Monday, December 18, 2006

Ninth Circuit Holds Court May Decide Determine Whether Contract for Arbitration was Unconscionable

BNA’s United States Law Week reported in Vol. 75, No. 22 (Dec. 12, 2006) on the case Nagrampa v. MailCoups, Inc., --- F.3d ----, 2006 WL 3478345 (9th Cir. Dec. 4, 2006). Here is an excerpt from the case:

The arbitrability of a particular dispute is a threshold issue to be decided by the courts. See Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83, 123 S.Ct. 588, 154 L.Ed.2d 491 (2002) ("The question whether the parties have submitted a particular dispute to arbitration, i.e., the 'question of arbitrability,' is 'an issue for judicial determination [u]nless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise.' " (alteration in original) (quoting AT & T Techs., Inc. v. Commc'ns Workers of Am., 475 U.S. 643, 649, 106 S.Ct. 1415, 89 L.Ed.2d 648 (1986))); John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston, 376 U.S. 543, 547, 84 S.Ct. 909, 11 L.Ed.2d 898 (1964) ("The duty to arbitrate being of contractual origin, a compulsory submission to arbitration cannot precede judicial determination that the . . . agreement does in fact create such a duty."). Under the FAA, arbitration agreements "shall be 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. In analyzing whether an arbitration agreement is valid and enforceable, "generally applicable contract defenses, such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability, may be applied to invalidate arbitration agreements without contravening § 2." Doctor's Assocs., 517 U.S. at 687, 116 S.Ct. 1652.

. . .

We do not construe either Buckeye or Prima Paint to stand for the principle that if plaintiffs challenge an arbitration provision as unenforceable due to unconscionability, they may not include additional contractual or statutory claims in their complaint. An argument that the arbitration agreement itself is procedurally unconscionable may be informed, as required by California state substantive law, by a determination of whether it is contained within a larger contract of adhesion. If the district court decides that the arbitration provision is unenforceable, then the remaining claims that address the contract as a whole were never properly arbitrable; a claim such as fraud in the inducement would lie within the jurisdiction of the district court. The district court also has the discretion under federal arbitration law, Buckeye, 126 S.Ct. at 1209, as well as under California law, Cal. Civ.Code § 1670.5, to sever the unconscionable arbitration provision and enforce the remainder of the contract. If, on the other hand, the district court decides that the arbitration agreement is valid and enforceable, then it should stay or dismiss the action pending arbitration proceedings to allow the arbitrator to decide the remaining claims, including those relating to the contract as a whole. Finally if, after examining the crux of the complaint, the district court concludes that the challenge is not to the arbitration provision itself but, rather, to the validity of the entire contract, then the issue of the contract's validity should be considered by an arbitrator in the first instance. Buckeye, 126 S.Ct. at 1208-09.

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