Graham v. Scissor-Tail, Inc.

171 Cal. Rptr. 604 (1981)

Quick Summary

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Bill Graham (plaintiff) and Scissor-Tail, Inc. (defendant) were involved in a legal dispute over contracts for a concert tour featuring musician Leon Russell. The contracts contained an arbitration clause designating AFM’s international executive board as arbitrator for any disputes.

The main issue was whether this clause was enforceable. The Supreme Court of California concluded it was not due to its potentially biased nature and reversed the lower court’s decision confirming the arbitration award in favor of Scissor-Tail.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Bill Graham (plaintiff), a renowned concert promoter, and Scissor-Tail, Inc. (defendant), representing musician Leon Russell, entered into contracts for a multi-city concert tour featuring Russell’s performances. These contracts were standardized American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Form B agreements, which included a clause that any disputes would be arbitrated by AFM’s international executive board.

However, the concerts did not yield the expected profits, leading to disagreements between Graham and Scissor-Tail over financial losses and contractual obligations.

Graham filed a lawsuit against Scissor-Tail for breach of contract, seeking declaratory relief and rescission. In response, Scissor-Tail requested to move the dispute to arbitration as per the contract agreement.

The trial court ordered arbitration, and the board ruled in favor of Scissor-Tail. Graham then sought to have this arbitration award vacated, but the trial court confirmed the award instead.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Graham filed a lawsuit against Scissor-Tail for breach of contract.
  2. Scissor-Tail petitioned to compel arbitration, which was granted by the trial court.
  3. AFM’s international executive board ruled in favor of Scissor-Tail.
  4. Graham petitioned to vacate the arbitration award, which the trial court denied.
  5. Graham appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the contract clause mandating arbitration by AFM’s international executive board is enforceable given its potentially adhesive and unconscionable nature.

Rule of Law

Rule Icon

The enforceability of a contract provision that designates an entity with a potential conflict of interest as the sole arbitrator in a dispute resolution process, particularly in the context of a contract of adhesion.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The Supreme Court of California scrutinized the contract’s arbitration clause, considering whether it was a contract of adhesion, meaning it was imposed by one party with superior bargaining power and left the other party with no real negotiation options. The court found that despite Graham’s prominence in the industry, he effectively had no choice but to accept the standardized AFM Form B contracts to do business.

Furthermore, the court determined that the designated arbitrator, AFM’s international executive board, had interests aligned with one of the disputing parties (Scissor-Tail), which could compromise the integrity of a fair arbitration process.

Ultimately, the court ruled that such an arbitration provision is unconscionable and unenforceable due to its inherent bias. The court emphasized that while parties are free to choose their methods of dispute resolution, any arrangement must meet minimum standards of fairness and neutrality—standards not met by the AFM as arbitrator in this case.


Conclusion Icon

The judgment confirming the arbitration award was reversed, and the case remanded with directions to vacate the order compelling arbitration and to allow for further proceedings.

Key Takeaways

Takeaway Icon
  1. The Supreme Court of California held that contracts of adhesion cannot enforce arbitration clauses that designate an inherently biased arbitrator.
  2. The judgment highlighted the importance of fairness and neutrality in arbitration agreements, especially when one party has significantly more bargaining power.
  3. The ruling provides guidance on maintaining minimum standards of integrity in nonjudicial dispute resolution arrangements within contracts.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What makes a contract considered a contract of adhesion and how being classified as such influences its enforceability?

A contract is deemed a contract of adhesion when one party has significantly higher bargaining power and imposes a standardized agreement upon the other party, who has little to no ability to negotiate terms. Such contracts are subject to scrutiny and may be unenforceable if they contain unfair clauses that overly disadvantage the weaker party.

  • For example: A smartphone user agreement that limits legal recourse for consumers in case of privacy breaches, without any opportunity for the consumer to negotiate terms, could be challenged as a contract of adhesion.

In what ways can an arbitration agreement be considered inherently biased, and what implications does this have on the fairness of dispute resolution?

An arbitration agreement might be inherently biased if the arbitrator has a pre-existing relationship with one of the parties or an interest in the dispute’s outcome. This compromises the neutral ground necessary for fair dispute resolution and can lead to such provisions being invalidated by courts.

  • For example: If a car rental contract stipulates that any disputes must be resolved by an arbitrator who is also a consultant for the rental company, this could be seen as inherently biased.

How are minimum standards of fairness and neutrality in nonjudicial dispute resolutions ensured within contracts?

Minimum standards are ensured by requiring the terms of arbitration or dispute resolution to provide equal treatment to all parties and selecting arbitrators or mediators who are impartial and independent from the contracting parties.

  • For example: In a partnership agreement, having a clause that allows for an external industry expert with no prior ties to either partner to serve as an arbitrator would meet standards of fairness and neutrality.


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