Second Circuit Affirms on Sending a Contract’s Arbitrability to a Court, Not a Tribunal

By Mark Kantor 

It has become common to report on federal circuit court decisions deferring “who decides” gateway arbitrability issues to arbitrators based on the adoption by contract parties of a set of arbitration rules containing a “competence-competence” clause, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court consistently declining to take on that question. 

On Friday, though, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the existence of such a clause in the American Arbitration Association Commercial Arbitration Rules (here, R-7(a)) was not per se sufficient to satisfy the Supreme Court’s “clear and unmistakable” gateway test from First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995) (available at http://bit.ly/2WEXGnF).

 In DDK Hotels LLC et al v. Williams-Sonoma Inc., et al, No. 20-2748-cv (2d Cir. July 23) (available at https://bit.ly/3zIUIhv), a unanimous three-judge appeals panel concluded that the gateway question of whether a dispute about “prevailing party” fees was arbitrable under a joint venture agreement was “one for the district court, not the arbitrator, to decide.” 

The manner in which the U.S. District Court, and then the Second Circuit, reached this conclusion is an interesting approach toward limiting the impact of the rulings in all but one of the circuits (including the Second Circuit) that a “competence-competence” clause in arbitration rules–a provision that the tribunal decides its own jurisdiction as to whether a case is arbitrated–constitutes a “clear and unmistakable” showing that the contract parties intended for gateway arbitrability issues to be decided by the arbitral tribunal.

The core U.S. Federal Arbitration Act  (at 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq.) test for allocating gateway issues between courts and arbitral tribunals is well known.  Gateway issues are to be decided by the courts unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that the contracting parties intended to allocate the gateway issue to the arbitrator.  Ordinary contract law principles apply to that inquiry.

Writing for the unanimous panel, Second Circuit Senior Judge Robert D. Sack noted, “Courts should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is ‘clea[r] and unmistakabl[e]’ evidence that they did so. First Options, 514 U.S. at 944 (alterations in original) (quoting AT & T Techs. Inc. v. Commc’ns Workers of Am., 475 U.S. 643, 649 (1986)).  . . .  We ‘apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts’ in conducting this inquiry into the parties’ intent. First Options, 514 U.S. at 944.”

Like every other circuit court that has ruled on the question, the Second Circuit has held that “[w]here the parties explicitly incorporate procedural rules that empower an arbitrator to decide issues of arbitrability, that incorporation may serve ‘as clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent to delegate arbitrability to an arbitrator.’” Citing Contec Corp. v. Remote Sol. Co., 398 F.3d 205, 208 (2d Cir. 2005).

The DDK Hotels appeals court, however, went on to point out a limiting aspect of those decisions: “[C]ontext matters,” such that incorporation of such rules does not per se show satisfaction with the First Options “clear and unmistakable” standard if other aspects of the parties’ agreement create ambiguity as to the requisite intent. Specifically, opinion states,

We have also advised, however, that in evaluating the import of incorporation of the AAA Rules (or analogous rules) into an arbitration agreement, context matters. 

Incorporation of such rules into an arbitration agreement does not, per se, demonstrate clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent to delegate threshold questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator where other aspects of the contract create ambiguity as to the parties’ intent.

The appellate panel stated that, “where the arbitration agreement is broad and expresses the intent to arbitrate all aspects of all disputes,” then the First Options test will be met to allocate issues of arbitrability to an arbitrator.  If, however, “the arbitration agreement is narrower, vague, or contains exclusionary language” that the parties intended to arbitrate “only a limited subset of disputes,” then “incorporation of rules that empower an arbitrator to decide issues of arbitrability, standing alone, does not suffice to establish the requisite clear and unmistakable inference of intent to arbitrate arbitrability.” (Emphasis added.)  

Senior Circuit Judge Sack pointed to a Second Circuit ruling in NASDAQ OMX Grp. Inc. v. UBS Sec. LLC, 770 F.3d 1010, 1031 (2d Cir. 2014), to reinforce this conclusion: “[W]here a broad arbitration clause is subject to a qualifying provision that at least arguably covers the present dispute . . . we have identified ambiguity as to the parties’ intent to have questions of arbitrability . . . decided by an arbitrator.”

The Court of Appeals then applied these principles to the joint venture contract at issue in DDK Hotels.  Section 16(b) of the joint venture agreement limited arbitration solely to “Disputed Matters”:

“(b) Arbitration. The parties unconditionally and irrevocably agree that, with the exception of injunctive relief as provided herein, and except as provided in Section 16(c), all Disputed Matters that are not resolved pursuant to the mediation process provided in Section 16(a) may be submitted by either Member to binding arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) for resolution in accordance with the Commercial Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures of the AAA then in effect.  . . .” (Emphasis added by Court of Appeals.)”

