Even a casual follower of the US Supreme Court’s arbitration jurisprudence needed neither a crystal ball nor an HID light bulb to foresee that the employer would defeat the employees in the Lamps Plus case. (Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, No. 17-988 (April 24, 2019)). The real question is and always has been what pathway to pursue a class arbitration would remain open in light of the majority’s reasoning, in the equally predictable 5-4 outcome with the Court’s conservative bloc fully subscribed to Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion. The path taken, it appears, has less to do with class arbitration than with how US judges applying state contract law may determine any issue of consent in the realm of arbitration governed by the Federal Arbitration Act.
And no matter how many other bloggers and online newsletters have told you, in the past week or so, that the Court held that explicit language in an arbitration agreement now is necessary for class arbitration to be sustained, I am here to say that this is not what the Court held, and that advocates for class arbitration and judges seeking to parse Lamps Plus carefully should re-read the majority opinion after reading this Commentary. The bottom line: Lamps Plus, like its forerunners in Supreme Court class arbitration jurisprudence, is an FAA pre-emption case, and it holds that state law contract rules that resolve ambiguity about consent (to class arbitration, for sure, but logically regarding any element of the agerement to arbitrate) on a basis other than the intent of the parties — are pre-empted by the FAA. In particular, the rule of construing ambiguous language against the contract drafter (“contra proferentum”) is FAA pre-empted, at least where, as in the law of California, it is deemed a rule of public policy and not a rule for determining the intent of the parties. That holding – if you accept this as the holding, as you perhaps will not — leaves to another day whether state law rules of contract interpretation that are expressly stated in state law to be tools for the ascertainment of the intent of the parties may be applied to an ambiguous arbitration agreement to determine an issue of consent such as whether an employer agreed to class arbitration.
We recognize Lamps Plus as an FAA pre-emption case in the class arbitration tradition of Concepcion v. AT&T Mobility, Inc. (with gracious support from Stolt-Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., which was not a pre-emption case) from the Court’s review of its foundational jurisprudence. Whereas many arbitration law experts have an abiding level of discomfort with those foundations, I will subject them to some brief renewed criticism here. But of course this is the Law of the Land on class arbitration, not likely to change any time soon:
1. The Lamps Plus majority reminds us that arbitration is a matter of “consent not coercion.” Indeed. Of course, coercion lies at the very core of the class arbitration branch of arbitration jurisprudence. It was long ago resolved in US arbitration case law that the adhesive nature of an arbitration agreement between employees and employers, or between consumers and providers of essential goods or services, does not negate the consent of the economically weaker party. And so the contests between “consent” and “coercion” staged in the Supreme Court arena have often focused on whether besieged billion-dollar corporations are being dragged against their will into arbitrations involving a higher risk of loss than they bargained for when they (more or less) initially coerced the employee or consumer to resolve disputes in arbitration.
2. In the mise-en-scène of Lamps Plus, we are guided back to the supposed fundamental objectives of the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act as articulated by the US Supreme Court in 2010-11. Foremost is a supposed “tradition [of] individualized arbitration.” Another is the supposed enshrinement in the FAA itself of “informality” in arbitral procedure as a key protected value. Perhaps the most controversial element of the Stolt-Nielsen and Concepcion decisions, when they were new, was that they appeared to reverse-engineer into a 1925 statute purported “fundamental” FAA values that, conveniently, could be seen as contradicted by attributes of contemporary class arbitration (e.g., the AAA Rules version of class certification). The supposed “fundamentality” in the FAA of an individual model of arbitration, and the primacy of “informality” under the FAA, originally were among the dicta, railing against class arbitration, needlessly tacked on at the end of Justice Alito’s opinion for the majority in Stolt-Nielsen (2010). But those dicta became the foundation in Concepcion (2011), for saying that a state law rule treating an arbitration clause in an adhesion contract as unconscionable if it did not permit class arbitration was pre-empted by the FAA. Such a rule, the Concepcion majority told us, is a roadblock to the accomplishment of the FAA’s core objectives. Of course, for the dissenters, and for those in the arbitration community who recognize reverse engineering when they see it, the Stolt-Nielsen dicta were regrettable, and the Concepcion rationale was a contrivance. On this view, the core purpose of the FAA was simply to overcome judicial hostility in the courts of many states to the enforcement of pre-dispute arbitration clauses, which had too often been denied enforcement as unlawful ousters of state court jurisdiction.
3. Of course, a closer look at actual experience in class arbitration might well reveal that it is no more complex, inefficient, or formalistic that many other complex commercial arbitrations. But no matter. Stolt-Nielsen and Concepcion have given today’s Supreme Court majority a fixed notion of class arbitration that is not open to factual challenge case-by-case. And this year, in Lamps Plus and its forerunner the Epic Systems case (where by the same 5-4 vote it was held that the right of collective action under the National Labor Relations Act does not include a right to arbitrate on a class basis) the Court’s conservative majority has given us a new moniker for the reverse-engineered core FAA values: “central benefits.” Thus, we are told by Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion that “[n]either silence nor ambiguity provides a sufficient basis for concluding that parties to an arbitration agreement agreed to undermine the central benefits of arbitration itself.”
4. But perhaps the “central benefit” of arbitration that ultimately motivates the decision in Lamps Plus is nothing more controversial than arbitration’s consensual nature. Whether you accept that view depends on what phrase in Lamps Plus you accept as defining the issue in the case. In the first paragraph of Part III A of Chief Justice Robert’s opinion, we read: “At issue in this case is the interaction between a state contract principle for addressing ambiguity and a ‘rule of fundamental importance’ under the FAA, namely, that arbitration ‘is a matter of consent, not coercion.’ [citation to Stolt-Nielsen omitted here].” (slip op. at 6-7). Two full paragraphs about the importance consent in arbitration generally follow, before any mention of class arbitration.
If Lamps Plus mainly concerns state law methods for deciding arbitral consent when ambiguity about consent exists, and is not mainly about any particular contractual content needed for consent to class arbitration, then Lamps Plus is scarcely a funeral rite for class arbitration. Now, surely naysayers to my thesis will point to the Court’s statement of the issue in the preamble of Section III: “We therefore face the question whether, consistent with the FAA, an ambiguous agreement can provide the necessary ‘contractual basis’ for compelling class arbitration….[citation to Stolt-Nielsen again omitted here]. We hold that it cannot…. The statute requires more than ambiguity to ensure that the parties actually agreed to arbitration on a classwide basis.” (slip op. at 6). Naysayers, you have a point. But there is nothing in this phrase that specifically forecloses the possibility that “more than ambiguity” can mean not only additional clarifying text in the arbitration agreement, but also a resolution of the ambiguity by application of a state law interpretive rule that aims to find the intent of the parties.
Indeed, the Court does not the state that every arbitration agreement that is ambiguous about class arbitration must be construed to prohibit class arbitration. And whereas the Ninth Circuit did not purport to hold that ambiguity itself “provide[s] a sufficient basis” to find that class arbitration is permitted, the Court had no reason to reach that far. It had only to deal with the Ninth Circuit’s reliance on contra proferentum to resolve the ambiguity, and that is what the Court did. Had the majority in Lamps Plus intended to bar class arbitration under all arbitration agreements that are ambiguous about class arbitration, Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion could have ended with one additional sentence at the conclusion of Section III A, which I create here: “The parties’ mutual intent to have class arbitration must be stated in clear and unmistakable terms.” But in fact Section III A concludes only with the statement that “[n]either silence nor ambiguity provides a sufficient basis for concluding that parties to an arbitration agreement agreed to undermine the central benefits of arbitration itself.” So then what is a “sufficient [contractual] basis” for class arbitration?
We need to read Section III B of the majority opinion for our answer. Chief Justice Roberts gives us an entire Section III B, devoted to the Ninth Circuit’s use of the contra proferentum principle to resolve the ambiguity against the employer. That rule under California law — and generally, under common law contract doctrine — the Court finds, is a “rule of last resort” to determine on the basis of public policy how to construe a contract when the intent of the parties can’t be ascertained. And since contra proferentum is inherently not about the intent of the parties (at least under California law), the majority reasons, its application by the Ninth Circuit to decide a question of consent to class arbitration is pre-empted by the FAA. The remainder of Section III B purports to show that the use of contra proferentum by the Ninth Circuit was akin the California state courts’ application of their “Discover Bank” unconscionability rule in Concepcion: it is a rule of public policy divorced from ascertainment of the actual intent of the parties, and thus is pre-empted by the FAA when applied to resolve a disputed issue of consent. And as Lamps Plus points out, this is the same flaw the Stolt-Nielsen Court’s majority attributed to the arbitral tribunal that had originally ruled in favor of class arbitration: the adoption of a policy-based view of the benefits of class arbitration to justify holding that class arbitration would be permitted where the arbitration agreement was (by stipulation) silent.
Thus the majority opinion in Lamps Plus concludes: “Courts may not infer from an ambiguous agreement that parties have consented to arbitrate on a classwide basis. The doctrine of contra proferentum cannot substitute for the requisite affirmative contractual basis for concluding that the parties agreed to class arbitration.”
