In today’s business world, companies frequently enter into contractual provisions with their customers to limit jury trial exposure as part of managing future risks. However, if you think that agreeing that any dispute can be resolved without a jury trial is enough to insulate you and your business from this threat – THINK AGAIN.
Just last month, the California Court of Appeal overturned a contractual provision waiving the parties’ right to a jury trial, despite the fact that such waiver was fully enforceable under New York, the law agreed to in the contract’s choice of law section.
In Rincon EV Realty LLC et al. v. CP III Rincon Towers, Inc., et al., plaintiffs entered into a loan agreement for the purchase of real estate. Ultimately, the parties disagreed as to the terms of the loan maturity date, and plaintiffs filed suit in California state court alleging, among other things, breach of the loan agreement.
The initial loan agreement included a New York choice-of-law provision, specifying that plaintiffs waived any claim that California law (or the law of any state other than New York) govern their agreements. The agreement also expressly waived any parties’ right to seek a jury trial.
Nevertheless, plaintiffs filed a jury demand in California state court, which was challenged by the defendant. The trial court agreed with defendants’ motion to strike the jury demand based on the contractual agreement, but the Court of Appeal overturned this ruling, applying choice of law principles set forth in section 187 of the Restatement Second of Conflict Laws.
Although the Court of Appeal recognized that New York had a substantial interest in the transaction (plaintiffs’ principal place of business was in New York, the agreements were negotiated in New York, the loan was made, accepted, and the proceeds were distributed there),it held that the New York law on jury waivers was contrary to California’s fundamental policy of granting an “inviolate right” to a jury trial, waivable in only six specific ways. The Court then found that, California, the forum state, had a greater interest in having its law applied because of its interest in “enforcing its policy that only the Legislature can determine the permissible methods for waiving the right to jury trial….”
The take away from this decision is that jury trial waivers in contracts and agreements are likely unenforceable should a lawsuit be filed in California. Here, it didn’t matter that the relevant actions took place in New York, that the parties (arguably sophisticated) specifically agreed that New York choice of law should apply. Nor did it matter that the parties knew and understood that they were waiving the right to a jury trial. By simple virtue of the fact that the case was filed in California, a state deemed to have the greater interest in have its jury waiver laws applied, the parties’ express agreement was invalidated.
Bottom line: don’t get too comfortable that you’ve made an agreement to waive a jury trial in advance of litigation. If the lawsuit is filed in California, you may very well find yourself conducting voir dire. It also remains to be seen whether this holding is expanded to find other “procedural” contract provisions unenforceable.