US Ct of Appeals Relies on Baseball Arbitration Structure to Reject DOJ Antitrust Attack on AT&T/Time Warner Merger

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

The antitrust/competition law battle between the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and AT&T over AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner involves a “baseball arbitration” issue that played a prominent role in today’s US Court of Appeals decision denying the DOJ’s request to block the acquisition.  In a unanimous opinion, a three-person panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in the course of upholding the District Court’s approval of the acquisition, rejected DOJ’s arguments that the acquisition would create anti-competitive incentives for A&T to block “content” competitors by denying them non-discriminatory access to popular channels owned by Time Warner such as CNN.  As summarized by CNN (https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/26/media/att-time-warner-merger-ruling/index.html):

AT&T, the Justice Department claimed, would have greater bargaining leverage over rival TV distributors because the company would have valuable live content from Turner’s networks, like the sports that TNT carries and CNN’s news coverage.  The Justice Department contended that AT&T could during negotiations threaten to “black out” Turner’s channels — that is, pull them from the rivals’ lineups — tempting customers to drop their current providers and switch to AT&T services like DirecTV.  The Justice Department alleged that AT&T would also have the power to raise the prices its competitors pay for their content.

The AT&T acquisition offer ultimately included a “baseball arbitration” provision found in many Consent Orders and Consent Judgments from the DOJ and the US Federal Communications Commission intended to provide for “final offer” baseball arbitration of a competitor’s claim that the merged company was not offering non-discriminatory terms for use by the competitor on the competitor’s own network of content owned by the merged company.  The arbitration would resolve the terms and conditions, including the economic terms, on which the competitor would be allowed to license for its own use content owned by the merged AT&/Time Warner company.

A week after the government filed suit to stop the proposed merger, Turner Broadcasting [which is owned by Time Warner] sent letters to approximately 1,000 distributors “irrevocably offering” to engage in “baseball style” arbitration at any time within a seven-year period, subject to certain conditions not relevant here.  According to President of Turner Content Distribution Richard Warren, the offer of arbitration agreements was designed to “address the government’s concern that as a result of being . . . commonly owned by AT&T, [Turner Broadcasting] would have an incentive to drive prices higher and go dark with [its] affiliates,” ….  In the event of a failure to agree on renewal terms, Turner Broadcasting agreed that the distributor would have the right to continue carrying Turner networks pending arbitration, subject to the same terms and conditions in the distributor’s existing contract.

Like the lower District Court ruling before, the Court of Appeals opinion (available at https://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/390E66D6D58F426B852583AD00546ED6/%24file/18-5214.pdf) noted the impact of this arbitration structure on the DOJ’s arguments regarding the anti-competitive nature of the acquisition.

The post-merger arbitration agreements would prevent the blackout of Turner Broadcasting content while arbitration is pending. ….  As mentioned, Turner Broadcasting “irrevocably offer[ed]” approximately 1,000 distributors agreements to engage in baseball style arbitration in the event the parties fail to reach a renewal agreement, and the offered agreement guarantees no blackout of Turner Broadcasting content once arbitration is invoked.  AT&T’s counsel represented the no-blackout commitment is “legally enforceable,” …, and AT&T “will honor” the arbitration agreement offers ….  Consequently, the government’s challenges to the district court’s treatment of its economic theories becomes largely irrelevant, at least during the seven-year period.  Counsel for Amici Curiae 27 Antitrust Scholars explained that arbitration agreements make the Nash bargaining model premised on two-party negotiations “substantially more complicated,” …, and Professor Shapiro [DOJ’s expert witness] acknowledged that taking the arbitration agreements into account would require “a completely different model.”

Moreover, the appeals panel quoted with apparent approval the lower court’s earlier acknowledgment that this arbitration structure would have “real world effects” on negotiations between AT&T/Time Warner, on the one hand, and its competitors, on the other hand, over renewal of  licenses from Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting of content for use on a competitor’s networks.

Neither the model nor Professor Shapiro’s opinion [the report from DOJ’s expert witness] accounted for the effect of the irrevocably-offered arbitration agreements, which the district court stated would have “real world effects” on negotiations and characterized “as extra icing on a cake already frosted,” … another reason the government had not met its first-level burden of proof.

The bottom line here is that the “baseball arbitration” structure employed in the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition, as well as in earlier media transactions such as the Comcast-NBCU merger, has received a blessing from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals as a “real world” means of mitigating anti-competitive incentives arising when one party controls access to assets that a competitor must rely upon to remain competitive.  Other industry examples of such a potentially anti-competitive situation include control by an oil & gas producer of crucial pipelines and and control a by power producer of crucial electricity transmission or distribution systems.

We shall have to see if the DOJ will seek US Supreme Court review of its defeat in this antitrust dispute.

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Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

CPR Delegation Participates in the 69th Session of the UNCITRAL Working Group II on Expedited Arbitration

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In the picture (from left to right): Franco Gevaerd, Olivier P. André, and Piotr S. Wójtowicz.

By Franco Gevaerd

From Feb. 4-8, 2019, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Working Group II held its 69th session at the United Nations headquarters in New York. At this session, as set forth by the UNCITRAL during its 51st session, Working Group II commenced its deliberations on issues relating to expedited arbitration (see the Report of the UNCITRAL on the 51st session).

Given the CPR Institute’s international experience and expertise in international arbitration, the UNCITRAL Secretariat invited CPR to participate in the session as an observer delegation representing its views on expedited arbitration to facilitate Working Group II’s deliberations.

CPR sent a five-member delegation: Noah J. Hanft, President & CEO; Olivier P. André, Senior Vice President, International; Anna M. Hershenberg, Vice President, Programs and Public Policy & Corporate Counsel; Franco Gevaerd, International Consultant/Legal Intern; and Piotr S. Wójtowicz, Legal Intern.

Established in 1966 by the U.N. General Assembly, UNCITRAL plays an important role in developing an improved legal framework for international trade and investment, and in harmonizing and modernizing the law of these fields. The substantive preparatory work involved in doing that is typically assigned to UNCITRAL’s working groups (see the U.N.’s “A Guide to UNCITRAL”).

The UNCITRAL Working Group II is composed of UNCITRAL’s 60 member States and has been developing work focused on arbitration, conciliation and mediation, and dispute settlement. The group’s most recent project is the Singapore Convention. A signing ceremony for the convention is scheduled for Aug. 7, 2019.  Now, as mentioned above, the group’s attention has turned to the topic of expedited arbitration.

Expedited arbitration aims to streamline the process to reduce its time and cost. This topic has long been discussed by the international arbitration community and explored by arbitration institutions, mostly due to concerns with the length, cost and undue formality in the process, especially in less complex cases.

At the beginning of the group’s deliberations, it was generally agreed that this session’s work should “focus on establishing an international framework on expedited arbitration, without prejudice to the form that such work might take.” After that, the work should then proceed to analyze aspects relating to emergency arbitrators, adjudication, early dismissal of claims, and preliminary determinations by arbitral tribunals.

During the session, Working Group II participants discussed in depth many issues related to key aspects of expedited arbitration, including how to foster efficiency while preserving quality, due process and fairness; enforcement of awards resulting from expedited arbitration; application of the expedited procedure, and management of the proceedings.

CPR’s contributed substantially to the discussion throughout the week. In the Working Group II session’s first day, Anna Hershenberg pointed out that since its foundation, CPR has focused on creating rules that aim at efficient dispute resolution and users’ autonomy. She noted that in order to foster efficiency, CPR has built into its domestic and international arbitration rules quick time frames. Consequently, CPR’s international and domestic arbitration cases historically take an average of slightly more than 11 months from commencement of the proceedings to the arbitral award.

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Anna M. Hershenberg making her remarks during the session.

Later in the week, addressing the Working Group’s request to arbitral institutions to provide input on their experiences handling expedited arbitration proceedings, Olivier André pointed out:

CPR administered and non-administered arbitration rules already provide for time requirements which limit the length of proceedings. Users of CPR arbitration often customize their arbitration clauses to further limit these time requirements. In 2006, CPR also promulgated a fast-track procedure to supplement the non-administered arbitration rules. Parties can agree to this procedure to shorten the time requirements provided for under the rules and limit certain other procedural aspects, such as disclosure and the number of arbitrators, to expedite their proceeding.

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Olivier P. André making his remarks during the session.

Besides the CPR’s Fast Track Arbitration Rules, CPR also offers to users two other set of rules that provide for expedited arbitration procedures: The CPR Rules for Expedited Arbitration of Construction Disputes, and the CPR’s Global Rules for Accelerated Commercial Arbitration. In addition, CPR’s committees, which are composed of representatives from different stakeholders involved in the arbitration process, often discuss ways to improve the arbitration process in general and in specific industries.

By the end of the week’s discussion, Working Group II was able to find a consensus in many of the key aspects of expedited arbitration discussed, such as reasoned vs. unreasoned awards, monetary thresholds, and number of arbitrators for expedited arbitration.

Several questions, however, are still open to discussion for the next Working Group II session. For example, what will be the form of the group’s work? And will this international framework be applied to arbitration in general, or specific to international commercial arbitration?

The next session of the UNCITRAL Working Group II is preliminarily scheduled to take place from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, 2019, at the United Nations in Vienna. CPR is looking forward to continuing to contribute to the efforts.

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The author is CPR’s International Consultant/Legal Intern. He holds a LL.B. from Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná (Brazil) and a LL.M. in International Commercial Law and Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine Law/Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution.

More on Mass Individual Arbitration As an Alternative to Class Arbitration

By Echo K.X. Wang

A plaintiffs-side law firm is embracing a recently developed path to pursuing employment disputes against companies that mandate class-action waivers.

Last month in California’s Northern District federal court, Uber and Lyft were separately faced with individual JAMS Inc./American Arbitration Association claims and petitions to compel arbitration from thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers working for each company.

The Uber lawsuit, Abadilla v. Uber Technologies Inc., is scheduled for a hearing on a motion to compel arbitration on March 28 with U.S. District Court Judge Edward M. Chen. (The Abadilla case page is available at http://bit.ly/2By5Zpf.)

The Lyft lawsuit, Abarca v. Lyft Inc., is scheduled for an initial case management conference on Mar. 14, 2019 with U.S. District Court Judge William Haskell Alsup. (The Abarca case page can be found at http://bit.ly/2Svtny8.)

