One Step Forward, One Step Back: Court of Appeal Denies Arbitration in Imburgia

Fresh on the heels of signs during the Iskanian oral argument that the California Supreme Court might at least partially fall in line behind the rule of Concepcion (subscr. req.), we received a reminder that arbitration clauses continue to receive an uncertain reception in the Courts of Appeal. In Imburgia v. DirecTV, Inc., Division One of the Second Appellate District affirmed a trial court decision invalidating a consumer arbitration clause in its entirety. (See here for a quick sketch of the background law at the federal and California state level.)

The plaintiff in Imburgia filed a putative class action complaint alleging a laundry list of consumer claims: unjust enrichment, declaratory relief, false advertising, and violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, the unfair competition law and Civil Code Section 1671(d). Plaintiff’s theory was that the defendant improperly charged early termination fees to its customers.

The parties litigated for two and a half years, but less than a month after Concepcion was handed down in 2011, the defendant petitioned to compel arbitration. The trial court denied the motion.

Two provisions of the defendant’s then-standard customer agreement were at issue. Section 9 provided that “any legal or equitable claim” relating to the Agreement or service would first be addressed informally, and then through “binding arbitration” under JAMS rules. The clause barred all class claims, both in litigation and arbitration:

Neither you nor we shall be entitled to join or consolidate claims in arbitration by or against other individuals or entities, or arbitrate any claim as a representative member of a class or in a private attorney general capacity . . . If, however, the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures unenforceable, then this entire Section 9 is unenforceable.

Section 10 was called “Applicable Law”:

The interpretation and enforcement of this Agreement shall be governed by the rules and regulations of the Federal Communications Commission, other applicable federal laws, and the laws of the state and local area where Service is provided to you . . . Notwithstanding the foregoing, Section 9 shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act.

The plaintiffs’ argument on appeal went like this. Class action waivers are unenforceable under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The final sentence of Section 9 referring to “the law of your state” means “the law of your state disregarding any impact of the FAA.” Since California law bars class waivers in CLRA cases, “this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures [is] unenforceable,” and the entire arbitration clause falls.

The Court of Appeal agreed. The court based this conclusion on two general principles. First, the final sentence of Section 9 is a specific exception to the general invocation of the FAA in Section 10, and a specific contract clause always governs a more general one. Second, the clause was ambiguous as written, and ambiguities must be resolved against the drafter – here, the defendant. In so holding, the Court of Appeal declined to follow directly contrary decisions from the federal district court hearing the parallel MDL action and the Ninth Circuit.

The California Supreme Court should grant review in Imburgia and reverse. Defendants made two arguments before the Court of Appeal which seem to me to dispose of the plaintiff’s “imagine there’s no FAA” argument.

First, the plaintiffs’ arguments, adopted by the Court of Appeal, depend on the proposition that the last sentence of Section 9 and Section 10 conflict. But they don’t. The plaintiff argues that the CLRA bars class waivers. But that tells us nothing. Section 9 does not invoke California law in a vacuum. The clause asks whether “the law of your state would find this agreement . . . unenforceable.” Well, California law couldn't find the defendant's subscriber agreement unenforceable.  The agreement deals with interstate commerce and is therefore subject to the FAA.  If the Supremacy Clause means anything, it's that Concepcion is the law of every jurisdiction, including California.  The class waiver is perfectly valid under Concepcion and Concepcion preempts the CLRA.

Second, Section 10 provides that “Section 9 shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act.” As the federal MDL court held, the plaintiffs’ interpretation of Section 9 renders that clause completely meaningless, in violation of the most fundamental principles of contract construction. The Court of Appeal disagreed, describing Section 9 as a “narrow and specific exception to the general provision” of Section 10, which “[i]t does not render . . . meaningless,” but this seems conclusory. Before the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs are likely to have considerable difficulty explaining what practical impact the FAA clause of Section 10 can ever have if their construction of the contract is correct.

The likely petition for review in Imburgia adds another element of uncertainty to the Court’s deliberations over what to do about Iskanian. The Appellate Strategist will be following both cases closely.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Yale Law Library.

California Supreme Court Agrees to Decide Temp Disability Benefits for Police Officers

In the only civil review grant from last week’s conference, the California Supreme Court agreed to review the Third District’s decision in Larkin v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. Larkin involves an issue of what temporary disability payments might be available to full-time, salaried peace officers.

The petitioner filed a claim for temporary disability payments after he sustained various injuries in the course of his employment as a police officer for the City of Marysville. The workers’ compensation judge denied the claim, the Workers Compensation Appeals Board affirmed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the Board.

The claim turned on the meaning of Labor Code Section 4458.2, which provides:

If an active peace officer of any department as described in Section 3362 suffers injury or death while in the performance of his or her duties as a peace officer . . . then, irrespective of his or her remuneration from this or other employment or from both, his or her average weekly earnings for the purposes of determining temporary disability indemnity and permanent disability indemnity shall be taken at the maximum fixed for each, respectively, in Section 4453 . . .

Section 3362 simply deemed police officers as “employees” of the relevant government: “Each male or female member registered as an active policeman or policewoman of any regularly organized police department . . . shall . . . be deemed an employee of such county, city, town or district for the purpose of this division and shall be entitled to receive compensation from such county, city, town or district in accordance with the provisions thereof.”

The petitioner argued that he was an active peace officer, so the statute authorized temporary disability benefits at the set rate for him. But that “would be an absurd result,” the Court of Appeal found.

The Court pointed out that Section 3362 appears in an Article of the Labor Code called “Employees.” The Code offers the broadest possible definition of “employee” – “every person in the service of an employer” – and carves out limited exceptions for volunteers and independent contractors. So it was undisputed that the petitioner was an “employee” of the City. There was no need for Section 3362 to separately say so.

The Sections in the immediate neighborhood of 3362 are concerned with deeming certain persons who would not ordinarily be considered employees to be such for purposes of entitlement to workers compensation benefits. Section 3361 addresses volunteer firefighters, Section 3364 volunteer members of a sheriff’s reserve, and Sections 3365, 3366 and 3367 those who voluntarily assist law enforcement and firefighters upon request. In each section, the affected individuals are deemed employees and awarded temporary disability at the maximum rate. The idea, the Court wrote, was to encourage public service by volunteers. Without these provisions, one injured in the voluntary service of a government entity might lose his or her income for a time and have no means of support, since workers’ comp from his or her regular employer wouldn’t be available.

If Section 3362 was intended to apply only to salaried officers, volunteer peace officers would have no recourse if injured while they were working. This would “punish them for their service,” the Court wrote, and “leave such volunteers in a markedly different position than volunteers of other public safety agencies. This cannot be what the Legislature intended.”

We expect Larkin to be decided in eight to ten months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Nic Walker.

California Supreme Court Depublishes Decision on Finality from the Register of Actions

Depublication orders usually aren’t exactly the most earthshaking thing on the California Supreme Court’s weekly conference summaries. Nevertheless, I took particular notice of one on last week’s summary: Dattani v. Lee. Dattani is worthy of note for a couple of reasons. First, the Court took the unusual step of depublishing the Court of Appeal’s opinion on its own motion – nobody had filed a depub request. Second (and more importantly), Dattani underlines one of the most important lessons in all of appellate law (see the end of this post for the takeaway).

It’s not uncommon for those of us in the defense bar to find that a common legal theory serves as the foundation for many but not all of a plaintiff’s claims. If the trial court rejects that theory pre-trial, the plaintiff faces a dilemma: go to trial with what are often sideshow claims before getting appellate review, or seek an interlocutory appeal.

Every jurisdiction has various avenues to possible interlocutory review; in California, it’s usually through a petition for writ of mandate, while in Illinois, Rules 304, 306, 307 or 308 might serve, depending on the facts. But the thing is, in most cases, review is discretionary. The appellate court can simply refuse to hear the matter – and usually, that’s exactly what happens. Interlocutory orders that are reviewable as of right are rare.

To understand the significance of Dattani, it’s necessary to briefly revisit a major decision the Supreme Court handed down last year: Kurwa v. Kislinger. In Kurwa, the plaintiff sued for breach of fiduciary duty and assorted related claims. The parties traded claims and cross-claims for defamation.

Before trial, the court held that once the parties formed a corporation, they didn’t owe each other any fiduciary duties. That was pretty much that for the fiduciary duty count and all the related stuff. But there was nothing final about the ruling: the defamation counts were still viable.

So the parties worked out a deal. The plaintiff dismissed the fiduciary duty and related claims with prejudice. Both parties dismissed their defamation claims without prejudice and swapped waivers of the statute of limitations. Then off the plaintiff went to the Court of Appeal.

Ultimately, it didn’t work. The Supreme Court pointed out that given the statute of limitations waiver, the parties were apparently planning to go right back to court regardless of what happened on appeal, so the dismissals weren’t final and appealable.

Fast forward to Dattani.

Dattani arose from a four-count complaint. In 2012, the trial court granted the defendant summary adjudication on the first count. When the defendant appeared for trial in September 2012 on the remaining claims, the plaintiff’s attorney said he was dismissing those claims to pursue an appeal.

The request for dismissal was filed on the proper Judicial Council form. The court’s register of actions for that day stated that “a dismissal of all the other causes of action” had been filed and removed the matter from the master calendar. But the section of the Judicial Council form for the clerk to note whether dismissal had been entered as requested was never filled in.

Seven months later, on April 16, 2013, the trial court filed a take-nothing judgment prepared by the plaintiffs’ counsel stating that the “remaining causes of action” had been dismissed on September 10. On May 6 – less than thirty days later – the plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal.

The defendants moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the plaintiff’s mere request for dismissal of all remaining claims was the equivalent of a final judgment as of the day it was filed – in September 2012, long before the notice of appeal was filed. The Court of Appeal agreed.

There’s a line of cases going back thirty years allowing plaintiffs or cross-plaintiffs to in essence manufacture finality after losing on a key point of law by voluntarily dismissing the remaining claims. The rationale is that even though voluntary dismissals aren’t generally appealable, in such cases it’s not really a voluntary act – it amounts to a request for entry of judgment on the adverse ruling of law.

The Court of Appeal concluded that Kurwa isn’t to the contrary. Sure, the Supreme Court refused to allow an appeal from a voluntary dismissal, but in the Dattani court’s view, finality hadn’t been destroyed in Kurwa by the voluntary dismissal itself – the problem was the mutual statute of limitations waivers.

Bottom line, the Dattani court held, even though no judgment was filed until seven months later, the mere filing of the notice of voluntary dismissal, coupled with the earlier loss on the pretrial order, amounted to a final and appealable judgment. Since that happened in September 2012 and the notice of appeal wasn’t filed until May 2013, the notice of appeal was untimely, and the appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Although the Supreme Court regularly reminds us that an order to depublish isn’t an expression of their opinion one way or the other about the Court of Appeal’s opinion, it seems clear that the Supreme Court didn’t want a published Dattani opinion knocking around in the Official Reports. Nevertheless, the takeaway seems clear. Consider the Dattani facts one more time. There was no judgment entered at the time the Court of Appeal says finality happened. The plaintiff had filed a notice of dismissal, but the section of the form reserved for the clerk to note that dismissal had actually occurred hadn’t been filled in. The only indication anywhere (apparently) that the court staff regarded the matter as concluded was the register of actions.

A timely notice of appeal is jurisdictional everyplace I’m aware of. In most jurisdictions, there’s no remedy for an untimely filing; even in places where one exists, it’s extremely limited.

So if you’re even in the same zip code as anything that seems remotely like the end of the line in a case, extraordinary caution is called for. Confirm everything, assume nothing, and check everywhere (remember that register of actions from Dattani). Finality – and the possible tolling of the time to appeal – is an intricate area of the law. Nevertheless, it’s a question counsel has to get right.

Image courtesy of Flickr by John Morgan.

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Wrongful Death Non-Economic Damages Cap for Med Mal Cases

 

On March 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, issued its long-awaited opinion following review of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Estate of McCall v. United States, 642 F.3d 944 (11th Cir. 2011), and answered the following rephrased certified question in the affirmative:

Does the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. §766.118, violate the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution?

 

The Supreme Court did not address three additional questions certified by the Eleventh Circuit.

 

To read the Court’s opinion, click here. 

 

Background and Earlier Court Proceedings

Hours after giving birth, Michele McCall went into shock and cardiac arrest as a result of severe blood loss.  She never regained consciousness and was removed from life support. The Estate of Michele McCall, Mrs. McCall’s parents, and the father of Mrs. McCall’s son sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, as Mrs. McCall’s care took place at a military hospital.  The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida found the United States liable and determined that the plaintiffs’ economic damages totaled $980,462.40 and that their non-economic damages totaled $2,000,000.00.  However, the district court limited the plaintiffs’ total recovery of non-economic damages to $1,000,000.00 pursuant to Florida Statutes §766.118(2) (2005), which imposes a cap on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. 

 

§766.118(2) provides:

 

(2) Limitation on noneconomic damages for negligence of practitioners.--

 

(a) With respect to a cause of action for personal injury or wrongful death arising from medical negligence of practitioners, regardless of the number of such practitioner defendants, noneconomic damages shall not exceed $500,000 per claimant. No practitioner shall be liable for more than $500,000 in noneconomic damages, regardless of the number of claimants.

 

(b) Notwithstanding paragraph (a), if the negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state or death, the total noneconomic damages recoverable from all practitioners, regardless of the number of claimants, under this paragraph shall not exceed $1 million. In cases that do not involve death or permanent vegetative state, the patient injured by medical negligence may recover noneconomic damages not to exceed $1 million if:

 

1. The trial court determines that a manifest injustice would occur unless increased noneconomic damages are awarded, based on a finding that because of the special circumstances of the case, the noneconomic harm sustained by the injured patient was particularly severe; and

 

2. The trier of fact determines that the defendant's negligence caused a catastrophic injury to the patient.

 

(c) The total noneconomic damages recoverable by all claimants from all practitioner defendants under this subsection shall not exceed $1 million in the aggregate.

 

On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, the plaintiffs argued that the statutory cap violates the Equal Protection Clause and constitutes an unlawful taking.  They also asserted that the cap violates numerous provisions of the Florida Constitution.  The Eleventh Circuit held that §766.118 does not constitute a taking in violation of the Florida Constitution and that it does not violate either the Equal Protection Clause or the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  However, the court certified to the Florida Supreme Court four questions regarding the remaining challenges to the statutory cap under the Florida Constitution.

 

Supreme Court Proceedings

The Florida Supreme Court found that §766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution, which provides that all natural persons are equal before the law, because the cap on wrongful death non-economic damages imposes unfair, illogical burdens on injured parties when medical negligence gives rise to multiple claims.  Claimants in cases involving multiple claims do not receive the same rights or full compensation as compared to claimants in cases involving one claim.  In this case, three separate non-economic damage determinations were assessed by the district court.  The damages suffered by Mrs. McCall’s parents were determined to be $750,000.00 each and the damages suffered by Mrs. McCall’s surviving son were determined to be $500,000.00.  Applying the caps, the federal court reduced these amounts so that each claimant would receive only half of his or her respective damages.  However, if Mrs. McCall had been only survived by her son, he would have recovered the full amount of his non-economic damages:  $500,000.00.  Thus, the cap limited the recovery of a surviving child simply because others also suffered losses. 

 

The Court stated that in addition to causing discrimination between classes of claimants, the caps also violate Florida’s Equal Protection Clause because they bear no rational relationship to a legitimate state objective.  In analyzing this issue, the Court analyzed at length the Florida Legislature’s justification for the caps – the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida – and found that there was no support for such a conclusion.  Moreover, even if there were such a crisis, there was no evidence that the statutory caps alleviated the crisis.  Finally, even if there were a crisis when §766.118 was enacted, no rational basis existed to justify the continued use of the caps. 

 

Conclusion

 

In sum, the Court held that the caps on wrongful death non-economic damages set forth in §766.118 violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.  As the Court made clear, however, “The legal analyses for personal injury damages and wrongful death damages are not the same.  The present case is exclusively related to wrongful death, and our analysis is limited accordingly.”  As such, the Court’s opinion is not applicable to the caps in place when a medical malpractice claimant does not die.

 

 

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Florida High Court Liberally Construes Self-Insured Retention Endorsement

 

             On February 6, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court took a liberal view of self-insured retentions (SIRs) and held that an insured can apply indemnification payments from a third party to satisfy its SIR under a general liability policy.  See Intervest Constr. of Jax, Inc. v. Gen. Fid. Ins. Co., 39 Fla. L. Weekly S75, 2014 WL 463309 (Fla. Feb. 6, 2014) (to read the slip opinion click here).  The Court decided the case on two certified questions from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

            General Fidelity issued a general liability insurance policy to a homebuilder with an SIR of $1 million.  The SIR endorsement stated that General Fidelity would provide coverage only after the insured had exhausted the $1 million SIR.  The homebuilder contracted with a third-party to, among other things, install attic stairs in a house under construction.  The contract between the homebuilder and the subcontractor contained an indemnification provision requiring the subcontractor to indemnify the homebuilder for any damages resulting from the subcontractor’s negligence.

            After the house was built, the homeowner fell while using the attic stairs and sued only the homebuilder for her injuries.  The homebuilder sought indemnification from the subcontractor.  Following mediation the parties and their insurers agreed to settle the homeowner’s claim for $1.6 million with the subcontractor’s insurer paying the homebuilder $1 million to settle the homebuilder’s indemnification claim against the subcontractor; the homebuilder would then pay the $1 million to the homeowner.  A dispute then arose as to whether the homebuilder or its insurer was responsible for paying the $600,000 settlement balance.

            The homebuilder argued that the $1 million contribution from the subcontractor’s insurer satisfied its SIR obligation and that General Fidelity was required to pay the remaining $600,000.  General Fidelity, on the other hand, argued that the $1 million payment to settle the indemnity claim did not reduce the SIR because the payment originated from the subcontractor, not its insured.  Thus, General Fidelity maintained that the terms of the policy required its insured—the homebuilder—to pay the additional $600,000 to settle the homeowner’s claim.

            The Court adopted the position advanced by General Fidelity.  While the SIR endorsement required that the payment be “made by the insured,” the Court looked to other policies’ SIR provisions that contained more restrictive language.  These other policies specify that the SIR must be paid from the insured’s “own account” or make clear that payments from additional insureds or insurers could not satisfy the SIR.  Because the General Fidelity policy did not employ this more restrictive language, the Court took a more expansive view of General Fidelity’s SIR endorsement.

            The second prong of the dispute centered around whether the transfer of rights provision in the General Fidelity policy gave General Fidelity priority over its insured to the $1 million that the subcontractor’s insurer paid.  If it did, then the homebuilder could not claim the $1 million as satisfying the SIR.  The majority found that the provision did not give General Fidelity priority over its insured.  The majority rested it conclusion on the fact that the provision “does not address the priority of reimbursement nor does the clause provide that it abrogates the ‘made whole doctrine.’”

            Justices Polston and Canady dissented.  They believed the majority had “rewritten” the SIR provision “to allow satisfaction of the self-insured retention limit in a manner other than the manner specifically provided for in the policy.”  They also characterized the majority’s reasoning as creating a “legal fiction” that “effectively reads the phrase ‘by you’ out of [the SIR endorsement].”

            To view the history of this case in the Florida Supreme Court, please click here. 

            Image courtesy of Flickr by Alan Cleaver.

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Illinois Supreme Court Agrees to Decide Complex Landfill Dispute

Can the Illinois state courts order mandatory cleanups of older landfills? The Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide that issue late last month, allowing a petition for leave to appeal in People ex rel. Madigan v. J. T. Einoder, Inc.

Einoder involves a husband and wife and two corporations which they control. The landfill site was held in a land trust for the benefit of one of the corporate defendants, which was wholly owned by the husband. The other corporate defendant - owned 90% by the wife and 10% by the husband - leased equipment and operators to the first corporation for use at the site.

In 1995, two years after the site was purchased, the state Environmental Protection Agency received anonymous reports of open dumping there. An inspector visited and issued a citation for dumping without a permit. Additional citations were issued in 1996 and 1997. The Agency conducted a multi-hour inspection in 1998, and subsequently, another citation was issued for alleged dumping and disposal of waste without a permit.

The Agency initially threatened suit in 1998, but agreed to dig test pits first to determine the content of material at the site. After sporadic inspections in 1999 and 2000 revealed an increasing amount of "clean" construction and demolition debris ("CCDD") above the grade of the surrounding land, the Attorney General filed suit in 2000, alleging open dumping, unpermitted waste disposal operations, development and operation of a solid waste management site without a permit, and various other violations.

Following a bench trial, the Circuit Court found for the State on all counts relating to waste disposal and operation of a waste disposal site without a permit, but directed a verdict for the defendants on various more minor charges. The court then proceeded to the remedies portion of the bifurcated trial, and ultimately issued a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to remove the above-grade waste pile and undertake groundwater testing. The court also imposed substantial fines against both corporations and both individuals.

The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court. The court began by rejecting the defendants' claim that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the agency's complaint because the agency had not properly notified the defendants of its intent to sue the individuals in their individual capacities. The court found that the notice requirements were not jurisdictional, and given the extensive contact between the agency and the defendants leading up to the suit, the defendants could not show prejudice.

The Circuit Court's finding that defendants had operated a waste disposal site without a permit depended on a finding that defendants' CCDD didn't constitute "waste." The statute provided that CCDD was exempt from permit requirements (to the degree Federal law didn't provide differently) only when "used as fill materials below grade." The defendants attempted to avoid this language by pointing to three excerpts of testimony, but the Appellate Court concluded that two statements had been taken out of context, and the third snippet of testimony from the bench trial was contrary not only to the plain language of the statute, but even to the remainder of that witness' testimony. The defendants challenged the finding of personal liability against the wife, but the Appellate Court found sufficient evidence to support the court's finding that the wife had been involved in the operations.

The court then turned to what is likely to be the central issue before the Supreme Court: the availability of mandatory injunctive relief. The parties agreed that the pre-2004 form of the Environmental Protection Act didn't authorize such relief, while the post-2004 form of the Act did authorize it. So the question was whether the 2004 amendments applied retroactively - a simple question of statutory construction. Although Section 42(e) of the Act, the provision directly at issue, didn't indicate a temporal reach, the Court concluded that several other clauses of the 2004 Act suggested that the legislature intended the statute to apply retroactively: the Act was intended to "restore, protect and enhance" Illinois' environment, and to require that "adverse effects" be mediated by "those who cause them." In so holding, the court followed the decision of the Second District in State Oil Co. v. People.

The Court concluded by upholding the fines assessed against the corporate and individual defendants. Sufficient evidence supported the view that the defendants had derived economic benefit from their violations, the Court found, and the defendants' continued operations for five years after receiving their initial violation notices suggested that severe penalties were needed. Justice Mary Anne Mason dissented solely from the portion of the opinion holding that the 2004 Act applied retroactively.

We expect Einoder to be decided in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Ell Brown.

Illinois Supreme Court to Decide If Innocent Insured Doctrine Applies to Renewal Application

The concept behind the innocent insured doctrine is simple: where there are multiple insureds on an insurance policy, a breach by one does not necessarily eliminate coverage for those not personally involved in the breach. But what if the breach occurs in conjunction with a renewal application? That's the question the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide late last month in Illinois State Bar Association Mutual Insurance Co. v. Law Office of Tuzzolino & Terpinas.

The case began when a former client filed a malpractice suit against one of the partners. The attorney persuaded the former client to drop the suit and instead retain the attorney to sue the attorney who handled a related bankruptcy. That suit was dismissed, however. When the client discovered the dismissal, the attorney made an offer to settle the malpractice claim, but the offer was rejected.

Not long after, the same partner filed a renewal form with the firm's malpractice insurance carrier. In response to a question on the form, "[h]as any member of the firm become aware of a past or present circumstance[s] which may give rise to a claim that has not been reported," the attorney answered "no." The attorney signed the form, but the second partner was not required to do so.

A month after completion of the renewal form, the second partner received a lien letter from the attorney hired to represent the first partner in the impending malpractice claims. The second partner forwarded the information to the insurer. He alleges that this was the first time he was aware of any potential claims arising out of his partner's representation of the client.

The insurer filed suit seeking rescission of the policy with respect to both partners and the firm, arguing that the first partner's failure to disclose the potential claim voided the policy ab initio. The second partner counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment that he was covered by the policy in connection with the client's suit.

The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on all counts against all defendants.   The trial court granted the motion, finding that the insurance contract was indivisible, and could not be rescinded with respect to one partner only. The court accordingly held that the insurer had no obligation to defend the firm or the innocent partner. The innocent partner and the firm appealed.

The Appellate Court reversed.

The attorney argued that the innocent insured clause contained in the policy preserved coverage. The court pointed out, however, that the attorney was ignoring the distinction between a misrepresentation during the life of the policy and one in the application process. Therefore, the question was not whether the language of the policy covered the innocent partner, but rather whether the common law innocent insured doctrine permitted the policy to remain in place as to him.

The common law innocent insured doctrine applies when two or more insureds maintain a policy and one commits an act that would normally void the policy but a "reasonable person would not understand that the wrongdoing of [the] coinsured would prevent recovery." The doctrine is often applied, for example, where one of multiple owners sets fire to a property without his or her co-owner's knowledge.

The Appellate Court rejected the insurer's claim that the first partner's misrepresentation rendered the policy void ab initio. In fact, the Court held, the policy was voidable, not void. For that reason, the Court chose to follow Economy Fire & Casualty Co. v. WarrenIn Warren, a husband and wife co-owned a house destroyed by fire. The couple settled their claim with their homeowner's policy insurer. When it became known that the wife has set the fire, the insurer tried to rescind the settlement agreement on grounds of fraud. The Court applied the innocent insured doctrine to hold that the husband - who claimed to have no knowledge of his wife's actions - was entitled to retain half of the settlement.

The Court further held that Section 154 of the Insurance Code (215 ILCS 5/154) - which provides that no misrepresentation or false warranty in an insurance application can defeat coverage unless material or made with an intent to deceive - supported application of the common law innocent insured doctrine.

