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Class Action Countermeasures Discussions of the Strategic Considerations Involved In Class Action Defense

The State of Class Action Arbitration – Six Months After Concepcion

Posted in Motions Practice

The Supreme Court decided AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion back in April, a decision that many scholars (and lawyers) have bemoaned as killing the class action. The hyperbole about the death of class actions (or their rebirth as shambling undead corpses) isn’t new, and it’s likely not merited. At the very least, I don’t seem to be any less busy.

So, what does the state of the arbitration in class actions look like, six months on? With roughly 120 published opinions reviewing motions to compel arbitration, it’s possible to venture a few opinions.

Most of the immediate procedural mop-ups are now finished. (By "mop-ups," I mean motions to compel arbitration in cases that predated Concepcion. Much as after CAFA was passed, one finds a number of of cases discussing amendment and relation-back doctrines, now there are a number of cases discussing waiver and behavior inconsistent with arbitration, as defendants seek to invoke Concepcion in cases that have reached later stages of litigation.) But leaving aside these cases, the remaining issues should give a good indication of how class actions will proceed in a world where invoking arbitration is possible.

So what are the issues that remain?

The need for discovery on arbitration. Plaintiffs have argued that they need discovery to determine whether discovery is appropriate in this case. For the most part, courts have not accepted this argument.  See, e.g., Giles v. GE Money Bank, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111018 (D. Nev. 2011) ("Whether the arbitration agreement is enforceable against Giles, is a straightforward matter of contract law.").  (A few have, however. See Hamby v. Power Toyota Irvine, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77582 (S.D. Cal. Jul. 18, 2011).) Defendants seem to do best with this argument when they challenge plaintiffs to show exactly what discovery they need from the defendant. See Khan v. Orkin Exterminating Co., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118486 (N.D. Cal. 2011) ("Aside from vague assertions regarding the need to conduct discovery, Plaintiff fails to articulate with any specificity what discovery he seeks to obtain."); Reeners v. Verizon Communications, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76367 (M.D. Tenn. Jul. 14, 2011) ("Plaintiff has failed to carry his burden to show that he needs discovery to respond to Defendants’ Motion."). Usually, the information the plaintiff wants is in his possession to begin with. The relative costs of arbitration and litigation, for example, are available from most arbitrators. (Although at least one court has held that Concepcion says the relative cost doesn’t matter.  See Khan v. Orkin Exterminating Co., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118486 (N.D. Cal. 2011)) Challenging plaintiffs often reveals that plaintiffs have made this argument as either (1) a delaying tactic, or (2) a method of imposing costs as early as possible in the litigation.

The "It’s different here" argument. Sure, the Supreme Court overruled Discover Bank. But that was a California case. Connecticut law is different. (No, it’s not. Ramirez v. Freescore, LLC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97374 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 30, 2011).) OK, well Florida law is different. (Not, it’s not. Cruz v. Cingular Wireless, LLC, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 16811 (11th Cir. Aug. 11, 2011).) Delaware is. (No. Chavez v. Bank of Am., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116630 (N.D. Cal. 2011).) How about Maryland? (No. Murphy v. DirecTV, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87625 (C.D. Cal. 2011).) South Dakota or Illinois? (No. Tory v. First Premier Bank, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110126 (N.D. Ill. Sep. 26, 2011). ) Utah? (No. Giles v. GE Money Bank, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111018 (D. Nev. 2011).) There are 42 more states, not counting the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands, or Guam. But it’s safe to say that this trend is moving in a single direction.

The exculpation argument. Here, plaintiffs argue that compelling arbitration would effectively exculpate the defendant, because it would not have to face liability for its alleged misconduct. So far, courts have not been persuaded by this argument; it veers too close to the underlying policies the Supreme Court found unpersuasive in Concepcion. Cruz v. Cingular Wireless, LLC, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 16811 (11th Cir. Aug. 11, 2011); Arellano v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52142 (N.D. Cal. 2011).

The "vindication of rights" argument. This debate actually seems to give plaintiffs some play. It’s similar to, but not quite the same as, the exculpation argument, since it’s framed to focus on the plaintiff rather than the defendant. As a result, it has convinced a court in the Southern District of New York. Chen-Oster v. Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73200 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 7, 2011). Others, though, are not persuaded by the change in rhetoric. See D’Antuono v. Serv. Road Corp., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57367 (D. Conn. 2011); Kaltwasser v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106783 (N.D. Cal. Sep. 20, 2011); Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115534 (D.N.J. Oct. 6, 2011).

Piggybacking on another’s arbitration agreement. Some defendants–such as bill collectors facing FDCPA class actions–have tried to invoke their client’s arbitration agreements to shunt class actions to arbitration. The courts that have faced these cases have held that a third party may not invoke an arbitration agreement. Sakalowski v. Metron Servs., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101652 (E.D. Mo. Sep. 8, 2011).  (The argument may turn out differently if the defendant is a named third-party beneficiary in the contract. See Chavez v. Bank of Am., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116630 (N.D. Cal. 2011).)

Can arbitration clauses create predominance issues? The Northern District of California thinks so. It has held that, at least in one case,

Although it is not clear how many putative class members signed arbitration agreements, the evidence currently before the Court supports an inference that a significant number did, and that a significant portion of this litigation would be devoted to discovering which class members signed such agreements and enforcing those agreements, rather than to the resolution of plaintiffs’ legal claims – which themselves are complex.

Pablo v. Servicemaster Global Holdings, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87918, *6 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2011).

The "you asked for arbitration" ploy. In a much-publicized case, a set of plaintiffs sought arbitration against AT&T, which it opposed. Hypocritical, right? Well, probably not. The arbitration sought an injunction preventing AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile. AT&T argued that the injunction was outside the scope of its Customer Agreement (an argument supported by various state governments). The Southern District of New York held that injunctions against mergers are not covered by AT&T’s Terms of Service with its wireless customers. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Gonnello, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116420 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 7, 2011).

In general, it’s still too early to tell the overall effect of Concepcion on class action filings, since we don’t yet have the data yet for the second half of 2011.  But it does appear that it’s helping to corral class actions in credit card, cell phone, and labor cases where there were pre-existing contracts. What does that mean? Looking over the published cases, it appears that most of the class actions where arbitration was compelled addressed the kind of highly technical issues that are likely ginned up and tried out by plaintiffs’ lawyers, regardless of their ultimate merit. Are we poorer off with those odd contract theories being decided by arbitrators rather than classwide settlements? I think the answer to that question is pretty clear.