Monday, November 30, 2009

consumer - arbitration clause

Kaneff v. Delaware Title Loan - 3d Cir. - November 24, 2009
This case involves a personal loan for $550 on which the plaintiff's car was collateral. Over a 6-month period, plaintiff paid over $800 but still owed over more than $700 on this loan, on which the interest rate was 300%. After a series of unfortunate events, including repossession, plaintiff sued the loan company. She eventually got the car back then brought a class action under a number of consumer protection statutes.
The lower court dismissed the case and granted defendant's motion to compel arbitration, pursuant to a clause in the contract.
Here are comments about the case from plaintiff's counsel, Robert Salvin, staff attorney with Community Impact Legal Services. His brief is attached.

We finally have a decision in the Kaneff case, and unfortunately it is not good. The Third Circuit affirmed the district court decision enforcing the arbitration agreement. It is quite disheartening. A copy of the decision is attached. I was so much hoping that after all this time there would be a better decision than this one. The court did not find that the class action waiver was unconscionable.

The court agreed that the cost sharing provision of the arbitration agreement was unconscionable, and severed it from the agreement. That cost sharing provision, which was presumably in all of the contracts, required borrowers to pay their own fees and costs even though the applicable consumer protection statutes would allow fees and costs (including attorney's fees) to be shifted to Delaware Title Loans in a successful case. I had argued that even the presence of the clause was a problem because it was a misrepresentation to all of the consumers who signed similar contracts of their ability to obtain fees and costs in a successful arbitration and would having a chilling effect on challenges. There is not really any discussion of that argument in the decision. There is not much discussion of the exception to arbitration that allowed Delaware Title Loans to bypass arbitration and repossess borrowers' cars by self help. The court basically concludes in summary fashion that the arbitration clause is not unconscionable under Pennsylvania law.

There is one good point to the decision, which is that the court performed a choice of law analysis and did find that Pennsylvania law applied. That is a finding that supports the merits of the argument for every Pennsylvania borrower that title loans originating in Delaware are illegal in Pennsylvania. It is certainly helpful in the Salvatico case.

So the court makes a key choice of law decision that Pennsylvania law applies to the transaction despite the choice of law clause in the contract contrary, but then abandons thousands of Pennsylvanians who have borrowed money from this lender and others like it by depriving them of an effective remedy in the form of a class action.

I do not think it is clear that a Pennsylvania court would reach the same conclusion as to the class action waiver. The Third Circuit has previously indicated its rejection of the Pennsylvania Superior Court cases on class action waivers, which are favorable consumers, but a trial court in Pennsylvania would be bound by those decisions. In other words, I would suggest that a similar case could still be filed in state court against a similar entity challenging a class action waiver under the Superior Court authority, and such a case could be kept in state court if the complaint was limited to state law causes of action and contained express limitations on damages, not more than $74,999 per in person, not more than $4,999,999 in the aggregate. Food for thought. There is some possible subtlety in the decision. I suggest you take a look. I am wondering whether the court is suggesting that an arbitrator could still find that the entire contract, including the class action waiver, is unconscionable?

One might think the choice of law part of the decision would have a chilling effect on loans made to Pennsylvanians in the future, but I doubt it.

There is a limited period, ten days I suppose (but I need to check), to file for en banc review.