U.S.S.C.: State Law Regarding Unconscionability of Class Waivers in Arbitration Agreements Preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)

AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion

There has long been talk of the pr0-business conservative majority that currently comprises the United State’s Supreme Court.  However, many pundits have commented that while the Court has ruled as might be expected, largely based on their political leanings, on social issues, there has been wide agreement that other cases have not necessarily gone as some might have expected.  Last term with its decision that corporations could contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns (while individuals were subject to the caps put in place by campaign finance laws), it appeared that the Court was getting more comfortable in trading in a lot of the basic individual freedoms that have always been a foundation for the United States, in exchange for satiating the demands of big business who are forever seeking to tilt the playing field in its favor.  Wednesday the Court handed down perhaps its biggest blow to average Americans ever, when it reversed the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Concepcion v. AT&T Mobility, a decision that had sought to balance individual consumer rights, against those of a behemoth corporation.

As the Court stated in its Syllabus opinion, “[t]he cellular telephone contract between respondents (Concepcions) and petitioner (AT&T) provided for arbitration of all disputes, but did not permit classwide arbitration. After the Concepcions were charged sales tax on the retail value of phones provided free under their service contract, they sued AT&T in a California Federal District Court.Their suit was consolidated with a class action alleging, inter alia, that AT&T had engaged in false advertising and fraud by chargingsales tax on “free” phones. The District Court denied AT&T’s motion to compel arbitration under the Concepcions’ contract. Relying onthe California Supreme Court’s Discover Bank decision, it found the arbitration provision unconscionable because it disallowed classwide proceedings. The Ninth Circuit agreed that the provision was unconscionable under California law and held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract,” 9 U. S. C. §2, did not preempt its ruling.”

However, the Supreme’s disagreed.  Instead they held that “[b]ecause it ‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,’ Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U. S. 52, 67, California’s Discover Bank rule is preempted by the FAA. Pp. 4–18.”

Of course big business cheered the opinion as a necessary step towards giving parties the rights they had contracted for.  In reality however, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was much more in line with the realities of today’s business environment.  As anyone who has a cell phone can attest, the contracts we all enter into with a cell phone provider are anything but a fairly negotiated one.  In order to get your phone and/or start your service, you must sign away any rights you would normally have, in a take it or leave it contract.

Although aimed at eliminating consumer class actions, those in which the size of the claims is typically a few dollars to a few thousand dollars at most, the effects of the decision will be felt throughout all types of litigation, including employment and wage and hour litigation, where individual claims are often small by themselves, by collectively worthwhile for an attorney to pursue, in order to vindicate the rights of an entire class.  Given what could be a death nell for class and collective litigation for employees, pro-consumer legislators have been shaken to action.

As noted by blog thePopTort, Senator Al Franken, who actually has a great track record persuading Congress to outlaw unfair arbitration agreements, is taking the lead on this one.  Responding to yesterday’s decision, “U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said today they plan to introduce legislation next week that would restore consumers’ rights to seek justice in the courts. Their bill, called the Arbitration Fairness Act, would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases, and would allow consumers and workers to choose arbitration after a dispute occurred.”

Consumer and employee groups have been quick to respond as well, calling for legislation, that has been raised but stalled in prior legislative sessions in Washington, D.C.  For example the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), who had filed an Amicus Brief in support of the Concepcions, released this press release calling for immediate action by Congress to rectify the situation.  It remains to be seen how this will all end in both the short and long terms, but for now the decision is unquestionably a boon for big business, who has essentially been given the green light to ignore laws big and small to the detriment of average Americans, with the knowledge that there will be little or no repercussions for same.

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Filed under Arbitration, Class Waivers

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