Confusion surrounding arbitration agreements rapidly escalating in California following conflicting decisions in Hoover, Iskanian

I've been working on a project involving arbitration issues.  My uncertainty about whether to keep all of my powder dry, so to speak, caused a fair bit of my delay in commenting about two relatively new arbitration decisions from California Courts of Appeal.  In Hoover v. American Income Life Insurance Company (June 13, 2012), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Two) affirmed a trial court's denial of a motion to compel arbitration.  In Iskanian v. CLS Transportion Los Angeles, LLC (June 4, 2012), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Two) affirmed a trial court order granting a motion to compel arbitration and dismissing class claims.  Looks like the unremarkable results of Courts of Appeal deferring to finding of trial courts, right?  No.  So very wrong.  What these two actually do is create an explicit rift on the issue of whether statutory rights, at least in the labor context, are subject to individual arbitration.  In the process, the Iskanian Court rejects its sister-division's holding in Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 197 Cal. App. 4th 489 (2011) that Concepcion does not apply to PAGA's representative claims.  The Iskanian Court also refused to follow the NLRB's D.R. Horton decision that protects an employee's right to pursue class claims as a form of concerted activity.  The two cases also disagree as to the reach of Concepcion and Stolt-Neilsen. In sum, the relative clarity that existed in California following Gentry and Discover Bank is now a distant memory.  The California Supreme Court will need to resolve these issues soon, regardless of whether the United States Supreme Court takes on any of these issues in the future.

Hoover concerned a dispute as to whether an individual was misclassified as an independent contractor rather than an employee.  Hoover framed where its analysis would go very early in the opinion, with this footnote:

The conclusions we reach here avert any dependence, as urged by AIL, on two recent United States Supreme Court opinions, addressing the issue of class arbitrations for antitrust claims and consumer sales contracts. (Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp. (2010) ___ U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 1758; AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1740.) “AT&T does not provide that a public right . . . can be waived if such a waiver is contrary to state law.” (Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 489, 500, 502-503.) We also do not need to address the unconscionability argument and the continuing viability of Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83.)

Hoover slip op., at 3 n. 2.  From this we know that (1) Hoover views Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen as limited to consumer sales contracts and antitrust issues respectively, and (2) Hoover views Brown v. Ralphs as correctly decided.

Hoover first discusses (extensively, if you are interested) the concept of waiver following too great a delay in moving to compel arbitration.  That discussion doesn't pave a lot of new ground.

Hoover gets interesting when it talks about the Labor Code claims asserted in the matter:

As a general rule, state statutory wage and hour claims are not subject to arbitration, whether the arbitration clause is contained in the CBA or an individual agreement. The CBA cannot waive the right to sue under applicable federal or state statutes because these statutory rights “devolve on petitioners as individual workers, not as members of a collective organization.” (Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc. (1981) 450 U.S. 728, 745, overruled on other grounds in Gilmer v.  Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp. (1991) 500 U.S. 20; Zavala v. Scott Brothers Dairy, Inc. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 585, 592 [rule applicable to wage claims under Labor Code and IWC wage orders].)

Hoover slip op., at 15-16.  Continuing, Hoover held:

An individual arbitration agreement also does not apply to an action to enforce statutes governing collection of unpaid wages, which “may be maintained without regard to the existence of any private agreement to arbitrate. . . .” (§ 229.) The intent is to assure a judicial forum where there exists a dispute as to wages, notwithstanding the strong public policy favoring arbitration. (Ware v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. (1972) 24 Cal.App.3d 35, 43; Flores v. Axxis Network & Telecommunications, Inc. (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 802, 811.) An exception to the general rule occurs when there is federal preemption by FAA, as applied to contracts evidencing interstate commerce. (Perry v. Thomas (1987) 482 U.S. 483, 490.)

