Texas Arbitration Provision Sounds Death Knell For Illinois Salesman’s Suit Against Former Employer – IL ND

(“Isn’t that remarkable…..”)

The Plaintiff in Brne v. Inspired eLearning, 2017 WL 4263995, worked in sales for the corporate publisher defendant.  His employment contract called for arbitration in San Antonio, Texas.

When defendant failed to pay plaintiff his earned commissions, plaintiff sued in Federal court in his home state of Illinois under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“IWPCA”). Defendant moved for venue-based dismissal under Rule 12(b)(3)

The Illinois Northern District granted defendant’s motion and required the plaintiff to arbitrate in Texas.  A Rule 12(b)(3) motion is the proper vehicle to dismiss a case filed in the wrong venue. Once a defendant challenges the plaintiff’s venue choice, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish it filed in the proper district.  When plaintiff’s chosen venue is improper, the Court “shall dismiss [the case], or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a).

Upholding the Texas arbitration clause, the Illinois Federal court noted the liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements except when to do so would violate general contract enforceability rules (e.g. when arbitration agreement is the product of fraud, coercion, duress, etc.)

The Court then turned to plaintiff’s argument that the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable.  An agreement is substantively unconscionable where it is so one-sided, it “shocks the conscience” for a court to enforce the terms.

The plaintiff claimed the arbitration agreement’s cost-sharing provision and absence of fee-shifting rendered it substantively unconscionable.

Cost Sharing Provision

Under Texas and Illinois law, a party seeking to invalidate an arbitration agreement on the ground that arbitration is prohibitively expensive must provide individualized evidence to show it will likely be saddled with excessive costs during the course of the arbitration and is financially incapable of meeting those costs.  The fact that sharing arbitration costs might cut in to a plaintiff’s recovery isn’t enough: without specific evidence that clearly demonstrates arbitration is cost-prohibitive, a court will not strike down an arbitration cost-sharing provision as substantively unconscionable.  Since plaintiff failed to offer competent evidence that he was unable to shoulder half of the arbitration costs, his substantive unconscionability argument failed

Fee-Shifting Waiver

The plaintiff’s fee-shifting waiver argument fared better.  Plaintiff asserted  then argued that the arbitration agreement’s provision that each side pays their own fees deprived Plaintiff of his rights under the IWPCA (see above) which, among other things, allows a successful plaintiff to recover her attorneys’ fees. 820 ILCS 115/14.

The Court noted that contractual provisions against fee-shifting are not per se unconscionable and that the party challenging such a term must demonstrate concrete economic harm if it has to pay its own lawyer fees.  The court also noted that both Illinois and Texas courts look favorably on arbitration and that arbitration fee-shifting waivers are unconscionable only when they contradict a statute’s mandatory fee-shifting rights and the statute is central to the arbitrated dispute.

The court analogized the IWPCA to other states’ fee-shifting statutes and found the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees section integral to the statute’s aim of protecting workers from getting stiffed by their employers.  The court then observed that IWPCA’s attorney’s fees provision encouraged non-breaching employees to pursue their rights against employers.  In view of the importance of the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees provision, the Court ruled that the arbitration clause’s fee-shifting waiver clashed materially with the IWPCA and was substantively unconscionable.

However, since the arbitration agreement contained a severability clause (i.e. any provisions that were void, could be excised from the arbitration contract), the Court severed the fee-shifting waiver term and enforced the balance of the arbitration agreement.  As a result, plaintiff must still arbitrate against his ex-employer in Texas (and cannot litigate in Illinois).

Afterwords:

This case lies at the confluence of freedom of contract, the strong judicial policy favoring arbitration and when an arbitration clause conflicts with statutory fee-shifting language.  The court nullified the arbitration provision requiring each side to pay its own fees since that term clashed directly with opposing language in the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  Still, the court enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement – minus the fee provision.

The case also provides a useful synopsis of venue-based motions to dismiss in Federal court.

 

 

 

 

Shortened ‘Arb Award’ Rejection Deadline Upheld Against Constitutional Attack – IL Appeals Court

The First District appeals court recently nixed a plaintiff’s constitutional challenge to a local rule’s arbitration rejection deadline.  The opinion’s upshot is clear: when a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute, the rule wins.

The plaintiff in McBreen v. Mercedes-Benz, USA, LLC  argued her equal protection and due process rights were violated when a trial court denied her attempt to tardily reject an arbitration award. The case was decided by a single arbitrator under the auspices of the Cook County Law Division Mandatory Arbitration Program (MAP), a two-year pilot program that sends commercial cases with damage claims between $50,000 and $75,00 to mandatory arbitration.

Among other things, the Law Division MAP provides for hearings before a single arbitrator and requires a losing party to reject the award within seven business days. Cook County Cir. Ct. R. 25.1, 25.5, 25.11.

After an arbitrator found for defendants, the plaintiff didn’t reject the award until 30 days later – 23 days too late. The trial court then granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s case and denied plaintiff’s motion to void the arbitration award or extend the rejection deadline.  The trial court entered judgment on the arbitration award for defendant.

Plaintiff argued on appeal that Rule 25’s compressed rejection period violated her constitutional rights since it conflicted with the  30-day rejection deadline for Municipal Department arbitrations. (The Cook County Municipal Department hears personal injury cases and breach of contract suits where the damage claim is $30,000 or less.)   The plaintiff also claimed the Law Division MAP was unconstitutional since it clashed with the “panel of three” arbitrators rule prevailing in Municipal Department arbitrations.

