A new Third Circuit decision applied existing law in a straightforward way to require a disgruntled customer of a for-profit university to arbitrate claims, providing another illustration of an effective way to obtain valid agreements, including arbitration agreements, electronically.

On January 10, the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision in Dicent v. Kaplan University.  In the district court, Dicent filed a complaint, making a variety of allegations against Kaplan University, including that the school deceptively lured her into enrolling in online classes.  Kaplan filed a motion to dismiss and to compel arbitration.  As part of Kaplan’s motion, it stated that Dicent signed an “Enrollment Agreement” and an “Arbitration Agreement and Waiver of Jury Trial.”  The issue was whether Dicent consented to arbitration.

Maria Dicent enrolled in online classes offered by Kaplan.  As part of the enrollment process, she logged into an enrollment portal website and entered various forms of personal information.  After entering the information, the enrollment portal generated an “Enrollment Packet” in a .pdf file, which included all of the information Dicent provided in the enrollment process.  The Enrollment Packet also included an arbitration agreement.  Dicent then electronically signed the Enrollment Packet pdf.  Dicent alleged that she did not e-sign the arbitration agreement, that Kaplan never informed her of the arbitration agreement, and that Kaplan never had her permission to use her e-signature for the arbitration agreement.

The Third Circuit stated that the “enrollment process walks prospective students through a series of steps necessary to become a student, which includes the production of an Enrollment Packet PDF that requires an e-signature.  …  Included within [the Enrollment Packet PDF] is the clearly labeled Arbitration Agreement.”  Kaplan presented evidence of Dicent’s electronic signature on the Enrollment Packet and the date she signed, and Dicent conceded that she signed the Enrollment Packet PDF.  “Dicent simply did not read or review the Enrollment Packet PDF closely before she e-signed it, which will not save her from her obligation to arbitrate.”  The Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision, compelling arbitration.

Kaplan’s success was achieved by adhering to e-signature basics.  The college kept a record of applicants’ electronic signature.  In addition, the signature was logically associated with the contract to be signed.  Particularly interesting is that after Dicent entered all of her information in the enrollment portal, her information was transferred to a separate .pdf that contained her personal information and the arbitration agreement, and Dicent then signed the entire Enrollment Packet PDF.  This step ensured that her signature consenting to the arbitration agreement was firmly linked in the electronic process to the arbitration agreement and that the process generated a form of agreement that showed that link.  Finally, according to the Third Circuit, Kaplan clearly labeled the arbitration agreement within the application, defeating an argument that the agreement was obscure and hence that there was no actual agreement.  In sum, Kaplan created a robust e-signature scenario and, as a result, benefited through enforcement of the arbitration clause.