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.

A different other day, another arbitration decision: Gentry maybe not preempted

This is also a day of the week ending in the letter "Y."  Hence, a new arbitration opinion to discuss.  In Truly Nolen of America v. Superior Court (August 13, 2012), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) examined several arbitration issues in a putative class action wage & hour matter.  Adding to the miasma of conflicting aribtration opinions in California, this Court concluded that Gentry was not preempted by Concepcion and must be followed under principles of stare decisis.  However, the Court also found that, on the factual record in the trial court, the Gentry test was not satisfied.  Instead, the Court directed the trial court to permit briefing on the issue of whether the parties' agreement includes an implied agreement to permit class arbitration.

In the trial court, defendant moved to compel arbitration.  The arbitration agreements did not contain a specific provision pertaining to the availability or unavailability of classwide arbitration.  The court granted the motion to compel arbitration, but rejected defendant's request that the court order individual arbitration, relying on Gentry v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 443 (2007).  Defendant petitioned for review.

The Court set forthan extensive history of arbitration law in California, beginning with cases before Stolt-Neilsen and Concepcion.  It is very exiting, so I will not spoil it by summarizing it here.  Then the Court discussed the impact of Concepcion on Discover Bank and Gentry.  Having concluded the history lesson, the Court had to choose from the conflicting decisions as to whether Gentry remains valid law.

Exercising caution, the Court threaded the eye of the needle, concluding that it doubted the analysis of cases finding Genry valid but agreeing with the plaintiffs that it was nevertheless obligated to follow decisions of the California Supreme Court until expressly invalidated: "On federal statutory issues, intermediate appellate courts in California are absolutely bound to follow the decisions of the California Supreme Court, unless the United States Supreme Court has decided the same question differently."  Slip op., at 23.

Having so concluded, the Court then considered whether the evidentiary record was sufficient to support a finding that the Gentry factors were present.  The Court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to connect attorney declarations with the facts of the case.  Based on an insufficient evidentiary record, the Court reversed the trial court's finding that Gentry required a class arbitration.

Next, the Court examined other contentions.  First, the Court agreed that an arbitartion agreement may include an implied agreement to class arbitration:  "Relying on Stolt-Nielsen, the courts have recognized that an implied agreement may be sufficient to support class arbitration."  (Slip op., at 33.)  Although plaintiffs did not raise the issue in the trial court, the Court concluded that they were not precluded from doing so on remand.  The Court left it to the trial court to develop the record as to whether the parties' agreement includes an implied agreement to class arbitrations.  Notably, the Court recognized that California contract law would govern the analysis of whether an implied agreement permitting arbitration agreements exists.

Next, as with several other Courts of Appeal, the Court, in cursory fashion, rejected the contention that the NLRA protects employees from the enforcement of contract provisions that would impede their right to undertake concerted activity, including class actions.  I have commented elsewhere on the paucity of analysis supplied by other Courts in California (Iskanian and Nelsen), and this Court did nothing to advance the analysis beyond more than something akin to bare assertion based on skepticism.  As an aside, even if the Court believes that its scant analysis is correct, the existence of the NLRA and the many decisions protecting class actions as concerted activity should, at minimum, supply the requisite implied intent to permit class arbitrations.  After all, the defendant could not have intended to violate the NLRA, could it?

With every class-related arbitration decision issued in California, the need for comprehensive, detailed holdings from the California Supreme Court grows.  I urge the California Supreme Court to assist parties in consumer and employment class actions by sweeping up all of these decisions and rendering a number of much needed rulings as quickly as possible.

Trial court, in Avalos v. La Salsa, Inc., offers early glimpse of how California courts may reconcile Stolt-Nielsen and Gentry

Earlier today, in Avalos v. La Salsa, Inc., JCCP 4488, the Santa Barbara Superior Court, Judge Denise deBellefeuille presiding, granted the defendants’ motion for reconsideration of a class certification order in to consider the impact of the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Stolt-Nielsen S. A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010) on the coordinated proceedings before the Court.  After an extensive analysis of Stolt-Nielsen, including its interaction with Gentry v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 443 (2007), the Court affirmed the certification order previously entered.  While the certification aspect is mildly interesting, the Court's extensive discussion of the interplay between arbitration clauses and class actions in California is the pot of gold in this unusually thorough trial court order.  While the attached opinion is a tentative ruling, the Court adopted its tentative without modification.

You can view the embedded opinion in the acrobat.com flash viewer below:

If the viewer isn't working for you (say, if you are viewing this on an iPad or iPhone), you can download the opinion here.

AT&T's preemption argument based on Stolt-Nielsen is dead before it hits the floor

United States District Court Judge Claudia Wilken (Northern District of California) has already been gifted with the privilege of considering whether Stolt-Nielsen S. A. et al. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp. (discussed on this blog here) preempts any state law that would preclude enforcement of an arbitration agreement.  McArdle v. AT & T Mobility LLC, 2010 WL 1532334 (N.D.Cal. May 10, 2010).  Judge Wilken took care of that argument in one sharp paragraph:

Defendants assert that Stolt-Nielsen creates a substantial question as to whether the “FAA would preempt any holding that California law precludes enforcement of McArdle's agreement to arbitrate his disputes with” them on an individual basis. Mot. for Leave at 4. The Court disagrees. The issue presented in Stolt-Nielsen was “whether imposing class arbitration on parties whose arbitration clauses are ‘silent’ on that issue is consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).” 2010 WL 1655826, at *4. The Supreme Court did not address FAA preemption. Nor did it overrule its precedent upon which the Ninth Circuit relied in Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Services, Inc., which held that California law on unconscionability could render an arbitration clause unenforceable, 498 F.3d 976, 986-87 (9th Cir.2007).  Stolt-Nielsen is distinguishable both on the facts and the law and, therefore, does not require this Court to reconsider its order on Defendants' motion to stay this action pending their appeal.

Slip op., at 1.  One interesting bit of information is also included in the Order.  The Ninth Circuit recently held that Shroyer continues to control the issue of unconscionability analysis under California law.  Laster v. AT & T Mobility LLC, 584 F.3d 849 (9th Cir.2009). AT&T filed a petition for certiorari in Laster, upon which they expect the Supreme Court to rule by May 24.  If the Supreme Court takes up Laster, they will be forced to explicitly address carve-outs alluded to by the dissent in Stolt-Nielsen but not addressed by the majority opinion.

Arguelles-Romero v. Superior Court explains rules in Gentry and Discover Bank

If you were an arbitration agreement, this is your moment in the spotlight.  In Arguelles-Romero v. Superior Court (May 13, 2010), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) granted a petition for a writ of mandate after the trial court ordered the plaintiff to submit to individual arbitration.  The trial court also ruled that a class action waiver provision in the automobile financing contract was not unconscionable.  That finding by the trial court prompted the Court of Appeal to spend a good deal of time discussing the two different tests presented in the California Supreme Court cases of Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148 (2005) (Discover Bank) and Gentry v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 443 (2007) (Gentry).  The Court of Appeal held:

While we hold the trial court did not err in finding the class action waiver was not unconscionable, we also conclude that it should have also performed a discretionary analysis on whether a class action is a significantly more effective practical means of vindicating the unwaivable statutory rights at issue. We therefore grant the petition and remand with directions.

Slip op., at 2.  To provide some context, the Court stated the basic standard of review as follows:

“California law, like federal law, favors enforcement of valid arbitration agreements.” (Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, 97 (Armendariz).) Under both federal and California law, arbitration agreements are valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the voiding of any contract. (Id. at p. 98 & fn. 4.) Unconscionability is a recognized contract defense which can defeat an arbitration agreement. (Szetela v. Discover Bank (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 1094, 1099.)

Slip op., at 12.

Cutting right to it, here is the first money quote:

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Stolt-Nielsen S. A. et al. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp.: Less than meets the eye

The interplay between class actions and arbitration provisions was a controversial topic for many years in California until Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148 (2005) and Gentry v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 443 (2007) eliminated a substantial amount of uncertainty about class arbitration waivers in the areas of consumer contracts and employment arbitration agreements. These decisions, and other applying their principles, declared that, in California, many class action waivers in the consumer and employment law settings are unconscionable under California law. Gentry, at 779. “[A]lthough ‘[c]lass action and arbitration waivers are not, in the abstract, exculpatory clauses’ (Discover Bank, supra, 36 Cal.4th at p. 161, 30 Cal.Rptr.3d 76, 113 P.3d 1100), such a waiver can be exculpatory in practical terms because it can make it very difficult for those injured by unlawful conduct to pursue a legal remedy.” Gentry, at 783.

On April 27, 2010, the United States Supreme Court issued its Opinion in Stolt-Nielsen S. A. et al. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp. Initial commentary quickly concluded that Stolt-Nielsen will eliminate many consumer and employment law class actions. Whether that is accurate at the macro level won’t be known for years. However, the question raised by Stolt-Nielsen, for the perspective of California litigation, is whether Stolt-Nielsen altered controlling California law negatively, or, perhaps unexpectedly, added strength to California’s approach to arbitration provisions.

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