The term “Disputed Matters” was defined in the JV agreement to cover corporate governance “deadlock” issues requiring Board or LLC Member approval or on which the Board was unable to reach agreement.

The “Deadlock” section is a corporate governance mechanism that applies only to “Disputed Matters,” which are defined as matters “requiring Board or Member approval” on which the board is unable to reach agreement.

Looking at that definition and at other provisions of the contract giving content to the term “Disputed Matters,” the Second Circuit found ambiguity as to the parties’ intent.

Payment of prevailing party fees pursuant to Section 21(h) is not on that list, the opinion notes, suggesting that disputes under Section 21(h), on prevailing party fees, may very well fall outside the scope of Section 16’s arbitration provision.

Nothing in Section 21(h), the opinion states, “suggests that such relief [compelling payment of prevailing party fees] is contingent upon board approval; to the contrary, it unambiguously directs the non-prevailing member to pay such costs and fees ‘upon demand.’”

For the Second Circuit, that ambiguity blocked a conclusion that the “competence-competence” provision in AAA Rule R-7(a) clearly allocated the “who decides” gateway decision to the arbitrator.  Consequently, under First Options, the gateway decision lay with the courts:

“While the arbitration agreement does indeed incorporate the AAA Rules, which empower the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability, Section 16(b) provides that the AAA Rules ‘apply to such arbitrations as may arise under the [JV] Agreement.’ See NASDAQ OMX, 770 F.3d at 1032; SA.16.  Because Section 16(b)’s arbitration clause applies only to ‘Disputed Matters’ not resolved pursuant to the mediation process outlined in Section 16(a), the AAA Rules do not apply ‘until a decision is made as to whether [DDK Hospitality’s supplemental claim] does or does not fall within the intended scope of arbitration[.]’ NASDAQ OMX, 770 F.3d at 1032.  In other words, whether the AAA Rules, including Rule 7(a), apply turns on the conditional premise that the dispute falls within the definition of ‘Disputed Matter.’ If it does not, then the AAA Rules do not govern and no delegation of authority to the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability arises.  The narrow scope of the arbitration provision therefore obscures the import of the incorporation of the AAA Rules and creates ambiguity as to the parties’ intent to delegate arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

Thus, the Second Circuit held in DDK Hotels that the contractual agreement in the JV agreement limiting arbitration to “Disputed Matters” operated to prevent allocation of the arbitrability decision to the arbitrator under the “clear and unmistakable” First Options test.  Accordingly, “[t]he district court therefore correctly determined that it, rather than the arbitrator, should decide whether the supplemental claim [for prevailing party fees] was arbitrable.”

One might reasonably ask how DDK Hotels squares with the unanimous 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2YLDkWQ), rejecting a “wholly groundless” basis for declining to forward a gateway question to arbitrators for decision. 

In Henry Schein, the Court’s summary does a good job of setting out the core of that ruling:

“Held: The ‘wholly groundless’ exception to arbitrability is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act and this Court’s precedent.  Under the Act, arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms.  . . . The parties to such a contract may agree to have an arbitrator decide not only the merits of a particular dispute, but also ‘’gateway’ questions of ‘arbitrability.’’ . . . Therefore, when the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, a court may not override the contract, even if the court thinks that the arbitrability claim is  wholly groundless.”

Under the doctrine rejected by the Supreme Court in Henry Schein, the courts would have construed the parties’ contract to determine if the claimant’s arbitrability argument was “wholly groundless.”  Even in the face of a “clear and unmistakable” agreement to delegate arbitrability issues to the arbitrator, if the court was satisfied the arbitrability argument was “wholly groundless” under the contract, then the court could determine the arbitrability issue itself instead of referring the gateway question to the arbitrator.

In DDK Hotels, the district court and the Second Circuit again construed the parties’ contract, this time to determine if the parties’ intention to delegate the gateway issue to the arbitrator was ambiguous rather than clear and unmistakable.

To distinguish DDK Hotels from Henry Schein, one must come up with a persuasive explanation for how (i) the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ inquiry into whether the dispute at issue in DDK Hotels arguably fell outside the meaning of the contract term “Disputed Matters” differs from (ii) the judicial inquiry into the contract terms in Henry Schein to determine if the claim of arbitrability was “wholly groundless.” 

This is perhaps a task the US Supreme Court declined to take on when it dismissed certiorari in Henry Schein II as improvidently granted earlier this year?

Any volunteers to tackle that job? Please feel free to comment below.

* * *

Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals.  Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups.  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).  He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.  He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.

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