2021-2022 SCOTUS Arbitration Wrap-Up

June 16 Scotus Arbitration Cases Wrap-Up

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday wrapped up its arbitration docket with a decision in Viking River Cruises v. Moriana, No. 20–1573.

That was the last of five arbitration matters scheduled, argued, and decided in the 2021-2022 Court term. It’s an unprecedented amount of cases in the area closely watched by the CPR and ADR communities, even in a term which, to be sure, has been characterized by controversial cases involving emergency orders on Covid-19 vaccinations, and forthcoming decisions on immigration, gun rights, and abortion.

We were joined today by members of our recurring, occasional YouTube panel to talk about Viking River Cruises and the other cases in an attempt to sum up the substantial and substantive arbitration instruction that has emerged from the nation’s top Court over the past several weeks in the five opinions.

University of North Texas Dallas College of Law Professor of Practice and Assistant Director of Experiential Education Angela Downes and veteran Texas attorney-arbitrator Richard Faulkner provide the insight.

With six SCOTUS cases as subjects, there’s a lot of quick references to the cases.  You can find the background case histories in previews, argument analysis, and dissections of the opinions on CPR Speaks here.

And here’s a quick guide to our CPR Speaks decision analysis for each case (containing links to our historical coverage), in the chronological order of Supreme Court decisions:

  • Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (March 31), on the limits of federal court jurisdiction under the Federal Arbitration Act. (on CPR Speaks here).
  • Morgan v. Sundance Inc., No. 21-328 (May 23), holding that a party resisting arbitration seeking to show its adversary waived its arbitration right need not prove that the adversary prejudiced the party by its actions (here).
  • Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309 (May 30), holding an airport ramp supervisor qualifies for the Federal Arbitration Act Section 1 exemption from arbitration (here).
  • ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd., No. 21-401 (June 13) consolidated with AlixPartners LLP v. Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign States, No. 21-518 (June 13), holding that 28 U.S.C. § 1728 cannot be used in aiding discovery efforts for overseas arbitration tribunals (here and here).
  • Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana, No. 20–1573 (June 15), holding that the Federal Arbitration Act mostly preempts California’s Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 in that employees who have agreed to mandatory arbitration must arbitrate their individual PAGA claims (here).

The above video can be found directly on YouTube at https://youtu.be/KFV8xIvA_o8.

[END]

Supreme Court Limits California’s PAGA Law on Employment Claims, Preempting It in Part under the Federal Arbitration Act

By Arjan Bir Singh Sodhi & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning that employers may require their workers to arbitrate employment disputes under California’s Private Attorneys General Act, a 2003 law that allows Californians to file suit on behalf of the state for employment-law violations.  

The Federal Arbitration Act, the Court found today in Viking River Cruises Inc. v. Moriana, No. 201573, preempts at least in part the California state PAGA law, which had been the source of tens of thousands of court claims in the face of arbitration requirements, according to an industry interest group formed to fight the PAGA arbitration ban.

This morning’s decision is available on the Supreme Court’s website here.

The dispute traces to the controversial California Supreme Court case of Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles LLC, 327 P.3d 129 (Cal. 2014) (available at https://stanford.io/3ILcTY5), where the state’s top Court held “that an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.”

Today’s majority opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. does not fully invalidate PAGA, and takes issue with arguments on both sides. In fact, it leaves wiggle room for the California courts and legislature to tinker with PAGA to provide relief for what it terms “non-individual” claims that the original plaintiff no longer has standing to make under the decision.

But it strikes the Iskanian reasoning, and criticizes the PAGA statute’s orientation, noting that it isn’t clear on individual’s claims as opposed to representative actions.  Alito explains that representative actions under the law are not only those of the “individual claims” of employees who seeks to file suit for workplace claims under the state’s Labor Code, but also representative PAGA claims predicated on code violations “sustained by other employees.” The latter, under Iskanian, may not be subject to mandatory arbitration.