The drivers claimed that the ride-share companies have misclassified them as independent contractors and violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The basis for these arbitration claims arose in light of last year’s California Supreme Court case, Dynamex v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 4 Cal. 5th 903 (Cal. April 30, 2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2ByKGnH), where the state’s top Court limited companies’ ability to label their workers as independent contractors. Unlike workers classified as employees, independent contractors, including Lyft and Uber drivers, are not entitled to minimum wage and other benefits promised under state and federal law.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of employers in limiting employee’s ability to bring class suits, backing waivers in favor of mandatory individual arbitration, in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8); see also Noah Hanft, “What’s Next for Employers, Post Epic Systems?” Corporate Counsel (July 24, 2018) (available on the CPR Institute’s website at http://bit.ly/2E6ZUlB).

Another earlier Supreme Court case, Stolt-Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010) (available at http://bit.ly/2SP4ugk), held that a party may not be compelled to submit to class arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act unless otherwise provided for within the contract.

These decisions impose restrictions on employees’ ability to resolve workplace disputes, requiring them to arbitrate claims individually.

Yet 2019 has started off with a shift toward a more expansive view of workers’ rights which will affect—in ways yet to be determined—resolving conflicts with their employers. Last month, the Supreme Court in New Prime v. Oliveira, No. 17–340 (2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2CyEpbd) resolved a circuit split about whether the FAA Section 1 exemption applies to independent contractor agreements.

Plaintiff Oliveira brought a class action wage-and-hours claims against New Prime, an interstate trucking company. When New Prime sought to enforce its mandatory arbitration agreement under the FAA, Oliveira contended that he qualifies for the FAA Section 1 exemption, and the FAA shouldn’t apply to his case, thereby striking the mandatory arbitration clause in his independent contractor agreement.

The exemption clause states that “nothing herein” the FAA “shall apply to contracts of employment of . . . any [] class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” While both parties agreed that Oliveira is considered a class of worker “engaged in interstate commerce,” the parties disagreed on whether the FAA’s “contracts of employment” included independent contractor agreements, or only to employer-employee agreements.

In the unanimous 8-0 decision by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch—new Justice Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t seated when the case was argued and didn’t participate—the Court held that “contract of employment” includes a broad reading of employee-employer relationships, including independent contractor agreements. Therefore, under FAA Sec.1, transportation workers like Oliveira may not be compelled to arbitrate.

Looking to the historical usage of the word “employment,” Gorsuch explained that when the FAA was enacted in 1925, “employment” was understood broadly to be “more or less as a synonym for ‘work.’” He also noted that both federal and state courts in the early 20th century have used the term “contract of employment” to describe work agreements involving independent contractors.

In summary, he wrote, “a contract of employment did not necessarily imply the existence of an employer-employee . . . . relationship.” (Emphasis is in the opinion.)

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The New Prime decision could have a significant impact on the interstate transportation industry, including the outcomes of the pending Uber and Lyft disputes. Chicago-based law firm Keller Lenkner  initially filed and is orchestrating both the 12,501 arbitrations claims against Uber (Abadilla v. Uber Technologies Inc.)and the 3,420 Lyft drivers arbitration claims against Lyft (Abarca v. Lyft Inc.).

When the two companies failed to fully pay the initial arbitration filing fees as promised within the companies’ arbitration agreements, Keller Lenkner enlisted Los Angeles firm Larson O’Brien LLP to help with the Uber Abadilla cases, and filed a motion to compel arbitration against both companies in the N. D. California District Court.

It is not a surprise that Uber and Lyft are delaying the fee payments. As it turns out, the large numbers of individual arbitrations are expensive and time consuming for companies. In the Uber arbitrations under JAMS, the initial filing fees for arbitration is $1,500 per dispute.

Similarly, Lyft’s American Arbitration Association arbitrations are $1,900 per dispute. A detailed list of AAA’s employment dispute arbitration fees is available at https://bit.ly/2X4VD9Q.

At the same time, Uber counters in the joint case management statement filed by both parties on Feb. 7 that the plaintiffs haven’t paid their arbitration fees either. The joint statement is available at http://bit.ly/2X10Tew.

Uber even proposed to resolve the arbitrations through four representative arbitrations. Alison Frankel, “Forced into arbitration, 12,500 drivers claim Uber won’t pay fees to launch case,” Reuters (Dec. 6, 2018) (available at https://reut.rs/2tha1xS). While Keller Lenkner rejected this offer on behalf of its clients, it is interesting and unusual that Uber proposed the equivalent of class arbitration, after fighting so hard—and successfully—against class action arbitrations at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. O’Connor, et al.  v. Uber Technologies Inc., No. 14-16078 (Sept. 25, 2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2Gnhggl).

In combatting these individual arbitration claims, the ride-share companies adopted several tactics including: 1) delay the arbitrations by not paying the arbitration initial filing fees, 2) challenging their opposing counsels’ qualifications, and 3) offering incentives for employees to drop their arbitration claims.

The tactic to delay arbitration fee payments, as both Uber and Lyft seem to be doing, is not new. See Howard E. Levin, Stiffing the Arbitrators and the Respondents, ABA GPSolo eReport (Aug. 22, 2017) (available at http://bit.ly/2WZQD6c). Neither is the plaintiffs’ push for mass individual arbitrations. See Jessica Goodheart, “Why 24 Hour Fitness Is Going to the Mat against Its Own Employees,” Fast Company (March 13) (available at http://bit.ly/2pkDPIm) (A class of health club employees decertified by a California federal court filed hundreds of individual arbitrations, which the employer settled as a group); Ben Penn, “Buffalo Wild Wings Case Tests Future of Class Action Waivers,” Bloomberg Law (July 12, 2018), https://bit.ly/2Sx9qXY (Workers at Buffalo Wild Wings filed nearly 400 individual arbitrations for wage-and-hour disputes, which also resolved in a group settlement).

Uber and Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.

Since arbitrations can only proceed after the initial filing fees are paid, there is perverse incentive for companies to delay or even refuse to pay the arbitration fees, in hopes that employees would either pay for the filing fees themselves, or simply give up and abandon the claims altogether.

As noted, the companies advanced arguments to attack the qualifications of their opposing firms and attorneys. In a separate but similar wage-and-hour arbitration dispute at the California Northern District federal court, Uber succeeded in its motion to disqualify Keller Lenkner and its partner Warren Postman from representing Diva Limousine against Uber in Diva Limousine Ltd. v. Uber Technologies Inc. (case page available at http://bit.ly/2Ia1wz2).

In Diva, Uber argued that in his previous job at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Postman frequently “exchanged confidential and privileged communications [with Uber] on the driver classification issue,” and should therefore be disqualified for conflicts of interest. (A detailed account of Uber’s argument can be found at Alison Frankel, “Law firm for Uber drivers in mass arbitration is bounced from federal court case,” Reuters (Jan. 10) (available at https://reut.rs/2GntPYS).

On Jan. 11, Judge Edward M. Chen from the California Northern District federal court in San Francisco granted Uber’s motion to disqualify Postman & Keller Lenkner. On Feb. 11, 2019, the plaintiff appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit, filing a writ of mandamus.

Uber is now trying to use the Diva opinion as the basis to disqualify Keller Lenkner and Larson O’Brien in the Abadilla case. In Uber’s opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion to compel arbitration (see motion available at http://bit.ly/2TNcnjx), the company argued that while the counsel of record for the 12,501 drivers is the Larson O’Brien firm, the arbitration demands were initially submitted to JAMS by Keller Lenkner.

Uber expressed doubts on Larson O’Brien’s involvement in the case, alleging that Keller Lenkner, with Larson O’Brien by association, should not be able to represent the drivers given the Diva disqualification judgment.

Keller Lenkner might face the same conflict problem against Lyft as well.  In November, soon after Keller Lenkner requested arbitration, Lyft filed a tort lawsuit against Postman, seeking both money damages and an injunction against Postman from representing the Lyft drivers in arbitrations. (Lyft Inc. v. Postman, case court docket available at https://bit.ly/2SRO4DY). There, Lyft alleged that Postman worked closely with Lyft when he was at the Chamber of Commerce, and like Uber, alleged that he was exposed to confidential information about Lyft’s driver classification issues (see motion available at https://bit.ly/2tiNMYu).

On Jan. 16, the Court grant an extension for Postman to respond to the complaint, but Postman has yet to respond as of Feb. 14. It is unclear if the Diva opinion, now on appeal, would affect Keller Lenkner’s eligibility to represent the drivers in the Lyft arbitrations.

* * *

In addition to stalling the arbitration and imposing other defenses against the arbitrations, Uber and Lyft might also consider other ways to settle these claims. Uber already did this in the past, in offering to pay 11 cents per mile in exchange for drivers to opt out of another arbitration. After all, Uber and Lyft are both hoping to go public in the next few months, and it would be to their advantage to resolve these matters before then.

It is unknown if mass individual arbitrations—the plaintiffs’ “death by a thousand cuts” strategy—will turn out to be a key path for gig-economy workers. While mass individual arbitrations may impose pressure for companies to change their policies or to settle, would it be possible to arbitrate so many disputes?

Although it appears that Uber is stalling for time by attacking Postman’s qualifications, it is questionable whether Keller Lenkner, a 10-attorney firm, is equipped to handle more than 16,000 individual arbitrations–though, according to Keller Lenkner, they have been referring affected clients to other firms as a way to address this problem.

The plaintiffs’ mass arbitration strategy also has been questioned by experts, who wonder whether it risks corrupting the processes.  They charge that attorneys employing this strategy may be trying to gain negotiation leverage, rather than intending to arbitrate each claim, which, they say, is detrimental to ADR. See Andrew Wallender, “Corporate Arbitration Tactic Backfires as Claims Flood In,” Bloomberg Law (Feb. 11) (available at https://bit.ly/2BwruqF).

Moreover, in light of New Prime, significant changes loom in how transportation workers bring their claims. For drivers in the ride-share industry who “engage[] in … interstate commerce,” New Prime stands for the proposition that they have a choice to bring future wage and hour claims directly to the state and federal courts, rather than through arbitrations.

Another question is whether Uber and Lyft drivers will fit under the FAA Sec. 1 umbrella of transportation workers “engaged in … interstate commerce.” Even if they are, how will the New Prime sit with individual state laws and regulations?

 

The author is a Spring 2019 CPR Institute intern, and a student at Brooklyn Law School.

Implications of Henry Schein and New Prime US Supreme Court Decisions

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

As you know, the US Supreme Court has now issued its opinions in two of the three arbitration-related cases it heard this Term, the 8-0 (with an additional short concurrence by Justice Ginsburg) unanimous decision authored by Justice Gorsuch in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira and the 9-0 unanimous decision authored by Justice Kavanaugh in Henry Schein v. Archer & White Sales.  Only Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela remains to be decided this Term (Question Presented: whether the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) overrides a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements).

