An exceptional oral argument on the D.R. Horton arbitration issue

One of the things that had me preoccupied recently was an oral argument in the Ninth Circuit.  Coincidentally, the same day that I was there, Dennis Moss, one of my former employers, was arguing his own case before the Ninth Circuit.  In Fatemeh Johnmohammadi v. Bloomingdale's, Inc., the same issue of Section 7 and 8 rights running up against class action waivers addressed in D.R. Horton was raised.  You can listen to the argument here.  In light of the Fifth Circuit's decision (which I haven't yet written about), it seems like a better than typical bet that if the Ninth Circuit were somehow convinced to part company with the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court would end up with the final say on this debate.

California Supreme Court activity for week of April 8, 2013

On April 10, 2013, the California held its (usually) weekly conference.  Significant results include:

  • in Flores v. West Covina Auto Group, the Petition was granted and the matter held, pending resolution of Iskanian v. CLS Transportation (Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court order compelling individual arbitration in a case alleging class claims).

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Oxford Health Plan LLC's appeal of an order requiring it to consent to class arbitration

Here we have yet another opportunity for the United States Supreme Court to clarify whether class arbitrations are appropriate without express consent to participate in a class arbitration.  The issue is described as follows:

Whether an arbitrator acts within his powers under the Federal Arbitration Act (as the Second and Third Circuits have held) or exceeds those powers (as the Fifth Circuit has held) by determining that parties affirmatively “agreed to authorize class arbitration,” Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animalfeeds Int'l Corp., based solely on their use of broad contractual language precluding litigation and requiring arbitration of any dispute arising under their contract.

This case concerns reimbursements to doctors.  And yet, the question that will likely remain unanswered is whether, in the employment context, the National Labor Relations Act preserves a right to concerted activity, including class litigation, even if in the arbitration context.  The case is entitled Oxford Health Plan LLC v. Sutter, and the docket is here.

More Supreme Court News from the December 14, 2012 Weekly Conference

While I reported on two depublication orders on Wednesday, other activity of note occured at the California Supreme Court's Weekly Conference hed on December 14, 2012.  The Court Granted a Petition for Review in Reyes v. Liberman Broadcasting (in which the Court of Appeal reversed the denial of a petition to compel arbitration) and Ordered the matter Held pending the outcome of Iskanian.  Many years from now we may know more about the extent to which arbitration agreements will be enforced in different settings.

Second Appellate District concludes that Gentry remains good law, despite Concepcion

While it may not last much longer than it takes the ink to dry on the opinion, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One), in Franco v. Arakenian Enterprises, Inc. (November 26, 2012) considered a significant question: "The question on appeal is whether Gentry was overruled by Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp. (2010) 559 U.S. ___ [130 S.Ct. 1758] (Stolt-Nielsen) and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 563 U.S. ___ [131 S.Ct. 1740] (Concepcion)."  Slip op., at 3.  Summarizing a 65-page opinion, the Court said:

We conclude that Gentry remains good law because, as required by Concepcion, it does not establish a categorical rule against class action waivers but, instead, sets forth several factors to be applied on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a class action waiver precludes employees from vindicating their statutory rights. And, as required by Stolt-Nielsen, when a class action waiver is unenforceable under Gentry, the plaintiff's claims must be adjudicated in court, where the plaintiff may file a putative class action. Accordingly, we affirm.

Slip op., at 3.

The decision follows an earlier opinion in the matter, Franco v. Athens Disposal Co., Inc., 171 Cal. App. 4th 1277 (2009) (Franco I).  That procedural and factual history is extensive, and I won't summarize it.  The opinion also contains a footnote indicating that it invited comment on D.R. Horton, but because Franco did not respond to the request, the Court declined to address the impact of that matter.

 The decision also has an exhaustive review of arbitration decisions in the context of statutory claims.  After that history, the Court examined the reach of the Concepcion.  An extended portion of the Court's analysis cited approvingly to a law review analysis: Gilles & Friedman, After Class: Aggregate Litigation in the Wake of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2012) 79 U.Chi. L.Rev. 623.

Ultimately, after looking at the Question Presented in Concepcion, the Court concluded that, in this case, Franco lacked the means, not the incentive, to pursue his claims.  That distinction, the Court held, justified the trial court's decision to deny the petition to compel arbitration.

Then, tucked right into the end of the opinion, the Court offered a monumental observation that would have had great significance if the Court had considered D.R. Horton:

Which brings us to the subject of Concepcion's effect, if any, on PAGA claims. We have already concluded that Athens Services's arbitration agreement — the MAP — contains two unenforceable clauses: the class action waiver and the prohibition on acting as an attorney general. (See Franco I, supra, 171 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1297–1300, 1303; fn. 2, ante.) Those clauses operate independently of each other: One restricts Franco‘s pursuit of his rest and meal period claims while the other prohibits his recovery under the PAGA. Together, they render the MAP tainted with illegality, making it unenforceable and permitting Franco to adjudicate his claims in a judicial forum. (See Franco I, at p. 1303; fn. 2, ante.) Concepcion does not preclude a court from declaring an arbitration agreement unenforceable if the agreement is permeated by an unlawful purpose.

Slip op., at 64.  See that?!  Right there?!  This Court gets it!  If you impose a contract that violates the law (e.g., the NLRA), then the contract is unenforcable in Court on the general ground of illegality.  Any contract that violates the NLRA, not just arbitration agreements, is void and unenforceable.  How hard is this, really?  And here we finally see a Court clearly articulate the illegality defense analysis, but the Court declined to address the NLRA argument because one of the parties was too busy to answer.  Wonderful.

Of course, this case may vanish for years when it gets sucked up into the California Supreme Court's Gentry re-examination.

Statement of issues provided by California Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation

The Statement of Issues for the Iskanian v. CLS Transportation matter is as follows:

This case presents the following issues: (1) Did AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 563 U.S. __ [131 S. Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742] impliedly overrule Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443 with respect to contractual class action waivers in the context of non-waivable labor law rights? (2) Does the high court's decision permit arbitration agreements to override the statutory right to bring representative claims under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (Lab. Code, 2698 et seq.)? (3) Did defendant waive its right to compel arbitration?