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AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion

April 27, 2011

AT&T MOBILITY LLC, PETITIONER
v.
VINCENT CONCEPCION ET UX.



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT Court Below: 584 F.3d 849

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2010

Argued November 9, 2010

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, California's Discover Bank rule is preempted by the FAA. Pp. 4--18.

(a) Section 2 reflects a "liberal federal policy favoring arbitration," Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U. S. 1, 24, and the "fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract," Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U. S. ____, ____. Thus, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts, Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U. S. 440, 443, and enforce them according to their terms, Volt Information Sciences, Inc. v. Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 489 U. S. 468, 478. Section 2's saving clause permits agreements to be invalidated by "generally applicable contract defenses," but not by defenses that apply 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. Pp. 4--5.

(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. 5--6.

(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., The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Scalia

563 U. S. ____ (2011)

Opinion of the Court

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).*fn1 The con-tract 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.*fn2 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 non-frivolous 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.*fn3

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 contract with the Concepcions. The Concepcions 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 (SD Cal., Aug. 11, 2008). Nevertheless, relying on the California Supreme Court's decision in Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148, 113 P. 3d 1100 (2005), the court found that the arbitration provision was unconscionable because AT&T had not shown that bilateral arbitration adequately substituted for the deterrent effects of class actions. Laster, 2008 WL 5216255, *14.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, also finding the provision unconscionable under California law as announced in Discover Bank. Laster v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 584 F. 3d 849, 855 (2009). It also held that the Discover Bank rule was not preempted by the FAA because that rule was simply "a refinement of the unconscionability analysis applicable to contracts generally in California." 584 F. 3d, at 857. In response to AT&T's argument that the Concepcions' interpretation of California law discriminated against arbitration, the Ninth Circuit rejected the contention that " 'class proceedings will reduce the efficiency and expeditiousness of arbitration' " and noted that " 'Discover Bank placed arbitration agreements with class action waivers on the exact same footing as contracts that bar class action litigation outside the context of arbitration.' " Id., at 858 (quoting Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Services, Inc., 498 F. 3d 976, 990 (CA9 2007)).

We granted certiorari, 560 U. S. ___ (2010).

II.

The FAA was enacted in 1925 in response to widespread judicial hostility to arbitration agreements. See Hall Street Associates, L. L. C. v. Mattel, Inc., 552 U. S. 576, 581 (2008). Section 2, the "primary substantive provision of the Act," Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U. S. 1, 24 (1983), provides, in relevant part, as follows:

"A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . 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.

We have described this provision as reflecting both a "liberal federal policy favoring arbitration," Moses H. Cone, supra, at 24, and the "fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract," Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U. S. ____ , ____ (2010) (slip op., at 3). In line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts, Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U. S. 440, 443 (2006), and enforce them according to their terms, Volt Information Sciences, Inc. v. Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 489 U. S. 468, 478 (1989).

The final phrase of §2, however, permits arbitration agreements to be declared unenforceable "upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." This saving clause permits agreements to arbitrate to be invalidated by "generally applicable contract defenses, such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability," but not by defenses that apply only to arbitration or that 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 (1996); see also Perry v. Thomas, 482 U. S. 483, 492--493, n. 9 (1987). The question in this case is whether §2 preempts California's rule classifying most collective-arbitration waivers in consumer contracts as unconscionable. We refer to this rule as the Discover Bank rule.

Under California law, courts may refuse to enforce any contract found "to have been unconscionable at the time it was made," or may "limit the application of any unconscionable clause." Cal. Civ. Code Ann. §1670.5(a) (West 1985). A finding of unconscionability requires "a 'procedural' and a 'substantive' element, the former focusing on 'oppression' or 'surprise' due to unequal bargaining power, the latter on 'overly harsh' or 'one-sided' results." Armendariz v. Foundation Health Pyschcare Servs., Inc., 24 Cal. 4th 83, 114, 6 P. 3d 669, 690 (2000); accord, Discover Bank, 36 Cal. 4th, at 159--161, 113 P. 3d, at 1108.

In Discover Bank, the California Supreme Court applied this framework to class-action waivers in arbitration agreements and held as follows:

"[W]hen the waiver is found in a consumer contract of adhesion in a setting in which disputes between the contracting parties predictably involve small amounts of damages, and when it is alleged that the party with the superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money, then . . . the waiver becomes in practice the exemption of the party 'from responsibility for [its] own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another.' Under these circumstances, such waivers are unconscionable under California law and should not be enforced." Id., at 162, 113 P. 3d, at 1110 (quoting Cal. Civ. Code Ann. §1668).

California courts have frequently applied this rule to find arbitration agreements unconscionable. See, e.g., Cohen v. DirecTV, Inc., 142 Cal. App. 4th 1442, 1451--1453, 48 Cal. Rptr. 3d 813, 819--821 (2006); Klussman v. Cross Country Bank, 134 Cal. App. 4th 1283, 1297, 36 Cal Rptr. 3d 728, 738--739 (2005); Aral v. EarthLink, Inc., 134 Cal. App. 4th 544, 556--557, 36 Cal. Rptr. 3d 229, 237--239 (2005).

III.

A.

The Concepcions argue that the Discover Bank rule, given its origins in California's unconscionability doctrine and California's policy against exculpation, is a ground that "exist[s] at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract" under FAA §2. Moreover, they argue that even if we construe the Discover Bank rule as a prohibition on collective-action waivers rather than simply an application of unconscionability, the rule would still be applicable to all dispute-resolution contracts, since California prohibits waivers of class litigation as well. See America Online, Inc. v. Superior Ct., 90 Cal. App. 4th 1, 17--18, 108 Cal. Rptr. 2d 699, 711--713 (2001).

When state law prohibits outright the arbitration of a particular type of claim, the analysis is straightforward: The conflicting rule is displaced by the FAA. Preston v. Ferrer, 552 U. S. 346, 353 (2008). But the inquiry becomes more complex when a doctrine normally thought to be generally applicable, such as duress or, as relevant here, unconscionability, is alleged to have been applied in a fashion that disfavors arbitration. In Perry v. Thomas, 482 U. S. 483 (1987), for example, we noted that the FAA's preemptive effect might extend even to grounds traditionally thought to exist " 'at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.' " Id., at 492, n. 9 (emphasis deleted). We said that a court may not "rely on the uniqueness of an agreement to arbitrate as a basis for a state-law holding that enforcement would be unconscionable, for this would enable the court to effect what . . . the state legislature cannot." Id., at 493, n. 9.

An obvious illustration of this point would be a case finding unconscionable or unenforceable as against public policy consumer arbitration agreements that fail to provide for judicially monitored discovery. The rationalizations for such a holding are neither difficult to imagine nor different in kind from those articulated in Discover Bank. A court might reason that no consumer would knowingly waive his right to full discovery, as this would enable companies to hide their wrongdoing. Or the court might simply say that such agreements are exculpatory-restricting discovery would be of greater benefit to the company than the consumer, since the former is more likely to be sued than to sue. See Discover Bank, supra, at 161, 113 P. 3d, at 1109 (arguing that class waivers are similarly one-sided). And, the reasoning would continue, because such a rule applies the general principle of unconscionability or public-policy disapproval of exculpatory agreements, it is applicable to ...


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