Arbitration clause in a release is upheld in Mississippi, but only because it was “fair”

Larger issue is should you use arbitration and if you should, when?

Daniels v. Virginia College at Jackson; 478 Fed. Appx. 892; 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 13037

State:

Plaintiff: Mississippi, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Defendant: Virginia College L.L.C.; Education Corporation of America; Willis-Stein and Partners

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, conversion, embezzlement, and unjust enrichment

Defendant Defenses: Mandatory arbitration as found in the release which was part of the enrolment agreement

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2012

The facts of this case are unknown. What is known is the plaintiff enrolled in the defendant college. To enroll she had to sign an Enrollment and Tuition Agreement. The Enrollment and Tuition Agreement (Enrollment form) had a mandatory arbitration clause.

Arbitration is a cross between mediation and a trial. Arbitration is usually done by a member of the American Arbitration Association or by a neutral party picked by both sides. Arbitration is a lot cheaper and faster than going to trial. In many states, an arbitrator cannot award all the types of damages that a jury or judge could. Arbitrators rarely award as much money in damages as a jury does.

Arbitration is supported by state law, which limits damages, compels arbitration and encourages and forces parties to an arbitration clause to arbitrate.

In this case, the plaintiff objected the required arbitration required in the contract. That arbitration was required by the trial court, and the plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth circuit court upheld the mandatory arbitration.

Summary of the case

The discussion in this case is fairly simple. The plaintiff was unhappy about how the defendant school had retained portions of the federal financial aid she had received. She sued claiming the arbitration clause was void because it was unconscionable.

Under Mississippi law unconscionability:

…is proven by oppressive contract terms such that there is a one-sided agreement whereby one party is deprived of all the benefits of the agreement or left without a remedy for another party’s nonperformance or breach.

The plaintiff argued that the enrollment agreement was unconscionable because it limited damages, had a jurisdiction and venue clause and awarded the defendant attorney fees if it won its case. To overcome some of the issues, the defendant in its written argument to the appellate court considered the attorney fee’s clause stating the clause allowed any winning party to recover its attorney fees.

Consequently, the arbitration clause was not found to be unconscionable in this situation applying Mississippi law.

So Now What?

The real issue to look at in this case is, should you use arbitration if you run an outdoor recreation business or program and if so when.

Probably, if you are an outdoor recreation activity in a state that supports the use of a release, and you have a well-written release, then no, do not require arbitration. The reason is simple; arbitration does not allow motions for summary judgment, which is a quick and final ending to the litigation.

Arbitration will allow the parties to go to arbitration and allow the plaintiff to have their day in court. Usually, a motion for summary judgment is faster, simpler and cheaper.

The only places I would consider arbitration in an outdoor recreation business setting would be those states that do not allow the use of a release, if those states support mandatory arbitration. At the time of the writing of this article, those states are: Louisiana, Montana, and Virginia (although Virginia attorneys continuously tell me lower courts uphold releases?).

Possibly Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Arizona, New Mexico, and West Virginia for some activities were the state legislature or the courts have held that releases are not valid for those activities. However, in all of those states, you must investigate the statute and make sure arbitration works the way you need as well as limits the damages that can be awarded by an arbitrator.

See States that do not Support the Use of a Release

Arbitration is not a cover up for having a bad release. If your release is bad, an arbitration clause is not going to provide any greater protection. Besides if you have a bad release, you probably have a bad arbitration clause also.

Of note, is the court looked at the over-all fairness of the agreement and the arbitration clause. Without a finding of fundamental fairness, the court might have voided the arbitration clause. In  

For an article on failed arbitration see: Complicated serious of cases created to defend against a mountaineering death.

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Daniels v. Virginia College at Jackson; 478 Fed. Appx. 892; 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 13037

Daniels v. Virginia College at Jackson; 478 Fed. Appx. 892; 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 13037

Natifracuria, Plaintiff-Appellant, Virginia College L.L.C.; Education Corporation of America; Willis-Stein and Partners, Defendants-Appellees,

No. 11-60861 Summary Calendar

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

June 26, 2012, Filed

NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. USDC No. 3:11-CV-496.

DISPOSITION: The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.

COUNSEL: For NATIFRACURIA DANIELS, Plaintiff – Appellant: Precious Tyrone Martin, Sr., Esq., Precious Martin, Sr. & Associates, P.L.L.C., Jackson, MS.

For VIRGINIA COLLEGE, L.L.C., EDUCATION CORPORATION OF AMERICA, Defendants – Appellees: Ollie Ancil Cleveland, III, Esq., Peter Sean Fruin, Attorney, Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C. Birmingham, AL.

For WILLIS-STEIN AND PARTNERS, Defendant – Appellee: Robert Lewis Gibbs, Esq., Gibbs Whitwell, P.L.L.C., Jackson, MS.

JUDGES: Before REAVLEY, SMITH, and PRADO, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

[*893] PER CURIAM:*

* Pursuant to 5th Cir. R. 47.5, the court has determined that this opinion should not be published and is not precedent except under the limited circumstances set forth in 5th Cir. R. 47.5.4.

