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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Segregated Swimming Pool Not Allowed, Even When Purportedly Necessary To Prevent Discrimination

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

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about a sign I saw at the beach, “Swimmers Only Between Flags.” It was a lighthearted post about the limitations of seemingly “plain” language. In Curto v. A County Place Condominium Association, the U.S. Circuit Court for the Third Circuit addressed a more serious issue involving swimming restrictions. Curto involved a challenge to a condo association’s policy of having gender-specific swimming hours at the community pool. The case presents an interesting intersection of discrimination — gender discrimination that was purportedly necessary to prevent religious discrimination. Read more about it below, and stay tuned because I am certain that the Curto decision will not be the last word on the issue.

In Curto, plaintiffs were residents of a condominium, A Country Place, which was governed by the defendant community association. A Country Place is a “55 and over,” age-restricted condominium located in Lakewood, New Jersey. As the Third Circuit noted, “Lakewood has a large and growing Orthodox Jewish population, and so does A Country Place.” Nearly two-thirds of defendant’s residents were Orthodox when the underlying events in Curto occurred. Defendant established single sex swimming hours for the community pool to accommodate “the Orthodox principle of tznius, or modesty, according to which it is improper for men and women to see each other in a state of undress – including bathing attire.”

Prior to 2016, defendant only had “a handful of sex-segregated swimming hours throughout the week.” But, “as the Orthodox membership at A Country Place increased, [defendant] increased the number of sex-segregated hours.” By 2016, over two-thirds of all swimming hours throughout the week were sex segregated.

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Lawsuit Challenging E-ZPass Administrative Fee Revived

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

The Appellate Division’s recent decision in Long v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority dealt with a topic that is likely familiar to many New Jersey residents — the administrative fee assessed when you (allegedly) go through an E-ZPass lane without paying the toll. In the interest of full disclosure, I am very much not neutral on this issue. I recently received three notices from E-ZPass claiming that I went through toll plazas without paying. The tolls I allegedly failed to pay amounted to $20.45, but the administrative fee for each is $50, so my $20.45 in allegedly unpaid tolls may now cost me $220.45. But I digress.

First, some background. New Jersey law allows the Turnpike Authority to establish procedures for addressing “violations of [its] toll collection monitoring systems” (i.e., E-ZPass). Among other things, the Turnpike Authority may send “an advisory and payment request” to alleged toll violators, providing them “with the opportunity to resolve the matter prior to the issuance of a summons and complaint that charges a violation of the toll collection monitoring system regulations.” As part of this “advisory and payment request,” the Authority may require that the alleged violator pay “the proper toll and a reasonable administrative fee established by the authority and based upon the actual cost of processing and collecting the violation.” This administrative fee was originally set at $25 but was later raised to $50.

In Long, petitioners were two “E-ZPass toll violators” who filed a petition with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority challenging the $50 administrative fee. Petitioners challenged both the constitutionality of the regulation establishing the administrative fee (arguing that the Authority violated its rule-making authority, violated due process, etc.), and the amount of the fee itself, arguing that $50 was excessive because it was “unrelated to the actual costs of enforcement.” The Authority denied their petition and petitioners appealed to the Appellate Division.

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New Trial Ordered Where Juror Objected To Defendant Not Putting Hand On Bible When Being Sworn In

Trial lawyers warn young lawyers to be careful because jurors are always watching. You never know when what you do or say will be seen by a juror and color his or her impressions of you. This can sometimes make you paranoid. I had a Starbucks coffee with me on the first day of a jury trial but, after noticing several jurors with Dunkin Donuts coffee drinks, I switched to Dunkin. I doubt this was crucial to the jury’s deliberations, but sometimes the results are far more significant. Such was the case in Davis v. Husain, where a juror’s observation that defendant did not place his hand on the Bible when being sworn in led to the jury’s verdict being reversed and defendant being granted a new trial.

In Davis, plaintiff sued defendant under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. The jury ruled in plaintiff’s favor, and awarded her damages. After the trial, the judge met ex parte with the jury. During that meeting, “a female juror mentioned that [plaintiff] had not placed his hand on the Bible when taking the oath.” The judge told counsel about this revelation, but refused to make any further inquiries of the jurors or grant a new trial.

