Two California Appellate Courts Invalidate Auto Installment Contract Arbitration Clauses

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Recently, the California Court of Appeals for the First and Second Appellate Districts affirmed lower court orders denying two automobile dealerships’ petitions to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration clause in the vehicle retail installment sales contracts (RISC) was procedurally and substantively unconscionable. Norton v. Ford of Santa Monica, B237273, 2012 WL 6721400 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 28, 2012); Natalini v. Import Motors, Inc., A133236, 2013 WL 64611 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 7, 2013). Both trial courts rejected the dealerships’ motions to compel arbitration of complaints alleging multiple causes of action, including violations of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Automobile Sales Finance Act, and Business and Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Act, holding that the arbitration clauses in the RISCs were unconscionable. On appeal, the courts agreed that the arbitration provisions were substantively unconscionable because they were systematically structured to provide only the dealer a right and opportunity to appeal and, because the arbitration agreement provided no fee waiver for the consumer, the financial ramifications of the clause favored the corporate dealership over the individual consumer. Both courts also held that the arbitration clauses were procedurally unconscionable because they contained elements of surprise, with the First Appellate District also holding that the RISC contained elements of oppression since the contract was one of adhesion. Applying a “sliding scale” to the relative importance of each element, the courts found the arbitration clauses sufficiently substantively and procedurally unconscionable and upheld the trial courts’ denial of the dealerships’ petitions to compel arbitration.