Ferguson v. Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc.

298 F.3d 778 (2002)

Quick Summary

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Misty Ferguson (plaintiff) was required to sign an arbitration agreement with Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc. (defendant), which she later challenged after filing a lawsuit for workplace misconduct. The agreement required arbitration for certain disputes but excluded others and imposed cost-sharing that could deter employees from pursuing claims.

The district court found the agreement unconscionable; an appeal followed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, citing both procedural and substantive unconscionability under California law.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Misty Ferguson (plaintiff) began her employment at Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc. (defendant), where she was obligated to sign an arbitration agreement. This agreement mandated that various claims, including those for breach of contract, discrimination, and harassment, be resolved through arbitration rather than in court. However, it expressly excluded certain claims like workers’ compensation and intellectual property disputes from this requirement.

The agreement also stipulated that employees share the costs of arbitration with Countrywide and imposed restrictions on the deposition of Countrywide representatives. Ferguson later brought a lawsuit against Countrywide and her supervisor, Leo DeLeon (defendant), alleging sexual harassment, retaliation, and a hostile work environment.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Ferguson filed suit alleging various employment-related claims.
  2. Countrywide filed a petition to compel arbitration based on the signed agreement.
  3. The district court denied Countrywide’s petition, declaring the arbitration agreement unconscionable.
  4. Countrywide appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the arbitration agreement signed by Ferguson as a condition of her employment with Countrywide is enforceable or unconscionable under California law.

Rule of Law

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Arbitration agreements are generally enforceable unless grounds exist at law or in equity for revocation, such as unconscionability, which includes both procedural and substantive elements.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The court analyzed the arbitration agreement using California law on unconscionability, which requires both procedural and substantive elements to render a contract unenforceable. The court found procedural unconscionability since the agreement was imposed as a mandatory condition of employment without opportunity for negotiation, demonstrating an imbalance of bargaining power.

Substantively, the court found several aspects of the agreement to be one-sided in favor of Countrywide. These included the selective exclusion of certain claims from arbitration and cost-sharing provisions that could deter employees from arbitrating their claims due to potential high expenses.

The court declined to sever the unconscionable provisions to enforce the remainder of the agreement, finding that the offending terms were too interwoven and indicative of a systematic effort to impose an inferior forum for dispute resolution on employees.


Conclusion Icon

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and thus unenforceable under California law.

Key Takeaways

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  1. An arbitration agreement must not be unconscionable under state law to be enforceable.
  2. Procedural unconscionability arises when a contract is non-negotiable and imposed as a condition of employment, indicating oppression.
  3. Substantive unconscionability occurs when contract terms are excessively one-sided in favor of the employer.
  4. Multiple unconscionable provisions in an arbitration agreement suggest a systematic effort to disadvantage employees, making it unenforceable as a whole.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What factors determine procedural unconscionability in contract formation?

Procedural unconscionability arises when there is inequality of bargaining power during contract formation, often due to one party being in a superior position to impose its terms on the other. The negotiating process lacks transparency or the weaker party is deprived of a meaningful choice. An example would be a scenario where an employee is presented with a non-negotiable employment contract as a take-it-or-leave-it offer, without any prospect of discussing or altering the terms set forth by the employer.

  • For example: A cellphone service provider presents customers with a standard service contract that includes complex jargon and fine print without allowing them any room for negotiation or clarification.

What are some examples of substantive unconscionability in an arbitration agreement?

Substantive unconscionability occurs when the terms of a contract are overly harsh or one-sided, typically favoring the party with greater power. In an arbitration agreement, this may include unreasonably high costs for the weaker party, limitations on important procedural rights, or exclusion of certain claims that would likely be made against the stronger party. An example is when an arbitration clause requires employees to pay exorbitant fees upfront that they cannot afford, effectively denying them access to arbitrate their disputes.

  • For example: A lease agreement includes an arbitration clause that not only mandates tenants to pay all arbitration fees but also restricts them from joining together in a class action or seeking public injunctive relief, disproportionately limiting their legal recourse.

How might state law influence the enforceability of arbitration agreements?

State law plays a critical role in determining whether arbitration agreements are enforceable. Courts look to state contract laws to adjudicate claims of unconscionability, fraud, duress, or other defenses that may invalidate the agreement. Moreover, specific state statutes or judicial interpretations may provide unique protections for consumers and employees or dictate particular features an arbitration agreement must have to be considered fair and equitable.

  • For example: Under California law, an arbitration agreement within an employment contract might be scrutinized for fairness under the standard provided by California’s Armendariz decision, which sets forth minimum requirements for such agreements to be conscionable and thus enforceable.


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