By Bryanna Rainwater
The issue the nation’s top Court will examine is whether federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act when the only basis for jurisdiction is a dispute regarding a federal question.
Last week, the Court removed the first arbitration case it had taken for the term from its argument schedule and dismissed the case after a party request. The case, Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, et al., Docket No. 20-794, would have examined the parameters of the discretion granted to district courts under 28 U.S.C. §1782(a) to render assistance in gathering evidence for use in “a foreign or international tribunal” by determining whether the statute includes private commercial arbitral tribunals.
For more details on the dismissal on this blog, see Bryanna Rainwater, “Case Dismissed: Supreme Court Lightens Its Arbitration Load as Servotronics Is Removed from 2021-22 Docket,” CPR Speaks (Sept. 8) (available at https://bit.ly/39oFdAx).
The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Badgerow affirmed the district court’s decision that exercised subject-matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s petition to vacate an arbitral award stemming from an employment dispute, denying remand of the issue. Badgerow v. Walters, 975 F.3d 469 (5th Cir. Sept. 15, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/394xUh3).
Petitioner Denise Badgerow–a former employee of REJ Properties Inc., a Louisiana-based financial services firm that was a unit of Ameriprise Financial Services Inc.–signed an agreement to arbitrate any employment disputes with Ameriprise and any of its affiliates.
She was terminated and initiated arbitration against company officials alleging gender discrimination and other Title VII and equal pay claims before a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority panel. Ameriprise successfully moved to compel arbitration in a separate federal suit and Badgerow added a declaratory judgment claim against Ameriprise to the FINRA arbitration.
Badgerow sought damages against the REJ principals for tortious interference of contract for a violation of Louisiana’s “whistleblower” law. Id. at 471. The FINRA panel dismissed all of Badgerow’s claims against the principals and Ameriprise with prejudice.
In May 2019, Badgerow brought a new Louisiana state court action to vacate the FINRA award that dismissed her complaints, alleging fraud by the principals against the FINRA arbitrators. The principals removed the case to Louisiana’s Eastern U.S. District Court. Badgerow filed a motion to remand, asserting the lack of federal subject-matter jurisdiction.
The district court held that there was federal subject matter jurisdiction, and Badgerow appealed the denial of her motion to remand to state court.
The Fifth Circuit relied upon the approach in Vaden v. Discover Bank, in which the Supreme Court adopted the “look through” approach to determining federal jurisdiction in actions that compel arbitration under FAA Section 4. Vaden v. Discover Bank, 556 U.S. 49 (2009) (available at https://bit.ly/3Ca42MA). Under this approach, a federal court should “look through” the Federal Arbitration Act claims to the “substantive controversy” to determine if they could have been brought in federal court.
Badgerow disagreed with the district court’s four-step analysis for conveying federal jurisdiction in her case because she did not include Ameriprise in her state-court action, but the district court rejected this argument, holding, “’Badgerow cannot deprive the Court of subject matter jurisdiction over an action to vacate the award by stripping off a single state law claim.’” Id. at 474 (quoting the district court opinion).
The Fifth Circuit noted that a close reading of Vaden vindicated the district court’s reasoning. Since Vaden’s rule is “if, save for” the arbitration agreement, a claim could be held in federal court, then there is federal jurisdiction.
The Fifth Circuit agreed that this analysis does not fail in an action to vacate the award by “stripping off a single state law claim.” Id. The court decided that since Badgerow’s claims “all arose from the same common nucleus of operative fact” that “the district court correctly found that the federal claim against Ameriprise in the FINRA arbitration proceeding meant that there was federal subject-matter jurisdiction over the removed petition to vacate the FINRA arbitration dismissal award.” Id.
The case now stands before the Supreme Court, which granted cert on May 17.
In her petition, Badgerow lays out the clear question of “whether Vaden’s ‘look through’ approach applies to motions to enforce or vacate arbitration awards under [FAA] Sections 9 and 10.”
The petitioner noted that there is disagreement among district judges regarding the Vaden analysis as it relates to FAA enforcement of arbitral awards, and that the Fifth Circuit itself divided 2-1 on the Vaden look-through approach for motions to confirm in a case addressed while Badgerow was pending. Quezada v. Bechtel OG & C Constr. Servs. Inc., 946 F.3d 837 (5th Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3lrMZ1X).
The cert petition says that the divisiveness between the courts and the confusion surrounding the FAA language are reasons to question the Fifth Circuit’s decision in asking the Supreme Court to clarify whether Vaden’s approach to federal jurisdiction extends from FAA Section 4 to Sections 9 and 10.
While the steady stream of Supreme Court arbitration cases has generated a concurrent steady stream of regularly appearing parties as amicus curiae, oddly, at this writing, less than two months ahead of arguments, no friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed either on the successful cert petition or the case itself. The case documents, including the party briefs and any future amicus filings, can be found on the Supreme Court docket page at https://bit.ly/3zfSqps.
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The author, a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School, is a 2021 CPR Fall Intern.