Validity of Arbitration Agreement

Liz has written before about the ways that state courts sometimes try to resist SCOTUS’s love affair with arbitration.  Resistance can come in many and varying forms, some more subtle than others.

One persistent source of confusion in arbitration law, and thus a locus for resistance, centers on delegation clauses. As a quick refresher, in the United States, courts decide questions of arbitrability (questions about the proper scope of an arbitration agreement as well as the contractual validity of an arbitration agreement) unless the parties, in clear and unmistakable language, delegate these questions to the arbitrator.  Parties may provide such a delegation, most courts agree, by including express language in the arbitration clause to this effect or by incorporating by reference a set of arbitration rules that include such a delegation.  (See, e.g., Oracle Am., Inc. v. Myriad Grp. A.G., 724 F.3d 1069, 1074 (9th Cir. 2013) (“Virtually every circuit to have considered the issue has determined that incorporation of [institutional] arbitration rules constitutes clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.”  But for a different take, check out this blast from ArbitrationNation’s past.)

Like the doctrine of separability, the goal of a delegation clause is to insulate and protect the arbitral process, preventing the parties from having to waste time and money fighting in court before getting to arbitration.

In Midwest Neurosciences Associates, LLC v. Great Lakes Neurosurgical Associates, (Wis. 2018), however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court effectively created a new rule that allows a court to ignore a delegation clause.  As the dissenting Justice says, the case “creat[es] a new rule bestowing on the judiciary the power to decide arbitrability even though the parties agreed an arbitrator would resolve this issue.”   Accordingly, parties who choose arbitration in Wisconsin, may wind up stuck waging preliminary battles about arbitrability in courts, even if they include clear and unmistakable language saying that they want all of their fights resolved before an arbitrator.

The case involved a potential conflict between two contracts.  The first was an Operating Agreement, which contained an arbitration clause and a choice to arbitrate pursuant to the JAMS Arbitration Rules (which include a delegation provision).  The Operating Agreement substantively contained a set of non-compete obligations preventing certain behavior by the defendants.  The second, and subsequent, contract was a Redemption Agreement, which did not contain any reference to arbitration, included a merger clause, and was intended to at least partially supersede the earlier agreement.  Specifically, the Redemption Agreement was supposed to release the defendants from their obligations under the Operating Agreement.

The defendants started acting in contravention to their non-compete obligations. The plaintiffs objected, saying that they had never actually agreed to the Redemption Agreement. Instead, they believed it to be a mere proposal that they had ultimately rejected.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that the questions of whether the Redemption Agreement was valid and, if so, whether it changed the forum for dispute resolution were for the court rather than the arbitrator.  In reaching this conclusion, the majority effectively ignored the delegation clause, relegating it to an aside in a footnote.

Lest you think that I’m being too harsh in saying that the decision evidences resistance to arbitration, I’ll just quote Justice Rebecca Bradely’s dissent in closing:

While the foundation of the majority’s preference for court resolution of arbitrability disputes is unclear, its disdain for arbitration as a method of dispute resolution is transparent . . . The majority misunderstands that the choice of method for dispute resolution belongs to the parties, not the court.

 

 

One of the most confounding doctrines in federal arbitration jurisprudence is the severability doctrine.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held, since Prima Paint in 1967, that courts must enforce arbitration clauses within contracts, even if the entire contract is invalid or unenforceable.  (Most non-arbitration geeks don’t believe me when I tell them that’s the law.)  The only time a court can address the argument for invalidity is if the litigant directs it specifically at the arbitration clause.  For example, an argument that the elves’ contract with Santa is invalid because it’s illegal to pay them in candy canes is an argument about the contract as a whole, and would get sent to arbitration if the elves’ contract had a valid arbitration clause.  On the other hand, an argument that the arbitration clause in the elves’ contract with Santa is unconscionable because it calls for arbitration in the South Pole with Mrs. Claus as the arbitrator *is* specific to the arbitration clause, and should be decided by the court.  Unless, of course, the arbitration clause clearly and unmistakably delegated questions of validity to an arbitrator…

