The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rendered an important decision on March 5, 2012, addressing the enforceability of binding arbitration provisions in consumer deposit agreements. The case began when Lawrence and Pamela Hough brought suit against Regions Bank for allegedly violating federal and state law by collecting overdraft charges under its deposit agreement. The deposit agreement contained an arbitration provision and Regions moved to compel arbitration. The federal district court hearing the case denied the motion to compel on the ground that the arbitration clause was substantively unconscionable because it contained a class action waiver. Regions appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the appellate court vacated the ruling and sent it back to the trial court in light of a recent United States Supreme Court which held that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted a California’s judicial rule regarding the unconscionability of class arbitration waivers in consumer contracts. This time around the district court found other reasons to deny Regions’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration clause was substantively unconscionable under Georgia law because it believed that a provision granting Regions the unilateral right to recover its expenses for arbitration allocated disproportionately to the Houghs the risks of error and loss inherent in dispute resolution.

The lower court decision was again appealed to the 11th Circuit. On appeal the Houghs argued that while the arbitration provision in the deposit agreement capped the Houghs’ costs for the arbitration proceeding at $125, another paragraph required the Houghs to reimburse Regions as a prevailing party for its costs of arbitration. The arbitration agreement permitted Regions, if it was “the prevailing party,” to obtain “reimburse[ment] for [its] costs and expenses (including reasonable attorney’s fees) … [in] arbitration” and to collect that amount by “charg[ing] [the Houghs’] account.” The district court concluded that the reimbursement provision was unconscionable because Regions had an exclusive right of setoff. The 11th Circuit disagreed, and noted that under Georgia law an arbitration provision is not unconscionable because it lacks mutuality of remedy. The district court also ruled that the arbitration clause had a degree of procedural unconscionability, but the 11th Circuit found that to be unconscionable under Georgia law, a contract must be so one-sided that “no sane man not acting under a delusion would make and that no honest man would participate in the transaction.” The court found that the arbitration clause in the Houghs’ agreement fell well short of that standard. Although the district court found it troubling that the clause was presented to the Houghs “on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with no opt-out provision,” the 11th Circuit noted that under Georgia law, an adhesion contract (i.e., one that is not truly negotiated between the parties such as a deposit agreement or a credit card agreement) is not per se unconscionable.

This is a timely decision for banks, particularly in light of the announcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on April 24 that it is launching a public inquiry into how consumers and financial services companies are affected by arbitration and arbitration clauses. Financial institutions began using binding arbitration provisions in the late 1980’s as a means of managing legal risk. Arbitration provides for a neutral forum to hear customer complaints without the risk of a runaway jury swayed by an emotional appeal from a plaintiff’s counsel. To that end it has served an important role as part of the overall enterprise risk management program for financial institutions. When the arbitration provisions are fair procedurally, meaning that the venue for the arbitration is easy to get to and the costs imposed on the consumers are minimum, the courts, from the United States Supreme Court on down, have upheld the enforceability of such provisions. Banks are understandably concerned that the CFPB will now frown upon a process which the Supreme Court has upheld as both procedurally and substantively fair.