Class Action Defense Arbitration Cases–Omstead v. Dell: Ninth Circuit Court Reinstates Class Action Complaint And Reverses District Court Order Compelling Arbitration Of Class Action Claims On Individual Basis

Feb 16, 2010 | By: Michael J. Hassen

District Court Erred in Compelling Arbitration on Individual Basis of Class Action Claims because Texas Choice of Law Provision was Unenforceable and Class Action Waiver in Mandatory Arbitration Clause was Unenforceable under California law Ninth Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Dell alleging product liability claims involving laptop computers; specifically, the class action complaint asserted various California state law claims “predicated on the allegation that Dell designed, manufactured, and sold defective notebook computers.” Omstead v. Dell, Inc., ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. February 5, 2010) [Slip Opn., at 2101, 2104-05]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiffs had purchased notebook computers through Dell’s website, _id._, at 2105. As part of those purchases, “plaintiffs were required to accept a written agreement titled ‘U.S. Terms and Conditions of Sale’” (the “Agreement”). _Id._ In pertinent part, the Agreement stated that Texas law governed any dispute among the parties, and that any dispute between the customer and Dell “shall be resolved exclusively and finally by binding arbitration” and that the parties waived any right “to join or consolidate claims by or against other customers, or arbitrate any claim as a representative or class action,” _id._, at 2105-06. Defense attorneys moved to stay the class action and to compel arbitration of the plaintiffs’ individual claims based on an arbitration clause (which contained the class action waiver) in the Agreement. _Id._, at 2105, 2106. The district court granted the defense motion, _id._, at 2106. Plaintiffs, however, refused to comply with the arbitration order, so the district court dismissed the lawsuit based on plaintiffs’ failure to prosecute. _Id._, at 2105, 2106. Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal and the district court’s order compelling arbitration. _Id._, at 2105. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

Reviewing the district court order for an abuse of discretion, the Ninth Circuit first held that plaintiffs’ action should not have been dismissed for failure to prosecute the lawsuit. See Omstead, at 2107 et seq. Plaintiffs did not cause unreasonable delay of the lower court proceedings, id., at 2107-08, and they advised Dell and the district court of their interest in prosecuting the lawsuit as a class action and of their belief that the order compelling arbitration “was fatal to their action” and therefore requested “the district court to enter an order that would permit appellate review of the arbitration issue,” id., at 2108. In essence, the Circuit Court agreed with plaintiffs that the arbitration order placed them in an untenable position – prosecute the claims individually (which plaintiffs insisted that they lacked the financial means to do), or permit the court to dismiss the lawsuit and then pursue an appeal. Id., at 2108-09. The Ninth Circuit therefore exercised its discretion to treat the district court’s order of dismissal under Rule 41(b) as a voluntary dismissal with prejudice under Rule 41(a)(2), and turned to the merits of whether the class action claims should have been ordered to arbitration. Id., at 2109.

The Ninth Circuit held that the Texas choice of law provision was unenforceable and that California law applied, and that under California law the class action waiver in the arbitration clause rendered the provision unenforceable. See Omstead, at 2109-12. Accordingly, the Circuit Court reversed the district court order and remanded the class action for further proceedings. Id., at 2112.

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