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D.R. Horton Rising: The Ninth Circuit Sides with the Seventh Circuit and the National Labor Relations Board on Class Action Waivers, in Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
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Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit took sides in a major split within the U.S. Courts of Appeals over the enforceability of class arbitration waivers. In Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 13-16599, Slip. Op. (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 2016), the Ninth Circuit held that employers violate Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by requiring employees covered by the NLRA to waive, as a condition of their employment, participation in “concerted activities” such as class and collective actions. (Slip Op. at 1.)

By this holding, the Ninth Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit, which in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016) adopted the National Labor Relations Board (“The Board”) position in D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012). Under this line of authority, the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) does not mandate enforcement of a contract that waives the substantive federal right to engage in concerted action established in Section 7 of the NLRA. (Slip Op. at p. 18-19.) Bryan Schwartz Law blogged in detail about the Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp. decision, here.

In Morris, two employees filed a class and collective action alleging that their employer had misclassified workers as exempt and deprived them of overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and California labor laws. As a condition of employment, the employees were required to sign contracts containing a “concerted action wavier” that obligated them (1) to pursue legal claims against their employer exclusively through arbitration and (2) to arbitrate individually in “separate proceedings.” Based on these agreements, the employer moved to compel the employees to arbitrate their claims individually. The U.S. District Court granted the employer’s motion. (Slip Op. at p. 4-5.)

The Ninth Circuit reversed, reviewing the decision to compel arbitration de novo. Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas explained in the opinion:

This case turns on a well-established principal: employees have the right to pursue work-related legal claims together. 29 U.S.C. § 157; Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 566 (1978). Concerted activity – the right of employees to act together – is the essential substantive right established by the NLRA. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Ernst & Young interfered with that right by requiring its employees to resolve all of their legal claims in “separate proceedings.” Accordingly the concerted action waiver violates the NLRA and cannot be enforced.

(Id. at p. 6.)

The Ninth Circuit explained that the FAA does not dictate a contrary result. (Id. at 14.) While the FAA creates a “federal policy favoring arbitration” clause enforcement, the Act contains a savings clause that prohibits enforcement of arbitration agreements that defeat substantive federal rights, including the right to engage in concerted activity under the NLRA. (Id. at 15, 26.) In Morris, employees’ waiver was illegal not because it required the employees to pursue their claims in arbitration, but rather, because they could not do so in concert. (Id. at p. 16.)

Other circuit courts have taken a contrary position, enforcing employers concerted action waivers under the FAA. See Cellular Sales of Missouri, LLC v. N.L.R.B., 824 F.3d 772, 776 (8th Cir. June 2, 2016); Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015); Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1053-54 (8th Cir. 2013); D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F.3d 344, 361 (5th Cir. 2013); Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290, 297 n.8 (2d Cir. 2013).

As more circuits choose sides on whether class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable, Supreme Court review becomes an inevitability.

The High Court would also be wise to resolve a disagreement between the Ninth and Seventh Circuits regarding such waivers. In the Seventh Circuit, any “[c]ontracts that stipulate away employees’ Section 7 rights . . . are unenforceable.” Epic, 823 F.3d. at 1155. The Ninth Circuit precedent is narrower, making such contracts enforceable if employment is not conditioned on agreeing to the clause. (Slip. Op. 11, n. 4.) For example, if an employee has the opportunity to opt-out of a class action waiver and keep his or her job, but chooses not to, that waiver would be enforceable by the employer in the Ninth Circuit. (Id. (citing Johnmohammadi v. Bloomingdale’s, Inc., 755 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2014))). The Seventh Circuit provides a clearer rule, one that better comports with the purposes of the NLRA, and one that the Supreme Court should adopt.

For now, workers in the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, as well as their advocates, should take note that employers cannot force employees to sign class action waivers as a condition of employment, because Epic and Morris tell us that the NLRA provides employees with the right to vindicate their employment rights collectively.

This blog appeared on Bryan Schwartz Law on August 23, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Rachel Terp is an associate at Bryan Schwartz Law, where she focuses on employment discrimination, whistleblower, and wage and hour claims. Previously, Ms. Terp was a Bridge Fellow with the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), where she specialized in consumer litigation.

 Bryan Schwartz Law is an Oakland, California-based law firm dedicated to helping employees protect their rights in the workplace. Mr. Schwartz and his firm have fought to prohibit discrimination, retaliation, and harassment obtained reasonable accommodation for disabled employees, vindicated whistleblowers’ rights and ensured that corporations pay workers all wages they are owed. Bryan Schwartz Law has successfully litigated individual and class action complaints nationwide, helping to recover millions of dollars for thousands of employees, forcing corporations and Government agencies to change their practices and punish wrongdoers. Bryan Schwartz Law is also one of the few Bay Area-based law firms with extensive experience representing Federal employees in their unique Merit Systems Protection Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.

 

Save the Seventh

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Susan HarleyThe Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved …”

Even though we are all granted the right to a trial by jury in the U.S. Constitution, Big Banks and corporations regularly use fine print in contracts to trick consumers out of their right to a day in court. Forced arbitration means that if consumers are ripped off or otherwise harmed, they must use private arbitration proceedings to air their grievances.

If you’re already angry about forced arbitration and you want to do something to get these predatory terms out of financial products, skip to the end of this post for ways to get involved.

There’s plenty to be mad about. These expensive arbitration “tribunals” have no judge or jury. They are overseen by paid arbitration providers who are selected by the companies. Arbitration firms have a very good reason to guarantee repeat business for themselves by finding in favor of the corporations over the consumers. The findings of arbitration decisions are not public and the appeals process is very limited. Most likely, you will also be required to go to arbitration in another state!

If consumers were interested in choosing arbitration, they would enter into the decision after some harm has come to them. It would need to be an informed decision where they did so with a full understanding of the consequences of their choice to not go to court.

But that’s not how we’re all roped into signing (or even clicking) away our rights. It has been proven that consumers rarely understand that their contracts contain arbitration clauses and have little idea of the repercussions of having their complaints heard in a non-court venue.

And, even if you understood they were there and knew it meant you were losing your right to go to court, it’s not like your average adult can simply opt out of getting a checking account, taking out that student loan, or financing that car.

What about if those very same companies with arbitration clauses were systematically ripping off you and your fellow consumers – but only in small dollar amounts? The only way it makes sense for consumers to bring those cases is through class actions where those who have been harmed can band together to make a complaint about a company’s action. Makes sense, right? Except most arbitration clauses contain class action bans, which were unfortunately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. Now Big Banks basically have free rein to steal a few dollars here and there from all of their customers without worry of being held accountable.

Congress saw the unfairness of forced arbitration clauses and prohibited them in certain industries and in housing-lending contracts via the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank). Dodd-Frank tasked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren — that was created by the same legislation with studying arbitration in all consumer financial contracts and determining whether consumers would be better served by prohibiting the practice.

The CFPB’s study is finally complete. It shows that consumers have little idea about arbitration clauses and how the fine print strips them of their constitutional right to their day in court. In fact, three out of four consumers surveyed as part of the study did not know whether they had an arbitration clause in their credit card agreements. And, of those who did have arbitration clauses, only seven percent understood that meant they had given up their right to their day in court.

Now it’s time for the public to get involved. Every person who’s even been steaming mad at Wall Street’s sticking it to the little guy and thinking they can weasel out of being held accountable needs to get involved.

Urge the CFPB to stand up to Big Banks and do the right thing. It’s certain that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its corporate cronies will do everything it can to keep unfair forced arbitration in consumer financial products, so we need as many people as possible to join this fight. There’s a whole toolbox of tactics we’d love to get you involved with, and it only depends on how much time you have to invest in protecting consumers.

Only have a second or two to take an online action? Easy!

What about a minute to share this social media meme? Great! While you’re at it, Tweet with the hashtags #CFPB and #ForcedArbitration.

If you have a lot to say on the subject and want to get your community fired up too, write a letter to the editor. We have ideas on what to say! There are even more ways to get involved. If you want to learn more, email: action@citizen.org.

You could be part of scoring a major win for our country by reclaiming the Seventh Amendment. Americans, take back your day in court!

About the Author: Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

CFPB Hearing: Data on One Side, Empty Rhetoric on the Other

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

GabeHopkinsLarge In today’s era of Big Data, analytics, and sabermetrics, the cheeky motto “in God we  trust, all others must bring data” has never seemed more relevant. Well, in the arena of  mandatory arbitration provisions in consumer contracts the data is in, and the verdict is  clear: mandatory arbitration is unfair to consumers and harmful to the public interest.

