Thursday, June 20, 2013

SCOTUS Decision in American Express v. Italian Colors

Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (No. 12-133), another important arbitration case. The Court divides 5-to-3, with Justice Scalia writing the majority opinion (joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito), and Justice Thomas writing a brief concurring opinion. Justice Kagan writes a dissenting opinion (joined by Ginsburg and Breyer). Justice Sotomayor took no part.

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion begins: “We consider whether a contractual waiver of class arbitration is enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act when the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery.” The answer: yes. The FAA’s mandate that arbitration provisions are “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” applies [p.3], and “[n]o contrary congressional command requires us to reject the waiver of class arbitration here.” [p.4]. The opinion continues: “Respondents argue that requiring them to litigate their claims individually—as they contracted to do—would contravene the policies of the antitrust laws. But the antitrust laws do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim.” [p.4]

And on p.5:

Nor does congressional approval of Rule 23 establish an entitlement to class proceedings for the vindication of statutory rights. To begin with, it is likely that such an entitlement, invalidating private arbitration agreements denying class adjudication, would be an “abridg[ment]” ormodif[ication]” of a “substantive right” forbidden to the Rules, see 28 U. S. C. §2072(b). But there is no evidence of such an entitlement in any event. The Rule imposes stringent requirements for certification that in practice exclude most claims. And we have specifically rejected the assertion that one of those requirements (the class-notice requirement) must be dispensed with because the “prohib­itively high cost” of compliance would “frustrate [plain­tiff’s] attempt to vindicate the policies underlying the antitrust” laws. Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U. S. 156, 166–168, 175–176 (1974). One might respond, per­haps, that federal law secures a nonwaivable opportunity to vindicate federal policies by satisfying the procedural strictures of Rule 23 or invoking some other informal class mechanism in arbitration. But we have already rejected that proposition in AT&T Mobility, 563 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9).

The majority also rejects the plaintiffs’ invocation of an “effective vindication” exception to mitigate arbitration provisions that prevent the enforcement of federal rights [pp.6-7 (footnotes omitted)]:

As we have described, the exception finds its origin in the desire to prevent “prospec­tive waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory reme­dies,” Mitsubishi Motors, supra, at 637, n. 19 (emphasis added). That would certainly cover a provision in an arbitration agreement forbidding the assertion of certain statutory rights. And it would perhaps cover filing and administrative fees attached to arbitration that are so high as to make access to the forum impracticable. See Green Tree Financial Corp.-Ala. v. Randolph, 531 U. S. 79, 90 (2000) (“It may well be that the existence of large arbi­tration costs could preclude a litigant . . . from effectively vindicating her federal statutory rights”). But the fact that it is not worth the expense involved in proving a statutory remedy does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy. See 681 F. 3d, at 147 (Jacobs, C. J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc). The class-action waiver merely limits arbitration to the two contracting parties. It no more eliminates those parties’ right to pursue their statutory remedy than did federal law before its adoption of the class action for legal relief in 1938, see Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 23, 28 U. S. C., p. 864 (1938 ed., Supp V); 7A C. Wright, A. Miller, & M. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure §1752, p. 18 (3d ed.2005). Or, to put it differently, the individual suit that was considered adequate to assure “effective vindication” of a federal right before adoption of class-action proce­dures did not suddenly become “ineffective vindication” upon their adoption.

At times the majority seems to question whether an effective vindication exception even exists, arguing that the language in Mitsubishi Motors is dicta [see p.6 & fn.2]. 

Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion begins:

Here is the nutshell version of this case, unfortunately obscured in the Court’s decision. The owner of a small restaurant (Italian Colors) thinks that American Express (Amex) has used its monopoly power to force merchants to accept a form contract violating the antitrust laws. The restaurateur wants to challenge the allegedly unlawful provision (imposing a tying arrangement), but the same contract’s arbitration clause prevents him from doing so. That term imposes a variety of procedural bars that would make pursuit of the antitrust claim a fool’s errand. So if the arbitration clause is enforceable, Amex has insulated itself from antitrust liability—even if it has in fact violated the law. The monopolist gets to use its monopoly power to insist on a contract effectively depriving its victims of all legal recourse.

And here is the nutshell version of today’s opinion, admirably flaunted rather than camouflaged: Too darn bad.

That answer is a betrayal of our precedents, and of federal statutes like the antitrust laws. Our decisions have developed a mechanism—called the effective vindication rule—to prevent arbitration clauses from choking off a plaintiff ’s ability to enforce congressionally created rights. That doctrine bars applying such a clause when (but only when) it operates to confer immunity from potentially meritorious federal claims. In so doing, the rule reconciles the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) with all the rest of federal law—and indeed, promotes the most fundamental purposes of the FAA itself. As applied here, the rule would ensure that Amex’s arbitration clause does not foreclose Italian Colors from vindicating its right to redress antitrust harm.

The dissent concludes:

The Court today mistakes what this case is about. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And to a Court bent on diminishing the usefulness of Rule 23, everything looks like a class action, ready to be dismantled. So the Court does not consider that Amex’s agreement bars not just class actions, but “other forms of cost-sharing . . . that could provide effective vindication.” Ante, at 7, n. 4. In short, the Court does not consider—and does not decide— Italian Colors’s (and similarly situated litigants’) actual argument about why the effective-vindication rule pre­cludes this agreement’s enforcement.

As a result, Amex’s contract will succeed in depriving Italian Colors of any effective opportunity to challenge monopolistic conduct allegedly in violation of the Sherman Act. The FAA, the majority says, so requires. Do not be fooled. Only the Court so requires; the FAA was never meant to produce this outcome. The FAA conceived of arbitration as a “method of resolving disputes”—a way of using tailored and streamlined procedures to facilitate redress of injuries. Rodriguez de Quijas, 490 U. S., at 481 (emphasis added). In the hands of today’s majority, arbi­tration threatens to become more nearly the opposite—a mechanism easily made to block the vindication of merito­rious federal claims and insulate wrongdoers from liabil­ity. The Court thus undermines the FAA no less than it does the Sherman Act and other federal statutes providingrights of action. 


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Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there a pretty remarkable distinction between the antitrust context and say, the employment context, with regard to these waivers? In antitrust, we see certain private parties as the "proper parties" to vindicate anticompetitive consumer harm and, from the outset, deny standing to an ordinary consumer since we believe their interests, as a general matter, will be vindicated by direct (and sometimes indirect) purchaser suits. In employment or other consumer contract cases, I would think the contractual enforcement paradigm works much better, where the rights at issue in the underlying contract belong to the parties to the contract, and nobody else. Perhaps I'm off base, since I'm not sure it is accurate to say that antitrust statutes create "rights" in consumers. Would love to hear the thoughts of others on this.

Posted by: Brad Pollina | Jul 14, 2013 2:25:26 PM

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