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.”

NJ Court: Agreement To Arbitrate “Any Claims” Does Not Include Agreement To Arbitrate Statutory Claims

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

Arbitration (pd)In recent months I have written several times about the difficulty of enforcing arbitration agreements in New Jersey (e.g., here, here, and here). While the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark has some people confident that this will change, it hasn't yet. Instead, New Jersey courts continue to issue opinions demonstrating the uphill battle faced by parties trying to enforce contractual arbitration provisions. A recent unpublished Law Division opinion, Griffoul v. NRG Residential Solar Solutions, LLC, is the latest example.

In Griffoul, plaintiffs entered into a lease for a residential solar system. The lease contained a "broad form arbitration clause" in which plaintiffs agreed to arbitrate "any" claim "arising out of" or "in connection with" the lease, and agreed that, by entering into the lease, plaintiffs were waiving their right to a jury trial. The lease also contained a class action waiver provision, declaring that "each party may bring claims against the other only in its individual capacity and not as a plaintiff or a class member in any purported class or representative proceeding."

Nonetheless, just over three years after entering into the lease, plaintiffs filed a putative class action in state court. The complaint asserted the now-common one-two punch of claims under the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act ("TCCWNA"). The CFA claims were based on alleged misrepresentations made by defendants in connection with the marketing of the solar energy system, and the TCCWNA claims were based on six provisions of the lease that plaintiffs claimed violated clearly established rights under New Jersey law. 

Continue reading “NJ Court: Agreement To Arbitrate “Any Claims” Does Not Include Agreement To Arbitrate Statutory Claims”

On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound for nowhere . . . is a dispute over insuring a stranger’s life

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

Gambling

I know it is a little obvious, but I couldn't write a post about gambling without using lyrics from "The Gambler." Fortunately, the case this post discusses — Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada v. U.S. Bank National Association — is anything but obvious. Sun Life involved gambling on another person's life but not in a Deer Hunter, Russian roulette kind of way. In Sun Life, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed the enforceability of an insurance policy that insured a stranger's life.

In Sun Life, Judge Posner began his decision by discussing the common law principle that "forbids a person to own an insurance policy that insures someone else's life unless the policy owner has an insurable interest in that life." A wife can have an insurable interest in her husband's or children's lives, a creditor can have an insurable interest in a debtor's life, but "you cannot own an insurance policy on the life of a stranger who you happen to know is in poor health and likely to die soon." The reason is that, by doing so, you are essentially gambling on another person's life, and gambling contracts are generally unenforceable as a matter of public policy. 

Continue reading “On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound for nowhere . . . is a dispute over insuring a stranger’s life”

Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable

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

Sky zone (pd)In the interest of full disclosure, I have taken my kids to the Sky Zone Trampoline Park near our home and we have always had a great time. For those who have never been, these types of places are full of trampolines, but not your parents' trampolines (assuming your parents had trampolines and your experience with them was slightly better than the children of Springfield). They are huge facilities where you can "free jump," play dodge ball on trampolines, use trampolines to dunk a basketball, jump off trampolines into foam pits, etc. As you might expect, before you are allowed to jump, you need to sign a waiver, usually electronically either before you get to the facility or when you get there. I have done this on behalf of myself and my kids and of course, being a lawyer, read each word carefully as my kids were excitedly asking me, on a seemingly endless loop, when we could start jumping. In a recent decision, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division considered whether the arbitration provision contained in this waiver was enforceable. It ruled that it was not, which is perhaps not surprising given the recent trend in New Jersey courts regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements. (I wrote about this trend here and here.)

In Defina, plaintiff was a minor who, through her parents, sued Sky Zone for injuries allegedly suffered at the facility. Before using the facility, plaintiff's father signed a "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." Among other things, the agreement required parties to release, discharge, and hold Sky Zone harmless for  any claims arising out of Sky Zone's "ordinary negligence." The waiver did not preclude lawsuits arising out of Sky Zone's alleged gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct, but it did require that those claims be arbitrated pursuant to a separate 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.

The arbitration provision also provided that anyone who ignored the provision and sued in court would be liable to Sky Zone for $5,000 in liquidated damages. Finally, the agreement also contained a provision, in bold type, which provided that, by signing the agreement, an individual "may be found by a court of law to have waived [his or her] right to maintain a lawsuit against [Sky Zone]."