Affirming the trial court, the Court first considered whether the Illinois Supreme Court had power to establish the Law Division MAP program with its seven-day rejection rule.

The Law Division MAP rejection period conflicts with Cook County’s Municipal Department arbitration scheme – which has a 30-day rejection rule.  (The Municipal arbitration rules, codified in Supreme Court Rules 86-95, were legislatively implemented via Code Sections 2-1001A and 1003A which, respectively, authorize the establishment of an arbitration program where a panel of three arbitrators hears cases involving less than $50,000 in damages. Rule 93(a) contains the 30-day rejection cut-off.)

The First District noted that while the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period clashes with the Municipal Department’s 30-day period, Illinois courts through the decades consistently recognize the Illinois Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to make rules governing practice and procedure in the lower courts and that where a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute on a judicial procedure matter, the rule wins.

The court also notes the Illinois legislature echoed this inherent power for the Supreme Court to establish court rules in Code Section 1-104(a).  In the end, the Court found that In view of the Illinois Supreme Court’s expansive power in the area of pleadings, practice and procedure, the Law Division MAP’s abbreviated rejection period trumped any conflicting, longer rejection period found in other statutes or rules.  (¶¶ 17-18, 22-23).

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s equal protection argument – that the Law Division MAP program infringed the rights of Municipal court participants by shortening the rejection time span from 30 to seven days.  While allowing that Law Division and Municipal litigants in the arbitration setting share the same objective of taking part in a less-costly alternative to litigation, the Court found the two Programs “qualitatively different:” the Law Division MAP is geared to those seeking damages of between $50,000 and $75,000 while the Municipal plaintiff’s damages are capped at $30,000.

According to the Court, the different damage ceilings involved in Law Division and Municipal cases meant that plaintiffs in the two court systems aren’t similarly situated under the Equal Protection clause. (¶¶ 34-35).

Plaintiff’s final argument, that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period violated her due process rights also failed.  Due process requires an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter.

The plaintiff argued that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection cut-off failed to give her a meaningful opportunity to challenge the award.   The Court thought otherwise.  It noted that statutes are presumed constitutional and someone challenging a statute’s constitutionality bears a heavy burden.  It then cited to multiple cases across a wide strata of facts which have upheld time limits of less than 30 days.

Afterwords:

McBreen offers a thorough, triangulated analysis of what happens when a Supreme Court Rule, a county’s local court rule and legislative enactments all speak to the same issue and appear to contradict each other.  The case solidifies the proposition that the Supreme Court’s primacy in the realm of lower court procedure and pleading extends to mandatory arbitration regimes, too.  While the case is silent on what constitutes a sufficient basis to extend the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection deadline, McBreen makes clear that a constitutional challenge will likely ring hollow.

 

Non-Parties Can Enforce Franchise Agreement’s Arbitration Clause – IL Court

In a franchise dispute involving a sushi restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, the First District in Kim v. Kim, 2016 IL App (1st) 153296-U examines the scope of contractual arbitration clauses and when arbitration can be insisted on by non-parties to a contract.

The franchisee plaintiff sued the two principals of the franchisor for fraud.  He alleged the defendants tricked him into entering the franchise by grossly inflating the daily sales of the restaurant.  The plaintiff sued for rescission and fraud when the restaurant’s actual sales didn’t match the defendants’ pre-contract projections.  

The court dismissed the suit based on an arbitration clause contained in the franchise agreement and the plaintiff appealed.  He argued that since the defendants were not parties to the franchise agreement (the agreement was between plaintiff and the corporate franchisor), the defendants couldn’t use the arbitration clause as a “sword” and require the plaintiff to arbitrate his claims.

Affirming the case’s dismissal, the appeals court first discussed the burden-shifting machinery of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.  With such a motion, the movant must offer affirmative matter appearing on the face of the complaint or that is supported by affidavits.  Once the defendant meets this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff who must establish that the affirmative matter is unfounded or requires the resolution of a material fact.  If the plaintiff fails to carry his burden, the motion to dismiss can be granted.  (¶ 23)

The court then zeroed in on whether the defendants – non-parties to the franchise agreement – could enforce the agreement’s arbitration clause against the plaintiff.  Generally, only parties to a contract can enforce its terms.  By contrast, non-parties cannot.  An exception to this rule is equitable estoppel: where a party is estopped or prevented from avoiding a written contract term because the party trying to enforce it isn’t technically a party to it.

For equitable estoppel to apply and subject a contracting party to arbitration against a non-party, (1) the signatory must rely on terms of a contract to make its claims (or presumes the existence a written agreement that contains an arbitration provision) against the nonsignatory, (2) the signatory must allege concerted misconduct by the nonparty and one or more contracting parties, and (3) where there is a close nexus between the alleged wrong and the claims against the non-party and where plaintiff’s claims against a defendant are factually intertwined with or based on written contract terms.  (¶¶ 44-45)

Here, the crux of plaintiff’s lawsuit was that the defendants induced him into signing the franchise agreement and related restaurant lease.  Since the plaintiff’s claims were premised on and presumed the franchise agreement’s existence, and the franchise agreement contained a broad arbitration clause, the court held that the plaintiff was subject to the arbitration clause and the defendants could enforce the clause.

Afterwords:

A third party generally cannot enforce contract provisions since the third party, by definition, is not a signatory to the contract.

But where a plaintiff’s claim against a non-party relates to or is factually intertwined with a written contract, the terms of that contract can govern and be enforced by the non-party.