This week, the Fourth Circuit found an arbitration agreement invalid because it waived all federal and state laws. Although two other federal circuit courts had already found the same company’s arbitration agreement unenforceable because it called for an impossible arbitration process, the Fourth Circuit found it invalid for a new reason.
The issue in Hayes v. Delbert Services Corp., __ F.3d___, 2016 WL 386016 (4th Cir. Feb. 2, 2016), was whether a putative class of plaintiffs could assert violations of two federal statutes (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Telephone Consumer Protection Act) by the servicing agent of a payday lender in court, or whether they had to arbitrate the claims. The servicer relied on the arbitration clause in the loan agreement to compel arbitration. The arbitration clause called for arbitration by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation, in accordance with the Tribe’s “consumer dispute rules.” However, the Tribe had no arbitration rules and no capacity to administer arbitrations. Those failures had led the Second and Seventh Circuits to find the arbitration agreement in the same lender’s loan agreement unenforceable. But, the arbitration clause in this case was slightly different, as it allowed the borrower the right to select either AAA or JAMS to “administer the arbitration.” So, the question in this case seemed to be whether that could save the arbitration clause, by providing a real arbitration forum.
The Fourth Circuit did not answer that question, however. Instead, it issued a much bolder decision. It focused on the fact that the loan agreement “purports to disavow the authority of all state or federal law.” In its “Governing Law” section, for example, the loan agreement states “this Agreement shall be subject to and construed in accordance only with the provisions of the laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and that no United States state or federal law applies to this Agreement.” (Similar language was repeated within the arbitration clauses, so there is no severability doctrine problem here.)
Those provisions really raised the court’s hackles. It held that:
[A] party may not underhandedly convert a choice of law clause into a choice of no law clause–it may not flatly and categorically renounce the authority of the federal statutes to which it is and must remain subject. Because the arbitration agreement in this case takes this plainly forbidden step, we hold it invalid and unenforceable.
To support that holding, the court cited 14 Penn Plaza, for the idea that arbitration agreements cannot waive federally protected civil rights, and to Italian Colors, for the proposition that the FAA precludes “an arbitration agreement forbidding the assertion of certain statutory rights.” Because it found the rejection of all federal law to be at the “core of the arbitration agreement,” the court would not sever those provisions.
In closing, the court issued a bench-slap to the servicer, and a warning to drafters of arbitration agreements:
rather than use arbitration as a just and efficient means of dispute resolution, Delbert seeks to deploy it to avoid state and federal law and to game the entire system. Perhaps in the future companies will craft arbitration agreements on the up-and-up and avoid the kind of mess that Delbert is facing here.
This opinion is interesting mostly because it could have been predictable and easy. The Fourth Circuit could have just said “two of our sister circuits have already found this clause invalid, and the add-on language about allowing the AAA to “administer” the arbitration doesn’t save it”. But instead, the court seems to expand on the existing case law regarding federal statutory rights and takes a strong stance against allowing corporations to use arbitration to circumvent federal claims.