Two courts recently had an opportunity to remind litigants of the severability doctrine.  In Rogers v. Swepi LP, 2018 WL 6444014 (6th Cir. Dec. 10, 2018), the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court judge who failed to apply the severability doctrine.  In Rogers, a putative class of landowners brought suit against Shell for claims arising out of lease agreements.  Shell responded by moving to compel arbitration.  The landowners argued that the arbitration clause within the lease agreement (as well as the whole “second phase” of the lease) was only triggered upon payment of a bonus.  The court found this was an attack on more than just the arbitration clause, and therefore application of the severability doctrine called for the issue of arbitrability to be decided by an arbitrator.  (However, whether class arbitration was permissible should be decided by the court on remand.)

Similarly, the Supreme Court of Montana sent a dispute over arbitrability to an arbitrator in Peeler v. Rocky Mountain Log Homes Canada, Inc., 2018 WL 6498693 (Mont. Dec 11, 2018).   In Peeler, an owner sued both the design professional and contractor over claims relating to construction of a custom log home.  Only the contractor’s agreement had an arbitration clause, but the complaint alleged the design firm was an affiliated entity that should be treated the same as the contractor.  So the contractor and design firm moved to compel arbitration.  The homeowner argued that the arbitration agreement was permissive, not mandatory, and that the defendants had waived their right to arbitrate by waiting to assert it until after he filed suit.  Those arguments did not prevail at the trial court or the appellate court.  The Montana Supreme Court noted that the defendants did not waive their right to arbitrate, and because the owner did not challenge the validity or enforceability of the arbitration agreement, his arguments should be heard by an arbitrator.  Finally, the court found that the design firm could compel arbitration as a matter of equitable estoppel.

Speaking of construction cases, the Supreme Court of Nevada continues its campaign to remind all construction litigators that the FEDERAL Arbitration Act governs even local disputes between homeowners and contractors.  Since its Ballasteros decision in February of this year, it has issued two more decisions reiterating that holding: Lanier, 2018 WL 6264809 (Nev. Nov. 28, 2018), and Greystone Nevada, 2018 WL 6264756 (Ne. Nov. 28, 2018).  As evidence of interstate commerce, Lanier points to three things: the builder was incorporated in Delaware while the homeowners were Nevada residents, the large number of subcontractors and material suppliers who worked on the home made it likely that at least some of them are engaged in interstate commerce, and “in the aggregate, the general practice of developing, buying, and selling homes substantially affects interstate commerce.”  All of this mattered because trial court judges were relying on Nevada anti-arbitration rules to refuse to compel arbitration.  Those rules are preempted if the dispute is governed by the FAA.

In an opinion that coins new terms and uses the insouciant tone of a blogger, the 11th Circuit just shut down a putative class action brought by homeowners against a vendor of roof shingles.  The Court found that the terms and conditions printed on the exterior of the shingle packaging formed an enforceable contract (with a class arbitration waiver), and when the roofing contractors opened the shingles, the roofers bound the homeowners who had hired them.  Dye v. Tamko Building Products, Inc., 2018 WL 5729085 (11th Cir. Nov. 2, 2018).

The Dye decision relies heavily on two decades of case law finding that consumers are bound to terms and conditions that accompany software or consumer products or phone apps.  Indeed, the Court suggests that consumers have been on notice that they are bound by terms on the outside of packaging, or with a product, since the 1997 decision in Hill v Gateway 2000, 105 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 1997).  Those types of terms are called “shrinkwrap” or “clickwrap” or “scrollwrap” agreements.  And the Court found no reason to treat this agreement, which it termed a “shinglewrap” agreement, any differently.  Therefore, the Court found that by printing its arbitration clause, with a class action waiver, on the exterior of the shingle packaging, the defendant had formed an enforceable contract.

