Whenever people ask me why I choose arbitration law to write and talk about, one of the reasons I give is that the law is in flux, creating a demand for information and analysis.  Despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act has been around for over 90 years, there are constantly new developments in its interpretation.  Especially in the past two decades, with the Supreme Court highly engaged in the enforcement of arbitration agreements, the pace of legal development has quickened.  That pace means that litigants, advocates, arbitrators and judges are struggling to keep up.  It also means that even on recurring issues, there is still a lack of consensus on how to apply the rules that have been developed.

To demonstrate this point, I went back through the important cases from 2017.  I found multiple instances where two cases with very similar facts received opposite results.  And I am not talking about circuit splits over novel issues like the NLRB and “wholly groundless” exception.  I am talking about issues like formation, waiver, and non-signatories, where the “rules” have ostensibly been settled for some time.

Two Tales of Non-Signatories

These two cases involve a bank teaming up with a retail entity to issue branded credit cards that offered rewards.  The credit card agreement, which called for arbitration of disputes, was only between the consumers and the banks, however. In each case, plaintiffs sued the retail entity regarding the card and the retail entity moved to compel arbitration as a non-signatory to the credit card agreement.  In one case, White v. Sunoco, Inc., 2017 WL 3864616 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the retail entity’s motion was denied.  In the other, Bluestem Brands, Inc. v. Shade, 2017 WL 4507090 (W. Va. Oct. 6, 2017), the retail entity’s motion was granted.  While these cases depend on the laws of different states, the courts were applying the same general estoppel rules, but reaching opposite results.

Two Tales of Waiver

Whether a party has waived its contractual right to arbitrate is an issue that comes up regularly.  Yet it remains surprisingly hard to predict whether a court will find waiver or not on any set of circumstances.

These two cases involve lenders bringing collection actions in state court for credit card debts.  In both, they were granted a default judgment.  And in both, the credit card holder later sued for problems with the collection efforts.  In response to that suit, the lenders moved to compel arbitration.  In one case, Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 156 A.3d 807 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017), the court denied the motion to compel, finding the lender had waived its rights.  In the other, Hudson v. Citibank, 387 P.3d 42 (Alaska Dec. 16, 2016), the court granted the motion to compel, finding the lender did not waive its rights.  In both cases, the analysis turned on whether the default action and later action were sufficiently related.

Two Tales of Formation

All of us do more and more of our business over mobile devices and the internet, where we don’t physically sign our name to contracts, and in fact we generally don’t read the terms and conditions.  That leads to hard legal questions over when a contract is validly formed and what terms the parties agreed to.

In these two cases, consumers have little or no choice between providers.  In order to sign up for the service, they receive one message.  In the first case, the message is “your account…[is] governed by the terms of use at [defendant’s website].”  In the second case, the message is “by creating an [] account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.”  The consumers did not have to take any affirmative act to consent to the terms other than proceeding to set up their account.  In both cases, consumers later sued the provider and the providers moved to compel arbitration based on the terms available at their websites.  The consumers responded by arguing the parties had not validly formed any arbitration agreement.

In the first case, the provider was not successful in compelling arbitration.  James v. Global Tellink Corp., 852 F.3d 262 (3d Cir. Mar. 29, 2017).  In the second case, the provider was successful in compelling arbitration.  Meyer v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 868 F.3d 66 (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2017).  Can it be that the wording difference between “your account.. is governed” and “by creating an account, you agree” explains the outcomes?  Or the fact that the consumers in the Uber case could have just clicked on the terms from the same device they were using to set up the account, while the prisoners in the first case would have had to hang up their telephones, find a computer and find the website?  The cases really give us no assistance in figuring that out.

Maybe every area of law has similar issues regarding the predictability of decisions.  But arbitration law is rife with legal “rules” to guide decision making that are so flexible as to hardly constitute rules at all.  And courts have not yet applied those rules enough times to allow them to develop a systemic approach, with internal consistency between the decisions.  And I predict that will only get worse, not better, as consumers and employees find new and creative ways to challenge arbitration agreements.

This is my 290th post at ArbitrationNation and today I celebrate six years of blogging.  Woo hoo — that’s longer than most celebrity marriages!  In honor of the occasion, here are updates on six of the hottest issues in arbitration law so far this year.

  1. Agency regulation of arbitration agreements.  On the one hand, the CFPB issued a rule that will preclude financial institutions from using class action waivers in arbitration agreements.  To understand how “yuge” this is, remember that the CFPB’s initial study showed there are likely over 100 million arbitration agreements impacted by this rule.  (And there does not seem to be the necessary political willpower to stop it.)  On the other hand, agencies headed by Trump appointees have moved to roll back Obama-era consumer-friendly regulations of arbitration agreements in nursing homes and educational institutions.
  2. NLRB.  While the CFPB attacks class action waivers in the financial industry, the NLRB has been attacking those waivers in the employment context, taking the position that such waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act.  A circuit split developed, with the 6th, 7th, and 9th circuits on NLRB’s side, and the 2nd, 5th and 8th circuits siding with the employers.  The Supreme Court will hear arguments on October 2.
  3. Wholly Groundless.  When considering whether to enforce delegation clauses, some federal court have developed a carve-out for claims they think are nothing but hot air.  [Remember delegation clauses are those portions of arbitration agreements that authorize arbitrators to determine even arbitrability — whether the arbitration agreement is valid and encompasses the claims — issues usually decided by courts.]  That carve-out has been called the “wholly groundless” exception, and it is coming up with greater frequency.  Currently there is a circuit split: the 5th, 6th and federal circuits are in favor of spot-checking claims of arbitrability (e.g. Evans v. Building Materials Corp. of Am., 2017 WL 2407857 (Fed. Cir. June 5, 2017)), while the 10th and 11th Circuits believe SCOTUS’s precedent leaves no room for conducting a smell test (e.g. Jones v. Waffle House, Inc., 2017 WL 3381100 (11th Cir. Aug. 7, 2017)).
  4. Formation.  SCOTUS decided the Kindred case in May, confirming that state law on contract formation is also subject to preemption by the Federal Arbitration Act.  That was timely, given that plaintiffs appear to be placing their bets on challenging formation as the most effective way around an arbitration agreement.  They might be right.  See James v. Global Tellink Corp., 852 F.3d 262 (3d Cir. Mar. 29, 2017); Noble v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc., 2017 WL 838269 (3d Cir. March 3, 2017); King v. Bryant, 795 S.E.2d 340 (N.C. Jan. 27, 2017).
  5. Small Claims Court.  If a company starts a small claims court action to collect a debt, does that waive the company’s right to compel arbitration years later in response to a suit by the consumer?  This is a question multiple courts are facing, with differing results.  E.g., Cain v. Midland Funding, LLC, 156 A.3d 807 (Md. Mar. 24, 2017) (waiver); Hudson v. Citibank, 387 P.3d 42 (Alaska Dec. 16, 2016) (no waiver); Citibank, N.A. v. Perry, 797 S.E.2d 803 (W. Va. Nov. 10, 2016) (no waiver).  It is important because many consumer arbitration agreements exempt small claims from arbitrable claims, but may reconsider if that is considered a waiver of everything else.
  6. Statutory Preclusion.  The Federal Arbitration Act generally requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements.  But, if there is a contrary congressional command entitling the litigant to a court trial, it can override the FAA.  That issue has already come up multiple times this year, with the FAA generally winning its battles with other statutes.  E.g., McLeod v. General Mills, Inc., 854 F.3d 420 (8th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017).

Thanks to all of you for providing great feedback, leads on cases and topics, client referrals, and a warm community of fellow arbitration geeks.  I look forward to another year of blogging.

In January of 2016, SCOTUS granted review of an arbitration case from Hawaii, but summarily vacated and remanded it without analysis.  (Unless you consider “Please read DIRECTV” substantive analysis.)  Here’s the risk of that course of action: Hawaii can refuse to change its mind.

Last month, in Narayan v. The Ritz-Carlton Development Co., 2017 WL 3013022 (Haw. July 14, 2017), Hawaii affirmed its decision after considering DIRECTV.  The case related to whether purchasers of new condominiums could sue the developers over their abandonment of the project.  The developers moved to compel arbitration based on an arbitration clause within the Declaration for the condo project, because the Declaration was incorporated into the plaintiffs’ purchase agreement.  In 2015, Hawaii’s highest court found the parties had not clearly agreed to arbitrate and portions of the arbitration clause were unconscionable.

Two years later, after a forced reconsideration, the court dropped its analysis of whether the arbitration agreement was validly formed (smart decision, given that it was on the shakiest ground, and given Kindred’s statement that FAA preempts formation decisions that disfavor arbitration).  Instead, it focused exclusively on unconscionability.  It found the arbitration clause both procedurally and substantively unconscionable (noting “severe” discovery limitations), and added more state case law to support those findings.  Amusingly, it also cited to two other state supreme courts which have affirmed their arbitration decisions on unconscionability after receiving a “GVR” from SCOTUS GVR: West Virginia and Missouri. (As if to say: You let those other kids off the hook!)

Speaking of SCOTUS and arbitration, two updates of note:

  • Mark your calendars; SCOTUS will hear argument in the cases regarding whether the NLRB can preclude class waivers on October 2.  Even so, the federal appellate courts keep issuing decisions on both sides of this issue.  E.g. NLRB v. Alternative Entertainment, 2017 WL 2297620 (6th Cir. May 26, 2017) (enforcing NLRB order); Convergys Corp. v. NLRB, 2017 WL 3381432 (5th Cir. Aug. 7, 2017) (rejecting NLRB position); Logisticare Solutions Inc. v. NLRB, 2017 WL 3404648 (5th Cir. Aug. 9, 2017) (rejecting NLRB position).
  • Physicians from Florida are asking SCOTUS to grant certiorari in a case about the regulation of doctor-patient arbitration clauses.  If you know of other arbitration cases in the pipeline, let me know.
  • An employer from California is asking SCOTUS to grant certiorari in this case regarding when courts should review interim arbitration awards. [Ed note: this final bullet was not in the original post, but was added after a thoughtful reader alerted me to it.]

Just as I predicted, SCOTUS reversed the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision in Kindred this morning.  The interesting piece, though, is that the seven member majority went out of its way to cut off some of the “on trend” methods that state courts have been using to avoid arbitration clauses.

The Kentucky decision can be summarized easily.  The case  involved nursing homes attempting to compel arbitration of wrongful death and personal injury claims by estates of deceased residents.  In each case, a relative with power of attorney had signed an admission document that included arbitration when the resident entered the nursing home.  However, the Kentucky court refused to infer the agent’s “authority to waive his principal’s constitutional right to access the courts and to trial by jury” unless that power is “unambiguously expressed” in the power-of -attorney document.  (You may recall this is the decision that analogized entering into an arbitration agreement to: putting a child up for adoption, aborting a pregnancy, and entering into personal servitude.  If that doesn’t cry out “judicial hostility to arbitration,” I don’t know what does.)

Justice Kagan, writing for the seven-member majority, found Kentucky’s “clear statement rule” preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  “[T]he 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.”  In response to Kentucky’s attempt to paint its rule as broader than arbitration, the Court said No Kentucky court, so far as we know, has ever before demanded that a power of attorney explicitly confer authority to enter into contracts implicating constitutional guarantees.”

That preemption aspect of the decision seems to confirm what I have been saying about the impact of DirecTV: states are in much better position to defend their anti-arbitration “general contract rule” if they can point to at least one non-arbitration circumstance in which it has been applied.  (The decision added a footnote to clarify this isn’t an absolute necessity: “We do not suggest that a state court is precluded from announcing a new, generally applicable rule of law in an arbitration case.” But that’s like saying it is conceivable that your mother will appreciate a new vacuum for mothers day, but we don’t recommend it.)

The Court’s decision to clearly state that courts cannot invalidate arbitration agreements based on their (necessary) waiver of the right to a jury trial also cuts off a trendy argument in state courts.  New Jersey courts, for example, have invalidated arbitration agreements in recent years based on their failure to clearly advise consumers they are waiving their rights to jury trials (SCOTUS denied cert in the key NJ case, Atalese.)  Those NJ decisions are now shaky precedent, IMHO.

The decision then went beyond the basic preemption analysis.  Respondents had argued the FAA had no application to contract formation, that only state law controlled that question.  SCOTUS quickly disabused the respondents, and all state courts, of that notion, reasoning that the purpose of the FAA would be completely undercut by the rule: “If the respondents were right, States could just as easily declare everyone incompetent to sign arbitration agreements.  (That rule too would address only formation.)” In doing so, the Court cut off another avenue for avoiding the FAA.  (In my view, though, the slippery slope argument relied on by SCOTUS also cuts against the formation/validity  distinction used to separate which issues are decided in court and which by arbitrators.)

[As usual, Justice Thomas dissented based on his position that the FAA does not apply in state courts.]

Demonstrating just how difficult it can be to separate questions about the “formation” of an arbitration agreement from the “validity” of that agreement, the Fifth Circuit found this month that when an argument was applied to two of the parties’ three agreements, it related to their formation, but when the same argument was applied to the third agreement, it related to its validity.

In Lefoldt v. Horne, 2017 WL 1326241 (5th Cir. April 11, 2017), the plaintiff, a community hospital, had engaged the defendant to provide auditing services.  The parties signed contracts in 2009, 2010, and 2012.  However, only the 2009 agreement was reflected in the minutes of the hospital’s board.  In 2014, the hospital filed for bankruptcy, and its trustee sued the auditor for professional malpractice.  In response, the auditor moved to compel arbitration, based on arbitration provisions in all three contracts.

In order to determine whether the dispute was arbitrable, the Fifth Circuit had to confront two confounding rules. First was Mississippi’s “minutes rule,” which the hospital raised as a defense to arbitrability.  The “minutes rule” appears to require  that a public board reflect actions taken in the minutes of its meetings, and, if an agreement to contract is not reflected in those minutes, the contract is not enforceable.  The second issue the Fifth Circuit had to address was the first footnote in SCOTUS’s Buckeye Check Cashing decision, which distinguished disputes over a contract’s validity from those over “whether any agreement between the alleged obligor and oblige was ever concluded.”  That matters because issues of validity can be sent to an arbitrator, which those over formation generally cannot.

The court found the issue of whether Mississippi’s “minutes rule” was one about formation or validity “a close question.” However, it concluded that the minutes rule raised an issue of the very formation of the 2010 and 2012 service contracts.  That decision allowed the court to decide whether those contracts were formed, and it found they were not validly formed, so the trustee did not have to arbitrate issues under those two contracts.

However, the court found that because the hospital board recorded the auditing contract in its 2009 minutes, the application of the “minutes rule” in that instance involved the validity of the 2009 contract. The court found an arbitrator should decide “whether and how the minutes rule applies to the 2009 engagement letter and the scope of the arbitration clause,” unless the district court finds a delegation clause on remand.

This case is a great example of how the current arbitration jurisprudence may have gotten off course.  Should it be this difficult for a court to decide whether a particular argument should be heard by a court or an arbitrator?  See my post from five years ago (has it really been that long?!) on the thin line between formation and validity.

In the past week, the Third Circuit has issued two important decisions on the formation of arbitration agreements.  (Sing it Beyoncé! “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation.”)  In one, a class action was allowed to proceed in court because the defendant did not obtain explicit enough agreement to the arbitration, and in another an arbitration award was initially vacated due to questions about whether there had been an arbitration agreement at all.

In James v. Global Tellink Corp., __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 1160893 (3d Cir. Mar. 29, 2017), a putative class of New Jersey inmates sued the sole provider of inmate telecommunication services, and the Defendant moved to compel individual arbitration.  The class representative who created her account through the website and actively clicked a button accepting the terms and services was dismissed.  But, the class representatives who had created accounts by telephone were a different story.  They received an audio notice that “your account…[is] governed by the terms of use at [defendant’s website].”  The system did not require those telephone users to take any affirmative step to indicate consent to the terms.

As a result, the district court refused to compel those telephone members of the class to arbitration and the Third Circuit affirmed.  Applying New Jersey law, the court distinguished this situation from those involving on-line services, where a link is easily accessible to terms, and from shrinkwrap cases, where consumer received physical copies of the terms when they open the product. It suggested the telephone situation may be closer to “browsewrap” agreements that do not require a manifestation of express consent, and which courts have refused to enforce if the terms are obscured.  In sum, the court said the telephone users “neither received GTL’s terms of use, nor were they informed that merely using GTL’s telephone service would constitute assent to those terms” and therefore there was no arbitration agreement to enforce.

In Aliments Krispy Kernels, Inc. v. Nichols Farms, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 1055569 (3d Cir. Mar. 21, 2017), Aliments was attempting to confirm an arbitration award it received, and Nichols Farms was trying to vacate that award.  Aliments and Nichols had exchanged some sales confirmations to purchase pistachios, none of which were signed.  However, Nichols ended up refusing to deliver the pistachios without advance payment, based on Aliments’ credit application.  Aliments bought elsewhere, and then sought to recoup the extra cost from Nichols at arbitration (in which Nichols refused to participate).  In the action to confirm or vacate the award, the district court allowed months of discovery and then vacated the award, finding no genuine issue of fact on that issue.  On appeal, the Third Circuit vacated and remanded for further proceedings.  In the course of its decision, the Third Circuit noted that its previous expressed standard — that there must be express and unequivocal agreement to an arbitration contract — is outdated and that nothing more than relevant state law on contract formation is required.

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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In a decision that appears intentionally controversial, the Supreme Court of New Jersey yesterday refused to enforce the delegation clause in a for-profit college’s enrollment agreement in a 5-1 opinion.  Morgan v. Sanford Brown Institute, 2016 WL 3248016 (N.J. June 14, 2016).  Although the delegation clause had never been specifically challenged by the plaintiffs, as is required by SCOTUS’s Rent-A-Center in order to avoid delegating the issue of arbitrability to the arbitrator, the court found that was immaterial

The plaintiffs alleged that Sanford Brown Institute had induced them to enroll via misrepresentations and deception.  In response, the defendants moved to compel arbitration, based on an arbitration agreement in the plaintiffs’ enrollment agreement.  The trial court denied the motion, but the intermediate appellate court reversed, concluding that an arbitrator should decide whether the arbitration agreement was enforceable, due to the presence of a delegation clause.

At the state’s highest court, the issue of whether the delegation clause was enforceable was the sole issue.  The plaintiffs argued they were unaware the arbitration agreement “denied them their right of access to a judicial forum and to a jury trial,” making the arbitration agreement unenforceable under New Jersey’s Atalese decision.  Plaintiffs — and the court– characterized their failure to understand that arbitration is a substitute for court, not an addition to court, as preventing a meeting of the minds, and therefore a challenge to the very existence of the entire agreement.  In response, defendants pounded on Rent-A-Center, arguing that it is binding precedent and must be applied to conclude that since the plaintiff failed to challenge the validity of the delegation clause specifically, an arbitrator must address any challenges to arbitrability (including challenges under Atalese).

Although the NJ Supreme Court identified the key issue in this case as “who decides whether the parties agreed to arbitrate disputes arising from the enrollment agreement: a court or an arbitrator,” I would say the real issue in the case is “can New Jersey find a way around Rent-a-Center’s rule enforcing delegation clauses that does not entirely give the middle finger to SCOTUS and thereby invite reversal?”

The delegation clause that was enforced in Rent-A-Center, because plaintiff did not challenge its validity in particular, stated: “[t]he Arbitrator, and not any federal state, or local court or agency, shall have exclusive authority to resolve any dispute relating to the interpretation, applicability, enforceability or formation of this Agreement.”  The delegation clause that New Jersey refused to enforce in Morgan stated: “Any disputes, claims, or controversies between the parties to this Enrollment Agreement arising out of or relating to…(v) any objection to arbitrability or the existence scope, validity, construction, or enforceability of this Arbitration Agreement shall be resolved pursuant to this paragraph (the “Arbitration Agreement”).”  [Note that the NJ sample does not specifically say the issue will not be addressed by a court, but the words used to describe the types of disputes that will be arbitrated are very similar.]

After acknowledging that the plaintiffs did not specifically challenge the delegation clause in Morgan, the court went on to establish some logical building blocks for distinguishing Rent-A-Center.  First, it noted that state law governs whether the parties “entered an agreement to delegate” arbitrability.  Second, delegation clause must be clear and unmistakable under First Options.  Third, no one challenged the “clarity” of the delegation clause in Rent-A-Center.  (There is the wiggle room!)  Therefore, because the NJ plaintiffs challenge whether the delegation clause was clear enough to allow a meeting of the minds, the New Jersey Supreme Court defines that as a challenge to the formation of the arbitration agreement containing the delegation clause, putting the issue of arbitrability squarely before the court.  And, having concluded that the court, not an arbitrator could decide the validity of the arbitration clause, this Court went on to find it unenforceable. Critically:

The arbitration provision in the Sanford Brown enrollment agreement suffers from the same flaw found in the arbitration provision in Atalese — it does not explain in some broad or general way that arbitration is a substitute for the right to seek relief in our court system.  That flaw– non-compliance with the dictates of Atalese–extends to the purported delegation clause…

***

In conclusion, the arbitration provision and purported delegation clause do not meet the requirements of First Options and Atalese and do not satisfy the elements necessary for the formation of a contract, and therefore are unenforceable.

The lone dissenting justice stated “I cannot reconcile the majority’s reasoning with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Rent-A-Center.”

Here is some context:

  • The Morgan majority repeatedly comments that the defendants did not raise the delegation clause issue at the trial court.  So, why not just say the appeal issue was not properly preserved and reject delegation on those narrow procedural grounds?  SCOTUS would never grant cert of that.  Instead, however, NJ went out of its way to forge a path through Rent-A-Center.  
  • Actually, not much forging happened here.  NJ followed the trail blazed by Kentucky last year.  Kentucky also refused to enforce the delegation clause in a for-profit college agreement, finding it was never formed (in that case, because the signatures were not at the end of the agreement).  West Virginia did something similar, refusing to enforce a delegation clause because it was not “clear and unmistakable,” because “arbitrability” is an ambiguous word.  (W. Va, Kentucky, and NJ are strange bedfellows, no?)
  • NJ may not have openly thumbed its nose at SCOTUS in this opinion, but a recent opinion from its intermediate appellate court did.  It complained that SCOTUS’s “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration…in many cases has caused the forfeiture of important rights because consumers and employees lack the bargaining power to object to an arbitration clause’s inclusion; citation of the ‘liberal federal policy favoring arbitration’ merely evokes the old saying, ‘a good catchphrase can obscure fifty years of analysis’.”  Kleine v. Emeritus at Emerson, Docket A-4452-14T3 (N.J. Ct. App. June 9, 2016).
  • The U.S. Department of Education has recently proposed a rule that would preclude postsecondary institutions from requiring that students arbitrate disputes.  So, New Jersey has some political cover in deciding not to force these students into arbitration.  (We just did it a year before the rule would have done it anyway!)
  • And – one state supreme court enforced a delegation clauses in recent weeks.  Alabama enforced this delegation clause: “Any dispute regarding whether a particular controversy is subject to arbitration, including any …dispute over the enforceability, scope, reach or validity of this agreement…shall be decided by the arbitrator(s).”    Regions Bank v. Rice, 2016 WL 3031357 (Ala. May 27, 2016).

All in all, I often feel that arbitration law is a big game of Whack-a-mole, where the U.S. Supreme Court is the kid holding the hammer, and the state courts keep randomly popping up with new and creative ways around arbitration precedent.  But now, with only eight Justices, and no Scalia, will SCOTUS be willing to bring down the hammer on states for not following its controversial 5-4 decision in Rent-A-Center?  I am guessing not.  Send me your thoughts.

 

A short new opinion from the Ninth Circuit may run counter to long-standing Supreme Court precedent. In Casa Del Caffe Vergnano v. Italflavors, 2016 WL 1016779 (9th Cir. Mar. 15, 2016), the court refused to enforce an arbitration agreement in a contract that the parties admitted signing, because the parties simultaneously signed a second agreement declaring the first one a sham.

The story is that two undocumented immigrants chose to become a franchisee of an Italian corporation, Caffe Vergnano, and open an Italian-style coffee shop in San Diego. They signed two contracts on the same day: a “commercial contract,” which was a standard franchise agreement including an arbitration clause; and a “hold harmless agreement” that said the commercial contract “does not have any validity” because it was designed simply to allow the immigrants to obtain visas to work in the U.S. The hold harmless agreement stated the parties “will sign a future contract which will regulate their commercial relationship.”

However, the parties did not enter into a new contract. Instead, the franchisees opened their Italian coffee shop and it folded within eight months. The franchisees sued the franchisor for violations of California statutes and the franchisor moved to compel arbitration. The district court compelled arbitration and the Ninth Circuit reversed.

Repeating language from Granite Rock that contract formation is for courts to decide, and relying on federal common law regarding contracts, a majority of the panel concluded that the commercial contract “was a mere sham to help Hector Rabellino obtain a visa” and was therefore unenforceable. The majority reasoned that the hold harmless agreement proved that the parties did not mutually consent to be bound by the commercial contract.

This decision raises a close question between formation and validity, in my view, that the court ignores completely. On questions of a contract’s validity, the severability doctrine, clarified in Buckeye Check Cashin, dictates that a party challenging arbitrability must “challenge[] specifically the validity of the agreement to arbitrate” in order to have that challenge heard by the court. Otherwise, the validity issue will be addressed by the arbitrator. SCOTUS found it was immaterial whether the challenge made the underlying contract void or voidable. In a footnote in Buckeye Check Cashing, however, SCOTUS excluded a limited set of formation issues from the severability doctrine, suggesting those still belong in court:

The issue of the contract’s validity is different from the issue of whether any agreement between the alleged obligor and obligee was ever concluded. Our opinion today addresses only the former, and does not speak to the issue decided in the cases cited by respondents (and by the Florida Supreme Court), which hold that it is for courts to decide whether the alleged obligor ever signed the contract, Chastain v. Robinson-Humphrey Co., 957 F. 2d 851 (CA11 1992), whether the signor lacked authority to commit the alleged principal, Sandvik AB v. Advent Int’l Corp., 220 F. 3d 99 (CA3 2000); Sphere Drake Ins. Ltd. v. All American Ins. Co., 256 F. 3d 587 (CA7 2001), and whether the signor lacked the mental capacity to assent, Spahr v. Secco, 330 F. 3d 1266 (CA10 2003).

Is the franchisee’s argument that the hold harmless agreement nullified the commercial contract really closer to an argument that the franchisee lacked mental capacity, and therefore belonged in court? Or is it closer to an argument that the commercial contract was fraudulently induced? In my view, that is a close call, but fraudulent inducement seems the better fit, meaning this decision belonged to the arbitrator. The line between formation and validity is not clearly drawn in FAA jurisprudence, and this decision blurs it further.

March comes in like a lion, right?  Well, that’s not true with respect to the weather here in Minneapolis.  But it may be true with respect to arbitration decisions from around the country.  This post focuses on two recent decisions from state high courts that refuse to compel arbitration.

In Global Client Solutions, LLC v. Ossello, 2016 WL 825140 (Mont. Mar. 2, 2016), a majority of Montana’s Supreme Court refused to enforce the arbitration clause between a consumer and a financial institution (that set up a bank account for the consumer’s efforts with a debt relief company).  The arbitration clause provided for AAA arbitration of all claims arising out of the agreement, even claims relating to the validity of the agreement, but the bank had the right to bring collections actions in court. The trial court found the arbitration clause was unconscionable and refused to compel arbitration.

On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court first found there was no enforceable delegation clause in the parties’ arbitration clause, because the language was “ambiguous and confusing” instead of clear and unmistakable, largely due to what appears to be a typo in the clause. (The clause said the parties would arbitrate “the breach, termination, enforcement, interpretation or validity [of the entire agreement], including the termination of the scope or applicability of this Agreement to arbitrate”.  The bank argued “termination” was supposed to be “determination.”)  The court also refused to find that incorporation of the AAA rules constituted an enforceable delegation clause, because it did not specify which AAA rules applied and this was not a contract between two sophisticated commercial parties.

After confirming it could address the validity of the arbitration clause, the court found the clause unconscionable under Montana law because the bank had the right to bring collection matters to court, while the consumer had no similar right. The court reasoned that its holding was not preempted under the Concepcion rule, because other post-Concepcion courts have relied on lack of mutuality to invalidate an arbitration clause.

A concurring justice wrote “The elephant in the room is not state hostility toward arbitration…If there is any hostility, it is toward those who hide behind the FAA…to escape any material consequence of running fraudulent confidence schemes.” [But of course that assumes that a AAA arbitrator would not find wrongdoing when confronted with a “fraudulent confidence scheme”… ] Two justices dissented, asserting that the incorporation of AAA rules was a valid delegation clause, such that the arbitration clause’s validity should have been decided by a AAA arbitrator.

The second case comes from Alabama and is a cautionary tale for companies trying to add arbitration agreements to existing contracts with many consumers.  In Moore v. Franklin, 2016 WL 761698 (Ala. Feb. 26, 2016), the Supreme Court of Alabama found the parties did not form a valid arbitration agreement by virtue of the bank posting a notice to the customer’s online banking profile.  Citing cases from five federal courts, Alabama concluded that in order to form part of the parties’ agreement, there must be proof that the recipient accessed the web page containing the arbitration provision.

What lessons can we give drafters from these two cases?  Well, check for typos.  And then double and triple-check.  Then, and only then, considering increasing the likelihood the arbitration clause will be found enforceable by making any carve-outs mutual.  If the company can bring collection claims in court, then why not let the consumer bring modest claims in small claims court?  Finally, once you drafted the clause, find a way of making sure those customers see it (and hopefully even click a button confirming that they agreed to it).