The headlines in those decisions relate to excluding from the FAA obligation to enforce arbitration any pre-dispute agreements with independent contractor transportation workers (New Prime v. Oliveira) and the rejection of a “wholly groundless” exception to a court’s obligation to allow the arbitral tribunal to decide jurisdictional disputes where the parties have “clearly and unmistakably” allocated that authority to the arbitrators (Henry Schein v. Archer & White Sales).  But there are other implications of those decisions to which we should pay attention.

First, with respect to the decision in Henry Schein and as discussed on the listserv, the lower courts had relied on the competence-competence Rule 7(a) in the AAA Commercial Arbitration Rules to conclude that the parties had “clearly and unmistakably” allocated that decision-making power to the arbitrators, as required by First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan.  However, the Henry Schein Court stated:

We express no view about whether the contract at issue in this case in fact delegated the arbitrability question to an arbitrator.  The Court of Appeals did not decide that issue.  Under our cases, courts “should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that they did so.” First Options, 514 U. S., at 944 (alterations omitted).  On remand, the Court of Appeals may address that issue in the first instance, as well as other arguments that Archer and White has properly preserved.

As has been explained by others, there is an existing Circuit split as to whether a competence-competence provision in arbitration rules is sufficient to satisfy the First Options standard.  Moreover, Prof. George Bermann’s amicus brief on that issue, reflecting the view of the draft Restatement that a provision within the arbitration rules should not by itself be sufficient, triggered critical questioning by the Justices (particularly Justice Ginsburg) at the case’s oral argument.  That issue was not, however, part of the Question Presented on which the Supreme Court had granted certiorari for review.  It thus appears the Justices are preparing themselves to resolve that Circuit split in a future case.  In that regard, you may recall my October 31 post (see below, triggered by Prof. Bermann’s amicus brief) asking whether that question will be “the Next Big Arbitration Issue”.

Second, the New Prime decision makes clear that independent contractors may nevertheless be transportation “workers” with “employment agreements” who cannot be bound by a pre-dispute arbitration agreement enforceable under the FAA.  Mr. Oliveira himself is an independent trucker.  But I suggest to you the bigger practical impact will be to reinvigorate class actions in US courts brought by Uber and Lyft drivers against their respective ride-sharing employers.  Many of those judicial class actions had been dismissed in favor of arbitration due to mandatory arbitration clauses in the drivers’ independent contracts with the ride-sharing companies.

Similarly, seamen on shipping and fishing vessels and working personnel on cruise ships are not often employees of their shipping companies, fishing vessels or cruise lines etc.  Instead, they are regularly engaged under independent contractor agreements containing arbitration clauses.  There too, we can anticipate a resurgence of claims in US courts, rather than in arbitration, including possible class actions against shipping companies and cruise lines on various compensation, hiring and firing, and working conditions issues.  Unlike ride-sharing companies, though, those maritime companies generally operate internationally.  Consequently, we may anticipate as well that even more of those maritime companies will specify in their employment/independent contractor agreements an arbitration situs outside FAA jurisdiction, such as the many maritime employment arbitrations now being conducted in Caribbean seats.

Rail workers may also employ New Prime to move some disputes from arbitration to courts, although much of that field in the US is unionized under collective bargaining agreements for which arbitration is statutorily authorized outside the FAA.  Independent contractor relationships are less common.

But Justice Gorsuch may have gone further in his opinion.  He wrote:

Given the statute’s terms and sequencing, we agree with the First Circuit that a court should decide for itself whether §1’s “contracts of employment” exclusion applies before ordering arbitration. After all, to invoke its statutory powers under §§3 and 4 to stay litigation and compel arbitration according to a contract’s terms, a court must first know whether the contract itself falls within or beyond the boundaries of §§1 and 2. The parties’ private agreement may be crystal clear and require arbitration ofevery question under the sun, but that does not necessarily mean the Act authorizes a court to stay litigation and send the parties to an arbitral forum.

(Emphasis added)

It is certainly possible to interpret that statement to mean that a court must itself determine whether the arbitration agreement falls within or outside §2 of the FAA, not just FAA §1.  FAA Section 1 excludes, according to long-standing precedent, maritime transportation workers from the obligations of the court to stay litigation and compel arbitration.  But FAA §2, the basic provision of the FAA enforcing covered arbitration agreements, contains the well-known savings clause for “such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract”:

A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction, or the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof, or an agreement in writing to submit to arbitration an existing controversy arising out of such a contract, transaction, or refusal, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

(Emphasis added)

The quoted language authored by Justice Gorsuch (and endorsed by seven other Justices) can be read to suggest that, regardless of any “clear and unmistakable” delegation of jurisdictional decisions to arbitrators by the contracting parties, a supervising court must itself determine whether a challenge to an arbitration agreement on grounds such as unconscionability, duress or mistake is successful before the dispute proceeds to arbitration; i.e., a challenge under FAA §2 on grounds that exist in law or equity for revocation of any contract.  Certainly, counsel for parties seeking to avoid an arbitral forum in favor of a judicial forum will seize upon that language in New Prime to try to place the dispute in the courts.  We do not know if that was what Justice Gorsuch intended, but we can therefore anticipate a string of US court cases addressing the “who decides” issue again from that perspective, ultimately returning to the US Supreme Court for further clarification.

There is also another important conceptual issue embedded in Justice Gorsuch’s New Prime opinion that may affect many other issues relating to the FAA.  Justice Gorsuch spent considerable effort in his opinion focusing on the original legislative intent in 1925 for the FAA.  For example, these selections from the opinion.

Why this very particular qualification?  By the time it adopted the Arbitration Act in 1925, Congress had already prescribed alternative employment dispute resolution regimes for many transportation workers.  And it seems Congress “did not wish to unsettle” those arrangements in favor of whatever arbitration procedures the parties’ private contracts might happen to contemplate.

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In taking up this question, we bear an important caution in mind. “[I]t’s a ‘fundamental canon of statutory construction’ that words generally should be ‘interpreted as taking their ordinary . . . meaning . . . at the time Congress enacted the statute.’” Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 9) (quoting Perrin v. United States, 444 U. S. 37, 42 (1979)). See also Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., 571 U. S. 220, 227 (2014).  After all, if judges could freely invest old statutory terms with new meanings, we would risk amending legislation outside the “single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered, procedure” the Constitution commands. INS v. Chadha, 462 U. S. 919, 951 (1983).  We would risk, too, upsetting reliance interests in the settled meaning of a statute. Cf. 2B N. Singer & J. Singer, Sutherland on Statutes and Statutory Construction §56A:3 (rev. 7th ed. 2012).  Of course, statutes may sometimes refer to an external source of law and fairly warn readers that they must abide that external source of law, later amendments and modifications included. Id., §51:8 (discussing the reference canon).  But nothing like that exists here.  Nor has anyone suggested any other appropriate reason that might allow us to depart from the original meaning of the statute at hand.

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To many lawyerly ears today, the term “contracts of employment” might call to mind only agreements between employers and employees (or what the common law sometimes called masters and servants).  Suggestively, at least one recently published law dictionary defines the word “employment” to mean “the relationship between master and servant.” Black’s Law Dictionary 641 (10th ed. 2014).  But this modern intuition isn’t easily squared with evidence of the term’s meaning at the time of the Act’s adoption in 1925.  At that time, a “contract of employment” usually meant nothing more than an agreement to perform work.

****

What’s the evidence to support this conclusion?  It turns out that in 1925 the term “contract of employment” wasn’t defined in any of the (many) popular or legal dictionaries the parties cite to us.  And surely that’s a first hint the phrase wasn’t then a term of art bearing some specialized meaning.  It turns out, too, that the dictionaries of the era consistently afforded the word “employment” a broad construction, broader than may be often found in dictionaries today.  Back then, dictionaries tended to treat “employment” more or less as a synonym for “work.”  Nor did they distinguish between different kinds of work or workers: All work was treated as employment, whether or not the common law criteria for a master-servant relationship happened to be satisfied.

What the dictionaries suggest, legal authorities confirm.  This Court’s early 20th-century cases used the phrase “contract of employment” to describe work agreements involving independent contractors.  Many state court cases did the same.  So did a variety of federal statutes.  And state statutes too.  We see here no evidence that a “contract of employment” necessarily signaled a formal employer-employee or master-servant relationship.

****

If courts felt free to pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal, we would risk failing to “tak[e] . . . account of ” legislative compromises essential to a law’s passage and, in that way, thwart rather than honor “the effectuation of congressional intent.” Ibid.  By respecting the qualifications of §1 today, we “respect the limits up to which Congress was prepared” to go when adopting the Arbitration Act. United States v. Sisson, 399 U. S. 267, 298 (1970).

****

When Congress enacted the Arbitration Act in 1925, the term “contracts of employment” referred to agreements to perform work.  No less than those who came before him, Mr. Oliveira is entitled to the benefit of that same understanding today.

****

(footnotes omitted)

As US arbitration practitioners are aware, the US Federal courts have for many decades strayed from the exact text of the FAA in the course of developing US federal arbitration law.  Instead, the Federal courts have developed a sort of “common law” of arbitration, building on their notions of how to fill legislative gaps or to find modern interpretations to effectuate the FAA’s purposes.  The most obvious example lies in the continuing Circuit split over the meaning of arbitrator “evident partiality” as a ground for vacatur of arbitration awards by arbitrators alleged to have conflicts of interest.  So too, the judicial presumption in favor of arbitration itself.  If Justice Gorsuch’s “1925 legislative intent” approach is applied to such issues, US arbitration jurisprudence on arbitrator conflicts, presumptions of arbitration and many other issues may be in for a vigorous shaking up.

Justice Ginsburg was attentive to the implications of this interpretive approach, although I rather doubt her primary focus was on FAA jurisprudence.  In her short concurrence to the unanimous opinion (in which she also joined), Justice Ginsburg pointed out a more flexible view for interpreting legislative meaning.