Continue reading “Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable”

Appellate Division: Arbitration Agreement in Non-Profit’s Bylaws Enforceable

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Contract(pd)
The enforceability of arbitration provisions is a hot topic in New Jersey right now. Several recent cases suggest that these provisions may be less readily enforceable than previously thought, or at least that courts are taking a closer look at them than they may have in the past. The author of an article in the NJ Law Journal even questioned whether New Jersey courts were "anti-arbitration." With this in mind, the Appellate Division's  unpublished opinion in Matahen v. Sehwail, in which it enforced an arbitration provision contained in the bylaws of a New Jersey mosque, is noteworthy.

In Matahen, plaintiffs and defendants were members of the general assembly in the mosque. The general assembly was comprised of all "active members" of the mosque, which was defined as "those who attend prayers regularly, participate 'actively' in mosque 'activities,' abide by the bylaws, pay dues, and practice Islam daily." The general assembly was the highest authority in the mosque, but the Board of Trustees, "which represent[ed] the general assembly," was the highest "policy-making authority" in the mosque. 

In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that certain defendants used the mosque's credit cards for personal expenses, conspired to keep a former employee on the mosque's health insurance plan after he stopped working for the mosque, and used the mosque's funds to pay for one of defendant's children's school tuition. Rather than filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved to compel arbitration, under a provision in the mosque's bylaws, which provided:

The board shall create an Islamic Arbitration Committee of 3-5 members in case of disagreement among board members or general assembly members of matters related to the center, such committee shall consist of a Lawyer, an Imam, and Community Leaders. All disputes arising hereunder shall be resolved by arbitration by the aforementioned committee pursuant to policies and procedures established by such committee from time-to-time. All parties involved shall approve of the members of the Arbitration Committee. Decisions of the committee shall be binding on all parties and may be entered in a court of competent jurisdiction.

(emphasis added). The trial court denied the motion, holding that the claims alleging misuse of corporate funds "address those types of concerns that are standard in a corporation type dispute," and therefore "clearly belong in a court to be adjudicated." Defendants appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed, primarily because of the "utmost latitude" given to non-profits in the "regulation and management of intracorporate affairs." The Appellate Division noted that "a non-profit organization's private law is generally binding on those who wish to remain members," and "only the most abusive and obnoxious by-law provision could properly invite a court's intrusion into what is essentially a business thicket." The arbitration agreement in Matahen did not rise to this level.

Reading the arbitration provision in the bylaws as a whole, the Appellate Division had little difficulty holding that the Board and general assembly intended that all disputes pertaining to the mosque be handled through arbitration. Because the claims asserted in the complaint "concerned mosque affairs," the Appellate Division held that they fell within this provision notwithstanding that, as the trial court held, they may have also been justiciable in court.

Among other things, plaintiffs argued that the provision was unenforceable because it was not contained in a contract, but merely in the mosque's bylaws, to which, plaintiffs claimed, they were not parties. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that, as a matter of law, "by-laws of a voluntary association become a part of the contract entered into by a member who joins the association."

The Appellate Division also rejected plaintiffs' argument that the arbitration provision was unenforceable because it failed to "advise those subject to [it] that they [ ] waived their right to maintain an action in court." While the Appellate Division acknowledged that the provision did not reference waiver, this shortcoming did not render it unenforceable. The Board and the general assembly shared the authority to amend the bylaws, but never saw fit to amend them to include any reference to waiver. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that it was "incongruous for plaintiffs to complain the arbitration clause [was] defective and unenforceable when they were part of the two intra-corporate bodies responsible for its contents." The Appellate Division further held:

Plaintiffs' position is far different from parties to the typical contract, where generally each party seeks to advance its own interests and not those of the other. There was no "adverse" party here who sought to induce plaintiffs to enter into a contract containing an arbitration clause that failed to contain the subject waiver, hoping to gain an advantage. Plaintiffs merely find themselves facing a bylaw they either composed or ratified by failing to amend its contents.

Accordingly, the arbitration provision was enforceable notwithstanding the lack of any reference to waiver of the right to sue in court.

Ultimately, the Appellate Division's holding in Matahen is noteworthy, not because it signals a shift in the recent scrutiny of contractual arbitration provisions in general, but because it suggests that courts may be more likely to enforce such provisions in specific situations involving the governance of non-profit organizations.