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.

 

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?

Just five months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a nursing home arbitration dispute in Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark It held that the Kentucky supreme court’s rationale for not enforcing the arbitration agreement was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  Before that, multiple state courts had found state law bases for refusing to enforce arbitration agreements in nursing home agreements.

So, what is a state high court to do post-Kindred?  Wyoming did the logical thing: enforce the arbitration agreement.  In Kindred Healthcare Operating, Inc. v. Boyd, 2017 WL 4545742 (Wyo. Oct. 12, 2017), wrongful death claims were made against the nursing home.  When the defendant moved to compel arbitration based on the arbitration agreement signed by the decedent’s daughter, the plaintiff responded that the arbitration agreement was not enforceable for three reasons.  First, because the daughter did not have authority; second, because the agreement was unconscionable; and third the agreement was invalid because it selected the rules of the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) to govern the arbitration.  The district court denied the motion to compel.

Wyoming’s Supreme Court reversed, making short work of the plaintiff’s allegations.  It found that the daughter’s general power of attorney, which gave her “full power and authority to … contract” (among other powers), authorized her to sign the arbitration agreement for decedent.  It found that the arbitration agreement was not unconscionable, in part because it stated in bold print that it was optional and the resident would be admitted even if it was not signed.  Finally, it found that even though the parties agreed to arbitrate in accordance with the NAF rules “then in effect” (and the NAF no longer conducted consumer arbitrations) that did not invalidate the agreement.  That was because the agreement allowed the parties to select a different set of rules, and the NAF rules were not “an essential term” of the agreement.

I expect this may indicative of what we see from state courts regarding nursing home arbitrations after Kindred.

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.]

The Ninth, Sixth, and Third Circuits all recently issued decisions about whether putative class or collective actions could proceed despite the existence of arbitration clauses.  In two of those decisions, the courts found the arbitration agreements did not allow for class arbitration and therefore dismissed the claims.  In the third, the court found the arbitration agreement was not applicable to the dispute.

In Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l, 2017 WL 395968 (3d Cir. filed Jan. 30, 2017), the Third Circuit again tackled arbitrability issues in a case that has gotten the runaround for five years (district court, then arbitrator, then district court, then appellate court, back to district court, now back to appellate court).  The case involves a collective action complaint alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The arbitration clause between the employees and employer provides for AAA arbitration.  In its most recent decision, the district court dismissed the action, finding the arbitration clause did not allow class arbitration.  On appeal, the Third Circuit reiterated that courts (not arbitrators) should decide whether class arbitration is available.  It found that in this case the parties’ arbitration clause does not indicate they agreed to class arbitration.  In particular, the court found the absence of any explicit mention of class arbitration was dispositive, and outweighed the fact that the parties agreed to arbitrate disputes arising under statutes that allow class litigation.

In another employment dispute, Poublon v. C.H. Robinson Co., 2017 Wl 461099 (9th Cir. Feb. 3, 2017), a class of employees asserted that the employer had misclassified them as exempt from overtime pay and asserted a Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) claim.  The arbitration agreement provided “neither You nor the Company may bring any Claim combined with or on behalf of any other person or entity, whether on a collective, representative, or class action basis.” It ended with a severability clause, so that if any part of the arbitration agreement was invalid, the rest of it would be enforced.  The employer moved to compel arbitration and dismiss class or representative claims.  The district court found the arbitration clause was unconscionable and denied the employer’s motion.  The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding only two aspects of the arbitration clause were unconscionable/unenforceable and those could be severed, allowing the rest of the arbitration clause to be enforced.  (The two stinkers: waiver of a representative PAGA claim (see Iskanian); and a provision allowing only the employer to go to court for injunctive or equitable relief.)

While the two classes of employees above were not able to continue prosecuting claims as a group (and had to go to arbitration), a class of consumers won the right to stay in court in Stevens-Bratton v. TruGreen, Inc., 2017 WL 108032 (6th Cir. Jan. 11, 2017).  In that case the class representative had hired a lawn care company for one year.   More than six months after the service contract had been terminated, the class representative received numerous telemarketing calls from the company, even though her number was on the Do-Not-Call Registry.  She then sued for violation of the TCPA.  In response, the lawn care company moved to compel arbitration, based on its service contract with the class representative, which “expressly waive[d] any ability to maintain any Class Action.”  The district court compelled arbitration, and the 6th Circuit reversed.  Although there is usually a presumption in favor of an arbitration agreement surviving the expiration of the rest of a contract, the court was not convinced that the dispute “had its real source in the contract.”  It found that the lawn care service contract was “irrelevant to this case,” since it had completely expired before the calls took place and the lawn services provided were not at issue in the TCPA claim.

