Colorado Federal Court Grants Frontier Airlines’ Motion to Compel Arbitration In The GoWild! Pass Program Class Action

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Tiffany E. Alberty, Eden E. Anderson and Rebecca S. Bjork

Duane Morris Takeaways:  On June 14, 2024, in Hartsfield, et al. v. Frontier Airlines, Inc., Case No. 23-CV-2093 (D. Colo. June 14, 2024), Magistrate Judge Kathryn A. Starnella for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado recommended granting Frontier Airline’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the class claims of the Plaintiffs. This decision further illuminates the power of clear and conspicuous terms and conditions that allow for arbitration clauses and class action waivers.

Case Background

Plaintiffs and the putative class representatives (“Plaintiffs”) are individuals who sued Frontier Airlines, Inc. (“FA”) for alleged misrepresentations associated with its GoWild! Pass Program (“Pass Program”), a program that allowed participants to book unlimited number of airline flights for a specific period of time. When signing up for the Pass Program, Plaintiffs had to click “Join Now” button, thereby confirming that they agreed to the Terms & Conditions (“T&C”). When clicking “Join Now” button, the T&C was hyperlinked above, which opened another window to the actual T&C. The T&C was presented multiple times throughout the enrollment process, and even after purchase through a confirmation email, which expressly stated that the participant in the Pass Program is subject to the T&C. Id. at 2-3.

The T&C contained an arbitration clause that clearly outlined any Pass Program dispute would be subject to arbitration and governed by Colorado law. The T&C also contained a class action waiver.

For these reasons, FA moved to compel arbitration under the T&C and dismiss the class claims. Plaintiffs claimed that the arbitration clause was invalid because they never assented to the T&C, and that FA did not provide a conspicuous notice of T&C to which they agreed, thereby making it unconscionable and unenforceable.

The Court’s Opinion

Under the Federal Arbitration Act, (“FAA”), the Court noted that it “must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.” Id. at  4 (citing Am. Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., 570 U.S. 228, 230 (2013)). The Court also opined that it must  apply state contract law principles to determine validity and enforceability. Id.

Plaintiffs argued that no contract existed between the parties, because the T&C and its arbitration clause were “obscure” and failed to prove a “reasonably conspicuous notice.” Id. 5. The Court disagreed. It recognized that Plaintiffs “merely had to click on a single bold and underlined link” that would directly open the T&C which included the arbitration clause. The Court, highlighted that the link was offered multiple times to Plaintiffs during the sign up process and after purchase. Id. at 5-6.

Plaintiffs also argued that regardless if there was a valid contract, the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and thus unenforceable. The Court used a multi-factor test to determine a contractual provision’s conscionability, including: (1) a standardized agreement executed by parties of unequal bargaining strength, (2) lack of opportunity to read or become familiar with the document before signing it; (3) use of fine print in the portion of the contract containing the provision; (4) absence of evidence that the provision was commercially reasonable or should reasonably have been anticipated; (5) the terms of the contract, including substantive unfairness; (6) the relationship of the parties, including factors of assent, unfair surprise and notice; and (7) and all the circumstances surrounding the formation of the contract, including its commercial setting, purpose and effect. Davis v. M.L.G. Corp., 712 P.2d 985, 991 (Colo. 1986).

Plaintiffs claimed the unconscionability stemmed from unequal bargaining strength, convoluted presentation of the agreement, commercially unreasonable application and as it was substantively unfair. The Court was not persuaded by these arguments, as it found that circumstances here did not support that idea that the arbitration agreement was “snuck in or forced upon an unsuspecting or unsophisticated customer with no options.” Id. at 8 (citing Davis, 712 P.2d at 991). While the Court agreed that there was unequal bargaining strength, it held that FA provided Plaintiffs ample opportunities to read the T&C, which were not in fine print, thus there was no surprise or lack of notice. Finally, the Court found that the dispute fell within the scope of the arbitration agreement because the language was clear as to “any dispute in connection with Member and Frontier.” Id. at 9.

As it applies to the class action status, the T&C explicitly state that any case brought under the Pass Program can only be pursued in an individual capacity and not as a purported class-wide action. Because Plaintiff provided no arguments that the class action waiver was unconscionable, the Court held that the class action waiver bars Plaintiffs’ collective claims.

Implications For Employers

The holding in Hartsfield, et al. v. Frontier Airlines, Inc. highlights the enforceability of an arbitration through clear and conspicuous T&C.

T&C can completely change the landscape where a dispute can be raised, the choice of law, and the existence of any class claims. Giving individuals ample opportunities to review the T&C they are agreeing to is equally important. As such, corporate counsel, therefore, should take note any T&C, where modifications can or should be made to ensure enforceability of specific clauses like an arbitration agreement and class action waiver.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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