CALIFORNIA CLASS ACTION LAW

Category: Arbitration

Ninth Circuit Nixes “Browsewrap” Arbitration Agreement, Even Where Link Appeared Near Buttons

Yesterday the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to compel arbitration where the arbitration agreement was part of a “browsewrap” agreement.  Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., No. 12-56628, __ F.3d __ (N.D. Cal. Aug. 18, 2014). The motion arose in a putative class action relating to a cancelled order for a Hewlett-Packard Touchpad on the Barnes & Noble website.  Id. at *4.  The browsewrap agreement was contained in the site’s Terms of Use, which was available via a link at the bottom left-hand corner of every page of the website.  Id. at *5.  The Terms of Use link also appeared either directly below the relevant button a user must click on to proceed in the checkout process or just a few inches away.  Id. at *13.  (“Unlike a clickwrap agreement, a browsewrap agreement does not require the user to manifest assent to the terms and conditions expressly . . . [a] party instead gives his assent simply by using the website.”  Id. at *9-10 (citing Hines v. Overstock.com, Inc., 668 F. Supp. 2d 362, 366–67 (E.D.N.Y. 2009).)

The panel held that the plaintiff had insufficient notice of the terms of use, and thus did not enter in an agreement to arbitrate. 

[W]here, as here, there is no evidence that the website user had actual knowledge of the agreement, the validity of the browsewrap agreement turns on whether the website puts a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the terms of the contract. . . . Whether a user has
inquiry notice of a browsewrap agreement, in turn, depends on the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage. . . . Where the link to a website’s terms of use is buried at the bottom of the page or tucked away in obscure corners of the website where users are unlikely to see it, courts have refused to enforce the browsewrap agreement.

Id. at *11-12 (internal citations omitted). 

The court noted that there was no evidence that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the agreement.  “[T]he proximity or conspicuousness of the hyperlink alone is not enough to give rise to constructive notice . . . .”  Id. at *14. 

[W]e therefore hold that where a website makes its terms of use available via a conspicuous hyperlink on every page of the website but otherwise provides no notice to users nor prompts them to take any affirmative action to demonstrate assent, even close proximity of the hyperlink to relevant buttons users must click on—without more—is insufficient to give rise to constructive notice. While failure to read a contract before agreeing to its terms does not relieve a party of its obligations under the contract, Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., 73 N.Y.2d 1, 11 (1988), the onus must be on website owners to put users on notice of the terms to which they wish to bind consumers.  Given the breadth of the range of technological savvy of online purchasers, consumers cannot be expected to ferret out hyperlinks to terms and conditions to which they have no reason to suspect they will be bound.

Id. at * 15-16. 

Judges and Attorneys:

Before Circuit Judges John T. Noonan and Kim McLane Wardlaw and Senior District Judge Roslyn O. Silver, Senior District
Judge.  Judge Noonan delivered the opinion. 

Appeal from the Central District of California, Judge Josephine L. Staton presiding. 

Michelle C. Doolin (argued), Leo P. Norton, and Erin E. Goodsell, of Cooley LLP, San Diego, California, for Defendant-
Appellant.

Gretchen Carpenter (argued), and Brian R. Strange, of Strange & Carpenter, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Another Pro-Arbitration Decision, Upholding a Class Waiver

American Express?

American Express? (Photo credit: the justified sinner)

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, No. 12-133, 570 U.S. __ (June 20, 2013).  The Court considered  whether a contractual waiver of class arbitration is enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) when the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery.  The Court held that it was.

“Respondents argue that requiring them to litigate their claims individually—as they contracted to do—would contravene the policies of the antitrust laws. But the antitrust laws do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim.”  Slip Op. at 4.

You can read more here.

By CHARLES JUNG

“Good, Bad, or Ugly”: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Interpretation of Contract as Providing for Class Arbitration

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (soundtrack)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court today affirmed an arbitrator’s interpretation of an arbitration clause to permit class proceedings.  Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, No. 12-135, 569 U.S. __ (June 10, 2013).  The question presented was whether an arbitrator, who found that the parties’ contract provided for class arbitration, “exceeded [his] powers” under §10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U. S. C. §1 et seq.  Delivering the opinion of the Court and citing Stolt-Nielsen S. A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U. S. 662, 684 (2010), Justice Kagan concluded that the arbitrator’s decision survives the limited judicial review §10(a)(4) allows.