That didn’t sit well with the majority opinion, which contrasts PAGA’s single suit involving many claims but solely by an individual on behalf of the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency, as opposed to class-action cases which may involve many claims but also on behalf of many absent plaintiffs who are certified as a class. 

The bottom line is that the representative aspect of PAGA as it applies to arbitration was stricken in today’s Court decision, an 8-1 decision with two concurring opinions. There was a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, who maintained his longstanding view–a short dissenting opinion that he has issued on at least seven other occasions–that the Federal Arbitration Act doesn’t apply in state courts.

The results already are seen as a relief by California business interests, with the Iskanian arbitration bar eliminated.  Los Angeles-based Anthony J. Oncidi, a partner and co-chair, of Proskauer Rose’s Labor and Employment Department, writes in an email,

Employers all over California are rejoicing today with the news that this peculiar PAGA exemption from arbitration is finally gone. Employers should run, not walk, to take advantage of this significant new development by immediately reviewing and, if necessary, amending their arbitration agreements to encompass PAGA claims. And as for those employers who, for whatever reason, have not yet availed themselves of an updated arbitration program, this is just the most recent reason to consider doing so.

Another management-side attorney, Christopher C. Murray, an Indianapolis shareholder in Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., writes,

Today’s decision is, for now, a victory for employers with well-crafted arbitration agreements containing class action and representative action waivers and severability clauses. However, it’s a nuanced decision that leaves open a number of issues.  One is whether the California legislature can amend PAGA to give a plaintiff standing to bring a representative PAGA action even if the plaintiff cannot pursue an individual claim in the same action. In short, it’s unlikely that today’s opinion will be the final word on representative PAGA actions and arbitration.

[Murray co-chairs the Employment Disputes Committee at the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution-CPR, which provides this blog.]

“While today’s decision is disappointing and adds new limits, key aspects of PAGA remain in effect and the law of our state,” noted California State Attorney General Rob Bonta in a statement this afternoon. He added: “Workers can continue to bring claims on behalf of the State of California to protect themselves and, in many instances, their colleagues all across California. At the California Department of Justice, we will continue to stand with workers to fight for their rights everywhere.” (The full press release is available here.)

Today’s decision may serve to derail efforts to enact PAGA-like statutes in other states. Had the law stood in its entirety and its arbitration end-run survived, labor likely would have reinvigorated pushes in blue states to add similar laws. See, e.g., Dan Walters, “The Fight Over the Private Attorneys General Act,” Orange County [Calif.] Register (April 5) (available at https://bit.ly/3MOO7s5).

The PAGA law, according to employers, negated the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court cases of Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2Y66dwK), which authorized mandatory predispute arbitration, and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (available at http://bit.ly/2VcI4mi), which permits mandatory arbitration backed with class waivers in consumer contracts.

The Court heard the oral arguments on March 30, the last of four arbitration cases argued in nine days at the nation’s top court. See Russ Bleemer, “Adding a Claim, and Avoiding Arbitration: The Supreme Court Reviews California’s Private Attorneys General Act,” CPR Speaks blog (March 30) (available at https://bit.ly/3NWMFoQ).

It’s also the last of the five arbitration cases the nation’s top Court has accepted and decided in its 2021-2022 term, following closely on Monday’s decision in consolidated international arbitration cases focused on cross-border discovery issues.  Links to reports on all of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, as well as case previews and in-depth reviews of the arguments, can be found on the CPR Speaks blog here.

* * *

Under the PAGA law, employees may bring forth disputes on behalf of similarly situated workers who also allege employment violations. Angie Moriana, who worked as a sales representative for Viking River Cruises in 2016 and 2017, filed suit against the company in a representative action for alleged violations of California labor laws. Moriana alleged that Viking River Cruises violated California wage and hour laws. She had signed a pre-dispute agreement agreeing to file her claims in arbitration individually, and waiving her ability to bring a class action. As a result, Viking River Cruises sought arbitration.

