Three Contracts, But Only One Arbitration Provision, Means Arbitration Cannot Be Compelled

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

What happens when the same parties enter into three contracts, all related to the same underlying services, the first two of which require the parties to litigate any disputes while the third provides that the parties “may” settle any disputes through binding arbitration? When a dispute arises, do you have to sue in court, can you arbitrate instead, if one side chooses arbitration, is the other side stuck with that choice? These were the issues in the Appellate Division’s recent decision in Medford Township School District v. Schneider Electric Building Americas, Inc.

In Medford Township, plaintiff contracted with defendant to “design and implement upgrades to several of [plaintiff’s] schools and its transportation and operations center.” The initial contract between the parties did not contain an arbitration provision. To the contrary, it contained a provision requiring that any disputes be resolved under the law of the state where the services were provided, and in the “federal, state, or municipal courts serving the county in which the services [were] performed.”

Some time later, plaintiff issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a related job. The RFP did not contain an arbitration provision. Instead, it required the winning bidder to agree that “any action or proceeding that [arose] in any manner out of performance of the RFP [or the resulting contract] . . . shall be litigated in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Burlington County.”

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Supreme Court : Classwide Arbitration Unavailable Under Ambiguous Agreement

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Keith Richards once said: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.” This would probably be number one on the list of things a lawyer would never say. Lawyers generally do not like ambiguity. Courts don’t like it either, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and including when it evaluates the availability of class arbitration under an arbitration agreement. Several years ago, in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., the Supreme Court held that courts could not compel class arbitration when the underlying agreement was “silent” on the issue. In Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, the U.S. Supreme Court extended this holding to ambiguous agreements, holding that class arbitration is not available under an arbitration agreement that is ambiguous about the availability of such arbitration.

Plaintiff in Lamps Plus was a company that sold, you guessed it, “lighting fixtures and related products.” In 2016, the company suffered a data breach that revealed the tax information of approximately 1,300 of its employees. Soon after, a fraudulent tax return was filed in defendant’s name. He sued in California federal court on behalf of himself and a putative class of employees whose tax information had been compromised. But, like most of plaintiff’s employees, defendant had signed a broad arbitration agreement when he started working at the company. Thus, in response to defendant’s complaint, plaintiff moved to compel arbitration on an individual, not classwide, basis. The district court granted the motion to compel arbitration, but rejected plaintiff’s request for individual arbitration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Ninth Circuit determined that the arbitration agreement was ambiguous on the issue of classwide arbitration. So it applied the state law doctrine of contra proferentem – an equitable principle under which any ambiguities in a contract are construed against the drafter – and construed this ambiguity against plaintiff. The Ninth Circuit held that Stolt-Nielsen was not controlling because the arbitration agreement in that case was silent on classwide arbitration, while the arbitration agreement in Lamps Plus was ambiguous on the issue. The Ninth Circuit used contra proferentum to resolve that ambiguity.

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Words Matter! “Acknowledgement” Of Company Policy Is Not “Agreement” To Be Bound By It

“This case exemplifies an inadequate way for an employer to go about extracting its employees’ agreement to submit to binding arbitration for future claims and thereby waive their rights to sue the employer and seek a jury trial.”

If you are an employer, and a court begins its decision this way, it is probably not going to be a good day for you. Such was the case for the defendant in Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc.

I know I have been writing a lot lately about arbitration agreements, and Skuse deals with this same topic. But it is different from other recent cases, and in an interesting way. In most of the cases I have written about, the question was whether a plaintiff’s claims fell within the scope of an arbitration agreement and, if so, whether the agreement adequately informed plaintiff that he or she waived the right to have those claims heard in court, by a jury. In Skuse, plaintiff did not argue that the text of defendant’s mandatory arbitration policy insufficiently explained the policy itself or the rights being waived. Instead, plaintiff challenged the the manner in which the policy was delivered to employees.

In Skuse, defendant sought to “extract[ ] its employee’s agreement” to arbitrate (as the Appellate Division characterized it) through what the company called a “training module.” Employees were sent an email with a link to a presentation that described the company’s mandatory arbitration policy. They were “assigned” the task of “reviewing” the presentation, which was comprised of four slides. The first slide explained that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of continued employment with the company, and indicated that employees would be required to “acknowledge” receipt of the policy in a later slide. The second slide contained a link to a “Resources” tab that contained the company’s five-page, single-spaced arbitration policy, which could be reviewed and printed by employees. The third slide contained a paragraph stating that the employee understood that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of employment and requiring the employee to click on a “rectangular box with rounded corners,” next to which was printed: “CLICK HERE to acknowledge.” This slide also indicated that even if employees did not click the acknowledgement, they would be deemed to have acknowledged the policy if they remained with the company for 60 days after receiving the presentation. The fourth and final slide thanked the employees for “reviewing” the arbitration policy.

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Where Are We Arbitrating Again? Parties Must Identify Forum And Process For Arbitration Provision To Be Enforceable

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

arbitration (PD)New Jersey courts frequently invalidate arbitration provisions that do not clearly and unambiguously explain that plaintiffs are waiving the right to seek relief in court and have their claims decided by a jury (see here, here, and here for examples). In Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., the Appellate Division invalidated one for an even more basic reason — the provision did not identify any arbitration forum or any process for conducting the arbitration.

