By Ugonna Kanu
The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a federal district court had erred when it denied an employer’s motion to dismiss a suit before the court had determined the fate of its motion to compel arbitration. The case was Silfee v. Automatic Data Processing Inc.; ERG Staffing Service LLP, No. 16-3725 (3d. Cir. June 13, 2017)(unpublished)(available at http://bit.ly/2rUZpln).
A unanimous Third Circuit panel ruled, in an unpublished decision, that the trial court first must determine the motion to compel arbitration before the motion to dismiss.
The plaintiff in Silfee filed suit against his former employer for violating Pennsylvania law on payroll practices. ERG, a Dickson City, Pa.-based employment agency, filed a motion to compel arbitration “arguing that the arbitration agreement between Silfee and ERG’s payroll vendor precluded Silfee’s suit against ERG,” according to the opinion.
ERG moved to dismiss Silfee’s suit. The district court, however, placed a hold on compelling arbitration, and denied the motion to dismiss the suit.
The Third Circuit panel opinion, written by Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, of Pittsburgh, distinguished between the case and Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 771 (3d Cir. 2013)(available at http://bit.ly/1pXcNnD), in which the Third Circuit held that where it is apparent that a party’s claims are subject to an enforceable arbitration clause, a motion to compel arbitration should be considered without discovery delay under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
But, where the agreement to arbitrate is unclear, or the plaintiff facing the motion to compel has provided “additional facts sufficient to place the agreement to arbitrate in issue,” then the court may order limited briefing and discovery on the issue of arbitrability, and assess the question under a summary judgment standard of Rule 56, the opinion explained.
Before Guidotti’s application, the panel opinion noted that the FAA provides a gateway test. It says that a trial court must make an inquiry under Federal Arbitration Act Section 4 where there is a motion to compel arbitration.
Section 4, the opinion emphasized, provides that “[a] party aggrieved by the alleged failure, neglect, or refusal of another to arbitrate under a written agreement for arbitration may petition any United States district court . . . for an order directing that such arbitration proceed in the manner provided for in such agreement.”
Plaintiff Silfee didn’t produce “additional facts sufficient to place the agreement to arbitrate in issue”—the Guidotti standard to get past a motion to dismiss. As a result, the Third Circuit ruled, the court should have applied the Rule 12(b)(6) standard.
While the appeals panel stopped short of dismissing Silfee’s suit and compelling arbitration, it remanded the case to the U.S. District Court with an order to consider the parties’ “competing arguments regarding arbitrability” under ERG’s motion to compel.
The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 intern.