Tag: arbitration

ABA Forum on Franchising’s “Wizard” proposals do not address arbitration issue

December 30th, 2013

At the October 2013 American Bar Association Forum on Franchising Convention, the keynote program was entitled “If I had a Wizards’s Wand” and concerned what each of the four presenters would change about franchising and the law, if they could. Rochelle “Shelley” Spandorf’s proposals as part of that program are summarized by reporter Janet Sparks in this BlueMauMau.com article . While Ms. Spandorf’s proposed changes are wonderful as far as they go (if not magical), unfortunately she did not clearly address one of the most important dispute resolution issues in the U.S. legal system, including franchising; the use of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to blunt weaker parties’ access to civil justice.

Aspects of Shelley’s proposals that seem particularly commendable are requiring all new franchisors to have some base of experience, creating a uniform national regisry of franchise sales registration, mandating the provision of a financial performance representation, and freeing states’ attorney generals to puruse enforcement rather than adminiistering a registration system. Moreover, while such legislation might appear to be substantially more burdensome to franchisors than the current legal regime of franchise sales regulation, the reality is that, even in the so-called “non-registration states” most franchisees do have the ability to pursue private civil actions for material violations of the FTC Franchise Rule; for example, see Final Cut, LLC v. Sharkey, 2012 Conn Super. LEXIS 98, 2012 WL 310752 (Conn. Superior Ct., Jan. 3, 2012) (franchisee prevails under Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act in claims that franchise sales were made in material violation of the FTC Franchise Rule).

However, on the issue of dispute resolution, it is unclear whether the proposal that U.S. federal courts have “exclusive jurisdiction” over U.S. franchise law claims would mean that franchisors could not require arbitration instead of court proceedings. This is particularly important with regard to the ability of franchisees to pursue group or class actions. Through many Supreme Court decisions authored by conservative justices, as well as legislation passed by Republican Congressional majorities, plaintiffs seeking class certification face a rigorous burden in U.S. courts. As many an attorney can attest, there are myriad difficulties (both ethical and practical) in representing substantial groups of franchisees pursuing common claims. However, in appropriate circumstances where common questions of fact predominate, particularly on liability, use of a group or class action is the most efficient (and sometimes the ony practical) way for parties who have suffered grievous financial losses to seek a remedy. Supreme Court decisions have made it extremely easy for parties to bar class or group actions by inserting an arbitration clause in their form contracts and refusing to remove them.

While reforms freeing state attorneys’ general to focus on claims enforcement might help improve failed franchisees’ access to justice, experience shows that attorney generals tend to focus on relief for large number of consumers rather than smaller numbers of small business owners. Unless a federal franchise law contains an express exemption from the Federal Arbitration Act for disputes between franchisors and franchisees, its benefits for franchisees may prove to be illusory.

Courts Enforce Waivers of Class Actions in Arbitration By Franchisees, Employees and Small Businesses

July 18th, 2013

In 1925, the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) was enacted to strengthen the ability of parties to enforce “purely voluntary” pre-dispute promises to have disputes determined through arbitration. See, e.g., David S. Clancy & Matthew M.K. Stein, An Uninvited Guest: Class Arbitration and the Federal Arbitration Act’s Legislative History, 63 Bus. Law. 55, 60-61 (Nov. 2007). In the decades since, countless federal and state statutes have been passed to protect consumers, employees, franchisees, small businesses and investors, and class and collective lawsuits have developed as an avenue to vindicate those statutory rights. In response, companies have used arbitration clauses to decrease the risks of having to defend against such large potential liabilities. Recent decisions by both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court have emphasized that, if the arbitration clause clearly bars class or collective actions, then the FAA precludes parties to the agreement from pursuing a class or group action through court or arbitration. This established trend of statutory interpretation also may be increasing the possibility of that the U.S. Congress will pass the “Arbitration Fairness Act” to limit companies’ ability to use arbitration clauses as a bar to collective legal actions.