Defendant appealed the jury’s verdict, and the case eventually made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which “flatly prohibit[ed] ex parte post-verdict communications between trial judge and jurors,” like the ones that had occurred in Davis. (That decision can be found here.) The Supreme Court remanded the matter to a different trial judge to determine whether the juror’s “actions or comments affected others on the panel,” and whether “a good case showing [could be] made that the jury’s decision was tainted by misconduct.”

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Judges Voting From Beyond The Grave?

“May a federal court count the vote of a judge who dies before the decision is issued?” The cynical New Jersey resident in me thinks the answer to this question is simple – people vote all the time in New Jersey after they die. But this was not what the Supreme Court was after in Yovino v. Rizo.

Yovino was before an en banc panel of 11 judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. One judge participated in oral argument, voted, and wrote a decision on the case, but died before the decision was released. The Ninth Circuit nonetheless counted his vote, which was significant, because it was the deciding vote. By counting his vote, the judge’s decision became the majority opinion and thus binding precedent in the Ninth Circuit. If his vote had not been counted, then the case would have ended in a 5-5 tie with no majority opinion, and thus no binding precedent.

The Ninth Circuit claimed that it was justified in counting the judge’s vote because “the majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc panel prior to his death.” The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that, by statute, only active or senior-status judges can participate on en banc panels. It further held that judges’ votes and opinions do not become “immutable at some point in time prior to their public release,” but instead, “a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.” Thus, a decision is not final until the date of its release. And if a judge dies or retires before that date, then he or she is no longer an active judge or a senior judge when the decision is made, therefore his or her vote does not count.

Applying this standard to Yovino, the Supreme Court held:

Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.

(Although the lede is sufficiently buried at this point, that last sentence is the main reason why I wrote this post.)

Lawyer Loses Challenge To Rule Limiting The Amount Of Time He Could Speak At City Council Meeting

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

SpeakingThere is a lawyer joke in here somewhere about lawyers suing to get more time to speak or how someone should sue to force lawyers to talk less. Potential jokes aside, the issue in Feld v. City of Orange was an interesting one. In Feld, plaintiff challenged a municipal ordinance that reduced, from ten minutes to five minutes, the time members of the public could speak on certain matters at city council hearings. Plaintiff claimed that this ordinance violated his First Amendment right to free speech. Spoiler Alert: He lost. But the issue and the decision are nonetheless interesting. 

Feld was the latest chapter in litigation that has been raging between plaintiff, a lawyer, acting on behalf of himself and his parents' business, and the City of Orange for years. (In a prior decision, the Appellate Division noted that plaintiff considered himself a "zealous gadfly" and a "radical barrister.") At some point during this long-running battle, the city adopted an ordinance "that reduced the time from ten minutes to five that individual members of the public could speak at City Council meetings on general  issues, agenda items or second readings of ordinances before adoption." The city council claimed the change was necessary because "council meetings can extend late into the evening or early into the next day" and this "discourages, if not precludes[,] a fair opportunity to be heard by other members of the public." The city council further claimed that, "without appropriate and rational limitations, the rights of all public speakers [would be] curtailed and undermined." The city council also noted that other municipalities limited the time for speaking during public meetings to five minutes.

The underlying issue in Feld involved plaintiff's objection to the city council's adoption of a resolution that allowed the mayor to sign a lease and option to buy a building owned by the YWCA of Orange, which was in bankruptcy. He challenged the resolution when it was before the city council, and, after it passed, filed a 257 paragraph complaint in lieu of prerogative writs seeking to have it invalidated. As part of this complaint, he also challenged the rule reducing the amount of time members of the public could speak at city council hearings. After filing his complaint, plaintiff filed an order to show seeking, among other things, to restrain the city from enforcing the five-minute rule while the lawsuit was pending. The trial court heard oral argument on the order to show cause, and took testimony from a witness on behalf of the city, who testified that the rule was necessary to "administer the Council meetings more efficiently," and that it was an attempt to "make sure that all of the comments are heard and that everyone gets a chance to talk."

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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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