Class Action Waivers Alive Again In California - AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion

California employers have long argued that arbitration agreements that require employees to only bring their cases as individual cases and not class actions should be enforceable. California courts routinely disagreed with this rational, arguing that class action waivers effectively obstructed employees’ rights because the employees were less likely to sue if only suing to recover their individual damages. The California Supreme Court explained in Discover Bank v. Superior Court that most arbitration agreements in the consumer context waiving the right to bring a class action were unconscionable contracts under California law. This rule has also carried over into the employment context and invalidating most employment arbitration agreements in which the employee waived any right to bring a class action for claims that arose during employment. But this week, the California Supreme Court’s decision was expressly overturned by the United Stated Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.

The United States Supreme Court held in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion that the California Discovery Bank ruling “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress” by enacting the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). In the case, Plaintiffs brought suit against AT&T for false advertising and fraud by claiming that it provided consumers with a free phone, but the Plaintiffs were required to pay sales tax on the phones, and Plaintiffs alleged therefore the phones were not “free.” AT&T had an arbitration agreement that prevented Plaintiffs from bringing a class action, and required the Plaintiffs to arbitrate their claims. The lower courts held that California’s Discover Bank rule invalidated the class action waiver in the agreement as “unconscionable”. In overturning the lower courts, the US Supreme Court held that California’s Discover Bank rule “classifying most collective-arbitration waivers in consumer contracts as unconscionable” is a clear obstacle to the goals of the FAA. Therefore the FAA preempted California’s Discover Bank rule, allowing the class action waiver in the arbitration agreement to be enforceable.

Ramifications For California Employers

Until now, most class action waivers contained in arbitration agreements entered into with employees were unenforceable under California law. Now the AT&T Mobility decision gives employers an argument again that these types of agreements are permitted under Federal law, and therefore are enforceable. California employers still must be careful to follow other considerations to make such agreements enforceable, and it is important to keep in mind that the AT&T decision was in the consumer context – not an employment agreement.

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.

 

Reasonable Limits On Employee's Time To File A Lawsuit Upheld By Appellate Court in Pearson Dental Supplies, Inc. v. Superior Court (Turcios)

Plaintiff Luis Turcios sued his former employer, defendant Pearson Dental Supplies, Inc., for age discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) (Click here to read the opinion: Pearson Dental Supplies, Inc. v Superior Court (Turcios)). Plaintiff signed an agreement with the employer that contained a mandatory arbitration clause for employment-related claims. The agreement contained a clause that plaintiff would waive any claims unless he submitted the claim to arbitration within one year from the date the dispute arose or from the date plaintiff first became aware of facts giving rise to the dispute.

While the arbitration agreement required that plaintiff submit the claim within one year, FEHA, in Government Code section 12960 requires a similar deadline, and provides, in part:

(b) Any person claiming to be aggrieved by an alleged unlawful practice may file with the department a verified complaint, in writing. . . .
(d) No complaint may be filed after the expiration of one year from the date upon which the alleged unlawful practice.

Government Code section 12965 also provides in relevant part:

(b) If an accusation [in the name of DFEH] is not issued within 150 days after the filing of a complaint, or if the department earlier determines that no accusation will issue, the department shall promptly notify, in writing, the person claiming to be aggrieved that the department shall issue, on his or her request, the right-to-sue notice. This notice shall indicate that the person claiming to be aggrieved may bring a civil action under this part against the person, employer, labor organization, or employment agency named in the verified complaint within one year from the date of that notice.

(emphasis added).  Defendant compelled arbitration of plaintiff’s claims and argued that the arbitration provision requiring that plaintiff file the claim within one year controlled and, therefore, plaintiff did not file a timely claim. The arbitrator agreed with the defendant’s argument and granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor. The trial court, however, vacated the arbitration award on the ground that the one-year limitation period impermissibly infringed on plaintiff’s unwaivable statutory rights under the FEHA. Defendant appealed the trial court’s ruling, resulting in this decision.

The appellate court overruled the trial court’s ruling, stating that the arbitration agreement did not infringe upon plaintiff’s unwaivable rights under FEHA. The appellate court stated:

In arguing that the arbitrator’s award violated public policy, plaintiff relies (as did the trial court) on his cause of action alleging age discrimination in violation of the FEHA. Under the FEHA, the plaintiff must file an administrative complaint within one year from the date of the discriminatory act. Then, a civil action must be filed within one year from the date the administrative agency issues a “right to sue” letter. (Gov. Code, §§ 12960, subd. (d), 12965, subd. (b).) Plaintiff urged, and the trial court found, that the arbitrator’s application of the one-year limitations period in the DRA contravened public policy because it shortened the FEHA limitations period. We disagree.

(footnote omitted). The appellate court held that the arbitrator’s enforcement of the one-year arbitral limitation period did not unfairly burden plaintiff’s opportunity to vindicate his FEHA claim. The court noted that “despite adequate opportunity to investigate, prepare, and litigate, plaintiff chose to ignore the arbitration requirement and the arbitral limitation period, and never argued that the limitation period was unconscionable when opposing the petition to compel arbitration.” The court did caution, however, that this case did have unique facts that compelled it to rule in this way. Nevertheless, this opinion confirms that employers may enter into arbitration agreements that reasonably require their employees to submit their claims in a timely manner, or else their claims will be waived.
 

Gentry v. Superior Court (Circuit City) Opinion

The Supreme Court's opinion in Gentry v. Superior Court (which can be read here) was issued this morning.

Based on a very quick review of the opinion, it appears that the Court has pushed the issue back to the trial courts and provides instruction to the trial courts to make the determination regarding the enforceability of class action waivers based on a number of factors.  The Court states:
Nonetheless, when it is alleged that an employer has systematically denied proper overtime pay to a class of employees and a class action is requested notwithstanding an arbitration agreement that contains a class arbitration waiver, the trial court must consider the factors discussed above: the modest size of the potential individual recovery, the potential for retaliation against members of the class, the fact that absent members of the class may be ill informed about their rights, and other real world obstacles to the vindication of class members’ right to overtime pay through individual arbitration. 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.” (Little, supra, 29 Cal.4th at p. 1077.) The kind of inquiry a trial court must make is similar to the one it already makes to determine whether class actions are appropriate. “[T]rial courts are ideally situated to evaluate the efficiencies and practicalities of permitting group action . . . .” (Linder v. Thrifty Oil, Co., supra, 23 Cal.4th at p. 435.) Class arbitration must still also meet the “community of interest” requirement for all class actions, consisting of three factors:  “(1) predominant common questions of law or fact; (2) class representatives with claims or defenses typical of the class; and (3) class representatives who can adequately represent the class.” (Sav-On Drug Stores, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 326.)
We will definitely post more analysis on the ruling once we have some time to digest the opinion further.

Gentry v. Superior Court Decision To Be Issued Today

The California Supreme Court will be issuing its opinion in Gentry v. Superior Court this morning.  This case is a landmark labor and employment case deciding if an arbitration agreement entered into between an employer and an employee is enforceable when the employee agrees not to participate in class action lawsuits brought against the employer. 

We attended the oral arguments before the Supreme Court back in June, and our thoughts on the arguments can be read here.  While we have our normal workload today, we will try to have at least some analysis posted today, and if time permits possibly a podcast discussing the case posted by Monday.