Supreme Court Reiterates the FAA’s Preemptive Authority

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court in DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14-462, slip op. at 1 (Dec. 14, 2015), doubled down on its previous holdings that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state law judicial interpretations that do not place arbitration contracts “on an equal footing with all other contracts.” Imburgia is the Supreme Court’s latest rebuke of state courts that are hostile to arbitration clauses and class-arbitration waivers, and signals to lower courts that they may not utilize state contract law principles to interpret arbitration provisions so as to end-run the mandates of the FAA.

In 2005, the California Court of Appeal held in Discover Bank v. Superior Court that class-arbitration waivers were unenforceable in “consumer contract[s] of adhesion” that “predictably involve[d] small amount of damages” and met certain other criteria (known as the Discover Bank rule). In 2011, the Supreme Court decided AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, which held that the FAA preempts state law that bars enforcement of arbitration agreements if such agreements do not permit parties to utilize class-action procedures in arbitration or in court, thus invalidating the Discover Bank rule. The Supreme Court found that the Discover Bank rule stood as an “obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives” of the FAA.

Compounding on its holding in Concepcion, the Supreme Court in Imburgia declared that Section 2 of the FAA preempts state law interpretation of a contract’s arbitration provision based on a rule that the state’s courts had applied only in the arbitration context, concluding that such a ruling “does not rest ‘upon such grounds as exist . . . for the revocation of any contract.’”

In Imburgia, Petitioner DIRECTV, Inc. entered into a service agreement with customers containing an arbitration provision governed by the FAA that provided for a class-arbitration waiver reading: “if the ‘law of your state’ makes the waiver of class arbitration unenforceable, then the entire arbitration provision ‘is unenforceable.’” Following a class action brought by Respondents in California state court, DIRECTV moved to compel arbitration, which was denied by the trial court. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the “law of your state” language in the arbitration provision meant that that the parties had agreed that California’s Discover Bank rule would govern, notwithstanding the holding of Concepcion.

The Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, reversed and remanded, finding that because such an interpretation of the arbitration clause was “unique, restricted to that field,” and because “California courts would not interpret contracts other than arbitration contracts the same way,” the interpretation was impermissible as preempted by the FAA. Going forward, the Supreme Court has made explicit that arbitration agreements, and specifically class-arbitration waivers, should be enforced by state courts—even in the face of a state’s former invalidation of such waivers. Imburgia stands as the latest in a series of pro-arbitration rulings under Chief Justice Roberts, and instructs states that its courts may not use novel interpretations of state contract law to intrude on otherwise valid arbitration agreements.

For more information on the FAA or implications of DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group, at keinhorn@genovaburns.com.

The First Rule of Bieber Parties: Can You Talk About Bieber Parties?

Although 2014 has thrust Justin Bieber into the legal spotlight for a variety of reasons, the most interesting Beiber-related legal question surrounds a party he threw at his California home in November, 2013. While the party was probably memorable for the guests who attended, the conditions placed on their attendance is what is most remarkable. Guests and workers at the party were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (the “Bieber Contract”) in which they agreed not to text, tweet, record, or even talk about what they witnessed at the party. Any breach of those obligations would be punishable by a $3 million fine. The Bieber Contract was meant to protect the privacy of Bieber and his associates. But would such a contract be enforceable under New Jersey law?

Probably, but without the $3 million penalty, which New Jersey courts would likely find to be “unconscionable” – so one-sided or unjust that it “shocks the conscience.” In determining unconscionability, New Jersey courts tend to focus on two factors: unfairness in the formation of the contract; and unfairness or one-sidedness in the terms of the contract. New Jersey allows the defense of unconscionability to succeed based on a strong showing of one factor, even if the other factor is only marginally present.

Here, there is a strong argument for non-enforcement of the penalty in the Bieber Contract, due to its unconscionability. First, we should note that the Bieber Contract is a “contract of adhesion.” Adhesion contracts differ from other contracts in that they are typically presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, in a standardized form, and without the opportunity for the “adhering” party to negotiate its terms. It can be argued that at the time of execution, the Bieber Contract was thrust upon potential attendees, who likely did not have an opportunity to consult with legal counsel before signing, and likely received it in a setting that was not conducive to reasoned thought regarding the waiver of substantial legal rights or the undertaking of substantial legal obligations. Adhesion contracts necessarily involve indicia of unfairness in their formation.

Substantively, the Bieber Contract subjects even the most innocuous tweet to a $3 million fine. Although parties to a contract are generally free to set forth the amount to which either party will be entitled if the other party breaches, such a “liquidated damages” provision must be set at an amount that is reasonable in light of the anticipated or actual loss caused by the breach and the difficulty proving loss. A provision fixing unreasonably large liquidated damages is in reality a penalty and unenforceable. Because it would be difficult for Beiber to prove that $3 million dollars fairly represents his damages from one tweet, conversation or photo, this liquidated damages provision would be stricken.

However, New Jersey law permits courts to sever unconscionable provisions from otherwise enforceable contracts. Therefore, the fact that the $3 million liquidated damages provision may be unconscionable will not necessarily render the rest of the Bieber Contract unenforceable. Indeed, the subject matter of the Bieber Contract does not otherwise present obstacles to the contract’s enforceability. Parties are free to contract away their right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, and their rights to “works made for hire.”

Without the $3 million fine, the Bieber Contract is little more than an agreement holding the signer generally liable for damages that he or she causes by the unauthorized publication of information about Bieber and his associates. Bieber hardly needed a contract to so bind his party guests and workers; any person, Bieber-Contract-signer or not, would be liable under the law for any damage they inflict on others for invasion of privacy, absent some affirmative defense.

While there certainly may be lots of juicy questions you may want to ask those who attended or worked at Bieber’s party, don’t ask whether they got more than they bargained for. We can assure you that they did.