As readers of this blog know, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the California Supreme Court (and a number of other state courts) had declared that waivers of class-wide arbitration were unenforceable as a matter of state law. But in Concepcion, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state-law rules requiring the availability of class-wide arbitration. 

How do the FAA and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution affect the interpretation of arbitration clauses written prior to Concepcion? The Supreme Court may provide further guidance on that issue in DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, No. 14-462, in which it granted certiorari today. (We have previously blogged about Imburgia.) 

At issue in Imburgia is whether an arbitration provision that specifies that it is inapplicable if its ban on class-wide procedures is unenforceable under “the law of [the customer’s] state” is (a) governed by state law without reference to FAA preemption, or (b) by state law taking into account the preemptive effect of the FAA. Stated another way, did the parties contract out of the FAA’s coverage? 

Respondent Imburgia, a customer of petitioner DIRECTV, Inc. (“DTV”), filed a class action in California state court against DTV in 2007, alleging that DTV improperly charged early termination fees to its customers. DTV’s Customer Agreement contained an arbitration clause that specified that it was governed by the FAA and that arbitration would take place on an individual rather than class-wide basis. That arbitration clause also stated that “[i]f … the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class action procedures unenforceable, then this entire Section [i.e., the arbitration clause] … is unenforceable.” 

In Discover Bank v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court declared that consumer arbitration agreements are unconscionable under California law unless they allow for class arbitration. In light of Discover Bank, DTV did not invoke the arbitration provision when the lawsuit was filed. Shortly after the Supreme Court decided Concepcion—and held Discover Bank to be preempted by the FAA—DTV moved to compel arbitration. The trial court denied DTV’s motion. 

The California Court of Appeal affirmed. The Court of Appeal held that the reference in the arbitration provision to “the law of [the customer’s] state” was ambiguous and could mean either (1) the state’s law without regard to federal law; or (2) the state’s law, as superseded by federal law (such as the FAA). The court adopted the first interpretation—i.e., that the preemptive effect of federal law does not bear on the meaning of “the law of [the customer’s] state.” Under that interpretation, the California Court of Appeal declared, the law of California is that agreements to dispense with class action procedures are unenforceable, and accordingly DTV’s arbitration clause is unenforceable. The California Supreme Court denied review. (We filed an amicus letter (pdf) in the case urging that the California Supreme Court grant review.) 

Interpreting the same DTV arbitration provision, the Ninth Circuit in Murphy v. DIRECTV, Inc., 724 F.3d 1218 (9th Cir. 2013), reached the opposite conclusion. In Murphy, the Ninth Circuit held that “Section 2 of the FAA, which under Concepcion requires the enforcement of arbitration agreements that ban class procedures, is the law of California and of every other state. The Customer Agreement’s reference to state law does not signify the inapplicability of federal law,” because under the Supremacy Clause, “the Constitution [and] laws . . . of the United States are as much a part of the law of every State as its own local laws and Constitution.” Id. at 1226 (citation omitted). As a result, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the reasoning later adopted by the California court—that “the parties intended state law to govern the enforceability of the arbitration clause, even if the state law in question contravened federal law”—“is nonsensical.” Id. 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Imburgia should help clarify whether a company’s good-faith effort to include in an arbitration provision language designed to comply with existing state law risks can have the unintended effect of jettisoning the protections of the FAA. The case will likely be briefed over the next several months and argued in the fall.