The harder part of the opinion, in my view, is with whom did the defendant form an enforceable contract.  It was not the homeowners who opened the shingle packaging, it was their roofers.  And there are no facts suggesting that the roofers informed the homeowners of the terms on the packaging, or that there were terms at all.  But the Court found that because the roofers were the homeowners’ agents for the purpose of purchasing and installing roof shingles, and because accepting the purchase terms is the kind of thing that should have been expected of the agents, the roofers bound the homeowners to the arbitration agreement (along with the rest of the terms).

[I am aware of at least one court that came out on the opposite side of this “shinglewrap” issue.  In 2015, the Missouri Court of Appeals refused to enforce the same vendor’s arbitration agreement, finding the circumstances distinguishable from cases like Hill v. Gateway.]

Although the Court makes short work of the agency portion of this opinion, I think it merits a deeper analysis.  Usually, even in the case of contracts of adhesion, courts note that the party had some semblance of choice: either to not buy the product, or not work for that employer, etc.  Here, it is hard to see how the homeowners had a choice, since they were unaware that their roofers were considering shingles that would preclude class actions.  Should owners (commercial and residential) put clauses in all their construction contracts revoking the right of contractors and subcontractors to enter into agreements on their behalf??  Is that their only option for unwittingly entering contract terms to which they may object?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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And now, a postscript on last month’s post reporting that New Jersey and Missouri refused to enforce arbitration clauses where there was a problem identifying the administrator.  Turns out, other courts have been thinking about the same issue, but resolving it differently.  In Paulozzi v. Parkview Custom Homes, 2018-Ohio-4425 (Ohio Ct. App. Nov. 1, 2018), the Ohio Court of Appeals enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement, even though it called for administration by a now-defunct ADR institution (not NAF).  The Ohio court just severed that aspect of the arbitration clause and called on the trial court to appoint a replacement arbitrator.  In Beltran v. AuPairCare, Inc., 2018 WL 5571319 (10th Cir. Oct. 30, 2018), the arbitration agreement allowed the employer to select the arbitration provider.  The court found that unconscionable, but instead of invalidating the entire arbitration agreement, it also severed that provision and noted that both the FAA and California’s arbitration statutes provide alternate methods of selecting an administrator.

Those two cases make Missouri and New Jersey look out of step.  But, Missouri may now be alone.  I understand that the New Jersey courts have “withdrawn” the decision in Flanzman, and indeed I cannot find it on Westlaw.

**Big thanks to my friends in NJ, Ohio, and NY who alerted me to these developments.

 

This post is aimed at drafters of arbitration clauses. Because if you don’t insert an administrator for your arbitration, and don’t anticipate that the administrator may just stop providing services, your arbitration clause is dead in the water. At least, that’s the holding of two new state court cases.

In A-1 Premium Acceptance, Inc. v. Hunter, 2018 WL 4998256 (Mo. Oct. 16, 2018), the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the lower court’s decision to deny a defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The reason was that the arbitration agreement within the 2006 loan documents provided “any claim or dispute related to this agreement…shall be resolved by binding arbitration by the National Arbitration Forum [NAF], under the Code of Procedure then in effect.” As regular readers are aware, the NAF stopped administering consumer arbitration in 2009. Although many courts have enforced arbitration agreements, despite their inclusion of NAF, Missouri did not. It found that the language of this clause showed that the parties intended to arbitrate before the NAF and only the NAF. Therefore, the court refused to use Section 5 of the FAA to appoint a replacement administrator.

In Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., Docket No. A-2580-17T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 17, 2018), New Jersey’s appellate division was faced with a slightly different problem: the parties’ arbitration clause did not provide what rules would govern the arbitration nor which entity would administer it.  As a result, the court found the arbitration clause was never formed, because the employee could not give informed assent. It reasoned:

Selecting an arbitral institution informs the parties, at a minimum, about that institution’s arbitration rules and procedures.  Without knowing this basic information, parties to an arbitration agreement will be unfamiliar with the rights that replaced judicial adjudication.  That is, the parties will not reach a “meeting of the minds.”

