Part I of this post discussed how the Second and Fifth Circuits, in Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Bucsek, ___ F.3d ___, No. 17-881, slip op. (2d Cir. Mar. 22, 2019), and 20/20 Comms. Inc. v. Lennox Crawford, ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-10260 (5th Cir. July 22, 2019), suggest a trend toward what might (tongue-in-cheek) be called a “Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception” to the First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability (a/k/a the “Clear and Unmistakable Rule”).
Under this Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule, courts consider the merits of an underlying arbitrability issue as part of their analysis of whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability issues.
But the Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception runs directly counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Schein v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 586 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 524 (January 8, 2019), and thus contravenes the Federal Arbitration Act as interpreted by Schein. 139 S. Ct. at 527-28, 529-31.
This Part II analyzes and discusses how Met Life and 20/20 Comm. effectively made an end run around Schein and considers what might have motivated those Courts to rule as they did.
Making an End Run Around Schein?
When, prior to 20/20 Comm. we wrote about Met Life, we said it “an important decision because it means in future cases where parties have not expressly agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions, but have agreed to a very broad arbitration agreement, the question whether the parties’ have nevertheless clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions may turn, at least in part, on an analysis of the merits of the arbitrability question presented.” (See here. )
But after the Fifth Circuit decided 20/20 Comm. this July, in comments we made to Russ Bleemer, Editor of Alternatives, the Newsletter of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (“CPR”)—which were reproduced with our consent in Mr. Zhan Tze’s CPR Speaks blog article about 20/20 Comm. (here)—we expressed the belief that the Fifth Circuit was (whether intentionally or unintentionally) making an end run around Schein, effectively creating an exception to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule.
After analyzing 20/20 Comm. and comparing it to the Second Circuit’s Met Life decision, we concluded that the Second Circuit’s decision also ran counter to Schein.
Schein’s Abrogation of the “Wholly Groundless Exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule
In Schein the U.S. Supreme Court abrogated the so-called “wholly groundless exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule. Prior to Schein certain courts, including the Fifth Circuit, held that even when parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions, courts could effectively circumvent the parties’ agreement and decide for itself arbitrability challenges that it determined were “wholly groundless.”
The rationale Schein used to jettison the “wholly groundless exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule is incompatible with the rationales the Second and Fifth Circuit used to support their decisions in Met Life and 20/20 Comm.
Under FAA Section 2, the Schein Court explained, “arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms.” Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 529 (citation omitted). When those contracts delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator, “a court may not override the contract[,]” and has “no power to decide the arbitrability issue.” 139 S. Ct. at 529. That is so even where a Court “thinks that the argument that the arbitration agreement applies to a particular dispute is wholly groundless.” 139 S. Ct. at 529.
Schein explained that its conclusion was supported not only by the FAA’s text, but also by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Citing and quoting cases decided under Section 301 of the Labor Management and Relations Act, the Court explained that courts may not “‘rule on the potential merits of the underlying’ claim that is assigned by contract to an arbitrator, ‘even if it appears to the court to be frivolous[,]’” and that “[a] court has “‘no business weighing the merits of the grievance’” because the “‘agreement is to submit all grievances to arbitration, not merely those which the court will deem meritorious.’” 139 S. Ct. at 529 (quoting AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U.S. 643, 649–650 (1986) and Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 568 (1960)).
This “principle,” said the Schein Court, “applies with equal force to the threshold issue of arbitrability”—for “[j]ust as a court may not decide a merits question that the parties have delegated to an arbitrator, a court may not decide an arbitrability question that the parties have delegated to an arbitrator.” 139 S. Ct. at 530.
Exception to Clear and Unmistakable Rule? Why the Second and Fifth Circuit Decisions Conflict with Schein
Both the Second Circuit and Fifth Circuit decided that the parties before them did not clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability because each Court believed that there was not even a barely colorable basis for a court or an arbitrator to find that the underlying dispute should be submitted to arbitration. In other words, both courts focused on contractual provisions governing the merits of the arbitrability dispute rather than confining their analysis to the terms of the contract dealing directly with whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.
In Met Life the Court decided the merits of the underlying arbitrability issue before analyzing whether the provisions of the contract directly pertinent to the arbitration of arbitrability did or did not clearly and unmistakably delegate arbitrability to the arbitrators. The Court quite correctly found it implausible that the parties agreed to arbitrate a dispute that arose years after one of the parties had left the NASD and was not a member of FINRA.
But that was a conclusion about the merits of the arbitrability dispute, not about whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability disputes. The Clear and Unmistakable Rule turns solely on whether the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability questions to the arbitrator, irrespective of what the merits of those arbitrability questions may be.
In 20/20 Comm. the Court’s focus was on the parties’ broad class arbitration waiver. Class arbitration waivers are ordinarily dispositive of the merits of whether the parties consented to class arbitration, but the class arbitration waiver in 20/20 Comm., like most or all others we’ve seen, says nothing about who decides whether or not the parties consented to class arbitration.
