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9th Circuit splits with 4th Circuit, concludes arbitration agreement does not apply to acquired company
On September 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a split opinion affirming a district court’s decision against arbitration in a proposed class action, which accused a satellite TV provider (defendant) of violating the TCPA by allegedly placing unauthorized prerecorded messages to customers’ cell phones without prior express written consent. According to the opinion, the plaintiff signed a contract containing an arbitration agreement with a telecommunications company in 2011 that eventually acquired the defendant in 2015. After the plaintiff filed his complaint, the defendant moved to compel arbitration, arguing that as an affiliate of the telecommunications company, it was entitled to arbitration. The district court disagreed and ruled that the contract signed between the plaintiff and the telecommunications company “did not reflect an intent to arbitrate the claim that [the plaintiff] asserts against [the defendant].”
On appeal, the majority concluded that “under California contract law, looking to the reasonable expectations of the parties at the time of the contract, a valid agreement to arbitrate did not exist between plaintiff and [the defendant] because [the defendant] was not an affiliate of the [telecommunications company] when the contract was signed.” The majority acknowledged that its decision is contrary to a recent 4th Circuit opinion (covered by InfoBytes here), in which that majority concluded that that an arbitration agreement signed by the plaintiff with the telecommunications company in 2012 when she opened a new line of service was extended to potential TCPA allegations against the defendant when the telecommunications company acquired the defendant in 2015. However, the 9th Circuit majority held that under the defendant’s interpretation of the agreement, the plaintiff “would be forced to arbitrate any dispute with any corporate entity that happens to be acquired by [the telecommunications company], even if neither the entity nor the dispute has anything to do with providing wireless services to [the plaintiff]—and even if the entity becomes an affiliate years or even decades in the future.” Moreover, the majority concluded that to enforce an agreement the plaintiff signed with the telecommunications company before it acquired the satellite TV provider would lead to “absurd results.”
In dissent, the minority wrote that because the agreement with the telecommunications company covered its affiliates and there is nothing in the agreement’s wording stating that it would only “refer to present affiliates” on the day of signing, the defendant should be able to compel arbitration.
On September 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of arbitration, concluding that a national sandwich chain’s website did not provide sufficient notice of the terms and conditions. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a TCPA action against the sandwich chain relating to unsolicited text messages he received after he entered his phone number on a promotional page of the company’s website in order to receive a free sandwich at his next visit. After entering his number, the consumer clicked a button stating “I’M IN,” which the sandwich chain argued “constituted assent to the terms and conditions contained on a separate webpage that was accessible via a hyperlink on the promotional page.” The terms and conditions included an agreement to arbitrate. The sandwich chain moved to compel arbitration of the consumer’s TCPA action and the district court denied the motion, finding that no arbitration agreement existed because “the terms and conditions were not reasonably clear and conspicuous on the promotional page itself.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the district court, noting that the webpage “was relatively cluttered.” Specifically, the appellate court noted that the webpage lacked language “informing the user that by clicking ‘I’M IN’ the user was agreeing to anything other than the receipt of a coupon.” Moreover, the appellate court held that the link to the terms and conditions was not conspicuous to a reasonable user as it was in small font at the bottom of the page and was “introduced by no language other than the shorthand ‘T & Cs.’” Because the company did not provide sufficient evidence demonstrating the consumer’s knowledge of the terms and conditions, the appellate court affirmed the denial of arbitration.
On August 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California agreed to reconsider a prior decision, which granted a bank’s motion to compel arbitration in connection with a lawsuit concerning the bank’s assessment of two types of fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court compelled arbitration of a plaintiff’s lawsuit asserting claims for breach of contract and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law due to the bank’s alleged practice of charging fees for out-of-network ATM use and overdraft fees related to debit card transaction timing. The court concluded that even if the California Supreme Court case McGill v. Citibank rule— which held that an arbitration agreement is unenforceable if it constitutes a waiver of the plaintiff’s substantive right to seek public injunctive relief (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here)—was applicable to a contract, it would not survive preemption as the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts states’ attempts to limit the scope of arbitration agreements,” and “the McGill rule is merely the latest ‘device or formula’ intended to achieve the result of rendering an arbitration agreement against public policy.”
