Lots of folks are writing about the long-term impact of SCOTUS’s recent decision in Epic Systems, but it is also important to note that there has been immediate, short-term impact.

For example, a lead plaintiff agreed to take her sex discrimination case against a law firm  to individual arbitration, abandoning her putative class action, after the Epic decision was released.  A federal judge is ready to dismiss a separate class action against Epic Systems (regarding overtime pay) as a result of the new decision.  And a class action against Chipotle may get sliced and diced up, with about 30% of employees being sent to individual arbitration, while 70% of the class can proceed in court (because they started working for the chain before it instituted the arbitration program). There must be dozens (hundreds?) of similar employment class actions around the country.

Speaking of the trickle down effects of SCOTUS’s arbitration cases, last year’s Kindred decision is certainly a relevant headwater for the Supreme Court of West Virginia’s recent opinion upholding the arbitration agreement in nursing home admission documents.  Although West Virginia used to be reliably anti-arbitration, its recent decisions are pro-arbitration.  So, it’s not too surprising that in AMFM LLC v. Shanklin, 2018 WL 2467770 (W. Va. May 30, 2018), that court reversed a trial court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement signed by the resident’s daughter was not enforceable.  Careful not to interpret its statutes and common law regarding power of attorney in a way that stands as an obstacle to the FAA, West Virginia’s high court found that the daughter’s role as understudy in the POA document (fine, it says “successor” or “alternate”) was sufficient to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement.  The position drew a spirited dissent from one lone justice.

 

Despite how often I talk about whack-a-mole and the tug-of-war between the state courts and SCOTUS on arbitration, the truth is that the majority of state supreme courts follow SCOTUS’s arbitration precedent (whether holding their noses or not, we don’t know). Recent weeks have given us multiple of those pro-arbitration state court decisions to highlight – from Alabama, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia.  Yes, that West Virginia.

In STV One Nineteen Senior Living, LLC v. Boyd, 2018 WL 914992 (Alabama Feb. 16, 2018), the Supreme Court of Alabama enforced the arbitration agreement in the admission documents of an assisted living facility.  The trial court had denied the facility’s motion to compel arbitration without explanation.  On appeal, the supreme court found the language of the arbitration agreement, which required arbitration of “any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to” the parties’ agreement, was broad enough to cover the tort claims asserted.

In Disano v. Argonaut Ins. Co., 2018 WL 1076522 (R.I. Feb. 28, 2018), the Supreme Court of Rhode Island refused to vacate an arbitration award.  Although the losing party argued that the panel of arbitrators had miscalculated damages, the supreme court applied a very deferential standard of review and noted that even if the arbitrators’ math skills were lacking, that “does not rise to the level necessary to vacate such an award.”

In Henry v. Cash Biz, 2018 WL 1022838 (Tex. Feb. 23, 2018), the Supreme Court of Texas found that a pay day lender did not waive its right to arbitrate by alerting the district attorney’s office to the borrowers’ conduct (issuing checks that were returned for insufficient funds).  The trial court had denied the lender’s motion to compel arbitration, the court of appeals had reversed, and the supreme court affirmed the intermediate appellate court.  It found: 1) that the borrowers’ claims of malicious prosecution were within the scope of the arbitration clause; and 2) that the lender’s status as the complainant in the criminal charge was not sufficient to prove that it “substantially invoked the judicial process.”  [Recall that Mississippi’s high court reached the opposite result in a very similar case just a few months ago.]

In another waiver case, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia held that a party’s “pre-litigation conduct” did not waive its right to arbitrate. In Chevron U.S.A. v. Bonar, 2018 WL 871567 (W. Va. Feb. 14, 2018), the trial court had denied Chevron’s motion to compel arbitration.  It found that Chevron’s decision to take actions consistent with its interpretation of the parties’ agreement had waived the right to arbitrate, because Chevron had “unilaterally decided” the questions instead of posing them to an arbitrator.  On appeal, the supreme court found “such a result simply is unreasonable” and “absurd.”  Therefore, it reversed with instruction for the trial court to issue an order compelling arbitration.

Just two days later, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia enforced the arbitration agreement in a contract of adhesion, again reversing the decision of a trial court. In Hampden Coal, LLC v. Varney, 2018 WL 944159 (W. Va. Feb. 16, 2018), an employee sued his employer and the employer moved to compel arbitration.  In response, the employee argued the arbitration clause was unenforceable.  On appeal, the supreme court clarified that it applies “the same legal standards to our review of all arbitration agreements,” and not a special standard if they involve employees or consumers.  It then found that the mutual agreement to arbitrate was sufficient consideration for the arbitration clause and that the arbitration clause was not unconscionable.

