By Seorae Ko
The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined a certiorari petition ona California Supreme Court decision to render a wage arbitration agreement unenforceable as procedurally and substantively unconscionable.
While the issue of unconscionability overhangs the breadth of arbitration jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has used the Federal Arbitration Act to preempt such concerns in favor of arbitration’s predominance. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S.333, 344, 348 (2011). Today’s cert denial can be seen as a divergence from the pattern.
On the other hand, today’s declined case, OTO LLC v. Kho, No. 19-875, reinforces the California’s top Court decision that, though it found in favor of the employee opposing arbitration, permitted an agreement to arbitrate wage disputes “so long as it provides an accessible and affordable process.” The California decision follows AT&T Mobility in that it states that the “FAA preempts a state-law rule that categorically prohibits an adhesive arbitration agreement from requiring an employee to waive access to a Berman hearing.”
The Berman hearing is a California administrative process designed to provide a quick, informal, and affordable method for resolving disputes over unpaid wages, according to a brief filed in the case by the state’s labor commissioner. (See below.)
The California Supreme Court OTO decision held that a court “faced with a petition to compel arbitration under these circumstances must grant the petition unless the party opposing the petition asserts a valid contract defense.”
In the case, the parties contested the enforceability of an arbitration agreement on wage disputes, which the employee, Ken Kho, challenged as unconscionable. OTO L.C. v. Ken Kho, 447 P.3d 680 (Cal. 2019) (available at https://casetext.com/case/oto-llc-v-kho-1).
The California Supreme Court first noted that general contract defenses such as unconscionability may be applied to invalidate arbitration agreements without contravening the FAA or state arbitration acts, citing Pinnacle Museum Tower Assn. v. Pinnacle Market Development (US), LLC, 282 P.3d 1217, 1231 (Cal. 2012)).
The opinion then evaluated the agreement’s substantive and procedural unconscionability on a “sliding scale,” and stated that substantive fairness must be considered in the context of the agreement’s procedural unconscionability, citing Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 6 P.3d 669, 689 (Cal. 2000); Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., LLC, 353 P.3d 741(Cal. 2015)).
Ultimately, the California Supreme Court ruled that the arbitration agreement in question was unenforceable as unconscionable. It found that the agreement was made under such oppression and surprise as to produce a high degree of procedural unconscionability. In light of the substantial procedural unconscionability, the court also found substantive unconscionability in the agreement.
OTO filed a cert petition in January to have the decision reversed. Petitioner argued that the California Supreme Court’s decision violated U.S. Supreme Court precedent in two ways.
First, the petitioner argued that the decision went against precedent mandating that the FAA preempt state rules discriminating against arbitration. The California Supreme Court’s comparative approach to substantive unconscionability, unique to arbitration agreements, failed to place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other agreements. Brief for Petitioner at 4 (citing AT&T Mobility, 563 U.S. at 339-340 (2011)) (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/128316/20200113114622841_OTO%20cert%20petition.pdf).
The petitioner connected this approach to a broader trend in the California Supreme Court to adopt “sharply anti-arbitration rules, only to be reversed by this Court.” Brief by Petitioner at 13 (citing DIRECTV Inc. v. Imburgia, 136 S. Ct. 463, 468-471 (2015); AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 339-340 (2011); Preston v. Ferrer, 552 U.S. 346, 353-354 (2008); Perry v. Thomas, 482 U.S. 483, 492 n.9 (1987); Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1, 16 n.11 (1984)).
Citing Sonic-Calabasas A Inc. v. Moreno, 247 P.3d 130 (2011) (Sonic I), the petitioner explained that the California Supreme Court’s substantive unconscionability analysis was a method devised to reach “effectively the same result” as its decision in Sonic I, which had been vacated by the Supreme Court for violating the equal treatment principle. Brief for Petitioner at 13. The Sonic I decision had been condemned because its class-arbitration rule uniquely addressed arbitration agreements; by the same reasoning, the petitioner suggested, the OTO decision could not stand.
Second, the petitioner, an auto dealership, argued that the decision went against precedent mandating the FAA to preempt even a general contract defense if it interferes with the “‘fundamental attributes of arbitration,’ including lower costs, greater efficiency and speed, and the ability to choose an expert adjudicator to resolve specialized disputes.”
Accordingly, a contract defense erecting “preliminary litigating hurdles” that destroy the “prospect of speedy resolution” is preempted by the FAA. Brief for Petitioner at 6 (citing AT&T Mobility, 563 U.S. at 344, 348). The petitioner argued that the California Supreme Court’s approach erected such a litigating hurdle because it required a prolonged fact-intensive inquiry. Brief for Petitioner at 17 (referring to American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 570 U.S. 228 (2013)).
A particularly salient point pursued by the petitioner focused on the California Supreme Court’s substantive unconscionability analysis. The petitioner suggested that the court condemned the arbitration agreement, which it claimed covered a wage dispute with the respondent, a service technician, as a time-consuming hurdle to litigation when the agreement consumed time because it “offered too many of the protections of civil litigation.” Brief for Petitioner at 12. (Emphasis is in the brief.) Such an approach evaluates an agreement to be substantively unconscionable for the reason that it tries too hard to avoid unfairness.
The petitioner also stressed that the case holds enormous significance in “safeguard[ing] the [FAA]’s commitment to the enforceability of arbitration agreements.” Brief for Petitioner at 19.
Petitioner OTO was not alone in its view. Five amicus briefs were filed in support of the objections. Cautioning against “judicial hostility towards arbitration” (Amicus Brief by Atlantic Legal Foundation at 2 (citing Nitro-Lift Techs., L.L.C. v. Howard, 133 S. Ct. 500, 503 (2012) (per curiam)) (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/133006/20200213191401278_19-875tsac%20Atlantic%20Legal%20Foundation%20%20-OTO%20v%20Kho%20FINAL.pdf)), they called out the decision below as “a thinly veiled effort to bar wage-dispute arbitration altogether.” Amicus Brief by Washington Legal Foundation at 8 (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/133008/20200214090311910_19-875%20tsac%20Washington%20Legal%20Foundation.pdf).
The petitioner’s reasoning on both the equal treatment principle and the litigating hurdle assessment found support in the amicus briefs.
On the other side, respondent Kho argued that the California Supreme Court’s decision was consistent with the Supreme Court’s arbitration precedents. Brief for Respondent California Labor Commissioner at 10 (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/142627/20200429130457818_No.%2019-875%20DOJ%20CA%20FINAL%20BIO.pdf). Pointing to the California courts’ tradition of comprehensive and contextual approach to unconscionability, the respondent emphasized that OTO had offered “no conflicting case remotely similar which creates a need to hear [the] case.” Brief for Respondent Ken Kho at 18 (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/142640/20200429135355866_OTO%20v.%20Kho%20Opposition%20to%20Petition%20for%20Writ%20of%20Certiorari%2019-875.pdf). The respondent further asserted that, instead of disfavoring arbitration, the California Supreme Court had promoted arbitration by “requir[ing] an arbitration procedure that has all of the ‘fundamental attributes of arbitration.’” Brief for Respondent Ken Kho at 25.
As a tangentially related matter, Kho also challenged the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, arguing that petitioner had failed to establish either that the FAA applies or that the dispute effects commerce as per the commerce clause. Brief for Respondent Ken Kho at 27.
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The author, a second-year Harvard Law School student, is a 2020 CPR Institute Summer intern.