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.