In my blog post of March 9, 2018, I commented on the case of Uber Technologies Inc. v. Heller, an action in which the validity of an arbitration clause in an Independent Contractor Agreement was in issue.
Heller was an Uber driver who had signed an agreement with Uber. The agreement provided that any dispute would have to be resolved by arbitration, and would have to take place in Holland. Holland is the location of the head office of Uber’s parent company.
For obvious reasons, the idea of arbitrating in Holland would not appeal to a Canadian driver in almost any circumstances. Presumably, that was the idea behind Uber’s drafting of the clause in that manner.
Heller commenced an action against Uber notwithstanding the arbitration clause and attempted to persuade the Court that the clause should be ignored. He was not successful. The Court hearing the matter referred to numerous Supreme Court of Canada decisions that made it clear that where a mandatory arbitration clause appears in an agreement, it is to be given effect.
Nevertheless, Heller took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. On June 26, 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the arbitration clause in his agreement was not valid.
The Court noted that there was a substantial upfront cost that would be incurred by any party seeking to commence the arbitration process as contemplated by the agreement. That upfront cost was not disclosed in the agreement itself. In addition, as would have been obvious to anyone, the cost to arbitrate in Holland would have been exorbitant compared to a typical driver’s annual gross earnings, effectively creating a financial barrier for drivers wishing to pursue a dispute with Uber.
The Court ruled that in limited circumstances, an arbitration clause can be considered invalid. One such circumstance involves a finding of unconscionability.
Unconscionability requires both an inequality of bargaining power and a resulting improvident bargain. An inequality of bargaining power exists when one party cannot adequately protect its own interests in the contracting process. A bargain is improvident if it unduly advantages the stronger party or unduly disadvantages the more vulnerable party.
With standard form contracts, there is a real potential to create an inequality of bargaining power and to enhance the advantage of the stronger party, more particularly through elements such as arbitration clauses that deprive the weaker party of a remedy as a practical matter. When arbitration is realistically unattainable, it amounts to no dispute resolution mechanism at all.
On that basis, a majority on the Court found the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and therefore invalid. A concurring judge added that the arbitration clause was invalid because it violated the public policy that exists in favour of providing Canadian citizens with meaningful access to justice.
Unconscionability is an argument that, in my experience, is often attempted but rarely succeeds. The idea that such an argument would succeed in circumstances involving a mandatory arbitration clause, which is almost always regarded by the Court as beyond challenge, is quite surprising. Nevertheless, it is clear that the justice of the matter cried out for a remedy for Mr. Heller and it is interesting to note that the Supreme Court of Canada agreed.