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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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My colleagues at BakerHostetler have put together some great content on several class action-related topics recently that readers should find interesting.

First, the Baker Hostetler Class Action Defense Team issued an executive alert today discussing the Supreme Court’s decision to grant certiorari in another case involving class arbitration waivers.  The alert, titled U.S. Supreme Court Considers Arbitration Clauses and Class Actions Next Year, summarizes the issues to be addressed in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter.  The alert was authored by newly elected Cleveland Partner Ruth E. Hartman and Class Action Defense Team Leader Ernie Vargo.

Another executive alert, titled Recent Trends in Class Actions for Telephone and Fax Solicitation and Advertising, was issued last week by the Privacy and Data Protection and Class Action Defense Teams.   The alert, authored by my colleague in Denver, Justin Winquist, summarizes the latest trends in class action litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

Finally, my partner Casie Collignon authored a blog post yesterday with an update on the latest in the ongoing saga of Dukes v. Wal-Mart on remand following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.  The post is entitled, California District Court Awaits Class Certification Motion in Wal-Mart.

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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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The Baker Hostetler Employment Class Action Blog is constantly putting out quality content, but they have two new recent posts that I would especially recommend to my readers.  They include:

  • This February 6 post from John Lewis discussing the impacts, both on employment cases and otherwise, of the Second Circuit’s recent Amex III decision.
  • This February 6 Post from Greg Mersol discussing a recent federal court decision holding that the pleading standards articulated in Iqbal and Twombly do not apply to affirmative defenses in class actions.
  • This January 20 post from John Lewis discussing the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent pro-arbitration opinion in CompuCredit Corp v. Greenwood.

Even if you aren’t an employment lawyer, I would strongly suggest adding www.employmentclassactionreport.com to your list of favorites!

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