While clarifying that no magic words were required, the New Jersey court noted that if the parties don’t identify an “arbitral institution (such as AAA or JAMS)” they should at least identify the process for selecting a forum.  Otherwise, arbitration agreements will not be enforced under New Jersey law. (Unlike Missouri, the New Jersey court did not discuss Section 5 of the FAA and the statutory authority for courts to appoint arbitrators.)

Every time I think the spate of state supreme court opinions about nursing home arbitration surely must be over, another one comes out to prove me wrong.  Last week, it was one from Alabama, finding an arbitration agreement was never formed, because the resident lacked capacity and the daughter who signed on his behalf lacked power of attorney.

In Stephan v. Millennium Nursing & Rehab Ctr., 2018 WL 4846501 (Ala. Oct. 5, 2018), the decedent’s estate sued the nursing home for wrongful death.  The nursing home moved to compel arbitration.  The trial court granted the motion to compel, and the Supreme Court of Alabama reversed.

The decedent’s daughter had signed the admission paperwork in a space provided for “signature of family member responsible for patient.”  She did not have power of attorney or any other legal authority to contract in his name.  (She also happened to be personal representative of his estate.)  In reviewing the record, the court found decedent was incapable of entering into a contract on the date of the admission documents due to his dementia.  In addition, the decedent could not have understood the effect of allowing his daughter to agree to arbitrate, so she lacked apparent authority.  Furthermore, the daughter was not personally bound to the arbitration clause, and thereby precluded from suing as personal representative, because she signed in her capacity as her father’s relative, not in her own capacity.   Therefore, the arbitration agreement never existed and could not be enforced.

One justice dissented, arguing that the daughter essentially fraudulently induced the nursing home to contract.

Here’s the key question: Is this ruling preempted by the FAA, or does it otherwise run afoul of Kindred?  I don’t think so.  Kindred involved an actual power of attorney document.  This case seems to rest on principles that most states would agree with, and would apply generally to contracts of other types.  SCOTUS is also unlikely to be interested in this case since Alabama has generally been following federal precepts about arbitration.

I would understand if not every state supreme court got the memo from last year’s SCOTUS decision on FAA preemption, Kindred, which reminded state courts that the FAA prevents state courts from imposing additional requirements on arbitration agreements that are not required for other types of contracts.  But Kentucky definitely got the memo.  The memo was addressed to Kentucky. Yet, last week the Supreme Court of Kentucky released a new decision that continues to convey hostility to arbitration and SCOTUS’s decisions interpreting the FAA.

The legal issue in Northern Ky. Area Development District v. Snyder, 2018 WL 4628143 (Ky. Sept. 27, 2018) is straightforward: Does the FAA preempt a Kentucky statute that prohibits employers from conditioning employment on an employee’s agreement to arbitrate claims.  The statute prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to “waive, arbitrate, or otherwise diminish any existing or future claim, right, or benefit to which the employee or person seeking employment would otherwise be entitled.”  In this case, the plaintiff was required to sign an arbitration agreement in order to work for the governmental entity.  When she sued over her termination, the employer moved to compel arbitration.

The trial court refused to compel arbitration.  Then the court of appeals affirmed, finding that the employer never had authority to enter into the arbitration in the first place (due to the statute), so the arbitration agreement did not technically exist.  (Too cute by half.  Plus, Justice Kagan specifically said that formation issues could also be preempted.)

The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed.  It also concluded that the employer, a state agency, was covered by the anti-arbitration statute.  And therefore, when it conditioned employment on an agreement to arbitrate, in violation of the statute, its action was “ultra vires,” and the resulting arbitration agreement was void.  (See parenthetical above.)