In a fitting ending to a post about high courts,  our nation’s highest court has agreed to decide a new arbitration case.  The case, New Prime Inc. v . Oliveiracomes from the 1st Circuit and raises two questions: whether a court or arbitrator should decide if an exemption to the FAA applies; and whether the FAA’s exemption (in Section 1) includes independent contractors.

The high courts of two states have allowed non-signatories to compel arbitration in recent weeks.  The cases show courts are addressing non-signatory issues using different standards and raise important drafting issues for joint ventures and business affiliates.

In Locklear Automotive Group, Inc. v. Hubbard, 2017 WL 4324852 (Alabama Sept. 29, 2017), the Supreme Court of Alabama found most of the claims against the non-signatory must be arbitrated.  [But before we get into the merits, I have to ask: what the heck is going on in Alabama?  Is some plaintiffs’ lawyer trolling for cases against dealerships? This is the third arbitration case   involving claims against dealerships coming out of that state’s high court in the last two months!]  Seven plaintiffs brought separate actions alleging that personal financial information they provided the dealership was not safeguarded.  All seven plaintiffs were the victims of identity theft.  They sued the dealership’s LLC, as well as the corporate entity which is the sole member of that LLC (the non-signatory).

Each plaintiff had at some point signed an arbitration agreement with the dealership, but not with the non-signatory.  The court separated plaintiffs into three groups.  The first group, made up of five plaintiffs, established that defendants had waived any argument to enforce the delegation clause at the trial court.  However, the non-signatory was able to compel arbitration with this group using an estoppel theory because: a) the language of the arbitration agreement was not limited to disputes between the signing parties; and b) the claims against the non-signatory were intertwined with the claims against the dealership.  The second group involved a single plaintiff, against whom the non-signatory had preserved its delegation argument.  Therefore the court enforced the delegation clause, sending the issue of arbitrability to an arbitrator.  Finally, in the third group, the court refused to compel arbitration of a plaintiff’s claims because the signed arbitration agreement related to a previous purchase, not the credit application that resulted in identity theft.

West Virginia reached a similar result, albeit through a different analysis, in Bluestem Brands, Inc. v. Shade, 2017 WL 4507090 (W. Va. October 6, 2017).  In that case, Bluestem (aka Fingerhut) had teamed up with banks to offer credit to its customers for Fingerhut purchases.  The credit agreements between the banks and consumers called for arbitration of any disputes.  In response to a credit collection case, Ms. Shade (such a great name for a plaintiff alleging bad deeds) claimed that Bluestem violated West Virginia law with its credit program.  Ms. Shade did not assert claims against the banks.  When Bluestem moved to compel arbitration under the “alternative estoppel” theory, the court held that it could compel arbitration if “the signatory’s claims make reference to, presume the existence of, or otherwise rely on the written agreement.”  (Note that W. Va. did not require the language of the arbitration agreement to encompass more than the signing parties, like Alabama above.)  The court found that Ms. Shade’s claims all were “predicated upon the existence of the credit” agreement, so it was appropriate to compel arbitration of the claims.

So, we have two high courts applying different standards for estoppel.  And we have the Bluestem case reaching the oppose result of a recent federal court in a very similar factual circumstance (the Sunoco case, involving jointly marketed credit cards).  This leaves less than clear guidance for lawyers who are trying to craft arbitration agreements that can stick, no matter the type of case, or who the plaintiff is that is attacking the product.

While the Supreme Court has put off hearing a more contentious arbitration case until the fall (presumably in hopes that it will have nine justices by then), tomorrow it will hear the nursing home arbitration case from Kentucky.  I look forward to listening to the questions and trying to figure out why the Justices granted a review on the merits…  Instead of repeating my analysis of the Kentucky case, here are some recent state court arbitration cases of interest (in addition to the three I posted about a few weeks ago).

West Virginia.  Remember when West Virginia was the thorn in the FAA’s side?  When it was the leader of the pack of anti-arbitration states?  Well, not in West Virginia CVS Pharmacy v. McDowell Pharmacy, Inc., 2017 WL 562826 (W. Va. Feb. 9, 2017).   The lower court had refused to compel arbitration of disputes between retail pharmacies and a pharmacy benefit management company.  Applying West Virginia law, the lower court found there was no arbitration agreement, because the parties did not validly incorporate the manual that contained the arbitration provision.   The West Virginia Supreme Court, however, applied Arizona law, as provided in the contract, and that made all the difference.  It found the arbitration agreements were adequately incorporated, and that their reference to AAA rules was sufficient to delegate questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator.  No cert likely here.

