California is the Judd Nelson of The Preemption Club. (Or the John Bender, if you prefer using character names.) The Supreme Court has sent the California courts to preemption detention for ignoring the Federal Arbitration Act in blockbuster, groundbreaking cases (see Concepcion). But California cannot help itself. It keeps coming up with novel arguments to avoid arbitration. And in doing so, it keeps inviting reversal. Of course, other states get sent to The Preemption Club (West Virginia and Oklahoma,for example), just not with the same panache.
Just last week, the Supreme Court reversed a decision of the California Court of Appeals and remanded it for reconsideration in light of AmEx. In CarMax Auto Superstores California, LLC v. Fowler, a putative class of CarMax employees alleged CarMax violated California labor laws. The parties engaged in discovery and motion practice for over a year and then stayed the case. Two years into the stay period, in June of 2011, CarMax moved to compel the plaintiffs to individually arbitrate their claims, in accordance with the terms of their employment agreement. The plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that CarMax had waived its right to arbitrate and that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable. Plaintiffs also relied on California’s Gentry rule, which provides that class-action waivers in employment arbitration agreements are invalid if “a class arbitration is likely to be a significantly more effective practical means of vindicating the rights of the affected employees than individual litigation or arbitration.”
The district court sided with CarMax but in March of 2013 the California Court of Appeals reversed. It did not rest its decision on an uncontroversial issue like waiver, however. (It gave CarMax a break for not moving to compel arbitration before Concepcion, as the motion would have likely been futile under California law, and it also said that the discovery and dispositive motion proceedings could have taken place in arbitration so there was no prejudice.) The court also did not rest its decision on the alleged illusoriness of the arbitration agreement, because California law does not find agreements illusory, even if they can be modified without advance notice. Instead, the court went with the riskiest possible basis for its decision: finding that Gentry was not preempted under the Concepcion analysis. After the California Supreme Court refused to review the decision, CarMax took the issue up to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court made short work of the matter. Just three days after considering the certiorari petition in conference, the Supreme Court granted cert, reversed the Court of Appeals, and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of AmEx. AmEx is the decision that, in June of 2013, seriously weakened the “effective vindication of statutory rights” line of cases. So, what will the Court of Appeals do now? I don’t see much room for fitting the case into what is left of the “effective vindication” doctrine, because that only applies to federal statutory rights and CarMax appears based on state statutory rights. So if California really wants these CarMax employees to continue as a class, it either has to reverse itself on waiver, or come up with a different basis for finding the arbitration agreement unenforceable. And in doing so, it will effectively say “Eat… My… Shorts” to SCOTUS.