Monster Energy and Evident Partiality

Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation Editor Russ Bleemer is joined by veteran arbitrator-litigators Philip J. Loree Jr., in New York, and Richard Faulkner, in Dallas, to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday cert denial in Monster Energy v. City Beverages LLC. The panel also discusses a recent Pennsylvania federal court case that follows Monster Energy, Martin v. NTT Data Inc., No. 20-CV-0686 (E.D. Pa. June 23) (available at https://bit.ly/2VwZi0V).   

By Heather Cameron

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to grant certiorari on a petition requesting clarification of the Federal Arbitration Act’s “evident partiality” standard.

This means that the Court, for now, will not revisit the “evident partiality” standard for arbitrators that can be used to overturn an arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act at 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(2). And a Ninth Circuit decision overturning an arbitration award because a JAMS Inc. arbitrator failed to disclose his ownership ties to the Irvine, Calif., provider, will stand.

The Court’s docket page for the case, Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages LLC, No. 19-1333, is available HERE.

Monster Energy was an appeal from a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last October, throwing out an arbitration award in favor of Monster Energy and ruling that “arbitrators are required to disclose their ownership interests in the organizations they are affiliated with and the organizations’ business dealings with the arbitration parties.” Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages LLC, Nos. 17-55813/17-56082 (9th Cir. Oct. 22, 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2PjmXzq); for more background and analysis, see Daniel Bornstein, “Ninth Circuit, Overturning an Award, Backs More Arbitrator Disclosure,” 37 Alternatives 170 (December 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2NE7Q1x).

The decision is unusual because of its emphasis on the “repeat-player” phenomenon in arbitration.  It highlighted a circuit split over disclosure requirements for arbitrators, and reflected concern over bias in favor of repeat players in arbitration—an issue usually restricted to employment and consumer arbitration cases, not big companies. See Lisa Bingham, “Employment Arbitration: The Repeat Player Effect, 1 Emp. Rights & Emp. Policy J. 189, 209–17 (1997) (available at https://bit.ly/2VuElDJ).

The questions presented to the Supreme Court were:

  1. What is the standard for determining whether an arbitration award must be vacated for “evident partiality” under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(2)?
  2. Under the correct “evident partiality” standard, must an arbitration award be vacated when the arbitrator does not disclose that (i) he has a de minimis “ownership interest” in his arbitration firm and (ii) that firm has conducted a “nontrivial” number of arbitrations with one of the parties?

City Beverages, which distributed its adversary’s energy drinks in the Pacific Northwest, alleged that Monster Energy committed breach of contract in 2015 when it terminated their distribution contract without good cause. Monster Energy  exercised the contract’s clause permitting such termination so long as severance of $2.5 million was paid.

Though City Beverages rejected payment, the move was upheld in arbitration and Monster Energy was awarded $3 million in attorneys’ fees.

Overturning that award, the Ninth Circuit agreed with City Beverages’ claim that the arbitrator had failed to adequately disclose his relationship to JAMS and his firm’s relationship with Monster Energy.

In the Supreme Court’s only prior case examining the FAA’s evident partiality  standard, which authorizes vacatur of arbitration awards “where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators,” a majority agreed to overturn the award in question, but no clear rationale emerged. See Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Continental Cas. Co., 393 U.S. 145 (1968) (available at https://bit.ly/3g766Ks); see also Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 6–8 (available at https://bit.ly/2Bo3VU7).

Commonwealth Coatings, written by Justice Hugo Black, interpreted evident partiality as coextensive with the judicial standard, finding that arbitrators must not only be unbiased, “but must also avoid even the appearance of bias.” Commonwealth Coatings, 393 U.S. at 150.

Two of the five justices joining Black’s opinion, however, wrote a narrowing concurrence, penned by Justice Byron White, concluding that vacatur was only appropriate where the arbitrator failed to disclose “a substantial interest in a firm which has done more than trivial business with a party” to the arbitration. Id. at 151­–52. They found that the mere “appearance of bias” disqualification standard for federal judges does not establish evident partiality on the part of an arbitrator. See Petition at 19.

A majority of federal circuit courts have applied something akin to Justice White’s reasoning, according to the petition. “The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits require those seeking vacatur of an arbitration award for evident partiality to show ‘a reasonable person would have to conclude that an arbitrator was partial to one party to an arbitration.’” Id. (Citations omitted; emphasis is in the brief.)

In its Monster Energy decision, the Ninth Circuit joined the Eleventh Circuit in adopting Justice Black’s less-demanding “reasonable impression of partiality” standard.

In her dissenting opinion in Monster Energy,Ninth Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland wrote that such a standard will have the effect of generating endless litigation over arbitral awards, defeating arbitration’s benefits of expedience and finality, echoing Monster Energy’s claims. See Bornstein, supra at 172.

JAMS, noting its role as a neutral organization “that has always refrained from supporting or opposing challenges to the arbitral process or arbitration awards,” filed an amicus brief in support of Monster’s rehearing petition. (Available HERE).

Both Monster Energy’s petition and JAMS’ brief stressed the lack of evidence to support the Ninth Circuit’s assumption that arbitrators might be biased in favor of repeat players since the law review article it cited on the phenomenon described a single study of employment, rather than commercial, arbitrations. See Petition at 31–32.

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Cameron, a second-year Fordham University School of Law student, is a CPR Institute 2020 Summer Intern.

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