Missouri.  The Supreme Court of Missouri took a safe bet in siding (partially) against the arbitrator in State ex rel Greitens, 2017 WL 587296 (Mo. Feb. 14, 2017), since the Supreme Court has denied cert petitions in many cases stemming from the master settlement agreement between states and tobacco companies.  (E.g., this most recent one.)  In this case, the state’s highest court found the arbitration panel exceeded its power when it deprived Missouri of its share of $50 Million in tobacco settlement payments for 2003.  The case is too complicated to explain in this post, but know that this is one of those rare examples of a court modifying an arbitration award, as opposed to just confirming or vacating it.  No cert likely here either.

Iowa.  I never get to write about Iowa (which my daughter called “why-owa” after a long road trip through farm country), but its supreme court issued a decision in late 2016 about nursing home arbitration that merits mention here.  In Roth v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 886 N.W.2d 601 (Iowa 2016), Iowa’s highest court answered a certified question from the federal district court.  In short, it found that Iowa’s statutes do not require judicial resolution of loss of consortium cases, and in this case the children of the decedent were not bound by the decedent’s arbitration clause because the “claims belong to the adult children and they never personally agreed to arbitrate.”  (Hard to make a bet on certiorari in this case, since it is headed back to federal trial court…)

Alabama.  In Hanover Ins. Co. v. Kiva Lodge Condominium Owners’ Assoc., 2016 WL 5135201 (Ala. Oct. 21, 2016), the Supreme Court of Alabama found that when the parties adopted the following addendum to their contract, the first party who filed an action was able to dictate the forum: “Notwithstanding anything in this Addendum to the contrary, either party may pursue any claim or dispute in a court of law, or through mediation and arbitration.”  That amended language was added to the parties’ A201 General Conditions, right after language indicating that “any claim arising out of or related to the Contract… may at the election of either party…be subject to arbitration.”  After the condo association brought their claims in court and requested a referral to arbitration, the defendants argued that the case should stay in court.  The trial court sent the claims to arbitration and the supreme court affirmed that result, finding “the addendum provides that once a party elects arbitration as a method for resolution of a dispute…the other party cannot neutralize that choice by insisting on litigation in court…In short, Kiva Lodge has proven the existence of a binding mandatory arbitration agreement between the parties.”  This will not end up at the Supreme Court, but it’s an important drafting lesson for all of us.

The highest state court in West Virginia just found that a credit card company did not waive its right to arbitrate, despite initially choosing a court forum and waiting almost five years to raise its right to arbitrate.  That is a somewhat surprising decision from a court that has been repeatedly willing to buck SCOTUS precedent in order to let parties avoid arbitration.

It was the right decision under current precedent though. The parties in Citibank, N.A. v. Perry, __ S.E.2d __, 2016 WL 6677944 (W. Va. Nov. 10, 2016), had an arbitration provision that could be enforced at any time.  It said a party who starts a court proceeding “may elect arbitration with respect to any Claim advanced in that proceeding by any other party.”  It also stated that “[a]t any time you or we may ask an appropriate court to compel arbitration of Claims…unless a trial has begun or a final judgment has been entered.”  And finally, the arbitration provision had a class action waiver and said it could not be waived without a written agreement.

The case started in 2010 with Citibank filing a debt collection action against the credit cardholder. The consumer appeared to acknowledge the debt, and Citibank filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings.  But the trial court never ruled.  In December of 2014, Citibank served discovery and got a scheduling order in place.  In May of 2015, the consumer filed a class counterclaim.  In response, Citibank asked the court to compel individual arbitration of the claims.  The district court found Citibank had waived its right to arbitration.

On appeal, Citibank argued that under the plain terms of its arbitration agreement, it could compel arbitration at any time before trial or judgment, unless the opposing party could show actual prejudice. The court was not willing to base its decision on the language of the agreement, however, citing federal cases that refuse to allow “no waiver” clauses to alter the usual waiver analysis.  Instead, it focused on whether Citibank’s conduct demonstrated that it had intentionally relinquished its right to arbitrate. Critically, the court turned the tables and said that in a situation where the consumer waited 4.5 years to assert a counterclaim, “we will not attribute the lengthy duration of activity…solely to Citibank.”  The court noted that the counterclaim changed the character of the case, and after that happened, Citibank timely filed a motion to compel arbitration.

