Scalia, no class act(ion) for justice

Maybe Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer was thinking of two or more of his Supreme Court colleagues when he wrote, “Only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.”

The associate justice regarded by court critics as leading court fanatic, Antonin Scalia, wrote the majority opinion on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, depriving ordinary consumers of another avenue to contest possible injustice. Scalia’s opinion was supported by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Breyer’s disdainful retort was part of his dissent that was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. It was the usual 5-4 line-up for a contentious issue.

The court ruled that businesses may use standard-form contracts to prohibit consumers who claim fraud from joining together in a single arbitration, according to The New York Times.

More after the jump.
Vanderbilt University Law Professor Brian T. Fitzpatrick explained, “The decision basically lets companies escape class actions, so long as they do so by means of arbitration agreements…It’s one of the most important and favorable cases for businesses in a very long time.”

Vincent and Liza Concepcion of California filed the lawsuit against ATT&T Mobility seeking class-action treatment after objecting to a $30 fee for what was said to be a free cellphone, the Times reported.

AT&T responded by relying on the contract requiring the couple to settle disputes through arbitration and prohibited them from joining with others to seek class-action treatment, whether in arbitration or in traditional litigation in court.

The company argued that the case could neither move forward in court nor as a class action in any forum, but lower federal courts would not enforce the arbitration agreement and permitted the case to proceed. The courts followed a 2005 California Supreme Court decision that prohibited class waivers as unconscionable, according to the Times.

Scalia wrote in the majority opinion that the lower courts did not properly apply the Federal Arbitration Act which overrides some state court rulings against arbitration. The California Supreme Court’s ruling prohibited class waivers in all standard-form contracts, whether applicable to arbitrations or court proceedings, as unconscionable if they gave rise to claims that the companies issuing them had set out “to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small amounts of money,” the Times reported.

Scalia wrote, “Requiring the availability of class wide arbitration interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration.”

Breyer stated, “Where does the majority get its contrary idea – that individual, rather than class, arbitration is a fundamental attribute of arbitration?

He pointed out that class arbitrations are more efficient and, primarily important, minor frauds such as that claimed by the California couple will not be resolved.

He wrote, “What rational lawyer would have signed on to represent the Conceptions in litigation for the possibility of fees stemming from a $30.22 claim?” Quoting from another case, he added, “Only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.”

Vulnerable people in this society have limited avenues to obtain justice. Wealthy people sometime file lawsuits over the most petty affronts. Attorneys turn down claims from people if they cannot see a cost-effective case in it or they cannot afford the legal fees.

Scalia and other conservatives embrace the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution. Was it their “original intent” to leave ordinary people without legal recourse?  

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