Congress, however, may design legislation to govern changing times and circumstances. See, e.g., Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 14) (“Congress . . . intended [the Sherman Antitrust Act’s] reference to ‘restraint of trade’ to have ‘changing content,’ and authorized courts to oversee the term’s ‘dynamic potential.’” (quoting Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics Corp., 485 U. S. 717, 731‒732 (1988))); SEC v. Zandford, 535 U. S. 813, 819 (2002) (In enacting the Securities Exchange Act, “Congress sought to substitute a philosophy of full disclosure for the philosophy of caveat emptor . . . . Consequently, . . . the statute should be construed not technically and restrictively, but flexibly to effectuate its remedial purposes.” (internal quotation marks and paragraph break omitted)); H. J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Telephone Co., 492 U. S. 229, 243 (1989) (“The limits of the relationship and continuity concepts that combine to define a [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] pattern . . . cannot be fixed in advance with such clarity that it will always be apparent whether in a particular case a ‘pattern of racketeering activity’ exists. The development of these concepts must await future cases . . . .”). As these illustrations suggest, sometimes, “[w]ords in statutes can enlarge or contract their scope as other changes, in law or in the world, require their application to new instances or make old applications anachronistic.” West v. Gibson, 527 U. S. 212, 218 (1999).

These different approaches toward divining legislative meaning are part of the basic legal philosophy differences between the conservative and liberal wings of the Supreme Court.  Those differences will play out in many areas of US law but, in light of New Prime, one of them now may be the interpretation of the FAA.

_______________________________________________

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

The European View: The Decision on the Jurisdictional Objection in Vattenfall AB and Others v. Federal Republic of Germany

WierzbowskiSzostak_oferta

EU flag

By Krzysztof Wierzbowski[1] and Aleksander Szostak[2]

On 31 August 2018, the Arbitral Tribunal in Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany issued a decision on jurisdictional objection made by the Federal Republic of Germany (decision).[3] The Tribunal asserted its jurisdiction, despite Germany’s argument based on the groundbreaking Slovak Republic v. Achmea decision issued earlier that year by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Background on the decision

The dispute between Vattenfall and Germany concerns the decision by Germany following the 2011 Fukushima disaster to phase out nuclear power by 2022.[4]

Vattenfall initiated proceedings pursuant to the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) and ICSID Convention, claiming that the decision to phase out nuclear power and, thereby, shut down nuclear plants breached Germany’s obligations under the ECT.

Germany based its jurisdictional objection on the reasoning of the CJEU in the Achmea preliminary ruling, in which it was decided that the investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the relevant intra-EU BIT is incompatible with EU law because the mechanism prevents investment treaty disputes from being decided within the judicial system of the EU. [5]

Germany essentially claimed that Art. 26 ECT, providing for the ISDS mechanism, must be interpreted restrictively in such a manner that the ISDS is not applicable in intra-EU investor-State disputes.[6] It further noted that the reasoning of the CJEU in Achmea extends to intra-EU investor-State disputes initiated under multilateral treaties, such as the ECT, as the risk to the consistent interpretation and application of EU law exists irrespective of the bilateral, or multilateral character of a treaty.[7]

Decision of the Tribunal on the Achmea issue

The ICSID Tribunal rejected the argument that Art. 26 ECT should be interpreted to exclude intra-EU investor-State arbitration.[8] In this sense, it dismissed Germany’s claim and asserted its jurisdiction.

The ICSID Tribunal stated that while the CJEU in Achmea interpreted the ISDS clause in the underlying intra-EU BIT as conflicting with the provisions of the European Union (EU) law, it limited its considerations to ISDS clauses in intra-EU treaties of bilateral character. Thus, the CJEU did not extend its reasoning to multilateral treaties concluded between EU members and third States.[9] The ICSID Tribunal further contended that the ECT is not an agreement concluded between EU Member States within the meaning of Achmea, but rather constitutes a mixed agreement between EU Member States, third States and the EU itself.[10]

The ICSID Tribunal pointed out that in line with the view expressed in Masdar Solar & Wind Cooperatief U.A. v Kingdom of Spain, the CJEU in Achmea did not address the argument in the Opinion of the Advocate General Wathelet (AG), in which the AG distinguished between ISDS clauses in BITs and ECT, further supporting the position of the ICSID Tribunal.[11]

Having carried out an interpretation of Art. 26 ECT in accordance with Art. 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the ICSID Tribunal concluded that in light of the context, object and purpose of the ECT, Art. 26 ECT does not exclude the possibility of intra-EU ECT arbitration.[12]

The ICSID Tribunal further noted that the lack of the “disconnection clause” in the ECT, which aims to ensure that the provisions of a multilateral treaty apply only between particular States, confirms that the ECT creates obligations between EU Member States and does not exclude intra-EU ECT arbitration.[13]

Implications of the decision

The decision on the Achmea issue has a number of implications for investment protection system in the EU.

In particular, the decision confirms the full effectiveness of the ECT in relations between parties that are EU Member States. This is clearly beneficial for investors engaging in the European market as the restructuring of investment will not be necessary to benefit from protection granted by the ECT. This may contribute to further development of the European energy market. Undoubtedly, the Decision, by asserting the full effectiveness and binding force of the ECT, could positively affect the cross-border cooperation in the energy industry between its Parties.

Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that while the Decision presents the perspective of an arbitral tribunal, the European Commission (EC) and the CJEU may advocate that the Achmea argument extends to MITs, which raises a threat to the ECT as well to the recognition and enforcement mechanism of ICSID arbitral awards in the EU Member States. Art. 54 of the ICSID Convention provides that each contracting state shall recognize an award rendered by an ICSID Tribunal as binding and enforce the pecuniary obligations imposed by that award as if it were a final judgment of a court where recognition is sought. This unique recognition mechanism does not leave room for any ground on which the recognition could be refused.

Therefore, considering the possibility that the EC and, depending on whether there will be a preliminary ruling on the compatibility of Art. 26 ECT with the EU law and the role of the ICSID Convention, CJEU will not accept the reasoning of the ICSID Tribunal in Vattenfall AB and others, the national court where the recognition is sought will be faced with a rather complex and uncertain situation of conflicting treaty obligations. It must decide whether to recognize the award pursuant to Art. 54 of the ICSID Convention, or to comply with the EU law and, thereby, refuse to recognize the award.

The possibility that a national court may decide not to recognize the award rendered pursuant to the ICSID Convention may undermine the effectiveness of the Convention and deprive investors of the benefit of its recognition mechanism.

Additionally, it must be noted that payment of compensation awarded by the arbitral tribunal may, as it was the case in the Ioan Micula, Viorel Micula and others v Romania and Decision adopted by the EC, constitute illegal state aid under Article 107(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).[14] This leads to the consideration that even if the Achmea argument would not cover MITs, the enforcing court would still face a dilemma of whether to enforce the award.

In light of the above, it is interesting to note that the ICSID Tribunal explicitly stated that while it is mindful of the duty to render an enforceable award, it must perform its mandate given under the ECT and, thereby, is not as such concerned with the question of whether the award will be recognized or enforced.[15]

Conclusion

The Decision of the ICSID Tribunal in Vattenfall AB and others on the jurisdictional objection made by the Federal Republic of Germany demonstrates the approach of investment treaty tribunal to the “Achmea issue” and adds to the ongoing discussion on the relationship between EU law and investment protection treaties.

While the ICSID Tribunal confirmed that the reasoning of the CJEU in Slovak Republic v. Achmea preliminary ruling does not extend to intra-EU arbitrations initiated on the basis of multilateral treaties, there is uncertainty as to the approach of the EC and, possibly, CJEU to the matter. Ultimately, it is the domestic court of a Member State before which the recognition and/or enforcement of the award will be sought that will have final say on the matter.

It is worth noting that because of the fragmentation of international investment law and lack of stare decisis principle in investment treaty arbitration, there is much uncertainty as to whether arbitral tribunals will follow the reasoning of the ICSID Tribunal in Vattenfall AB and others.

After the decision of the EC with respect to Ioan Micula, Viorel Micula and others v. Romania, even if the EC and CJEU would share the reasoning of the ICSID Tribunal in Vattenfall AB and others regarding jurisdiction, investors may be unable to obtain compensation awarded by tribunals, as it would amount to illegal State aid.

Finally, the Achmea argument has the potential to become a popular strategy of defendants in investment arbitration proceedings to challenge the jurisdiction of arbitral tribunal, or admissibility of a claim.

Endnotes

[1] Krzysztof Wierzbowski is the senior partner at Wierzbowski Eversheds Sutherland.

[2] Aleksander Szostak LL.M., LL.B. is a trainee lawyer at Wierzbowski Eversheds Sutherland.

[3] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018].

[4] 13. AtGÄndG v. 31.07.2011, BGBl I S. 1704 (No. 43); Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder and Rhea Tamara Hoffmann, The German Nuclear Phase-Out Put to the Test in International Investment Arbitration? Background to the new dispute Vattenfall v Germany (II) (The International Institute for Sustainable Development 2012).

[5] Case C 284/16 Slowakische Republik (Slovak Republic) v. Achmea BV [2018] par. 59-60.

[6] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.50.

[7] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.51-52.

[8] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par. 211.

[9] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.213.

[10] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.162.

[11] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.163-164; Case C 284/16 Slowakische Republik (Slovak Republic) v. Achmea BV [2018], Opinion of AG Wathelet [2017] par.43; see. Masdar Solar & Wind Cooperatief U.A. v Kingdom of Spain, ICSID Case No. ARB/14/1, Award [16 May 2018].

[12] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.207.

[13] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par. 201-206.

[14] See. Ioan Micula, Viorel Micula, S.C. European Food S.A, S.C. Starmill S.R.L. and S.C. Multipack S.R.L. v. Romania, ICSID Case No. ARB/05/20; Commission Decision (EU) 2015/1470 of 30 March 2015 on State aid SA.38517 (2014/C) (ex 2014/NN) implemented by Romania — Arbitral award Micula v Romania of 11 December 2013.

[15] Vattenfall AB and others v. Federal Republic of Germany, ICSID Case No. ARB/12/12, Decision on the Achmea issue [31 August 2018] par.230-231.

US Sup Ct: Will the “Next Big Arbitration Issue” Be Whether Provisions of Arbitration Rules Constitute Clear and Unmistakable Evidence That the Disputing Parties Allocated “Who Decides” Authority to the Arbitrators?

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two arbitration-related cases on Monday, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc. and Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela.  The issue before the Court in Henry Schein was whether or not there is a “wholly groundless” exception to the general Federal Arbitration Act caselaw rule that, if the parties have “clearly and unmistakably” allocated the “who decides” question to the arbitrators, then issues of jurisdiction/arbitrability are for the arbitrator to decide in the first instance, not the courts.