The arbitration clause at issue provided as follows:

No civil action concerning any dispute arising under this Agreement shall be instituted before any court, and all such disputes shall be submitted to final and binding arbitration in New Jersey, pursuant to the rules of the American Arbitration Association with one arbitrator.

Slip Op. at 2.

The state court granted Oxford’s motion to compel arbitration, and the parties agreed that the arbitrator should decide whether their contract authorized class arbitration.  Id.  The arbitrator determined that it did. Id.  Oxford filed a motion in federal court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision on the ground that he had exceeded his powers under §10(a)(4), but the District Court denied the motion, and the Third Circuit affirmed.  Id.

While the arbitration proceeded, the Supreme Court Court held in Stolt-Nielsen that “a party may not be compelled under the FAA to submit to class arbitration unless there is a contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.” 559 U. S. at 684. The parties in Stolt-Nielsen had stipulated that they had never reached an agreement on class arbitration.

The Supreme Court in Oxford Health Plans LLC distinguished Stolt-Nielsen: Read the rest of this entry »

Sixth District Reverses Arbitration Order as to PAGA Claims

Exception!

Exception! (Photo credit: shaymus22)

In a putative class action, the Sixth District held that an arbitration agreement cannot be enforced against PAGA claims.   Brown v. Superior Court (Morgan Tire & Auto, LLC), No. H037271, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (6th Dist. June 4, 2013).

The question presented in this case is whether the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16) (FAA) permits arbitration agreements to override the statutory right to bring representative claims under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA). (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.) We conclude that the FAA does not demand enforcement of such an agreement. A plaintiff suing for PAGA civil penalties is suing as a proxy for the State. A PAGA claim is necessarily a representative action intended to advance a predominately public purpose. When applied to the PAGA, a private agreement purporting to waive the right to take representative action is unenforceable because it wholly precludes the exercise of this unwaivable statutory right. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 131 S.Ct. 1740 (Concepcion) does not require otherwise.

Slip Op. at 1-2.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Arbitration Clause on Back of Pre-Printed Auto Purchase Contract Is Unconscionable

Mini Maint Page 1

Mini Maint Page 1 (Photo credit: Flyinace2000)

Yesterday, in Vargas v. SAI Monrovia B, Inc., No. B237257, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (2d Dist. June 4, 2013), a putative class action, the Second District revisited its holding in Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., LLC, 201 Cal.App.4th 74 (2012), review granted March 21, 2012, S199119.  In Sanchez the court held that a “Retail Installment Sale Contract” used to purchase an automobile is unconscionable and unenforceable.  In Vargas, the court again concluded that the identical sale contract does not require the arbitration of disputes between a purchaser and a car dealer because it is permeated by unconscionability.

The arbitration provision, entitled, “ARBITRATION CLAUSE,” was on the back at the bottom of the page, outlined by a black box; the arbitration provision was the last provision in the Sale Contract concerning the purchase of the vehicle; a provision related to the assignment of the contract appeared below it. The buyers’ final signatures appeared near the bottom of the front side. The only signature line on the back was at the very bottom of the page; it required the seller’s signature to assign the contract to a third party.

Slip Op. at 3.

The court found that the arbitration provision satisfies the two elements of procedural unconscionability: oppression and surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

Employer’s Right to Alter Handbook’s Terms Doesn’t Render Illusory Mutual Obligation to Arbitrate

Battle Foods Employee Handbook Cover

Battle Foods Employee Handbook Cover (Photo credit: johntrainor)

The Second District ordered published today Serpa v. California Surety Investigations, Inc., et al., No. B237363, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (filed Mar. 21, 2013, modified Apr. 19, 2013).  In Serpa, the Court of Appeal reversed the denial of a motion to compel arbitration.

At the trial court level, the court denied defendants’  motion to compel arbitration, finding the agreement to arbitrate lacked mutuality.  Defendants argued that the requisite mutuality was provided by the bilateral arbitration provisions in the employee handbook, incorporated by reference into the arbitration agreement.  The trial court rejected this argument because defendant could change the handbook at its sole discretion and without notice.  The Second District reversed.