And so, dear readers, I submit to you that Lamps Plus is an FAA-preemption case, pre-empting state law contract rules that determine consent issues without finding the intent of the parties, and is not nearly a burial chant intoned over the grave of class arbitration. Lamps Plus does not hold that an agreement for class arbitration must always be stated unambiguously to be capable of enforcement. By necessary implication, however, Lamps Plus does require at least that state contract law rules for resolving ambiguity on the question of consent to class arbitration must be rules recognized in applicable state law of contracts as designed to determine the intent of the parties.
Judges in the lower federal courts with a conservative outlook may well be inclined toward the broader reading. Some judges might be inclined to lift out of context only the first sentence of the two-sentence conclusion to Section III B: “Courts may not infer from an ambiguous agreement that parties have consented to arbitrate in a class wide basis.” And they will say the Court meant this to mean the agreement for class arbitration must be unambiguous. But that is a mis-reading, a shorthand/soundbite approach to what is evidently a nuanced majority opinion. There is ample room to persuade many lower federal court judges that when ambiguity about class arbitration is resolved by using state law contract interpretation rules that are by definition designed to determine rather than bypass the intent of the parties, such rules are not FAA-preempted and may result in an ambiguous agreement being construed to permit class arbitration upon the consent of the parties (properly determined under state contract law).
Naysayers, stay with me for another paragraph. Let’s revisit the introductory strains of Part III of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion (slip op at p. 6): “We therefore face the question whether, consistent with the FAA, an ambiguous agreement can provide the necessary ‘contractual basis’ for compelling class arbitration. . . . We hold that it cannot . . . The statute therefore requires more than ambiguity to ensure that the parties actually agreed to arbitrate on a classwide basis.” What (we may ask) is “more than ambiguity”? Only clarity, that is, non-ambiguity? What about ambiguity satisfactorily resolved? If class arbitration must be consented to only clearly and unmistakably, well, why not just say so? (Don’t you assume that Justices Roberts and Kavanaugh debated this on the squash court? Were some members of the Fab Five not willing to jump off the cliff?) These imponderables, I submit, permit the holding of Lamps Plus to be understood more narrowly: It pertains not merely to the content of the agreement, but also to the judicial method for resolving ambiguity. Contra proferentum doesn’t make the cut, because it is a public policy doctrine — to the majority’s displeasure, it is especially relevant to contracts of adhesion (slip op. at 3) — and is divorced from intent of the parties. But what about other state contract law principles to resolve ambiguity? “More than ambiguity” can mean, consistent with Lamps Plus, ambiguity resolved by contract interpretation that determines the mutual intent of the parties. That proposed interpretation of Lamps Plus aligns the holding, which concerns judicial interpretation of the arbitration clause, with Oxford Health, Inc. v. Sutter, which concerned arbitral interpretation of the arbitration clause. Maybe on the squash court Justice Kavanaugh suggested that if “non-ambiguity” meaning “clarity” were made the test, then Oxford Health (Kagan, J. for a unanimous Court!) would no longer be good law.
An epilogue is in order, and it is important. A footnote in the majority opinion reminds us that the Supreme Court has not decided if the question whether an ambiguous arbitration clause allows class arbitration is a “question of arbitrability” that a court rather than the arbitrators should decide unless it is clearly delegated to the arbitrators. In Lamps Plus the question did not arise because the parties agreed to have it decided in the federal district court where the employee had purported to file the class action. But based on the outcome in Lamps Plus, perhaps we should expect to see more proponents of class arbitration opting to file arbitrations in the first instance and hoping to get the benefit of the deferential rule of Oxford Health in regard to judicial review of an arbitrator’s clause construction award regarding class arbitration. (According to the class arbitration docket on the American Arbitration Association website, only about 35 new class arbitrations were filed from January 1, 2018 to date). It will also be interesting to watch for the possible emergence of a more arbitration-savvy plaintiffs’ class action bar. Such counsel will perhaps be less inclined to attempt, as did the employee’s counsel in Lamps Plus, to skirt the arbitration clause entirely by initiating a class action in a federal district court. That approach seems least likely to result in a class proceeding and most likely to result in a judicial rather than arbitral decision on the class arbitration question. The Supreme Court appears to be in no particular hurry to place on its agenda this important unresolved question of allocation of power between arbitrators and courts. Despite a split in the Circuits, the Supreme Court has denied certiorari already twice since March 1, 2019 in cases that have presented this issue.