The facts of the Henry Schein case involved the relatively commonplace occurrence of a commercial arbitration agreement referencing arbitration rules (here, AAA Commercial Arbitration Rule 7(a)) that grant the arbitrators the power to decide their own jurisdiction.  The lower courts in Henry Schein, like many other Federal courts before them, concluded that provision of the Rules constituted “clear and unmistakable evidence” (as called for by the Supreme Court in First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan) allocating the “who decides” authority to the arbitrators, and then proceeded to consider whether or not an exception to that allocation exists if the claim of arbitrability is “wholly groundless”.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled below in Henry Schein that such a “wholly groundless” exception does exist.  Further, said the Court of Appeals, that “wholly groundless” exception applied in the dispute such that the Federal courts could refuse to compel arbitration in the circumstances.  The disappointed claimant then sought, and obtained, U.S. Supreme Court review on the question of whether such a “wholly groundless” exception to the “clear and unmistakable evidence” allocation rule exists under Federal arbitration law.

However, Prof. George Bermann of Columbia Law School, known to many of us as inter alia the chief reporter of the ALI’s Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration, felt moved to submit an amicus brief in Henry Schein questioning, not the issue expressly before the Court, but instead the underlying principle that incorporation of arbitration rules granting jurisdiction/arbitrability power to the arbitrators satisfies the “clear and unmistakable evidence” test for allocating “who decides” authority to the arbitrators .

Although a majority of courts have found the incorporation of rules containing such a provision to satisfy First Options’ “clear and unmistakable” evidence test, the ALI’s Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration has concluded, after extended debate, that these cases were incorrectly decided because incorporation of such rules cannot be regarded as manifesting the “clear and unmistakable” intention that First Options requires.

https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-1272/65270/20181001112810079_REPRINT%20Amicus-GAB.pdf .

Many of the Supreme Court Justices commented that this issue of “clear and unmistakable evidence … due to incorporation by reference” was not part of the Question Presented on which the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Henry Schein.  Based on those comments, it seems unlikely that the eventual decision of the Court in Henry Schein will resolve the issue posed by Prof. Bermann.  Nevertheless, Justices from across the judicial spectrum commented respectfully regarding Prof. Bermann’s amicus argument.  See comments and questions of Justice Ginsburg, Tr. 7:16-23; Justice Breyer, Tr. 49:15-23; Justice Gorsuch, Tr. 42:13-20; Justice Sotomayor, Tr. 38:4-7; Justice Alito, Tr. 35:7-36:4.

Counsel for the Petitioner did take substantive issue with Prof. Bermann’s argument, in addition to arguing that the issue was not within the Question Presented and thus in any event not before the Court.

What is going on in this case, if you look at the four corners of the delegation -of the arbitration agreement **** is that the arbitration agreement by its terms incorporates the rules of the American Arbitration Association and it does so very clearly. That is a quite common arrangement, particularly in commercial arbitrations like the one at issue here.

Then, if you take a look at the rules of the American Arbitration Association, those rules, and, in particular, Rule 7(a), clearly give the arbitrator the authority to decide arbitrability.  And under this Court’s decision in First Options, the relevant inquiry is whether or not the parties were willing to be bound by the arbitrator’s determination on the issue in question.

And so, with all due respect to Professor Bermann and his amicus brief, the position that he propounds has been rejected by every court of appeals to have considered this issue.  And if the Court has any interest in this issue, I would refer the Court to the very thoughtful opinion of the Tenth Circuit in the Belnap case, which discusses this issue in some detail.

Tr. 8:9-9:13.

The transcript of the oral argument in Henry Schein, available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-1272_bqmc.pdf, is very much worth reading in this regard.

The arguably positive comments by some Justices in reaction to Prof. Bermann’s amicus argument create the possibility that opportunistic counsel in other cases will see a signal that raising the principle to the Supreme Court in a future case might be worth the effort.  Consequently, I suggest that the “Next Big Arbitration Issue” to come to the U.S. Supreme Court may be whether or not an arbitration agreement incorporating arbitration rules that include within themselves a provision authorizing the arbitrators to rule on their own competence satisfies the “clear and unmistakable evidence” test in First Options for allocating “who decides” authority to the arbitrators in the first instance.

By the way, reading the tea leaves in the Henry Schein oral argument, at least some observers believe the comments/questions of the Supreme Court Justices indicate that the Court is not inclined to validate a “wholly groundless” exception to the allocation of “who decides” authority to the arbitrators.  See, e.g., http://www.scotusblog.com/2018/10/argument-analysis-justices-signal-opposition-to-vague-exceptions-that-would-limit-enforceability-of-arbitration-agreements/#more-276785.

_______________________________________________

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

Blind Justice: Can Individuals Be Bound to Arbitration Clauses They Can’t Read?

By Michael Heller

The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston recently declined to enforce an arbitration clause in the Container Store’s loyalty program against blind customers. The ruling followed a trend of other circuits requiring a minimum level of notice for arbitration agreements to be binding.

In the case, Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Container Store, Inc., No. 16-2112, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 26122 (1st Cir. Sept. 14, 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2xVaxUY), a unanimous circuit panel that included retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, sitting by designation, examined whether an arbitration clause in the retailer’s loyalty program agreement was binding to blind customers.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Container Store’s sign-up process wasn’t handicap accessible. The retailer’s in-store touch screen interface required the customers to announce their private account information to clerks, creating privacy concerns. The complaint alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Acts and under the state laws where the plaintiffs joined the loyalty program, Massachusetts, California, Texas and New York.

Three of the plaintiffs signed up for the loyalty program in-store, and one registered online. The in-store customers signed up on a touch-screen device with the aid of an employee, but there was no evidence that they were notified by that they were agreeing to waive any rights to court by signing up for the program, which included an arbitration clause.

The plaintiff who signed up on her home computer said she didn’t recall being presented with the arbitration agreement.

The court held that no valid agreement to arbitrate was formed with the in-store customers because they did not receive a “minimum level of notice,” pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act that they were waiving any rights to pursue future ADA claims in court. The court held that an agreement was formed with the online customer, but that it was void as illusory under Texas state law.

The Container Store contended the suit was an attack on the validity of the entire agreement, but the appeals panel agreed with the plaintiffs that the problem was that there was no valid contract formed for arbitration.

Traditionally, courts have upheld the rule that an inability to read a contract is not a defense to contract formation. But “at the same time,” the opinion noted, “a party cannot enter into a contract to arbitrate when it does not know or have reason to know the basic terms of the offer.”

The unanimous opinion authored by First Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, and joined by Senior Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya, as well as retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Souter, cited recent case law that has begun to carve out an exception where a party is not made aware that they are entering into an agreement in the first place.

In Noble v. Samsung Elecs. Am., Inc., 682 Fed. App’x. 113 (3d. Cir. 2017), the Third Circuit examined an agreement to arbitrate that was buried deep within a lengthy smartwatch operation manual. The court held that no agreement to arbitrate was formed because a customer cannot be deemed to have consented to a writing that does not even appear to be a contract.

In Sgouros v. TransUnion Corp., 817 F.3d 1029 (7th Cir. 2016), the Seventh Circuit held that a link to a service agreement on a credit-score website did not properly identify itself as an agreement containing an arbitration clause and therefore did not create a valid agreement to arbitrate.

In Norcia v. Samsung Telecomms. Am., LLC, 845 F.3d 1279 (9th Cir. 2017), the Ninth Circuit acknowledged a rule that, “an offeree, regardless of apparent manifestation of his consent, is not bound by inconspicuous contractual provisions of which he was unaware, contained in a document whose contractual nature is not obvious.”

And in Nicosia v. Amazon.com Inc., 834 F.3d 220, (2d Cir. 2016), a Second Circuit panel held that where a customer was not required to manifest assent to conditions of use containing an arbitration provision, they were not bound to those terms.

These cases, the Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind opinion noted, demonstrated that courts recognize that parties cannot be bound by an agreement to arbitrate that they are not given notice of.

But the opinion noted that parties can be bound to an agreement to arbitrate that they were not made aware of in situations where it is clear that parties are entering into a contractual relationship. The court referenced obtaining a loan, employment and being admitted into a nursing home as situations where a contractual relationship could be presumed.

Companies seeking to ensure the enforceability of their arbitration clauses should take these recent developments into account. The burden imposed by these cases are seemingly minimal: only that parties are made aware that they are entering into a contractual relationship.

In addition, as this case shows, special considerations have to be taken into account for people with disabilities.

The author is a Brooklyn Law School student who is a CPR Institute Fall 2018 Intern.

Amicus Preview, Part 2: The Independent Contractors Want Their FAA Sec. 1 Exemption

By Sara Higgins and Russ Bleemer

The respondents’ amicus briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the First U.S. Circuit Court decision in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, No. 17-340, which was argued earlier this month, focus on statutory history and the plain meaning of the Federal Arbitration Act.

They argue that independent contractors are exempt from FAA application like other transportation workers under a “contract of employment.” That exemption is in the act itself, in Sec. 1, which states, “. . . nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

In other words, the unions, scholars and think tanks excerpted below say the protections the 1925 FAA drafters provided to transportation employees also goes to independent contractors.  Some amicus argue that the term “employees” meant something different then than it means now.

One brief tackles the arbitrability issue that is before the Court, too. Though most amicus filers on both sides focused on the merits of whether the FAA applies to independent contractors, the source of the arbitrability decision–on whether the matter will be heard in arbitration to be made by either a court or an arbitrator–also is expected to be a part of the Supreme Court’s opinion.

The material below covers the respondents’ friend-of-the-court briefs backing independent truck driver Dominic Oliveira. For the petitioner’s briefs, which were filed first, as well as for background on the case and links to deeper dives into the facts and the issues, see the immediately previous CPR Speaks feature, Sara Higgins, “Amicus Preview: New Prime’s New Look at Mandatory Arbitration,” CPR Speaks (Oct. 2)(available at https://bit.ly/2zNqYUF).

In support of Respondent Oliveira:

  1. American Association for Justice
  • AAJ, which represents trial lawyers, offers a broad historical argument that says that the FAA Sec. 1 exemption from the law’s application includes all transportation workers, not just seamen and railway workers.
  • The Washington, D.C.-based association is concerned that the Federal Arbitration Act constructions by petitioner New Prime undermine the right of U.S. workers to pursue their statutory and common-law rights in a judicial forum.
  • AAJ believes it is clear that all workers in the transportation sector, whether “employees” or “independent contractors,” were meant to be exempted from the FAA.
  • New Prime’s narrow construction belies the FAA enactment history, Congressional intent, and basic principles of contract construction as applied by the Court and elsewhere. Independent vehicle owner-operators and others contracting to perform work themselves certainly existed at the time the FAA was passed, and had Congress not wished the exemption to apply to all who actually worked in the transportation sector, it would have said so.
  • That Congress meant to exempt all workers in the transportation section from the FAA– not limited or reliant upon how that worker happened to be paid—is consistent with the Court’s decisions and other Congressional action.
  • In historical context, the use of the term “contracts of employment” routinely included the “employment” of “independent contractor” drivers and, hence, is not meant to exclude any drivers from the benefit of the exception. The Sec. 1 exemption, which was urged by American Federation of Labor lobbyists at the 1925 FAA enactment, the brief notes, “would surely have included all members of one of its most important affiliates, the Teamsters.”
  1. Public Citizen, Inc.
  • The Washington consumer advocacy group, a frequent participant in federal arbitration litigation on behalf of consumers and employees, submits its amicus brief to address one of the two issues raised by petitioner New Prime: whether, when a contract contains an arbitration provision including a clause delegating questions of the arbitrability of a matter to an arbitrator, the FAA requires a court to compel arbitration of the issue whether the FAA even applies to the contract.
  • The brief notes that both the amicus and the parties focus more on the merits issue—that is, whether the FAA exemption applies to all transportation workers—and pay insufficient attention to the arbitrability issue before the Court.
  • Although New Prime’s argument—that the FAA requires a court to refer the issue of its own applicability to an arbitrator without first addressing a substantial argument that the FAA doesn’t not apply to the contract containing the delegation clause the court is being asked to enforce—seems counterintuitive, Public Citizen says its amicus brief addressing the issue may assist the Court in reaching a decision that adds clarity to arbitration law and helps define the limits of the Court’s rulings on the subject.
  • The FAA cannot, and does not, require a court to enforce any arbitration agreement unless the court determines that the FAA applies to that agreement.
  • “The requirement that a court decide whether the contract at issue is excluded from the FAA’s coverage by section 1 before ordering arbitration of any issue (including the section 1 issue itself) is critical, because any order compelling arbitration under the FAA is necessarily applying the FAA to give effect to a purported agreement to arbitrate. A court may not apply the FAA where the FAA itself provides that it is inapplicable.”
  • New Prime’s invocation of its delegation clause and the principle of “severability” cannot justify application of the FAA to a contract to which the FAA does not apply.
  1. Sheldon Whitehouse, D., R.I.
  • Whitehouse, a former state attorney general and U.S. Attorney, invokes Alexis de Tocqueville, Blackstone, and Machiavelli at the outset of his brief, which launches a broadside at the Court’s arbitration jurisprudence. He writes that he files the brief “to draw attention to the Court’s steady march of decisions eroding the Constitution’s Seventh Amendment protections and to warn of the Court’s perilous destabilization of its own institutional reputation.”
  • “Over the past decade,” states Whitehouse, “a predictable conservative majority of the Supreme Court has handed down an accommodating string of 5-4 decisions closing off ordinary citizens’ pathways to the courtroom. Corporate victories at the Supreme Court have undermined civil litigants’ constitutional right to have their claims heard before a jury of their peers, and have whittled to a nub the protective role courts and the jury system were designed to play in our society. Such victories have allowed corporations to steer plaintiffs out of courtrooms and into arbitration, where the odds can be stacked in favor of big business. The Court’s recent arbitration decisions regarding the [FAA], aggrandizing its reach and undermining the original purpose of the Seventh Amendment, are an example.”
  • “[T]his grant of certiorari has the same seeming inevitability as those 5-4 decisions in cases preceding it. Accordingly, amicus fears that the outcome of this case may be preordained—not by the FAA’s plain language, but instead by the trajectory of the recent pattern of 5-4 partisan decisions (decisions in which the Court divides 5-4 with the Republican-appointed majority voting as a bloc). With numbingly predictable inevitability, these cases seem to be won by the ‘more powerful and wealthy’ corporate citizens.”
  • Whitehouse’s legal arguments surrounded two key points in urging the Court to back the First Circuit: “A clear policy preference has emerged for denying citizens their day in court,” and the Court “compromises its legitimacy when it jettisons neutral principles to reach a desired outcome.”
  1. Historians
  • The amicus brief was prepared on behalf “scholars of American labor and legal history [who] have a professional interest in accurate and valid inferences from the historical record”: Shane Hamilton, University of York; Jon Huibregtse, Framingham State University; James Gray Pope, Rutgers Law School; Imre Szalai, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law; Paul Taillon, University of Auckland; and Ahmed White, University of Colorado School of Law.
  • By operation of the ejusdem generis canon, which indicates that a statutory provision should be interpreted in accordance with the words nearby—“of the same kind”–the FAA exemption’s residual clause (“any other class of workers”) does not cover only common law employees in the wake of the statute’s enumeration of railroad workers and seamen. If Congress had intended the FAA exemption to cover only common-law employees, as New Prime now reads it, Congress would have disrupted the statutory dispute resolution schemes for “seamen” and “railroad employees” that it had wanted to avoid unsettling.
  • Relying on more than three dozen agency determinations, the brief notes that the Transportation Act covered railroad workers who would not have counted as employees under the common law of agency. Similarly, shipping arbitration “covered ‘any question whatsoever’ in a seaman’s dispute, including those that did not turn on whether the seaman was anyone’s ‘employee’ under the common law of agency.”
  • The FAA would have disrupted the Transportation Act had it only exempted common-law employees. The theory appears to be that the FAA Sec. 1 exemption applies to independent contractors, which the brief barely mentions, though it notes that independent contractors were covered for railway workers disputes under the Transportation Act of 1920 and seamen disputes under the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872.
  1. Constitutional Accountability Center
  • The Washington, D.C., think tank and public interest law firm, devoted to a progressive interpretation of the Constitution’s text and history, is concerned with “ensuring meaningful access to the courts, in accordance with constitutional text, history, and values.” Heavily citing numerous dictionary definitions, the Center argues that New Prime’s argument badly misinterprets the view of the definition of employees when the FAA was passed. The Center backs affirming the First Circuit interpretation.
  • When Congress enacted the FAA, “employment” was a broad and general term that did not connote a master-servant relationship. Dictionaries of the era, however, defined the word “employment” by consistently giving it a broad meaning—one that encompassed paying another person for his or her work, whether or not the common-law criteria for a master-servant relationship were satisfied. The word “employee” gradually influenced, and limited, the meaning of the term employment, but only well after the FAA was enacted.
  1. Massachusetts, et al.
  • Fourteen states and the District of Columbia filed an amicus brief because they state that they enforce laws that protect the public interest, including those that set fair labor standards and promote the health and safety of all working people. Employees who are misclassified as independent contractors are often denied many basic workplace protections and benefits that they are entitled to receive—and employers who fail to properly classify and pay their workers gain an unfair competitive advantage. The states and the District of Columbia “have an interest in seeing that transportation sector workers such as Respondent Dominic Oliveira get their day in court, as Congress intended.”
  • Because states have limited resources, they rely on individual employees to supplement the efforts of attorneys general through private enforcement actions. “And many transportation companies engage in exploitative labor practices while at the same time using mandatory arbitration agreements with unreasonable forum selection clauses to attempt to prevent their misclassified drivers from pursuing otherwise available legal remedies.”
  • The FAA Sec. 1 language of the transportation workers’ exemption excludes interstate truck drivers from the FAA’s scope, regardless of whether they are employees or independent owner-operators. This conclusion becomes especially clear in light of the history surrounding Congress’s regulation of leases between independent truck drivers and authorized motor carriers.
  • Both of New Prime’s arguments are foreclosed by the FAA’s plain language, read in its proper historical context.
  1. Employment Law Scholars
  • The amicus brief signers are 35 law professors who have taught and written about employment law. They submit this brief because they believe that the FAA should be construed consistent with how all other statutes and related case law treat issues of worker status.
  • Petitioner New Prime and its amicus supporters ask the Court to interpret contracts of employment as used in the FAA based solely on the labels used in particular contracts, drawing distinctions between independent contractors and employees where there is no sound basis to do so.
  • “Allowing worker status to be decided by contract would set the FAA apart from every other federal statute governing workers. It would lead to inconsistency and uncertainty in the workplace because worker status would vary based on contract or the label chosen for each worker.” In New Prime, it could jeopardize the Fair Labor Standards Act’s mission that “prevent[s] parties from contracting away employees’ rights to minimum wages and overtime compensation,” the brief notes, adding that the Court “must not, through the FAA, endorse this type of race to the bottom.”
  • Many federal and state statutory schemes do not distinguish between common law employees and independent contractors.
  • The reality of the working relationship, not the face of the contract, determines workers status under federal employment statutes.
  1. Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Inc.
  • The 45-year-old Grain Valley, Mo.-based association submitted its amicus brief to inform the court that owner-operator truck drivers are a class of workers engaged in interstate commerce, and how their lease agreements with motor carriers, such as petitioner New Prime, are contracts of employment as set out in the FAA Sec. 1 exemption.
  • The amicus brief is filed by the largest international trade association representing the interests of independent owner-operators, small-business motor carriers, and professional drivers. The association notes that the question of whether the contracts of owner-operators are subject to the FAA will determine whether owner-operators will continue to have any meaningful opportunity to protect their small businesses from the type of predatory behavior described in defendant Oliveira’s brief. “Especially important,” the association notes, “is the right to bring an action in federal court for damages and injunctive relief specifically granted to owner-operators by Congress in 1995.”
  • Congress looked to two factors when it formed FAA Sec. 1’s scope: “the maintenance of a smooth operating transportation system and Congressional concerns for enacting specific regulations governing the contracts of transportation workers.” The legislative and regulatory history demonstrates that motor carrier/owner-operator contracts are among those Congress exempted from FAA application by Sec. 1 to achieve the goals in the statute’s adoption: The “provision of different procedures and forums to resolve disputes under those contracts demonstrate precisely the type of contract for employment of persons engaged in interstate commerce that Congress intended to exempt from the FAA.”
  1. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, National Employment Law Project Inc., Economic Policy Institute, and National Employment Lawyers Association
  • Like AAJ and the state amicus briefs, the four-party amicus brief also is concerned about the misclassification of independent contractors by employers, which, among other things, cuts off employers’ responsibility for taxes and liability on behalf of and to their workers. The brief is concerned that a ruling in favor of petitioner New Prime would create incentives for more companies to misclassify their employees as independent contractors in order to evade worker protections.
  • The interest in this case by the amicus filers—a big union, an employment lawyers’ association that focuses on plaintiffs’ representation; an employees’ advocacy research organization, and an economics policy think tank–is to ensure that drivers involved in interstate commerce, including those classified as independent contractors, are afforded the FAA Sec. 1 exemption granted to contracts of employment in the transportation industry.
  • The brief also states that Prime’s errant suggestion that employment relationships under the FAA should be identified by the terms of the contract alone may affect misclassification analysis under other statutes.
  • Truck drivers, like respondent Oliveira, “are frequently misclassified by their employers as independent contractors. This treatment excludes drivers from basic labor and employment protections like the minimum wage, health and safety, and discrimination protections, to name a few.”
  • The brief says that the Supreme Court doesn’t need to determine whether Oliveira was misclassified by New Prime, “because he and the company entered into a contract of employment that should be exempt under the plain language of the Federal Arbitration Act.”
  • Alternatively, the brief argues, if the Court decides that the employee versus independent contractor relationship must be decided in order to determine FAA applicability, “it should take into account the independent contractor misclassification problems endemic in the trucking industry, the impacts on workers, other employers, and state budget and tax coffers, and on employers’ economic incentives to misclassify more drivers that will result.”
  • And if the Court finds that the contract-of-employment analysis requires a determination of whether a worker is an independent contractor, that determination must consider all incidents of the relationship and not be limited to the unilaterally imposed terms of the contract.
  • The FAA’s plain text shows that the Court should find that truckers’ independent contractor arrangements are “contracts of employment” and exempt from the FAA’s coverage. The brief emphasizes the policy consequences of a holding to the contrary.
  • Independent contractor misclassification and the unlawful and exploitative working conditions it engenders are rampant across the economy, but particularly prominent in the trucking sector.
  • Bad-actor employers misclassify works in attempts to avoid tax and other liability, imposing significant societal costs on the public, law-abiding employers, and workers.
  1. Statutory Construction Scholars
  • The amicus brief was written on behalf of 14 law school professors engaged in the teaching and study of statutory construction principles. They believe that a “shared commitment” to certain standards of analytical care “leads to only one conclusion in this case–that application of key canons of statutory construction” to the FAA contracts-of-employment language “applies to all transportation workers without exclusion of workers who are deemed to be independent contractors, and without the legally protected status of “employees.”
  • “The First Circuit’s opinion in Oliveira v. New Prime Inc., reflects a well-reasoned, thoughtful approach to statutory construction. Petitioner attempts to upend that decision and contorts the canons of statutory construction beyond their reasonable parameters in a miscarriage of justice.”
  • The petitioner’s conclusion that the FAA’s contracts-of-employment statutory exception is limited to only those with the legal status of “employees” is not sound.
  • First, the words in statutes are read in light of their ordinary, plain meaning. Those words, the brief notes, “are understood from the perspective of what was meant when they were drafted.” [Emphasis is in the brief.] The petitioner’s argument, “which rests on modern dictionary definitions instead of inquiring into the terms’ meaning at the time the FAA was enacted, fails to comply with those canons of statutory construction and should be disregarded.”
  • The ejusdem generis canon (see above) does not support limiting contracts of employment to employees.
  • Reading the residual exclusion of the FAA’s Sec. 1 to include all transportation workers does not negate FAA Sec. 2 language, which must be read independently because it has a different substantive mandate.