Because the agreement incorporated the arbitration policy in the employee handbook, the Court concluded that this “salvages the agreement by establishing an unmistakable mutual obligation on the part of [employer and plaintiff] to arbitrate ‘any dispute’ arising out of her employment.”  Plaintiff argued that the while the arbitration policy in the handbook establishes a bilateral obligation to arbitrate, she insisted that the mutual obligation is illusory because, the employer is authorized to alter the terms of any policy contained in the handbook at its sole discretion and without notice.  The Court disagreed, reasoning that the right to alter the terms was limited by the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implied in every contract.

You can read more here.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Second District Draws Distinction Between Allegations and Judicial Admissions in Denying Arbitration

Boulder City, Nevada.. cute homes..

Boulder City, Nevada.. cute homes.. (Photo credit: iwona_kellie)In

In a tax day ruling that may have implications for co-defendants seeking to compel arbitration, the Second District affirmed a trial court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration.  Barsegian v. Kessler & Kessler, et al., No. B237044, __ Cal.App.4th __ (2d Dist. Apr. 15, 2013).  Some defendants moved to compel arbitration, but the remaining defendants did not.  Slip Op. at 2.  The trial court denied on the grounds of waiver and the possibility of inconsistent rulings.

Moving defendants sought a reversal, arguing that plaintiff’s complaint alleged that all defendants are agents of one another, and that allegation is a binding judicial admission that gives the non-moving defendants the right to enforce the arbitration agreement.  The court disagreed, noting that:

[N]ot every factual allegation in a complaint automatically constitutes a judicial admission.  Otherwise, a plaintiff would conclusively establish the facts of the case by merely alleging them, and there would never be any disputed facts to be tried. . . . A judicial admission is therefore conclusive both as to the admitting party and as to that party’s opponent. (4 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (5th ed. 2008) Pleading, § 454, p. 587.) Thus, if a factual allegation is treated as a judicial admission, then neither party may attempt to contradict it—the admitted fact is effectively conceded by both sides.

Here, the moving defendants sought to reserve the right to argue at arbitration that the allegation of mutual agency was false, and thus it was not conceded by both sides.

Although the Kessler defendants frame their argument using the term “judicial admission” and rely on case law concerning judicial admissions, their counsel confirmed at oral argument that they do not in fact wish to treat Barsegian‟s allegation of mutual agency as a judicial admission, because the Kessler defendants do wish to be able to contest the truth of that allegation, either in court or before an arbitrator. That is, the Kessler defendants wish to hold Barsegian to the mutual agency allegation only for purposes of the motion to compel arbitration, but, should they succeed in compelling arbitration on the basis of that allegation, they wish to retain the right to prove to the arbitrator that the allegation is false. That is not how judicial admissions operate.

You can read more here.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Ninth Circuit Declines to Vitiate Broughton-Cruz Rule

Flight Academy 03

Flight Academy 03 (Photo credit: bestarns)

Declining to issue a broad ruling vitiating the Broughton-Cruz rule, the Ninth Circuit filed its en banc opinion today in Kilgore v. Keybank, National Association, No. 09-16703, __ F.3d __ (9th Cir. Apr. 11, 2013) (en banc).  While the court reversed and remanded with instructions to compel arbitration, it took a narrow approach.  The appeal involved a putative class action by former students of a failed flight-training school who seek broad injunctive relief against the bank that originated their student loans among others.  The court held that the arbitration agreement was not unconscionable under California law and compelled arbitration.

The court concluded that the injunctive relief claim at issue fell outside Broughton-Cruz’s “narrow exception to the rule that the FAA requires state courts to honor arbitration agreements.”

The central premise of Broughton-Cruz is that “the judicial forum has significant institutional advantages over arbitration in administering a public injunctive remedy, which as a consequence will likely lead to the diminution or frustration of the public benefit if the remedy is entrusted to arbitrators.” Broughton, 988 P.2d at 78. That concern is absent here, where Defendants’ alleged statutory violations have, by Plaintiffs’ own admission, already ceased, where the class affected by the alleged practices is small, and where there is no real prospective benefit to the public at large from the relief sought.

You can read more about today’s ruling here.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

California Court of Appeal Reverses Denial of Arbitration Petition, Despite Presence of Class Waiver

Used Car Lot

Used Car Lot (Photo credit: Hugo90)

California’s First District yesterday approved of an arbitration agreement, despite the presence  of a class waiver and a requirement to arbitrate public claims.  See Vasquez v. Greene Motors, Inc., et al., Case No. A134829, __ Cal.App.4th __ (1st Dist. Mar. 27, 2013).

