Class Action Waiver in Arbitration Clause Unconscionable thereby Warranting Denial of Motion to Compel Plaintiff to Arbitrate Individual Claims rather than Pursue Labor Law Class Action Complaint California State Court Holds
Plaintiff, the general manager of an El Pollo Loco restaurant, filed a putative class action against El Pollo Loco alleging violations of California’s labor code; the class action complaint alleged inter alia that defendant misclassified its general managers as exempt when they “spent the majority of their time performing nonmanagerial tasks” and that it wrongfully denied its general managers overtime compensation and meal breaks. Olvera v. El Pollo Loco, Inc., 173 Cal.App.4th 447, 451 (Cal.App. 2009). As part of his employment, plaintiff received written materials that, in part, required that all work-related disputes be resolved through binding arbitration, governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Id., 449-50. Class action litigation was prohibited, but the parties were permitted “to conduct discovery and bring motions in an arbitration as provided by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” id., at 450. Defense attorneys moved to compel arbitration of the class action complaint as to plaintiff’s individual claims only, id., at 451. Plaintiff opposed the motion to compel arbitration, arguing that the arbitration clause was unconscionable; defense attorneys argued that the clause was not unconscionable because employees were not required to sign the acknowledgement form by which they were bound to the arbitration clause. Id., at 452. The trial court denied the motion to compel arbitration, concluding that the clause was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. Id., at 453. Under California law, an order denying a motion t compel arbitration is an appealable order. Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 1294. Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.
After summarizing the relevant law regarding arbitration agreements, see Olvera, at 453-54, the appellate court turned first to the issue of procedural unconscionability. The Court of Appeal explained at page 454, “Procedural unconscionability focuses on oppression or unfair surprise, while substantive unconscionability focuses on overly harsh or one-sided terms.” (Citations omitted.) California courts view these two factors on a sliding scale: “The more procedural unconscionability is present, the less substantive unconscionability is required to justify a determination that a contract or clause is unenforceable. Conversely, the less procedural unconscionability is present, the more substantive unconscionability is required to justify such a determination.” Id., at 454 (citations omitted). The appellate court found that the arbitration clause was procedurally unconscionable because of (1) the unequal bargaining power between the employees and the employer, which “makes it likely that the employees felt at least some pressure to sign the acknowledgment and agree to the new dispute resolution policy” even if the company insists that they were not required to do so, and (2) agreement to the dispute resolution procedure was “not an informed decision” because the description of the dispute resolution policy “was totally inaccurate.” Id., at 455-56.
The Court of Appeal also found that the class action waiver was substantively unconscionable. See Olvera, at 456-57. The Court reasoned at page 457 that the class action arbitration waiver “would insulate El Pollo Loco from employee class actions and class arbitrations on behalf of those employees who signed the acknowledgment.” However, “A class action or class arbitration may be the most effective way, and perhaps the only effective way, for those employees to vindicate their statutory rights.” Id., at 457 (footnote and citations omitted). Additionally, the class action waiver was “unfairly one-sided” because it was unlikely that El Pollo Loco would ever file a class action against its employees, id. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court order denying defendant’s motion to compel arbitration of plaintiff’s individual claims. Id., at 458.