Steve Viscelli, et al.

  • Steve Viscelli is a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who studies work, labor markets, and public policy related to freight transportation, automation and energy. He submitted the brief to provide a better picture of the economic incentives at work in the trucking industry. He provides an analysis of trucking industry’s employment evolution to a “Lease-Operator” model from owner-operators in urging the Court to avoid requiring arbitration to settle employment disputes in the industry.
  • Viscelli is joined by six current or former owner-operators or Lease-Operator truck drivers, whose situations are used as examples in the brief. Also joining the brief as amicus parties is two nonprofits, the Wage Justice Center, a Los Angeles advocacy group for economic justice and fair pay, and REAL Women in Trucking Inc., a trade group that advocates for better working conditions (see http://www.realwomenintrucking.com).
  • The brief explains that New Prime, like other trucking firms, mostly now operates under a relatively new economic structure, the Lease-Operator model. The drivers lease their rigs directly from the company they work for, and often still may owe the company after they are paid for runs. The system often harms employees by misclassifying them as independent contractors.
  • “Because Lease-Operators lease a truck and pay for fuel, maintenance, and insurance, firms can potentially shift a significant amount of capital and operating costs to them, translating into much lower labor costs per unit of work. And, though Lease-Operators are often nominally free to choose what loads they haul, they are generally under greater pressure than employees to accept whatever work is offered to them and to spend more days working because they need to work many more hours per day and days per year to meet fixed expenses and then earn take-home pay at levels even close to what they would earn as company drivers.”
  • The FAA Sec. 1 exclusion prohibits courts from applying the statute to “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” 9 U.S.C. § 1. The brief says that the Court should include the employment arrangements of drivers like respondent OIiveira, who are misclassified by their employers within the definition of contracts of employment.
  • “Workers who must arbitrate their claims are 59% less likely to win than those who take their case to federal court and 38% less likely to win than workers litigating in state courts. The median award in mandatory arbitration is 21% of the median award in the federal courts and 43% of the median award in the state courts. [Citations omitted.] . . . Employers who misclassify employees stand to gain significantly by using forced arbitration to resolve disputes. This Court should not read the FAA in a way that allows them to require arbitration of disputes about the nature of employment in the industry.”

Higgins was a 2018 CPR Institute summer intern and is a student at Northeastern University School of Law. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation, published by the CPR Institute with John Wiley & Sons (see http://www.cpradr.org/news-publications/alternatives and altnewsletter.com).

Amicus Preview: New Prime’s New Look at Mandatory Arbitration

By Sara Higgins

For the second year in a row, the Supreme Court is kicking off its new term with a focus on arbitration.

This year’s case, New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, No. 17-340—which will be argued tomorrow, the Court’s third day of arguments in the new term—focuses on whether the Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 exemption language from the act’s application for certain “contracts of employment” encompasses independent contractor agreements.

The case—an appeal from Oliveira v. New Prime Inc., 857 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2017)(available at https://bit.ly/2tEzlkr)—is potentially significant for many workers, though it isn’t attracting the attention of the 2017-2018 term’s kickoff argument, Epic Systems v. Lewis.  That case, decided in May, strongly backed the use of mandatory arbitration in conjunction with waivers of class arbitration and litigation processes in workplace disputes. See CPR Speaks blog coverage at https://bit.ly/2xPvFMk; see analysis at Russ Bleemer, “While Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Strategize, the Supreme Court’s Strong Backing Likely Will Grow Mandatory Processes,” 36 Alternatives 97 (July/August 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2QsxLJ5).

The Court is still one justice short of the longstanding nine-judge bench, as the Senate continues its fight over the nomination of D.C. Circuit Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to succeed retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

So a 4-4 outcome looms. The Court could order a rehearing after its decision to include Kavanaugh or another new justice if a party asks for it. See Court Rule 44, available at https://bit.ly/2NE6ouV.

Despite a shift to a “gig” economy for many workers, the number of independent contractors the New Prime case focuses on actually shrunk since about a decade ago, according to a report earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, to 6.9% of total U.S. employment in 2017, from 7.4% in 2005.

But the more than 10 million workers in these arrangements often see mandatory arbitration in their work agreements, as do millions more in so-called contingent employment situations which, depending on their agreements, may be covered by whatever the Court decides in New Prime.

The Court’s FAA backing in general employment cases in Epic Systems points to a similar decision in New Prime. But groups backing individual independent contractors are drawing a contrast, and argue that these workers should be treated different and not compelled to arbitrate against the companies with which they contract.

The case is summarized at Mark Kantor, “U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert to Decide “Who Decides” “Independent Contractor” Employment Arbitration Case,” CPR Speaks blog (available at https://bit.ly/2RpwP9E), and Ginsey Varghese, “Supreme Court Will Decide Independent Contractor Arbitration Case,” 36 Alternatives 59 (April 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2xW5MdN).

Below are highlights of amicus views filed in the case that back the petitioner, trucking company New Prime, along with statements about the filing party’s interest in the case.  The petitioners’ amicus supporters were required to file first. In a CPR Speaks post to follow shortly, we will examine the views of the respondent employees’ friend-of-the-Court supporters.

In support of petitioner New Prime seeking reversal:

  1. American Trucking Associations, Inc.
  • American Trucking Associations is an Arlington, Va.-based group that represents the trucking industry with members including companies and state organizations. ATA regularly represents “the common interests of the trucking industry in courts.” Many of its member companies contract with owner-operators who may enter into agreements to arbitrate disputes that arise during the course of their business relationship.
  • The amicus brief says that the First Circuit decision upends the expectation that the FAA will require motor carriers and their independent contractors to arbitrate any disputes that arise between them under their agreements, including in some cases the question whether a given dispute is arbitrable. Even where both sides agreed to arbitrate, “[t]his sweeping, idiosyncratic holding . . . would mean that owner-operators and carriers . . . could never expect those agreements to be enforced under the FAA. . . .” The decision undermines the federal policy favoring arbitration, to the detriment of motor carriers and independent owner-operators.
  1. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management
  • The Chamber regularly files amicus curiae briefs in business cases, and has emphasized an anti-class action stance that incorporates a strong endorsement for individual arbitration in many Supreme Court and federal appellate court cases. The Chamber notes that its members and affiliates regularly rely on arbitration agreements in their contractual relationships. The SHRM, based in Alexandria, Va., represents 300,000 human resources professionals world-wide.
  • The brief says that independent contractors are not covered by the FAA Sec. 1 exemption from arbitration for “contracts of employment.” The brief says that participants on both sides in the “rapidly expanding” independent contractor market “rely upon the enforceability of agreements between businesses and independent contractors.”
  • If the decision below is allowed to stand, the brief says, “untold thousands of arbitration agreements would be called into question.”
  • Before the First Circuit decision, courts uniformly understood that FAA Sec. 1 “’contracts of employment’ means what it says: a contract between an employer and an employee—not an agreement with an independent contractor to perform work.”
  • The panel majority also failed to recognize that its interpretation is inconsistent with the context in which the Sec. 1 exemption was enacted—against the backdrop of other federal laws that recognize the long-established distinction between employees and independent contractors.
  1. Cato Institute
  • The conservative Washington, D.C., think tank focuses on free enterprise and often speaks out on the freedom to contract: “This case is important to Cato because it concerns the freedom of individuals and businesses to structure their economic relations through contractual agreement.”
  • Cato takes an historical approach to criticizing the appellate court decision and urging reversal. At the time of the FAA’s 1925 enactment, Cato wrote, contracts of employment referred to traditional employer–employee relationships, not independent contractor arrangements. Courts embraced the same distinction in applying the common law, as did the legal dictionaries and treatises of the time. The FAA’s text is plain: only certain agreements establishing traditional employer– employee relationships are exempt from the FAA’s scope—that is, transportation workers like the seamen and railway employees the statute names.
  • Statutory history, including contemporaneous state laws, confirms that the FAA’s contracts-of-employment exemption is limited to traditional employer– employee relationships, and doesn’t include independent contractors.
  1. New England Legal Foundation
  • NELF is a conservative free-market advocacy group in Boston.
  • It makes a statutory construction argument to restrict the FAA Sec. 1 exclusion from application for transportation workers to the enumerated seamen and railroad employees, and the phrase “any other class of workers” is narrowed by the “ejusdem generis” rule, meaning “of the same kind.” This means that undefined statutory terms should be construed consistently with their immediate context, not in isolation from that context.
  • This also means that statutory terms should be interpreted consistently with the statute’s overarching purpose—here, the FAA’s purpose to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms. This purpose, coupled with the traditional statutory construction rules, mandates a narrow interpretation of the exemption contained within Section 1 of the FAA.
  • The NELF argues that, based on the immediate context of the phrase “contracts of employment” in 9 U.S.C. Sec. 1, the FAA’s purpose, and a plausible historical explanation for the exemption, “contracts of employment,” must define an employer-employee relationship, not an independent contractor relationship.
  • When interpreted properly, in its immediate context, “contracts of employment” modifies “seamen” and “railway employees,” which are the two prominent classes of transportation employees in the statute, not independent contractors.
  • The FAA’s overarching purpose counsels in favor of enforcing, not exempting, arbitration agreements under the FAA.
  • The FAA’s exemption for seamen and railroad workers allowed those employees to sue employers for work-related injuries under two contemporaneous statutes—“a liberalized tort remedy.” Notes the NELF, “Since independent contractors are not covered by the [those acts], Congress would have no reason to exempt them from the FAA’s scope.”