Shuttle Express Case – Fourth Circuit

In the case of Muriithi v. Shuttle Express, Inc., issued April 1, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit required individual arbitration of claims due to a franchise agreement’s inclusion of an arbitration clause 1) forbidding any class or group actions, 2) requiring the parties to split the cost of arbitration, and 3) containing a one-year limitations provision.

Plaintiff Samuel Muriithi was a driver for defendant Shuttle Express, who provided transportation for passengers to and from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Muriithi filed a class action in federal court against Shuttle Express asserting claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and under Maryland law on behalf of himself and all other Shuttle Express drivers. Muriihi alleged that Shuttle Express misled the drivers about the compensation they would earn, inducing them to sign franchise agreements when they would be employees as a matter of law. Shuttle Express moved to dismiss the complaint, or in the alternative, to compel arbitration under the arbitration provision. The district court refused to compel arbitration on the grounds that the agreement contained three unconscionable provisions, which rendered the arbitration clause unenforceable. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, holding that all three provisions at issue were not unconscionable and, therefore, the arbitration clause was enforceable.

In addressing the enforceability of the class action waiver, the Fourth Circuit rejected the district court’s decision, which identified the class action waiver as a factor in preventing Muriihi from “fully vindicating his statutory rights.” The Fourth Circuit explained that, subsequent to the district court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of class action waivers in AT&T Mobility LLV v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011). According to the court, the FAA, as interpreted in the Concepcion decision and prior Supreme Court rulings, “prohibited courts from altering otherwise valid arbitration agreements by applying the doctrine of unconscionability to eliminate a term barring classwide procedures.” Because the district court reached an opposite conclusion prior to Concepcion, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding the class action waiver enforceable.

The Fourth Circuit then addressed the enforceability of the fee-splitting provision. The court found that Muriithi failed to meet his “substantial” burden of showing the likelihood of incurring prohibitive costs as required to invalidate an arbitration agreement. The court explained that a fee-splitting provision has the ability to render an arbitration agreement unenforceable if the arbitration costs are “so prohibitive as to effectively deny the employee access to the arbitral forum.” According to the court, a number of factors are considered when determining prohibitive costs including, “the costs and fees of arbitration, the claimant’s ability to pay, the value of the claim, and the difference between arbitration and litigation.” The court concluded that Muriithi did not meet his substantial burden for proving prohibitive costs because he failed to show the costs of arbitration, “the most basic element” of the challenge. The court further explained that Muriihi could not meet his burden “simply by showing the fees that some arbitrators are charging somewhere.” Muriithi also failed to show the value of his claims, which were necessary to determine the fees under the American Arbitration Association’s rules. Because Murihhi failed to prove these “critical factors”, the Fourth Circuit concluded that he had failed to meet the substantial burden required for a finding of prohibitive costs.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit held that the one-year limitations provision could not be considered in a motion to compel arbitration because it was “not referenced in the Arbitration Clause.” The court referred to Section 2 of the FAA, which states that a party challenging the enforceability of an arbitration clause must rely on grounds that “relate specifically to the arbitration clause and not just to the contract as a whole.” The court stated that the one-year limitations provision related to the general agreement itself rather than the arbitration clause because the language and terms of the provision “did not overlap” with the language of contract’s arbitration clause. Therefore, its enforceability was an issue to be decided by the arbitrator and could not be considered in the motion to compel arbitration.

American Express Antitrust Case – U.S. Supreme Court

In American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, No. 12-133 (June 20, 2013), the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 majority, held that the prohibitively high cost of pursuing an individual claim is not a sufficient reason to invalidate a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement. This decision reinforces Concepcion in demonstrating the Court’s willingness to allow arbitration clauses to be used as class action avoidance mechanisms. This ruling also validates the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of Concepcion in its Shuttle Express decision.

American Express (“Amex”) requires all of its merchants to enter into a standard form contract. These agreements contain arbitration provisions that require all disputes between the parties to be resolved by arbitration and prohibit all class action claims. In this case, a group of merchants filed individual claims against Amex, claiming that Amex used its “monopoly power” to force them into contractual agreements that violate anti-trust laws. Amex moved to dismiss and to compel arbitration. The district court agreed with Amex, and the merchants appealed. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, finding the class action waiver unenforceable because the costs that an individual merchant would incur to pursue its claim would substantially exceed the amount of that individual merchant’s damages. The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s decision.