In Flanzman, plaintiff worked for defendant. After she was terminated, she sued, alleging age discrimination. Defendant moved to compel arbitration under an agreement with plaintiff that provided:

Any and all claims or controversies arising out of or relating to [plaintiff’s] employment, the termination thereof, or otherwise arising between [plaintiff] and [defendant] shall, in lieu of a jury or other civil trial, be settled by final and binding arbitration. This agreement to arbitrate includes all claims whether arising in tort or contract and whether arising under statute or common law including, but not limited to, any claim of breach of contract, discrimination or harassment of any kind . . . [Plaintiff] will pay the then-current Superior Court of California filing fee towards the costs of the arbitration (i.e., filing fees, administration fees, and arbitrator fees).

Plaintiff did not agree to this when she began her employment with defendant. Instead, defendant presented it to her 20 years after she was hired, and plaintiff signed it to keep her job.

The flaw in the provision is that, even if it adequately advised plaintiff that she was giving up her right to a jury trial, it says “nothing about what forum generally replaced that right.” The trial court recognized this shortcoming, but instead of declaring the provision unenforceable, simply allowed plaintiff to choose the forum. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the arbitration agreement lacked mutual assent and was therefore invalid.

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Party That Drafted Arbitration Provision Moves To Have Provision Deemed Unenforceable. It Lost.

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Arbitration (pd)Most cases involving commercial contracts and arbitration provisions follow a similar pattern. They generally involve consumers arguing that they cannot be bound by arbitration clauses found in the fine print of boilerplate contracts that they had no ability to negotiate. But Shah v. T & J Builders, LLC turns this scenario on its head. In Shah, plaintiffs, the consumers, drafted the contract that contained the arbitration clause but later argued that it was unenforceable. To make matters worse (or at least more unusual), plaintiffs took this position after participating in an arbitration proceeding with defendant for two years. Not surprisingly, plaintiffs efforts to have their own arbitration clause deemed unenforceable were unsuccessful.

In Shah, plaintiffs hired defendant to build an extension on their home. The contract, which was "heavily negotiated between the parties," albeit without counsel, was drafted by plaintiffs. It contained an arbitration clause that required the parties to arbitrate "any dispute [ ] relative to the performance of [the] contract that [they could not] satisfactorily resolve." After one such dispute arose, plaintiffs terminated the contract and defendant filed an arbitration demand. Plaintiffs answered the demand and filed a counterclaim, alleging breach of contract and violations of New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Nowhere in their answer or counterclaim did plaintiffs address, much less challenge, the arbitration clause.

The parties, through counsel, then pursued their claims in arbitration for almost two years, exchanging discovery and expert reports, participating in a site inspection, and participating in several conferences with the arbitrator. Two weeks before the scheduled arbitration date, the parties submitted their pre-arbitration briefs. This is where the fun began. 

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Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision.

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Arbitration (pd)As readers of this blog know, arbitration provisions in consumer contracts are difficult to enforce in New Jersey. (Click here or here for a refresher.) There was some belief that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P'ship v. Clark might change this, but it does not appear, at least not yet, that it has. In a recent case, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division was asked to revisit, in light of Kindred Nursing, its prior decision refusing to enforce an arbitration provision in a contract between a trampoline park and one of its customers. The Appellate Division did so, but affirmed its prior decision, holding that Kindred Nursing did not require New Jersey courts to change the manner in which they approach arbitration provisions.

I wrote about Defina in its first go-around with the Appellate Division — Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable. The underlying facts of the case are unfortunate. A child fractured his ankle while playing "Ultimate Dodgeball" at a trampoline park. Before entering the facility, the child's father signed a document entitled, "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." The document contained an arbitration provision, which provided: 

If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Texas and that the substantive law of Texas shall apply.

Notwithstanding this provision, the child's parents sued the trampoline park in state court, alleging tort claims for simple negligence and gross negligence, and statutory claims for alleged violations of the Consumer Fraud Act and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act. 

Continue reading “Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision.”

You Can’t Be Compelled To Arbitrate In A Nonexistent Forum

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Arbitration (pd)This one may seem obvious, but, in MacDonald v. Cashcall, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a contractual arbitration provision that calls for arbitration in an "illusory forum" is not enforceable. So, if you were thinking about trying to compel arbitration in Wakanda or before the Jedi Council, better think twice.

In MacDonald, plaintiff entered into a loan agreement with a entity known as Western Sky in connection with a $5,000 loan. The loan agreement stated that it was "subject solely to the jurisdiction of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe," and "governed by the . . . laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe." It also contained an arbitration provision requiring that any disputes arising out of the agreement be "conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation by an authorized representative in accordance with its consumer dispute rules and the terms of [the agreement]." But the agreement also provided that either party, after demanding arbitration, could select an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association ("AAA") or Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services ("JAMS") to administer the arbitration, and, if it did, "the arbitration [would] be governed by the chosen arbitration organization's rules and procedures" to the extent that they did not contradict the "law of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe." The agreement also contained a severability clause, providing that, if any provision of the agreement was deemed invalid, the remaining provisions would remain in effect.

Although plaintiff originally borrowed $5,000, "[h]e was charged a $75 origination fee and a 116.73% annual interest rate over the seven-year term of the loan, resulting in a $35,994.28 finance charge." After paying approximately $15,493 on the loan, which included $38.50 in principal, $15,256.65 in interest, and $197.85 in fees, plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit against defendants, asserting federal RICO claims and state law claims for usury and consumer fraud. Defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the motion, holding that the loan agreement's "express disavowal of federal and state law rendered the arbitration agreement invalid as an unenforceable prospective waiver of statutory rights." Defendants appealed. 

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