California Labor and Employment Defense Blog

Another Arbitration Agreement Containing A Class Action Waiver Found To Be Unenforceable

[In the interest of full disclosure – my firm represents Western Pizza in this case. Because of this, we are expressing none of our own analyses about the Court’s opinion, but are simply reporting the court’s findings.]

Octavio Sanchez works as a delivery driver for defendant. He filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the drivers not only are not adequately reimbursed for their expenses incurred in the performance of their job duties, but also as a result are paid less than the legal minimum wage. Sanchez signed an arbitration agreement that contained a provision that he would not participate in any class action litigation. Western Pizza filed a motion to enforce the arbitration agreement, which the trial court denied. Western Pizza appealed the lower court’s decision.

Western Pizza argued on appeal that:

  1. The enforceability of the arbitration agreement is a question for the arbitrator to decide;
  2. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) (9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.) preempts California law to the extent that California law would prevent the enforcement of the agreement;
  3. The class arbitration waiver does not impermissibly interfere with the employees’ ability to vindicate their statutory rights, and therefore is enforceable;
  4. The terms of the arbitration agreement are neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable.

The court, not the arbitrator decides the enforceability of the arbitration agreement

The court explained:

Accordingly, we conclude, consistent with the rule stated in Discover Bank, supra, 36 Cal.4th at page 171, that the question whether the arbitration agreement is enforceable based on general contract law principles, including the question whether it is unconscionable or contrary to public policy, is a question for the court to decide rather than an arbitrator, regardless of whether the FAA applies.

 

Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) does not preempt California law

The court held that under the FAA, the validity and enforceability of an arbitration agreement is governed by state contract law:

Under California law, the question whether an arbitration agreement is unenforceable, in whole or in part, based on general contract law principles is a question for the court to decide, rather than an arbitrator. (Discover Bank, supra, 36 Cal.4th at p. 171; Balandran v. Labor Ready, Inc. (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1522, 1530; see Cable Connection, Inc. v. DIRECTV, Inc. (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1334, 1365.) This includes the determination whether an arbitration agreement is unconscionable or contrary to public policy. (Discover Bank, supra, at p. 171.) Discover Bank concluded that the FAA, and particularly the opinion by the United States Supreme Court in Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle (2003) 539 U.S. 444 [123 S.Ct. 2402], did not conflict with California law on this point and that the California rule therefore governs.

The Enforceability of the Class Arbitration Waiver

The court set out the factors established in Gentry v. Superior Court to determine whether the class action waiver is unenforceable:

Gentry stated that a trial court determining whether a class arbitration waiver impermissibly interferes with unwaivable statutory rights must consider: “[(1)] the modest size of the potential individual recovery, [(2)] the potential for retaliation against members of the class, [(3)] the fact that absent members of the class may be ill informed about their rights, and [(4]) other real world obstacles to the vindication of class members’ right to overtime pay through individual arbitration.” Gentry continued: “If it concludes, based on these factors, that a class arbitration is likely to be a significantly more effective practical means of vindicating the rights of the affected employees than individual litigation or arbitration, and finds that the disallowance of the class action will likely lead to a less comprehensive enforcement of overtime laws for the employees alleged to be affected by the employer’s violations, it must invalidate the class arbitration waiver to ensure that these employees can ‘ vindicate [their] unwaivable rights in an arbitration forum.’

(citations omitted). The court found that these factors supports the lower court’s holding that the agreement was unenforceable: the amounts at issue for reimbursement are modest, retaliation against low wage earners is “significant,” and most of the drivers here are immigrants with limited English skills “who are likely to be unaware of their legal rights.”

Unconscionability Of The Agreement\

The court held that the arbitration agreement was distinguishable from the agreement used in Gentry:

The record here does not indicate a distorted presentation of the benefits of arbitration to the degree that was present in Gentry, supra, 42 Cal.4th 443. The arbitration agreement states that the purpose of the agreement is “to resolve any disputes that may arise between the Parties in a timely, fair and individualized manner,” but otherwise does not extol the benefits of arbitration. The arbitration agreement does not limit the limitations periods, the remedies available, or the amount of punitive damages. It states, “Except as otherwise required by law, each party shall bear its own attorney fees and costs,” and therefore incorporates any statutory right to recover fees rather than creating a presumption against a fee recovery. Thus, the arbitration agreement neither contains the same types of disadvantages for employees as were present in Gentry nor fails to mention such disadvantageous terms. Moreover, the arbitration agreement expressly states that that the agreement “is not a mandatory condition of employment.”

The court still found, however, that there were elements of unconscionability in the agreement:

We conclude, however, that the record indicates a degree of procedural unconscionability in two respects. First, as in Gentry, the inequality in bargaining power between the low-wage employees and their employer makes it likely that the employees felt at least some pressure to sign the arbitration agreement. Second, the arbitration agreement suggests that there are multiple arbitrators to chose from (“the then-current Employment Arbitration panel of the Dispute Eradication Services”) and fails to mention that the designated arbitration provider includes only one arbitrator. This renders the arbitrator selection process illusory and creates a significant risk that Western Pizza as a “repeat player” before the same arbitrator will reap a significant advantage. These circumstances indicate that the employees’ decision to enter into the arbitration agreement likely was not a free and informed decision but was marked by some degree of oppression and unfair surprise, i.e., procedural unconscionability. We therefore must scrutinize the terms of the arbitration agreement to determine whether it is so unfairly one-sided as to be substantively unconscionable.

(citations and footnote omitted).

The court also held that the agreement did not provide for a neutral arbitrator. This is despite the fact that the arbitration agreement contained a clause that both parties had to agree to the arbitrator before the arbitrator could bind the parties. The court explained that “it seems likely that an employee in Sanchez’s position would not feel free to reject the arbitration provider designated by his employer under the terms of the agreement even after a dispute had arisen.”

In conclusion, the Court stated:

The arbitration agreement here includes a class arbitration waiver that is contrary to public policy and an unconscionable arbitrator selection clause, as we have stated. These are important provisions that, if they were not challenged in litigation, could create substantial disadvantages for an employee seeking to arbitrate a modest claim. Although it may be true that neither of these provisions alone would justify the refusal to enforce the entire arbitration agreement (see Gentry, supra, 42 Cal.4th at p. 466; Scissor Tail, supra, 28 Cal.3d at p. 828), we believe that these provisions considered together indicate an effort to impose on an employee a forum with distinct advantages for the employer. As in Armendariz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at page 124, we conclude that the arbitration agreement is permeated by an unlawful purpose. Accordingly, the denial of the motion to compel arbitration was proper.

The opinion, Sanchez v. Western Pizza, can be viewed at the Court’s website for a short period of time in Word and PDF.

This opinion comes on the heels of others that have also rejected arbitration agreements with class action waivers. And while the California Supreme Court left open the possibility that waivers may be enforceable in Gentry v. Superior Court, the recent line of lower appellate decisions (see Franco v. Athens Disposal Co.), including the decision in Sanchez v. Western Pizza, seems to have all but closed the door on any such possibility.

 

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