Court of Appeal Upholds Arbitration Agreement

Nelsen v. Legacy Partners (opinion here) is the latest decision from the court of appeal to address the validity of arbitration agreements in California, after recent federal developments (Concepcion, DR Horton, etc.). 

The issues, as usual, are whether the arbitration agreement is "unconscionable," or violates public policy, and therefore is unenforceable as a contract.

The arbitration agreement was located at the end of a long handbook. Not surprisingly, the court first found that the agreement was "procedurally unconscionable,"  because
It was part of a preprinted form agreement drafted by LPI that all of LPI‘s California property managers were required to sign on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The arbitration clause was located on the last two pages of a 43-page handbook. While the top of page 42 contains a highlighted prominent title ―TEAM MEMBER ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND AGREEMENT,‖ the title makes no reference to arbitration and the arbitration language itself appears in a small font not set off in any way to stand out from the rest of the agreement or handbook. Moreover, unless Nelsen happened to be conversant with the rules of pleading in the Code of Civil Procedure, the law and procedure applicable to appellate review, and the rules for the disqualification of superior court judges, the terms and rules of the arbitration referenced in the clause would have been beyond her comprehension.
So, now the courts say that failing to attach the Code of Civil Procedure makes an agreement procedurally unconscionable.  What happened to "everyone is bound to know the law?" or "ignorance is no excuse?"  Also, by saying that the agreement is not in a different font, the court is imposing a requirement that does not apply to other contracts.  That's not supposed to be allowed, demonstrating once again that the unconscionability doctrine is just an end run around Federal Arbitration Act preemption.

However, the court then turned to "substantive" unconscionability, which must also exist for an arbitration agreement to be invalidated.  In this case, though, the arbitration agreement was pretty much lifted verbatim from a California Supreme Court decision. (Little v. Auto Stiegler, Inc. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1064.)  So, the Court did not find substantive unconscionability.

But Nelsen then argued that, regardless of unconcsionability, the arbitration agreement violated "public policy" under the California Supreme Court's decision in  Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443.  In particular, Nelsen argued that the arbitration agreement barred her from bringing a class claim in arbitration because the agreement was silent as to class claims.

The court of appeal held that, indeed, the silent agreement did not encompass class-based claims.
However, the court then decided that Gentry did not invalidate the arbitration agreement because Nelsen did not adequately support the argument to the trial court.  That is, Gentry does not invalidate "all" class action waivers, so you have to establish the Gentry "factors," which Nelsen did not do.  In ruling this way, the court sidestepped whether Gentry remains good law.

Finally, the court decided that the National Labor Relations Board's decision in DR Horton was not binding and that the court would not follow it. The court noted that the decision was issued by just 2 Board members and that the issue of whether class action waivers are enforceable are beyond the Board's normal expertise.

So, another arbitration agreement survives.