Yesterday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau officially released its long-  awaited report on the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial  services contracts. At a field hearing in Newark, N.J., CFPB Director Richard Cordray  discussed the report’s essential findings, noting that it was “the most comprehensive empirical study of consumer financial arbitration ever conducted.”

I’ll briefly outline the results, but what was really interesting – and what I’ll discuss below – is the discussion among panelists at the hearing Tuesday.

The 768-page report, three years in the making, was mandated by Congress in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It analyzed six different consumer financial markets to compare the relative value of arbitral forums and courts for resolving disputes between customers and service providers. The evidence led to several key conclusions:

  • Mandatory arbitration clauses affect tens of millions of Americans. In both the credit card and checking account sectors, half of all accounts were covered by such provisions. The CFPB estimates that 80 million credit card holders are subject to mandatory arbitration.
  • Consumers don’t know they’ve signed away their rights. In a survey conducted for the report, 75% of consumers did not know whether they were subject to mandatory arbitration clauses. Of the 25% who thought they did know fully half were wrong about the true nature of the contracts they had signed. The survey also revealed that only a small fraction of consumers actually understand what mandatory arbitration and class action bans really mean for their rights.
  • Consumers rarely act on an individual basis. Over a three-year period, consumers filed only 1,800 claims in arbitration and 3,500 individual claims in federal court. Evidence from small-claims courts showed that individuals rarely turn to that forum for redress, and that most activity in those courts was by companies filing debt-collection suits against consumers.
  • Consumer class actions work. Over a five-year period 420 class action settlements in federal court netted $2.7 billion in cash, fees, and other relief. Contrary to the familiar protests of industry advocates, only 18% of this money went to plaintiffs’ lawyers, meaning $2.2 billion accrued to the benefit of affected consumers, with approximately half paid directly to consumers in cash payouts. These settlements benefitted at least 34 million consumers across America, not to mention all those protected by the settlements’ deterrent value.
  • Companies use arbitration clauses to kill class actions. Companies rarely invoke arbitration clauses to move individual suits out of court. In contrast, such provisions are raised in nearly two-thirds of class actions, and almost all arbitration clauses prohibit class treatment in the arbitral forum.
  • Arbitration does not make financial services cheaper for consumers. There is no evidence for the claim that arbitration clauses make the cost of doing business cheaper for companies who pass those savings onto consumers. Indeed, after four large credit card issuers removed arbitration clauses from their form contracts under an antitrust settlement, they did not significantly increase costs or reduce access to credit compared to other unaffected companies.

At the hearing in Newark, Director Cordray’s overview of the report’s findings was followed by a panel discussion between advocates for the financial industry and consumer protection advocates, including Public Justice Executive Director Paul Bland.

Given the reams of empirical data contained in the report, the industry-side panelists had little ground to stand on. Their responses consisted largely of nit-picking about the report’s methodology and doubling-down on their belief that arbitration is cheaper, faster, and fairer for consumers. For example, Ballard Spahr attorney Alan Kaplinsky  cited “studies” and his own “personal experience” representing financial institutions to back up these claims. , but did not cite any specific study by name. . He protested that it’s too early to judge how consumers fare in arbitration compared to court because arbitration is “in its infancy,” ignoring the fact that the report analyzed three years’ worth of data from the nation’s largest arbitration provider.  He also raised the familiar bugbear of the predatory plaintiffs’ bar, which reaps untold profits from “frivolous” lawsuits without any real benefit for their clients. His most intriguing comment, if only for its irony, was that his clients in the financial sector are regulated well enough by the CFPB and other federal and state agencies. Leave enforcement to government actors, he argued, they are far better at protecting consumers than the private sector.

Probably the most interesting comments from the industry side of the aisle came from Louis Vetere, president and CEO of a New Jersey credit union. Though he also did not grapple directly with the report, he agreed with his ideological colleagues that arbitration was good for consumers. However, he also repeatedly clarified that his company did not mandate arbitration in its contracts, nor did it think doing so was proper. Rather, he preferred to offer arbitration as an option when disputes with depositors arose, ultimately accepting whichever forum the depositor felt most comfortable with.

The panel’s consumer advocates fired back on several fronts, refuting both the specific arguments made by the industry advocates, and pointing out the many systemic problems caused by mandatory arbitration. Jane Santoni, a consumer lawyer in Maryland, said that arbitration was never a better option for her clients. More troubling to her was the fact that she has had to turn away the majority of prospective clients who have meritorious claims because as individual cases they are simply untenable for her to take. From her perspective mandatory arbitration has an “astronomical chilling effect” on the civil justice system.

Myriam Gilles, professor at Cardozo School of Law, noted that deciding consumer law cases in the “hermetically sealed” forum of private arbitration rather than in public court proceedings undermines the common law system in which future decisions build upon past precedents. She also pointed out that companies put mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts because it’s in their interests and is a matter of “common sense” from their perspective: as the report clearly bears out, arbitration is not about dispute resolution. It’s about avoiding liability.

Public Justice’s Paul Bland drove this point home in his remarks, noting that the innocent-sounding claim that arbitration is just about moving disputes to a simpler, easier forum is a “fairy tale.” He noted that mandatory arbitration prevented consumers from protecting themselves, particularly as marginal financial actors such as payday lenders move their practices online, burying arbitration agreements in tiny-text terms and conditions on obscure webpages, all to avoid answering to consumers and government overseers when they violate consumer protection statutes. Mandatory arbitration does little more, he argued, than permit companies to break the law with impunity by taking away people’s basic constitutional and statutory rights via mouse print contracts.

The hearing closed with comments from the assembled audience. Dozens of consumer advocates stood up and added further arguments against the use of mandatory arbitration. The points raised were remarkably varied, ranging from the practical – poor consumers can’t even afford the AAA’s $200 filing fee – to the theoretical – pre-dispute arbitration agreements violate consumers’ First Amendment right to petition for redress in a government court. One common refrain in the public comments, made in response to industry panelists’ claims that consumers enjoy the simplicity and informality of arbitration, is that if arbitration is such a good deal for consumers, it should be offered as a choice rather than being forced upon them as a condition of signing up for a credit card, cell phone or car loan.

Now that the data is in, the CFPB will soon announce what, if any, action it should take to regulate the use of mandatory arbitration provisions in consumer financial services contracts. Given the content of the report, the wealth of arguments supporting its conclusions, and the empirically bankrupt arguments from the other side, it is hard to imagine that the Bureau won’t come down hard on these clauses, perhaps even banning them outright. We here at Public Justice certainly hope that it does.

This post originally appeared at http://publicjustice.net/content/cfpb-hearing-data-one-side-empty-rhetoric-other. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Gabriel Hopkins joined the Public Justice DC Office in September 2014 as the Thornton-Robb Attorney. Before joining Public Justice he spent a year clerking on the New York State Court of Appeals for the Honorable Susan P. Read.  Gabriel attended New York University Law School and received his J.D. in 2013. While at NYU he worked with attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union to sue the New York Department of Corrections over its unconstitutional use of solitary confinement to discipline prisoners, securing significant relief from this practice for minors and the mentally ill in the prison system. He also summered at the New York Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau, and the Los Angeles civil rights firm Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman, where he helped partner Paul Hoffman bring the landmark international human rights case Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum to the US Supreme Court.

 

WORST SUPREME COURT ARBITRATION DECISION EVER

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

PaulBlandWeb-172So, today, in American Express v. Italian Colors, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a take-it-or-leave-it arbitration clause could be used to prevent small businesses from actually pursuing their claims for abuse of monopoly power under the antitrust laws. Essentially, the Court said today that their favorite statute in the entire code is the Federal Arbitration Act, and it can be used to wipe away nearly any other statute.

As Justice Kagan said in a bang-on, accurate and clear-sighted dissent, this is a “BETRAYAL” (strong word, eh?) of the Court’s prior arbitration decisions. You see, until now, the Supreme Court has said that courts should only enforce arbitration clauses where a party could “effectively vindicate its statutory rights.” Today, in a sleight of hand, the five conservative justices said that this means that arbitration clauses should be enforced even when they make it impossible for parties to actually vindicate their statutory rights, so long as they have a theoretical “right” to pursue that remedy.

