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In Re: American Express Merchants' Litigation v. American Express Travel Related Services Company

March 8, 2011

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.



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

Argued: December 10, 2007

POOLER and SACK, Circuit Judges.*fn1

This case returns to us from the Supreme Court, with our judgment vacated and remanded for reconsideration in light of Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). As we find Stolt- Nielsen does not require that we alter our original analysis, we again conclude that (1) the question of the enforceability of the class action waiver provision is properly decided by the court and (2) the class action waiver provision is unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. In re Am. Express Merchs. Litig., 554 F.3d 300 (2d Cir. 2009). REVERSED AND REMANDED.

This case returns to us from the Supreme Court. Defendants American Express Company and American Express Travel Related Services Company Inc. (together, "Amex") sought review from the Supreme Court following our decision in In re American Express Merchants Litigation, 554 F.3d 300 (2d Cir. 2009). There, we considered the enforcement of a mandatory arbitration clause in a commercial contract also containing a "class action waiver," that is, a provision which forbids the parties to the contract from pursuing anything other than individual claims in the arbitral forum. We found the class action waiver unenforceable, "because enforcement of the clause would effectively preclude any action seeking to vindicate the statutory rights asserted by the plaintiffs." In re Am. Express, 554 F.3d at 304.

On May 3, 2010, the Supreme Court granted Amex's writ for certiorari, vacating and remanding for reconsideration in light of its decision in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). The parties submitted supplemental briefing discussing the impact, if any, of Stolt-Nielsen on our original decision, and we find no need for oral argument. Finding our original analysis unaffected by Stolt-Nielsen, we again reverse the district court's decision and remand for further proceedings, as discussed below.

BACKGROUND

Because the only issue before us is the narrow question of whether the class action waiver provision contained in the contract between the parties should be enforced, we provide but a brief recitation of the facts.

A. Procedural Posture.

The plaintiffs appealed from the March 20, 2006 judgment of the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York, which granted Amex's motion to compel arbitration pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") and Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b). See In re Am. Express Merchs. Litig., No. 03 cv 9592, 2006 WL 662341 (S.D.N.Y. March 16, 2006) (Daniels, J.).

B. The Parties.

The amended complaint alleges 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:

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 was 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© Card Acceptance" ("the Card Acceptance Agreement").

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:

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 ...


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