Georgia Supreme Court Finds Mandatory Arbitration Clause in Law Firm Engagement Agreement Is Neither Unconscionable nor Void as Against State Public Policy

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

The plaintiff sued its former lawyer and law firm for legal malpractice. The defendants moved to dismiss and compel arbitration based on a mandatory arbitration clause in the parties’ engagement agreement. The trial court denied the motion, finding the arbitration clause was unconscionable, and thus unenforceable, having been entered into in violation of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (GRPC). The appellate court reversed, finding the clause was neither void as against public policy nor unconscionable. Plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which granted review of two questions: (1) whether the GRPC requires an attorney to obtain the informed consent of his/her client before including a clause mandating arbitration of legal malpractice claims in the parties’ engagement agreement; and if so, (2) whether failing to obtain that consent renders such a clause unenforceable under Georgia law.

Substantively addressing the second question only, the Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court, finding the first question need not be answered. Specifically, the Court held, even assuming the failure to obtain a prospective client’s informed consent does violate the GRPC, the arbitration clause at issue here would still not be unenforceable. The Court rejected the argument that clauses of this kind violate state public policy, noting that Georgia has a clear public policy in favor of arbitration, and that “[t]here is nothing about attorney-client contracts in general that takes them outside this policy and makes mandatory arbitration of disputes arising under them illegal.” The Court also found Georgia does not have a categorical policy against mandating arbitration of legal malpractice claims. Rather, and contrary to the plaintiff’s argument, the Court held that a contract is void as against public policy, and thus unenforceable, where the agreement itself effectuates illegality, not because the process of entering the contract was allegedly improper. Thus, because the arbitration clause at issue would still be lawful even if the defendants had complied with the GRPC, the Court found the clause is not void as against public policy. In addition, based on the limited record before it, the Court found no basis to conclude the arbitration clause at issue is either procedurally or substantively unconscionable.

Innovative Images, LLC v. James Darren Summerville, et al., Case No. S19G1026 (Ga. Sept. 8, 2020)

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