The plaintiffs in this case, restaurants and other small merchants, claim that American Express uses its monopoly power over its charge card to force them to accept American Express’s credit cards and pay higher rates than they would for other credit cards. This is called a “tying arrangement” under the antitrust laws — American Express is alleged to be using its monopoly power over one product to jack up the price of another product to higher rates than it could charge in a competitive market.

For plaintiffs to prove this kind of case, they have to come up with hard evidence — economic proof — that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. And each individual merchant has only lost, and thus can only hope to recover, a small fraction of that amount. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recognized that if American Express’s arbitration clause (and particularly its ban on class actions) was enforced, that would mean that none of the small business plaintiffs could enforce their rights under the antitrust laws. And under a long line of Supreme Court cases, arbitration clauses are only enforceable when they permit the parties to effectively vindicate their statutory rights.

Today’s decision turns that rule on its head. According to Justice Scalia’s majority opinion, even if an arbitration clause would mean that no individual would ever actually be able to pursue an antitrust claim on an individual basis, the arbitration clause still has to be enforced. The law has changed dramatically — parties no longer have a right to “effectively” vindicate their statutory rights; they are left with the meaningless but formal right to pursue economically irrational claims if they choose to do so.

The decision is catastrophic for the antitrust laws, as well as for civil rights, consumer rights, and many other statutory rights. The decision is an unmitigated disaster, replacing adhesive contracts for an idea of actual law. The drafters of the FAA would not recognize what it has turned into.

Justice Kagan went on to state: “As a result, Amex’s contract will succeed in depriving Italian Colors of any effective opportunity to challenge monopolistic conduct allegedly in violation of the Sherman Act. … In the hands of today’s majority, arbitration threatens to become … a mechanism easily made to block the vindication of meritorious federal claims and insulate wrongdoers from liability.” Justice Kagan gets this one completely right. The entire point of the majority opinion is to use arbitration to insulate companies from any possibility of class action liability.

We used to have something called “The Federal Arbitration Act.” The Court today might as well have amended its real title to “The Federal Corporate Immunity Act.”

This article was originally printed on Public Justice on June 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Bland is a Senior Attorney at Public Justice.  He has argued and won more than 30 cases that led to reported decisions for consumers, employees or whistleblowers in four of the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the high courts of nine different states.

Employers: Be Careful What You Wish For - Your Motion to Compel Arbitration Can Lead to Expensive, Class-Wide Arbitration

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

In the wake of ATT Mobility v. Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds,* many employers have sought to enact new arbitration agreements or to enforce arbitration provisions in older agreements to eliminate their employees’ ability to come together when seeking to vindicate their rights to enforce statutory protections for workers. Employers should be careful what they wish for, in seeking to compel arbitration. They may indeed wind up in arbitration – but unable to strike class allegations, and required to pay the full and exorbitant costs of class-wide arbitration. 

In a case on which Bryan Schwartz Law serves as local counsel for Richard J. Burch of Bruckner Burch, in Houston, Texas, the employer is now feeling the danger of a Stolt-Nielsen-based strategy seeking to compel individual arbitration in a putative, wage-hour class action. In the Laughlin v. VMWare case, in which VMWare employees assert they were misclassified as exempt employees and denied overtime and other compensation to which they were entitled, the company moved to compel arbitration based on an agreement which did not specifically provide for class-wide arbitration. 

Judge Edward Davila of the Northern District of California struck some of the more offensive provisions of the arbitration agreement under Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, such as a provision which would have required Plaintiff to share the costs of arbitration. However, Judge Davila found these unlawful provisions severable (i.e., refused to kill the whole arbitration agreement). Perhaps most importantly, though, Judge Davila referred to the arbitrator the decision on the Stolt-Nielsen argument – namely, as argued by VMWare, the notion that class-wide arbitration cannot proceed where the parties’ arbitration agreement did not expressly consent to class arbitration. His initial decision from early 2012 is available here: 

http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/VMWare.pdf

In arbitration, AAA arbitrator LaMothe then rejected the employer’s Stolt-Nielsen motion to strike class allegations, notwithstanding the fact that the agreement did not expressly give permission to bring class allegations, finding the parties’ agreement intended to encompass all claims by Plaintiff Laughlin, including her class claims. The AAA order is available here: 

http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/Laughlin.pdf

In the last 18 months, numerous other arbitrators from JAMS, AAA, and other nationwide arbitration services have likewise denied motions to strike class allegations, employing similar reasoning. 

On review, Judge Davila confirmed the arbitrator’s partial final clause construction award allowing class allegations to proceed, meaning – in light of all the foregoing – that VMWare will now be forced to arbitrate a putative class action, and will be forced to bear all of the costs of doing so: 

http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/VMWare-12-20-12.pdf

Be careful what you wish for, employers. You may find that sometimes, allowing employees their day in court is better than the alternative. 

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article is intended to form an attorney-client relationship with the reader. You must have a signed representation agreement with the firm to be a client. 

*See our numerous prior blog posts relating to the subject of arbitration class waivers in light of Concepcion andStolt-Nielsen, including: http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2012/09/california-supreme-court-grants-review.html

http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2012/09/wage-and-hour-class-actions-sky-is.html;

http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2012/01/landmark-decision-by-national-labor.html

http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2011/05/civil-rights-lawyer-and-employee.html.

This post was originally posted on December 26, 2012 on Bryan Schwartz Law. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Bryan Schwartz is an Oakland, CA-based attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law.

Caught In a Fixed Game: The Struggle for Consumer and Employee Rights in the Forced Arbitration Process

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Andy PictureRecently, forced arbitration clauses have spread into a wide variety of contracts that regular citizens ordinarily enter into. These include both consumer contracts, such as those for cellular phone service plans, and employment contracts signed at the start of a new job. Obstacles to fair and impartial dispute resolution are manifold in this coerced dispute resolution process. The largest issue is that the arbitration forums rely on the repeat business brought in by the companies who use their services. As result, there is a systemic disincentive to rule in favor of consumers and employees if companies can choose another arbitrator if they deliver multiple rulings adverse to the corporation. Beyond this, there are frequently problems with the technical details of how disputes are resolved. High fees involved in the arbitration process often dissuade employees and consumers from bringing their cases at all. Arbitrators, unlike judges, are not bound to follow any legal precedent and discovery is much more limited in arbitration.

The usual solution to corporate malfeasance on a large scale is a class action lawsuit. However, most forced arbitration clauses contain language banning class actions. Public Justice recently litigated this issue to the Supreme Court in the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion case, arguing for the right of consumers and employees to join together in spite of arbitration agreements that forbid class action suits. The plaintiffs in the original case were supported by a California law that prohibited class action bans in contracts, but in a 5-4 vote the court ruled in favor of AT&T and held that the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 preempts state laws that prohibit contracts containing forced arbitration clauses. However, as Public Justice has pointed out, the ruling does not necessarily mean the end of all class action lawsuits when forced arbitration is involved.

In some factual situations, it is arguable that the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision is not applicable. In the context of the insurance industry for example, many courts have held that the Federal Arbitration Act does not affect state laws which ban arbitration of disputes in this area (which would prevent Concepcion from being considered relevant precedent). The National Arbitration Forum, previously listed in many forced arbitration clauses, has been banned from arbitrating consumer disputes. As a result, many courts have simply eliminated the requirement of arbitration where the National Arbitration Forum is specified in the clause. Additionally, the Concepcion decision does not apply in cases where there is no contract involved, since there is no clause to require forced arbitration.

The AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision is also limited in several general ways. Consumers and employees can still bring a class action lawsuit under a federal statute (like an antitrust law), even when confronted with a forced arbitration clause. Furthermore, it’s possible that the ruling will not be applicable in state courts since Justice Thomas has expressed a belief that the Federal Arbitration Act does not apply in these forums (and one vote on the divided court would change the ruling on this issue). Also, a key part of the reasoning of the court in the Concepcion decision was the idea that the law at issue would require AT&T, without its consent, to arbitrate disputes filed against the company on a class action basis. However, there are some situations in which both parties do consent to a class action, thus creating a precedential distinction away from Concepcion (see Public Justice’s brief on the issue in Schnuerle v. Insight Communications). Finally, the state law struck down in Concepcion was of a broad nature, and did not take into account whether individuals had a meaningful prospect to pursue their claims in spite of the contract ban on class action suits.