In Iskanian in 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled that though PAGA suits are filed on behalf of the state, employees cannot forgo their ability to file these claims individually. The California Supreme Court decided Iskanian before the U.S. Supreme Court–showing its broad deference to the Federal Arbitration Act’s recognition of the enforcement of arbitration agreements–decided the Epic Systems mandatory employment arbitration case.

This Iskanian mandatory arbitration bar reasoned that PAGA plaintiffs represent the state as private attorneys general even though the state was not a party to the arbitration agreement. In Epic Systems v. Lewis, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. 

PAGA supporters argued that the law supplements the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency’s limited enforcement capability by allowing employees to enforce the state labor laws.  Employers contended that the inability to arbitrate workplace disputes cost money and jobs.

During the March 30 Supreme Court oral arguments (full CPR Speaks coverage at the link above), the court’s liberal justices were more animated, and appeared to back the California Supreme Court prohibiting mandatory arbitration of PAGA claims. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan questioned why the state’s choice to enforce its workplace regulations should be overridden by the FAA, a statute now nearly a century old.

The Court conservatives did not share the same doubts. Contrary to Moriana’s assertion that requiring arbitration essentially waives a PAGA claim, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated that a PAGA plaintiff does have a right to pursue the substantive claim, although through a different means. Today’s opinion author, Justice Alito, appeared to imply that the court’s Epic Systems decision supported finding arbitration agreements enforceable in the face of PAGA allegations.

* * *

Alito continued that line of reasoning in this morning’s decision, invoking the Court’s arbitration precedents, and discussing the expected characteristics of arbitration as a bilateral process, not a representative or class proceeding.

Alito criticized the California statute’s structure—”a PAGA action asserting multiple code violations affecting a range of different employees does not constitute ‘a single claim’ in even the broadest possible sense”—and noted that the law prohibited dividing the matter into the constituent individual and representative claims.

The opinion focused on the definitions of representative claims in bilateral arbitration.  It states that while precedents don’t hold “that the FAA allows parties to contract out of anything that might amplify defense risks,”  the practice makes “it . . . impossible to decide representative claims in an arbitration that is ‘bilateral’ in every dimension.” Alito wrote, “[O]ur cases hold that States cannot coerce individuals into forgoing arbitration by taking the individualized and informal procedures characteristic of traditional arbitration off the table.”

The federal-state law conflict, however, was elsewhere.  The majority opinion–in a section where Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, did not join with the majority—finds a conflict between PAGA and the FAA in PAGA’s “built-in mechanism of claim joinder.”  The Court says that Iskanian’s mandate of joinder of “aggrieved” employees’ “personally suffered” Labor Code violations “as a basis to join to the action any claims that could have been raised by the State in an enforcement proceeding” coerced parties’ PAGA claims out of arbitration.

The majority invoked its historic view of arbitration, holding that “state law cannot condition the enforceability of an arbitration agreement on the availability of a procedural mechanism that would permit a party to expand the scope of the arbitration by introducing claims that the parties did not jointly agree to arbitrate.”

Alito adds that PAGA allowed parties to avoid their agreement to arbitrate their individual claims after the fact and demand court or arbitration that exceeds the scope of the original agreement: “The only way for parties to agree to arbitrate one of an employee’s PAGA claims is to also ‘agree’ to arbitrate all other PAGA claims in the same arbitral proceeding.” [Emphasis is in the opinion.]

That aspect of the California law did not survive. “We hold that the FAA preempts the rule of Iskanian insofar as it precludes division of PAGA actions into individual and non-individual claims through an agreement to arbitrate,” Alito wrote. The agreement’s severability clause, the opinion concludes, allows Viking River Cruises to compel individual arbitration of respondent Moriana’s claims.

