563 U.S. 333 (2011), 09-893, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion

Docket Nº:09-893
Citation:563 U.S. 333, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742, 79 U.S.L.W. 4279, 22 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 957
Opinion Judge:Scalia Justice
Party Name:AT&T MOBILITY LLC, Petitioner v. VINCENT CONCEPCION et ux
Attorney:Andrew J. Pincus argued the cause for petitioner. Deepak Gupta argued the cause for respondents.
Judge Panel:SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. ___. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined, post, p. ___. THOMAS, Justice c...
Case Date:April 27, 2011
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page __

___ U.S. ___ (2011)

131 S.Ct. 1740

AT&T MOBILITY LLC, PETITIONER

v.

VINCENT CONCEPCION ET UX.

No. 09-893

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 2011

Argued November 9, 2010

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT No. 09–893.

[131 S.Ct. 1742] Syllabus [*]

The cellular telephone contract between respondents (Concepcions) and petitioner (AT&T) provided for arbitration of all disputes, but did not permit classwide arbitration. After the Concepcions were charged sales tax on the retail value of phones provided free under their service contract, they sued AT&T in a California Federal District Court. Their suit was consolidated with a class action alleging, inter alia, that AT&T had engaged in false advertising and fraud by charging sales tax on "free" phones. The District Court denied AT&T's motion to compel arbitration under the Concepcions' contract. Relying on the California Supreme Court's Discover Bank decision, it found the arbitration provision unconscionable because it disallowed classwide proceedings. The Ninth Circuit agreed that the provision was unconscionable under California law and held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which makes arbitration agreements "valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract, " 9 U.S.C. §2, did not preempt its ruling.

Held:

Because it "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress, " Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 85 L.Ed. 581, California's Discover Bank rule is pre-empted by the FAA. Pp. 1745 - 1753.

(a) Section 2 reflects a "liberal federal policy favoring arbitration, " Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24, 103 S.Ct. 927, 74 L.Ed.2d 765, and the "fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract, " Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. __, __, 130 S.Ct. 2772, 177 L.Ed.2d 403 (2010). Thus, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts, Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 443, 126 S.Ct. 1204, 163 L.Ed.2d 1038, and enforce them according to their terms, Volt Information Sciences, Inc. v. Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Jun-;ior Univ., 489 U.S. 468, 478, 109 S.Ct. 1248, 103 L.Ed.2d 488. Section 2's saving clause permits agreements to be invalidated by "generally applicable contract defenses, " but not by defenses that apply [131 S.Ct. 1743] only to arbitration or derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. Doctor's Associates, Inc. v. Casarotto, 517 U.S. 681, 687, 116 S.Ct. 1652, 134 L.Ed.2d 902. Pp. 1745-1746.

(b) In Discover Bank, the California Supreme Court held that class waivers in consumer arbitration agreements are unconscionable if the agreement is in an adhesion contract, disputes between the parties are likely to involve small amounts of damages, and the party with inferior bargaining power alleges a deliberate scheme to defraud. Pp. 1745 - 1747.

(c) The Concepcions claim that the Discover Bank rule is a ground that "exist[s] at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract" under FAA §2. When state law prohibits outright the arbitration of a particular type of claim, the FAA displaces the conflicting rule. But the inquiry is more complex when a generally applicable doctrine is alleged to have been applied in a fashion that disfavors or interferes with arbitration. Although §2's saving clause preserves generally applicable contract defenses, it does not suggest an intent to preserve state-law rules that stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the FAA's objectives. Cf. Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 872, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914. The FAA's overarching purpose is to ensure the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms so as to facilitate informal, streamlined proceedings. Parties may agree to limit the issues subject to arbitration, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 628, 105 S.Ct. 3346, 87 L.Ed.2d 444, to arbitrate according to specific rules, Volt, supra, at 479, 109 S.Ct. 1248, and to limit with whom they will arbitrate, Stolt-Nielsen, supra, at__. Pp. 1746 - 1750.

(d) Class arbitration, to the extent it is manufactured by Discover Bank rather than consensual, interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration. The switch from bilateral to class arbitration sacrifices arbitration's informality and makes the process slower, more costly, and more likely to generate procedural morass than final judgment. And class arbitration greatly increases risks to defendants. The absence of multilayered review makes it more likely that errors will go uncorrected. That risk of error may become unacceptable when damages allegedly owed to thousands of claimants are aggregated and decided at once. Arbitration is poorly suited to these higher stakes. In litigation, a defendant may appeal a certification decision and a final judgment, but 9 U.S.C. §10 limits the grounds on which courts can vacate arbitral awards. Pp. 1750-1753.

584 F.3d 849, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.

Andrew J. Pincus, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Deepak Gupta, for Respondents.

Donald M. Falk, Mayer Brown LLP, Palo Alto, CA, Neal Berinhout, Atlanta, GA, Kenneth S. Geller, Andrew J. Pincus, Evan M. Tager, Archis A. Parasharami, Kevin Ranlett, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

OPINION

[131 S.Ct. 1744]Scalia Justice

Section 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) makes agreements to arbitrate "valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." 9 U.S.C. §2. We consider whether the FAA prohibits States from conditioning the enforceability of certain arbitration agreements on the availability of classwide arbitration procedures.

I

In February 2002, Vincent and Liza Concepcion entered into an agreement for the sale and servicing of cellular telephones with AT&T Mobility LCC (AT&T).1 The contract provided for arbitration of all disputes between the parties, but required that claims be brought in the parties' "individual capacity, and not as a plaintiff or class member in any purported class or representative proceeding." App. to Pet. for Cert 61a.2 The agreement authorized AT&T to make unilateral amendments, which it did to the arbitration provision on several occasions. The version at issue in this case reflects revisions made in December 2006, which the parties agree are controlling.

The revised agreement provides that customers may initiate dispute proceedings by completing a one-page Notice of Dispute form available on AT&T's Web site. AT&T may then offer to settle the claim; if it does not, or if the dispute is not resolved within 30 days, the customer may 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.3

The Concepcions purchased AT&T service, which was advertised as including the provision of free phones; they were not charged for the phones, but they were charged $30.22 in sales tax based on the phones' retail value. In March 2006, the Concepcions filed a complaint against AT&T in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. The complaint was later consolidated with a putative class action alleging, among other things, that AT&T had engaged in false advertising and fraud by charging sales tax on phones it advertised as free.

In March 2008, AT&T moved to compel arbitration under the terms of its [131 S.Ct. 1745] contract with the Concepcions. The Conceptions opposed the motion, contending that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and unlawfully exculpatory under California law because it disallowed classwide procedures. The District Court denied AT&T's motion. It described AT&T's arbitration agreement favorably, noting, for example, that the informal dispute-resolution process was "quick, easy to use" and likely to "promp[t] full or . . . even excess payment to the customer without the need to arbitrate or litigate"; that the $7, 500 premium functioned as "a substantial inducement for the consumer to pursue the claim in arbitration" if a dispute was not resolved informally; and that consumers who were members of a class would likely be worse off. Laster v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 2008 WL 5216255, *11–*12 (S.D.Cal., Aug. 11, 2008). Nevertheless, relying on the California Supreme Court's decision in Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal.4th 148, 30...

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