Plaintiff-Appellant Natifracuria Daniels appeals the district court’s order compelling arbitration of her state-law tort and restitution claims against Defendants-Appellees Virginia College at Jackson, Virginia College, L.L.C., Education Corporation of America, and Willis-Stein and Partners (collectively “Virginia College”). Virginia College moved [**2] to compel arbitration in order to enforce an arbitration clause in the “Enrollment and Tuition Agreement,” which Daniels signed before enrolling as a student at Defendant Virginia College at Jackson (individually, “the College”). On appeal, Daniels contends that the Agreement’s arbitration clause does not cover her tort claims, and she contends that the arbitration clause is unconscionable.

We AFFIRM.

The Enrollment Agreement’s arbitration clause requires arbitration of any claim “arising out of or relating to [the Agreement], together will all other claims . . . of any nature whatsoever arising out of or in relation to [Daniels’s] enrollment and participation in courses at the College . . . .” Daniels alleges that the College unlawfully retained the portion of her federal financial aid monies that should have been disbursed to Daniels to cover her cost of living. She brings state-law claims sounding in negligence, conversion, embezzlement, and unjust enrichment. Because these claims arose “in relation to [Daniels’s] enrollment and participation in courses at the College,” the district court was correct in finding them subject to the arbitration clause.

[HN1] Under Mississippi law,1 substantive [**3] unconscionability “is proven by oppressive contract terms such that there is a one-sided agreement whereby one party is deprived of all the benefits of the agreement or left without a remedy for another party’s nonperformance or breach.” Covenant Health and Rehab. of Picayune, LP v. Estate of Moulds, 14 So. 3d 695, 699-700 (Miss. 2009) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). In Covenant Health, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that a contract containing an arbitration clause “coupled with a multitude of unconscionable provisions,” including asymmetrical limitations on liability, choice of forum, and other matters, was unenforceable in its entirety. Id. at 703. Daniels argues that the Enrollment Agreement is similarly laden with unconscionable provisions.

1 The Enrollment Agreement has an Alabama choice-of-law provision. But no party raises this provision, and they have relied on Mississippi law throughout their briefing on appeal and before the district court.

First, there is language in the arbitration clause that allows the College, but not Daniels, to seek injunctive relief in court. [HN2] An agreement that requires only one party to submit its claims to arbitration is unconscionable [**4] under Mississippi law,2 but the language at issue here merely allows the College to seek a preliminary injunction to halt a student’s ongoing breach of the Enrollment Agreement. The College must seek all other relief though arbitration. An asymmetric exception so limited in scope does not make an arbitration clause unconscionable. Sawyers v. Herrin-Gear Chev. Co., 26 So. 3d 1026, 1035 (Miss. 2010) (arbitration clause between car dealer and purchaser enforceable notwithstanding exception allowing car dealer to bring an action to repossess the car in court).

2 Covenant Health, 14 So. 3d at 700 (citing Pridgen v. Green Tree Fin. Servicing Corp., 88 F. Supp. 2d 655, 658 (S.D. Miss. 2000)).

[*894] Daniels also points to the arbitration clause’s language prohibiting the arbitrator from awarding any damages not “measured by the prevailing party’s actual compensatory damages.” [HN3] Ostensibly bilateral limitations on punitive damages are unconscionable under Mississippi law if they are one-sided in practical effect due to the weaker party’s being “much more likely to be justified in seeking punitive damages.” Vicksburg Partners, L.P. v. Stephens, 911 So.2d 507, 523-24 (Miss 2005) (ostensibly bilateral punitive-damages [**5] limitation in contract of adhesion between nursing home and occupant unenforceable against occupant), overruled on other grounds by Covenant Health, 14 So. 3d at 706 (Miss. 2009). However, as Virginia College concedes in its brief, the arbitration clause does not bar the arbitrator from awarding damages in excess of compensatory damages. It merely requires that the amount of such damages be based on the prevailing party’s compensatory damages. Sawyers, 26 So. 3d at 1036 (interpreting nearly identical language as requiring only that the parties be “limited as to the amount of punitive damages which might be awarded, since such an award would have to be ‘measured by the prevailing party’s actual damages'”). Such provisions are not unconscionable. Id.

Daniels next points to the Enrollment Agreement’s asymmetric liquidated damages provision, which she contends would leave her without any remedy for the wrongs she alleges because its language limits her recovery to “an amount equal to any non-refunded tuition payments . . . .” [HN4] Contractual provisions intended to exculpate a party of liability for its own tortious conduct are particularly suspect under Mississippi law. See Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So.2d 467, 469 (Miss. 1999)). [**6] As Virginia College concedes, however, the liquidated damages provision in the Enrollment Agreement applies only to breach-of-contract damages, and would not affect recovery for Daniels’s claims.

Finally, a provision of the agreement permits the college to recover attorney’s fees against Daniels if it prevails in any action or arbitration that is “permitted” by the Enrollment Agreement or that “aris[es] out of [the Agreement] and the subject matter contained [there]in.” However, while the Enrollment Agreement is silent with respect to Daniels’s recovering fees if she prevails, Virginia College disavows any interpretation of it that would preclude Daniels from recovering attorneys’ fees to which she might otherwise be entitled under the arbitration rules. Given Virginia College’s concessions regarding the meaning of its provisions, enforcing the Enrollment Agreement’s arbitration clause is not unconscionable under Mississippi law.

The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.