Dissent Argues That Classwide Arbitrability Is A Gateway Question The Court Should Get To Decide.
The courts have treated gateway arbitrability issues concerning the existence of an arbitration agreement and the scope of the agreement as “gateway” issues for the courts to decide, whereas so-called procedural issues are to be resolved by the arbitrator. So under which rubric should the availability of classwide arbitration be placed? Gateway or procedural issue?
The California Supreme Court ruled today in Sandquist v. Lebo Automotive, Inc., et al., No. S220812 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 7/28/16) (Werdegar, J., writing for majority), that the arbitrator gets to decide whether the arbitration agreement permits or prohibits classwide arbitration. The underlying lawsuit involves allegations by Mr. Sandquist and other non-Caucasian employees that they were subjected to racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation by their employer.
Justice Werdegar acknowledges “[t]he question has divided the many state and federal courts to consider it.” In Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444 (2003), a plurality of the SCOTUS took the view that classwide arbitrability was a procedural issue, failing to definitively resolve the issue.
The majority concludes “no universal rule allocates this decision in all cases to either arbitrators or courts.” Instead, one must look to the specific agreement, subject to interpretation under state contract law, and here, the broad arbitration agreement allocated the decision to the arbitrator. Furthermore, “[u]nder federal arbitration law, no contrary presumption requires a different result, so the issue remains one for the arbitrator.” Here, the availability of classwide arbitration was not treated as a gateway issue, but rather as a procedural issue.
Authoring the dissent, Justice Kruger viewed the availability of class arbitration under the parties’ agreement as a “gateway question of arbitrability” presumptively for the court to decide.
The dissent noted that the switch from bilateral to class arbitration “is one that strikes at the heart of the bargain the parties make.” Viewed as an issue of consent, and expectations of the parties, the availability of classwide arbitration may be viewed as a gateway issue for the court to decide. Classwide arbitration also implicates the rights of third parties who did not sign an arbitration agreement – something that a court is perhaps best able to safeguard.
The immediate upshot of the Court’s decision is that the order of the Court of Appeal is affirmed, meaning that the matter is remanded by the Court of Appeal to the trial court “with directions to vacate its order dismissing class claims and to enter a new order submitting the issue of whether the parties agreed to arbitrate class claims to the arbitrator.” I previously posted on the Court of Appeal decision on July 22, 2014.
COMMENT: The positions of the parties may appear a bit unusual in this case. Usually the employee prefers to be in court, and the employer prefers to be in arbitration -- especially because individual arbitration has become useful as a tool for employers to eliminate classwide arbitration. Here, the trial court dismissed the employee’s classwide claims with prejudice. But now the employee – and the class – will get a “second bite of the apple” in front of an arbitrator. That is no guarantee, of course, that the outcome will be any different.