The opinion also dismisses Moriana’s non-individual claims, holding that, with the dismissal, Moriana no longer had standing, leaving those claims–still valid in the majority’s view–in limbo. Instead of court or arbitration, however, the opinion targets the law. Alito concludes, “PAGA provides no mechanism to enable a court to adjudicate non-individual PAGA claims once an individual claim has been committed to a separate proceeding.”

* * *

In her concurrence, Justice Sotomayor picks up on the majority’s closing point as well as followed from her oral argument concerns about whether the FAA could eliminate claims chosen by the California Legislature for its constituents via PAGA.

First, she asserts that the majority “makes clear that California is not powerless to address its sovereign concern that it cannot adequately enforce its Labor Code without assistance from private attorneys general.”

But then, returning to Alito’s closing point that the nonindividual claims have no outlet due to Moriana’s apparent lack of standing under California law, Sotomayor agrees, noting that there are options:

Of course, if this Court’s understanding of state law is wrong, California courts, in an appropriate case, will have the last word. Alternatively, if this Court’s understanding is right, the California Legislature is free to modify the scope of stat­utory standing under PAGA within state and federal con­stitutional limits.

Viking River Cruises, says Washington, D.C., arbitrator Mark Kantor, who closely follows the Court’s arbitration jurisprudence and previewed the case for CPR Speaks here, “leaves considerable scope for the California legislature to rework PAGA to reestablish a representative action that could survive FAA preemption and make a waiver of PAGA unenforceable, although possibly enforceable in an arbitral forum if the relevant employment agreements calls for arbitration.”

* * *

Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s additional opinion is brief but goes further–concurring in the judgment, at the same time stepping away from much of the majority’s discussion of representative and individual actions.

She concurs with Section III of the opinion, the FAA-PAGA conflict because of the California law’s mandatory joinder provisions that would bring representative claims to arbitration. Joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh, Barrett writes that she agrees “that reversal is required under our precedent because PAGA’s procedure is akin to other aggregation devices that cannot be imposed on a party to an arbitration agreement,” citing four seminal Supreme Court cases including Epic Systems and AT&T Mobility (see above).

But her one-paragraph concurrence concludes, and could add fuel to moves by the California Legislature to reform PAGA in light of today’s decision:

I would say nothing more than that. The discussion in Parts II and IV of the Court’s opinion is unnecessary to the result, and much of it addresses disputed state-law questions as well as arguments not pressed or passed upon in this case.*

That asterisk is to a footnote, in which Justice Barrett adds, “The same is true of Part I,” which described the PAGA, Iskanian, and case histories.

Chief Justice Roberts dissented from the footnote, and joined in the Alito majority opinion for Parts 1 and III.

* * *

Sodhi, a former CPR intern, last month received his LLM at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, at Malibu, Calif.’s Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.  Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

[END]

Will the 11th Circuit Maintain N.Y. Convention Deference for Arbitration Award Enforcement?

By Xin Judy Wang

A three-judge Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has made the unusual move of urging the full circuit to convene en banc to overturn its precedents addressing vacatur of arbitral awards.

Part of a minority among circuits, an Eleventh Circuit panel on May 27 limited the basis for vacating an international arbitral award only to the seven grounds enumerated in Art. V of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, best known as the New York Convention. Deference to the New York Convention makes Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—the states covered by the Eleventh Circuit–attractive forums for international arbitration.

But this deferential position may soon change.

In Corporacion AIC, S.A. v. Hidroelectrica Santa Rita S.A., the Eleventh Circuit panel reluctantly affirmed the district court’s determination that it cannot vacate an international arbitral award on the “exceeding powers” ground. No. 20-13039 (11th Cir. May. 27, 2022) (available at https://bit.ly/3zuLRDi).

Stating it was “powerless to change the course as a three-judge panel,” the opinion, by Senior Circuit Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat, encouraged the appeals court to convene en banc to overturn its precedents, “and hold that under a correct understanding of Supreme Court precedent the exceeding powers ground is a valid basis for vacatur under both the New York Convention and the [Federal Arbitration Act].”

* * *

The parties to the dispute are two Guatemalan companies, Corporacion AIC, or AICSA, and Hidrolectrica Santa Rita, referred to as HSR below. The parties signed a March 2012 contract to construct a hydroelectric power plant in Guatemala, but had to discontinue the project when HSR issued a force majeure notice in response to fierce opposition by the local community—excusing performance and canceling the contract.

HSR then sought reimbursement for advance payments and commenced arbitration proceedings in the International Court of Arbitration. The arbitration, held in Miami, resulted in an order that AICSA return about $7 million and about €435,000 to HSR. AICSA was allowed to keep its earnings pursuant to the contract, about $2.5 million and about €700,000.

Dissatisfied with the decision, AICSA filed suit in Florida’s Southern U.S. District Court, petitioning to vacate the award because “the arbitration panel had exceeded its powers.”

The “exceeding powers” ground is not enumerated in the New York Convention. Instead, it comes from 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(4)–the Chapter 1 Federal Arbitration Act provision on overturning awards. The district court denied the petition, citing Eleventh Circuit precedents that the New York Convention–codified by FAA Chapter 2–exclusively governs vacatur of an international arbitral award. 

* * *

The Eleventh Circuit first adopted its deferential position in the 1998 case Industrial Risk Insurers v. M.A.N. Gutehoffnungshutte GmbH, 141 F.3d 1434 (11th Cir. 1998) (available at https://bit.ly/3O8XAf6). In Industrial Risk, the appellate court explained that the New York Convention’s defenses against enforcing an international arbitral award are “exclusive.” On similar facts of foreign parties arbitrating in Florida, the circuit declined to consider a ground of vacatur not explicitly mentioned in the New York Convention.

The circuit last confirmed this deference in  Inversiones y Procesadora Tropical INPROTSA, S.A. v. Del Monte Int’l GmbH., 921 F.3d 1291 (11th Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3HfcoWY). Also addressing an arbitration between two foreign corporations in Florida, the panel confirmed the binding force of Industrial Risk in the circuit.

In the opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Tjoflat critiqued Industrial Risk, noting that the decision did not consider whether a non-enumerated vacatur ground from domestic law may be used under New York Convention Art. V(1)(e), which states,

(1) Recognition and enforcement of the award may be refused, at the request of the party against whom it is invoked, only if that party furnishes to the competent authority where the recognition and enforcement is sought, proof that:

. . . .

(e) The award has not yet become binding on the parties, or has been set aside or suspended by a competent authority of the country in which, or under the law of which, that award was made. [Emphasis added in this post.]

The panel reads V(1)(e) as allowing national courts to vacate an award based on domestic grounds when the forum is either the seat of arbitration or when its law is applied.

* * *

According to the Corporacion AIC panel, this reading of V(1)(e) depends on recognizing the distinction between primary and secondary jurisdiction. A forum has primary jurisdiction when it is the location of the arbitral award or when its law is used to decide the arbitration dispute.

A forum has secondary jurisdiction when the forum’s court is not the seat of arbitration and thus may only refuse to enforce, rather than annul an award. Therefore, when, as here, the United States is the arbitration seat, a U.S. forum has primary jurisdiction to vacate the award on domestic grounds.

The panel opinion draws support from the Supreme Court case BG Group PLC v. Republic of Argentina, 572 U.S. 25 (2014) (available at https://bit.ly/3OwTopJ)  (Argentina sought to vacate an award on the basis that the arbitrators lacked jurisdiction and thus “exceed their powers” under FAA 10(a)(4)). In BG Group, the Court noted that for a motion to vacate a U.S. award, federal courts should normally interpret a treaty’s intent by applying presumptions supplied by U.S. law. The Corporacion AIC panel reads this comment as a “[nod] to the idea of primary jurisdiction” by conferring a special reviewing power to the arbitration forum.

