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. 

Continue reading “Party That Drafted Arbitration Provision Moves To Have Provision Deemed Unenforceable. It Lost.”

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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Court Bounces Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision

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

Sky zone (pd)A few months ago, I wrote about the enforceability of an arbitration provision in a case involving a child who was injured at a trampoline park ("Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable"). In that case, the trampoline park moved to compel arbitration, but the court denied the motion, holding that the waiver was unenforceable under the New Jersey Supreme Court's seminal decision in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Group, L.P, because there was no clear and unambiguous statement that plaintiff was waiving the right to sue in court to obtain relief. Today, the Appellate Division released its decision in Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC, which involved a similar issue at a similar trampoline park and in which, unfortunately for the trampoline park, the court arrived at the same conclusion (albeit for different reasons).

In Weed, plaintiff, a minor, went to a SkyZone trampoline park. Before being allowed to jump, her mother was required to sign a document with a title only a lawyer could love — "Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate" (the "Agreement") Having apparently read my blog about the enforceability of these types of agreements at trampoline parks, the Agreement explained, in some detail, that, by signing the Agreement, the participant was waiving the right to sue in court, the right to trial by jury, etc. Plaintiff's mother signed it, and plaintiff's visit to the park on this occasion was apparently uneventful.

Not so when she returned several months later. On that visit, plaintiff was accompanied by a friend and her friend's mother. Both children were again required to sign the Agreement before being allowed to jump. Plaintiff's friend's mother signed on behalf of both children. Notably, the Agreement required that an adult signing on behalf of a child had to be the child's parent or legal guardian, or had to have been granted power of attorney to sign on behalf of the child. Plaintiff's friend's mother did not meet these requirements, but nonetheless signed the Agreement and plaintiff and her friend were allowed to enter. Plaintiff was injured during this visit to the park and sued. 

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