Does a Consumer Arbitration Agreement Apply to a Company’s Future Affiliates? The Ninth and Fourth Circuits Disagree

If a company enters an arbitration agreement with a consumer, can its future affiliate companies enforce the arbitration agreement even though the affiliate relationship did not exist at the time the consumer signed the agreement? The Ninth Circuit recently answered “no” in Revitch v. DIRECTV, LLC, __ F.3d __, 2020 WL 5814095 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2020), creating a split with the Fourth Circuit. We initially covered the decision in our Left Coast Appeals blog, but expand our discussion here to emphasize some useful practice pointers for companies seeking to avoid the same outcome.

The plaintiff, Jeremy Revitch, alleged that DIRECTV, a satellite television services company, placed prerecorded telemarketing calls to his mobile phone without his consent and in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”). He filed a class action complaint against DIRECTV in 2018. Revitch did not have a service agreement with DIRECTV. He did, however, have a contract for mobile phone wireless services with AT&T Mobility LLC (“AT&T Mobility”) that contained an arbitration agreement, which he entered in 2011. The arbitration agreement provided that “AT&T [Mobility] and you agree to arbitrate all disputes and claims between us. This agreement to arbitrate is intended to be broadly interpreted. It includes, but is not limited to . . . claims arising out of . . . any aspect of the relationship between us, whether based in . . . statute . . . or any other legal theory.”  2020 WL 5814095, at *11. The contract’s definition of AT&T Mobility included all “affiliates.” Id. at *2. AT&T Mobility and DIRECTV became “affiliates” (i.e., companies under common ownership) in 2015 when AT&T Mobility’s parent company, AT&T, Inc., acquired DIRECTV. Accordingly, DIRECTV moved to compel arbitration of Revitch’s complaint pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1–16 (“FAA”). The district court denied the motion on the ground that the arbitration agreement between Revitch and AT&T Mobility did not reflect the parties’ intent to arbitrate his claim against DIRECTV. DIRECTV appealed.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that a valid agreement to arbitrate did not exist between Revitch and DIRECTV, a satellite television company that became an affiliate of AT&T Mobility three years after Revitch signed the wireless services contract containing the arbitration agreement. 2020 WL 5814095, at *5. The court reasoned that “absurd results follow from DIRECTV’s preferred interpretation,” which would require Revitch “to arbitrate any dispute with any corporate entity that happens to be acquired by AT&T, Inc., even if neither the entity nor the dispute has anything to do with providing wireless services to Revitch—and even if the entity becomes an affiliate years or even decades in the future.” Id. at *4. It thus affirmed based on its application of California’s “absurd results” canon of contract construction.   

Judge O’Scannlain penned a concurring opinion, suggesting that even if the court analyzed the issue in terms of whether the arbitration clause in Revitch’s contract with AT&T Mobility encompassed his TCPA claim against DIRECTV, rather than asking whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists between Revitch and DIRECTV, the court still would deny DIRECTV’s motion to compel arbitration. Judge O’Scannlain reasoned that, under the FAA, the claim to be settled by arbitration “must be one ‘arising out of’ the contract or transaction. By negative implication, the FAA does not require the enforcement of an arbitration clause to settle a controversy that does not arise out of the contract or transaction.” 2020 WL 5814095, at *7. Because, in his view, Revitch’s TCPA suit based on allegedly unsolicited advertisements for DIRECTV’s satellite television services is unrelated to Revitch’s contract for wireless services with AT&T Mobility, the suit does not “aris[e] out of” the contract and is not subject to the FAA. Id. at *10.

Judge Bennett dissented, explaining that because “[n]either party disputes the existence and validity of the arbitration clause on which DIRECTV . . . relies,” the issue before the court is not one of contract formation, but one of scope: “‘whether the agreement encompasses the dispute at issue.’” Id. (citation omitted). In his view, “affiliates” includes DIRECTV because “[n]othing in the arbitration clause or in the dictionary definition of the word ‘affiliate’ confers any type of temporal scope to the term so that ‘affiliates’ should be read to refer only to present affiliates.” Id. at *11. “Because Revitch agreed to arbitrate ‘all disputes and claims,’” DIRECTV may compel arbitration under the agreement. Judge Bennett further noted that, “[e]ven if some ambiguity exists,” Supreme Court precedent would require the court to construe the agreement to apply to future affiliates and enforce the arbitration clause. Id. at *10 (citing Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 1418 (2019) (“[A]mbiguities about the scope of an arbitration agreement must be resolved in favor of arbitration.”)). He further reasoned that the majority’s application of California’s “absurd results” canon disfavors arbitration agreements compared to other contracts and, therefore, contravenes the Supreme Court’s precedent in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 341–42 (2011). 2020 WL 5814095, at *13.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision creates a circuit split on this issue. Just two months ago, in a case involving substantially similar facts and the same arbitration clause, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the consumer-plaintiff formed an agreement to arbitrate with DIRECTV and that her TCPA claim “fit within the broad scope of that agreement, construed, as it must be, to favor arbitration.” Mey v. DIRECTV, LLC, 971 F.3d 284, 286 (4th Cir. 2020). Like Judge Bennett’s dissent, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the arbitration agreement “contains no explicit limitation on the term [affiliates],” and the term’s ordinary meaning includes present and future affiliates. Id. The Fourth Circuit thus concluded that plaintiff Mey formed an agreement to arbitrate with DIRECTV. Further, considering the arbitration agreement’s broad language (i.e., requiring arbitration of “all disputes and claims between us”), and applying the presumption in favor of arbitrability, the court concluded it must enforce the arbitration agreement. Id.

Practice Pointers to Takeaway

  • A company’s ability to rely on an arbitration clause in a later-acquired affiliate’s service agreement with a consumer will depend on the jurisdiction. Courts within the Fourth Circuit may enforce such arbitration agreements where the companies did not become affiliates until after the agreement was entered, while courts within the Ninth Circuit may not. It remains to be seen how other circuits will come out. 
  • Companies should consider drafting arbitration clauses to cover future affiliates and subsidiaries expressly, since the Ninth Circuit opined that “[h]ad the wireless services agreement stated that ‘AT&T’ refers to ‘any affiliates, both present and future,’ we might arrive at a different conclusion.” Revitch, 2020 WL 5814095, at *4 (emphasis added).
  • In courts within the Ninth Circuit, all things being equal, a company’s future “successors” or “assignees” likely would have an easier time enforcing an arbitration agreement than a future “affiliate” would since an arbitration agreement’s reference to a “successor” or “assignee” necessarily contemplates an unknown future event. This is something to keep in mind when structuring acquisitions.
  • Finally, the court may have reached a different outcome if either DIRECTV or its dispute with Revitch had been materially related to the services provided under Revitch’s wireless services agreement with AT&T Mobility. In that regard, the enforcement of an arbitration agreement by an after-acquired affiliate likely is not entirely foreclosed in the Ninth Circuit.