Italian Colors Restaurant, along with other merchants, sued American Express in a class action lawsuit for alleged antitrust violations for compelling merchants to accept American Express credit cards and pay exorbitant rates. In the agreements those merchants signed with American Express, they agreed to use bilateral arbitration rather than class actions in resolving any disputes. Italian Colors argues that this bilateral arbitration clause would create prohibitive costs for any pursuit of their legal rights. This effectively immunizes American Express from any liability under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Therefore, courts must not enforce the arbitration agreement in this context. American Express contends that courts should adhere to the terms of arbitration agreements unless the terms would violate substantive United States law. From a policy standpoint, Italian Colors claims that arbitration is a poor vehicle to vindicate antitrust claims because the length of time an arbitral proceeding would take would create problems for potential claimants, creating difficulty in pursuing a claim before the statute of limitation expires and removing a disincentive for corporate abuse. American Express notes the myriad benefits of arbitration over litigation, specifically arguing that arbitration is more beneficial to lower income plaintiffs and less subject to abuse by frivolous or vengeful lawsuits.
Whether federal arbitration law recognizes an “effective vindication” exception to class-arbitration waivers that allows courts to ignore arbitration agreements and permit class-action lawsuits where individual plaintiffs’ claims are so small that no single plaintiff would rationally bring a bilateral, one-on-one arbitration to vindicate federal rights.
- Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel, Reuters: Supreme Court to Review Amex Arbitration Case (Nov. 9, 2012).
- Greg Stohr, Bloomberg: Business Groups Get Top U.S. Court Hearing on Arbitration (Nov. 9, 2012).