by Doron M. Kalir, Clinical Professor of Law, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law
The fact that the Roberts Court is business-friendly is, by now, well documented. It is also no secret that the Court is generally hostile to the once-venerable institution of class actions. And most recently, as The New York Times ably demonstrated, the Court has moved to elevate arbitration as the preferred mode of dispute resolution. The accumulated effect of these three trends has been devastating: Millions of Americans – customers, employees, patients, and investors, among others – are routinely denied their fundamental right to have a day in court. Some call that the privatization of the justice system.
DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, a case emerging out of an intermediate state court in California, is another case reflecting these trends. At first sight, it may not seem a likely candidate to become one of the Term’s blockbusters. Allegedly a typical state contract-interpretation case, it looks benign, almost boring to read. Yet it is anything but. It represents nothing short of a last-ditch effort by state courts to shield consumers from these emerging trends. Will it be successful or – as some predict – destined to fail? Only days will tell.
The facts of the case are somewhat complicated. In 2007, Amy Imburgia contracted with DIRECTV to receive programming services. Predictably, her Customer Agreement contained an arbitration-only, no-class action clause. Unpredictably, it also contained language abolishing that clause should “the law of your state . . . find this agreement to dispense with class action procedures unenforceable.” And that is precisely what happened – the California Supreme Court held such provisions to be “unconscionable” and therefore unenforceable.
Four years later, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the California rule. Class-action waivers in arbitration agreements, the 5-to-4 decision held, are enforceable, reasoning that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts state law. Despite Concepcion, however, the California Court of Appeals ruled in this matter that the individual-only arbitration clause is still unenforceable. Why? The court reasoned that the term “the law of your state,” as included in this particular consumer contract, should not be interpreted to include federal interpretation of that law (the “Supremacy Clause” version), but rather only state law as interpreted by state courts.