Had the Fifth Circuit not focused on the class arbitration waiver, and instead on the three provisions directly relating to arbitrability, then it could have easily found that the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated class arbitration consent issues to the arbitrator.
The so-called “exception language” in those provisions (see Part I, here) was quite beside the point. There is nothing “inconsistent” with an arbitrator, rather than a court, deciding the effect of the class arbitration waiver, no matter how clear it may be that the outcome will, or at least should, be an arbitral determination that the parties did not consent to class arbitration.
Exception to Clear and Unmistakable Rule?Second Circuit Attempted to Distinguish Schein, but Fifth Circuit did not
The Second Circuit articulated the reasons it believed that Schein did not foreclose its examination of the merits of the arbitrability issue before it, but the Fifth Circuit did not address Schein.
The Second Circuit said “[t]he point of the [Schein] opinion was that, where the parties have agreed to submit arbitrability to arbitration, courts may not nullify that agreement on the basis that the claim of arbitrability is groundless.” Met Life, slip op. at 24 (emphasis in original). The Court said it “reject[s] [A’s] claim for arbitration of arbitrability not because” it considers the “claim of arbitrability” to be “groundless[,]” but “because, upon consideration of all evidence of the intentions of the arbitration agreement, including the groundlessness of [A’s] claim of arbitrability, the agreement does not clearly and unambiguously provide for arbitration of the question of arbitrability.” Met Life, slip op. at 25. That “reasoning is based on the parties’ contract, and not based on any exception to what the parties have contracted for.” Met Life, slip op. at 25.
The Fifth Circuit might have made the same or a similar argument, but said nothing about whether it thought its decision was consistent with Schein.
While the Second Circuit’s reasoning was theoretically sound, it doesn’t hold up in practice. Apart from questions concerning the existence of the contract, the merits of most, if not all, arbitrability questions turn in large part on the language of the parties’ contract. That was certainly the case in both Met Life and 20/20 Comm.
Under the reasoning of those cases, however, the language directly relating to the question whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability must be viewed in conjunction with the language of the contract bearing on the merits of the arbitrability dispute. If the language pertinent to the merits of the arbitrability issue suggests that the parties did not agree to arbitrate the dispute (or did not consent to class arbitration), then under the Second and Fifth Circuits’ reasoning, that conclusion weakens (or eliminates) the inference that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.
Met Life and 20/20 Comm. Contravene the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Schein
The Met Life/20-20 Comm. analytical regime effectively revives—and potentially might even expand the scope of—the “wholly groundless exception” that the U.S. Supreme Court laid to rest in Schein. Remember that disputes about arbitrability of arbitrability can be analytically broken down into at least four separate questions: (a) what the dispute on the merits is; (b) does that dispute raise a question of arbitrability, which is ordinarily decided by the court; (c) if so, did the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability disputes (i.e, does the Clear and Unmistakable Rule apply); and (d) what is the outcome of the dispute on the merits that the proper decisionmaker should reach once he or she decides it?
The Clear and Unmistakable Rule is concerned only with question (c), above, that is, did the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability disputes? The “wholly groundless exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule—and the analytical regime imposed by the Second and Fifth Circuits—focuses not only on question (c), above, but simultaneously considers question (d), that is, what is the outcome on the dispute on the merits that the proper decisionmaker should reach?
Assuming the dispute on the merits is a question of arbitrability (as was the case in Schein, Met Life, and 20/20 Comm.), if the provisions of the parties’ agreement suggest that there is only one proper outcome that a decisionmaker should reach on the merits of the arbitrability dispute—the subject of question (d), above— then a Court following Met Life and 20/20 Comm. would be more chary about concluding the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability—the subject of question (c), above.
Schein forecloses any consideration of the merits of the arbitrability issue (question (d), above), limiting the scope of the Court’s analysis to whether the parties’ clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability (question (c), above).
Schein explains that, if the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability disputes, then courts should direct the parties to arbitrate the arbitrability issue. Just as it is with any other arbitrable issue, judicial review is postponed until the final award stage, and is limited to the grounds enumerated by Section 10 of the FAA, including manifest disregard of the agreement under Section 10(a)(4), and, in Circuits which recognize it (such as the Second—but not the Fifth—Circuit) manifest disregard of the law.
In Schein the proponent of the “wholly groundless exception” argued that the “back-end judicial review” available if an arbitrator “exceeds his or her powers” impliedly authorizes courts to determine that an arbitrability question is “wholly groundless” and obviates the need to submit the arbitrability question to arbitration. Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 530. But the Supreme Court said “[t]he dispositive answer to [the “wholly groundless exception” proponent’s] §10 argument is that Congress designed the Act in a specific way, and it is not our proper role to redesign the statute.” Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 530.
The Schein Court further explained that acceptance of the “wholly groundless exception” proponent’s “argument would mean. . . that courts presumably also should decide frivolous merits questions that have been delegated to an arbitrator.” But, said the Supreme Court, “[we] have already rejected that argument: When the parties’ contract assigns a matter to arbitration, a court may not resolve the merits of the dispute even if the court thinks that a party’s claim on the merits is frivolous. So, too, with arbitrability.” 139 S. Ct. at 530 (citation omitted).