Although forced arbitration is a troubling issue, it is not an unsolvable problem. Legislation can be used to conclusively forbid the practice, something Congress has done on several occasions within certain areas. In the recent economic stimulus bill (Section 1553 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, H.R. 1), Congress forbade contractors or state and local governments who received stimulus funds from requiring pre-dispute forced arbitration for whistle-blowing employees (with the exception of cases that occur under a collective bargaining agreement). Within the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for 2010 (H.R. 3326), the Franken Amendment prohibited contractors or subcontractors receiving these funds from using forced arbitration to resolve Title VII or sexual assault tort claims.

Although there has been some success in Congress in reducing forced arbitration, legislation to eliminate the practice generally has not yet been enacted. The Arbitration Fairness Act was introduced in 2007 and 2009 to curtail the use of such clauses, but failed to pass. The Act was recently introduced again in Congress in response to the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), as well as Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to prevent the use of binding forced arbitration clauses in consumer and employment contracts. Entitled the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2011, it is an effort by Congress to try and curb the practice of pre-dispute forced arbitration by amending the Federal Arbitration Act directly to prohibit the practice. The Act adds a new chapter in Title 9 of the United States Code, with section 402(a) of the bill succinctly describing the purpose of the legislation: “In General – Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no predispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of an employment dispute, consumer dispute, or civil rights dispute.”

When a contract clause can be used to take away the power of non-union employees to protect something as basic as their civil rights in open court, it should give pause to both judges and Congress. Forced arbitration can eliminate perhaps the most essential tool an ordinary citizen has in seeking justice: a fair and impartial court system. Its spread must be halted through both legislative and judicial action, to protect the right of consumers and employees to have their day in court.

About the Author: Andrew Laine is a law student and intern at Workplace Fairness.

UNITEHERE! Reaches Tentative Deals with Hilton Hotels

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Image: James Parks

After many months of bargaining, UNITEHERE! and Hilton Worldwide have reached tentative agreements at hotels in three major markets—Chicago, San Francisco and Honolulu. The tentative agreements cover nearly 4,000 workers.

While terms of the settlements vary in each city, the contracts include wage increases, improved job stability language and reduced workloads for housekeeping staff and others. Significantly, the new contracts also preserve low-cost, high-quality health care and pension benefits for Hilton workers and their families at a time when, nationwide, these employee benefits are being cut.

UNITEHERE! President John Wilhelm said in a statement:

We are pleased to have achieved a fair settlement for all sides—one that allows workers to move forward and share in the robust recovery that the hotel industry is experiencing.

The contracts for Hilton workers expired in Chicago and San Francisco in August 2009 and in Hawaii in June 2010. Bargaining continues for contracts at other hotel chains, affecting thousands more workers in those three cities and several other cities across North America.

Nationwide, the hotel industry is already rebounding faster and stronger than expected. PKF Hospitality projects that hotel revenues will rise an average of 8 percent annually from 2010 through 2014.

This blog originally appeared in blog.aflcio.org on March 7, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: James Parks first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

Will the Supreme Court Issue a Wildly Activist Decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion?

Friday, August 6th, 2010

6a00d83451b7a769e20133f2de36e3970b-500wiThe consumer and civil rights communities are closely watching AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, a case that will be argued in the Supreme Court this November.  Depending on how broadly the Court reads the question presented in Concepcion, the case could decide the fate of consumer and employee class actions for years to come.

The Corporate Abuse at the Heart of Concepcion

The Concepcion case involves the widespread corporate practice of using standard-form contracts to ban class actions.  Many state courts have held such class-action bans unenforceable, but AT&T Mobility (“ATTM”) has asked the Supreme Court to find that at least some of that state law is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).  To understand why the Court’s holding in Concepcion could be so significant, it is important to understand how class-action bans come to be and why they are often disastrous for consumers and employees.

Class-action bans are contract terms that purport to prevent consumers and employees from ever participating in class proceedings.  As in Concepcion, they are often buried in companies’ standardized arbitration clauses.  Class-action bans favor companies at consumers’ and employees’ expense, but companies can impose them unilaterally because they draft the contracts.  Consumers and employees rarely have time to read the lengthy agreements companies send them, let alone the ability to understand their dense legalese.  And even if they did, few consumers or employees could negotiate the contracts’ terms.

Companies love imposing class-action bans because they dramatically undermine enforcement of consumer- and employee-protection laws.  Unlike European countries which mostly rely on large and powerful government agencies to enforce consumer protection and civil rights laws, the U.S. has relatively small government agencies which handle relatively few cases.  Most enforcement of these laws in the U.S. is done by private parties.  We rely upon individual consumers or employees who’ve been cheated or discriminated against to bring cases enforcing these laws.  Many types of illegal behavior can be addressed through individual cases by a single consumer.  But the reality is that many types of illegal behavior that harm very large numbers of people – thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of individuals – can only be meaningfully addressed through class actions.

In many circumstances, very few individuals would ever bring a claim (in court, or in a small claims court, or in arbitration) when their rights are violated.  For a huge percentage of the population, for many types of illegal activities there are realistic barriers to individuals bringing cases on their own.  Many people never realize when their rights are violated, for example, and many people do not have the knowledge or skills to begin to pursue a case to protect their rights.  For those who know to seek out a lawyer, very few lawyers will handle cases that are quite small, and few if any lawyers will handle fairly complex cases that involve only a few thousand dollars.  These are only a few examples of situations where the realistic situation is that a case will either be handled on a class action basis or it will never be brought at all.

This is why large corporations are hoping that the Concepcion case will wipe away most class actions – because they want to make it impossible for the vast majority of cheated consumers and employees who’ve suffered discrimination to bring any kind of case, in any forum.  The idea is to atomize individuals, to prevent them from grouping together in a way that lets them enforce these rights.

WILL CONCEPCION BE SIGNIFICANT?

In the worst case scenario, Concepcion could wipe away the vast majority of consumer and employee class actions for years to come.  But that result is far from inevitable.  For one thing, ATTM submitted a narrow question in its petition for certiorari, and if the Court sticks to the question presented (as it should), then the decision may not have much significance.  On the merits, if the Court agrees with the overwhelming majority of lower courts, which have held that state law in this area is not preempted, then the decision should not have much significance.  Indeed, if the Court simply applies the language of the FAA, and doesn’t invent new rules of federal law for the purpose of wiping away state law, then the decision should not be significant at all.

If many members of the corporate defense bar get the Court to use this case to grant their fondest wishes for immunity from consumer protection and civil rights laws granted, however, then this case could have the kind of impact on class actions that an asteroid landing in Mexico millions of years ago had on dinosaurs.

For the Court to Wipe Away Consumer and Employee Class Actions, It Will Have to Ignore ATTM’s Question Presented.

Most cases, including Concepcion, get to the Supreme Court because the party that lost below files a petition for certiorari, presenting specific questions for the Court to review.  In Concepcion, ATTM took care to draft a narrowly worded question.  Essentially ATTM asked: does the FAA preempt state law prohibiting class-action bans in those cases where class actions are unnecessary for the effective vindication of consumer and employee rights?

This question may sound convoluted, and it is.  The last part asks the Court to assume that individual consumers and employees can vindicate their legal rights without a class action.  It’s striking that ATTM asks the Court to begin with this assumption as though it were an uncontroversial and obvious abstract legal principle instead of a factual issue to be resolved on a case-by-case basis in light of actual admissible.2 In any event, if the Court limits its holding in Concepcion to the question presented, then whatever that holding is, it should not apply whenever class actions are necessary for the effective vindication of statutes aimed at protecting consumer and employee rights.

But notwithstanding ATTM’s narrowly worded question, some of its corporate allies (and particularly the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) are claiming that Concepcion raises the issue of whether the FAA preempts any and all state law that would limit class-action bans embedded in arbitration clauses—regardless of whether consumers and employees have other adequate avenues for vindicating their rights.  These ATTM allies argue that it does not matter what the evidence in a case would show, that it does not matter what the state law at issue says, and that there is simply a federal right for any corporation to put in any contract a term that bans class actions (so long as the contract includes an arbitration clause).

