Back to the drawing board: AT&T's arbitration agreement that bans class actions is still unconscionable

It seems to me that the telecommunications and credit card industries are more determined to make an arbitration agreement with a class action ban stick than any other industry.  Most employers have given up that dream, but not the phone company and not the bank.  The latest arbitration agreement with a class action ban comes to us compliments of AT&T Mobility LLC.  But, in Laster v. AT&T Mobility LLC (October 27, 2009), the Ninth Circuit sends another class action ban to the unconscionability graveyard, and just in time for Halloween.

Those crazy mad scientists in the secret AT&T Arbitration Agreement Drafting Lab (also known as the "Triple A - DL" to those in the know), their latest scheme to ban class actions was ingenious, and could have helped them take over the world!  The plan was to circumvent the holding of Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Services, Inc., 498 F.3d 976 (9th Cir. 2007) with a little bonus payment clause:

[T]he phone company points to a new wrinkle: unlike the arbitration clause in Shroyer, this arbitration clause provides for a “premium” payment of $7,500 (the jurisdictional limit of California’s small claims court) if the arbitrator awards the customer an amount greater than the phone company’s last written settlement offer made before selection of an arbitrator. Hence, says the phone company, the arbitration clause is not an artifice that has the practical effect of rendering it immune from individual claims.

Slip op., at 14391.  The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and shot down a preemption argument along the way:

We will find, on second blush, the new “premium” payment does not distinguish this case from Shroyer, and that under California law, the present arbitration clause is unconscionable and unenforcable [sic]. Further, we will also find no merit to the phone company’s claim the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts California unconscionability law.

Slip op., at 14391.  Back to the Triple A - DL, Snidely.  For those not satisfied with just the holding, the Court's analysis relied heavily on Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148 (2005):

The California Supreme Court addressed the unconscionability of class action waivers in arbitration agreements for the first time in Discover Bank v. Sup. Ct., 113 P.3d 1100 (Cal. 2005), holding that class action waivers were at least sometimes unconscionable under California law. 113 P.3d at 1108. Class actions, the court reasoned, serve the important policy function of deterring and redressing wrongdoing, particularly where a company defrauds large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money. Id. at 1105. Class action waivers pose a problem because, “small recoveries do not provide the incentive for any individual to bring a solo action prosecuting his or her rights.” Id. at 1106. In this way, the class action waiver allows the company to insulate itself from liability for its wrongdoing and the policy behind class actions is thwarted. Id. at 1109.

Slip op., at 14394.  The Court then explained how it interpreted the test in Discover Bank:

We have interpreted Discover Bank as creating a three-part test to determine whether a class action waiver in a consumer contract is unconscionable: (1) is the agreement a contract of adhesion; (2) are disputes between the contracting parties likely to involve small amounts of damages; and (3) is it alleged that the party with superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme deliberately to cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money. Id. at 983. In Shroyer, we noted that “there are most certainly circumstances in which a class action waiver is unconscionable under California law despite the fact that all three parts of the Discover Bank test are not satisfied.” Id. Because we hold that the class action waiver at issue satisfies all three parts of the test, as was true in Shroyer, “it is unnecessary to explore those circumstances here.” Id.

Slip op., at 14395.  The application of the Discover Bank test tracks Shroyer.  The Court then disposed of AT&T's contention that the promise of a premium payment distinguished this agreement from Shroyer:

The $7,500 premium payment is available only if AT&T does not make a settlement offer to the aggrieved customer in a sum equal to or higher than is ultimately awarded in arbitration, and before an arbitrator is selected. This means that if a customer files for arbitration against AT&T, predictably, AT&T will simply pay the face value of the claim before the selection of an arbitrator to avoid potentially paying $7,500. Thus, the maximum gain to a customer for the hassle of arbitrating a $30.22 dispute is still just $30.22. We held in Shroyer that a claim worth a few hundred dollars did not provide adequate incentive for a customer to bother pursuing individual arbitration. 498 F.3d at 986. The $30.22 at issue here is even less of an incentive to file a claim. As a result, aggrieved customers will predictably not file claims—even if the odds are that after the letter-writing and arbitrator-choosing, they will get a $30.22 offer—thereby “greatly reduc[ing] the aggregate liability” AT&T faces for allegedly mulcting small sums of money from many consumers. See id. The premium payment provision has no effect on this conclusion, nor do any of the other provisions of AT&T’s revised arbitration clause. The actual damages a customer will recover remain predictably small, thus under the rationale of Discover Bank and Shroyer, AT&T’s class action waiver is in effect an exculpatory clause, hence substantively unconscionable.

Slip op., at 14397-98.  I'll spare you any excerpts from the preemption discussion.  It's sufficient to say that the Court was impressed with a repeat of arguments rejected in Shroyer.