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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

New Jersey appellate court finds arbitration provision ambiguous and unenforceable

Courts State Issues Auto Finance Arbitration Appellate

Courts

On December 18, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed a lower court’s order compelling arbitration, concluding the arbitration provision of the plaintiff’s auto lease agreement did not clearly and unambiguously inform the reader that arbitration was the exclusive dispute remedy. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a complaint against an auto dealer after allegedly being charged a $75 dollar fee associated with the loan payoff of his trade-in vehicle for which the plaintiff never received an explanation of its purpose, in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act. The auto dealer moved to compel arbitration under the lease contract’s arbitration notice, which included the statement, “[e]ither you or Lessor/Finance Company/Holder […] may choose at any time, including after a lawsuit is filed, to have any Claim related to this contract decided by arbitration.” The lower court determined that the arbitration provision was not “ambiguous or vague in any way” and ordered arbitration. The plaintiff appealed, arguing the clause is vague because it states the parties “may” arbitrate. On appeal, the appellate court concluded that the arbitration provision was not clear and unambiguous due to the use of a passive “may” when referring to the ability to opt into arbitration. Moreover, the appellate court determined the arbitration provision to be unenforceable because it lacked language that would affirmatively inform the plaintiff that “he could not pursue his statutory rights in court.”

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