 Customized Logistics and Delivery Association

  • CLDA is a nonprofit Washington trade association that advocates for the interests of delivery companies. New Prime is of significant interest to CLDA because of the common industry practice of using independent owner-operators to transport cargo. These independent owner-operators are crucial to the structure of many of the carriers’ businesses, as they often provide the equipment and services carriers need to meet the changing demands of their businesses. Carriers frequently rely on arbitration provisions in their contracts with owner-operators to ensure that both parties have an efficient and cost-effective means through which they can resolve their disputes.
  • The CLDA relies on a general argument about arbitration’s effectiveness in urging the nation’s top Court to reverse.
  • The First Circuit decision, which applied an overly expansive interpretation of the FAA exception, would render unenforceable the arbitration agreements used by the largest segment of the CLDA membership—small operators with one to 50 operators and annual revenue below $1 million. That would leave both the carriers and owner-operators subject to the threat of lengthy and costly litigation.
  • The First Circuit decision “not only conflicts with the holdings of other federal courts, it directly conflicts” with the FAA’s central goal, “to ensure that arbitration agreements between contracting parties are enforceable by the parties, thereby safeguarding each party’s access to an efficient and cost-effective alternative to litigation.”
  • “In order to achieve these goals, the determination of ‘whether a contract qualifies as a ‘contract of employment’’ within the meaning of Section 1 of the FAA “requires a categorical approach that focuses solely on the words of the contract.” In re Swift Transportation Co. Inc., 830 F.3d 913, 920 (9th Cir. 2016)(Ikuta, J., dissenting).
  • The CLDA states that “[c]ourts should not be allowed to make factual determinations regarding the employment relationship of the contracting parties for two reasons. First, to do so deprives the parties of the benefits of arbitration by forcing the parties to expend valuable resources in a preliminary court battle. Second, a threshold factual determination means that the parties must essentially litigate the merits of the case. This in turn creates uncertainty as to the enforceability of the contract at execution.”

 

The author was a 2018 CPR Institute summer intern and is a student at Northeastern University School of Law. Alternatives editor Russ Bleemer assisted with research.

American Bar Association Adopts Resolution 105 to Promote Diversity in ADR

By Franco Gevaerd

On August 6, 2018, the American Bar Association (“ABA”) House of Delegates adopted Resolution 105 proposed by the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution. The resolution urges international and domestic ADR providers to “expand their rosters with minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and persons of differing sexual orientations and gender identities” and to “encourage the selection of diverse neutrals.” The resolution also urges ADR users to select and use diverse neutrals.

Resolution 105 is a by-product of the ABA Mission Goal III (“Goal III”) adopted in 2008 – which aims to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in the legal profession – and of the ABA Resolution 113 adopted in 2016, which urges all providers and users of legal services to expand and create opportunities at all levels of responsibility for diverse attorneys.

The Resolution 105 report contextualizes the problem of underrepresentation of diverse neutrals in ADR and identifies two main issues, namely i) the “roster issue” and ii) the “selection problem.”

The “roster issue” is the primary issue of underrepresentation of diverse neutrals on ADR provider rosters. The report shows data collected from ADR providers and other studies, such as the 2014 ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Snapshot Survey, which demonstrate that ADR is one of the least diverse fields in the legal profession.

The “selection problem” is the aggravating issue regarding the low percentage of selection of those diverse neutrals who are on the roster. In this regard, the report suggests that the combination of confidentiality and network-based culture during the selection process favors implicit bias and obscurity, which consequently leads to this low percentage.

Conna Weiner, one of CPR’s Distinguished Neutrals, was very involved in the group effort seeking passage of Resolution 105 in her role as co-chair of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Women in Dispute Resolution Committee over the past bar year. “Resolution 105 and the accompanying report are important steps forward in ensuring that corporate users and their outside counsel are aware of the serious diversity issues in ADR and add this concern to their attempts to enhance diversity in the profession as a whole,” Ms. Weiner noted. She suggested that inside counsel, for example, might consider urging their outside counsel to send them lists of diverse arbitrators and mediators for consideration in addition to requiring outside counsel to use diverse teams of lawyers for their matters.

The ABA will be rolling out Resolution 105 this Fall with materials and toolkits to assist stakeholders. The full resolution and report can be accessed here.

Over the past few years, ADR providers and other organizations have undertaken initiatives to increase diversity in dispute resolution. ArbitralWomen, for example, is a strong advocate for the increased representation of women in international arbitration. Its initiatives include a mentorship program and moot funding. Another example is the Pledge on Equal Representation of Women in International Arbitration, which has now more than 2,900 signatories and aims to increase the number of women appointed as arbitrators on an equal opportunity basis. Many other organizations are continuously working to improve diversity in ADR, such as the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Diversity Committee, the Committee on Diversity of the New York State Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Section and the ADR Inclusion Network.

Since the establishment of its National Task Force on Diversity in ADR in 2006, CPR has also undertaken many initiatives to increase diversity on its Panel of Distinguished Neutrals and in ADR generally. Those initiatives include the following:

  • CPR’s Diversity Commitment – CPR’s Commitment encourages law firms and corporations to include qualified diverse neutrals on any list of mediators or arbitrators they propose.
  • Diversity Statement in nomination letters – CPR’s Dispute Resolution Services (“DRS”) recently added a Diversity Statement to the nomination letters sent to parties. The language of the diversity statement reinforces CPR’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in ADR, reminds ADR users of the benefits of diversity for the quality of decision-making, and encourages them to remain cognizant of the role that implicit bias can play in the selection process.
  • Young Lawyer Rule” – CPR recently incorporated to its non-administered arbitration rules (Domestic and International versions) a “Young Lawyer Rule”. The rule aims to increase the number of “stand-up” opportunities for young attorneys to examine witnesses and present arguments at arbitral hearings.
  • CPR Award for Outstanding Contribution to Diversity in ADR – Created in 2007, this award recognizes a person or organization having significantly contributed to diversity in the alternative dispute resolution field. The winners of the 2018 Award were international arbitrator and CPR Distinguished Neutral Lucy Greenwood and ICC’s Mirèze Philippe, co-founder of ArbitralWomen, for their long-standing commitment to diversity and focus on data and transparency in addressing diversity in ADR.

As for diversity on its Panel of Distinguished Neutrals, 27% of CPR’s roster in fiscal year 2018 was composed of diverse neutrals, of which 17% were women and 10% were male minorities. Regarding appointments, 31% of all arbitrators selected in 2018 were diverse, of which 27% were women. In the 2018 fiscal year, the selection of women as neutrals increased by 8% in comparison to fiscal year 2017.

Although there has been generally some progress on ADR provider rosters in terms of diversity, the numbers are still far from satisfactory and only show improvement in terms of gender diversity. The representation of other diverse groups has not significantly improved over the past few years, signaling that there is a need for increased efforts and initiatives focusing on greater inclusion of these groups.

One example is the underrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community in ADR. Olivier André (CPR), together with William Crosby (Interpublic Group), Linda Kagan (The Kagan Law Group) and Jeffrey T. Zaino (American Arbitration Association) recently addressed this issue on a panel focused on “Developing a Career in ADR” at the LGBT Bar 30th Annual Conference, held in New York in August 2018.

All speakers on the panel concurred that more initiatives needed to address the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in the field. Messrs. André and Zaino explained that their respective organizations are committed to increasing LGBTQ+ diversity on their panels and are actively looking for qualified applicants for their rosters.

Furthermore, Mr. André pointed out the importance of self-identification by applicants to the CPR Panel of Distinguished Neutrals. He explained that CPR always strives to nominate arbitrator and mediator candidates who are both qualified for the dispute and diverse.  Therefore, it is important for CPR Neutrals to provide information about themselves so that the institution can include as many diverse candidates as possible on the lists sent to the parties.

The underrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community is also reflected in the legal profession as a whole. One of the most recent initiatives undertaken by the ABA to address this issue was to launch a survey in partnership with the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University.  The survey aims to examine the opportunities and challenges facing legal professionals in the 21st century focusing on diversity and inclusion for lawyers with disabilities and/or who identify as LGBTQ+. The survey is open to all legal professionals and can be accessed here.

In conclusion, increased diversity on the ADR provider rosters not only offers the parties more options to select neutrals better suited for their cases, but also increases the quality of decision-making and reinforces the integrity of arbitration as a legitimate dispute resolution process. With Resolution 105, the ADR community has taken another important step to increase diversity in the field.

 

The author is a CPR Institute Legal Intern. He holds a LL.B. from Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná (Brazil) and a LL.M. in International Commercial Law and Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine Law/Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution.