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American Express Merchants' Litigation v. American Express Travel Related Services Co.

January 30, 2009

IN RE: AMERICAN EXPRESS MERCHANTS' LITIGATION, ITALIAN COLORS RESTAURANT, ON OR BEHALF OF ITSELF AND ALL SIMILARLY SITUATED PERSONS, NATIONAL SUPERMARKETS ASSOCIATION, 492 SUPERMARKET CORP., BUNDA STARR CORP., PHOUNG CORP., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
AMERICAN EXPRESS TRAVEL RELATED SERVICES COMPANY, AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The plaintiffs seek review of the March 16, 2006 decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Daniels, J.) which, inter alia, held that the enforceability of a class action waiver provision contained in the contract between the parties is a question for the arbitrator. We hold: (1) that the question of the enforceability of the class action waiver provision is properly decided by the Court and (2) that the class action waiver provision is unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act.

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pooler, Circuit Judge

Argued: December 10, 2007

POOLER, SACK, and SOTOMAYOR, Circuit Judges

This Court frequently enforces mandatory arbitration clauses contained in commercial contracts. We do so on the principle that "it is difficult to overstate the strong federal policy in favor of arbitration, and it is a policy we have often and emphatically applied." Arciniaga v. General Motors Corp., 460 F.3d 231, 234 (2d Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted). On this appeal, however, we are asked to consider the enforcement of a mandatory arbitration clause in a commercial contract that also contains a "class action waiver," also referred to as a "collective action waiver," that is, a provision which forbids the parties to the contract from pursuing anything other than individual claims in the arbitral forum. This is a matter of first impression in our Court.*fn1

One commentator has recently contended that "[t]he outright banning of class action in mandatory arbitration clauses has become a standard policy for many corporations that transact with consumers." Bryan Allen Rice, "Comment: Enforceable or Not?: Class Action Waivers in Mandatory Arbitration Clauses and the Need for a Judicial Standard," 45 Hous. L. Rev. 215, 224 (2008).*fn2 We acknowledge at the outset, as have other courts that have considered questions arising from the enforcement of class action waivers, in both consumer and commercial contracts, that the wisdom and utility of these provisions have become the subject of intense debate. See Skirchak v. Dynamics Research Corp., 508 F.3d 49, 63 (1st Cir. 2007) ("We recognize that there is a policy debate about whether class action waivers essentially act as exculpatory clauses, allowing for violations of laws where individual cases involve low dollar amounts and so will not adequately address or prevent illegality."). The opposing positions in this frequently impassioned debate have been dispassionately described as follows:

Companies' use of class action waivers is motivated by the view that plaintiffs exploit the class action procedure in order to wrest large and unfair settlements from defendants. . . . Class action waivers are viewed by these companies as a way to defend themselves from consumers who are ganging up on companies through the leverage inherent in the aggregation of large numbers of claims. In further support of these waivers, corporations argue that the many (perceived) advantages of arbitration to a plaintiff make up for any disadvantages or inconveniences that the plaintiff may incur by sacrificing the ability to be part of a class action.

. . . Opponents of class action waivers contend that the ability to aggregate claims is crucial to protect the rights of those individuals . . . who do not have the resources to litigate individual claims. Further, many individual claims are only viable if brought on a class-wide basis. Indeed, by prohibiting class actions in . . . lawsuits[] where the expected recovery is dwarfed by the cost of litigating or arbitrating the claim, individuals are effectively prevented from pursuing their claims. As a result, businesses are able to engage in unchecked market misbehavior . . . .

J. Maria Glover, "Beyond Unconscionability: Class Action Waivers and Mandatory Arbitration Agreements," 59 Vand. L. Rev. 1735, 1746-47 (2006) (footnotes and internal quotation marks omitted).

Both of these positions have been proffered to the Court by amici. Compare Brief of Atlantic Legal Foundation at 4 ("For several decades, providers of products and services in the United States have been beset with a litigious environment that has evoked criticism of many observers and applauded only by those professionals who have harvested the substantial financial rewards the civil justice system has produced by way of attorneys' fees. . . . Recognizing the risks of defending against class action litigation, many businesses have elected to have disputes resolved by individual arbitrations and to adopt collective action waivers as part of their arbitration clauses with their business customers to insure that result.") with Brief of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice at 27 ("It is . . . crucial to understand that any ban on class arbitration is essentially a ban on class treatment altogether, as arbitration clauses in standardized corporate contracts are made broader and broader, to encompass all conceivable types of disputes . . . . Under a regime where such prohibitions are enforced, such clauses are tantamount to a clause banning all claims against a corporation, unless they are so large that they justify the outlay of the extraordinary expense involved.").*fn3

We note that two standard treatises on the conduct of class action litigation appear to take opposing positions as well. Compare 1 Joseph M. McLaughlin, McLaughlin on Class Actions: Law and Practice, § 2:14 (3d ed. 2006) ("As the potential availability of class-wide arbitration threatens to multiply exponentially the exposure on what is facially a single-consumer issue, companies should strongly consider including in their standard arbitration agreements an express provision barring class action litigation or arbitration.") with 3 Alba Conte & Herbert B. Newberg, Newberg on Class Actions, § 9:67 n.2 (4th ed. 2008) ("The bar on class arbitration threatens the premise that arbitration can be a fair and adequate mechanism for enforcing statutory rights.").

While we are conscious of this debate, we are thankful that we need not resolve it on this appeal. That is, we do not decide whether class action waiver provisions are either void or enforceable per se. Rather, we are concerned solely with the class action waiver contained in the contract between the parties before us on this appeal. We conclude that, on the record before us, the plaintiffs have adequately demonstrated that the class action waiver provision at issue should not be enforced because enforcement of the clause would effectively preclude any action seeking to vindicate the statutory rights asserted by the plaintiffs.

FACTS

A. Procedural Posture

The plaintiffs appeal from the judgment, dated March 20, 2006, memorializing the memorandum opinion and order, dated March 15, 2006,of the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York, which granted defendants American Express Company and American Express Travel Related Services Company, Inc.'s (collectively "Amex") motion to compel arbitration. See In re American Express Merchants Litig., No. 03cv9592, 2006 WL 662341 (S.D.N.Y. March 16, 2006) (Daniels, J.). The earliest iteration of the plaintiffs' claims was made in August 2003, with the filing of a class action complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ("the Italian Colors action"). This action, and another subsequently filed class action, were transferred, on Amex's motion, brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. (JA 14, 85) By an order, dated December 10, 2004, that court consolidated these two actions, pursuant to Rule 42(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, with several class actions that had been filed in the Southern District of New York. Any subsequently filed related actions were also made subject to this consolidation order.

Because we consider here only the narrow question of whether the class action waiver provision contained in the contract between the parties should be enforced, a prolix description of the plaintiffs' claims is unnecessary. (And, needless to say, we take no position on the merits of these claims.) In their briefs on this appeal, the parties describe the plaintiffs' claims largely by reference to the amended complaint, filed December 24, 2003, in the Italian Colors action. We will do so as well.

B. The Parties

The plaintiffs allege that Amex "is the leading issuer of general purpose and corporate charge cards to consumers and businesses in the United States and throughout the world. It is also the leading provider of charge card services to merchants." The named plaintiffs are: (1) California and New York corporations which operate businesses which have contracted with Amex and (2) the National Supermarkets Association, Inc. ("NSA"), "a voluntary membership-based trade association that represents the interests of independently owned supermarkets." The named plaintiffs seek to represent the following class, pursuant to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

The class is comprised of all merchants that have accepted American Express charge cards (including the American Express corporate card), and have thus been forced to agree to accept American Express credit and debit cards, during the longest period of time permitted by the applicable statute of limitations . . . throughout the United States . . . .

C. The Card Acceptance Agreement

The basic contractual relationship between Amex and the plaintiffs is set forth in an affidavit of an Amex executive:

American Express issues card products to its cardmembers, which cardmembers then use in making purchases from participating merchants. Participating merchants with annual charge volume expected to be less than $10 million agree that, by submitting charges for payment by American Express, their relationship will be governed by the "Terms and Conditions for American Express(c) Card Acceptance" ("the Card Acceptance Agreement").*fn4 The Card Acceptance Agreement is a standard form contract issued by Amex. It may be terminated by either party "at any time by sending written notice to the other party." Further, Amex reserves the right to change this Agreement at any time. We will notify you of any change in writing at least ten (10) calendar days in advance. If the changes are unacceptable to you, you may terminate this Agreement as described in the section entitled "TERMINATING THIS AGREEMENT."

According to Amex, the Card Acceptance Agreement has "expressly permitted amendments upon notice" for more than twenty-five years. The Card Acceptance Agreement also contains a choice of law provision designating New York law as governing and, as Amex states, there is no dispute that the agreement "has always" contained this provision.

By contrast, it is only since 1999 that the Card Acceptance Agreement has contained a mandatory arbitration clause. That clause is nothing if not capaciously worded:

For the purpose of this Agreement, Claim means any assertion of a right, dispute or controversy between you and us arising from or relating to this Agreement and/or the relationship resulting from this Agreement. Claim includes claims of every kind and nature including, but not limited to, initial claims, counterclaims, cross-claims and third-party claims and claims based upon contract, tort, intentional tort, statutes, regulations, common law and equity. We shall not elect to use arbitration under this arbitration provision for any individual Claim that you properly file and pursue in a small claims court of your state or municipality so long as the Claim is pending only in that court.

* * * Any Claim shall be resolved upon the election by you or us, by arbitration pursuant to this arbitration provision and the code of procedure of the national arbitration organization to which the Claim is referred in effect at the time the Claim is filed. Claims shall be referred to the National Arbitration Forum (NAF), JAMS/Endispute (JAMS), or the American Arbitration Association (AAA), as selected by the party electing to use arbitration. If a selection by us of one of these organizations is unacceptable to you, you shall have the right within thirty (30) days after you receive notice of our election to select one of the other organizations listed to serve as arbitrator administrator.

At the heart of the instant appeal is the fact that the Agreement also contains the following provision:

IF ARBITRATION IS CHOSEN BY ANY PARTY WITH RESPECT TO A CLAIM, NEITHER YOU NOR WE WILL HAVE THE RIGHT TO LITIGATE THAT CLAIM IN COURT OR HAVE A JURY TRIAL ON THAT CLAIM . . . . FURTHER, YOU WILL NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO PARTICIPATE IN A REPRESENTATIVE CAPACITY OR AS A MEMBER OF ANY CLASS OF CLAIMANTS PERTAINING TO ANY CLAIM SUBJECT TO ARBITRATION. THE ARBITRATOR'S DECISION WILL BE FINAL AND BINDING. NOTE THAT OTHER RIGHTS THAT YOU WOULD HAVE IF YOU WENT TO COURT MAY ALSO NOT BE AVAILABLE IN ARBITRATION.

There shall be no right or authority for any Claims to be arbitrated on a class action basis or on any basis involving Claims brought in a purported representative capacity on behalf of the general public, other establishments which accept the Card (Service Establishments), or other persons or entities similarly situated. Furthermore, Claims brought by or against a Service Establishment may not be joined or consolidated in the arbitration with Claims brought by or against any other Service Establishment(s), unless otherwise agreed to in writing by all parties.

Thus, the Card Acceptance Agreement not only precludes a merchant from bringing a class action lawsuit, it also precludes the signatory from having any claim arbitrated on anything other than an individual basis. The Card Acceptance Agreement further provides as follows:

This arbitration provision is made pursuant to a transaction involving interstate commerce, and shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. Sections 1-16, as it may be amended (the FAA). The arbitrator shall apply applicable substantive law consistent with the FAA . . . . In conducting the arbitration proceeding, the arbitrator shall not apply the Federal or any state rules of civil procedure or rules of evidence. The arbitrator shall apply the applicable provisions of the Code of Procedure of the NAF, JAMS or AAA, as applicable to matters relating to evidence and discovery.*fn5

D. The Plaintiffs' Substantive Claims

The plaintiffs' dispute with Amex rests upon the distinction between "charge cards" and "credit cards." The district court ...


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