Plaintiffs in Class Action Challenging Late Fees Imposed on Credit Card Accounts and Contesting Enforceability of Arbitration Clause that Includes a Class Action Waiver were Entitled to Conduct Limited Discovery to Support Claim that Class Action Waiver was Unconscionable Rhode Island Federal Court Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Bank of America alleging violations of the federal Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and breach of credit card agreements based on the late fees charged by the Bank on credit card accounts; the class action complaint also sought a declaration that the arbitration clause in the credit card agreements, which included a class action waiver, was unenforceable. Trombley v. Bank of America Corp., 636 F.Supp.2d 151, 152 (D.R.I. 2009). The Bank argued that the credit card agreements “include an enforceable arbitration provision, which provides that Delaware law is the governing authority, precludes class actions, and designates the National Arbitration Forum (‘NAF’) for arbitration proceedings.” Id., at 153. Defense attorneys moved to compel arbitration of the class action’s claims on an individual basis based on the class action waiver in the arbitration clause; plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that the class action waiver was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable. Id., at 152. Plaintiffs also sought additional time to respond to the Bank’s motion, in order to conduct discovery concerning the unconscionability of the class action waiver. Id., at 153. The Bank opposed plaintiffs’ request for additional time, asserting that the motion to compel arbitration presented issues that were “largely legal questions and that the information necessary to support the plaintiffs’ arguments is available to them without discovery.” Id. The district court granted plaintiffs additional time to conduct discovery and, accordingly, postponed ruling on the motion to compel arbitration.
Preliminarily, the district court observed that the arbitration clause contains an express exception which provides that any challenge to the class action waiver is to be decided by the court rather than by an arbitrator. Trombley, at 152-53. The federal court also noted that it was plaintiffs’ burden to establish that the arbitration clause was unconscionable, and that plaintiffs’ request for additional time was for purposes of conducting “limited discovery” concerning the Bank’s assertion that the class action claims “are subject to arbitration.” Id., at 153. Specifically, plaintiffs argued “that they need[ed] discovery to challenge the class action waiver in the arbitration provision with factual support that the waiver is unconscionable because it operates as a bar to the claims raised in this case.” Id., at 154. The district court agreed that plaintiffs were entitled to conduct discovery relevant to the issue of whether, because of the small amounts involved in any individual claim “has resulted in few or no individual claims being brought against [the Bank],” id. And with respect to the question of unconscionability, the district court held that plaintiffs were entitled to “limited discovery to address the procedures used by [the Bank] to sign up credit card members and the substantive issues of the costs and the alleged institutional bias of the NAF,” id. Accordingly, the federal court granted plaintiffs 60 days for the purpose of conducting “discovery limited to the enforceability of the class action waiver provision and the procedural and substantive unconscionability of the arbitration provision.” Id.