NJ’s Top Court Backs Arbitration in Car Sales Fraud Cases

By Brian Chihera

In Janell Goffe v. Foulke Management Corp (A-3/4-18/081258 ) (N.J. S.Ct.  June 5) (available at http://bit.ly/2X8njco), a unanimous N.J. Supreme court recently stated that two sales fraud claims against auto dealers must be decided through arbitration.

The Court followed longstanding U.S. Supreme Court law in holding that the plaintiffs’ challenges to their sales agreements were attacks on the contract formation, but not on the language used in the agreements to arbitrate.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the 7-0 Court, “Those rulings do not permit threshold issues about overall contract validity to be resolved by the courts when the arbitration agreement itself is not specifically challenged.”

The plaintiffs, who were customers of two Cherry Hill, N.J., auto dealerships, challenged the sales agreements they had entered into because they claimed that the contracts were concluded through fraud—at least one of which appeared to be a bait-and-switch scheme.

Previously, New Jersey’s top Court in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 99 A.3d 306, 311 (N.J. 2014) (available at http://bit.ly/2NpTG6W), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 2804 (2015), backed a plaintiffs’ challenge to an arbitration agreement because “ the wording of the service agreement did not clearly and unambiguously signal to plaintiff that she was surrendering her right to pursue her statutory claims in court.”

But the Goffe court found that the challenge was to the overall contract’s formation, not the arbitration agreement.

The first plaintiff, Janell Goffe, had gone to Cherry Hill Mitsubishi, where she was told that she could get a Buick for a trade-in.  She paid $250 the same day and then would pay $750 two weeks later. Goffe was also told that the financing had been approved.  She then signed the sales contract, which included an arbitration clause.

After a few days, however, she was told that the financing had been declined and had she had to make a larger down payment and higher monthly payments, but she opted to return the Buick to the dealership, canceling the deal.

Sasha Robinson, the second plaintiff, asked about buying a car with Mall Chevrolet, and was told that she would have two days to change her mind about the purchase. She signed the contract, including the arbitration clause, the same day. When she tried to return the car to the dealership, Robinson was told that there was a mistake and she was bound by the contract, which meant that the matter would be taken for arbitration.

Goffe did not involve any challenge to the arbitration clause nor the language that was used in it. The plaintiffs alleged that they had been made to sign the contracts through fraudulent means, which constitutes challenges to the entirety of the contracts. They wanted the courts to nullify the contracts because they alleged fraud was committed.

In reaching its decision, the N.J. Supreme Court looked at how the U.S. Supreme Court had dealt with such issues. “The United States Supreme Court has held that when a plaintiff raises a claim of fraud in the inducement of a contract as a whole–rather than fraud in the making of the arbitration agreement itself–the Federal Arbitration Act requires that the dispute be resolved by the arbitrator,” stated Justice LaVecchia in the opinion, citing Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395, 403-04 (1967).

She concluded, “based on the complaint and the certifications provided to the trial court, it is apparent to us that the parties’ claims are subject to an enforceable arbitration agreement. Therefore, the arbitration agreement is severable and enforceable. Plaintiffs must arbitrate their claims. Before the arbitrator, plaintiffs can raise any arbitrability issues consistent with the delegation clauses in these agreements.”

The Court reversed its Appellate Division, reinstating the trial courts’ orders to compel.

 

The author, a CPR Institute Summer 2019 intern, graduated in May with an LLM in dispute resolution from the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia, Mo.

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