In NAACP of Camden County East v. Foulke Management Corp., New Jersey appellate court finds reasons to distinguish Concepcion

When you stamp down too hard, stuff leaks out the sides.  AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011) was the boot.  Since then, we've been waiting to see what would leak out the sides.  There has been a good deal of discussion about the ramifications of Concepcion.  While Concepcion may make things harder for class actions, the severity of the opinion is also inspiring interesting challenges to arbitration agreements on many fronts.  In NAACP of Camden  County East v. Foulke Management Corp. (August 2, 2011), the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court concluded that convoluted and inconsistent arbitration provisions in an automobile purchase contract could not be enforced, reversing the trial court's order directing the matter to individual arbitration.

The opinion focused heavily on the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas for its conclusion that a confusing consumer contract provision related to arbitration would not be enforced:

Thus, in the aftermath of AT&T Mobility, state courts remain free to decline to enforce an arbitration provision by invoking traditional legal doctrines governing the formation of a contract and its interpretation. Applying such core principles of contract law here, we must decide whether there was mutual assent to the arbitration provisions in the dealership's contract documents. As part of that assessment, we must examine whether the terms of the provisions were stated with sufficient clarity and consistency to be reasonably understood by the consumer who is being charged with waiving her right to litigate a dispute in court.

Slip op., at 31.  The Court found ample evidence for the proposition that the consumer could not have reasonably understood the arbitration provisions.  The Court did take a moment to opine that the trial court was correct when it found that a class action waiver could not be invalidated on public policy grounds.  But the Court then found that the issue was irrelevant to the outcome, since the provisions were unenforcable on formation grounds.

Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, scoffs at notion that Concepcion preempts all state unconscionability law

As soon as a blockbuster decision hits the street, zealous litigators work to stretch it as far as it can go.   AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (April 27, 2011) is getting that elastic band treatment right now.  For example, AT&T Mobility (Concepcion) was the subject of a brief aside in Mission Viejo Emergency Medical Associates v. Beta Healthcare Group (July 25, 2007).  In a lawsuit between an insured and the insurer, a motion to compel arbitration of a dispute arising out of the policy was denied by the trial court.  The Court of Appeal reversed and remanded for further proceedings regarding a claim of unconscionability.  In the course of the discussion, the Court said:

We invited the parties to provide their comments on the recent United States Supreme Court case, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) __ U.S. __ [131 S.Ct. 1740] (AT&T). Defendants appear to argue that AT&T essentially preempts all California law relating to unconscionability. We disagree, as the case simply does not go that far. General state law doctrine pertaining to unconscionability is preserved unless it involves a defense that applies "only to arbitration or that derive[s] [its] meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue." (Id. at p. __ [131 S.Ct. at p.1746].) This simply does not apply here.

Slip op., at 13, n. 4.  The Court then concluded that the asserted unconscionable provisions in the arbitration agreement could be dealt with by the trial court when it considered any motion to sever provisions:

The specific provisions that plaintiffs raise — regarding arbitration in San Francisco, the even split of the cost, and the nonarbitrability of discretionary decisions — can be the subject of a motion to sever before the trial court if the parties cannot reach agreement on the terms of arbitration. (Civ. Code, § 1670.5, subd. (a).) Although we may decide this issue as a matter of first impression (see Higgins v. Superior Court (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1238, 1251), given the relative lack of factual development as to these issues, we believe that deference to the trial court would better serve the ends of justice.

Slip op., at 15.

So there you have it from the Fourth Appellate District, Division Three: AT&T Mobility (Concepcion) doesn't preempt all California law on the subject of contractual unconscionability.  They didn't even break a sweat figuring that out.  Interestingly, this is the second decision (Brown v. Ralphs being the first) that asked for supplemental briefing on AT&T Mobility (Concepcion) but issued a decision that is relatively unaffected by it.