The Eighth Circuit affirmed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri which rejected the contention that an arbitration agreement was unconscionable, and unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, because (1) the prohibitively high costs associated with an individual arbitration proceeding prevented plaintiffs from pursuing their claims; and (2) it included a waiver of punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. In this case, a class of cleaning business franchisees sued a franchisor and related companies for RICO violations. Plaintiffs also contended that some defendants were non-signatories and therefore could not enforce the arbitration agreement. In response, defendants moved to compel individual arbitration citing the arbitration provision language in the respective franchise agreements.

Plaintiffs supported their claims with several figures including average loss per plaintiff, a range of individual filing fees, average daily fees for arbitrators in four cities, and a likely hearing length of three days. Altogether, plaintiffs asserted that their individual arbitration costs would exceed their respective damages. Ultimately, the court found that plaintiffs’ proof was insufficient because (1) the arbitrations would not take place in any of the four cities for which daily fees were provided and (2) plaintiffs did not submit individual affidavits demonstrating their inability to afford arbitration costs. The court emphasized that rather than a hypothetical inability to pay, plaintiffs must provide specific evidence of their individual inability to pay the actual arbitration fees likely to be incurred in order to overcome the federal policy favoring arbitration. The court also rejected plaintiffs’ claim that even if enforceable, the arbitration agreement prohibited non-signatories from compelling arbitration. The court also held that the arbitration agreement language was broad enough to include various non-signatory third parties, and deemed them capable of enforcing the arbitration provision. Torres v. Simpatico, Inc., No. 14-1567 (8th Cir. Mar. 25, 2015).

This post written by Rollie Goss.

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