The plaintiff moved for the court’s reconsideration after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued opinions in Blair v. Rent-ACenter, Inc. et al and McArdle v. AT&T Mobility LLC). In Blair (and similarly in McArdle), the 9th Circuit concluded that McGill was not preempted by the FAA. The appellate court found that McGill does not interfere with the bilateral nature of a typical arbitration, stating “[t]he McGill rule leaves undisturbed an agreement that both requires bilateral arbitration and permits public injunctive claims.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
The court granted the plaintiff’s motion, concluding that the public injunction waiver in the account agreement is “encompassed by McGill” and therefore, the arbitration agreement is “invalid and unenforceable,” and because the arbitration agreement includes a non-severability clause, the “clause plainly invalidates the entire arbitration agreement section as a result of the invalidity and unenforceability of the public injunction waiver provision therein.”
On August 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a split opinion vacating a district court’s decision against arbitration in a proposed class action, which accused a satellite TV provider (defendant) of violating the TCPA by allegedly making automated and prerecorded telemarketing calls to an individual even though her number was on the National Do Not Call Registry. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant and several other entities and individuals seeking class certification as well as statutory damages and injunctive relief. 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.” The plaintiff appealed, “defend[ing] the district court’s scope ruling,” but arguing that no agreement was formed.
On appeal, the majority concluded that not only did the plaintiff form an agreement to arbitrate with the defendant, the allegations fit within the broad scope of the arbitration agreement. Specifically, the appellate court determined that an arbitration agreement signed by the plaintiff with the telecommunications company in 2012 when she opened a new line of service was extended to potential TCPA allegations against the defendant when the telecommunications company acquired the defendant in 2015. Even though the acquisition happened several years after the plaintiff signed the contract, the majority stated 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.” According to the majority, “[w]e need not define the outer limits of this arbitration agreement to conclude, based on the arbitration provisions and the contract as a whole, that [the plaintiff’s] TCPA claims about [the defendant’s] advertising calls fall within its scope.” As to the plaintiff’s argument that she only signed the account on behalf of her husband who was the account holder, the majority said the agreement covered “all authorized or unauthorized users,” which the plaintiff was at the time.
On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration agreements operated as prospective waivers of federal law and were thus unenforceable. According to the opinion, a group of Virginia borrowers filed suit against two online lenders owned by a sovereign Native American tribe and their investors (collectively, “defendants”). In the action, the plaintiffs contended that they obtained payday loans from the defendants, which included annual interest rates between 219 percent to 373 percent—an alleged violation of Virginia’s usury laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The defendants moved to compel arbitration, which the district court denied, concluding that choice-of-law provisions—such as “‘[t]his agreement to arbitrate shall be governed by Tribal Law’; ‘[t]he arbitrator shall apply Tribal Law’; and the arbitration award ‘must be consistent with this Agreement and Tribal Law’”—prospectively excluded federal law, making them unenforceable.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court despite a “strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements.” Most significantly, the appellate court rejected the defendants’ assertion that the choice-of-law provisions did not operate as a prospective waiver. The court noted that while the choice-of-law provisions “do not explicitly disclaim the application of federal law, the practical effect is the same,” as they limit an arbitrator’s award to “remedies available under Tribal Law,” effectively preempting “the application of any contrary law—including contrary federal law.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that under the arbitration agreement, borrowers would be unable to effectively pursue RICO claims against the defendants, and more specifically, would be unable to “effectively vindicate a federal statutory claim for treble damages” under RICO. Thus, because federal statutory protections and remedies are unavailable to borrowers under the agreement, the appellate court concluded the entire agreement is unenforceable.
