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Posts Tagged ‘class arbitration’

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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Those of us who have been following the Supreme Court’s decisions on class actions and arbitration over the past few years may have been a bit surprised when the Court recently upheld an arbitrator’s decision to compel class arbitration in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. SutterOxford Health bucked a trend of decidedly defendant-friendly decisions on issues relating to the interplay between class actions and arbitration.  Today, the Court moved back into more familiar territory in deciding American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (“Amex III“).  

The holding in Amex III, as summarized in the syllabus, is that “[t]he FAA does not permit courts to invalidate a contractual waiver of class arbitration on the ground that the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery.”  Thus, just is it had held that state law of unconscionability could not be used to invalidate a class arbitration waiver in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the Court’s holding today limits the use of federal law to invalidate arbitration provisions that preclude class actions. 

Will Amex III finally be the case to end class actions as we know themConcepcion hasn’t, so I doubt Amex III will either.

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The Supreme Court issued its decision today in the first of two arbitration-related class action cases on the 2012-13 docket.  Today’s decision bucks what had been a trend in the Court’s decisions in recent years strongly favoring individual arbitration and limiting the situations in which class arbitration (private arbitration in which the plaintiffs proceed in a representative capacity on behalf of a class) can occur.

In a unanimous ruling, the Court in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter upheld an arbitrator’s decision to interpret an arbitration agreement as allowing for class arbitration, despite express reference to class arbitration in the parties’ written agreement.  Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan reasoned that applicable standard of review prevents the courts from second-guessing whether the arbitrator’s interpretation of the party’s contract was the correct one and only permits review of whether the decision was based on an interpretation of the parties’ agreement.  Because the arbitrator’s decision was clearly based on an analysis of contractual intent, the arbitrator’s decision could not be overturned.  The fact that the arbitrator had interpreted the parties’ agreement as providing for class arbitration and the deferential standard applicable to the arbitrator’s decision distinguished Oxford Health Plans from Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., in which the Court had held that class arbitration cannot be compelled absent express agreement by the parties.

Important to the Court’s decision was the fact that the defendant had conceded that the arbitrator should decide the question of whether the parties had agreed to class arbitration.  It was this concession that let Justice Alito to agree with the Court’s decision.  However, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Alito expressed doubt that any ruling in the class arbitration proceeding would have any preclusive effect as to absent class members, an observation that raises a serious question about whether the Oxford Health decision will be of any practical impact in other cases.  He noted:

Class arbitrations that are vulnerable to collateral attack allow absent class members to unfairly claim the “benefit from a favorable judgment without subjecting themselves to the binding effect of an unfavorable one,” American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U. S. 538, 546– 547 (1974).  In the absence of concessions like Oxford’s, this possibility should give courts pause before concluding that the availability of class arbitration is a question the arbitrator should decide.

Defendants will likely see the concurrence as a roadmap for asking the question to be addressed by a court in the first instance, as opposed to simply conceding that the arbitrator should decide the issue whether class arbitration is allowed. 

There are two clear takeaways from the Oxford Health decision: 1) in drafting an arbitration provision, make sure to address the issue of whether arbitration on a class-wide basis will be allowed.  Under Stolt-Nielsen, agreements that bar class arbitration will be enforced; 2) think carefully before conceding that an arbitrator, rather than a court, should make decisions about how an arbitration agreement should be interpreted.

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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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NOTE: The following is a copy of a post that I did for the recently-released Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog. Be sure to check out the new blog for other fantastic class-action-related content!

Globalization has brought with it the growing problem of how to deal with mass disputes that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, as well as ever-increasing creativity among the members of the plaintiffs’ bar in bringing ever-larger class and mass actions. There is no single global court or other forum for bringing international or cross-border civil disputes, let alone disputes that involve allegations of mass harm. One of the key challenges for lawyers, policymakers, consumers, and businesses in the 21st century is how to efficiently resolve international mass disputes given the realities of globalization and the lack of any clear forum.

