New Ninth Circuit ruling on Federal Arbitration Act preemption

The Ninth Circuit issued a decision today in Chamber of Commerce v. Bonta. The Ninth Circuit write summaries of its opinions for public consumption. As the Ninth Circuit puts it, a summary "constitutes no part of the opinion of the court. It [is] prepared by court staff for the convenience of the reader." The following summary provides a synopsis of the majority opinion authored by Judge Charles Lucero (a Tenth Circuit judge sitting by designation) and a partial dissent authored by Judge Sandra Ikuta:

The panel reversed, in part, the district court’s conclusion that California Assembly Bill 51 is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act; affirmed the district court’s determination that the civil and criminal penalties associated with AB 51 were preempted; vacated the district court’s preliminary injunction enjoining AB 51’s enforcement; and remanded for further proceedings.

AB 51, which added § 432.6 to the California Labor Code, was enacted with the purpose of ensuring that individuals are not retaliated against for refusing to consent to the waiver of rights and procedures established in the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Labor Code; and to ensure that any contract relating to those rights and procedures be entered into as a matter of voluntary consent, not coercion. Other provisions of the California Code, specifically Labor Code § 433 and Government Code § 12953, render violations of § 432.6 a misdemeanor offense and open an employer to potential civil sanctions. The district court concluded that AB 51 placed agreements to arbitrate on unequal footing with other contracts and also that AB 51 stood as an obstacle to the purposes and objectives of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). The district court preliminarily enjoined enforcement of § 432.6(a)–(c) as to arbitration agreements covered by the FAA.

The panel held that California Labor Code § 432.6 neither conflicted with the language of § 2 of the FAA nor created a contract defense by which executed arbitration agreements could be invalidated or not enforced. A thorough review of the historical context of the FAA, its legislative history, and subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence demonstrated that Congress was focused on the enforcement and validity of consensual written
agreements to arbitrate and did not intend to preempt state laws requiring that agreements to arbitrate be voluntary. The panel held that § 432.6 did not make invalid or unenforceable any agreement to arbitrate, even if such agreement was consummated in violation of the statute. Rather, the panel noted that while mandating that employer-employee arbitration agreements be consensual, § 432.6 specifically provides that nothing in the section was intended to invalidate a written arbitration agreement that was otherwise enforceable under the FAA. The panel determined that § 432.6 applied only in the absence of an agreement to arbitrate and expressly provided for the validity and enforceability of agreements to arbitrate. The panel held
that because the district court erred in concluding that § 432.6(a)–(c) were preempted by the FAA, it necessarily abused its discretion in granting Appellees a preliminary injunction.

The panel agreed, however, that the civil and criminal penalties associated with AB 51 stood as an obstacle to the purposes of the FAA and were therefore preempted. The panel held that Section § 432.6 was not preempted by the FAA because it was solely concerned with pre-agreement
employer behavior, but because the accompanying enforcement mechanisms sanctioning employers for violating § 432.6 necessarily included punishing employers for entering into an agreement to arbitrate. The panel held that a state law that incarcerates an employer for six months for entering into an arbitration agreement directly conflicts with § 2 of the FAA. Therefore, the panel held that Government Code § 12953 and Labor Code § 433 were
preempted to the extent that they applied to executed arbitration agreements covered by the FAA.

Dissenting, Judge Ikuta stated that AB 51 has a disproportionate impact on arbitration agreements by making it a crime for employers to require arbitration provisions in employment contracts. She stated that the majority abetted California’s attempt to evade the FAA and the Supreme Court’s caselaw by upholding this antiarbitration law on the pretext that it barred only nonconsensual agreements. Judge Ikuta stated that the majority’s ruling conflicted with the Supreme Court’s clear guidance in Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421, 1425 (2017), which held that the FAA invalidates state laws that impede the formation of arbitration agreements. The majority ruling also created a circuit split with sister circuits, which have held that too-clever-by-half workarounds and covert efforts to block the formation of arbitration agreements are preempted by the FAA just as much as laws that block enforcement of such agreements.

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