On July 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order compelling arbitration in a lawsuit brought by consumers refuting their liability on a commercial loan, arguing that a Mississippi-based bank “violated numerous state and federal consumer protection laws throughout the loan process.” According to the opinion, the consumers allege a bank representative instructed them to form an LLC and purchase a large plot of land with a commercial loan, as opposed to a consumer loan, in order to receive a “lower interest rate and protection from personal liability[.]” As a part of the transaction, the consumers signed an arbitration agreement that covered “‘any dispute or controversy’ arising from the transaction.” The consumers subsequently filed suit, arguing, among other things, that the bank committed “an unfair, deceptive, abusive act, or practice…by coaxing the [consumers] into forming an LLC and taking out a less favorable commercial loan” rather than a consumer loan, which they originally sought. The bank moved to compel arbitration, and the district court granted the motion and dismissed the action with prejudice.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the district court, rejecting the consumers’ argument that there was not a valid agreement to arbitrate. The appellate court concluded that the agreement was neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable, noting that the consumers voluntarily entered into the agreement and the provision entitling “the victor in arbitration to recover fees from the losing party” was not “one-sided or oppressive.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the consumers failed to provide any federal policy or statute that would support their additional argument that the bank’s alleged UDAAP violation would void an otherwise valid arbitration agreement. Thus, the panel affirmed the district court’s order.
On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that an arbitration clause contained within an online tribal lender’s payday loan agreement impermissibly strips borrowers of their right to assert statutory claims and is therefore unenforceable. Specifically, because this “limitation constitutes a prospective waiver of statutory rights,” the lender’s arbitration agreement “violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable.” The plaintiffs filed a putative class action contending that they obtained payday loans from the lender, which included annual interest rates between 496.55 percent to 714.88 percent—an alleged violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and various Pennsylvania consumer protection laws. The defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the defendants’ arbitration request, ruling that “the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the arbitrator is permitted only to consider tribal law,” and, therefore, the arbitrator could not consider any of plaintiffs’ federal or state law claims. The 3rd Circuit agreed, rejecting, among other things, the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs could bring RICO-like claims under tribal law and possibly receive “similar relief.” The appellate court noted: “The question is whether a party can bring and effectively pursue the federal claim—not whether some other law is a sufficient substitute.”
On June 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit remanded a case against a payday lender back to district court because a newly issued California amendment took effect—which prohibits lenders from issuing loans between $2,500 and $10,000 with charges over 36 percent calculated as an annual simple interest rate (covered by InfoBytes here)—which may impact the court’s analysis. As also previously covered by InfoBytes, plaintiffs filed a putative class action suit against the payday lender alleging the lender sells loans with usurious interest rates, which are prohibited under California’s Unfair Competition Law and Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The lender moved to compel arbitration, but the district court concluded the arbitration provision was unenforceable. In addition to finding the arbitration provisions procedurally unconscionable, the court found that the provision contained a waiver of public injunctive relief, which was substantively unconscionable based on the California Supreme Court decision in McGill v. Citibank, N.A (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here).
On appeal, the 9th Circuit remanded the case back to the district court to reconsider whether the consumer’s requested injunction enjoining the payday lender from issuing loans above $10,000 would actually prevent a threat of future harm in light of the new California law and considering the operative complaint does not allege the lender issued or continues to issue loans above $10,000. Additionally, the appellate court rejected the lender’s arguments that McGill was preempted under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and agreed with the district court’s application of California law, because “Kansas law is contrary to California policy and  California holds a materially greater interest in this litigation.”
On June 1, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied a mobile application company’s motion to, among other things, compel arbitration in a class action alleging the company used face-geometry scan technology in violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). According to the opinion, the plaintiff brought the proposed class action against the company alleging the company used “facial recognition technology to scan, collect, and store his and other users' face geometries from videos and photographs they uploaded to [the company’s photo editing app] without satisfying [BIPA]’s requirements.” The company moved to compel arbitration of the claims on an individual basis. The court concluded that the plaintiff received reasonable notice of the terms of service when he signed up for his account and subscription plan in the app. However, the court noted that while the company’s terms of service include a binding arbitration agreement, the agreement does not cover potential violations of BIPA. Specifically, the court highlighted that the arbitration clause contained exceptions for “allegations of theft, piracy, invasion of privacy or unauthorized use,” and concluded that the BIPA claim is not within the scope of the agreement to arbitrate.
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