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Eighth Circuit Rejects Claim That Arbitration Clause in Retainer Was Unconscionable

The Eight Circuit has rejected a plaintiff’s claim that an arbitration clause in a retainer agreement she signed with a law firm after receiving a call from a purported agent of the firm informing her of a purported life-threatening medical condition was unconscionable.

Allegedly, someone acting on behalf of McSweeney Langevin LLC, a law firm, called Jerri Plummer and told her that there was a life-threatening issue with the transvaginal mesh that had previously been implanted in her. The caller also told Plummer that the caller could arrange for Plummer to have the mesh surgically removed and could set Plummer up with an attorney to seek compensation for her surgery. As a result, Plummer signed a retainer agreement with McSweeney Langevin and underwent the surgery. According to Plummer, the surgery was less than successful. She sued an array of defendants, including McSweeney Langevin.

McSweeney Langevin sought to compel arbitration pursuant to the retainer agreement Plummer signed. The district court, applying the law of Washington, D.C., concluded that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and refused to compel arbitration.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded.

The court noted that under D.C. law, an agreement must generally be both substantively and procedurally unconscionable to be unenforceable, but that in an egregious situation, it is sufficient for an agreement to be procedurally unconscionable alone.

With respect to substantive unconscionability, the Eighth Circuit allowed McSweeney Langevin to cure the district court’s finding that the agreement was unconscionable because Plummer could not afford to pay the costs of arbitration by volunteering to pay her costs. The court relied on several federal court decisions applying D.C. law that had similarly allowed litigants seeking to compel arbitration to cure substantive unconscionability by covering costs.

The court therefore turned to procedural unconscionability, noting that Plummer faced an uphill battle to establish that the retainer agreement was unconscionable in light of the fact that it was not substantively unconscionable. On the whole, the Eight Circuit concluded that the retainer was not procedurally unconscionable. The retainer agreement was sent to Plummer more than a month after the initial call she received regarding her mesh. The agreement informed Plummer that she had the “freedom to contract” by bargaining for certain terms in the agreement. The retainer was six pages long (including a nearly full-page signature page) and was easy to read. The fact that it was marked urgent and was sent shortly before Plummer’s surgery was not sufficient, considering all the facts, to render the agreement procedurally unconscionable.

Despite acknowledging that the circumstances that gave rise to this lawsuit were “troubling,” the Eighth Circuit determined that the retainer agreement was not procedurally unconscionable. It therefore reversed the district court’s decision.

Finally, the Eighth Circuit also rejected Plummer’s contention that the retainer agreement was unenforceable because McSweeney Langevin violated ethical obligations by failing to explain the ramifications of the arbitration provision to Plummer. The court assumed that the retainer agreement would be unenforceable if the attorneys have violated ethical obligations, but concluded that no such violations occurred. The agreement informed Plummer of the basic consequences of the arbitration clause. It conspicuously noted, among other things, that Plummer was waiving her right to a jury and a judicial appeal and that arbitration was her only recourse.

Plummer v. McSweeney, No. 18-3059 (8th Cir. Oct 23, 2019).

©2011-2020 Carlton Fields, P.A. National Law Review, Volume IX, Number 345

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About this Author

Brendan Gooley, Employment Lawyer, Workplace Discrimination, Carlton Fields Law Firm
Associate

Brendan Gooley is a litigator who focuses on employment discrimination, education, and insurance matters. He joined the firm after clerking for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Brendan defends employers, including municipalities and educational institutions, accused of various types of employment discrimination in all stages of litigation, including pre-suit, before the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO), and after actions are filed. He handles complaints alleging violations of Title VII and the...

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