Wednesday, June 7, 2017

James Dillon v. BMO Harris Bank, N.A. (4th Circuit)

Filed: May 10, 2017

Opinion by: Judge Barbara Milano Keenan

Holding: An arbitration agreement containing choice-of-law provisions applying tribal law and disclaiming the application of federal and state law was held to be unenforceable because (1) by its unambiguous language, it triggered the prospective waiver doctrine, which disallows arbitration agreements that prevent litigants from vindicating federal substantive statutory rights as contravening public policy; and (2) the provisions could not be severed as they went to the essence of the agreement and were negotiated by a party, not in good faith, with superior bargaining power.

Facts:  Plaintiff, a resident of North Carolina, applied for and received a “payday loan” in 2012. “Payday loans” are short, unsecured consumer loans for small amounts and with generally high interest rates (sometimes in excess of 400%). The loan was offered through the website of Great Plains Lending, LLC (the “Company”), which was wholly owned by a federal tribe.  Plaintiff executed a contract (the “Contract”) that contained a loan agreement and an agreement to submit disputes to arbitration. Both agreements contained choice-of-law provisions that required the application of tribal law and disclaimed the application of state or federal law.

Plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit in district court, claiming that the Company and other tribal lenders had issued unlawful loans. Instead of suing the lenders for violating state usury laws, Plaintiff sued the financial institutions that facilitated the electronic lending transactions. Plaintiff claimed that the institutions constituted an enterprise whose members, including Defendant BMO Harris (“Defendant”), conducted and participated in the collection of unlawful acts in violation of the Rackeeter Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

In district court, Defendant sought to compel arbitration pursuant to the terms of the Contract and relying on the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). The district court held the Contract unenforceable because it denied the applicability of all federal and state law. Defendant appealed.

Analysis: Pursuant to the FAA, the Court has jurisdiction to review de novo the order denying the motion to compel arbitration. The FAA provides that arbitration agreements are valid and enforceable, except upon grounds at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract. Consistent with such contract principles, the Supreme Court has held that arbitration agreements that operated as prospective waivers of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies are unenforceable as violating public policy. This prospective waiver doctrine keeps courts from enforcing arbitration agreements that prevent a litigant from vindicating federal substantive statutory rights. 

A mere foreign choice-of-law provision is insufficient to trigger the application of the doctrine. A court must first analyze whether, as a matter of law, “the choice-of-forum and choice-of-law clauses operate in tandem as a prospective waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies.” Where it is unclear, the arbitrator should decide in the first instance whether a litigant is deprived of those remedies, and the waiver issue is not ripe until a federal court is asked to enforce the arbitrator’s decision. 

In Hayes v. Delbert Services Corp., 811 F.3d 666 (4th Cir. 2015), the Court applied the prospective waiver doctrine to a contract governing an internet payday loan by another federal tribe lender. The choice-of-law provision disclaimed the application of any law other than that of the tribe. The Hayes Court held that this language flatly and categorically renounced the authority of federal statutes. The provision was not severable from the contract because it went to its essence; the animating purpose of the agreement was to circumvent federal law. Another disclaimer of the application of federal and state law in the contract lent support to this position.

Here, Defendant argued that the waiver issue was not ripe as it had not yet come before an arbitrator. Plaintiff countered that the issue was ripe because the language of the choice-of-law provision was unambiguous, thus triggering the prospective waiver doctrine. The Court agreed with Plaintiff. The choice-of-law and other provisions in the Contract are similar or identical to the provisions in Hayes; these applied the law of the federal tribe or disclaimed the application of federal and state laws as to the Contract and lender. As in Hayes, the Contract was an unambiguous attempt to apply tribal law to the exclusion of federal and state law.

The Court held that the choice-of-law provisions could not be severed from the Contract. Severance is allowed only if the provision is not essential to the agreement and the party seeking to enforce the remainder of the agreement negotiated it in good faith. Restatement Second of Contracts § 184 (1981). Here, as in Hayes, the provision went to the essence of the agreement. The Court did not accept Defendant’s request to grant Plaintiff access to federal substantive rights because this would essentially allow Defendant to rewrite the Contract and defeat the purpose of the Contract entirely.

Additionally, the Company used its superior bargaining power to avoid the application of state and federal law, and Section 184 does not permit redrafting where superior bargaining power is used to extract a promise offensive to public policy. Thus, the Company did not meet the second prong to negotiate in good faith.  

The full opinion is available in PDF. 

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