It’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will be tempted to take such an extreme position.  But at this point, it is clear that advocates for unlimited corporate power hope and imagine that the U.S. Supreme Court will strip state law in this way.  And it’s clear that a lot of corporate defense lawyers privately believe that the Court is so definitively in their clients’ collective pocket that companies can get whatever they want from this case.  I’ve heard several defense lawyers privately predict a 5-4 ruling that wipes away the vast majority of class actions in America, and I know of several cases that had been in mediation, where the evidence of liability is overwhelming and the only barrier to a recovery for the consumers was a class action ban that’s unenforceable or probably unenforceable under state law, where defendants have walked away from the settlement table because they suddenly believe that the Court will uphold class-action bans in all cases and immunize them from any meaningful liability.

You have to hand it to the tort reforming corporate apologists:  they are asking the Court to issue a decision that would be an immediate candidate for Most Activist Decision Ever

For the Court to Rule for ATTM, It will Have to Sweep Aside a Widespread Consensus of State Supreme Courts and Federal Appellate Courts

More than 100 reported cases have considered the enforceability of class-action bans embedded in arbitration clauses.  While their holdings on enforceability vary, more than 90% have agreed that state law governs the enforceability issue—that courts are free to apply to state law to determine whether a class action ban in an arbitration clause is enforceable.

Many corporate defendants have argued (like ATTM) that the FAA preempts state law limiting the enforcement of class bans embedded in arbitration clauses, but scores of courts have strongly disagreed.  A typical example is a 2007 Washington Supreme Court case called Scott v. Cingular Wireless, where ATTM was also the defendant.  ATTM argued that even if a ban on class actions would be illegal in other contexts as a matter of Washington law, the FAA preempted Washington law in Scott because the company had put its class-action ban in its arbitration clause.  Like most courts, the Washington Supreme Court rejected the argument, concluding that the FAA only preempts state laws that are aimed at arbitration, and that the state’s law against contract terms that gut the state’s consumer protection laws are not aimed at arbitration:

[C]ontracts that effectively exculpate their drafter from liability under the [Consumer Protection Act] for broad categories of liability are not enforceable in Washington, even if they are embedded in arbitration clause . . . .  Class action waivers have very little to do with arbitration.3

A large number of other courts have articulated this same conclusion in very similar ways.4

State Supreme Courts all agree on this issue.  Every single state supreme court to consider the enforceability of a class-action ban embedded in an arbitration clause has resolved the question of enforceability as a matter of state law.5 The last eight state supreme courts to consider the validity of class bans also happen to have struck them down, but even courts that have upheld class bans have done so by applying state law.6 In addition to state supreme courts, intermediate courts of appeal in a number of states have struck down class action bans under state law,7 as have federal circuit courts, which have examined the issue as one of state law.8 Given this settled nationwide consensus, it is puzzling that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to grant certiorari in Concepcion.

FOR THE COURT TO ADOPT THE  CHAMBER OF COMMERCE’S FANTASY SCENARIO, It WILL HAVE TO INVENT ALL NEW FEDERAL LAW

The corporatist idea that the FAA preempts all state law limiting class-action bans hasn’t caught on in the lower courts because there is no serious legal or intellectual basis for it.  If the Supreme Court decides to completely federalize the law in this area, it will have to invent from whole cloth new federal law that is not supported by anything in the language of the FAA or in its history.9

During their confirmation hearings, conservatives like Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito solemnly assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that they would bring a very humble approach to their jurisprudence if they were confirmed to the Supreme Court.  They weren’t the kind of guys to throw out precedents, make up new laws, or ignore history.

But if a majority of the Court plays Santa Claus for lawbreaking corporations in the way the Chamber wants, it will have done so only by tossing all of those promises overboard.

Consider these facts:

  • Because the FAA does not contain any express preemption provision, and does not preempt the field of arbitration, it preempts state laws only if they conflict with the purposes of the Act.10 This is important because the latter type of preemption is called implied conflict preemption, and Justice Thomas is on record as saying that the Court should be extremely reluctant to find implied conflict preemption based upon frustration of purpose.11 In light of Justice Thomas’s strong principled stand on this point, it is puzzling that a number of corporate defense lawyers privately claim to be so certain that Justice Thomas will vote for a broad FAA preemption position in Concepcion.
  • The only language in the FAA that relates to the question presented in Concepcion strongly supports the idea that the statute does not preempt state law.  The FAA’s key provision, section 2, provides that agreements to arbitrate will be enforceable only if three criteria are met:  (1) there is an agreement to arbitrate; (2) the agreement falls within interstate commerce; and (3) the agreement is not counter to laws that would lead to revocability of any contract.  9 U.S.C. § 2.  This last criterion necessarily refers to state law because contract law is generally comprised of state law and has been for a very long time.  What corporate defense lawyers want is for the court to cross out this last requirement, whenever it would apply to a contract term banning class actions that is inserted into an arbitration clause.  In other words, the corporate defense bar can only get what it wants from this case if the Court invents some rule to cross out that language whenever a class action is involved.  This is a pretty activist proposal, to put it mildly.
  • When the FAA was passed in 1924, there were no such things as class actions.  Congress could hardly have intended to preempt a body of state law relating to something that didn’t exist.12 And if the class procedure created some conflict with the FAA, one would have expected Congress to mention it in 1967, when it approved Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 and expressly authorized class actions.
  • Another line of case law leads to the same conclusion.  When a statute does not address a topic, the U.S. Supreme Court normally has held that there is no preemption with respect to that topic.13 Here, we know that the FAA does not address class actions because the Supreme Court has said so:  “the FAA itself contains no provision designed to deal with the special practical problems that arise in multi-party contractual disputes when some or all of the contracts at issue include agreements to arbitrate.”14
  • The state laws that corporate defense lawyers want the Court to strike down in Concepcion are well-established laws of general application.  They are laws and common-law doctrines, like the rule that exculpatory get-out-of-jail-contract-terms that undermine statutes are unconscionable, that do not mention arbitration, do not target arbitration, and have nothing to do with arbitration—all of which makes it hard to explain why they might conflict with the Federal “Arbitration” Act.
  • A few examples help to make this point.  In pretty much every state, an employer would be prohibited from writing a contract with an employee that says “we can fire you because of your race or gender, or pay you less if you’re a woman or African American, and none of the civil rights laws apply to you.”  Similarly, a corporation would be prohibited from writing a consumer contract that says “we can violate the Truth-in-Lending Act, your state consumer protection act, and other consumer laws.”  These provisions have nothing to do with arbitration, but they would be held unenforceable under the same set of state contract laws that courts have applied to class-action bans—laws that prohibit unfair and exculpatory contracts (i.e., contracts that immunize defendants from basic laws protecting civil or consumer rights).  Similarly, the law from around the nation demonstrates that a number of states have case law striking down class action bans in cases that do not involve arbitration clauses.15
  • State contract laws prohibiting exculpatory contract terms existed for many years before the FAA passed, and the roots of these doctrines track back to the British common law.  No one in the 1924 Congress ever suggested that the FAA was intended to preempt this body of state law and that Congress would have been shocked to hear that it was tossing these laws overboard.  The 1924 Congress intended the FAA to make arbitration clauses as enforceable as other contracts, not as a means of “laundering” otherwise illegal contract terms.16
  • Some corporate defense lawyers argue that class action bans are different from other contract terms that can have an exculpatory effect, because the class action is only a “procedural” device.  The idea here is that a contract term might be illegal if it openly says that it’s exculpatory, but it’s okay if it reaches the same exculpatory end through an indirect and “procedural” path.  Most state courts laugh off this formalism and hold that state laws also strike down contract terms that are effectively exculpatory, even if not explicitly so.  Consider another example:  if an employer’s contract said “you can bring a discrimination claim but only if you pay $1 million to an arbitrator, travel to New Zealand, and arbitrate on Leap Day” no reasonable court would uphold the contract because these effectively exculpatory requirements are arguably merely “procedural.”
  • The Supreme Court has said a number of times that arbitration clauses are only enforceable under the FAA if they let people “effectively vindicate their statutory legal rights.”17 The Court will have to re-write or ignore those decisions if it’s going to find that the FAA preempts state contract laws that insist that contract terms may not bar individuals from effectively vindicating their rights.  For the Chamber what it wants, the Court will have to manufacture a conflict between state law and one of the core principles the Court itself has repeatedly found to be a central premise of the FAA.  It will have to say something that amounts to the equivalent of “the FAA requires that parties must be accorded the formal power to theoretically vindicate their individual rights, but corporations have a newly minted federal right to gut any laws protecting against widespread violations of civil or consumer rights.”
  • State law recognizing the importance of class actions for vindicating consumer and employee rights is also entirely consistent with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.18 It’s hard to see how a state contract-law doctrine is in conflict with federal law when the doctrine, as applied to class-action bans, recognizes something that’s set forth in a number of the Supreme Court’s decisions.

