Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a mandatory arbitration clause in a consumer contract-of-adhesion, forcing the consumer-plaintiffs into arbitration (and out of the courts) to sue DIRECTTV over early termination fees. The ruling is yet another blow to consumers who seek to recover relatively small damages from corporations--the kinds of claims that are best suited for class action lawsuits (in courts). But yesterday's ruling all but bolts the door to the courts for these kinds of claims, as corporations increasingly include mandatory arbitration clauses in their standard-form consumer contracts.
At the same time, the opinion includes powerful federal supremacy language, and reminds us of the constitutional requirement that state court judges uphold federal law, explicitly mentioning federal civil rights. The ruling thus illustrates that the politics in preemption cases can be complicated, and that a federal-friendly ruling in one area (mandatory arbitration clauses) can have important implications in others (civil rights enforcement).
Of course, Congress can "reverse" the holding simply by changing the FAA, although that seems highly unlikely.
The case, DIRECTTV v. Imburgia, grew out of consumers' disputes with DIRECTTV over early termination fees. The plaintiffs' contracts with DIRECTTV (a standard-form contract of adhesion) included a mandatory arbitration clause and a class-arbitration waiver. In particular, the contracts said that "any Claim either of us asserts will be resolved only by binding arbitration," and that "[n]either you nor we shall be entitled to join or consolidate claims in arbitration." The contract also said that if the "law of your state" makes the waiver of class arbitration unenforceable, then the entire arbitration clause is unenforceable.
But at the time the parties contracted, California law said that a waiver of class arbitration in a consumer contract of adhesion was unconscionable and thus unenforceable. This rule came from the California Supreme Court's decision in Discover Bank v. Superior Court. This was the "law of your state," at least insofar as the parties understood it at the time of the contract, and would have rendered the entire arbitration clause unenforceable, allowing the plaintiffs' case to proceed in court (and not requiring arbitration).
An earlier Supreme Court case and the Federal Arbitration Act threw a wrench into that analysis. The Federal Arbitration Act says that a "written provision" in a contract providing for "settle[ment] by arbitration" of "a controversy . . . arising out of" that "contract . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." The Supreme Court ruled in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2011) (after the parties contracted) that the FAA preempted California's Discover Bank rule, because that rule stood as an obstacle "to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress."
So the plaintiffs' ability to sue in state court turned on whether the contract's reference to "law of your state" meant the Discover Bank rule absent preemption, or the Discover Bank ruled as preempted under Concepcion. If the former, then the contract provision would have made the entire arbitration clause unenforceable, and the plaintiffs could have pursued their claims in court. If the latter, then the contract provision would have left the arbitration clause in place, and forced the courts to dismiss the plaintiffs' claim (and go to arbitration instead).
The Court ruled that the latter interpretation was the better one. In other words, the Court said that "law of your state" meant valid California law--that is, the Discover Bank rule as preempted by the FAA under Concepcion--which did not render the class-arbitration waiver unenforceable. As a result, the arbitration clause in the contract stayed in place, and the plaintiffs' court case will be dismissed. (Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, joined by the Court's conservatives (minus Justice Thomas) and Justice Kagan. Justices Breyer wrote the dissent, and Justice Kagan joined him, in Concepcion.)
Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. She wrote that "law of your state" should be interpreted to mean the Discover Bank rule, as the parties intended and expected at the time of the contract (because the Court had not then issued Concepcion). Justice Thomas dissented separately, arguing that the FAA has no application to state court proceedings.
The ruling adds yet more authority to FAA preemption of consumer mandatory arbitration clauses and thus deals a blow to consumer-plaintiffs who seek to sue corporations in court. (Arbitration often favors the corporation.) It tilts the scales (again) toward the corporation, and away from the consumer.
But at the same time, the ruling is strong on federal supremacy, including federal civil rights. Justice Breyer included powerful language reinforcing the supremacy of federal law and the constitutional requirement of state court judges to enforce federal law, explicitly mentioning federal civil rights law.