It's been a while since I have posted here. It's not for lack of interest in finding something appropriate to address, but the interesting decisions have been few and far between. Plus this "start your own firm" thing tends to eat up a lot of time in the early days. Of course, with several big decisions likely to drop from the California Supreme Court any day, this may have been the calm before the storm. While we wait for those fireworks, here's a fascinating arbitration decision. In Imburgia v. DirecTV, Inc. (April 7, 2014), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One) affirmed the denial of a petition to compel arbitration. The analysis is striking for the fact that it forcefully challenges some contrary conclusions by federal courts. Whether it remains published while other arbitration decisions have been taken and held is another question.
The particulars of the case are all but ignored as irrelevant, though it is clear that the case is a consumer class action from the claims alleged. The customer agreement specified that JAMS rules would apply. However, the agreement went on to state as follows:
“Neither you nor we shall be entitled to join or consolidate claims in arbitration by or against other individuals or entities, or arbitrate any claim as a representative member of a class or in a private attorney general capacity. Accordingly, you and we agree that the JAMS Class Action Procedures do not apply to our arbitration. If, however, the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures unenforceable, then this entire Section 9 is unenforceable.”
Slip op., at 3. The customer agreement also specified that Section 9, containing the arbitration requirement, was governed by the FAA and that the entire section was unenforceable if the agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures was found to be unenforceable.
The trial court found the agreement unenforceable. On appeal, the Court considered the conundrum created by a clause incorporating state law into the determination as to whether a class action waiver was unconscionable:
The question before us, then, is how to interpret section 9’s choice of law concerning enforceability of the class action waiver. Where section 9 requires us to consider whether “the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures unenforceable,” does it mean “the law of your state to the extent it is not preempted by the FAA,” or “the law of your state without considering the preemptive effect, if any, of the FAA”? Plaintiffs argue that it means the latter, and we agree
Slip op., at 6. The Court agreed that the basic rule of construction under which the specific controls the general where the two are inconsistent. The Court observed that:
If we apply state law alone (for example, the antiwaiver provision of the CLRA) to the class action waiver, then the waiver is unenforceable. If we apply federal law, then the class action waiver is enforceable and any state law to the contrary is preempted. That is a sufficient inconsistency to make plaintiffs’ principle of contract interpretation applicable. Indeed, the entire preemption analysis of Concepcion is based on a conflict or inconsistency between the Discover Bank rule and the FAA.
Slip op., at 6. The Court then addressed decisions identified by DirecTV as having rejected the plaintiffs' argument. After dismissing two as inapplicable to the issue before it, the Court squarely addressed the third:
The third case, however, is a decision in the federal multidistrict litigation that parallels the instant state court actions. In an “[i]ndicative [r]uling” under rule 62.1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the federal district court stated that the reference to “the law of your state” in section 9 of the customer agreement could not mean that enforceability of the class action waiver should be determined exclusively under state law, because that would render “meaningless” section 10’s general statement that the arbitration agreement is governed by the FAA. (In re DIRECTV Early Cancellation Fee Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation (C.D.Cal. 2011) 810 F.Supp.2d 1060, 1071.) We disagree. The specific reference to state law concerning the enforceability of the class action waiver creates a narrow and specific exception to the general provision that the arbitration agreement will be governed by the FAA. It does not render that general provision meaningless. In addition, the district court’s analysis does not address the principles that a specific provision controls over a general one and that ambiguous language is construed against the interest of the drafter. For all of these reasons, we decline to follow the district court’s decision.
Slip op., at 8-9.
The Court then discussed Murphy v. DIRECTV, Inc. 724 F.3d 1218 (9th Cir. 2013), decided after briefing was completed, for its holding that federal law "is the law of ever state":
We find the analysis in Murphy unpersuasive. On the one hand, insofar as the court’s reasoning is a matter of contract interpretation, it means that when the parties used the phrase “the law of your state,” they meant “federal law plus (nonfederal) state law.” Murphy provides no basis for concluding that the parties intended to use the phrase “the law of your state” in such a way, and we a re aware of none. On the contrary, a reasonable reader of the customer agreement would naturally interpret the phrase “the law of your state” as referring to (nonfederal) state law, and any ambiguity should be construed against the drafter. On the other hand, insofar as the court reasoned that contract interpretation is irrelevant because the parties are powerless to opt out of the FAA by contract, we are aware of no authority for the court’s position. Rather, as we have already observed, if the customer agreement expressly provided that the enforceability of the class action waiver “shall be determined under the (nonfederal) law of your state without considering the preemptive effect, if any, of the FAA,” then that choice of law would be enforceable; Murphy cites no authority to the contrary. Consequently, the dispositive issue is whether the parties intended to make that choice. As a result, “the parties’ various contract interpretation arguments” are not “largely irrelevant.”
Slip op., at 9-10 (parentheticals added by Court when discussing Murphy because Murphy asserted that all federal law is state law; footnotes omitted). After ripping a few federal decisions to shreds, the Court concluded that the entire arbitration provision was nullified by its own terms.
What will happen now? We'll have to wait for the petition for review to see.
I'll be back with a podcast the day before Easter and any case write-ups that come along before then. Sorry to be away so long.