The court went on to find the anti-arbitration statute at issue was not preempted by the FAA.  The decision states with an apparently straight face that the statute “does not actually attack, single out, or specifically discriminate against arbitration agreements” and did not “evidenc[e] hostility to arbitration”.  The statute “simply prevents [the employer] from conditioning employment” on the arbitration agreement. Furthermore, it notes that the statute does not just preclude arbitration agreements, but also any agreement that waives or limits an employee’s rights.

BUT HERE’S THE PROBLEM.  Kentucky’s reasoning only makes sense if we agree that arbitration is a limitation or a diminishment of the employee’s rights.  If, instead, you assume that arbitration is simply an alternative forum for resolving the employee’s full set of rights, the logic falls apart.  But, will SCOTUS really want to hear another Kentucky decision?  Kentucky is betting that it won’t.  Maybe this should not surprise anyone; Kentucky did not exactly bend to SCOTUS’s will when Kindred was remanded.  And btw, the nursing home is seeking certiorari from the remand decision, and SCOTUS just relisted it, meaning it still has a chance. (For good measure, Kentucky’s high court issued a decision compelling arbitration on the same day, overruling an objection that the arbitration clause was not fully mutual.  Grimes v. GHSW Enterprises, 2018 WL 4628160 (Ky. Sept. 27, 2018).)

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Speaking of SCOTUS, Monday it denied cert in at least four arbitration cases.  Two were companion cases (from Cal. and Neb.) that sought guidance on what types of challenges can invalidate a delegation clause.  (My blog post here, SCOTUSblog here and here.)  Another presented issues regarding binding non-signatories to arbitration through equitable estoppel. The fourth involved a question of whether an employer waived its right to arbitration (Cash Biz).  (My post here, filings here.)

And – this morning, SCOTUS hears arguments in New Prime, addressing the exemption in FAA Section One.

[Thanks to @PerryCooper for alerting me to a few of these cert denials.]

The First Circuit just faced a fascinating formation issue: if a customer cannot see what she is signing, and no employee reads it to her or ensures she knows there are legal terms, is there a contract?  With Justice Souter sitting by designation on the panel, the court answered “no,” and thereby kept a class action in the courts. National Federation of the Blind v. The Container Store, Inc., 2018 WL 4378174 (1st Cir. Sept. 14, 2018).

The Container Store case involves blind plaintiffs who allege the retailer violated discrimination laws by failing to use tactile keypads on its point-of-sale (POS) devices.  In response, the retailer moved to compel individual arbitration for the plaintiffs who had enrolled in a loyalty program (which has an arbitration agreement and class action waiver).  The customers who enrolled in the loyalty program in a store alleged that they enrolled with the assistance of a sales associate, and were never presented with the terms and conditions of the program, including the arbitration provision.   In response, the retailer presented excerpts from a training manual, which instructed employees to give blind plaintiffs the opportunity to review the terms on the POS device.  Critically, the retailer did not have evidence that the employee who helped sign up the named plaintiffs had in fact read the terms and conditions to those plaintiffs or otherwise made them aware that there were any terms and conditions.  Therefore, the district court found no agreement to arbitrate was formed between the Container Store and those plaintiffs, and denied the motion to compel arbitration.

On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed.  It first disagreed with the Container Store’s argument that this dispute was one about the validity of the loyalty agreement as a whole, such that it must be heard by an arbitrator.  Instead, it concluded that this was a fundamental dispute about the formation of the arbitration agreement, which was properly addressed by the court.  (The First Circuit even got punny:  “We reject the Container Store’s attempt to re-package Plaintiffs’ arguments as one regarding validity…”)

It then got into the guts of the argument.  It affirmed the critical findings of the district court: “it is undisputed that the in-store plaintiffs had no way of accessing the terms of the loyalty program, including the arbitration agreement”; and “No store clerk actually informed them that an arbitration agreement existed as a condition of entering the loyalty program.”  Therefore, even though “inability to read” is not generally a defense to contract formation, the court found no arbitration agreement was ever formed with these plaintiffs.  Unlike other situations where plaintiffs who could not read knew or should have known that they were signing documents that implicated legal rights, in this case the court found “zero hint” that the loyalty program involved terms and conditions.

