In October 2016, the California Court of Appeal held that a trial court erred in dismissing class claims due to a governing arbitration agreement. The court found that class arbitration may, in fact, be available—but that this was a question for the arbitrator to decide.
The Court of Appeal in Nguyen v. Applied Medical Resources Corporation, No. G052207 (4th Dist. Div. 3, Oct. 4, 2016) (slip op. available here), heard an appeal from Da Loc Nguyen, a former employee of surgical equipment manufacturer Applied Medical Resources Corporation (“Applied”), who had brought individual and class claims against her employer for violations of the California Labor Code and the Unfair Competition Law, and claims for civil penalties under the Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”). The trial court had granted Applied’s motion to compel arbitration due to an arbitration clause in Nguyen’s employment application, and had dismissed Nguyen’s class claims without prejudice, allowing only the PAGA claims to remain.
The Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate ordering the trial court to vacate the portion of its order dismissing the class claims. Although arbitration could be compelled, the appellate court found, the trial court could not simply dismiss the class claims outright. The court’s analysis relied heavily on the California Supreme Court’s decision in Sandquist v. Lebo Automotive, Inc., 1 Cal.5th 233 (2016), which involved a very similar arbitration clause. Sandquist addressed the question of “‘who decides whether the [arbitration] agreement permits or prohibits classwide arbitration, a court or the arbitrator[?]’” Nguyen, slip op. at 24, emphasis in original (citing Sandquist, 1 Cal.5th at 241).
First, the Nguyen court followed Sandquist’s holding that state law, rather than federal law, applied to the question of “who decides” whether class arbitration is available, as this is a question of contract interpretation that is usually subject to state law. Slip op. at 26. Next, the court examined the language of the arbitration clause and found that it was similar in two key respects to Sandquist: (1) the arbitration clause contained “inclusive” language, that is, it provided that all disputes (as opposed to specific, enumerated disputes) should go to arbitration; (2) the provision extended to all claims “arising from, related to, or having any relationship or connection whatsoever” with the employment relationship within the parties. Id. at 26-28 (citing Sandquist, 1 Cal. 5th at 245-46). These factors weighed in favor of allowing the arbitrator to make all decisions regarding the case—including the arbitrability of class claims. Id.
Finally, Nguyen followed Sandquist in applying two general principles of law: first, “when the allocation of a matter to arbitration or the courts is uncertain, we resolve all doubts in favor of arbitration.” Slip op. at 28. Second, ambiguous terms in written contracts should be construed against the drafter—especially when the contract is one of adhesion. Id. Thus, because Applied, the employer, drafted the arbitration clause in its take-it-or-leave-it employment application, Applied could have expressly stated whether class claims could be arbitrated. It did not, so it could not benefit from that ambiguity after the fact. Id. at 28-29 (citing Sandquist, 1 Cal. 5th at 247-48). Consequently, Nguyen held that the arbitration agreement gave the arbitrator—not the trial court—the power to decide whether class arbitration may occur.
Jennifer Bagosy, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC