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?

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.