On October 13, the Northern District of Alabama entered an order compelling an employer and employee to arbitration where the employer demonstrated the existence of an electronic arbitration agreement. Yearwood v. Dolgencorp, No. 6:15-cv-00898-LSC, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138993 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 13, 2015). The employee provided an affidavit denying ever having seen or signed such a form electronically. The court held that under the Alabama version of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, the burden of proving attribution of the signature to the employee falls on the employer. In support of its motion to compel arbitration, the employer offered evidence demonstrating its practice of requiring employees to complete a series of electronic forms upon hiring, which included the arbitration agreement. The employer also produced evidence demonstrating that the arbitration agreement was executed by someone using the employee’s unique access credentials (user ID and password) on the employer’s online hiring system, and that the employee’s password had to be re-entered at the time of signing. The employer also produced evidence that the employee agreed to use the electronic signature system and agreed to keep her password confidential. Weighed against the employer’s proof of its process and records demonstrating execution, the court held that employee’s blanket denial by affidavit was insufficient to rebut the proof of attribution. The court found that the signature on the arbitration agreement was attributable to the employee and ordered the parties to arbitrate.
On November 19, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the Southern District of New York’s decision to dismiss a case alleging that two leading credit card issuing banks schemed to require that disputes be settled in arbitration, as opposed to class action lawsuits. The plaintiffs challenged the District Court’s decision on the grounds that language in United States v. General Motors Corp. should be used “to adopt a rule that the existence of conspiracy is a legal conclusion subject to review de novo.” Ross v. Citigroup, Inc., No. 14-1610 (2nd Cir. Nov. 19, 2015). Plaintiffs further argued that the District Court’s conclusion that the defendants’ actions did not constitute as conspiracy in violation of the Sherman Act should not be shielded by the “clearly erroneous” test. The District Court analyzed various “plus factors,” including motive, the quantity and nature of inter-firm communications, and whether the arbitration clauses were “artificially standardized” because of an illegal agreement, to determine whether or not conspiracy existed among the credit card issuing banks. The District Court concluded that the credit card issuing banks’ final decision to implement class-action-barring clauses was reached “individually and internally.” Stating that General Motors has never been applied as generously as the plaintiffs argued for it to be, the Second Circuit’s review of the record found the District Court’s conclusion plausible and not “clearly erroneous.”
CFPB Considering Proposals to Limit Pre-Dispute Arbitration Agreements for Consumer Financial Products and Services, Convenes Small Business Review Panel Seeking Feedback
On October 7, the CFPB issued proposals to limit the use of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, which it contends are often used to evade class action litigation. Under the proposals, the Bureau would seek to prohibit the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements in consumer financial contracts, unless the agreements explicitly state that the agreements are not applicable to cases filed as class actions, class certification is denied by a court, or class claims are dismissed by a court. While not prohibiting pre-dispute arbitration agreements in their entirety, for companies that elect to use arbitration agreements in consumer financial contracts, the proposals would require that companies submit to the CFPB arbitration claims filed by consumers and any monetary awards issued therefrom. Furthermore, the CFPB is considering publishing the information submitted by companies on its website.
The Bureau also stated that it will convene a Small Business Review Panel, representing the initial step of a potential rulemaking. The Panel is expected to provide feedback on the impact of the proposals set forth by the Bureau and offer possible alternatives to address arbitration agreements in consumer financial contracts.
On September 22, via blog post, the CFPB announced that it will host its second field hearing addressing pre-dispute arbitration agreements in various consumer financial contracts. Scheduled for October 7, 2015, the hearing will take place in Denver, Colorado and feature remarks from CFPB Director Richard Cordray, testimony from consumer groups, industry representatives, and members of the public. Previous InfoBytes coverage on arbitration can be seen here.
On June 17, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that would require the CFPB to conduct a peer-reviewed cost-benefit analysis of the use of arbitration agreements prior to issuing a final rule. The amendment is tied to a fiscal year 2016 financial services spending bill, which would bring the Bureau under the congressional appropriations process. U.S. House Representatives Steve Womack (R-AR) and Tom Graves (R-GA) brought forth the amendment, which was adopted by the Committee on a voice vote.
On March 10, the CFPB announced the release of its final arbitration study, accompanied by a fact sheet, to coincide with its field hearing held in Newark, NJ. The study examined approximately 850 consumer financial agreements, of which almost 50% were credit card agreements, to analyze the prevalence of arbitration clauses and their terms. Among other data, the Bureau also reviewed over 1,800 arbitration disputes, more than 3,400 individual federal court lawsuits, 42,000 credit card cases filed in small claims court, and 420 class action settlements filed in federal courts.
The CFPB announced on February 23 that it plans to host a field hearing on the issue of arbitration provisions within various consumer financial contracts. According to the CFPB’s blog post, the hearing will take place on March 10 in Newark, New Jersey, and will feature remarks from CFPB Director Richard Cordray, testimony from consumer groups, industry representatives, and members of the public. The Dodd-Frank Act instructs the CFPB to study the use of pre-dispute arbitration provisions in consumer financial contracts (and provide a Report to Congress) and gives the CFPB the authority to issue regulations on the use of arbitration clauses if the CFPB chooses. In December 2013, the CFPB issued a report on its preliminary findings, which indicated that approximately 9 out of 10 arbitration clauses used by large banks in credit card and checking account agreements prevent consumers from participating in class actions.
On an appeal of five putative class actions alleging the unlawful charging of overdraft fees on consumer checking accounts, On February 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a lower court order holding that the defendant’s waiver of its right to compel arbitration with the named plaintiffs precludes the Bank from compelling arbitration with any unnamed members of the putative classes. In re Checking Account Overdraft Litigation, No. 13-12082 (11th Cir. Feb. 10, 2015). The panel held that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to resolve the question. Additionally, it held that the named plaintiffs lacked standing, under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, to advance claims on behalf of those unnamed putative class members, who—in the absence of class certification—have “no justiciable controversy” with the Bank.
On December 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that application of Dodd-Frank’s Anti-Arbitration provision did not apply to causes of action asserted under the Anti-Retaliation Dodd Frank Provision due to the limiting language of the arbitration law. Khazin v. TD Ameritrade Holding Corp, No. 14-1689 (3rd Cir. Dec.8, 2014). In 2013, the plaintiff filed suit in the District of New Jersey alleging that he had been fired in the preceding year for whistleblowing. According to the complaint, the retaliation occurred after the plaintiff questioned a supervisor about the pricing of a financial product that did not comply with relevant securities regulations. The District Court ruled that Dodd Frank’s Anti-Arbitration Provision did not prohibit the enforcement of arbitration agreements that were signed before the enactment of Dodd-Frank. Rather than deciding on the timing issue, however, the Court of Appeals upheld the decision on statutory construction grounds based on the limiting language of the Anti-Arbitration provision indicating that it only applied to causes of action contained within the same section, and not all allegations under Dodd-Frank.
On October 2, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision refusing to compel arbitration sought by a servicer in a dispute with a borrower over the terms of a loan agreement. Inetianbor v. Cashcall, Inc. No. 13-13822 (11th Cir. 2014). In Inetianbor, the plaintiff and the servicer had a dispute as to whether the borrower had satisfied his obligations under the terms of the loan agreement. When the borrower refused to pay amounts the servicer believed it was due, the servicer reported the purported default to the various credit agencies. The borrower sued the servicer who subsequently moved to compel arbitration under the terms of the loan agreement. The loan agreement’s forum selection clause required any dispute be resolved in arbitration by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation (the “Tribe”). The Tribe, however, declined to arbitrate the dispute. The district court allowed the suit to proceed in federal court on the grounds that the arbitral forum was not available to hear the dispute. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s refusal to compel arbitration. The Eleventh Circuit held that the forum selection clause was integral to the loan’s arbitration provision. Because the arbitral forum was unavailable to hear the dispute, arbitration was not an option under the terms of the agreement and the district court was correct in refusing to compel arbitration.
The American Arbitration Association (AAA) launched new Consumer Arbitration Rules that became effective on September 1. The new Consumer Arbitration Rules, comprised of 55 rules, replace the eight rules in the Consumer-Related Disputes Supplementary Procedures and apply to cases filed on or after September 1, 2014. Most notably under the new rules, the AAA will not administer consumer arbitration for a company unless and until the company submits its arbitration agreement to the AAA for review and the AAA determines that such agreement substantially complies with the AAA’s Consumer Due Process Protocol guidelines. Once reviewed and approved, the name of the business, the address, and the consumer arbitration clause, along with any related documents deemed necessary by the AAA will appear on the newly established and publicly-available Consumer Clause Registry (Registry). There is a non-refundable $500 annual fee to conduct the review and maintain the Registry. However, at least initially, a $650 fee paid in 2014 will be sufficient to maintain the business in the Registry through 2015. If a business does not submit its arbitration agreement for review and a consumer arbitration is filed with the AAA, the AAA will conduct an expedited review of the business’ arbitration agreement at that time, which would require an additional $250 in expediting fees.
On June 10, CFPB Director Richard Cordray testified before the Senate Banking Committee in connection with the CFPB’s recently released Semiannual Report to Congress. The hearing covered a broad range of topics, including, among several others, prepaid cards, student loans, small dollar loans, and arbitration clauses.
Director Cordray advised in response to an inquiry from Senator Menendez (D-NJ) that the CFPB’s prepaid card proposed rule, which the CFPB recently indicated could be released this month, likely will not come until the end of the summer. He reassured the Senator that the delay does not indicate any particular problem about the rulemaking, only that certain of the issues raised have been “hard to work through.” Read more…
On May 29, the CFPB published a notice and request for comment on an updated plan to conduct a credit card arbitration survey. The following day, the OMB made available the documents submitted by the CFPB in support of the survey.
The amended survey notice follows an initial notice last year that the CFPB planned to conduct a telephone survey of 1,000 credit cardholders to assess (i) the extent of their awareness of dispute resolution provisions in their credit card agreements and (ii) the cardholders’ “assessments of such provisions.” At the time, the CFPB released draft survey questions as part of its information collection request supporting statements. The initial public comment period closed August 6, 2013. During the comment period, banking trade groups objected to the survey and suggested the CFPB instead pursue peer-reviewed research that compares consumer dispute resolution methods.
In its latest notice, the CFPB states that the survey “will explore (a) the role of dispute resolution provisions in consumer card acquisition decisions and (b) consumers’ default assumptions (meaning consumers’ awareness, understanding, or knowledge without supplementation from external sources) regarding their dispute resolution rights vis-a-vis their credit card issuers, including their awareness of their ability, where applicable, to opt-out of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements.”
The supporting statements and attachments thereto detail the CFPB’s rationale for conducting the survey. Appendix A provides the final survey questions, and Appendix B provides the justification for the questions
The public comment period on the notice and supporting materials closes June 30, 2014.
Tenth Circuit Holds FAA Preempts New Mexico Law On Unenforceability Of Unconscionable Arbitration Provisions
On January 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts New Mexico common law that a compulsory-arbitration provision in a contract may be unconscionable and therefore unenforceable. THI of New Mexico at Hobbs Center, LCC v. Patton, No. 13-2012, 2014 WL 292660. (10th Cir. Jan. 28, 2014). In this case, a nursing home operator filed suit in federal district court to compel arbitration of claims brought by the widow of a former nursing home resident. The district court initially ruled that the arbitration agreement in the governing contract was not unconscionable and ordered arbitration. After a New Mexico appeals court came to the opposite conclusion, the district court reversed itself and further held that the FAA does not preempt state law because the state appeals court “applied . . . generally applicable unconscionability law against grossly unreasonable one-sided contracts.” On appeal the Tenth Circuit explained that “just as the FAA preempts a state statute that is predicated on the view that arbitration is an inferior means of vindicating rights, it also preempts state common law—including the law regarding unconscionability—that bars an arbitration agreement because of the same view.” Accordingly, the court rejected the state court’s view that the FAA does not limit their ability to hold an arbitration agreement unconscionable provided they are applying a general unconscionability doctrine, explaining that under such reasoning any statute preempted by the FAA could be enforced by applying the “public policy” of the statute under a common-law doctrine such as unconscionability. The court thus held that the FAA preempts the New Mexico common law on unenforceability based on unconscionability and held the operator is entitled to compel arbitration.