The school year still has more than a month to go, but class actions in consumer cases may be near an end under yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion. The five member conservative majority of the Court struck down California’s law barring arbitration clauses that contained waivers of class action rights in consumer cases because it is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The four liberal justices dissented. Consumer advocates claim this case will immunize corporations from liability to consumers for unfair trade practices because it is too expensive for individual consumers to pursue such cases alone, even in arbitration.
But a closer look at the decision reveals that such immunity does not come without price. In this case, AT&T Mobility’s cellular phone sale and servicing agreement provided that customers could initiate dispute proceedings by completing a one-page Notice of Dispute form available on AT&T’s Web site. If the dispute is not resolved within 30 days, the customer can invoke arbitration by filing a separate Demand for Arbitration, also available on AT&T’s Web site. In the event the parties proceed to arbitration, the agreement specifies that AT&T must pay all costs for nonfrivolous claims; that arbitration must take place in the county in which the customer is billed; that, for claims of $10,000 or less, the customer may choose whether the arbitration proceeds in person, by telephone, or based only on submissions; that either party may bring a claim in small claims court in lieu of arbitration; and that the arbitrator may award any form of individual relief, including injunctions and presumably punitive damages. The agreement, moreover, denies AT&T any ability to seek reimbursement of its attorney’s fees, and, in the event that a customer receives an arbitration award greater than AT&T’s last written settlement offer, requires AT&T to pay a $7,500 minimum recovery and twice the amount of the claimant’s attorney’s fees.
It would have been nice if AT&T gave its customers a choice to opt in or out of the arbitration clause, but I suspect many if not most consumers would opt in. In this case, the lead plaintiff’s claim was that AT&T improperly charged him about $30 sales tax for a free phone. How many consumers in such a situation would not opt for a dispute resolution mechanism that is free (to the consumer) and relatively simple? AT&T built into the agreement adequate incentive for it to pay or settle most claims. Class action litigation, either in court or in arbitration, usually ends in a settlement, but only after the consumption of large amounts of attorney fees, costs and time. The policy question that remains after the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is whether the additional deterrent effect of a possible class action is worth the expenditure of those fees, costs and time.
I am not a fan of arbitration clauses imposed on unsophisticated parties in contracts of adhesion. But the arbitration clause and class action waiver in this case were hardly one-sided. They provide incentives and benefits, as well as detriments, to both parties. Neither the parties nor the Court addressed this aspect of the unconscionability issue in this case, but it may still be possible to argue that some arbitration and class-action waiver clauses are so one-sided as to be unenforceable, even under the FAA. So, as long as this decision is not used to validate every arbitration clause and class action waiver in all consumer contracts, it may not mean the end of consumer class actions in all cases.