For practitioners, clauses in consumer contracts that require consumers to arbitrate smaller claims rather than bring large-scale class actions have been a hot issue for several years. Defendants (and their counsel) like these clauses because, when they work, they can reduce a bet-your-company class action back to a manageable individual claim. Class-action plaintiffs (and their counsel) tend to dislike the clauses for the same reason.

In general, the debate surrounding class-action arbitration clauses centers on whether a given clause – which is usually part of a take-it-or-leave-it consumer contract – is unconscionable because the consumer had no chance to negotiate it. And while defendants can win this debate, they can lose it just as easily.

However, one federal district court case from 2007 shows how a defendant can craft an arbitration clause that may allow it to take advantage of this low-cost alternative to class actions, even in a generally pro-plaintiff jurisdiction like the Ninth Circuit, applying consumer-friendly law like Washington state’s. In Carideo v. Dell, Inc., the plaintiffs sued Dell alleging that it sold them defective laptops. Dell invoked its arbitration clause, which the trial court upheld.

The plaintiffs moved for reconsideration. In denying that motion, the trial court found that plaintiffs could still vindicate their claims in arbitration because:

  • the individual amount in controversy was $1,300 to $1,700, large enough to justify a day in front of an arbitrator;
  • the arbitration forum (the NAF) did not provide for confidential awards, which meant that later plaintiffs would benefit from these first arbitrations;
  • there was enough freely-available evidence (including internet complaints) for the plaintiffs to make a persuasive factual case without expending lots of costs; and, most importantly
  • Dell agreed to pay all of plaintiffs’ arbitration costs in excess of the initial $25 filing fee.

Since the end result was that arbitration would be less expensive (and less time-consuming) than bringing a suit in court, the court refused to find the arbitration clause substantively unconscionable. Nor, since the arbitration clause provided a genuine means of redress, did the court find the clause procedurally unconscionable, even though it noted the take-it-or-leave-it nature of the contract.

So what does this mean for defendants? For those that might consider arbitration clauses to reduce the risk from class actions, it may make sense to reduce the barriers to arbitrating the claims. There is at least some evidence that people prefer informal dispute resolution to litigation.  Assuming in general the products are sound, the potential liability from a handful of arbitrations – even including costs – is far less than the cost of litigating a class-action suit brought by an entrepreneurial plaintiff’s lawyer, or an extremely disgruntled consumer, even if the suit is dismissed early in. And, even if the case were to proceed as a class action, the presence of a realistic arbitration program available at the outset would be a strong argument that class litigation was not superior to individual litigation.