Monday, August 27, 2018
Revitch received an automated advertising call from DirecTV to his cell phone, and sued alleging violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Revitch was a wireless customer of AT&T, so DirecTV moved to compel arbitration under its sibling corporation's wireless service contract with Revitch. This recent case out of the Northern District of California, Revitch v. DirecTV, LLC, No. 18-cv-01127-JCS, denied the motion, finding that the arbitration clause did not cover claims with DirecTV completely unrelated to the wireless services provided under the AT&T contract.
It was true that the arbitration provision covered affiliates, and it was also true that DirecTV was an affiliate of AT&T, having become sibling companies a few years after Revitch entered into the contract with AT&T. But the court characterized the establishment of this relationship as a "completely fortuitous fact." The court noted that the intention for wording the clause broadly and including affiliates was typically to cover situations regarding assignments or successors. Nothing of the sort had happened here. No benefits under the contract had been assigned to DirecTV, nor had DirecTV undertaken any obligations under the contract. The calls Revitch was complaining about had nothing at all to do with the wireless service covered by the contract. So the precedent DirecTV tried to rely on was all distinguishable in the view of the court: "The Court concludes that Adams and Andermann, at most, support the conclusion that an entity may become an affiliate subject to the arbitration contract after the time of contracting where that relationship arises from an assignment of the underlying agreement or a related entity becomes a successor to the original contracting entity. That is not the case here."
The court interpreted the arbitration clause of the contract according to ordinary rules of contract interpretation that required the avoidance of absurd results and also that contracts be construed against the drafter. DirecTV argued that the presumption in favor of arbitration established by the Federal Arbitration Act meant that arbitration clauses should trump such rules of contractual interpretation, but the court disagreed. The court stated that, according to Ninth Circuit precedent, the FAA requires arbitration agreements to be placed on equal footing with other contracts. Allowing the suspension of ordinary contract rules of interpretation when arbitration agreements were involved would be placing arbitration agreements on favored footing; on equal footing, the same rules ought to apply to arbitration agreements as apply to all other contracts. Arbitration, the court emphasized, "is a matter of consent."
This is an interesting case. Due to the consolidation of most of our forms of communication under massive umbrella corporations, a relationship with one subsidiary can be used to assert a relationship with all companies under the same corporate umbrella, as DirecTV tried to do here. This court's view feels rooted in a common-sense understanding that the arbitration agreement Revitch entered into when he decided to sign up for AT&T wireless service shouldn't also cover completely unrelated television services provided by a company that hadn't been affiliated with AT&T when Revitch entered into the contract. Only a few months ago, though, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit for refusing to enforce an arbitration clause, re-affirming the trump-card nature of the Federal Arbitration Act over many other public policies. This case seems like another display of Ninth Circuit courts' skeptical views toward arbitration clauses -- which the Supreme Court has just reminded the Ninth Circuit it doesn't share.