Today, the Supreme Court began to roll out its class-action opinions. And first up, it has decided AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion. In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Scalia (Thomas concurring), the Court held that § 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act preempted California's Discover Bank rule, which "classif[ied] most collective-arbitration waivers in consumer contracts as unconscionable."
A number of sources are painting this as the end of the class-action as we know it. So, time to shut down the blog? Hardly. There are many, many class actions, even consumer class actions, that will survive this ruling. (Taco Bell, for example, does not rely on arbitration clauses when it sells its Enchirito. It's not clear whether one must sign a health waiver.)
So what exactly did the Court rule?
The overarching purpose of the FAA, evident in the text of §§ 2, 3, and 4, is to ensure the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms so as to facilitate streamlined proceedings. Requiring the availability of classwide arbitration interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA.
To support this ruling, Justice Scalia's opinion explores exactly what procedures are required to bind absent class members to a classwide verdict. In particular,
First, the switch from bilateral to class arbitration sacrifices the principal advantage of arbitration—its informality—and makes the process slower, more costly, and more likely to generate procedural morass than final judgment.
Second, class arbitration requires procedural formality. The AAA’s rules governing class arbitrations mimic the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for class litigation. And while parties can alter those procedures by contract, an alternative is not obvious. If procedures are too informal, absent class members would not be bound by the arbitration. For a class-action money judgment to bind absentees in litigation, class representatives must at all times adequately represent absent class members, and absent members must be afforded notice, an opportunity to be heard, and a right to opt out of the class. At least this amount of process would presumably be required for absent parties to be bound by the results of arbitration.
(Internal citations omitted.) In other words, the Supreme Court ruled that a classwide arbitration is likely to be ineffectual. For it to have the benefits of a class action, it must sacrifice the informality that makes arbitration appealing. For it to have the benefits of arbitration, it must sacrifice the protections we afford absent class members.
What does this mean for class-action lawyers going forward? There are a couple of consequences. First--and hardly surprising--we're likely to see more defendants that use form contracts build in arbitration provisions.
Second, we're likely to see plaintiffs' lawyers try some innovative challenges to arbitration provisions. The Supreme Court held that a blanket rule against arbitration provisions is preempted by the FAA, but left open the possibility that a court might find a specific arbitration provision unconscionable if it does not comply with other steps designed to ensure that contracts of adhesion respect consumers' rights. (See footnote 6 for the specific language.)
Third, the Court's discussion of the difference between arbitration and class actions--in particular its emphasis on the need for adequate representation to bind absent class members--gives defense lawyers further ammunition in challenging inadequate plaintiffs. (It may also provide a hint on how the Court may rule on the Rule 23(b)(2) issue in the other closely-watched class action on its docket.)