Finally, with respect to a class of plaintiffs who had signed up for the loyalty program online, and thereby did have notice of the terms and conditions, the court still denied the motion to arbitrate.  It found the arbitration agreement was illusory and therefore unenforceable under Texas law.  The court found language in the arbitration agreement gave the Container Store “the right to alter the terms of the loyalty program, including the arbitration provision, ‘at any time'” and the change would have retroactive effect, affecting even parties who had already invoked arbitration.

This case reminds me of the First Circuit’s big decision in Uber  in June, when the court found that the arbitration agreement in Uber’s terms also was not conspicuous enough to be binding.  In other words, this issue is not limited to individuals who have disabilities, but gets at the fundamental question of how much information do consumers need to validly form a contract.

This case also makes me smile because guess which firm represented the Container Store?  Sheppard Mullin, the same firm that was not able to enforce its own arbitration agreement with its client in the last post.   Rough arbitration month for those attorneys.

 

In today’s post I recount an epic battle between the Rules of Professional Conduct (tagline: saving clients from unscrupulous lawyers for over 100 years!) and the Uniform Arbitration Act (tagline: saving arbitration from hostile judges for 60 years!) in the Supreme Court of California.  Spoiler alert: the Rules of Professional Conduct win.

The story in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., 2018 WL 4137103 (Cal. Aug. 30, 2018), begins with a “large law firm” [ed: with too many names] taking over the defense of J-M in a qui tam action in federal court in March of 2010.  The problem was that one of the public entities that had been identified as a real party in interest in the qui tam case was also a client of the firm (for employment matters).  Because both clients had signed engagement letters with general language waiving potential conflicts, the firm concluded it could take on the qui tam action.

The SMRH firm defended J-M for just one year before its employment client moved to disqualify it.  In that time, the firm had put in 10,000 hours defending J-M, and was still owed over one million dollars in fees.  The district court disqualified the firm based on the firm’s failure to adequately inform the employment client and J-M of the adversity before obtaining waivers, as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.

At that point, the law firm sought its million dollars of unpaid fees from J-M in a state court action, and J-M in turn sought disgorgement of the two million dollars it had already paid.  The law firm successfully moved to compel arbitration, with the trial court dismissing J-M’s argument that the conflict of interest made the whole contract illegal and unenforceable. (And, the Court of Appeals refused a discretionary review which could have avoided the wasted fees of the arbitration.)

A panel of arbitrators awarded the law firm more than $1.3 million.  The parties were then back in state court with cross-motions to confirm and vacate the award.  The trial court confirmed the award.  However, the Court of Appeal reversed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of California agreed that the arbitration award must be vacated.  It rested its decision on precedent from 1949, noting that “an agreement to arbitrate is invalid and unenforceable if it is made as part of a contract that is invalid and unenforceable because it violates public policy.”  In this case, the court found that the Rules of Professional Conduct were an expression of public policy, such that a violation of those rules could render an arbitration agreement void.  And it also found that the firm’s failure to give both of its clients notice of the actual adversity, and obtain informed consent of the representation, was a violation that tainted the entire contract and made it illegal.  (For you ethics geeks, the rule violated was 3-310(C)(3).)

Because the contract between the law firm and J-M was unenforceable, the court found the firm was “not entitled to the benefit of the arbitrators’ decision” and the parties could resume “where they were before the case took its unwarranted detour to arbitration.”  (Not sure why the court refused to say it was vacating the arbitration award.)  But, don’t shed too many tears for the lawyers.  The law firm will be able to argue in the trial court regarding whether it is entitled to any of its fees under the equitable doctrine of quantum meruit.  (Two judges dissented from that last part, finding that the ethical conflict should prevent the firm from recovering at all.)