Three state supreme courts tackled arbitration law in recent weeks: Alabama, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.  Rhode Island reversed a construction arbitration award because it disagreed with the arbitrator’s analysis.  North Carolina found that an arbitration agreement in a doctor-patient setting was unenforceable as a breach of the doctor’s fiduciary duty.  And Alabama strictly enforced an arbitral venue, even though that precluded class action.

Continuing its streak of hewing closely to the lead of federal courts on arbitration, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that plaintiffs have to arbitrate with the Better Business Bureau, even though the BBB does not conduct class action arbitration proceedings.  University Toyota & University Chevrolet Buick GMC v. Hardeman, _ So. 3d __, 2017 WL 382651 (Ala. Jan. 27, 2017).  The plaintiffs were a putative class of customers harmed by two car dealerships’ decision to stop honoring their earlier agreement to provide free oil changes.  The arbitration clause between the dealerships and purchasers called for arbitration of all disputes pursuant to the FAA, and said “either party may demand arbitration by filing with the Better Business Bureau.”  When the plaintiffs filed their demand, the BBB responded that it did not conduct class arbitrations.    The plaintiffs then withdrew their demand and filed in court, asking either to keep their fight in court or go to a forum that allowed class arbitration.  The trial court sent the plaintiffs to the AAA to decide whether class actions were available.  On appeal, the supreme court reversed in a 7-1 decision.  The majority quoted heavily from SCOTUS decisions stating that arbitration agreements should be enforced according to their terms, and found that the BBB forum was an integral part of the arbitration agreement that must be given effect.  The lone dissenter argued that, because the availability of class arbitration was for the arbitrator, it should be decided by a forum that at least retains that option.

Without any consideration of the Federal Arbitration Act, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island vacated an arbitration award.  Nappa Construction Management, LLC v. Flynn, __ A.3d __, 2017 WL 281812 (R.I. Jan. 23, 2017). (Maybe an allergy to the FAA is contagious… remember nearby New Hampshire last year?)  In a dispute between the owners of a automobile repair facility and the construction company that was hired to build it, the arbitrator issued an award that analyzed the parties’ contract and found the construction company was owed money.  The trial court refused to vacate the award, finding the arbitrator grounded his analysis in the contract and did not manifestly disregard the law.  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island cited only cases from its own court, including labor cases, and found that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority (and the award failed to draw its essence from the agreement) by finding that the owners had effectively terminated the contract, when there was no evidence that the owners actually terminated the contract.  The court also accused the award of reaching an “irrational result.”  Two justices dissented, noting the “exceptionally deferential standard of review” for arbitration awards.  They did not, however, cite to the line from Sutter, as I would have, that even “grave error” by an arbitrator is not sufficient to vacate an award if the arbitrator in fact analyzed the contract.  (Maybe no one argued the FAA applied?  A commercial construction contract would almost certainly involve interstate commerce…)

Finally, the Supreme Court of North Carolina refused to enforce the arbitration agreement between a doctor and patient, finding that the agreement “was obtained as a result of defendants’ breach of fiduciary duty that they owed to” the patient.  King v. Bryant, __ S.E.2d __, 2017 WL 382910 (N.C. Jan. 27, 2017).  The patient had brought a medical malpractice action against his surgeon, and the surgeon tried to enforce the arbitration agreement between them.  The arbitration agreement called for application of the FAA and arbitration under health care procedures of the AAA.

The N.C. trial court refused to compel arbitration, finding the agreement was only an “agreement to agree,” and started off a crazy game of appeals court-district court ping pong involving this case.  The court of appeals reversed and remanded.  On second thought, the trial court refused to enforce the agreement because the surgeon had a fiduciary duty to disclose the arbitration agreement to his patient as a material term, and because he did not it was unenforceable.  The court of appeals affirmed, noting the application of the FAA, but finding the agreement unconscionable.  The supreme court then remanded to the trial court for further findings of fact regarding the existence of a physician-patient relationship when the agreement was signed, and the trial court complied.  Finally, the case returned to the supreme court, which held that the doctor owed a fiduciary duty to the patient and breached it “by failing to make full disclosure of the nature and import of the arbitration agreement to him at or before the time that it was presented for his signature.”  Recognizing the possibility of an argument that its holding is preempted by the FAA, the court noted “we would have reached the same result on these facts with respect to any agreement that substantially affected [the patient’s] substantive legal rights.”  However, the opinion cites no N.C. cases to support that statement, which may be fatal under the DirecTV analysis.  Two justices wrote separate dissents, based largely on FAA preemption.  (“This jiggery-pokery is precisely the type of impermissble ‘rationalization’ admonished by the United States Supreme Court. Such a tortured attempt to obviate the FAA fails.”)

What is the take away here?  It is that there is still a huge amount of variation in how a given arbitration dispute will be handled, depending on what court hears the dispute.  And the preemption rules set out in Concepcion and DirecTV are either not well understood, or are being intentionally avoided.

The Supreme Court of California this week enforced the arbitration agreement between an employee and employer.  Yes, you read that right.  While reputed to be reliably anti-arbitration, California’s highest court continues to provide evidence that it is tired of being reversed by SCOTUS * and is ready to follow federal precedent on the FAA.

In Baltazar v. Forever 21, Inc., 2016 WL 1176599 (Cal. Mar. 28, 2016), the question was whether the employee’s arbitration agreement was unconscionable.  The district court found it procedurally and substantively unconscionable, but the court of appeal reversed.  The Supreme Court of California agreed with the court of appeal.

While the arbitration agreement was procedurally unconscionable because the employee lacked any choice, the court found it was not substantively unconscionable for any of the three reasons asserted by the employee.  Most importantly, the court “disapproved” of a previous case from the courts of appeal (Trivedi).  That case had held that if an arbitration agreement allows the parties to seek interim relief in court, it is substantively unconscionable because the employers are more likely to take advantage of interim relief.  In Baltazar, the court noted that California statutes expressly allow parties to seek interim relief in court, therefore “simply reciting the parties’ rights under section 1281.8 does not place [the employee] at an unfair disadvantage.”

In addition, the court found the arbitration agreement was not one-sided either because it provided that the employer’s trade secrets would be kept confidential in the arbitration, or because it said all employment claims must be arbitrated, but then listed as examples only the types of claims that employees bring.

In my opinion, this arbitration agreement was not even close to the line of substantive unconscionability.  So the decision on its own is not very newsworthy, except for its disapproval of the earlier case.  But it is newsworthy in context, because this opinion is the third recent decision from the Supreme Court of California that enforces arbitration agreements even in consumer or employment contexts.  (This is the first, this is the second.)  (*The most recent California decision that got reversed by SCOTUS–DIRECTV–was actually a decision from the intermediate appellate court, not the Supreme Court of California.)  This trend is significant, given California’s reputation.

The Supreme Court of Arkansas has issued three opinions within the span of four weeks, all on the topic of whether defendants can compel arbitration. Each of the opinions came with a vigorous dissent.  The cases offer an interesting look at a state high court that appears to be struggling to deal with FAA case law from SCOTUS; on one hand the court cites recent federal arbitration jurisprudence, but on the other it displays real skepticism about arbitration (at least of consumer disputes) and uses some creativity in its state contract law.

Two of the opinions relate to whether nursing homes can compel arbitration of claims brought by former residents or their estates. In each of those cases, the Supreme Court of Arkansas allowed the nursing home to compel arbitration.  First, in Courtyard Gardens Health & Rehabilitation v. Arnold, 2016 Ark. 62 (Feb. 18, 2016), the court held that the agreement’s selection of the National Arbitration Forum (NAF, which no longer administers consumer arbitration) did not make the arbitration agreement impossible to perform, nor was the choice of NAF integral to the agreement.  Three justices dissented.  [The 11th Circuit just came out the other way on this issue, finding NAF was integral to an arbitration agreement and therefore refusing to compel arbitration in Flagg v. First Premier Bank, 2016 WL 703063 (11th Cir. Feb. 23, 2016).]

Then in GGNSC Holdings v. Lamb, 2016 Ark. 101 (March 10, 2016), the majority compelled arbitration of two nursing home plaintiffs’ claims.  Again, the court held that the unavailability of the NAF did not make the arbitration agreement impossible to perform.  It also held that the arbitration agreement was not unconscionable.  Two justices “strongly” dissented:

The majority’s opinion in this case goes far beyond resolving any doubts in favor of arbitration. It rubber-stamps the arbitration agreements before it based simply on our policy favoring arbitration.  This begs the question: Going forward, could there ever be an arbitration agreement the majority determines to be invalid or unenforceable?  If today’s decision is any indication, the answer to that question is no.

