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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A New Twist On Who Gets The House When The Relationship Ends

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

House + money (pd)If you read this blog then you know that failed relationships often make for the most interesting cases. For example, if your would-be spouse calls off your wedding, then you are usually entitled to get the engagement ring back. But, if you cancel your wedding reception, you may not be entitled to a refund from the venue where it would have taken place. And, of course, if your ex-wife agreed to pay all "utilities" under a divorce settlement but fails to pay for water filtration services that remained in your name and you get sued by the water filtration company, your ex-wife will be required to reimburse you for those charges. Now, Burke v. Bernardini can be added to this list.

In Burke, plaintiff and defendant were involved in a "romantic relationship." (They had actually known each other for 25 years before they began dating.) While they were dating, plaintiff bought property on which he built a house where he and defendant lived together. He paid approximately $368,000 for the property and another $100,000 for improvements and additions. Both plaintiff and defendant contributed furnishings.

Before buying the property, the parties entered into an agreement that provided:

[Plaintiff] acknowledges and agrees that [defendant] has provided, and will continue to provide[,] companionship to him of an indefinite length. [Plaintiff] promises and represents that upon closing, the home shall be deeded and titled in the name of "[plaintiff] and [defendant], as joint tenants with the right of survivorship."

(As a side note, only in the hands of a lawyer does "'til death do us part" become "I agree to provide companionship of an indefinite length.") The agreement also provided that defendant would have no "financial obligations for the home, including, but not limited to, property taxes, homeowners association fees, and homeowners insurance."  

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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. 

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NJ Supreme Court Narrowly Defines “Aggrieved Consumer.” End Of The Road For One Type Of “No Injury” Class Action?

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

Contract(pd)
I have written a number of times about New Jersey's Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). (Here, here, and here for example.) This statute, which was largely ignored after it was enacted in 1981, became increasingly popular in recent years as part of so-called no injury class actions. (So-called mostly by defense counsel, not plaintiff's counsel.) Its popularity may now have come to an end, however, because the New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in the highly-anticipated case, Spade v. Select Comfort Corp., which answered two questions certified to it by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one of which appears to hamper, at the very least, the ability of plaintiffs to sue for alleged violations of the act.

By way of brief background, the TCCWNA was enacted to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. It provides:

No seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written  consumer contract  .  .  .  or display any written . . . notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made . . . or the . . . notice or sign is given or displayed.

To state a claim under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) that it is a consumer; (2) that defendant is a seller; (3) that the seller offered a consumer contract containing a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller; and (4) that it was an "aggrieved consumer." Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, and reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

The questions certified to the Supreme Court in Spade arose out of two cases that had been consolidated by the district court. Each involved plaintiffs who ordered furniture pursuant to contracts that violated certain regulations promulgated by New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. The regulations require, among other things, that furniture sellers deliver furniture to customers by or before the promised delivery date or provide written notice that they will not be able to do so. Sellers must also provide notice to the purchaser that if the delivery is late, the consumer has the option of canceling the order and receiving a full refund, or agreeing to accept delivery at a specified later date. The regulations also prohibit sellers from including certain language in their contracts, such as "all sales final," "no cancellations," and "no refunds." In Spade, plaintiffs alleged that the contracts they entered into with defendants did not contain language required by these regulations, contained language prohibited by these regulations, or both. Notably, however, plaintiffs received their furniture deliveries on time.  

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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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Unenforceable Clause In Arbitration Agreement Does Not Void Agreement

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

Arbitration (pd)One of my children's preschool teachers was fond of saying, "you get what you get and you don't get upset." (Not to my little angel, of course, but to other children.) In Curran v. Curran, the Appellate Division basically applied this admonition to the parties to an arbitration agreement, holding that they got what they intended out of the agreement, therefore they could not argue, after the fact, that an unenforceable provision in the agreement voided the entire agreement.

In Curran, plaintiff filed for divorce from defendant. With the advice of counsel, the parties entered into a consent order to refer all issues incident to their divorce to arbitration under the New Jersey Arbitration Act. In the consent order, the parties acknowledged that any arbitration award that was entered could only be set aside or modified by a court under the limited grounds set forth in the Arbitration Act — e.g., the award was procured by fraud, corruption, or undue means, the court found evidence of "evident partiality" by the arbitrator, the arbitrator exceeded his or her powers, etc.  But the parties also included a handwritten provision, which provided: "The parties reserve their rights to appeal the arbitrator's award to the appellate division as if the matter was determined by the trial court." This is the provision that would cause all of the problems.

After the arbitrator entered a preliminary award, plaintiff requested reconsideration. The arbitrator then issued a comprehensive award setting forth his findings of fact and conclusions of law. Plaintiff filed a motion in the Law Division for an order modifying the award, citing eight alleged "mistakes of law" made by the arbitrator. Plaintiff also argued that the intent of the handwritten provision was not to allow for direct appeal to the Appellate Division, but was instead was evidence that the parties intended a more searching review of the award that what would normally be allowed under the Arbitration Act. The trial court agreed, holding that the paragraph itself was unenforceable because it purported to "create subject matter jurisdiction by agreement." The trial court noted that "[t]he authority of a court to hear and determine certain classes of cases rests solely with the Constitution and the Legislature." But the trial court agreed with plaintiff that the handwritten provision demonstrated the parties' intent to provide for "a little more review" than what would normally be allowed under the Arbitration Act. Therefore, the trial court "in essence act[ed] as the Appellate Division of the arbitrator." It performed a comprehensive review of the arbitrator's decision and affirmed the award. 

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Emails Between Counsel Create Agreement To Arbitrate, Even Where Contractual Arbitration Provision Would Have Been Unenforceable

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

Arbitration (pd)Generally, when you end an email to your adversary with "we'll be awaiting your motion," something has gone wrong. This was certainly true in So v. Everbeauty, Inc.

In So, plaintiff sued defendant, his former employer, alleging that defendant had violated his rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the Workers' Compensation Law. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, defendant's counsel suggested to plaintiff's counsel that the matter should be arbitrated under the arbitration provision in plaintiff's employment contract. Plaintiff's counsel initially responded that his client was "leaning towards . . . going to arb," but that counsel still needed to speak with plaintiff, who was away on vacation. Later, plaintiff's counsel emailed defendant's counsel as follows: "I was able to speak to my client and we will proceed to arbitration. I can draft stip of dismissal." Two weeks later, however, plaintiff apparently had a change of heart. His counsel wrote to defendant's counsel stating that plaintiff had "instructed him to make efforts to avoid arbitration." Seeing the writing on the wall, plaintiff's counsel ended the email, "we'll be awaiting your motion."

As expected, defendant moved to compel arbitration, but did so in a somewhat unusual way. Defendant's counsel acknowledged that the arbitration provision in plaintiff's employment contract was unenforceable because it was not "sufficiently specific." But defendant argued that the back-and-forth between counsel created a separate, binding agreement to arbitrate. The trial court denied the motion, holding that (1) the emails between counsel did not "evidence a bargained for exchange but only a statement by plaintiff's counsel as to what his intentions were going forward in response to inquiries from defense counsel," and (2) there was no consideration to support the alleged agreement to arbitrate. Defendant appealed.   

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