firm to handle a civil action.  The opinion does not tell us anything about Snow or her level of sophistication.  But, it does tell us that she signed Bernstein’s standard terms of engagement, which included an arbitration clause.  The arbitration clause dealt specifically with arbitrability of “fee disputes,” and then said “any other dispute that arises out of or relates to this agreement or the services provided by the law firm shall also, at the election of either party, be subject to binding arbitration.”

Snow later sued the law firm for malpractice, and the firm moved to compel arbitration.  The district court denied that motion, and the high court of Maine affirmed that ruling.  Both courts found that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the law firm had not verbally discussed the arbitration clause with Snow and informed her of its “scope and effect”.

The Snow opinion used “public policy” to invalidate the arbitration agreement.  It largely relied on two bases for its public policy.  First, a 2002 formal opinion from the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which found that because attorneys are fiduciaries, and arbitration “results in a client waiving significant rights,” an attorney must explain the implication of the proposed arbitration agreement so that the client can make an informed decision.  The ABA opinion requires an attorney to explain that the client is waiving a jury trial, waiving discovery, and losing a right to appeal.  Second, the Snow opinion relied on a 2011 opinion from Maine’s Professional Ethics Commission, requiring attorneys to obtain informed consent “as to the scope and effect of an arbitration requirement or a jury waiver clause.”

Because the law firm in this case did not dispute that it made no attempt to discuss the arbitration agreement with Ms. Snow before she signed it, and the court found the written arbitration agreement “was not sufficiently clear to inform her”, the court declared the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

So, what is required in Maine for an attorney to have a binding arbitration agreement with a client?  “The attorney must effectively communicate to the client that malpractice claims are covered under the agreement to arbitrate.  The attorney must also explain, or ensure that the client understands, the differences between the arbitral forum and the judicial forum, including the absence of a jury and such ‘procedural aspects of forum choice such as timing, costs, appealability, and the evaluation of evidence and credibility.'”  All of that should be done with regard to the particular client’s capacity to understand the information.

When’s the last time you heard a state supreme court espouse the importance of the right to a jury trial?  And pound on the importance of specifically and knowingly waiving that right?  Well, the Kindred case comes to mind for me.  And SCOTUS reversed Kentucky’s public policy rule in that case, finding it was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  Kindred stated noted that the Kentucky “court did exactly what Concepcion barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement–namely, a waiver of the right to go to court and receive a jury trial.”  The Snow decision does not cite to the Kindred case, even though Kindred came out in May and Snow wasn’t argued until October of 2017.  Instead, the Snow decision gives a preemption analysis that defies logic.  It says its rule “that attorneys fully inform a client of the scope and effect” of an arbitration clause “does not ‘single out’ arbitration agreements.”  Say what?  The court goes on to say that it would apply to any client “decision to waive significant rights,” but does not offer any cites to Maine law requiring attorneys to give oral primers to clients on anything other than arbitration  Indeed, the Snow opinion’s emphasis on jury trial, appealability, and evidence show it’s rule hinges on primary characteristics of arbitration, just like Kentucky’s ill-fated rule.

Despite the similarities with Kindred, would SCOTUS treat this case differently because attorneys are held to a higher standard?  The Ninth Circuit has affirmed a decision finding the arbitration clause in an lawyer’s engagement letter unconscionable.  And the ABA favors the higher standard (but I am not aware it has reconsidered its opinion in light of recent preemption decisions).  But, I have a hard time distinguishing the rule in Snow from the one that was reversed in Kindred.