In 2010, the United States Supreme Court struck a blow to class action plaintiffs subject to Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)-covered arbitration agreements when it concluded that a court may not compel class arbitration when the agreement is silent regarding the availability of such proceedings. Stolt-Nielsen SA v. AnimalFeeds Int’l, 559 U.S. 662 (2010). “[A] party may not be compelled under the FAA to submit to class arbitration unless there is a contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.” Id. at 684.
On April 24, 2019, the Court went one step further, holding that “[l]ike silence, ambiguity does not provide a sufficient basis to conclude that parties to an arbitration agreement” consented to class arbitration. Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, Case No. 17-988 (Apr. 24, 2019) (Lamps Plus). The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit decision, which found that contractual ambiguity coupled with state contract law requiring courts to construe ambiguities against the drafter created a contractual basis for class arbitration. See Varela v. Lamps Plus, Inc., 701 Fed. Appx. 670, 673 (9th Cir. 2017). The Court held that the FAA preempted the state contract law doctrine as applied by the Ninth Circuit because it “manufactured [class arbitration] by state law rather than consen[t].” When an arbitration agreement is ambiguous regarding class proceedings, the Court will “not seek to resolve the ambiguity by asking who drafted the agreement.” Rather, the FAA provides the default rule that class arbitration is not available when the contract is ambiguous.
The Court in Lamps Plus emphasized the “‘fundamental’ difference between class arbitration and the individualized form of arbitration envisioned by the FAA.” Unlike individual arbitration, which is more efficient because of its informality, class arbitration “look[s] like the litigation it was meant to displace” and introduces new costs and due process concerns for absent class members.
The Court’s decision in Lamps Plus is another arrow in the quiver for employers seeking to avoid costly class actions by use of arbitration agreements. While employers should always draft arbitration agreements with clear language regarding class proceedings, ambiguities may not land an employer in the morass of class arbitration.