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On June 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied a national payday lender’s motion to compel arbitration, agreeing with plaintiffs that the arbitration provision in their loan agreement was unenforceable because it was procedurally and substantively unconscionable. According to the opinion, 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 asserting that the consumers’ loan agreements contain prohibitions on class actions in court or in arbitration, require arbitration of any claims arising from a dispute related to the agreement, and disallow consumers from acting as a “private attorney general.”
The court first determined that California law applied. It concluded that, while the lender was headquartered in Kansas, the consumers obtained their loans in California, and California “has a materially greater interest than Kansas in employing its laws to resolve the instant dispute,” based on its “material and fundamental interest in maintaining a pathway to public injunctive relief in unfair competition cases.”
The court then determined that the arbitration provision was procedurally unconscionable because, even though the consumers had a 30-day opt-out window, it required them to waive statutory causes of action “before they knew any such claims existed.” Finally, because the provision contained a waiver of public injunctive relief, the court determined it was substantively unconscionable based on the California Supreme Court decision in McGill v. Citibank, N.A (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here). The court rejected the lender’s arguments that McGill was preempted under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), noting a 2015 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, “effectively controls” the dispute and the 9th Circuit reasoned that a similar state-law rule against waivers was not preempted by the FAA. Lastly, the court held that the unconscionable public injunctive relief waiver provision was not severable from the entire arbitration provision, because the agreement contained “poison pill” language that would invalidate the entirety of the arbitration provision.
On May 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit denied a plaintiff’s writ of mandamus challenging the district court’s order compelling arbitration of the plaintiff’s claims against a national shipping company. According to the opinion, a customer filed a putative class action complaint alleging the company “systematically overcharges” customers by applying delivery surcharge rates through third-parties, which are higher than the company’s advertised rates. The company moved to compel arbitration because the customer enrolled in a free, optional program offered by the company that provides tracking and managing services of packages; and that enrollment in the program required the customer to agree to arbitrate all claims related to the company’s shipping services. The customer argued that while he checked the box agreeing to the service terms and technology agreement when enrolling, he should not be bound by the arbitration agreement because it was, among other things “so inconspicuous that no reasonable user would be on notice of its existence.” The district court rejected the customer’s arguments and granted the motion to compel arbitration.
On review of the writ of mandamus, the appellate court acknowledged that “locating the arbitration clause at issue here requires several steps and a fair amount of web-browsing intuition,” detailing that “...the first hyperlink [is] to the 96-page Technology Agreement. The user must then read the [service terms] and understand that they incorporate [additional terms and conditions of service]…. the user must visit the full [company] website, intuitively find the link [to the additional terms and conditions of service] at the bottom of the webpage, select it, and locate yet another link to the [terms and conditions of service]” in order to read the document and locate the arbitration clause. The appellate court held that the “extraordinary remedy of mandamus” could not be awarded because it could not say “with ‘definite and firm conviction’ that the district court erred by finding the incorporation [of the terms and conditions of service] valid” and found that there is no question the customer affirmatively assented to the terms. While it did not impact its analysis, the appellate court noted that the company’s service terms document now includes a hyperlink to the terms and conditions of service and expressly informs the user that the terms contain an arbitration provision.
On May 28, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that customers who financed a vehicle through a Florida car dealership were bound by the arbitration provision contained within a signed purchase order and retail installment sale contact. The customer plaintiffs contended that the defendant car dealership violated the FCRA and state law when it ran a “hard” credit inquiry on them instead of the “soft” credit inquiry they had authorized on a pre-approval financing form completed on the defendant’s website. As a result, the plaintiffs’ credit scores were affected. Based on the arbitration provisions contained in the purchase order and retail sale installment contract, the defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration. The plaintiffs argued that they were not bound by the arbitration agreements because they were signed a few days after the dealership ran the unauthorized credit check. However, the court held that it did not matter when the agreement was signed, stating that the “[p]laintiffs’ sole argument is that the [hard credit report check], does not in any way ‘relate to’ the purchasing documents which contain the arbitration clauses, and thus the arbitration clauses cannot be applied retroactively to encompass disputes arising from that transaction. The [c]ourt disagrees.” In granting the motion to compel arbitration, the court explained that the plaintiffs’ argument was “essentially one relating to scope and arbitrability, issues that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate.”
On May 17, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals vacated a state circuit court’s ruling to deny a motion to compel arbitration in a case related to bounced convenience checks drawn on a consumer’s credit card account, finding that the circuit court’s order failed to contain sufficient findings of fact or conclusions of law to allow the Supreme Court of Appeals to conduct a proper review. According to the opinion, the plaintiff-respondent sued the debt collector defendants for invasion of privacy and violations of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act after the defendants attempted to collect debt arising from two convenience check transactions that were allegedly returned as unpaid. The defendants moved to compel arbitration and presented enrollment forms that contained arbitration clauses purportedly signed by the plaintiff-respondent. However, the plaintiff-respondent claimed the enrollment forms were never presented to her, that her signature was applied to the forms electronically after she used a card reader terminal to electronically cash her checks, and that the “signing process was ‘rushed’ and unfair.” Following a brief hearing on the motion to compel arbitration, the circuit court entered an order denying the motion to compel arbitration.
On appeal, the state’s highest court vacated the circuit court’s order, which it found to be “unclear and contradictory in its rulings,” in that the lower court appeared to determine that the plaintiff-respondent had not agreed to the terms of the arbitration agreement, but also appeared to determine that the contract was unconscionable and could not be enforced. The high court remanded the case for further proceedings, including determining whether an arbitration agreement existed, and if it did, whether the agreement was unconscionable.
On May 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a debt collector’s motion to compel arbitration in an FDCPA action, concluding that the existence of an arbitration agreement was not yet apparent based on the amended complaint. According to the opinion, a consumer brought a putative class action against a debt collector alleging the three collection letters it sent were “deceptive and misleading” under the FDCPA because the letters contained language regarding the possibility of IRS reporting, even though the debt was under the $600 threshold required for reporting. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the district court dismissed the action on its merits, without reaching the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed, finding “the least sophisticated debtor could be left with the impression that reporting could occur” and therefore the language could signal a potential FDCPA violation, notwithstanding the letter’s qualifying statement that reporting is not required every time a debt is canceled or settled.
On remand, the debt collector moved to compel arbitration of the claims arising from the three letters on an individual basis, arguing that the credit agreement between the consumer and the original creditor contained an arbitration provision and providing an example of the original creditor’s credit card agreement. The plaintiff rejected the example agreement, arguing that it was merely a generic exemplar that did not “demonstrate its applicability” to the consumer. In denying the debt collector’s motion, the court directed the parties to conduct limited discovery on the existence of an enforceable arbitration agreement between the parties. The court also denied the debt collector’s motion to dismiss new claims added to the amended complaint as time-barred because they “relate back” to the original complaint.
On April 24, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote held that because an arbitration agreement did not explicitly permit class arbitrations, only individual arbitrations are allowed. The case began when an employee of a lighting retailer (petitioner) filed a class-action suit against the company after a hacker—who posed as a company official—persuaded an employee at the company to disclose the tax information of roughly 1,300 workers and then file a fraudulent tax report in the petitioner’s name. The company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the petitioner was required to bring his claims in individual arbitration under the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp., which bars class arbitration when there is no “contractual basis for concluding” that the parties agreed to it. The district court granted the motion to compel arbitration but rejected the company’s request for individual arbitration and authorized arbitration on a classwide basis. On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision—agreeing that the ambiguous agreement permitted class arbitration—and “followed California law to construe the ambiguity against the drafter”—in this instance, the company who drafted the agreement.
The company petitioned the Supreme Court to consider, consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), whether an ambiguous agreement can provide the “contractual basis” required for compelling class arbitration. The majority deferred to the 9th Circuit’s conclusion that the arbitration agreement in question was ambiguous as to whether class arbitration was an option, and wrote that the lack of clarity cannot provide the “contractual basis” required under Stolt-Nielsen to compel class arbitration. Notably, the majority highlighted that “shifting from individual to class arbitration is a ‘fundamental’ change. . .that ‘sacrifices the principal advantage of arbitration’ and ‘greatly increases risks to defendants.” Citing to “crucial differences” between individual and class arbitration, the majority wrote that “courts may not infer consent to participate in class arbitration absent an affirmative ‘contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.’” The majority also stated that the 9th Circuit's decision to rely upon California’s contra proferentem doctrine to interpret contractual ambiguities against the drafter is “flatly inconsistent with ‘the foundational FAA principle that arbitration is a matter of consent.’”
The four justices who voted against the decision all wrote dissents. Among other things, Justice Kagan wrote that the FAA stipulates that state law governs the interpretation of arbitration agreements, provided the law handles other types of contracts in the same way. “Today’s opinion is rooted instead in the majority’s belief that class arbitration ‘undermine[s] the central benefits of arbitration itself.  But that policy view—of a piece with the majority's ideas about class litigation—cannot justify displacing generally applicable state law about how to interpret ambiguous contracts,” Justice Kagan stated. Justice Breyer, who joined Justices Ginsburg’s and Kagan’s dissents in full, also wrote that the 9th Circuit lacked jurisdiction over the company’s appeal, and consequently, the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction as well.
On March 22, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that a debt collector (defendant) who purchased a consumer’s credit card account failed to establish that the sale of the account included the sale of the right to arbitrate disputes relating to the account. According to the ruling, a bank sold a consumer’s credit card account to the defendant after the plaintiff defaulted on his payments. The agreement between the consumer and the bank included a mandatory arbitration clause, as well as a class action waiver. When the defendant sent a collection letter to the plaintiff, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging the letter violated the FDCPA because, among other things, it included ambiguous language regarding discount payment options. The defendant moved to compel arbitration. The court denied the defendant’s motion, stating that the sale of the accounts does not axiomatically include the right to arbitrate disputes relating to them, and that the defendant had not provided adequate documentation to support the conclusion that it did in this case. The court found that “subject to further argument and possible evidence clarifying possible ambiguity in the use of the term ‘account’ in the assignment,” the court would not presume that the sale of the accounts included the bank’s rights to compel arbitration.
On February 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion by a debt collector and its managers to compel arbitration, concluding that discovery was needed in order to determine whether an arbitration clause applied to the plaintiffs’ claims regarding FDCPA violations. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs filed a proposed class action alleging that the debt collection company’s collection letters violated the FDCPA because they did not “properly identify the name of the current creditor to whom the debt is owed.” The debt collectors moved to compel arbitration, arguing that the debts described in the plaintiffs’ amended complaint arose pursuant to credit card agreements that include an arbitration clause, and submitted a declaration from an employee of the servicing entity for the credit card issuer, with credit card account terms and conditions, including arbitration clauses, as an attachment. The court denied the motion, noting that the Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) standard requires that the amended complaint “establish with clarity that the parties have agreed to arbitrate,” and in this instance, no arbitration clause was cited. The court denied the motion to compel pending further development of the factual record by plaintiffs conducting discovery on the issue.
On January 25, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted a bank’s motion to compel arbitration in connection with a lawsuit concerning the bank’s assessment of two types of fees. According to the order, the plaintiff filed a 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 bank moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration provision in the deposit account agreement executed between the bank and the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued against arbitration, citing a California Supreme Court case, McGill v. Citibank, which held that “waivers of the right to seek public injunctive relief in any forum are unenforceable.” In response, the bank argued that (i) McGill does not apply because the plaintiff is not seeking public injunctive relief; and (ii) McGill is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The court agreed with the bank, determining that the relief sought by the plaintiff would primarily benefit her, stating “any public injunctive relief sought by [plaintiff] is merely incidental to her primary aim of gaining compensation for injury.” As for preemption, the court noted that even if the McGill rule was applicable to a contract, it would not survive preemption as the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently held that the 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.”
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