Finally, the Court held that public policy favored application of the doctrine, since allowing rescission would mean that the innocent party had no coverage not only in connection with the plaintiff's claim, but in connection with any claim during the policy period.

We expect Tuzzolino & Terpinas to be decided in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Alan Cleaver.

The Future is Here - Is the Internet a Place?

The California Supreme Court has certified a question for review posed by the Ninth Circuit – Is the internet a “place of public accommodation” as described in the California Disabled Persons Act (“DPA”), Civil Code §§ 54, et seq.? The DPA provides at § 54.1(a)(1) that “[i]ndividuals with disabilities shall be entitled to full and equal access, as other members of the general public, to accommodations, advantages, facilities . . . and privileges of . . . places of public accommodation . . . and other places to which the general public is invited.” Finding no resolution in existing California law, the Ninth Circuit asked for guidance on the question of whether DPA’s reference to “places of public accommodation” includes web sites, which, at best, are “non-physical places.”

In Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) v. Cable News Network (CNN), GLAD filed a class action suit against CNN for failing to provide closed captioning with all of its online videos, and thereby limiting access to those materials by hearing impaired viewers. GLAD alleged violations of DPA and the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 51 et seq. (“Unruh Act”) and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. CNN removed the matter to federal court and filed an unsuccessful motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. The district court found that the provision of closed captioning did not raise a free speech issue for CNN and it did not address the merits. In a published opinion, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that forcing CNN to add closed captioning to its news content arose from its freedom of expression because it would necessarily change how CNN presented the news. The court then struck the Unruh Act claim, finding that GLAD had not shown it would probably satisfy the intentional discrimination requirement.

Turning to the DPA claim, the Ninth Circuit concluded that GLAD had demonstrated a probability of success regarding the constitutional and preemption defenses raised by CNN. However, to address the merits of the DPA claim, the court first needed to determine whether the DPA even applied to a “virtual location” on the internet. While the internet was certainly not considered when the DPA was originally passed in 1968, it is also true that, as presently used, internet websites often operate as “non-physical places,” such as stores, classrooms, gaming halls and public forums. Since lower California courts, state and federal, are divided on this issue, the Ninth Circuit certified the question for the California Supreme Court. The increasing importance of the internet for commerce and public discourse demonstrate the potential significance of this ruling, and allow a prediction of multiple amicus briefs.

Image courtesy of Flickr by LearnerWeb.

Waiting for Iskanian, Part 5: The Parties' Briefs on the Merits

With tomorrow’s oral argument before the California Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, our series of previews concludes with a look at the parties’ merits briefs. To read all the briefs in Iskanian, check out the National Chamber Litigation Center’s page on the case here.

The argument in plaintiff’s opening brief begins with a quotation from Armendariz: “California law, like federal law, favors enforcement of valid arbitration agreements.” Plaintiff describes Gentry as no more than a “limited qualification” to that proposition.

The plaintiff's centerpiece argument boils down to three propositions: (1) arbitration clauses are solely about forum selection and do not affect any substantive rights under federal or state law; (2) the right to file a PAGA suit seeking recovery on behalf of the State and one's fellow employees is a substantive right which cannot be waived; and (3) therefore, the FAA has nothing to say about the enforceability of the plaintiff's agreement not to file a class or representative claim.

Plaintiff's argument is based on a couple of dubious propositions: that whatever importance California state law places on an unrelated cause of action is relevant to FAA preemption, and that the right to bring a collective claim is somehow not only substantive (as opposed to procedural) but also unwaivable.

Like the plaintiff’s amici we considered here, the plaintiff relies heavily upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mitsubishi as supporting the “effective vindication” theory. The plaintiff argues that the theory is “fully applicable” to state-law rights, citing Armendariz and Little v. Auto Stiegler from the California Supreme Court, as well as Preston v. Ferrer – a case which enforced an arbitration agreement – from the United States Supreme Court.

According to plaintiff, the FAA merely requires that arbitration clauses - which are nothing more than specialized forum selection clauses - be enforced; it affects no substantive rights at all. Since the FAA does not require the waiver of any substantive rights, it cannot preempt state law protecting such rights. Since Concepcion does not disturb “the Supreme Court’s repeated holdings” that the FAA does not require enforcement of agreements preventing effective vindication of statutory rights, Concepcion has no impact on Gentry. Given that, plaintiff argues, the agreement's ban on representative actions could not be enforced against him. Plaintiff acknowledges the Appellate Court's view that he could pursue an individual PAGA claim, but insists that there is no such thing.

Plaintiff also argues that any ban on representative actions by employees violates federal labor law, relying heavily on the NLRB’s opinion in D.R. Horton. (Like the amicus briefs, the merits briefs were filed before the Fifth Circuit reversed in D.R. Horton.) Finally, plaintiff argues that the defendant’ s pursuit of the litigation between Gentry and Concepcion waived any right to arbitrate, both because “futility” is not a basis for opposing waiver under California law, and because a pre-Concepcion motion to compel arbitration wouldn’t have been futile even under federal law.

According to the appellee's brief, the plaintiff’s brief rests on the “misguided premise” that the FAA treats waiver of representative claims in employment cases differently than it does such waivers in consumer cases.

The federal cases plaintiff cites for his claim that the effective vindication theory is well established at the federal level are “irrelevant,” the defendant argues – each involved a federalstatutory right, not a state statute. Not only that – those cases hold that an arbitration agreement can’t be invalidated on the grounds that arbitration would somehow be a less desirable forum, since that conclusion embodies the kind of judicial skepticism of arbitration that the FAA was intended to end.

Gentry is no longer good law, the defendant argues; its test “derives its meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue,” and besides, there’s no principled distinction between Gentry and Discover Bank.

Nor did Iskanian’s decision to bring a PAGA claim impact the enforceability of the party's arbitration agreement. First, PAGA is an unconstitutional delegation of governmental power; second, the plaintiff's claim is time-barred; and third, the opportunity to bring a PAGA claim on behalf of the State and fellow employees is neither mandatory, nor a substantive right.

The defendant next turns to the labor law issue, attacking D.R. Horton on multiple grounds. The “unambiguous” Federal right to pursue class or collective action doesn’t exist, defendant argues. “Concerted” activity means being engaged with other employees; a class or representative action was thus “the antithesis” of concerted action. Although the NLRB’s interpretations of federal labor law are traditionally given deference in the courts, the defendant argues that the courts owed no deference at all to the NLRB’s interpretation of the FAA.

The defendant concludes by attacking the plaintiff’s waiver claim. Defendant litigated when it was forced to by Gentry and immediately moved to compel when Concepcion was handed down, according to the defendant; there was no conduct inconsistent with an intent to arbitrate. Besides, plaintiff could show no prejudice from the delay, since merely being required to litigate isn’t enough under California law.

The plaintiff replies that the defendant "misunderstands Mr. Iskanian's argument." Conducting a class action is not a substantive right, plaintiff argues, but "the availability of class actions is sometimes essential to the vindication of substantive rights." Concepcion didn't settle the issue, he claims, since if it did, "the Court's decision to receive full briefing and argument" in Italian Colors "would be inexplicable." According to the plaintiff, the defendant's constitutional and statute of limitations challenges to the PAGA claims are not properly before the Court.

As for defendant's remark that plaintiff remained free to bring an individual PAGA claim, plaintiff responds that "all PAGA claims are representative claims."  Even if the parties' agreement permitted such an action, the plaintiff argues, it still bars "a substantial portion of the recovery PAGA authorizes" - penalties for the State or other employees.

The plaintiff closes its reply by again arguing that the agreement violates federal labor law, and that defendant has waived its right to arbitrate anyway. The plaintiff notes that even reversal of D.R. Horton by the Fifth Circuit (which has now happened) wouldn't settle the labor law issue, since the losing party would seek Supreme Court review, and the NLRB doesn't follow adverse opinions in cases not involving the same parties anyway.

Iskanian will be argued tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. West Coast time in the Third Floor Courtroom of the Ronald Reagan State Office Building, 300 South Spring Street, North Tower, Los Angeles.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Sam Howzit.

Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Whether Self-Critical Analysis Privilege Exists in Illinois

We continue our previews of the civil cases accepted for review in the closing days of the Illinois Supreme Court’s March term with Harris v. One Hope United, Inc. In Harris, the First District declined to recognize the existence of a self-critical analysis privilege in Illinois, calling the recognition of new common law privileges “a matter best left to the legislature.”

The self-critical analysis privilege is a relatively recent innovation in the common law, as privileges go. The privilege seems to have been first recognized by the federal district court in Washington, D.C. in a 1970 medical malpractice case, Bredice v. Doctors Hospital, Inc. Since that time, a few jurisdictions have adopted narrow versions of the privilege. As a general rule, courts require proponents of the privilege to prove at least three elements: (1) the information sought comes from a critical self-analysis undertaken by the party seeking protection; (2) the public has a strong interest in preserving the free flow of the type of information sought; and (3) the information must be of the type whose flow would be curtailed if discovery were allowed. Some courts have added a fourth element: the document was prepared with the expectation that it be kept confidential, and it has in fact been kept confidential.

The principal defendant in Harris is a private contractor which works with the state Department of Children and Family Services providing services to troubled families. DCFS received a complaint in late 2009 alleging neglect and/or abuse of a small child. The DCFS assigned the matter to the defendant, which commenced an investigation. Two months later, the child was hospitalized, and upon release, was sent to live with her aunt. The child was soon returned to her mother, however, and not long after, was accidentally drowned when her mother left her unattended.

The plaintiff – the Public Guardian of Cook County - filed a wrongful death suit against the defendant and various others. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant was negligent in permitting the child to be returned to her mother, given the mother’s history and failure to complete parenting classes.

During a deposition, the executive director of the defendant testified that the defendant maintains a “continuous quality review department” which investigates cases and prepares reports. The reports evaluate the quality of the defendant’s services, identify “gaps in service delivery” and assess outcomes. The defendant refused to produce the report, the plaintiff moved to compel production, and the defendant opposed, citing the self-critical analysis privilege.

The trial court found that the privilege did not apply. At defendant’s request, the trial court held defendant in “friendly contempt” and fined defendant $1 per day pending production of the report. The defendant then appealed the contempt order.

The Appellate Court began by observing that nothing in the Illinois Rules of Evidence suggests the existence of a self-critical analysis privilege. Nor do any court rules support such a privilege claim. The court observed that what case law there was in Illinois on self-critical analysis had consistently refused to recognize the privilege.

The defendant argued that the privilege arises from the “intersect[ion]” of statute, public policy, discovery rules and evidence. Recognizing the privilege would further the purposes of legislation like the Child Death Review Team Act (20 ILCS 515/1), defendant suggested, but the Court concluded that the Act actually favors disclosure of the circumstances of an accidental death in hopes of preventing future tragedies. Defendant pointed out that the Medical Studies Act (735 ILCS 5/8-2101) specifically allows withholding of internal quality control documents by hospitals, but the Court declined to apply the Act by analogy to the defendant’s situation.

Although the court affirmed the order compelling production of the report, it recognized that the defendant had shown “no disdain” for the trial court, and had merely refused to comply “in good faith to secure appellate interpretation of this rather novel issue.” Accordingly, the court vacated the contempt finding.

Given the stakes, we should see multiple amicus curiae briefs before the Supreme Court. The case is likely to be argued in the fall, with a decision near the end of the year.

Image courtesy of Flickr by j3net.

Illinois Supreme Court to Clarify Mailing Standards for Notice of Appeal

The Illinois Supreme Court has decided a number of cases in recent years involving choices between form and substance or strict and substantial compliance. In most (but not all) cases, a majority of the Justices have sided with substantial compliance and proceeded to the merits. The Court took one more such case as the March term wound down. Huber v. American Accounting Association, a decision from the Fourth District, poses a question of considerable interest to appellate lawyers: what proof of timely filing is required when a notice of appeal is mailed before the due date, but not received by the clerk until after?

The defendant association incorporated in 1935. In 1996, the State dissolved the Association for failure to file an annual report. Six years later, the Association incorporated again, but the new entity appears to have been a shell; the Association deposited all dues paid by members into the 1935 Association's account, and no assets were merged. In June 2011, the Association sought to voluntarily dissolve the 2002 entity and reinstate the 1935 entity. Both requests were granted.

Two months later, the plaintiff petitioned to dissolve the 1935 entity and vacate the dissolution of the 2002 entity, and then to judicially dissolve the 2002 Association for misconduct. The Association moved to dismiss, arguing (1) that there was no jurisdiction over the long-dissolved 2002 entity; (2) the plaintiff had no standing, having never been a member of the 2002 Association; (3) plaintiff was not entitled to any relief against the 1935 Association, having alleged no misconduct by the earlier entity; and (4) plaintiff failed to make the necessary showings for a preliminary injunction. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss.

The plaintiff appealed, but the defendant raised a preliminary issue: whether the plaintiff had timely filed a Notice of Appeal sufficient to give the Appellate Court jurisdiction over the appeal.

The judgment in Huber was filed on March 6. Rule 303(a) provides that a notice of appeal has to be filed within 30 days of the entry of the judgment or final order appealed from.

But Illinois also has a mailbox rule of sorts. According to Rule 373:

If received after the due date, the time of mailing, or the time of delivery to a third-party commercial carrier for delivery to the clerk within three business days, shall be deemed the time of filing. Proof of mailing or delivery to a third-party commercial carrier shall be as provided in Rule 12(b)(3).

Rule 12(b)(3) provides that proof of service consists of a “certificate of the attorney, or affidavit of a person other than the attorney, who deposited the document in the mail or delivered the document to a third-party commercial carrier, stating the time and place of mailing or delivery, the complete address which appeared on the envelope or package, and the fact that proper postage or the delivery charge was prepaid.”

The clerk received the plaintiff’s Notice of Appeal on April 9, thirty-four days after judgment. The envelope in which the NOA arrived clearly showed a postmark date of April 3 – twenty-seven days after entry of judgment, three days before the deadline.

What the NOA didn’t have, however, was either of the required proofs from Rule 12(b)(3) – an attorney’s certificate or a non-attorney affidavit.

So: is a NOA clearly mailed before the deadline nevertheless untimely because it didn’t prove mailing in the proper way?

The Appellate Court districts are split on the issue. The Second District held in People v. Hansen that a clearly legible postmark was good enough, notwithstanding the lack of an appropriate proof of service. The First (People v. Tlatenchi) and Fourth (People v. Smith and People v. Blalock)Districts have held that an attorney certificate or affidavit is necessary in every case.

The Huber Court sided with the Fourth District, following Blalock. Because the plaintiff didn't comply with Rule 12(b)(3), the limited mailbox rule in Rule 373 didn’t apply. "[P]roof of a postmarked envelope contained within the record does not correct this defect," the Court wrote, "nor does it serve as a substitute for the omitted affidavit." The plaintiff's notice of appeal was accordingly untimely, and the appeal was dismissed.

We expect a decision in Huber in eight to twelve months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by WallyGrom.

Waiting for Iskanian, Part 4: Friends of the Defendant

 As we await Thursday's oral argument before the California Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, our series of preview posts continues. This time in Part 4, we take a look at the seven amicus curiae briefs filed in support of the defendant. To read all the briefs in Iskanian, check out the National Chamber Litigation Center’s page on the case here.

Not surprisingly given the recent cases, reading the defense amici is a much different experience than reviewing the briefs filed in support of the plaintiff. The plaintiff-side briefs tend to be somewhat defensive in tone, focused on limiting Discover Bank and Concepcion, differentiating Gentry or suggesting reasons why perhaps the ultimate decision in Iskanian could wind up much ado about little (a Supreme Court decision founded on waiver). The defense amici, on the other hand, are by and large on the offensive, trying to broaden the battlefield and bring as much previous law as possible into question in the wake of Concepcion.

We begin with the brief of the Pacific Legal Foundation. The PLF's Free Enterprise project "defends the freedom of contract, including the right of parties to agree by contract to the process for resolving disputes that might arise between them." While other parts of Gentry might survive, the passages setting "categorical, per se requirements specific to arbitration clauses" necessarily had to fall in the wake of Concepcion, the PLF argues. Indeed, Armendariz itself was on "particularly shaky ground" according to the PLF. Nor was Gentry a mere distant cousin of the departed rule of Discover Bank, amicus argued: "Iskanian's effort to distance Gentry from Discover Bank could succeed only with the exercise of willful blindness." The PLF challenged the United Policyholders’ assertion that arbitration clauses were occasionally upheld between Gentry and Concepcion, writing that its Westlaw search had revealed eight decisions during those years striking arbitration clauses against only one where a clause survived. The California courts have "express[ed] their distrust and disapproval of arbitration" in a series of cases since 1984, the PLF writes, "only to have the United States Supreme Court step in to reverse." The time has come for California courts "to make their peace with the Supremacy Clause."

Amicus the Association of Corporate Counsel focused its brief on the practical effects of decisions giving effect to the FAA's national policy in favor of arbitration. In-house counsel use arbitration as a "basic tool to resolve disputes" quickly and inexpensively, amicus argued. Empirical studies confirm the efficiencies of arbitration. According to one study, arbitrations tend to close about 33 percent faster than litigation in employment discrimination cases; another study found that arbitration cases wrap up twice as fast as litigation. Yet another study of employment cases - this time excluding discrimination cases from the database - concluded that arbitration cases ended three times as fast as courtroom litigation. Studies reflect similarly enormous savings in fees and costs expended by litigants. Reversal would "severely burden in-house counsel and their companies," amicus wrote. At minimum, it would likely be necessary to review contracts applying in California. Worse yet, other jurisdictions might be tempted to follow suit in looking for ways around the imperative of the FAA.

Amici The National Retail Federation and Rent-A-Center, Inc. took aim at the central issue in Iskanian – the fate of Gentry in the wake of Concepcion. Concepcion’s commands are “clear and far-reaching,” the NRF amici write. Gentry cannot be reconciled with Concepcion for several reasons. First, Gentry repeatedly invokes Discover Bank. Second, as other amici have pointed out, the Gentry rule necessarily involves imposing class arbitration on a party which never agreed to it, directly contrary to Concepcion. The NRF amici end their brief by reviewing the ultimate fate at the U.S. Supreme Court of recent cases in which state courts relied on public policy to refuse to enforce arbitration clauses: in each case, the state court's decision was reversed.

Amici the California Chamber of Commerce and the Civil Justice Association of California make similar arguments that Gentry cannot survive Concepcion. According to amici, post-Concepcion decisions from the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit such as CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown, Kilgore v. KeyBank, N.A. and Coneff v. AT&T Corp. confirm that Concepcion is meant to be read broadly.

Amicus the Employers Group is “the nation’s oldest and largest human resources management association, representing nearly 5,000 companies.” The Employers Group challenges one of the central premises argued by the plaintiff and several plaintiff’s amici – the notion that PAGA is a public-benefit statute. “Civil penalties paid by an employer under the PAGA do not inure to the benefit of the public,” amicus writes; at most, they benefit other aggrieved parties. In that sense, Iskanian’s situation was similar to Kilgore v. KeyBank, N.A., where the Ninth Circuit declined to apply California’s Broughton/Cruz rule – which holds that claims for broad injunctive relief benefiting the general public cannot be arbitrated – on the grounds that the relief sought there did not benefit the general public. (And in case you’re wondering, a number of courts have held in the last few years that Concepcion dooms Broughton/Cruz too.)

According to amicus, the theme plaintiff and his amici return to again and again – that Discover Bank was about unconscionability while Gentry was about unwaivable statutory rights – is a “distinction without a difference,” since both derive from the same public policy rationale. Not only can Gentry not survive, amicus concludes – Iskanian would be a good opportunity for the Court to revisit Armendariz and Ralphs Grocery too.

Finally, the Employers Group offers an interesting response to the plaintiff’s-side argument that PAGA suits must by definition be representative actions. By taking that position, amicus argues, the plaintiff is restricting the scope and flexibility of the statute, since if the plaintiff were correct, the Labor Commissioner cannot seek PAGA penalties on behalf of a single employee.

Amici the Retail Litigation Center, Inc. and the California Retailers Association offer details on the progeny of California’s major arbitration decisions. Armendariz, for example, has spawned 25 published Court of Appeal opinions, at least 6 published opinions from the Ninth Circuit and many more unpublished Court of Appeal opinions and trial court orders. Even after Concepcion, several California courts have refused to enforce arbitration clauses; amici point to cases such as Ajamian v. CantoC02E, L.P., where the Court of Appeal “dismissed Concepcion in a footnote,” and Franco v. Arakelian Enterprises, Inc., where the court asserted that Gentry remained viable because most wage-and-hour claims involve too little money to justify the expense of arbitration. (Not surprisingly in the wake of Italian Colors, the California Supreme Court has issued a grant-and-hold in Franco, awaiting Iskanian.)

Amici turn then to the plaintiff’s “effective vindication” theory. The notion that “unwaivable rights” are enough to overcome the FAA was rejected more than twenty years ago in Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp. Amici point out that the construction advocated by the plaintiff’s side necessarily creates two separate proceedings out of a single dispute – wage and hour claims in arbitration, and the purportedly non-arbitrable PAGA claims in court. The amici conclude by arguing that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the notion – still heard today – that arbitration is somehow an inferior forum for certain types of claims.

Amicus the California New Car Dealers Association points out that while the United States Supreme Court has occasionally discussed “effective vindication” – always in dicta – in relation to federal statutory rights, it has never actually refused to enforce an arbitration clause based upon the “effective vindication” theory. Amicus argues that it was the California Supreme Court in Broughton that applied the theory with respect to state-law rights, disregarding the theoretical basis for it – the need to reconcile conflicting Congressional mandates. Broughton led straight to Armendariz,and then to Discover Bank, Gentry and the original decision in Sonic-Calabasas. Each of these decisions drew dissents arguing that the Court was straying further from the FAA and the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance, with Justice Chin writing in Broughton, Cruz and Sonic-Calabasas, and Justice Baxter writing in Gentry. According to the amicus, the dissenters have now been vindicated by Concepcion, which rejected the public policy rationale which lies at the foundation of both Discover Bank and Gentry. The New Car Dealers’ brief concludes by pointing out that due process-based protections in the text of the FAA requiring that parties be granted notice and an opportunity to present relevant and material evidence and argument before neutral arbitrators obviate any need for states to superimpose additional limits on arbitration in pursuit of their own public policies.

Join us back here soon for the conclusion of our five part series: Waiting for Iskanian, Part 5: The Parties’ Briefs.

Image courtesy of Flickr by J. Saper.

Waiting for Iskanian, Part 3 - Friends of the Plaintiff

As we await Thursday's oral argument before the California Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation of Los Angeles, in Part 3 of our series of posts, we'll take a look at the amici curiae supporting plaintiffs. To read all the briefs in Iskanian, both merits and amici, check out the National Chamber Litigation Center’s page on the case here.

The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation describes itself as a "non-profit legal services provider that represents low income families in rural California and engages in regulatory and legislative advocacy to promote the interests of low wage workers." The CRLAF’s brief argues that the FAA compels enforcement of arbitration clauses only insofar as they relate to claims arising from the employment contract itself. While Iskanian has asserted a number of different causes of action arising from his employment, the CRLAF argues, his claim under the Private Attorney General Act is not one of them. The PAGA claim is the result of a delegation by the State of California of its sovereign power to enforce the Labor Code and collect civil penalties for violations.  Since the FAA is limited to claims arising under the contract, PAGA claims cannot be forced into arbitration. Besides, Civil Code § 3513 specifically bars waiver of laws established for a public reason.

The argument under Section 3513 is interesting, but it seems to me ultimately doesn't hold water. Substantive rights are (in at least some cases) unwaivable. For example, it’s unlikely that a court would enforce an employment contract calling for payment of less than the minimum wage. But there's a material difference between such a substantive claim for relief and a right to sue. Of course a right to sue is waivable: one waives it by not suing. Why, then, shouldn't an employee be free to trade away for value that which he or she can surrender for nothing?

The Sandquist amicus brief was sponsored by the named plaintiff in a pending class action under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, as well as a group of nonprofit public interest associations -- the AARP, which advocates primarily for older workers and senior citizens; Equal Rights Advocates, which is "dedicated to protecting and expanding economic justice and equal opportunities for women and girls"; and the Impact Fund, which funds, trains and acts as co-counsel to public interest litigators.

The Sandquist brief focuses on the impact of authorizing class waivers on FEHA enforcement. Class waivers would mean "not only that plaintiffs . . . will be unable to vindicate their own FEHA rights, but also that they cannot fulfill the role entrusted to them under the statute" of acting as private attorneys general, amici argue.

The plaintiffs' amicus briefs were filed several months before Italian Colors squarely took on the effective vindication theory, so understandably, many place significant emphasis on Mitsubishi and what other support arguably existed for the theory. The Sandquist amici quote Judge Richard Posner's comment in Carnegie v. Household Int'l, Inc.: "The realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30." According to the Sandquist group, the effective vindication theory sweeps even more broadly than merely outlawing straightforward waivers of substantive statutory rights. To be permissible, "arbitration must be structured in a manner that enables the parties to 'effectively' vindicate their statutory rights." Far from being workarounds from the pro-arbitration mandate of the FAA, Armendariz and Gentry were examples of the California Supreme Court "following the U.S. Supreme Court's lead," the Sandquist amici argue.

There's less than meets the eye to Concepcion, the Sandquist amici insistBecause the arbitration provisions in Concepcion were "highly favorable to consumers," the agreement probably would have been enforceable under the effective vindication theory. After all, the amici argue, the question presented in Concepcion specifically acknowledged that class arbitration was not necessary to effective vindication there.

Nor were Discover Bank and Gentry closely related, the brief continues. First, Discover Bank is about unconscionability; Gentry is about effective vindication. Second, Discover Bank adopted a blanket rule barring class waivers in consumer cases, while Gentry requires a fact-specific balancing test.

Like the Sandquist amici, the Consumer Attorneys of California focuses on trying to limit Concepcion and Discover Bank and preserve Gentry. Discover Bank, the CAOC argues, created a categorical ban on class action waivers in consumer contracts, while Gentry revolved around procedural unconscionability. Moreover, Gentry involved a challenge to an entire agreement to arbitrate, where Concepcion only addressed a class arbitration waiver clause. The mere fact that Concepcion eliminated the Discover Bank rule does not mean that "generally applicable state law unconscionability defenses" are preempted "across the board." Rather, the Supreme Court was intending to mandate a "case-by-case approach" to unconscionability and other state-law defenses. The California unconscionability doctrine "has numerous variables giving rise to near infinite variations . . . that were neither discussed nor mentioned in Concepcion," the CAOC claims; accordingly, "Concepcion is limited to the facts in that one case."

The United Policyholders amicus brief addresses a different topic: the Court of Appeal's finding that the defendants in Iskanian hadn't waived any right to arbitrate. UP argues that whether or not an arbitration clause has been waived is an issue of California law, regardless of whether the contract falls within the purview of the FAA (this raises the interesting question of whether a state's waiver law could be preempted by the FAA if it were interpreted in such a way as to become an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress' purposes). The Court of Appeal erred at the outset, UP argues, by declining to find waiver based on "futility," since California doesn't recognize futility as a defense to waiver. Indeed, even if federal law applied to the waiver question, the UP argues, the Court of Appeal got it wrong, since Federal waiver law allegedly limits futility to situations where a new case has created a right which didn’t exist previously. Since certain courts had enforced arbitration clauses before Concepcion, the defendants' motion to compel arbitration in Iskanian wouldn't have been futile. A separate amicus brief filed by the California Association of Public Insurance Adjusters raises similar arguments.

Finally, the Service Employees International Union and the California Employment Lawyers Association filed a brief in support of the plaintiff. The SEIU/CELA brief focuses on yet another aspect of the case: the D.R. Horton decision and the supposed conflict between a class waiver in employment law and the National Labor Relations Act. According to the amici, the proposition that "the filing and pursuit of employment claims on a joint, class, representative, or other concerted action basis constitutes protected 'concerted' activity under federal labor law" is "unassailable." (We'll see about that once we reach the respondent's brief.) Citing D.R. Horton, they argue that the right to engage in collective action must include "collective legal action" - presumably regardless of what agreements individual employees enter into. The "CLS Policy/Agreement by its express terms prohibits its employees from engaging in concerted legal action," the amici write. "That prohibition violates federal labor law. End of story." Concepcion was distinguishable, the amici write, because "[n]o federal statutory rights were at issue." 

Even if a conflict existed between the FAA's preference for arbitration and the purported right to engage in concerted legal activity, the amici argue, the FAA would have to give way since "the Section 7 right is far more central to national labor policy than any preference for 'streamlined' arbitration is to the FAA."

Of course, the legal landscape has continued to develop since the SEIU/CELA brief was filed. First, the Supreme Court handed down Italian Colors, where "federal statutory rights" were squarely at issue, and most recently, the Fifth Circuit reversed the NLRB's decision in D.R. Horton.

Join us back here shortly for Waiting for Iskanian, Part 4: Friends of the Defendant.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Steve Slater.

Waiting for Iskanian, Part 2: Italian Colors, Sonic-Calabasas and Iskanian

One would have thought in the wake of Concepcion that Gentry was doomed: Concepcion expressly killed off Discover Bank; Gentry was expressly described by the Court itself as a gloss on Discover Bank; therefore, Concepcion must overturn Gentry.

In the wake of the Concepcion defeat, the plaintiffs' bar made a strategic retreat, insisting that Gentry was based on an entirely different theory, entirely unrelated to Discover Bank and therefore not affected by Concepcion: the "effective vindication of statutory rights" theory. That theory goes like this: if the practical effect of an arbitration clause is to make it impossible for a plaintiff to "effectively vindicate" (whatever that means) his or her non-waivable statutory rights, then out it goes.

And then American Express Company v. Italian Colors Restaurant came along.

The plaintiffs in Italian Colors were merchants who entered into agreements with the defendant to accept the defendant's charge and credit cards. The agreement included a clause both requiring arbitration and barring all class proceedings. The plaintiffs brought a putative class action under the federal antitrust laws, alleging that the defendant had used its monopoly power in the market for charge cards to both force merchants to accept its credit cards (an allegedly illegal tie) and to charge merchants rates 30% higher than its competitors.

The defendants moved to compel arbitration. Opposing the motion, the plaintiffs offered a declaration from an economist opining that an expert study and analysis sufficient to prove the claim would cost anywhere from several hundred thousand to a million dollars. Which was a bit of a problem, since the maximum per-plaintiff recovery would be just short of $40,000. Nevertheless, the district court granted the motion to compel arbitration. The Second Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for reconsideration in light of Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animal Feeds Int'l Corp., but the Second Circuit reversed again after considering both Stolt-Nielsen and Concepcion.

The plaintiffs' pitch before the United States Supreme Court was very simple: enforcing the class action waiver as written means no antitrust suit - nobody spends several hundred thousand dollars to recover $40K. Thus, as briefed and argued, Italian Colors provided about as square a test of the "effective vindication" theory as can be imagined.

One problem, the Supreme Court held: "the antitrust laws do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim." The majority seemed to doubt whether there is any such thing as the "effective vindication" theory in the first place, describing its genesis as "dictum in Mitsubishi Motors." But even assuming such an exception exists, it was far more limited than the plaintiffs believed. Certainly it would cover an arbitration clause saying "nobody brings an antitrust claim." Prohibitive filing fees, sure: a clause requiring a ten million dollar per-claim filing fee would fall. But merely making it not worth the expense to prove a statutory remedy wasn't the same thing as "the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy," the majority wrote. In a footnote on the final page of their opinion, the majority wrote what one would have expected to be the epitaph of the "effective vindication" theory: "the FAA does . . . favor the absence of litigation when that is the consequence of a class-action waiver."

Only a few months after Italian Colors, the California Supreme Court got its first major chance to address the new landscape in Sonic-Calabasas A, Inc. v. Moreno.

The plaintiff in Sonic-Calabasas is a former employee of an automobile dealership. As part of his employment, he signed an agreement providing that all disputes arising out of the employment would be settled by binding arbitration pursuant to the FAA and the California Arbitration Act. After leaving his employment, the plaintiff filed an administrative wage claim with the Labor Commissioner, seeking vacation pay. The filing of such a claim is the first step in California towards what's known as a Berman hearing - a highly informal administrative proceeding designed for more-or-less speedy employee wage claims. The employer moved to compel arbitration of all disputes, arguing that the arbitration clause waived the Berman hearing. The Superior Court denied the petition to compel arbitration, but the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that a Berman waiver was enforceable.

The California Supreme Court granted review and reversed, holding that Berman waivers are per se unconscionable and unenforceable in California. The United States Supreme Court vacated and shipped the case back to California for reconsideration in light of Concepcion.

On remand, the state Supreme Court retreated slightly from its earlier holding in an opinion written by Justice Liu and joined by Justices Kennard, Werdegar and Corrigan, and Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye. A Berman waiver did not by definition doom an arbitration clause, but the trial courts were still free to refuse to enforce an arbitration clause if "it is otherwise unreasonably one-sided in favor of the employer." Although the Court's majority swept away the per se rule, the Court suggested that a Berman waiver might still cast a long shadow over the unconscionability hearing: "waiver of these protections in the context of an agreement that does not provide an employee with an accessible and affordable arbitral forum for resolving wage disputes may support a finding of unconscionability." Although unconscionability has usually been stated in terms of contracts that "shock the judicial conscience," the court majority seemed to suggest a more malleable standard: "Unconscionability doctrine is instead concerned with whether the agreement is unreasonably favorable to one party, considering in context 'its commercial setting, purpose, and effect.'" The unconscionability inquiry it was mandating was "not preempted by the FAA," the majority held, expressing confidence that trial courts could make the necessary determinations fast enough not to rob arbitration of its primary virtue: speedy resolution.

The Court majority summarized its holding in language reminiscent of the "effective vindication" theory:

[W]here, as here, a particular class has been legislatively afforded specific protections in order to mitigate the risks and costs of pursuing certain types of claims, and to the extent those protections do not interfere with fundamental attributes of arbitration, an arbitration agreement requiring a party to forgo those protections may properly be understood not only to substitute one dispute resolution forum for another, but also to compel the loss of a benefit.

Justice Chin, joined by Justice Baxter, vigorously dissented from the majority's opinion:

[W]e should reject Moreno's unconscionability claim . . . I also disagree with the majority's advisory opinion regarding the unconscionability principles the trial court should apply on remand. In my view, those principles are both contrary to state law and invalid under - and thus preempted by - the FAA.

Which finally brings us to IskanianThe plaintiff was employed for a little over a year as a driver for the defendant. He signed an agreement providing that "any and all claims" arising out of his employment would be submitted to binding arbitration. The arbitration clause provided for reasonable discovery, a written award and judicial review. Costs unique to arbitration were paid by the employer. Class procedures - either class actions in court or class arbitration - was barred.

