In a win for defendants, the Eleventh Circuit recently held that a party does not waive its right to compel arbitration for the claims of unnamed class members even if it has waived that right as to the named class representatives. In Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo Bank, NA, the plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Wells Fargo alleging it had committed certain unlawful practices related to the charging of overdraft fees. The plaintiffs were all former Wells Fargo customers who had accounts governed by customer agreements containing arbitration provisions with class action waivers. After the trial court consolidated similar cases in late 2009, it ordered the defendant banks to file all “merits and non-merits motions directed to the operative complaints,” including motions to compel arbitration, by December 2009. Wells Fargo replied to the trial court’s order stating it would not seek to compel arbitration as to the named plaintiffs but reserved its right to compel arbitration against any plaintiffs “who [might] later join, individually or as putative class members, in this litigation.” Wells Fargo then filed its answer and proceeded with discovery.
Last week, the Eleventh Circuit refused to compel arbitration because the defendant financial institution failed to prove that its online deposit agreement actually included an arbitration clause. This decision reflects the importance of (1) documenting the original agreement (both the actual terms and the assent of the consumer), (2) retaining the documentation, (3) documenting any change in terms (and the customer’s assent to them) and (4) carefully proving the existence of these agreements (and the customer’s assent) in Court.