Hoover slip op., at 17.  Statutory claims for unpaid wages may proceed in court, regardless of an agreement to arbitrate.  Zowwee!  But wait - there is an exception for contracts related to interstate commerce.  Does Hoover fit into that exception?  No, says the Hoover Court:

Based on this record, it cannot be said the subject agreement involves interstate commerce. AIL had the burden to demonstrate FAA coverage by declarations and other evidence. (Shepard v. Edward Mackay Enterprises, Inc. (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1092, 1101; Woolls v. Superior Court (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 197, 213-214.) The only established facts are that Hoover was a California resident who sold life insurance policies. Even though AIL is based in Texas, there was no evidence in the record establishing that the relationship between Hoover and AIL had a specific effect or “bear[ing] on interstate commerce in a substantial way.” (Citizens Bank v. Alafabco, Inc. (2003) 539 U.S. 52, 56-57.) Hoover was not an employee of a national stock brokerage or the employee of a member of a national stock exchange. (Thorup v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., supra, 180 Cal.App.3d at p. 233; Baker v. Aubry (1989) 216 Cal.App.3d 1259, 1266.) Unlike the plaintiff in Giuliano v. Inland Empire Personnel, Inc. (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 1276, 1287, Hoover did not work in other states or engage in multimillion dollar loan activity that affected interstate commerce by negotiating with a bank that was headquartered in another state. Under these circumstances, if the FAA did not apply, the exception favoring federal preemption and arbitration did not operate.

Hoover slip op., at 17-18.  So that's going to get some unmentionables in a twist.

Iskanian is, at least in spirit, the antimatter to Hoover's matter.  Iskanian involves a certified class that avoided arbitration once before, when the issuance of Gentry caused the reversal of the trial court's first Order compelling arbitration.  Following Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen, the defendant in Iskanian tried again.  This time, the Iskanian Court affirmed the second Order compelling individual arbitration.  In the process, the Court gave Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen the broadest possible constructions, held Gentry overruled, disregarded Brown v. Ralphs and rejected protections supplied by the NLRA and preserved by D.R. Horton.

First, regarding Gentry, Iskanian said:

Now, we find that the Concepcion decision conclusively invalidates the Gentry test. First, under Gentry, if a plaintiff was successful in meeting the test, the case would be decided in class arbitration (unless the plaintiff could show that the entire arbitration agreement was unconscionable, in which case the agreement would be wholly void). But Concepcion thoroughly rejected the concept that class arbitration procedures should be imposed on a party who never agreed to them. (Concepcion, supra, 131 S.Ct. at pp. 1750-1751.) The Concepcion court held that nonconsensual class arbitration was inconsistent with the FAA because: (i) it “sacrifices the principal advantage of arbitration—informality—and makes the process slower, more costly, and more likely to generate procedural morass than final judgment”; (ii) it requires procedural formality since rules governing class arbitration “mimic the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for class litigation”; and (iii) it “greatly increases risks to defendants,” since it lacks the multilevel review that exists in a judicial forum. (Id. at pp. 1751-1752; see also StoltNielsen S. A. v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp. (2010) 130 S. Ct. 1758, 1775 [“a party may not be compelled under the FAA to submit to class arbitration unless there is a contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so”].) This unequivocal rejection of court-imposed class arbitration applies just as squarely to the Gentry test as it did to the Discover Bank rule.

Iskanian slip op., at 8-9.  But the Court wasn't done:

Third, the premise that Iskanian brought a class action to “vindicate statutory rights” is irrelevant in the wake of Concepcion. As the Concepcion court reiterated, “States cannot require a procedure that is inconsistent with the FAA, even if it is desirable for unrelated reasons.” (131 S.Ct. at p. 1753.) The sound policy reasons identified in Gentry for invalidating certain class waivers are insufficient to trump the far-reaching effect of the FAA, as expressed in Concepcion. Concepcion's holding in this regard is consistent with previously established law. (See Perry v. Thomas, supra, 482 U.S. at p. 484 [finding that § 2 of the FAA preempts Lab. Code, § 229, which provides that actions for the collection of wages “may be maintained 'without regard to the existence of any private agreement to arbitrate'”]; Southland Corp. v. Keating (1984) 465 U.S. 1, 10-11 [holding that the California Supreme Court's interpretation of the Franchise Investment Law as requiring judicial consideration despite the terms of an arbitration agreement directly conflicted with section 2 of the FAA and violated the Supremacy Clause]; Preston v. Ferrer (2008) 552 U.S. 346, 349-350 [holding, “when parties agree to arbitrate all questions arising under a contract, state laws lodging primary jurisdiction in another forum, whether judicial or administrative, are superseded by the FAA”].)