Under Schein the proper course for the Second and Fifth Circuits was to determine whether the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability issues to the arbitrators without determining or analyzing the merits of those underlying arbitrability issues. If the answer was “yes,” then the Courts should have directed the arbitrators to decide those arbitrability questions.
If the arbitrators, after having decided those underlying arbitration issues, decided that the issues were arbitrable, then the arbitration opponents could challenge them as being in manifest disregard of the contract (and, in the Second Circuit, perhaps also in manifest disregard of the law).
But rather than let the arbitration and post-award review process run its course, the Second and Fifth Circuit took it upon themselves to decide arbitrability issues that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to submit to arbitration. Met Life and 20/20 Comm. cannot be meaningfully squared with Schein.
What Might have Motivated Met Life and 20/20 Comm. Courts to Rule the way they did?
While we respectfully believe that Met Life and 20/20 Comm. are inconsistent with Schein, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that the very able and experienced judges who decided those cases were faced with unusual circumstances that would presumably be of concern to many or most other fair-minded jurists. In Met Life a FINRA arbitration claim was made against an entity that had never been a member of FINRA, and had not been a member of the NASD, FINRA’s predecessor, for several years. The claim itself arose out of conduct that took place after the entity had left the NASD.
The Second Circuit concluded the dispute was not arbitrable because FINRA had no regulatory interest in the dispute, but apparently there were no FINRA rules, or terms in the parties’ agreement, which addressed directly the unusual arbitrability question the case presented. And prior Second Circuit precedent suggested that, under the Clear and Unmistakable Rule, the breadth of the parties’ arbitration agreement, together with a provision of the applicable arbitration rules, constituted clear and unmistakable evidence of an intent to arbitrate arbitrability.
The Second Circuit might have been legitimately concerned about whether a FINRA arbitrator would necessarily reach the same conclusion as the Court did, and if so, whether the award could be vacated if the arbitrator got it wrong. That would mean that the arbitration opponent might have been forced to arbitrate not only the underlying arbitrability issue, but also the entire dispute on the merits, before there was any opportunity for FAA Section 10 review.
If the award was ultimately vacated, the parties would be forced to incur a great deal of time and expense vindicating their rights. But if the award was not, and could not be, vacated, and the arbitration opponent lost on the merits, then the arbitration opponent would effectively have been forced to arbitrate a dispute that the Second Circuit strongly believed the parties never agreed to arbitrate.
“Hard cases,” the adage goes, “make bad law.”
The Fifth Circuit might have had similar reservations about the case before it, although the stakes were probably not as high as they were in Met Life. The contract’s incorporation of AAA employment arbitration rules, which brought into play the AAA Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitration, meant that the arbitrator would have been empowered to make a “Clause Construction Award,” which the parties are deemed to agree is a final award subject to judicial review under Section 10.
There was no reason to think that the briefing, argument, and decision of the Clause Construction issue, and the rendering of the Clause Construction Award, would take a great deal of time, given how narrow the issue was, and given the clear class arbitration waiver. And FAA Section 10 review would have been available once the Clause Construction Award was made.
Thus, had the Fifth Circuit compelled arbitration of the class arbitration consent issue, and had the arbitrator made a ruling in favor of class arbitration consent by ignoring the class arbitration waiver (or at least by not even arguably interpreting it), FAA Section 10 review would be available in relative short order, and certainly long before the parties were forced to engage in a class arbitration that could drag on for several years before Section 10 review could take place.
But the Fifth Circuit might nevertheless have been very concerned that a class arbitration opponent who had taken the time to include a broad class arbitration waiver in its contract, the enforceability of which is not really open to legitimate question in light of the many U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have closed state- and federal-law enforcement loopholes, should be forced to engage in the several months of arbitration and litigation necessary to vindicate its legitimate, bargained-for right to arbitrate on a bilateral basis only. Even apart from the extra costs imposed on the class arbitration opponent, compelling arbitration would have virtually guaranteed that within a relatively short period, the district court and, possibly also the Fifth Circuit, would again have to devote substantial time and effort into matters that were the subject of the consolidated appeal in 20/20 Comm.
Those concerns about economic inefficiency and judicial economy are unquestionably legitimate. But Schein, as we’ve seen, has already said that the courts do not, in the name of public policy or judicial economy, have the power to amend or alter the post-award-review-only procedures mandated by the FAA.
And the class arbitration opponent, a sophisticated business entity, could have drafted its contract more precisely, providing that notwithstanding anything to the contrary, disputes about class arbitration consent, including the application and interpretation of the class arbitration waiver, must be decided by courts, not arbitrators. In fact, other class arbitration opponents would be well advised to consider carefully whether they might find themselves in a situation where they are forced to arbitrate and litigate in the district court (and perhaps in an appellate court) for several months or more court, and if so, to take appropriate steps to mitigate this risk by more precisely drafting their contracts’ class arbitration waivers.