Second Circuit Voids Class Action Waiver in Commercial Arbitration Contract Where Enforcing It Would Effectively Confer Antitrust Immunity — Declines to Decide General Enforceability of Such Clauses
From In re American Express Merchants’ Litig., 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 1646 (2d Cir. Jan. 30, 2009):
This Court frequently enforces mandatory arbitration clauses contained in commercial contracts. We do so on the principle that "it is difficult to overstate the strong federal policy in favor of arbitration, and it is a policy we have often and emphatically applied." …. On this appeal, however, we are asked to consider the enforcement of a mandatory arbitration clause in a commercial contract that also contains a "class action waiver," also referred to as a "collective action waiver," that is, a provision which forbids the parties to the contract from pursuing anything other than individual claims in the arbitral forum. This is a matter of first impression in our Court.
***While we are conscious of this debate, we are thankful that we need not resolve it on this appeal. That is, we do not decide whether class action waiver provisions are either void or enforceable per se. Rather, we are concerned solely with the class action waiver contained in the contract between the parties before us on this appeal. We conclude that, on the record before us, the plaintiffs have adequately demonstrated that the class action waiver provision at issue should not be enforced because enforcement of the clause would effectively preclude any action seeking to vindicate the statutory rights asserted by the plaintiffs.
We … hold that the class action waiver in the Card Acceptance Agreement cannot be enforced in this case because to do so would grant Amex de facto immunity from antitrust liability by removing the plaintiffs' only reasonably feasible means of recovery. …Section 2 of the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 2, provides that an agreement to arbitrate "shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." Given that we believe that a valid ground exists for the revocation of the class action waiver, it cannot be enforced under the FAA.
E. Two Caveats. We emphasize two important limitations upon our holding. First, our decision in no way rests upon the status of the plaintiffs as "small" merchants. The plaintiffs repeatedly refer to themselves as "small merchants" and as "small businesses." But Amex is correct when it counters that the plaintiffs "undoubtedly hope that, by labeling themselves as 'small,' they can benefit from one line of case law where individual consumers have alleged that arbitration agreements were imposed as a result of unequal bargaining power." See, e.g., Lowden v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 512 F.3d 1213, 1219 (9th Cir. 2008) (holding class action waiver contained in cellular telephone unconscionable under Washington law); Skirchak, 508 F.3d at 60 (holding class action waiver in employment agreement unconscionable under Massachusetts law); Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Servs., Inc., 498 F.3d 976, 984 (9th Cir. 2007) (holding class action waiver in cellular phone contract unconscionable under California law). We do not follow these cases because they all rely on findings of unconscionability under state law, while we have relied here on a vindication of statutory rights analysis, which is part of the federal substantive law of arbitrability. Applying the latter, we have found that plaintiffs have demonstrated the necessity of some class mechanism in order to bring their claims against Amex. This demonstration is in no way dependant on the "size" of any or all of the merchant plaintiffs; it depends upon a showing that the size of the recovery received by any individual plaintiff will be too small to justify the expenditure of bringing an individual action.
Second, we stress that we do not hold here that class action waivers in arbitration agreements are per se unenforceable. We also do not hold that they are per se unenforceable in the context of antitrust actions. Rather, we hold that each case which presents a question of the enforceability of a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement must be considered on its own merits, governed with a healthy regard for the fact that the FAA "is a congressional declaration of a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements." Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp., 460 U.S. at 24. We believe that the Eleventh Circuit has posited something like the correct approach:
[T]he enforceability of a particular class action waiver in an arbitration agreement must be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the totality of the facts and circumstances. Relevant circumstances may include, but are not limited to, the fairness of the provisions, the cost to an individual plaintiff of vindicating the claim when compared to the plaintiff's potential recovery, the ability to recover attorneys' fees and other costs and thus obtain legal representation to prosecute the underlying claim, the practical affect the waiver will have on a company's ability to engage in unchecked market behavior, and related public policy concerns.
Dale, 498 F.3d at 1224.
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