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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Court again rejects “unconscionable” arbitration provision

Courts TCPA Appellate Fourth Circuit Arbitration Federal Arbitration Act

Courts

On February 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia denied for a second time a satellite TV provider’s (defendant) motion to compel arbitration in a TCPA class action, concluding that the arbitration provision was “overbroad, absurd and unconscionable.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant alleging the defendant violated the TCPA by making automated and prerecorded telemarketing calls to an individual even though her number was on the National Do Not Call Registry. The defendant moved to compel arbitration, claiming that the plaintiff’s dispute was covered by an arbitration agreement in the contract governing her cell phone service with a telecommunications company, which is an affiliate of the defendant. The district court denied the request, ruling that the allegations “did not fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement.” On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a split opinion vacating a district court’s decision with the majority concluding that the allegations fit within the broad scope of the arbitration agreement, and that even though the plaintiff agreed to arbitration with a telecommunications company in 2012, the agreement extends to the TCPA allegations against the defendant after the telecommunications company acquired the defendant in 2015. Specifically, the appellate court stated that the arbitration agreement had a “forward-looking nature,” and that it seemed unlikely that the telecommunications company and its affiliates “intended to restrict the covered entities to those existing at the time the agreement was signed.” The 4th Circuit remanded the case back to the district court for consideration of unconscionability.

On remand, the district court again denied the motion, stating that the “arbitration provision is overbroad, absurd and unconscionable, and far exceeds anything contemplated by Congress in enacting the [Federal Arbitration Act].” Specifically, the court stated the plaintiff was “an ordinary wireless consumer” given a “small electronic pinpad device” with a few lines of the agreement displayed at a time and an option to skip to an acknowledgment screen, which required her signature, in order to “obtain her line of service.” She would then be “irrevocably locked in to face demands that she arbitrate any dispute arising out of any relationship with virtually any of [the telecommunications company]’s corporate cousins—a list that could, overtime, comprise [] current competitors or not-yet created subsidiaries.” Because the arbitration provision was unconscionably broad, the court denied the motion to arbitrate.

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