The standard of review on appeal regarding enforceability of arbitration clauses

questions-1As I’ve mentioned before, the standard of review is not always clear. One sometimes has to “drill down” past the obvious, and the “abuse of discretion” standard is full of nuance. The parties’ briefs may even fight over which is the correct standard of review to apply, or the cases may be split on the issue. Sometimes, where the standard is in dispute, it doesn’t matter, because the outcome is the same under either standard.

There is no question as to what standard of review applies in yesterday’s decision in Carlson v. Home Team Pest Defense, Inc., case no. A142219 (1st Dist., August 17, 2015), but the case nonetheless has a lesson in careful application of the standard of review. The appeal was from an order denying a motion to compel arbitration. The court begins its discussion of the standard of review by announcing “There is no uniform standard of review for evaluating an order denying a motion to compel arbitration.”

Well, if there is no uniform standard, how do you decide what standard applies to your case? It’s hard to answer that question any more succinctly than the court, so I’ll let the court do it:

If the court’s order is based on a decision of fact, then we adopt a substantial evidence standard. [Citations.] Alternatively, if the court’s denial rests solely on a decision of law, then a de novo standard of review is employed.

In this case the trial court made factual findings based on at least some material disputed evidence. From those findings, the trial court concluded that Home’s Agreement was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable and should not be enforced. Accordingly, [t]o the extent there are material facts in dispute, we accept the trial court’s resolution of disputed facts when supported by substantial evidence; we presume the court found every fact and drew every permissible inference necessary to support its judgment.

(Citations and internal quotation marks omitted.)

Some easy examples are cited in one of the cases cited in Carlson. In Robertson v. Health Net of California, Inc. (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1419, the order denying the motion to compel arbitration was based on the trial court’s conclusion that the arbitration agreement violated a statute. Since this presented a purely legal question of statutory interpretation, review was de novo. Robertson cited Craig v. Brown & Root, Inc. (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 416 as an example where review for substantial evidence was appropriate, because the order in that case was based on the trial court’s factual finding that the parties never reached agreement on arbitration.

Craig suggests that this analysis is apparently required whenever the validity of an arbitration clause is at issue on appeal, not just on appeals from orders denying a motion to compel arbitration. Craig was an appeal from a final judgment confirming an arbitration award after a motion to compel arbitration had been granted. Yet, Robertson cited to it as an example of how to apply the standard of review.