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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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In an entry entitled Concepcion, Four Long Months Later, I summarized several decisions evaluating class arbitration waiver provisions following the Concepcion decision.  I neglected to include the case of NAACP of Camden County East v. Foulke Management Corp., ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2011), in which a New Jersey state appellate court held an arbitration provision unenforceable under state law on ambiguity grounds.

Bruce D. Greenberg has a synopsis of the decision on his blog, New Jersey Appellate Law, along with a link to the opinion.

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Class action news has slowed a bit over the Summer months, at least compared to the non-stop action we witnessed this Spring.  But one area that has seen continued development in the past few months has been the area of class arbitration waivers, where several lower court decisions have been issued in the wake of AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.  A view of the decisions shows that class actions are far from dead, despite the dire predictions of many experts following the decision.  As my partner, John Lewis, noted in a recent interview with the AmLaw Daily, “While many people thought Concepcion was the end of the line, now we’re seeing the reaction to Conception with district courts distinguishing it on various grounds.”  Here is a quick summary of several key decisions that have interpreted or applied Concepcion:

Chen-Oster v. Goldman Sachs, Inc. (link courtesy of Justia.com) – U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York – July 7, 2011 – applying the federal common law of arbitrability in rejecting the argument that Concepcion required enforcement of class arbitration waiver in a gender discrimination pattern and practice case, holding that enforcement of the arbitration clause at issue would interfere with the enforcement of a federal substantive right.

Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Company (link courtesy of Impact Litigation Journal, which also has a  summary of the decision here) – California Court of Appeal – July 12, 2011 – holding that representative actions for state labor code violations under California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) were not preempted by the FAA because Concepcion did not address preemption in cases involving PAGA’s statutory procedure and because the procedure did not involve many of the attributes of class action procedure that the Supreme Court had held were inconsistent with the purposes of arbitration.

Kanbar v. O’Melveny & Myers (link also courtesy of the AmLaw Daily) – U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California – July 21, 2011 –  holding in an employment discrimination case that notwithstanding Concepcion, an arbitration provision was unconscionable under California state law and that state law was not preempted under the FAA, but nonetheless compelling arbitration on the grounds that the plaintiff had waived her right to object to enforceability of the arbitration clause.

Cruz v. Cingular Wireless LLC – Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals – August 11, 2011 – holding that Concepcion compelled the conclusion that arbitration clause was enforceable in a case involving the same exact arbitration clause that was at issue in Concepcion (the clause in AT&T’s mobile phone contract).

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Last week, following the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, I commented that the decision does not answer the question whether a federal court has the power to declare a class arbitration waiver unconscionable.  Although not on this precise issue, the Court has granted cert on a related issue relating to the enforceability of arbitration agreements that preclude class actions.

The issue presented in CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, No. 10-948 is “Whether claims arising under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1679 et seq., are subject to arbitration pursuant to a valid arbitration agreement.”  This would-be class action involves a potential conflict between two competing federal laws, the Federal Arbitration Act and the Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA).  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a class arbitration waiver was void “because the CROA specifically prohibits provisions disallowing any waiver of a consumer’s right to sue in court for CROA violations.”  In reaching that conclusion, it held that the statute’s reference to a “right to sue” was an express statement of Congressional intention to preclude waivers of consumer’s rights to bring a lawsuit in court, thus falling within an exception to the otherwise liberal policy favoring arbitration.

The case has been added to the Court’s docket for the October 2011 term.

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In the first of four highly anticipated rulings on class action issues this term, the United States Supreme Court has handed down a major victory for business interests.  In a 5-4 decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, No. 09-893, the conservative majority held that the Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state contract law principles in determining the enforceability of a class arbitration waiver–an arbitration agreement that expressly precludes arbitration on behalf of a class.  Here is a link to the slip opinion.  Prior opinions issued by many state courts have found class arbitration waivers unconscionable and have allowed class actions despite the existence of an express agreement in consumer contracts barring them. 

Importantly, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion goes beyond even the question originally presented for review, which was whether the FAA pre-empts state law “when when [class action] procedures are not necessary to ensure that the parties to the arbitration agreement are able to vindicate their claims.”  Instead, the majority’s decision appears to hold that the FAA preempts state law (and possibly even removes “unconscionability” as a basis for invalidating an arbitration clause even when not based on state public policy) even when the lack of a class action mechanism as a practical matter leaves plaintiffs with no remedy at all.

Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion gives a ray of hope to consumer interests seeking to pursue class action litigation in cases where a class arbitration waiver exists.  Justice Thomas agreed that the FAA preempts state decisions on whether an arbitration clause is unconscionable, but he notes that this decision does not necessarily preclude an argument that no agreement existed in the first instance, such as where the agreement is found to have been entered into as a result of coercion or fraud.  However, although he concedes that unconscionability rising to the level of a complete lack of mutual assent would be a basis to decline to enforce an arbitration agreement, he appears to conclude that unconscionability based purely on public policy would never be a basis to invalidate an arbitration agreement under Section 2 of the FAA, since it would not impact the formation of the arbitration agreement.  See Slip Op. at 4, n.* (Thomas, J., concurring).   So, if there is a ray of hope for plaintiffs, it appears to be a small one.

One big issue left unresolved after the Court’s decision is whether federal courts still have the power to declare class arbitration waivers invalid as a matter of substantive federal law.  For example, in In re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871-cv, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently reaffirmed its decision invalidating a class arbitration waiver after an earlier decision was vacated by the Court to reconsider in light Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010).  In doing so, the court evaluated the validity of a class arbitration waiver “under the federal substantive law of arbitrability,” not under state law contract principles.  See also Gay v. CreditInform, 511 F.3d 369 (3d Cir. 2007); Kristian v. Comcast Corp., 446 F.3d 25, 63 (1st Cir. 2006).  This analysis would not clearly be affected by the holding of the Supreme Court’s decision today, although the tone of the majority’s opinion would seem to call the invalidation of any class arbitration waiver provision into question.

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Class arbitration waivers are contract provisions that require disputes be submitted to arbitration but also expressly preclude the arbitration from being conducted on a representative or class basis.  Class arbitration waivers have been a hot topic in class action litigation over the past few years, as some courts have found that in certain contexts that the are unenforceable in violation of public policy.

Yesterday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision on remand from the U.S. Supreme Court in In re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871-cv.  This is the second decision by the Second Circuit in the case finding that the class arbitration waiver provision at issue was unenforceable.  The first decision, In re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, 554 F.3d 300 (2009), was issued by a panel that included future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  (See this February 2009 CAB entry discussing the decision).  Last May, the Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the decision, and remanded for reconsideration in light of its recent decision in Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010).

A 2-judge panel, sans now-Justice Sotomayor, issued the decision on reconsideration yesterday.  The court found that Stolt-Nielsen did not change its conclusion.  The rationale is best summarized in the following excerpt:

Stolt-Nielsen states that parties cannot be forced to engage in a class arbitration absent a contractual agreement to do so. It does not follow, as Amex urges, that a contractual clause barring class arbitration is per se enforceable. Indeed, our prior holding focused not on whether the plaintiffs’ contract provides for class arbitration, but on whether the class action waiver is enforceable when it would effectively strip plaintiffs of their ability to prosecute alleged antitrust violations.

Slip op. at 11.

The Court went on to hold that the arbitration provision at issue was not enforceable because, it found, the facts in the record established that having to pursue the antitrust claims at issue in the case would be prohibitively expensive without using the class action device.  Therefore, the court reasoned, the contract provision was void for public policy reasons, as a matter of law.  In rejecting the argument that Stolt-Nielsen prohibits the invalidation of arbitration provisions for public policy reasons, the court stated:

While Stolt-Nielsen plainly rejects using public policy as a means for divining the parties’ intent, nothing in Stolt-Nielsen bars a court from using public policy to find contractual language void. We agree with plaintiffs that “[t]o infer from Stolt-Nielsen’s narrow ruling on contractual construction that the Supreme Court meant to imply that an arbitration is valid and enforceable where, as a demonstrated factual matter, it prevents the effective vindication of federal rights would be to presume that the Stolt-Nielsen court meant to overrule or drastically limit its prior precedent.” (Plaintiffs’ Supp. Brief, p. 7) Following the Stolt-Nielsen decision, our court reached a similar conclusion in considering a different iteration of the issue: whether class action waivers are unconscionable as a matter of state law.