I leave it to other blogs to discuss the ethical issues for lawyers present here, and to therapists and firm counsel to address the rising panic that lawyers may feel when reading this opinion.  For my purpose, this case is further demonstration that the type of arbitration agreement that is most susceptible to arguments of invalidity is the one between an attorney and client.  (Recall the recent decision in Maine.)  It is also interesting in that it does not discuss whether J-M “waived” its objection to arbitrability at all by participating in the arbitration, indeed there is no discussion of whether or how often J-M raised its objection during the arbitration.  That is a sharp contrast to the rule cited by the 9th Circuit in the Asarco decision (summarized last post), and an example of how inconsistent the rules are regarding waiver.

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…

 

I am a true arbitration nerd.  But, when SCOTUS takes a THIRD arbitration case for its upcoming term, I wonder if the Justices are more obsessed with arbitration than I am.  (Reminder of the other two here.)  If they hear about the same total number of cases as this year (69), arbitration will make up more than 4% of their docket.  Now, 4% isn’t huge.  For reference, intellectual property cases made up less than 4% of cases filed in federal district courts last year, and there were three I.P. cases decided by SCOTUS (two on inter partes review and the WesternGeco case).  At least I.P. cases have a category in the annual judiciary report, though.  That’s more than arbitration can say.  And still, it has three cases before the Supremes.

Enough stats, what is this case?  It is Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., in which SCOTUS is going to resolve the circuit split over the “wholly groundless” doctrine.  Given how the NLRB decision just came out, I don’t think I’m stepping too far out on a limb if I predict: “wholly groundless” will be grounded.  (Maybe even “grounded wholly?”  Seriously, there has got to be some good word play possible, but I am too tired from watching the World Cup to develop it.)  Put simply, that doctrine will not stand in the way of any future delegation clauses.

(Thanks to Mark Kantor for being the first to tell me certiorari was granted in this case.)

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Switching gears, there are three new decisions from state high courts on the arbitrability of claims against nursing homes.  Two enforce the arbitration clauses, and one decidedly does not.

Nebraska and Colorado issued the pro-arbitration decisions, in both cases reversing a trial court’s refusal to enforce arbitration agreements.  In Colorow Health Care, LLC v. Fischer, 2018 WL 2771051 (Colo. June 11, 2018), the district court denied the nursing home’s motion to compel arbitration because it was not in bold text, as required by a state statute.  Without any discussion of the FAA (which would have been a much easier ground for reversal), the Colorado Supreme Court found that the statute only requires substantial compliance, and the defendant had substantially complied (by including the right language, in a larger font size than required, just not in bold). In Heineman v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 300 Neb. 187 (June 8, 2018), the district court had found the arbitration agreement lacked mutuality, violated the state arbitration statute, and violated public policy (because of the CMS rule on arbitration).  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Nebraska found mutuality, found the FAA applied and preempted the state arbitration statute, and noted that the CMS rule had been enjoined.

A week later, though, Nebraska rejected arbitrability in a different case against a nursing home.  In Cullinane v. Beverly Enterprises-Nebraska, Inc., 300 Neb. 210 (June 15, 2018), the issue was whether the arbitration agreement signed by the deceased’s husband was enforceable.  He admitted he signed all the admission documents, but stated in an affidavit that he understood he had to agree to arbitrate for his wife to be admitted to the facility.  He also stated that he did not understood he was waiving his wife’s right to a jury trial, and would not have signed if he had known that and that arbitration was optional.  Applying the FAA and state contract law, the Nebraska Supreme Court found the district court was not “clearly wrong” when it found the husband was fraudulently induced to executing the arbitration agreement for his wife.  Critically, the facility had not introduced any affidavit contradicting the alleged statements made at the time of admission.