Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela

Justia Summary

In 2016, a hacker tricked an employee into disclosing tax information of about 1,300 Lamps employees. After a fraudulent federal income tax return was filed in the name of Varela, he filed a putative class action on behalf of employees whose information had been compromised. Relying on the arbitration agreement in Varela’s employment contract, Lamps sought to compel arbitration on an individual rather than a classwide basis. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the rejection of the individual arbitration request, authorizing class arbitration. Although Supreme Court precedent held (Stolt-Nielsen, 2010) that a court may not compel classwide arbitration when an agreement is silent on the availability of such arbitration, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Stolt-Nielsen did not apply because the Lamps agreement was ambiguous, not silent, concerning class arbitration.

The Supreme Court reversed, Under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 2, an ambiguous agreement cannot provide the necessary contractual basis for concluding that the parties agreed to submit to class arbitration. Arbitration is strictly a matter of consent. Class arbitration, unlike the individualized arbitration envisioned by the Act, “sacrifices the principal advantage of arbitration—its informality—and makes the process slower, more costly, and more likely to generate procedural morass than final judgment.” Courts may not infer consent to participate in class arbitration absent an affirmative “contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.” Silence is not enough and ambiguity does not provide a sufficient basis to infer consent.