Id. at 21.

The long-term impact of the Second Circuit’s decision is unclear, especially since the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion is expected soon.  (See this November 17, 2010 CAB Entry recapping the oral arguments in AT&T Mobility).  However, AT&T Mobility involves issues of federal preemption and the power of the state courts to find class arbitration waivers unenforceable.  Therefore, even a decision favorable to the defendant in AT&T Mobility may not prevent future federal courts from applying the Second Circuit’s reasoning in invalidating class arbitration waivers.

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As 2010 winds down, it’s time to review the key developments in class action law.  It was an especially busy year for the federal courts, and in particular the U.S. Supreme Court, on issues impacting class action practice.  Here, in chronological order, are 10 key developments from the year that was:

  1. January 5 – In In re Baycol Products Litigation, the Eighth Circuit follows the Seventh Circuit’s lead in upholding the right of a federal court to enjoin a putative statewide class action from proceeding where a federal court had already denied class certification in a case involving substantially similar claims.  (See CAB entries dated January 7 and January 12).
  2. February 23 – In a decision that will impact many class actions removed under the Class Action Fairness Act, the Supreme Court adopts the “nerve center test” as the standard for determining corporate citizenship, in Hertz Corp. v. Friend.  (See CAB entry dated March 2)
  3. March 31 – The Supreme Court holds that states may not regulate the types of claims that may be filed as class actions in the federal courts, in Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P.A. v. Allstate Insurance Co.  (See CAB entry dated April 8)
  4. April 7 – In American Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, the Seventh Circuit holds that a trial court must rule on challenges to the admissibility of expert testimony relevant to class certification before deciding whether a class may be certified.  (See CAB entry dated May 4)
  5. April 26 – The Ninth Circuit issues its decision in Dukes v. Wal-mart Stores, Inc., adopting rigorous class certification standards similar to those previously adopted by the Second Circuit in In re IPO Securities Litigation, 471 F.3d 24 (2d Cir. 2006), but nonetheless certifying under FRCP 23(b)(2), what has been called the largest employment discrimination class action in history.
  6. April 27 – The Supreme Court seemingly puts an end, for all practical purposes, to the concept of class arbitration by holding that a defendant could not be compelled to defend an arbitration on a class basis where the arbitration clause did not expressly provide for class arbitration, in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animalfeeds Int’l Corp.  (See CAB entry dated May 11).
  7. June 24 – In Morrison v. National Australia Bank, the Supreme Court deals a fatal blow to “foreign-cubed” class actions, holding that § 10(b) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 does not allow for fraud claims involving transactions on foreign exchanges that occurred outside the United States. (See case summary at SCOTUS blog).
  8. July 19, October 20 – An Eleventh Circuit panel issues a controversial decision in Cappuccitti v. DirecTV, Inc., severely restricting CAFA removal jurisdiction to cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 with respect to at least one class member, but later reverses itself in an October 15 opinion.  (See Guest Post from Eric Jon Taylor and Jon Chally at CAFA Law Blog for more on the first decision and this October 20 CAB entry on the second decision).
  9. November 9 – Supreme Court hears oral argument in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, in which the Court considers whether the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state law holding a class arbitration waiver unconscionable.  (See CAB fsummary of oral argument dated November 17).
  10. December 6 – Supreme Court grants certiorari in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, to decide the issue of whether a claim for monetary relief can be certified under FRCP 23(b)(2).  (See CAB entry dated December 7).

Just considering the cases still awaiting ruling before the Supreme Court, 2011 promises to be another exciting year in the world of class actions.  Happy New Year to all!

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The Supreme Court heard argument last week in the case that many commentators were calling a possible death knell for consumer class actions.  (See previous CAB posts on  Nov. 4, 2010 and Nov. 9, 2010)

So does the future of consumer class actions still seem dire after oral argument?

The basic issue is whether the Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state contract law when state courts find class arbitration waivers unconscionable.  In other words, if an arbitration clause forecloses the possibility of a consumer class action, can state courts declare the waiver unconscionable, and therefore invalid?

Moreover, if states are permitted to find arbitration clauses that bar class actions unconscionable, will it end arbitration as a viable tool of conflict resolution?  Companies may avoid arbitration provisions in the future because none will want to deal with class arbitrations, which offer all the procedure of court litigation plus plenty of liability exposure, without the benefit of judicial review.

 Several Justices made comments suggesting a lack of comfort in telling states they can’t decide for themselves what constitutes an unconscionable contract.  If that sentiment plays out in the opinion, concerns about federalism and states rights may play a larger role in the outcome than any pro-business or pro-consumer bias or any leaning for or against class actions among the Court’s members.

 JUSTICE SCALIA: “What if — what if a State finds it unconscionable to have an arbitration clause in an adhesion contract which requires the arbitration to be held at a great distance from — from where the other party is and requires that party to pay the cost of the arbitration? Can a State not find that to be unconscionable?”

Justice Kagan followed up on the theme, questioning AT&T Mobility’s apparent position that state courts should generally have discretion to find contract provisions unconscionable, except class arbitration waivers.

JUSTICE KAGAN:  “… how about a provision prohibiting certain kinds of attorney’s fees? How about a provision prohibiting certain kinds of — a law prohibiting certain kinds of discovery provisions? And you said that would be fine, for the State courts to hold those things unconscionable, but it’s not fine for the State court to hold a class arbitration prohibition unconscionable. So what separates the two? How do we know when something is on one side of the line and something is on the other?”

In the face of arguments that California’s unconscionability law is disproportionately hostile to arbitration waivers, Justice Ginsberg, among others, observed that California applies its unconscionability doctrine equally to both arbitration contracts as well as non-arbitration contracts.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: “There is nothing that indicates that California’s laws are applying a different concept of unconscionability. You haven’t come up and said, oh, look what they did here. And in another case they said it has to shock the conscience.  Maybe across the board, California is saying: We think that unconscionability should have a broader meaning. Is it unfair to the weaker party to the bargain? Is there really no genuine agreement here? And if that is so, that will fit our definition of unconscionability.  How do we draw the line between a law that says discovery has to happen in arbitration, and one that says a — in a contract of adhesion, if the superior party retains the right to do discovery but tells the inferior party, you can’t? And a State says, that’s unconscionable.”

In response, Andrew Pincus, the attorney representing AT&T Mobility, with the help of Justice Alito, made the point that the California courts did in fact apply the state’s unconscionability doctrine differently to the class arbitration waiver in the Concepcion’s contract.  That is, the lower courts did not focus on the fairness of the contract’s terms to the Concepcions, the  actual plaintiffs before the court.  This runs contrary to the way most contract terms are assessed for fairness.  Instead, the courts focused on the contract’s fairness to a future class of possible plaintiffs.  If the lower courts had viewed the generous arbitration clause in the Concepcion’s phone contract for its fairness to the Concepcions, the contract may not have been deemed unconscionable.  Instead, the lower courts appear to have found the arbitration clause unconscionable merely because it barred the class action device.

 MR. PINCUS: “First of all, let me explain why the hypotheticals that you posit and that Justice Scalia posited and that Justice Sotomayor posited have been addressed under the traditional unconscionability doctrine that we described. In all of those cases, what courts have said is this provision — we are measuring whether it is unconscionable at the time of contracting; we are looking at the effect on the party before the court; can this person get to arbitration, is the fee too high, is it too far away. What about — we are looking at the effect on this particular person and we are deciding whether it shocks the conscience or whatever their across-the-board State standard is.  And in all of those cases, that’s what those courts do, and that’s why those provisions have been  invalidated, because they are invalidated under an evenhanded application of the unconscionability provisions that courts apply when they assess –”

 JUSTICE ALITO: “I thought that — I don’t want to interrupt your complete answer.”

 MR. PINCUS: “Sure.”

 JUSTICE ALITO: “But I thought that was the gist of your argument, the heart of your argument, that traditional unconscionability in California and elsewhere focuses on unfairness to the party who is before the tribunal. So here it would be unfairness to the Concepcions, rather than unfairness to other members of the class who are not before the court.”

 MR. PINCUS: “That’s exactly right, Justice Alito.”

 Read the entire transcript or listen to an audio recording at Scotus Blog

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