Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co.: Cal. Supreme Court Justices Spar over Substantive Unconscionability, But Provide Little Guidance

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Last week, the California Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated opinion in Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., addressing whether state law concerning unconscionability in contract formation is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2, as interpreted by AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 321 (2011).  See Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., LLC, No. S199119 (Aug. 3, 2015) (slip opinion available here).  Many observers expected Sanchez to clarify the standard for determining unconscionability; however, that was not the case.

Prior to the issuance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Concepcion decision, the Sanchez trial court had determined that the class action waiver contained within the at-issue consumer auto sale contract was unconscionable, rendering the entire agreement unenforceable.  The Second District Court of Appeal came to the same result, but on the basis that the arbitration provision was so one-sided as to be unconscionable, punting on the class waiver issue.  The California Supreme Court was then tasked with synthesizing the prior holdings with Concepcion, and found that, while Concepcion does not affect California’s defenses to contract formation, including unconscionability, it still requires enforcement of the contract’s class action waiver.  The California Supreme Court’s opinion reversed the Court of Appeal on the issue of unconscionability, finding that the agreement was not inordinately one-sided.  Slip op. at 2.   

The basic framework for finding unconscionability is well-established, and is the same standard for arbitration and non-arbitration agreements.  Procedural and substantive unconscionability must both be present for a court to refuse to enforce a contract or clause.  However, they need not be present in the same degree; rather, a “sliding scale” is invoked.  While procedural unconscionability focuses on oppression or surprise due to unequal bargaining power, the standard for substantive unconscionability is more amorphous and has variously been described as requiring a finding that terms are “overly harsh,” “unduly oppressive,” “unfairly one-sided,” unfair “beyond a simple old-fashioned bad bargain,” and, most drastically, “so one-sided as to ‘shock the conscience.’”  Slip op. at 8.

In Sanchez, the California Supreme Court made the somewhat shocking pronouncement that the multiple formulations for substantive unconscionability “all mean the same thing.”  This is not particularly helpful when attempting to apply the standard to a particular agreement.  Does an agreement have to “shock the conscience” to be unconscionable or will “overly harsh” terms suffice?  How can these formulations really mean the same thing?  Sanchez provides no bright-line rule for litigants.  Rather, this case demonstrates that evaluating unconscionability is a fact-intensive process, highly dependent upon context, that requires inquiry into the “commercial setting, purpose, and effect” of an agreement, as the court demonstrates as it painstakingly analyzes the contract at issue.  Slip op. at 9.

The court addressed the fairness of each provision in turn, noting that much of the analysis is specific to the consumer sales context.  For example, the at-issue agreement in Sanchez allows for fee-shifting to the consumer in some situations, although the seller must advance arbitration fees.  Slip op. at 18.  The court held the allocation of costs and fees to be valid in the context of a luxury auto purchase, while noting that this would not be allowed in the employment context under the more rigorous standard of Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychare Services, Inc. (Cal. 2000).  Slip op. at 20-21.  The court further distinguished the consumer and employment settings, noting that jobseekers are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of bargaining power due to economic pressures, while the purchaser of a luxury automobile, such as Mr. Sanchez, can not only afford any fees that may be imposed, but is also in a better position to negotiate contract terms.  Id.

The Sanchez opinion likely won’t change much for litigants.  It merely reaffirms the holdings in Concepcion and Armendariz, stating that: (1) contracts remain subject to state unconscionability law and (2) even if an agreement is deemed fair in the consumer context, it still may not pass muster under the more rigorous standard applied to employment agreements, due to greater pressure on employees and the lack of meaningful alternatives in negotiating.  Rather than formulating a bright-line rule for unconscionability, the Sanchez court instead demonstrated that courts should carefully scrutinize arbitration agreements on a case-by-case basis in order to determine if they are manifestly unfair to one party.

While the defense bar is claiming a victory in Sanchez, the case has an unexpected upside for plaintiffs: while the majority notes that many courts use what they perceive as the harsher “shock the conscience” standard as a default, the Court’s holding that unconscionability standards such as “unfairly one-sided” and “overly harsh” mean the same thing may prompt courts on the stricter end of the spectrum to develop more flexible standards for unconscionability in arbitration agreements.

Authored By:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel