The Second and Third Circuit Courts of Appeal recently issued conflicting opinions on the enforceability of class arbitration waivers. Jose Ivan Vilches brought a purported class action against his former employer, The Travelers Companies, Inc., for unpaid wages and overtime, in violation of labor laws. Travelers moved to compel arbitration on an individual basis, citing the class arbitration waiver in the employment contract. The district court granted the motion and compelled individual arbitration. On appeal, the Third Circuit held, citing Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animalfeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010), that it was error for the district court to have decided whether the case could be arbitrated as a class action, finding that it should have left decision on that point to the panel. It also rejected plaintiff’s contention that the class action waiver was unconscionable, and therefore unenforceable. It vacated that portion of the district court’s decision, and ordered the parties to arbitrate the question of the applicability of the class arbitration waiver to the panel. Vilches v. The Travelers Companies, Inc., No. 10-2888 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2011)
Meanwhile, the Second Circuit came to precisely the opposite conclusions in a case that was remanded back to it after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated its prior decision for consideration in light of Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animalfeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). The case involved a putative class of vendors who alleged that they were improperly charged by American Express for accepting payments from its cardholders. American Express sought to have the matter arbitrated on an individual, rather than class, basis. The Second Circuit held that: (1) the issue of whether the case can be arbitrated as a class action is for the Court, not the arbitration panel to decide; and (2) the class arbitration waiver was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable because it effectively deprived the plaintiffs of a statutory right. In re: American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871 (2d Cir. March 8, 2011).