Continuing last week’s theme of “States Gone Wild,” here are three more oddball summer decisions from state supreme courts. All of them find interesting paths around federal case law (IMHO).
Georgia Says Class Complaint Is Deemed Arbitration Opt Out For All Class Members
In Bickerstaff v. SunTrust Bank, 2016 WL 3693778 (Ga. July 8, 2016), the issue was whether a class action challenging overdraft fees could proceed in court. The class complaint was filed in July of 2010, and in August of 2010 (in response to a court ruling), the bank amended its deposit agreement to allow customers to opt out of arbitration. In part, the amended arbitration agreement stated:
To reject this arbitration agreement provision, you must send the Bank written notice of your decision … by the later of October 1, 2010 or within forty-five (45) days of the opening of your Account. Such notice must include a statement that you wish to reject the arbitration agreement … along with your name, address, account name, account number and your signature … This is the sole and only method by which you can reject this arbitration agreement provision.
Just after October 1, the bank moved to compel arbitration. The issue of whether the complaint could serve as the formal rejection of the arbitration provision ended up before the Supreme Court of Georgia. That court unanimously held that “the filing of Bickerstaff’s complaint, thereby signaling his rejection of the arbitration agreement, tolled the time in which the putative class members were required to notify SunTrust of their intent to reject arbitration.”
In its analysis, the court leaned heavily on Georgia cases in the class action context, finding that class representatives may satisfy statutory or contractual preconditions on behalf of those class members who remain in the class after it is certified. “[T]he satisfaction of a precondition for suit by the class plaintiff typically avoids the necessity for each class member to satisfy the precondition individually.” Curiously absent from the decision was any discussion of Stolt-Nielsen, or Section 2 of the FAA (requiring strict enforcement of valid arbitration agreements), or the preemption rulings in Concepcion and DirecTV.
[Thanks to a reader for sending me this case before Westlaw did.]
Split South Carolina Court Reasons Its Way Around Rent-A-Center
Our next state court ruling at least acknowledges the relevant federal precedent. In Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 2016 WL 3660720 (S.C. July 6, 2016), the issue was whether a husband and wife had to arbitrate their construction defect claims against their builder. Section 14 of the parties’ agreement was entitled “warranties and dispute resolution,” and made up of ten subparagraphs covering topics from whether the builder could remove existing trees, to the private warranty it provided, to the requirement to arbitrate disputes. The arbitration agreement was in 14(g), with its own subheading “mandatory binding arbitration.” The builder moved to compel arbitration and the homeowners argued that clauses within Section 14 made the arbitration agreement unconscionable.
The builder relied on the severability doctrine, first set forth in Prima Paint but reiterated in Buckeye Check Cashing and Rent-A-Center, which holds that courts may only decide disputes about the validity of the arbitration agreement itself, all other challenges to the contract must be determined by the arbitrator. The builder defined the arbitration agreement as 14(g), which the homeowners did not challenge, while the homeowners defined the arbitration agreement as all of Section 14. The court agreed with the homeowners, relying largely on the title of Section 14, and the fact that the subparagraphs had “cross-references to one another, intertwining the subparagraphs so as to constitute a single provision.”
Having defined the arbitration agreement to include all of Section 14, the court went on to find the arbitration agreement unconscionable due to its disclaiming implied warranty claims and prohibiting monetary damages. (As Section 14 had no severability clause, the court refused to analyze whether the unconscionable portions could be stricken.) Two justices dissented, noting that “the majority has not followed controlling precedent of the United States Supreme Court.” (That should help the cert petition…)
[NOTE TO DRAFTERS: Move your arbitration agreement into a separate paragraph with its own heading right now! Give it its own severability clause. Then you can keep reading.]
North Dakota Forgets To Read The Footnotes
Not to be left out of the “buck SCOTUS” summer trend, North Dakota issued a decision finding that a district court did not err in compelling arbitration of the formation of the parties’ contract. 26th Street Hospitality, LLP v. REAL Builders, Inc., 2016 WL 3022054 (N.D. May 26, 2016). One party to the contract argued the contract was invalid because it was executed without the knowledge and authority of the Partnership, as proper consent had not been received pursuant to the company’s charter documents. Nevertheless, the district court compelled arbitration, without deciding the formation of the contract. The North Dakota Supreme Court unanimously found the district court did not err in refusing to decide formation before ordering arbitration, relying on Rent-A-Center’s discussion of severability. What it did not discuss, however, is 1) the first footnote in Buckeye Check Cashing which specifically states that the severability doctrine does not apply when the issue is “whether any agreement between the alleged obligor and obligee was ever concluded,” or 2) the fact that a majority of federal courts have concluded formation is an issue for courts, not arbitrators.
As long as we’re talking state courts…
Two state supreme courts have new decisions on waiver. The Texas Supreme Court found a company did not waive its right to arbitrate claims with individual customers in RSL Funding, LLC v. Pippins, 2016 WL 3568134 (Tex. 2016). Importantly, the Texas court said that for Party A to waive its right to arbitrate with Party B, the court will only analyze Party A’s litigation conduct with respect to Party B after a dispute arises. In this case, the majority of the company’s litigation conduct at issue was directed at third parties before a dispute arose with the individual customers.
The Supreme Court of South Carolina found a nursing home waived its right to arbitrate wrongful death claims in Johnson v. Heritage Healthcare of Estill, 2016 WL 3022394 (S.C. May 25, 2016). The nursing home had litigated over the estate’s right to records and conducted discovery before moving to compel arbitration.
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