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 (no changes).