Supreme Court Rejects Federal FAA Jurisdiction for Arbitration Award Enforcement and Challenges

By Russ Bleemer & Andrew Ling

The Supreme Court embraced a narrow construction of subject-matter jurisdiction in arbitration matters today, reversing a Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a federal trial court had jurisdiction under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act to confirm and overturn arbitration awards.

Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (today’s decision available here), means that award enforcement processes and efforts to overturn tribunal decisions will continue to be directed state courts as a matter of state contractual law. In other words, FAA Sections 9 and 10 jurisdiction is in state court, and the “look through” federal court jurisdiction analysis steps accorded to FAA Sec. 4–which provides federal courts jurisdiction on getting parties into arbitration–will not apply.

The Fifth Circuit had said that federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under FAA Sections 9 and 10 when the underlying dispute was on a federal question.  The opinion, now reversed, was based on Vaden v. Discover Bank, 556 U. S. 49 (2009) (available at https://bit.ly/3Ca42MA), where the Supreme Court assessed whether there was a jurisdictional basis to decide an FAA Section 4 petition to compel arbitration.

Today’s decision on the arcane subject of jurisdiction clarifies Vaden‘s application with a textual analysis on how FAA Sec. 4 differs from Sections 9 and 10.

The decision comes amidst an unprecedented time for arbitration at the Court. While Court watchers’ eyes have been on the confirmation process for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to succeed retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer, over the past 10 days, the Court has heard four oral arguments covering five arbitration cases.  Highlights of the cases can be found on CPR Speaks, here. The March arbitration cases are expected to be decided before the current Supreme Court term ends in June.

This morning’s 8-1 decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, declines to extend Vaden to the FAA’s award enforcement and challenge sections. It states, “The question presented here is whether that same ‘look-through’ approach to jurisdiction applies to requests to confirm or vacate arbitral awards under the FAA’s Sections 9 and 10. We hold it does not. Those sections lack Section 4’s distinctive language directing a look-through, on which Vaden rested. Without that statutory instruction, a court may look only to the application actually submitted to it in assessing its jurisdiction.”

Badgerow involves a FINRA arbitration brought by Louisiana petitioner Denise Badgerow, a financial adviser, against the principals of her former employer, REJ Properties Inc. She maintains she was harassed on the job, and filed a complaint with FINRA claiming her employer and its principals violated federal securities laws, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, and the rules of FINRA, which regulates the actions of broker-dealers.

After losing the arbitration, Badgerow brought a new claim in a Louisiana state court to vacate the FINRA award that dismissed her complaints. The principals removed the case to Louisiana Eastern U.S. District Court, and both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit upheld federal jurisdiction. REJ Properties and its parent, Ameriprise Financial Inc., an NYSE-traded financial services company, were not part of the state court claim nor today’s Supreme Court decision.

The decision this morning is surprising in light of the Nov. 2 oral arguments. Badgerow’s attorney, Daniel L. Geyser, a Dallas partner in Haynes and Boone, faced strong skepticism from the Court on why the sections on enforcing and overturning awards should be treated differently for federal jurisdictional purposes than the earlier section on compelling parties into arbitration.  See CPR Speaks coverage here.

But the Court today accepted Geyser’s argument that the Sec. 4 language, which specifically says that parties seeking to compel arbitration proceed in federal court, isn’t present for the award enforcement and challenges of the statute’s later sections. “We have no warrant to redline the FAA, importing Section
4’s consequential language into provisions containing nothing like it,” wrote Kagan, adding, “Congress could have replicated Section 4’s look-through instruction in Sections 9 and 10.”

In an email, Geyser writes, “We’re very grateful for the win, and delighted for our client.  We think the Court’s opinion is an important contribution in clarifying the jurisdiction rules for everyday filings under the FAA.”

Walters’ attorney, Washington, D.C.-based Williams & Connolly partner Lisa Blatt, did not immediately reply to an email request for comment.

The opinion concludes noting that “Congress chose to respect the capacity of state courts to properly enforce arbitral awards. In our turn, we must respect that evident congressional choice.”

The Court used the opinion to resolve a circuit split and clarify that the “look through” test needs textual support in the FAA. Under Vaden, 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 for disputes under Section 4.

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Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s 13-page dissent said that the divergent jurisdiction tests for the different Federal Arbitration Act sections was confusing. “Although this result may be consistent with the statute’s text,” he wrote, “it creates what Vaden feared—curious consequences and artificial distinctions.  . . . It also creates what I fear will be consequences that are overly complex and impractical.”

Instead, Breyer writes that he would use the Vaden look-through approach “to determine jurisdiction under each of the FAA’s related provisions—Sections 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11.”

* * *

For more on the procedural history of the case, see Bryanna Rainwater & Russ Bleemer, “Next at the Supreme Court: Badgerow’s Attempt to Reevaluate FAA Jurisdiction,” CPR Speaks (September 15) (available here).

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Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR at altnewsletter.com. Ling, a third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law, in Austin, Texas, is a CPR 2022 Spring Intern.

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