Iskanian slip op., at 9-10.  In its analysis, the Iskanian Court selectively disregarded valid federal law recognizing that vindication of statutory rights remains a basis for declining to enforce an arbitration agreement.  And all of this leaves unanswered the true foundational question: how does the federal government have the constitutional authority over a state's distribution of disputes alleging state law violations in state courts?  Even Concepcion cannot be viewed as answering that question, as it was decided in federal courts over which the federal government does have jurisdiction.  Anyhow, Iskanian had more carnage to release...

Next, the Iskanian Court rejected D.R. Horton, but without any cogent analysis as to why it was incorrectly decided. In D.R. Horton, the NLRB held that a mandatory, employer-imposed agreement requiring all employment-related disputes to be resolved through individual arbitration (and disallowing class or collective claims) violated the NLRA because it prohibited the exercise of substantive rights protected by section 7 of the NLRA.  Section 7 provides in part that employees shall have the right “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection . . . .”  (29 U.S.C. § 157.)   The NLRB found that “employees who join together to bring employmentrelated claims on a classwide or collective basis in court or before an arbitrator are exercising rights protected by Section 7 of the NLRA.”  However, that holding was not new to D.R.Horton, as Iskanian implies.  Rather, decades of authority confirm that class and collective actions constitute protected concerted activity.  That, at least, is well-settled.

Next, Iskanian declares that since D.R. Horton analyzes laws beyond the NLRA, the Court would not defer to it.  Problematically, declining to defer is different than independently reaching the same result following a review of the relevant authority.  Here, Iskanian seems to view a right to decline to defer as a right to choose the alternative construction, absent any analysis.  Instead, the Court said:

The D.R. Horton decision identified no “congressional command” in the NLRA prohibiting enforcement of an arbitration agreement pursuant to its terms. D.R. Horton’s holding—that employment-related class claims are “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection” protected by section 7 of the NLRA, so that the FAA does not apply—elevates the NLRB's interpretation of the NLRA over section 2 of the FAA. This holding does not withstand scrutiny in light of Concepcion and CompuCredit.

Iskanian slip op., at 13.  Iskanian is simply wrong.  D.R. Horton provided a very detailed discussion of the fact that the FAA does not authorize agreements that violate federal law, including the NLRA and related statutory provisions.  The NLRB was working squarely within its area of expertise when it concluded that an agreement interfering with section 7 rights was unenforceable as an illegal contract.  The fact that the agreement was an arbitration agreement is irrelevant.  Illegal contracts are unenforceable.  Concepcion did not change contract law precluding enforcement of illegal agreements.  Moreover, the NLRB noted in D.R. Horton that the Norris-LaGuardia Act was enacted after the FAA.  Thus, it cannot be said that the FAA "overruled" the NLRA.  Rather, if anything, the NLRA limited the FAA in that it defined a new zone of contracts that were illegal.  Iskanian Court don't care!

Next, Iskanian opined that Brown v. Ralphs was wrongly decided:

In finding that Concepcion did not apply to PAGA representative claims, the Brown majority wrote: “[Concepcion] does not purport to deal with the FAA's possible preemption of contractual efforts to eliminate representative private attorney general actions to enforce the Labor Code. As noted, the PAGA creates a statutory right for civil penalties for Labor Code violations 'that otherwise would be sought by state labor law enforcement agencies.' . . . This purpose contrasts with the private individual right of a consumer to pursue class action remedies in court or arbitration, which right, according to [Concepcion], may be waived by agreement so as not to frustrate the FAA—a law governing private arbitrations. [Concepcion] does not provide that a public right, such as that created under the PAGA, can be waived if such a waiver is contrary to state law.” (197 Cal.App.4th at p. 500.)

Respectfully, we disagree with the majority's holding in Brown. We recognize that the PAGA serves to benefit the public and that private attorney general laws may be severely undercut by application of the FAA. But we believe that United States Supreme Court has spoken on the issue, and we are required to follow its binding authority.

Iskanian slip op., at 15.  Again, Iskanian avoids any analysis of authority that might undercut its decision.  Vindication of statutory rights is currently a recognized basis for declining to enforce an arbitration agreement.  All Iskanian does is point at Concepcion and declare that it is following it.  In doing so, Iskanian goes too far and creates a rift in California law that requires immediate attention by the California Supreme Court.

Two cases, two contrary sets of conclusions.