Friday, January 9, 2015

It Must Have Been Some Other Ernesto Zamora Ruiz ...

Ruiz v. Moss Bros. Auto Group, No. E057529 (D4d2 Dec. 23, 2014) 

The issue here is whether plaintiff electronically signed an arbitration clause in an employment agreement that contained a class action waiver. The file copy of the contract said (in print) “Ernesto Zamora Ruiz (Electronic Signature)” under the signature line. Plaintiff argued, and the trial court agreed, that the printing was insufficient to show that the signature was a “act attributable” to him under the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, Civil Code § 1633.9(a).

Of course, a party seeking to compel arbitration bears the burden of establishing the existence of a valid agreement to arbitrate. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1281.2. Because no statement of decision was requested from the trial court, on appeal the court applies the doctrine of implied findings to assume that the trial court made any necessary findings of fact, provided that the record contains substantial evidence sufficient to support them. Here, the trial court implicitly found that the defendant didn’t carry its burden. There was substantial evidence to support that finding, and indeed, even reviewing the evidence de novo, the court would conclude that the defendant had not established an agreement by a preponderance.

Under Civil Code § 1633.7, an electronic signature has the same effect has a physical one. But in order to authenticate such a signature, the proponent must show that the signature could be attributed to an act of the signatory.  While the defendant’s declaration attested that the agreement was a true and correct copy of a document in the company’s files, it did not provide any basis to establish that the signature was on it was the act of Mr. Ruiz. Although the reply declaration offered a little more detail about company practices, it still did not fill the evidentiary gap between the presence of the name on the document and an affirmative act of the plaintiff. The defendant thus failed to carry its burden to show that the document was signed electronically by the act of the Mr. Ruiz,  and the evidence was insufficient to authenticate the document under Evidence Code § 1400(a).

Moreover, some other arbitration agreements—allegedly signed by Mr. Ruiz—could not justify compelling arbitration because they were provided only in the defendant’s reply papers.

Finally, the court was not required to grant the petition because the plaintiff’s opposition was filed late.  Trial courts have the discretion to consider late-filed documents—including documents filed after the 10-day period to respond to an arbitration provision afforded by Code of Civil Procedure § 1290.6. At the hearing, Mr. Ruiz’s lawyer provided good cause of the late filing—he mistakenly treated as a motion instead of a petition. The filing was timely under Code of Civil Procedure § 1005(b), which governs oppositions to motions. Indeed, the defendant also implicitly followed § 1005, when it filed a reply brief five court days before the hearing—a filing not contemplated by the arbitration act. And the reply brief ameliorated any prejudice to the defendant that might have been the result of the late filing.


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