____

In the “Don’t get too cute” category… An exotic dancer just won her right to keep her wage-and-hour claims in court, despite an arbitration agreement in her contract. Why?  Because the club styled her contract as a landlord/tenant arrangement in which she leased the stage.  Because the arbitration clause applied only to disputes arising out of the agreement, and the agreement purported to be a lease, the court refused to find its scope broad enough to cover her FLSA claims. Herzfeld v. 1416 Chancellor, Inc., 2016 WL 6574075 (3d Cir. Nov. 7, 2016).

Showing it will soldier on without Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court granted cert, vacated, and remanded an arbitration decision from West Virginia yesterday.  Because this is the exact same treatment the Court gave a case from Hawaii’s highest court in January (and the same treatment I predicted, ahem), it suggests SCOTUS is trying to go on with business as usual.

So, what was the West Virginia case? It is the Schumacher Homes case I wrote about last July, in which that state’s highest court refused to enforce the parties’ delegation clause, even after acknowledging the rule in Rent-A-Center, because it found the word “arbitrability” was ambiguous.

This GVR (grant, vacate, and remand), although not a summary reversal because it ostensibly leaves it up to the West Virginia courts to decide what to do next, falls in line with recent arbitration summary reversals from SCOTUS.  Prof. Drahozal, in an interesting article called “Error Correction and the Supreme Court’s Arbitration Docket,” helps put it in context (Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2014).  

He writes:

Indeed, since O.T. 2000, the proportion of summary reversals that addressed arbitration issues (4 of 83, or 4.8%) is more than double the proportion of argued cases (18 of 948, or 1.9%) that addressed arbitration issues.

What are the common characteristics of cases that receive a summary reversal?  First, they misapply the FAA.  But also, Prof. Drahozal points out:

The summary reversals were all in cases that originated in state rather than federal courts, and often included some suggestion that the state court disagreed with Supreme Court decisions interpreting the FAA.

Bingo!  That last factor is definitely present in Schumacher Homes.  In addition to calling the rule in Rent-A-Center “absurd” and an “ivory-tower interpretation of the FAA,” the opinion criticized all federal arbitration jurisprudence, explaining that the SCOTUS decisions construing the FAA “create an eye-glazing conceptual framework” that is “a tad oversubtle for sensible application” and that “the rules derived from these decisions are difficult for lawyers and judges—and nearly impossible for people of ordinary knowledge—to comprehend.”

So, here’s a tip for all state courts that want to buck the FAA, but not risk summary reversal or GVR: don’t insult SCOTUS.

A few months ago, you would have reasonably thought that West Virginia was one of the most anti-arbitration states in the country.  There was not an unconscionability argument that the state didn’t seem to buy with respect to arbitration clauses.  (Recall its arbitration feud with SCOTUS in 2012?)  But, this month, West Virginia’s highest court issued two decisions enforcing arbitration agreements, suggesting it has had a change of heart.

In the first opinion, New v. Gamestop, __S.E.2d__, 2013 WL 5976104 (W. Va. Nov. 6, 2013), the court found an employee handbook was sufficient to create an arbitration agreement between the employee and employer and that the arbitration agreement was enforceable.  The primary argument from the employee was that the agreement was unconscionable because the employer could change it at any time.  (Didn’t I tell you the illusory argument is hot this year?!)

The arbitration agreement provided that “GameStop may from time to time modify or discontinue [its dispute resolution program] by giving covered employees thirty (30) calendar days notice…any such modification…shall be applied prospectively only.”  The court found that the 30-day notice requirement, and the fact that existing disputes would proceed under the terms existing when they were submitted, meant the agreement was not unconscionable

In the second opinion, Ocwen Loan Serv. v. Webster, __S.E.2d__, 2013 WL 6050723 (W. Va. Nov. 13, 2013), the court reversed a circuit court’s denial of a motion to compel individual arbitration.  The lower court had concluded the Dodd-Frank Act prevented arbitration of claims by mortgagees and that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable.

On appeal, West Virginia’s highest court made short work of the Dodd-Frank argument.  (One part of Dodd-Frank provides that residential mortgage loans may not require arbitration.  15 USC § 1639c(e)(1).)  It noted that the named plaintiffs’ mortgage was executed in 2006 while the Dodd-Frank Act was not effective until 2010 and was not retroactive.

