Recently, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, a case that will have a substantial impact on the enforceability of arbitration agreements that contain class action waivers.  Italian Colors picks up where the Supreme Court left off in AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepción when a sharply divided Supreme Court held that a state law purporting to invalidate class action waivers in arbitration agreements was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.

Here, the Supreme Court is confronting the question of whether, as the Second Circuit Court of Appeals put it, the “federal substantive law of arbitrability” can invalidate class action waivers in arbitration agreements when the underlying claims are based on federal law.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals determined that federal law requiredthe invalidation of the class action waiver because the cost of litigation compared to the relatively minimal amount of potential damages would effectively prohibit plaintiffs from pursuing their federal claims.  Concepción did not compel a different result, according to the Second Circuit, because in that case there was no showing that ”the practical effect of the enforcement would be to preclude [the plaintiff class's] ability to vindicate their statutory rights.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will have a substantial impact on the viability of class action waivers contained in arbitration clauses.  If the Second Circuit’s ruling is upheld, it will provide plaintiffs with a way around the limitations of Concepción if they are able to show that litigating a matter on an individual basis would be prohibitively expensive.  A decision reversing the Second Circuit would give business owners a greater ability to avoid complex and expensive class action litigation through carefully worded arbitration agreements.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case before the end of June 2013.