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.