For the U.S. Supreme Court to say, in effect, “the usual longstanding rules barring exculpatory clauses are erased by federal law if the contract term that is exculpatory is a class action ban embedded in an arbitration clause” would be a pretty radical ruling.  Almost every court in the U.S. has blinked and stepped away from that abyss.  Will the Supreme Court be the first to go the other way?

THE STAKES IN CONCEPCION

The Supreme Court’s decision in Concepcion probably won’t be that significant.  There are a number of ways that the Court could decide this case narrowly and make law that doesn’t change the legal landscape one way or the other.  The stakes in the case might be enormous, however.

There are some powerful corporations who are sick and tired of occasionally being taken to task when they get caught violating civil rights and consumer protection laws on a widespread basis.  These corporations want a new federal right to strip their employees and customers of their rights to ever bring class actions, no matter what state law provides or no matter how egregious the facts.

If these corporations get what they want – a very huge “if” – then America will experience the biggest contraction of private enforcement of consumer protection and civil rights laws since those laws were enacted.

Will the majority of the Court abandon the humble role of umpire to invent sweeping and radical new law?  Will scores of state and federal appellate cases be disregarded?  Will the FAA be re-written, widely expanded, and put on an inevitable collision course with congressional intent?  Or will the Court step back and do the right thing?  No one will know for sure until the Court decides Concepcion next spring.

End Notes:

1. Author’s: Paul Bland and Claire Prestel are Attorneys at Public Justice.  Melanie Hirsch is the Brayton-Baron Fellow at Public Justice.

2.    The precise question presented in Concepcion is as follows:

Whether the Federal Arbitration Act preempts states from conditioning the enforcement of an arbitration agreement on the availability of particular procedures – here, class-wide arbitration – when those procedures are not necessary to ensure that the parties to the arbitration agreement are able to vindicate their claims.

Pet. for a Writ of Cert. at i, Concepcion, No. 09-893 (U.S. Jan 25, 2010).

3.   Scott v. Cingular Wireless, 161 P.3d 1000, 1008 (Wash. 2007).

4.   Homa v. Am. Express Co., 558 F.3d 225, 230 (3d Cir. 2009) (“the defense [New Jersey law] provides is a general contract defense, one that applies to all waivers of class-wide actions, not simply those that also compel arbitration.  Therefore, there are no grounds for FAA preemption.”); Kinkel v. Cingular Wireless, 857 N.E. 2d 250, 263 (Ill. 2006) (the “FAA neither expressly nor implied preempts a state court from holding that an arbitration clause or specific provision within an arbitration clause is unenforceable”).

5.   See, e.g., Discover Bank v. Super. Ct., 113 P.3d 1000 (Cal. 2005); Kinkel, 857 N.E.2d 250; Feeney v. Dell Inc., 908 N.E. 2d 753 (Mass 2009); Tillman v. Commercial Credit Loans, Inc., 655 S.E. 2d 362 (N.C. 2008); Muhammad v. County Bank, 912 A.2d 88 (N.J. 2006); Fiser v. Dell Computer Corp., 188 P.3d 1215 (N.M. 2008); Scott, 161 P.3d 1000; Herron v. Century BMW, 693 S.E. 2d 394 (S.C. 2010); Leonard v. Terminix Int’l Co., 854 So.2d 529 (Ala. 2002); West Virginia ex rel. Dunlap v. Berger, 567 S.E. 2d 265 (W. Va. 549 2002).

6.   See, e.g., Forrest v. Verizon Comm.’s, Inc., 805 A.2d 1007, 1013 (D.C. 2002) (upholding class action ban under D.C. law); Walther v. Sovereign Bank, 872 A.2d 735, 70 (Md. 2005) (same, with Maryland law); Stenzel v. Dell, Inc., 870 A.2d 133 (Me. 2005) (class action ban in arbitration clause not unconscionable under Texas law).

7.   See, e.g., S.D.S. Autos, Inc. v. Chrzanowski, 976 So.2d 600 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007); Vasquez-Lopez v. Beneficial Oregon, Inc., 152 P.3d 940 (Or. Ct. App. 2007); Thibodeau v. Comcast Corp., 912 A.2d 874 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006); Coady v. Cross Country Bank, 729 N.W. 2d 732 (Wis. Ct. App. 2007); Eagle v. Fred Martin Motor, 809 N.E. 2d 1161 (Ohio Ct. App. 2004); Whitney v. Alltel Communics., Inc., 173 S.W. 3d 300 (Mo. Ct. App. 2005; Woods v. QC Fin. Servs, Inc., 280 S.W. 3d 90 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008).

8.   This has been true in cases where the federal courts have struck down class action bans.  See, e.g., Skirchak v. Dynamics Research Corp., 508 F.3d 49 (1st Cir. 2007) (class action ban in arbitration clause unconscionable under Massachusetts law); Fensterstock v. Edn. Fin. Partners, __ F.3d __, 2010 WL 2729759 (2d Cir. July 12, 2010); Chalk v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 560 F.3d 1087 (9th Cir. 2009); Homa, 558 F.3d 225; Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216 (11th Cir. 2007).  This has also been true, however, for courts that have upheld bans on class actions embedded in arbitration clauses.  Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1377-79 (11th Cir. 2005) (upholding class action ban and other terms in arbitration clause under Georgia law); Iberia Credit Bureau, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 379 F.3d 159, 174-75 (5th Cir. 2004) (upholding class action ban as consistent with Louisiana law); Snowden v. CheckPoint Check Cashing, 290 F.3d 631 (4th Cir. 2002) (same, with Maryland law); Pleasants v. Am. Express, 541 F.3d 853 (8th Cir. 2008) (same, with Missouri law).

9.   Of course, it has been widely observed that quite a few of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in this area are not readily traced to the language of the statute itself.  In one case, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that “the Court has abandoned all pretense of ascertaining congressional intent with respect to the Federal Arbitration Act, building instead, case by case, an edifice of its own creation.”  Allied-Bruce Terminix (Co.s, Inc. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265, 283 (1995) (O’Connor, J., concurring).  See also Rent-a-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, __ U.S. __, 2010 WL 2471058 at * 12 (U.S. June 21, 2010) (dissent of Justice Stevens) (in holding that arbitrator should decide challenge that an arbitration clause is unconscionable, the Court has extended a “fantastic” and likely erroneous decision).

10.  Volt Info. Sciences, Inc. v. Bd. Of Trustees of Standford Univ., 489 U.S. 468, 477-78 (1989).

11.  Wyeth v. Levine, 129 S. Ct. 1187, 1194-95 (2009).  (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment.).

12.  See Discover Bank, 30 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 88-89 (“class action litigation for damages was for the most part unknown in federal jurisdictions at the time the FAA was enacted in 1925. . . .  The Congress that enacted the FAA therefore cannot be said to have contemplated the issues before us.”).

13.  E.g., Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, 289-90 (1995) (“A finding of liability against petitioners would undermine no objectives or purposes with respect to ABS devices since none exist.”).

14.  Volt, 489 U.S. at 476 n. 5.

15.  See, e.g., Dix v. ICT Group, Inc., 161 P.3d 1016 (Wash. 2007); America Online, Inc. v. Pasieka, 870 So.2d 170 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2004); America Online, Inc. v. Superior Court, 90 Cal. App. 4th 1 (2001).

16.  See Dunlap, 567 S.E. 2d at 280 (FAA does not allow a party to evade state contract law “merely because the prohibiting or limiting provisions are part of or tied to provisions in the contract relating to arbitration”); Scott, 161 P.3d at 1008 (contract terms “do not change their character merely because they are found within a clause labeled ‘Arbitration’.”).

17.  See, e.g., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 637 (1985) (arbitration clauses are enforceable “so long as the prospective litigant effectively may vindicate its statutory cause of action in the arbitral forum”); Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n v. Waffle House, Inc., 534 U.S. 279, 295 n. 10 (2002); Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 28 (1991); Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Randolph, 531 U.S. 79, 81 (2000).

