On March 9, 2017, the Supreme Court of New Jersey delivered a significant victory to consumers against an auto dealership attempting to use an arbitration agreement to obstruct claims from being heard. Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC shows a strategy for overcoming delay tactics in arbitration so that consumer protection claims can be considered on the merits. Arbitration clauses appear in all sorts of contracts all over the country, including many real estate and construction matters. BM Motor Cars put a clause in its contracts requiring that disputes be decided under the rules of the American Arbitration Association. The AAA is a commonly used alternative dispute resolution service. After the consumers submitted their cases to the AAA, BM refused to pay its $3,200.00 portion of the arbitration fees required for them to proceed. Consequently, the AAA dismissed the claims. When the consumers filed lawsuits, the court referred the case back to AAA. BM used this revolving door tactic to continuously delay hearing of the consumers claims by a judge or arbitrator. Finally, the Supreme Court of New Jersey short-circuited these tactics, finding that BM breached the arbitration agreement by failing to pay the required fees. The opinion provides insights on how arbitration clauses may expand or restrict a party’s substantive rights under an agreement.
Arbitration clauses find their way into all sorts of contracts these days, in employment, consumer, HOA, condominium and many other matters where industries find themselves in risk of litigation. Many consumer advocates have a low opinion of arbitration clauses, and for good reason. Before diving into an analysis of the BM case, let’s first consider how arbitration differs from litigation.
I believe that parties ought to be able to contract for whatever alternative dispute resolution provisions of their own choosing. However, the devil is in the details of the arbitration clause language and the rules of the arbitration forum. The arbitration process works well for wealthy parties looking to reduce their annual legal expenses and keep their disputes out of the public eye. Consumers are better off with the judiciary, especially with juries or in small claims court.
Consumers often sign arbitration agreements for economic reasons, lack of consumer choice or by ignorance. Because parties often find themselves bound by arbitration clauses, the victory won by Mmes. Jackson & Roach is significant. These women (separately) purchased used cars from BM Motor Cars in Rahway, New Jersey. The Dispute Resolution Agreement provided for arbitration in accordance with the rules of the AAA before a single arbitrator who shall be a retired judge or attorney. The DRA also require that, “Dealership shall advance both party’s (sic) filing, service, administration, arbitrator, hearing or other fees, subject to reimbursement by decision of the arbitrator.” They subsequently submitted demands for arbitration against BM with the AAA. They asserted claims under consumer protection statutes. Ms. Jackson alleged that BM refused to sell the car for the advertised price, overcharged from title and registration and misrepresented the terms of the extended warranty. Ms. Roach also sued under consumer protection legislation. The AAA repeatedly requested that BM pay the arbitration fees required by its rules. The AAA suggested to the consumers that they simply pay BM’s fees and later seek recovery of them from BM in the arbitral award. After BM ignored these requests, the AAA dismissed the consumer’s cases. The AAA became so fed up that it sent BM a letter instructing it to remove the AAA arbitration language from its agreements. Undeterred, the consumers filed lawsuits in court. The judges granted BM’s motions to dismiss the cases and compel arbitration. The court wanted the plaintiffs to go back to AAA and for BM to pay the fees. When the women went back to the AAA, the arbitration company dismissed their claims again because BM failed to pay the fees. As you can see, BM was trying to deny the consumer a decision on the merits of their claims by leading through the revolving door from court to the AAA and back again.
At the Supreme Court of New Jersey, BM Motor Cars argued that the contract did not, “contemplate using AAA as the forum and venue for arbitration” and that it, “consistently not arbitrated disputes with its customers by utilizing AAA . . . because of the excessive filing and administrative fees charged by AAA.” However, BM never asserted this argument before the case reached the Supreme Court. The justices asked some pointed questions to BM’s lawyer about this at the January 3, 2017 oral argument. It sounds like they found BM’s belated objection to AAA as the arbitral forum to be disingenuous. The consumers responded to this by pointing to AAA’s rules which provide that if the contract requires that arbitration be conducted under AAA rules, then the AAA is a proper venue for the case.
The consumers argued that the requirement to advance the fees was a material term of the Dispute Resolution Agreement. By breaching that term, BM Motor Cars precluded itself from the right to force arbitration. BM waived its right to deny the consumers the ability to go to court instead. Roach & Jackson argue that BM should not profit from its own breach of the arbitration agreement’s language. The court rejected BM’s argument, finding that the consumer’s filing with the AAA was consistent with the terms of the arbitration clause.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court of New Jersey mentions that judges have not always been so inclined to enforce arbitration clauses. Under the common law, judges were averse to arbitration. Courts strictly construed these clauses as like they would with restrictive covenants or covenants not to compete. To encourage arbitration, congress and the states enacted legislation to place arbitration agreements upon the same footing as other contracts. Now a court cannot subject an arbitration agreement to more burdensome requirements than ordinary contract law doctrine. But the Supreme Court doesn’t end its analysis by affirming pro-arbitration public policy. Roach v. BM Motor Cars illustrates that ordinary contract law doctrine provides protections against abusive practices. Generally applicable contract law defenses can be applied in proper cases. Ambiguous provisions may be construed against the drafter of the agreement, especially in a take-it-or-leave-it consumer contract. Under contract law, breach of a material term relieves the non-breaching party of its obligations. The court observed that the federal Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal previously held that a party’s failure to pay required fees constitutes a material breach of an arbitration agreement.
The N.J. Supreme Court held that BM’s refusal to comply with the arbitration procedures was a material breach of the Dispute Resolution Agreement. This breach prevents BM from later compelling arbitration if the matter is brought to court before a judge. The case will proceed in the courts. The Supreme Court reversed the previous decisions that the trial judge and intermediate appellate panel made in favor of BM. Consistent with its finding that arbitration clauses are subject to generally-applicable contract law defenses, the Court refrained from setting rules about refusal to pay arbitration fees that could be applied in every case:
Nevertheless, we establish no bright-line rule. The determination of whether refusal to respond to a written arbitration demand within a reasonable time period constitutes a material breach of an arbitration agreement that precludes enforcement by the breaching party must be made on a case-by-case basis after considering the agreement’s terms and the conduct of the parties.
If consumers encounter this obstructionist tactic in the wake of these appellate decisions, they must consider whether it is easier to simply up-front the defendant’s fees or to initiate court motions practice on whether the defendant’s breach waived their right to enforce arbitration. In the wake of these decisions in New Jersey and the federal courts, I expect that parties preparing arbitration clauses will react accordingly. Some will seek to specifically burden the complaining party with the burden of up-fronting the arbitration agency and arbitrator fees. Roach v. BM Motor Cars represents a balanced approach to judicial enforcement of arbitration clauses. Perhaps there are additional contract law doctrines that parties can assert to protect their interests? Often builder contracts or community association restrictive covenants are ambiguous, contradictory or unclear in whether the remedies provided are exclusive. Consumers, property owners and family-owned businesses should not rely upon their opponent or their opponent’s lawyers to give a fair assessment of how a judge or arbitrator would read the agreement. When one’s investment, home or business are on the line, a qualified attorney can help navigate a path to a solution that may not be immediately apparent.
Opinion and Video:
Jan. 1, 2017 Oral Argument Video: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/webcast/archive.html