With respect to procedural unconscionability, the plaintiffs argued their relative lack of sophistication and lack of counsel.  The court disagreed, finding that presence of counsel is not dispositive and because of language in all caps in the agreement providing “THIS IS A VOLUNTARY ARBITRATION AGREEMENT.  IF YOU DECLINE TO SIGN THIS ARBITRATION AGREEMENT, LENDER WILL NOT REFUSE TO COMPLETE THE LOAN TRANSACTION.”

The plaintiffs argued the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable because it waived class actions, restricted attorneys’ fees, lacked mutualty, and limited discovery.  After block quoting ad nauseum from AmEx (reading these opinions, I started to wonder if the members of this court get paid per block-quoted word…), the court concluded that the class waiver did not make the agreement unconscionable.  The court also found that the requirement that each party pay its own attorneys fees, and the lender’s carveout of its foreclosure right (and a few others) from the scope of the arbitration, did not render the agreement unconscionable.  Finally, the agreement’s statement that “discovery in the arbitration proceedings may be limited by the rules” of the provider also did not make the agreement unconscionable.

I am not convinced that West Virginia is a bellwether and other reliably anti-arbitration states may be following suit.  But this is still an interesting shift.

The saga of Brown v. Genesis Healthcare Corporation continues.  Almost exactly a year ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court declared that arbitration agreements in pre-dispute nursing home contracts were unenforceable.  Then in February SCOTUS reversed that decision and remanded the case for consideration of un-preempted unconscionability.   Now, the West Virginia court has issued its decision on remand.  Brown v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., ___ S.E.2d ___, 2012 WL 2196090 (W.Va. June 13, 2012) (Brown II). 

On remand, the West Virginia court was a bit more tactful in its discussion of SCOTUS’s analysis of the FAA than it was the first time around (but it repeated its description of the case law as “tendentious”, which the web tells me means “having a definite bias”).  West Virginia does think SCOTUS should have given a more reasoned reversal, though, commenting that the Court did not “eludicat[e] how and why the FAA applies to negligence actions that arise subsequently and only incidentally to a contract containing an arbitration clause.” 

Even so, it tried to narrow the impact of SCOTUS’s reversal of  Brown I.  It identified three holdings from Brown I and clarified that only the second of those was overruled (the one saying the FAA was not intended to apply to pre-dispute arbitration agreements in personal injury cases).  The West Virginia court did not change its mind, however: “we otherwise reaffirm all of our discussion and holdings in Brown I.” 

Perhaps in an effort to shore up its ability to later find the nursing home contracts unconscionable, the West Virginia remanded to the lower courts for further development of the record.  In doing so, it gave the plaintiffs a roadmap, noting that it might find the following attributes lead to procedural and substantive unconscionability: age, literacy and sophistication of the parties, how complex or hidden the contract terms were, the context of the contract formation, the ability to negotiate the contract, the bilaterality of the arbitration agreement, and whether arbitration costs are so high as to deter a plaintiff from pursuing a claim.

The U.S. Supreme Court today vacated the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision from last June, holding that pre-dispute arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts will not be enforced in that state.  The content of the decision is not surprising, as it relies on notions of federal preemption and follows the analysis in Concepcion.  The only mildly surprising thing about today’s decision in Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown is the Court’s tone.

Today’s per curiam decision from the Court appears intended to serve as a stern warning to state courts: Follow our FAA case law or face reversal.  The Supreme Court was especially perturbed that the West Virginia court had very publicly criticized the Court’s arbitration case law.  The West Virginia court considered whether its conclusion (that its state public policy prevented the enforcement of pre-dispute arbitration clauses in nursing home agreements) was preempted by federal law, but rejected preemption based on its analysis that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act was “created from whole cloth.”  The state court might as well have hired MIA to dance on the steps of the Supreme Court and flip the Justices the bird. 

In no uncertain terms, the Court wrote: “When this Court has fulfilled its duty to interpret federal law, a state court may not contradict or fail to implement the law so established.”  The West Virginia court will get a second chance to find the nursing home agreements unenforceable, however, as the Court remanded for consideration of their unconscionability.

Given this decision, it will be interesting to see if the Court also vacates related cases from the Florida Supreme Court, which distinguished various SCOTUS precedent to find that arbitration agreements in nursing home admission contracts were unenforceable because they did not comport with state statutes.