18.  See Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 617 (1997) (“The policy at the very core of the class action mechanism is to overcome the problem that small recoveries do not provide the incentive for any individual to bring a solo action prosecuting his or her rights.  A class action solves this problem by aggregating the relatively paltry potential recoveries into something worth someone’s (usually an attorney’s) labor.”); Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 161 (1974) (“A critical fact . . . is that petitioner’s individual stake . . . is only $70.  No competent attorney would undertake this complex antitrust action to recover so inconsequential an amount.  Economic reality dictates that petitioner’s suit proceed as a class action or not at all.”); Deposit Guaranty Nat’l Bank v. Roper, 445 U.S. 326, 338 n. 9 (1980) (to same effect).

Forced Arbitration and the Kagan Hearings

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Deepak GuptaThe forced arbitration of claims arising out of statutory protections for consumers and employees has become a hot topic at the Kagan hearings. The parade of comments by Senators started even before the hearings began, with a written statement by Senator Leahy criticizing the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Rent-a-Center v. Jackson, and similar remarks on the Senator floor by Senator Franken (video of which we’ve already posted here). The topic was raised again in Senator Whitehouse’s opening statement on Monday and in an extended colloquy between Franken and Kagan this morning.

In his statement, Leahy called the Rent-a-Center decision “a blow to our nation’s civil rights laws and the protections that American workers have long enjoyed under those laws.” He noted that “more than one hundred million Americans work under binding mandatory arbitration agreements” and that “most Americans are not even aware that they have waived their constitutional right to a jury trial when they accept a job to provide for their families.”

Congress worked for years on a bipartisan basis to pass laws to protect workers from race discrimination, gender discrimination and age discrimination.  . . . Rent-a-Center is unfortunately just the latest in a line of divisive and devastating Supreme Court decisions where five justices have, in effect, gutted those statutory protections. … Congress should now take a closer look at the way in which binding mandatory arbitration is creating a legal underground where American workers are left without protection.

There is no rule of law in arbitration. There are no juries or independent judges in the arbitration industry. There is no appellate review. There is no transparency. And as a result of today’s divisive ruling, there will likely be no justice for millions of American workers and their families.  The courthouse doors have simply been closed to them.  Today’s opinion also gives big business a disincentive to treat their employees fairly and will no doubt lead to virtually all companies requiring their employees to sign one-sided arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.

Senator Whitehouse’s opening statement at the Kagan hearings struck a similar chord:

Unfortunately, the conservative wing of the current Supreme Court has departed from [the Court’s] great institutional traditions. Precedents, whether of old or recent vintage, have been discarded at a startling rate. Statutes passed by Congress have been tossed aside with little hesitation, and constitutional questions of enormous import have been taken up hastily and needlessly. Only last week, the Rent-A-Center decision concluded that an employee who challenges as unconscionable an arbitration demand must have that challenge decided by the arbitrator. And the Citizens United decision — yet another 5-4 decision — created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited money in American elections, opening our democratic system to a massive new threat of corruption and corporate control. There is an unmistakable pattern. For all the talk of umpires and balls and strikes at the Supreme Court, the strike zone for corporations gets better every day.

Finally, Senator Franken this morning used the hearings as an opportunity to sharply critique not only the recent Rent-a-Center decision, but also the Court’s 2001 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, which rewrote the Federal Arbitration Act to include most employee claims.  The relevant portion of the transcript form this morning’s hearings is available after the jump.

Sen. Franken: I want to discuss something that is denying more and more working Americans that precious day in court, that fair shake, and that’s mandatory arbitration. Now, arbitration has its place. I’m talking about mandatory arbitration. Chances are if you have a cell phone or credit card or if you work, you’re likely to have signed a contract with a mandatory arbitration clause. These clauses basically say if we violate your rights, you can’t take us to court. You have to take it to an arbitrator. But then the fine print essentially says an arbitrator that we pay who depends on us for work and who makes decisions in secret. So a lot of people are denying their opportunity to come before the court.

Circuit City v. Adams

Unfortunately, we’ve seen a series of decisions from the Supreme Court that have made it even harder for people to get that fair shake, as you put it. In 2001 in a case called Circuit City, the Court was asked to decide whether workers’ employment, employment contracts could be subject to mandatory arbitration. This really should have been a no-brainer, because the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925, the law that says that arbitration agreements should be enforced — specifically exempts, quote, “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

Organized labor had asked for this specific language to be included to make sure the act would not apply to workers’ employment contracts. In fact, then commerce secretary Herbert Hoover said during a Senate hearing, quote, “if the objection appears to be inclusion of workers’ contracts in the law’s scheme, it might well be amended by states but nothing herein contained shall apply to the contracts of seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in interstate commerce.”

Secretary Hoover was saying that if congress wanted to make clear that the Federal Arbitration Act did not apply to employment contracts, Congress should put this language in the statute. So Congress put the language in the statute. But when Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in circuit city, he ignored the history. He wrote, and I quote, “we need not assess the legislative history of the exclusion provision.” Let me repeat that. “We need not assess the legislative history of the exclusion provision.” And based on a strained reading of the law he decided that the exception only applied to workers in the transportation business. Not any class of workers.

This means that instead of all workers getting their day in court in Congress . . . like Congress clearly intended, only transportation workers would get it, and that excludes the vast majority of american workers. General Kagan, I really disagree with this case and the way the court ignored Congress’ intent. That why I was glad to hear your response to one of Senator Schumer’s questions about how the court should interpret statutes. You said that among other things, quote, I think a judge should look to the history of the statute in order to determine Congress’ will. General Kagan, we spent a lot of time in hearings and on the floor debating legislation. How much weight do you think a judge should give to the deliberations of congress and the reasons why we pass the law in the first place?

EK: Senator Franken, the most important thing in interpreting any statute, in fact, the only thing that matters is Congress’ intent. Congress gets to make the laws under Article One of the Constitution. And what the Court should be doing in applying those laws is trying to figure out what Congress meant and how Congress wanted the laws to be applied. That is the only thing that the Court should be doing. Now, sometimes that can be a difficult task. New situations come up. The statutory language is not clear how it applies to those new situations or sometimes congress might simply not have thought of particular situations. Language is by necessity an exact, and so there are going to be cases which —

Sen. Franken: Do you agree with Justice Kennedy, “we need not assess the legislative history” of something?

EK: I would say this. I would say where the text is clear, a court should go with the text. Where the the text clearly covers some situation, the court should do that. The court shouldn’t be writing law.

Sen. Franken: Should the court assess that and make an assessment there?

EK: I think if the text is clear, the court should not rewrite the law. But where the text is ambiguous, which often happens —

Sen. Franken: Wouldn’t you have to assess whether it is ambiguous?

EK: Yes.

Sen. Franken: What Justice Kennedy said doesn’t stand up to that, does that? Let us me move on on that. We in Congress, we want to make sure all of us intentions are clear so 75 years from now the Supreme Court doesn’t just ignore the purpose behind the laws we’re passing. How can we do that? How do we do that? How do we make it clear to future Justices?

EK: Well, the courts surely would be helped if Congress spoke as precisely and exactly and as comprehensively as it could in all situations. You know, there are some instances where the Court just has legitimate difficulty trying to figure out what congress intended and where judges all of whom agree what they should be doing is doing what Congress intended, have difficulty determining that or disagree about what that means. Certainly to the extent Congress can make its intentions clear in legislation and can specifically spell out how it intends for the law to operate, congress ought to do so. To the extent that the court gets something wrong with respect to a statute, and this has happened many times in recent years and in prior years as well. To the extent that the court gets something wrong, of course Congress can come back and change it and make clear that the court got it wrong and also use it as an opportunity even to make clear its intentions with respect to a general area of law.

Sen. Franken: Okay. It’s hard to do 78 years from now, but we’ll try. Circuit City was a Rehnquist court decision.

Rent-a-Center v. Jackson

Just last week the Roberts Court did something better to keep workers out of court and in arbitration. Rent-a-Center has 21,000 workers and hundreds of milions of dollars in annual profits. It forces its workers to sind a mandatory arbitration agreement as a condition of employment. Antonio Jackson, an African-American account manager in nevada had been working for Rent-a-Center for years, but he was frustrated because he watched his company pass him over for promotions again and again. Instead they promoted workers who had less experience and who weren’t black. Although Jackson signed an employment contract agreeing to arbitrate all employment claims, this seemed blatantly unfair and he sued Rent-a-Center.

But the company argued that only the arbitrator could decide whether the arbitration clause was unfair. Let me repeat that.  Rent-a-Center argued that only the arbrator could decide whether the arbitration clause was unfair. Last week the Roberts Court sided with Rent-a-Center.