The Court described the clause as follows:

The reverse side, also dense with text, contains a number of provisions in separate boxes, many dealing with typical ―boilerplate legal matters, such as warranties, applicable law, and buyer and seller remedies. None of the provisions on the back page requires a buyer‘s signature. Toward the bottom of the page is the arbitration clause. The entire text of the clause is outlined in a black border. In all capital letters and bold type at the top is written, ―ARBITRATION CLAUSE [¶] PLEASE REVIEW— IMPORTANT—AFFECTS YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS. Immediately below, three numbered provisions, also in all capital letters, inform the buyer either party may request arbitration, this would prevent a court or class-wide proceeding, and it might limit discovery. Below these, in smaller type, are the actual terms of the clause. Pursuant to these terms, the arbitration may be conducted under the auspices of the National Arbitration Forum or the American Arbitration Association (AAA), at the election of the buyer, or by any other mutually agreeable organization; the initial arbitration will be conducted by a single arbitrator; it will occur in the federal district of the buyer‘s residence; the seller must advance up to $2,500 of the buyer‘s arbitration costs; the award is binding unless it is $0 or more than $100,000 or includes injunctive relief, in which 4 case either party can request a second arbitration before three arbitrators; and the use of self-help remedies and small claims court is exempted.

The Court validated the presence of a class action waiver and requirement to arbitrate public claims, finding the arguments against each “foreclosed” by Concepcion:

Finally, Vasquez argues the waiver of class action rights and the requirement to arbitrate ―public claims, such as the statutory violations alleged here, are impermissible. (See Discover Bank v. Superior Court (2005) 36 Cal.4th 148 (Discover Bank); Cruz v. PacifiCare Health Systems, Inc. (2003) 30 Cal.4th 303.) Both arguments have been foreclosed by the United States Supreme Court‘s decision in AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 131 S.Ct. 1740 (Concepcion), which found preemption by the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.). (See Phillips v. Sprint PCS (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 758, 769; Nelsen v. Legacy Partners Residential, Inc. (2012) 207 26 Cal.App.4th 1115, 1136–1137.) Although Concepcion expressly considered only Discover Bank‘s judicially created ban on class action waivers as unconscionable, the same rationale would require a finding of preemption of the statutory ban on class action waivers in section 1751, which is similarly based on public policy.

You can read more about this opinion here.

Judges & Attorneys

Justice Margulies wrote the opinion for the court, and Justices Dondero and Banke concurred.  The trial court judge was Hon. Robert S. Bowers of Solano County Superior Court

Toschi, Sidran, Collins & Doyle, David R. Sidran and Thomas M. Crowell for Defendants and Appellants.

Rosner, Barry & Babbitt, Hallen D. Rosner, Christopher P. Barry and Angela J. Smith for Plaintiff and Respondent.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Press Quotes Regarding Analysis of Compton Case

English: Seal of the Supreme Court of California

English: Seal of the Supreme Court of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

LexisNexis’s Law360 today published an article quoting the author’s analysis of the Compton v. Superior Court case.  Compton v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B236669, — Cal.Rptr.3d —-, 2013 WL 1120619 (2d Dist. Mar 19, 2013):

“In both cases, the First and Second districts applied Armendariz and invalidated arbitration agreements for lack of mutuality,” said Charles Jung, a Nassiri & Jung LLP attorney. “At least as far as California courts are concerned, Armendariz is alive and well, and it appears that this is going to continue to be the case until the California Supreme Court overrules it.”

In light of the latest ruling, plaintiffs and their attorneys looking to defeat mandatory arbitration agreements will keep an eagle eye out for any type of one-sidedness, according to Jung.

“The Compton ruling creates an avenue for employees to argue that mandatory agreements are unlawfully one-sided and that under Armendariz, they should be stricken,” he said. “For employers, it suggests the way to make arbitration agreements enforceable is by making them simple and even-handed. Employers can’t have their cake and eat it too.”

“The California Supreme Court really has its work cut out for it,” Jung said. “The challenge for the California Supreme Court is to try to preserve what it can of California’s public policy, yet not fall afoul of and directly contradict or simply ignore the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a very tricky position for the court to be in.”