After leaving his employment, the plaintiff filed a putative class complaint, alleging that the defendant had failed to pay overtime, provide meal and rest breaks, reimburse business expenses, provide accurate and complete wage statements, and pay final wages in a timely manner. The trial court initially granted the employer's motion to compel arbitration, but then Gentry came down, and the Second District issued a writ of mandate directing the trial court to reconsider in light of the new decision. Apparently concluding that the result post-Gentry was a foregone conclusion, the employer withdrew its motion to compel arbitration. Not long after, the plaintiff filed a consolidated first amended complaint, purporting to state claims under the Labor Code, for unfair competition, and claims in a representative capacity under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act ("PAGA") of 2004.

After discovery, the plaintiff moved to certify a class. The employer opposed, but the motion was granted in the fall of 2009. In April 2011, with trial imminent, the United States Supreme Court handed down Concepcion. The employer promptly renewed its motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the class claims. The trial court granted the motion in both respects.

The Second District affirmed, holding that Concepcion had necessarily overruled not only Discover Bank, but Gentry to boot. This was so for three reasons: if Gentry was applied, as the plaintiff wanted, the case would be decided under class arbitration, even though the employer had never agreed to it. Such a situation was clearly barred by Concepcion. Second, the Gentry rule was irreconcilable with the fundamental lesson of the FAA -- that arbitration agreements must be enforced according to their terms. Third, the premise that the plaintiff brought the class action to "vindicate statutory rights" was necessarily irrelevant after Concepcion.

Next, the Court turned to D.R. Horton, a decision of the National Labor Relations Board handed down while briefing in Iskanian was under way. There, the NLRB held that class waivers were a per se violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees' right to engage in concerted actions. Although courts usually defer to the NLRB's interpretation of its governing statute, the Iskanian court noted that D.R. Horton was also an interpretation of the FAA itself. The Court of Appeal concluded that Concepcion trumped D.R. Horton, and refused to follow the NLRB.

The Court of Appeal next addressed the plaintiff's argument that his PAGA claims were a non-waivable statutory right to proceed in a judicial class action. Division Five of the Second District had held that Concepcion was inapplicable to PAGA actions under California state law in Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Co. in 2011, but the Iskanian court refused to follow suit: "the United States Supreme Court has spoken on the issue, and we are required to follow its binding authority." Only an express finding by Congress that a Federal claim had to proceed in court was sufficient to override the FAA, the Court held.

The Court concluded by briefly addressing the plaintiff's claim that by withdrawing its motion to compel arbitration post-Gentry, and not raising the issue again until Concepcion, the defendant had waived any right to arbitration. The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that since any motion to compel arbitration would have, according to all parties, been doomed to failure in the years between Gentry and Concepcion, the defendant's conduct had not been inconsistent with an intent to arbitrate.

Next time in Waiting for Iskanian, Part 3, we'll consider the amicus briefs filed at the Supreme Court for the plaintiff's side.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Richard-G.

Waiting for Iskanian, Part 1 -- Gentry, Discover Bank and Concepcion

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court will hear arguments in the highly-anticipated Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC. Iskanian has produced several inches worth of paper from a host of interested parties in the past few months, and in these final days before the argument, we'll be taking a look at the briefing. But first, let's review the legal background for this latest skirmish in the arbitration wars.

The story begins with a deceptively simple statute, the Federal Arbitration Act. The FAA was enacted in 1925 as a response to generations of judicial hostility to contracts to arbitrate. Section 2 of the Act, provides:

A written provision . . . to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

The FAA wasn't an especially hot topic for many years after its enactment. In fact, it took until 1984 in Southland Corp. v. Keating for it to be finally settled that the FAA applied to contracts arising under state law, as long as they addressed interstate commerce. Even then, Justice O'Connor and then-Justice Rehnquist dissented, arguing that the Act applies only to federal-law contracts - a view which Justice Thomas continues to hold today. But even after Southland Corp., enforcement in the states still continued to vary from one jurisdiction to another.

Which brings us to Gentry v. Superior Court, a 2007 decision from the California Supreme Court and the center of the Iskanian debate. Gentry was a putative class action filed by a salaried customer service manager alleging that the defendant had misclassified certain employees as "exempt managerial/executive" rather than "non-exempt non-managerial," meaning that they didn't get paid for overtime. The problem was that when the plaintiff started work, he'd been given a package incorporating various options for resolving employment disputes. One was an arbitration provision which barred class arbitration, as well as incorporating various limitations on damages and attorney's fees. The packet stated that if the employee didn't opt out of the arbitration clause in thirty days, he or she was bound. The plaintiff didn't opt out. The employer successfully moved to compel arbitration at the trial court, and the Court of Appeal refused to get involved.

Gentry reached the California Supreme Court for the first time while it was considering another arbitration case called Discover Bank v. Superior CourtThe Court entered a grant-and-hold in Gentry, awaiting Discover Bank. The Court ultimately held in Discover Bank that "at least under some circumstances, the law in California is that class action waivers in consumer contracts of adhesion are unenforceable." Once Discover Bank was finished, the Court tossed Gentry back in the Court of Appeal's lap for reconsideration in light of the new decision. Nope, the Court of Appeal said - the petition is still denied. So the second time around, the Supreme Court granted full plenary review in Gentry.

Admittedly, Gentry is an employment law case while Discover Bank is a consumer-law case - a distinction we'll be hearing much more of in a few days when we discuss the plaintiff's side briefing in Iskanian. But the second review grant in Gentry was - to quote the Court itself- "to clarify our holding in Discover Bank."

The Gentry Court reversed the lower court's order compelling arbitration. The statutory right to overtime pay could not be waived, the Court wrote. A few years before in Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., the Court had held that such rights could only be subject to compelled arbitration - regardless of what the parties had agreed to - only if the arbitration contained certain safeguards: (1) no limit on the damages normally available; (2) sufficient discovery; (3) a written decision and judicial review; and (4) the employer to pay all costs unique to arbitration. The basis of Armendariz was that an employee couldn't be forced to arbitrate - regardless of the parties' contract - when the arbitration amounted to a de facto waiver of statutory rights that couldn't be waived.

Discover Bank hadn't been intended to suggest that class action waivers would be stricken only in consumer cases involving minimal damages, the court wrote. Class actions "play an important function in enforcing overtime laws," the Court said. The enforceability of a class action waiver depended on the court's weighing of four factors: (1) the modest size of the potential recovery; (2) the potential for retaliation against members of the putative class; (3) whether absent class members are ill informed about their rights; and (4) other real world obstacles to the "vindication" of class members' rights through individualized arbitration. Class arbitration waivers couldn't "be used to weaken or undermine the private enforcement of overtime pay legislation by placing formidable practical obstacles in the way of employees' prosecution of those claims," the Court found.

Justice Moreno wrote the majority opinion on behalf of himself, Justices Kennard and Werdegar and Chief Justice George. Justice Baxter dissented, joined by Justices Chin and Corrigan: "I cannot join the majority's continuing effort to limit and restrict the terms of private arbitration agreements, which enjoy special protection under both state and federal law."

In the years following the double-whammy of Discover Bank and Gentry, the vast majority of class action waivers, and often arbitration clauses themselves, were disregarded by California courts, notwithstanding the FAA. The rationale was that clauses were being denied enforcement pursuant to the general contract defense of unconscionability, and the FAA specifically preserves such general defenses. The answer to that, of course, is that when unconscionability inflicts fatal wounds on far more arbitration clauses than general contracts, something has gone astray in terms of the FAA's nationwide policy in favor of arbitration.

Which brings us to AT&T Mobility LLC v. ConcepcionThe defendant gave away what it advertised as free phones as part of a promotion. When the defendant charged customers a nominal sum as sales tax based on the retail price of the phones, the plaintiffs filed a putative class action alleging false advertising and fraud. The defendant moved to compel arbitration, pointing out that its contract with the plaintiffs included a blanket arbitration clause and a class action waiver. The district court denied the motion to compel arbitration, finding the waiver unconscionable under Discover Bank, and the Ninth Circuit agreed.

The Supreme Court reversed. Granted, the savings clause of the FAA Section 2 preserved "generally applicable contract defenses" - but that didn't mean that Congress intended to "preserve state-law rules that stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the FAA's objectives." Requiring that parties engage in classwide arbitration, regardless of the terms of their agreement, "interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA," the Court held; class arbitration was "slower, more costly, and more likely to generate procedural morass than final judgment." Class arbitration required far greater formality, and considerably increased risks to defendants. Although the Discover Bank rule didn't require classwide arbitration, it allowed any party to a consumer contract to demand it after the fact. The rule was therefore preempted by the FAA.

Join us back here soon for Part 2 of the legal backdrop - Italian Colors, Sonic-Calabasas and the Court of Appeal's decision in Iskanian.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Craig Cloutier.