A recent decision from the United States District Court for North Dakota addresses the importance of the 7th Amendment right to trial by jury. The 7th Amendment provides, in relevant part, that “[i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.”  In Marchan v. John Miller Farms, Inc., No. 3:16-00357-WGY, 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 210503 (E.D.N.D. Dec. 11, 2018), the question before the court was whether issues of corporate veil piercing should be decided by the judge or jury. Massachusetts Federal Judge, William G. Young, sitting by designation, concluded that the jury must decide.

Judge Young’s opinion addresses arguments that judges are better equipped to decide particular remedies, including arguments that lay jurors are not trained to perform certain inquiries; decisions made by judges are more likely to produce consistent results; and judges can make certain decisions more efficiently than juries can. Rejecting these arguments, Judge Young writes that “most of these unsupported conclusions are nothing but elitism, pure and simple.  They are an unabashed retreat from the magnificent vision of the Founders.” Judge Young urges that more credit be given to juries for their decision-making abilities, after all, juries have long decided complex issues.  As Judge Young writes, “[i]t takes a special type of arrogance simply to conclude that American jurors cannot handle the veil-piercing issues presented here.”  “Quite simply, jurors are the life’s blood of our third branch of government.

In addition to deciding the issue at hand, Judge Young also discusses declines in the occurrence of jury trials.  He lays the blame on companies such as “Uber, Lyft, Microsoft, Google and Facebook” for requiring employees to agree to forced arbitration and forego their right to a jury trial.  Certainly, as Judge Young discusses, jury trials play a critical role in our justice system.  Nevertheless, alternative dispute resolution methods such as arbitration and mediation also serve a purpose.  Some argue that arbitration, for example, saves both time and money.  In some jurisdictions, arbitration may allow for a decision more quickly than waiting years for a jury trial.  Further, regardless of the merits of arbitration, once a party enters into a binding and unenforceable agreement for arbitration, that agreement must be enforced.  After all, another important principle of our justice system is the freedom of contract. The very idea behind “freedom of contract,” is that an equal liberty exists among people to enter into agreements without oversight or control from others, including the legal system.

By Crystal Stewart, Associate Attorney, Hirst Applegate, LLP.