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Archive for the ‘Class Arbitration Waivers’ Category

Editor’s Note: One of my colleagues, bankruptcy attorney Lars Fuller, sent me the following note this afternoon about a recent Tenth Circuit decision Howard v. Ferrellgas Partners LP discussing class arbitration waivers, which he thought would be of interest to readers of this blog.  Here are the insights that Lars had to offer about the decision (click the link on the case name above for a copy of the opinion):

Attached is an opinion written by 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch (easily the most entertaining writer on the 10th Circuit), and addresses an issue you likely encounter, i.e., mandatory arbitration arising out of an attempted class action. The 10th Circuit reverses the U.S. District Court (Kansas) after the district court summarily denied arbitration following over a year of discovery on the issue of whether mandatory arbitration applied pursuant to the terms of the governing contract. Judge Gorsuch is refreshingly frank in his critique of the U.S. District: “The [FAA] calls for a summary trial–not death by discovery.” He also summarizes the dispute as being plagued by “venue miseries.”

The contract analysis is very interesting, with potentially an oral contract, subsequently modified in writing, or not. Judging from the Tenth Circuit analysis, the facts would constitute a very challenging law school or bar exam question. Here’s the crux:

[C]ritical questions of fact still remain on the threshold question whether they agreed to arbitrate. We know Mr. Howard called Ferrellgas to order propane to heat his home. We know Ferrellgas agreed to sell him some. But much more than that remains unclear even now. Did the parties form a final and complete oral contract in that initial phone call governing all their propane dealings over the next few years? Or did their agreement cover only Mr. Howard’s propane tank rental and its initial fill, in this way perhaps leaving room for Ferrellgas’s later-delivered, arbitration-clause-containing form contract to govern the parties’ subsequent dealings, including the later propane purchases at issue in this case? Whether this case belongs in arbitration or litigation hinges on the answers to factual questions like these.

The subsequent analysis expands on the challenges these facts present to contract analysis. The opinion also addresses the apparently controversial “rolling theory of contract formation” (apparently “about as controversial an idea as exists today in the staid world of contract law”), along with the Byzantine choice of law arena.

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In what would have been bigger class action news yesterday had the Supreme Court not issued its decision in Amgen, the Court also heard oral argument in class arbitration case, American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, No. 12-133 (click case title for a link to the transcript).  The primary issue presented is whether the “federal substantive law of arbitrability” may be invoked to invalidate an arbitration agreement in a case involving federal law claims.  The case will test the limits of the Supreme Court’s holding in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011) (holding that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state laws prohibiting class arbitration waivers). 

It is clear from the questions posed by the Justices that there are certain members of the Court (namely Justice Scalia, author of Concepcion) who remain steadfast in their belief that arbitration agreements that prohibit class claims are enforceable, period, and that there is another faction of the court that has serious doubts about the use of an arbitration agreement to effectively foreclose a litigant from obtaining any meaningful procedure for vindicating his or her rights.  Whether this case follows Concepcion in solidifying the enforceability of class arbitration waivers or carves out an exception will likely depend on a few swing votes in the middle.

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Work commitments have prevented me from commenting in detail on some key developments in class actions over the past week or so, but please be sure to check out my Twitter feed for some links.  The key developments include: 1) the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Amex III to decide whether federal law can apply to hold a class arbitration waiver unconscionable; and 2) Judge Posner’s decision favorable to class certification of warranty claims in case involving allegedly moldy washing machines.

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I’m a few weeks behind in reporting this, but I still thought it was worth noting that the Florida Supreme Court held oral argument last month in a case that could test the the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision on class arbitration waivers in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  In McKenzie Check Advance of Florida LLC v. Wendy Betts, SC11-514, the plaintiff relied on factual evidence in an attempt to prove that the lack of a class action device has made it impossible for her to obtain legal representation to pursue her claims in arbitration.  The case thus potentially raises the question of whether a case-specific finding of unconscionablility, as opposed to a statewide policy invalidating class arbitration waivers more generally, is permissible despite the Court’s holding in Concepcion (I say potentially because it appears that there are factual questions about whether the evidence really supports the proposition that there would be no lawyer willing to take the plaintiff’s case in an individual arbitration).  Recall that the arbitration provision at issue in Concepcion contained several consumer-friendly features, which could have supported the conclusion that it did not actually deprive a consumer of any opportunity to vindicate his or her rights, although Justice Scalia’s majority opinion did not turn on the existence of these features.

This AP article by Bill Kaczor has a good summary of the arguments on both sides and some of the key questions posed during oral argument.  A link to the video feed of the oral argument can be found here (although the server was not responding when I tried to play it).

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