In a third case, the Supreme Court of Arkansas refused to compel arbitration of a class action alleging breach of contract and deceptive trade practices against a bank. Bank of the Ozarks, Inc. v. Walker, 2016 Ark. 116 (March 17, 2016).  The court found the arbitration agreement lacked mutuality and therefore was unenforceable.  (“Mutual obligation” is the fifth “essential element” of a contract in Arkansas.)  In one of the two provisions causing the lack of mutuality, the arbitration agreement obligated the customer to pay any attorneys’ fees the bank incurred “in good faith” in a dispute.  “In imposing all of the costs of arbitration on appellees, the parties in this case are treated differently, and ‘this disparate treatment results in a lack of mutuality.'”  The majority stated that it was cognizant of the severability doctrine and of Concepcion and was not violating either. [The court also seemed to hold that the one-sided fee provision precluded the customers from “effectively vindicating” their rights, citing to Green Tree.  The court conveniently ignored the subsequent language in Italian Colors, limiting that doctrine, and the fact that the doctrine only applies to federal statutory rights…]

The lone dissenter in Bank of the Ozarks sided with FAA preemption.  Citing DIRECTV, the dissenting justice pointed out occasions where the Supreme Court of Arkansas has recognized that “a contract does not lack mutuality merely because every obligation of one party is not met by an equivalent counter obligation of the other party.  With the decision in this case, the majority stretches the concept of mutuality of obligation so as to undermine our basic principles of contract law.”

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By the way, Arkansas is not the only court compelling arbitration of nursing home disputes. Alabama recently found that a resident’s daughter had apparent authority to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement. Kindred Nursing Centers East, LLC v. Jones, 2016 WL 762450 (Ala. Feb. 26, 2016). (Two justices dissented.)  The Fifth Circuit also reversed a district court’s refusal to compel arbitration of residents’ claims against nursing homes in Gross v. GGNSC Southaven, LLC, 2016 WL 1019200 (5th Cir. March 14, 2016).  The district court had held there was insufficient evidence that the individual signing the arbitration agreement had been authorized by the resident.  The Fifth Circuit found Mississippi law on authority was not so restrictive and remanded for further fact finding.

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).

2015 has been a dry spell in arbitration decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, but 2016 promises to be much more interesting.  In addition to the California case being heard next week, SCOTUS just granted certiorari in another California-based arbitration decision.  This one, MHN Government Services, Inc. v. Zaborowski, will review an unpublished 2-1 decision of the Ninth Circuit that affirmed a district court’s refusal to compel arbitration.  The beautifully succinct question presented is “whether California’s arbitration-only severability rule is preempted by the FAA.”

In Zaborowski, counselors who provide services to members of the military alleged that MHN improperly classified them as independent contractors instead of employees, thereby violating federal and state labor laws.  (The district court opinion is at 936 F. Supp. 2d 1145.)  The relevant agreement had an arbitration clause which the counselors argued was unconscionable under California law.  The court summarized the provisions that the plaintiffs objected to as including: “MHN shall choose three arbitrators, and the [counselor] shall choose one amongst them; each party may depose one individual and any opposing expert witness; arbitration must be initiated within six months of the claim’s occurrence; the arbitrator may not modify or refuse to enforce any agreements; the parties may not be awarded punitive damages; and the prevailing party or substantially prevailing party’s costs are borne by the other party.”  963 F. Supp. 2d at 1150.  The district court found procedural unconscionability and determined that many of the provisions raised by plaintiffs were substantively unconscionable.

Critically, the district court refused to sever those provisions it found substantively unconscionable.  It concluded, citing primarily to a California Supreme Court decision from 2000, that the arbitration agreement was “so permeated with unconscionability that it is not severable.”  A majority of the appellate panel affirmed that conclusion, noting that while they may have made a different decision in the first instance, the district court did not abuse its discretion.  Judge Gould dissented only with respect to the severability question, opining “Concepcion and its progeny should create a presumption in favor of severance when an arbitration agreement contains a relatively small number of unconscionable provisions that can be meaningfully severed and after severing the unconscionable provisions, the arbitration agreement can still be enforced.”  601 Fed. Appx. 461.

The petition for certiorari was bold and attention-grabbing.  It states: “California courts routinely display the flagrant hostility to arbitration that the FAA was designed to end. The Ninth Circuit routinely allows this to occur. And the severability issue presented here arises literally every time a court finds one or more provisions of an arbitration agreement to be invalid under California law.”  In response, the plaintiffs argue that “California’s severance doctrine derives from statutes that apply to all contracts and from cases dealing with contracts of various sorts—not just arbitration agreements.”  (They also note that a dozen judges have refused to enforce MHN’s arbitration agreement and lean on the discretion of district courts.)

Will this case be Concepcion part II, focused on when state contract rules of interpretation should be deemed obstacles to arbitration?  Or will it be narrowly focused on appropriate rules of severability?

Also, could there be more arbitration cases this term?  My fingers are crossed.