From the late 1990s through the first decade of this century, there were several trends favoring the U.S. courts as a global forum for litigating international disputes. However, recently, that trend has reversed, and the U.S. courts are becoming increasingly reluctant to entertain international class action litigation.

One of the hottest trends in securities litigation in the latter part of the last decade was what became known as foreign-cubed (or “f-cubed”) class actions, securities fraud class actions filed on behalf of foreign investors against foreign companies involving securities traded on a foreign exchange. The trend came to an abrupt halt, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), holding that section 10(b) of the Securities and Exchange Act does not have an extraterritorial reach and only applies to securities traded on a U.S. exchange or other transactions that occurs within a U.S. state or territory. Although lower court decisions following Morrison, including a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision, may breathe some life back into the idea of litigating a small subset of primarily foreign securities disputes in the U.S. federal courts, Morrison has generally closed the U.S. courts to foreign-cubed class actions.

Another promising avenue for litigating global mass disputes was international arbitration. A developing strategy was for plaintiffs who had signed form arbitration agreements to seek to compel arbitration on behalf of both themselves and others who had signed the same form of agreement. (Several arbitration associations have implemented specific rules for how class arbitrations should be conducted. Here is a link to the AAA Supplemental Rules for Class Arbitration). The Supreme Court put an end to this strategy when it decided the international price-fixing case, Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). In Stolt-Nielsen, the Court held that a party to an arbitration agreement could not compel class-wide arbitration unless the parties had expressly agreed to allow class, rather than individual, arbitration.

In the human rights area, the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act has increasingly been used as a tool to litigate international disputes involving alleged violations of international law over the past two decades. Several circuit courts of Appeals have even allowed actions under the ATCA to be brought against private corporations, under the theory that those corporations aided and abetted a foreign government or foreign official in committing human rights abuses. However, the Circuits split on the issue, and the Supreme Court accepted certiorari to resolve the split in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491. Following an oral argument held last month, the Supreme Court issued an order directing the parties to submit supplemental briefing to address the extent to which the ATCA should permit the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction at all over acts that took place within a sovereign jurisdiction other than the United States. Questions posed during oral argument, especially by the conservative wing of the Court, suggest skepticism about the allowing U.S. Courts to adjudicate human rights disputes that have nothing to do with the United States.

At the same time that avenues for global mass redress in the U.S. Courts have been closing, doors have been opening in other parts of the world. Class action law continues to develop in Canada and Australia. Israel has a class action procedure that closely mirrors U.S. law. Dozens of other countries in all corners of the world now have procedures allowing at least some form of mass redress. A very recent example is a class action law enacted in Mexico that permits a form of collective litigation that, while quite different from class actions in the United States, provides express mechanisms for seeking collective redress. In 2006, the Netherlands passed a law that allows mass settlements of claims (although it does not provide a procedure for litigating contested class claims), and arguably allows residents of other EU countries to be included. In other countries, the lack of a specific class or collective action procedure has not kept courts from fashioning remedies for mass redress.

The continuing lack of a single global forum for litigating mass disputes and the proliferation of new procedures permitting collective litigation abroad, are likely to have at least one near term practical impact. That is, the development of areas of law dealing with the enforcement of foreign class or collective action judgments. This has already become a reality in a huge environmental contamination case involving the drilling operations of a formal Chevron subsidiary in Ecuador. In 2010, a court in Ecuador entered an $18 million judgment in the case, and proceedings are ongoing in both the U.S. courts and in international arbitration proceedings relating to the enforceability of the judgment.

In a related vein, U.S. courts increasingly find themselves adjudicating disputes under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, which allows litigants discovery in the United States for use in connection with foreign proceedings (see this recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision interpreting the statute).

What does this all mean for potential litigants in global disputes? For any company or even small business that does business internationally, these developments highlight the necessity of keeping up with the constant changes in local laws as well as international trends. The procedures that might have been applicable, and arguments that might have been persuasive a year before, may no longer be viable, but new avenues and theories will have almost certainly taken their place.