Talk about not getting your day in court. Now you can’t get your day in court to get your day in court. Now, general Kagan, I know I probably can’t ask you whether I can ask you, but you won’t answer, whether this case was correctly decided, but I would like to ask you still agree with what you said yesterday to Senator Kyl, that one of the glorious things about courts is they provide a level playing field in all circumstances, and that we need to make sure that every single person gets the opportunity to come before the court and gets the opportunity to make his best case and gets a fair shake.

EK: Well, I do agree with that very strongly, Senator Franken. If I might just return to this question of statutory interpretation that you started off with, because I did want to make clear that when a text is ambiguous, which you know frequently happens, which frequently happens, then I think the job of the courts is to use whatever evidence is at hand to understand Congress’ intent. And that includes exploration of Congress’ purpose by way of looking at the structure of the statute, by way of looking at the title of the statute, by way of looking at when the statute was enacted and in what circumstances and by way of looking at legislative history. Now, I think the courts have to be careful about looking at legislative history and make sure that what they’re looking to is reliable, but courts shouldn’t at all exclude signs of congressional intent and should really search hard for congressional intent when the text of the statute itself is unclear.

Sen. Franken: Good. Then I think you and I agree that Justice Kennedy may have been in error when he said that — that the Court doesn’t have to assess the legislative history.

EK: Well, I suspect that — i don’t know the case very well. I suspect that Justice Kennedy may have meant he thought the text was clear, and therefore, the legislative history was not something that should appropriately be explored, but I’m just guessing on that.

Sen. Franken: Okay. I think you’re guessing wrong.

EK: Okay.

This article was originally posted on Consumer Law & Policy Blog

About The Author: Deepak Gupta is a staff attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group, the litigating arm of the national, non-profit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. He also teaches a course in public interest law as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and he previously taught a course in appellate advocacy as an adjunct professor at the Washington College of Law at American University.

Cert Granted in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Image: Jean SternlightYesterday the Supreme Court granted certiorari in what could be an extremely important case addressing the intersection of mandatory arbitration and class actions.  AT & T Mobility v. Concepcion, 2010 WL 303962, Docked 09-893 (May 24, 2010) poses the following question:  “Whether the Federal Arbitration Act preempts States from conditioning the enforcement of an arbitration agreement on the availability of particular procedures — here, class-wide arbitration –  when those procedures are not necessary to ensure that the parties to the arbitration agreement are able to vindicate their claims.”

The lawsuit, brought in the 9th Circuit, is a consumer class action contending that AT&T Mobility acted fraudulently when it offered a “free” phone to all who signed up for service, but then charged substantial sales tax ($30.22 for two phones to the named plaintiff) to each consumer.  When plaintiff sought to litigate the claim as a class action the defendant demanded individual arbitration, citing an arbitration clause that prohibited class actions.  Relying on California unconscionability law, specifically Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 113 P.3d 1100 (Cal. 2005) the District Court, 2008 WL 5216255, and Ninth Circuit, 584 F.3d 849 (9th Cir. 2009) both courts found the class action prohibition unconscionable.

AT&T Mobility’s cert petition recognizes that provisions in arbitration agreements can sometimes be held unconscionable, but argues that the decisions below are preempted because California courts are purportedly interpreting unconscionability law differently (and more strictly) when they review arbitral class action prohibitions than when they review other kinds of contracts.   In particular, the California Supreme Court’s Discover Bank decision states:

“when the [class] waiver is found in a consumer contract of adhesion in a setting in which disputes between the contracting parties predictably involve small amounts of damages. and when it is alleged that the party with the superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money, then, at least, . . . the waiver becomes in practice the exemption of the party from responsibility for its own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another.  Under these circumstances, such waivers are unconscionable under California law and should not be enforced.”

The Ninth Circuit states that this specific test is not a new rule applicable only to arbitration agreements but rather merely a “refinement” of the “general sliding-scale approach to unconscionability in the specific  context of class action waivers.”

The arbitration clause at issue in Concepcion is highly unusual, because it includes a provision stating that if the arbitrator awards the customer an amount greater than the phone company’s last written settlement offer made before selection of an arbitrator then the consumer is entitled to a premium payment of $7,500.  The company argues that this “premium” provision is sufficiently generous  that a class action is not necessary to allow individual claimants to enforce their rights, and that it was wrong in this context to hold a class action prohibition unconscionable.  The plaintiffs respond (and the Ninth Circuit found) that “the premium payment does not transform a $30.22 case into a predictable $7,500 case.”  Instead, finds the Ninth Circuit, “predictably AT&T will simply pay the face value of the claim before the selection of an arbitrator to avoid potentially paying $7,500.  Thus, the maximum gain to a customer for the hassle of arbitrating a $30.22 dispute is still just $30.22.”  Normally, finds the Ninth Circuit, a person “will not find it worth the time or the hassle to try to recover such a small amount, even if that person spends no money to hire an attorney or to invoke the arbitration process.”

It seems that the Concepcion case will require the Court to walk a difficult line.  If the majority of the Court want to find that California’s approach to unconscionability in this context is preempted  it will have to find a way to do that without purporting to wade too far into state law.  While it may be easy for the Court to say that unconscionability law can’t be applied more strictly to arbitration agreements than to other kinds of contracts, it may be hard for the Supreme Court or lower courts to apply that test in particular situations.

The case will also be interesting because it raises the issue of the purpose of class actions and litigation more generally.  Is the accepted purpose of plaintiffs’ class action only to reimburse plaintiff for the cost of the phone or is an accepted purpose also to help other similarly situated consumers or to deter the defendant or other companies from engaging in such fraudulent behavior in the future?  Is it appropriate to find a class action prohibition unconscionable because it harms persons other than the named plaintiffs or prevents deterrence, and not merely because it prevents the particular named plaintiffs from recovering their loss?  Note that class actions serve a notice function — helping present claims of persons who did not even know they had claims.  Is it appropriate (not preempted by the FAA)  to find that eliminating that aspect of class actions is unconscionable?

The case will be watched extremely closely by both sides of the class action/arbitration debate.  Probably no one believes that  all class action prohibitions are per se unconscionable.  Equally, while some companies might want to eliminate unconscionability arguments altogether in all likelihood Section 2 of the FAA ensures that some types of arbitration clauses can be unconscionable.  Thus,  the question the Court will try to answer is are class action waivers contained in arbitration clauses somehow immune from unconscionability challenges and, assuming they are not, how should courts decide whether such waivers are unconscionable.    A broad decision in favor of AT&T Mobility could  potentially allow companies in a variety of contexts to insulate themselves from class action exposure by including class action waivers in their arbitration clauses.   This would be a huge deal in the world of consumer litigation, as many consumer challenges are only brought through class actions.  Such a ruling could also affect employment cases, particularly wage and hour claims, which are typically presented in class actions.   This type of ruling could spark legislative action on the proposed Arbitration Fairness Act (which would prohibit mandatory arbitration in the consumer and employment settings).  Alternatively a narrower decision in favor of AT&T could open a floodgate of future litigation to determine whether a lower court had issued a permissible or impermissble decision holding that a particular class action waiver was unconscionable.  A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would reinforce existing law in many jurisdictions which provides that arbitral class action prohibitions are at risk of being held unconscionable.

Stay tuned for another exciting arbitration decision from the Supreme Court!

*This post originally appeared in Indisputably.org on May 25, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Jean R. Sternlight is the Michael and Sonja Saltman Professor of Law and also Director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Boyd School of Law.  She teaches courses on dispute resolution, including both litigation and alternatives thereto.  Frequently cited by courts and the media, Sternlight is co-author of Mediation Theory and Practice 2d ed. (LEXIS 2006), Arbitration Law in America: A Critical Assessment (Cambridge Univ. Press 2006), and Dispute Resolution: Beyond the Adversarial Model (Aspen 2004).  She has published articles in numerous well-respected journals including Stanford Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Journal of Law & Contemporary Problems, William & Mary Law Review, and The Ohio State Journal of Dispute Resolution.  Sternlight received her B.A. (High Honors) from Swarthmore College, and her J.D. (cum laude) from Harvard Law School.   After practicing law in Philadelphia for eight years she began her academic career at Florida State University College of Law.  She subsequently moved to the University of Missouri-Columbia and has been at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas since the summer of 2003.

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