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Bowles v. Onemain Financial Group, L.L.C.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 19, 2019

CATHY J. BOWLES, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
ONEMAIN FINANCIAL GROUP, L.L.C., Defendant-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

          Before JOLLY, COSTA, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          E. GRADY JOLLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Cathy Bowles appeals the district court's order compelling the arbitration of her federal age discrimination suit against OneMain Financial. Bowles objected to arbitration on the grounds that a valid arbitration agreement was never formed between her and OneMain for two reasons: first, there was no meeting of the minds and, second, the circumstances surrounding the arbitration agreement's formation render it procedurally unconscionable. Although the district court correctly rejected Bowles's meeting of the minds argument, it erroneously referred her procedural unconscionability[1] challenge to the arbitrator. Because procedural unconscionability goes to contract formation under Mississippi law, the district court should have ruled on this objection. Accordingly, we REVERSE and VACATE the district court's order and REMAND to the district court to decide the merits of Bowles's procedural unconscionability claim.

         I.

         Bowles had worked for OneMain Financial Group and its predecessors since 1998. Over that period she had agreed several times through employment contracts and acknowledgments of employee handbooks to refer all employment disputes to arbitration. In 2016, Bowles was again required to review and acknowledge OneMain's Employee Dispute Resolution Program/Agreement ("Arbitration Agreement"). This Arbitration Agreement provides that any employment-related dispute will be referred to arbitration in accordance with the rules and procedures of the American Arbitration Association. In addition, the Arbitration Agreement contained a delegation clause, which delegated to the arbitrator as follows: "any legal dispute . . . arising out of, relating to, or concerning the validity, enforceability or breach of this Agreement, shall be resolved by final and binding arbitration." On November 15, 2016, Bowles viewed the Arbitration Agreement[2] and electronically signed a certificate that reads: "I hereby certify that I have carefully read the Employment Dispute Resolution Program/Agreement within and that I understand and agree to its terms."

         In October 2017, OneMain terminated Bowles for allegedly inappropriate interactions with employees under her supervision. Bowles filed an unsuccessful administrative complaint with the EEOC. She next filed suit in federal court alleging that her termination violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In response, OneMain moved the district court, under the Federal Arbitration Act, [3] to compel Bowles to arbitrate her claims pursuant to the 2016 Arbitration Agreement.

         Bowles objected to OneMain's motion to compel by challenging the formation of the Arbitration Agreement itself on two grounds. First, she argued that there was no "meeting of the minds" because she did not understand that she was agreeing to a binding arbitration agreement and therefore there was not the mutual assent necessary for contract formation under Mississippi law. Second, she argued that the Agreement was procedurally unconscionable because her assent was obtained through misrepresentation, she never had a meaningful opportunity to bargain, and there was a gross disparity in the parties' bargaining power.

         The district court granted OneMain's motion to compel and dismissed the case with prejudice. It first found that there was the meeting of the minds necessary for contract formation in Mississippi. Next, instead of considering Bowles's procedural unconscionability claim on the merits, the district court found that "[c]laims of unconscionability do not affect whether an arbitration agreement has been entered but, instead, such claims permit a court to invalidate an otherwise existing agreement." Thus, reasoning that Bowles's procedural unconscionability objection went to the enforceability of the Arbitration Agreement and not its formation, the court held that this argument must be decided by the arbitrator under the Arbitration Agreement's delegation clause. Accordingly, the district court granted OneMain's motion to compel arbitration and dismissed the case with prejudice.

         Bowles has now appealed arguing that the district court incorrectly upheld the validity of the Arbitration Agreement on the erroneous ground that there was a meeting of the minds, and further erred by referring her procedural unconscionability claim to the arbitrator when, under Mississippi law, such objections are for the court to decide.

         II.

         "This court reviews the grant or denial of a motion to compel arbitration de novo." Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness, USA, Inc., 669 F.3d 202, 205 (5th Cir. 2012) (citing Morrison v. Amway Corp., 517 F.3d 248 (5th Cir. 2008)). To determine whether the parties entered a valid arbitration agreement, "courts generally . . . should apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts." First Options of Chi., Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944 (1995). In Mississippi, "[t]he elements of a contract are (1) two or more contracting parties, (2) consideration, (3) an agreement that is sufficiently definite, (4) parties with legal capacity to make a contract, (5) mutual assent, and (6) no legal prohibition precluding contract formation." GGNSC Batesville, LLC v. Johnson, 109 So.3d 562, 565 (Miss. 2013) (quoting Adams Cmty. Care Ctr., LLC v. Reed, 37 So.3d 1155, 1158 (Miss. 2010)). Under Mississippi law, both of Bowles's challenges-meeting of the minds and procedural unconscionability-go to contract formation. See West v. West, 891 So.2d 203, 213 (Miss. 2004) ("Procedural unconscionability goes to the formation of the contract." (citing East Ford, Inc. v. Taylor, 826 So.2d 709, 714 (Miss. 2002))); GGNSC Batesville, 109 So.3d at 565 (mutual assent necessary element of contract formation).

         Furthermore, courts must follow a two-step analysis to determine whether a claim must be arbitrated. "At step one, 'the court must determine whether the parties entered into any arbitration agreement at all.'" Lloyd's Syndicate 457 v. FloaTEC, L.L.C., 921 F.3d 508, 514 (5th Cir. 2019) (quoting IQ Prod. Co. v. WD-40 Co., 871 F.3d 344, 348 (5th Cir. 2017)). At step two, "we engage in a 'limited' inquiry: '[W]hether the [parties'] agreement contains a valid delegation clause.'" Id. (alteration in original) (quoting IQ Prod., 871 F.3d at 348). If the agreement contains such a delegation clause, "a motion to compel arbitration should be granted in almost all cases." Id. (quoting IQ Prod., 871 F.3d at 348).

         Our concern in this appeal relates only to step one. Courts may not refer the step one inquiry-whether an arbitration agreement was formed in the first place-to the arbitrator. See Lloyd's Syndicate 457, 921 F.3d at 514 ("The first step is a question of contract formation only-did the parties form a valid agreement to arbitrate some set of claims. This inquiry is for the court." (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)); Will-Drill Res., Inc. v. Samson Res. Co., 352 F.3d 211, 218 (5th Cir. 2003) ("Where the very existence of any [arbitration] agreement is disputed, it is for the courts to decide at the outset whether an agreement was reached."); see also Begole, 761 Fed.Appx. at 251 ("[W]here a party challenges ...


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