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As promised in my post late last week, the Baker Hostetler client alert on last week’s Second Circuit decision in In Re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871 (2d Cir., Feb. 1, 2012) (Amex III) was released today.  Here is a link to the alert, authored by New York partner Deborah Renner and Columbus associate Jennifer Vessells, and titled Second Circuit Again Holds Class Action Waiver Unenforceable.

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Today’s edition of the Baker Hostetler Employment Class Actions Newsletter has two great articles worth noting.

My colleague here in Denver, Holli Hartman, authored an article summarizing developments in challenges to class arbitration waivers following the Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.

Cleveland Partner Greg Mersol and Summer Associate George Skupski contributed an entry examining the application of Daubert standards to expert testimony at the class certification stage in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.

Although I’m admittedly somewhat biased, I highly recommend both articles, as well as other employment class action-related news and commentary on the firm’s Employment Class Action Blog.

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My recent SCOTUSblog post  on the October 2010 Supreme Court Term class action decisions does not address an important decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which was issued last week.  In Litman v. Cellco Partnership, the Third Circuit held that New Jersey decision holding class arbitration waivers unconscionable was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  To that extent, the court’s analysis is a relatively straightforward application of the federal preemption analysis in Concepcion.  But what is important about the Litman decision is that the court’s analysis makes no mention of whether the arbitration clause at issue contained the sorts of consumer-friendly procedural protections contained in the AT&T Mobility arbitration clause at issue in Concepcion.  Based on the quoted portions of the agreement discussed in Litman, it appears that it did not.  As a result even in cases outside the Third Circuit, Litman provides a defendant with strong authority for arguing that class arbitration waivers cannot be held unconscionable under state law principles regardless of the presence of any special consumer protections ensuring that arbitration provides a meaningful mechanism for redress.

However, potential defendants should still be cautious about going too far with arbitration provisions that mandate a waiver of all avenues for class relief if they don’t also contain some provision for incentivizing the pursuit of individual arbitration of a meritorious claim.  There are a variety of other arguments, including arguments based on the federal common law of arbitrability, that may still be persuasive to many courts when the particular arbitration agreement at issue appears to foreclose any possibility of litigation at all.  Moreover, the decision of only one of the federal circuits will not likely be enough to prevent attempts by plaintiffs’ lawyers to attack broadly-worded arbitration agreements in consumer contracts in the short-term.  So, although Litman is a good decision for defendants, prudent corporations will not treat it as an invitation to adopt draconian class arbitration waivers that have the effect of precluding nearly all consumer litigation.

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Daniel Fisher, who writes the Full Disclosure blog at Forbes.com, posted an article last Friday titled Has Scalia Killed the Class Action?  Fisher’s article one of the best I’ve seen in discussing the potential practical impact that the Supreme Court’s recent class arbitration waiver decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion may have on future consumer class action litigation.  I highly recommend it. 

Although much remains to be seen about Concepcion‘s long-term impact, from a practitioner’s point of view, two things are clear to me. 

First, the consumer class action is far from dead.  As Fisher’s article points out, there are many cases that won’t implicate arbitration clauses in consumer contracts at all, such as those involving retail products.  Moreover, even setting aside the prospect of executive branch or Congressional action in effectively overruling Concepcion, there are a variety of legal arguments that are sure to be raised for invalidating or avoiding enforcement of class arbitration waivers in the lower courts, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision.  There are countless theories, many of which have yet to be dreamed up by enterprising plaintiffs’ lawyers, for why a consumer class action in a particular case should be allowed to go forward in court notwithstanding an arbitration provision.

Second, the fact that future legislative or executive action or lower court judicial gloss may water down or limit Concepcion‘s ultimate impact should not keep companies from taking advantage of what is now, at minimum, an enhanced tool for protection against the significant cost of defending against class action litigation.  In the short term, any in-house or outside counsel charged with advising corporate clients should be considering ways to incorporate class arbitration waivers or similar provisions into the client’s form contracts and terms of use.  While it may not be failsafe protection from class actions, a well-drafted, reasonably limited class arbitration waiver, has an exponentially greater chance of being enforced than it did before the Concepcion decision was announced.

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