Justice Scalia, writing for the narrow majority, emphasized that the “overarching principle” of arbitration is a matter of contract, and that courts must “rigorously enforce” arbitration agreements by their expressed terms unless the FAA’s mandate has been “overridden by a contrary congressional command.” The majority failed to find any contrary congressional command that would require a rejection of the class action waiver. According to the Court, antitrust laws do not guarantee that a claim will be resolved affordably, nor do they “evince[e] an intention to preclude a waiver” of class-action procedure.

The Court rejected the merchants’ argument that enforcing the waiver of class arbitration bars effective vindication because merchants have no economic incentive to pursue their antitrust claims individually in arbitration. The Court declined to apply the “effective vindication” exception to the case at hand on the grounds that the exception’s purpose is to prevent “prospective waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies.” The Court explained that not being worth the costs to prove a statutory remedy is not an elimination of the right to pursue that remedy. In other words, according to the Court, class action waivers merely limit arbitration to the two contracting parties and do not eliminate parties’ rights to pursue statutory remedies.

The majority referred to its decisions in Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20 (1991) and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 130 S. Ct. 1740 (2011) (also decided by a 5-4 vote), to validate that class action waivers in arbitration agreements are, indeed, enforceable and therefore do not preclude the effective vindication of statutory rights. In Gilmer, the Court had “no qualms in enforcing a class waiver in an arbitration agreement even though the federal statute at issue…expressly permitted collective actions.” In Concepcion, the Court stated that class arbitration was not necessary to prosecute claims “that might otherwise slip through the legal system.”

In Justice Kagan’s dissent, she emphasized that the purpose of the FAA is to resolve disputes and facilitate compensation of injuries. According to Justice Kagan, the majority’s decision “admirably flaunt[s]” the fact that monopolists get to use their power to force merchants into contracts that deprive them of all legal recourse. “Too darn bad,” says Justice Kagan, as she describes the majority’s decision in a nutshell. Justice Kagan explains that the majority’s decision offers support to parties who intend to confer immunity from potentially meritorious federal claims through arbitration clauses in standardized form “contracts of adhesion”, which is contrary to the purpose of the FAA as enacted in 1925.

What does this mean?

In light of the body of U.S. Supreme Court precedent in this issue, nearly all parties offering contracts to large groups of similarly situated persons such as employees, franchisees, and consumers of services, should strongly consider including an arbitration provision in the contract that explicitly bars class or collective actions. Under current law, those waivers will almost certainly be enforced and therefore sharply limit the likelihood that the company will have to defend against large-scale litigation brought by disaffected members of such groups. Such arbitration clauses do need to be carefully drafted and implemented to avoid other defenses to their enforcement, and they should be prepared and implemented with the assistance of experienced counsel.

Of course, ubiquitous arbitration clauses and these judicial decisions sharply limit the ability of private practice attorneys to deter violations of protective statutes through civil dispute resolution, leaving an even greater burden of enforcement on overburdened government regulators. This is unlikely to change unless the FAA is amended through legislation. In recent years, the “Arbitration Fairness Act” has been pending in the U.S. Congress. This act would invalidate the enforceability of pre-dispute arbitration clauses with regard to employment, consumer, and civil rights disputes, and antitrust class action proceedings. The bill has been languishing in recent years, and it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court’s latest decision spurs more aggressive Congressional action on this issue.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS CO-WRITTEN BY DAVID L. CAHN, CHAIR OF THE FRANCHISE BUSINESS LAW GROUP AT WHITEFORD TAYLOR & PRESTON, AND KATELYN P. VU, WHO IS A SUMMER ASSOCIATE AT THE FIRM AND A 2015 J.D. CANDIDATE AT UNIVERSITY OF BALTIMORE LAW SCHOOL.

PLEASE ALSO NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE REPRESENTS THE VIEWS OF THE AUTHORS AND NOT THE VIEWS OF WHITEFORD TAYLOR & PRESTON L.L.P.