The panel boosts this distinction by pointing to a country’s heightened interest in the outcome of an award when that country’s laws are being used or when it is the location of arbitration. It goes on to suggest that a state should have a mechanism to ensure an award’s validity when the award is issued in its jurisdiction. Limiting grounds of vacatur strictly to those enumerated in the Convention would constitute “meddling with national procedure for handling domestic awards,” citing a Second Circuit case, Yusuf Ahmed Alghanim & Sons v. Toys “R” Us Inc., 126 F.3d 15, 22 (2d Cir. 1997) (available here).

More specifically, the Corporacion AIC panel reads BG Group to have applied the “exceeding power” ground in its vacatur analysis (the Supreme Court opinion stated that it could not “agree with Argentina that the arbitrators exceeded their powers in concluding they had jurisdiction.”) Though not the key BG Group opinion focus, the Eleventh Circuit panel reads this comment as the Supreme Court’s implicit endorsement of applying vacatur grounds not expressly mentioned in the New York Convention.

This is not the first time the Eleventh Circuit has adopted such a reading of BG Group. In the 2017 case Bamberger Rosenheim Ltd., (Israel) v. OA Dev. Inc., (United States), the circuit cited BG Group and “assumed without deciding” that FAA Chapter 1 applied to international arbitral awards. 862 F.3d 1284, 1287 n.2 (11th Cir. 2017) (available at https://bit.ly/3O950yG).

* * *

Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote a Corporacion AIC concurrence taking a different path that reached back to the Convention’s 1958 adoption. He agreed with the majority opinion that Industrial Risk and Inversiones were wrongly decided, and the appeals court should apply FAA § 10 grounds to vacate a New York Convention award.

The disagreement lies in his rationale. He applied FAA § 10 not because the vacatur standards are incorporated into the New York Convention through Art. V(1)(e), but rather that § 10 should apply, as domestic law, directly to the vacatur of an international award made in the United States.

The New York Convention draws from two earlier treaties, the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses and the 1927 Geneva Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The former mandated award enforcement only in the seat of arbitration, and the latter broadened its scope by providing for award recognition and enforcement in countries other than the seat.

The problem with the two Geneva Treaties was “double exequatur,” referring to the Geneva Convention’s requirement that an award can only be recognized and enforced (in countries other than the seat) if it was already “final in the country in which it ha[d] been made.” This created an extra hurdle for international enforcement of arbitral awards. The New York Convention eliminated the double exequatur by no longer requiring the seat’s recognition for enforcement elsewhere.

Circuit Judge Jordan recognized this significant modification but maintained that the New York Convention left intact the binary framework of the Geneva Treaties. There remain different responsibilities and authorities between the arbitral seat and other states. The arbitral seat can vacate an award, but other States may only recognize and enforce an award (which parallels the majority opinion’s definition of primary and secondary jurisdiction). Jordan drew attention to the Convention’s text–Art. V(1) starts with “Recognition and enforcement of the award may be refused.  …” Therefore, Art. V(1)(e) only addresses recognition and enforcement in other states. Jordan’s opinion states that the New York Convention (and its counterpart,  FAA Chapter 2) do not enumerate the grounds on which a court can vacate an international arbitral award.

Accordingly, to “fill the gap” of the New York Convention, vacatur should be governed by domestic law. Jordan cited the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court international arbitration case of GE Energy Power Conversion Fr. SAS Corp. v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, 140 S. Ct. 1637 (available at https://bit.ly/3xKmpHJ) (“the New York Convention was drafted against the backdrop of domestic law” and “the Convention requires courts to rely on domestic law to fill [its gaps]”).

Circuit Judge Jordan also looked to the United Kingdom and Switzerland’s permission to challenge international arbitral awards on native grounds.  He suggested that the FAA’s 9 U.S.C § 208, on the FAA’s application, was drafted to reflect this binary framework. Courts, the concurrence suggests, should apply domestic law for award vacatur for arbitrations held in the United States (§ 208 – “Chapter 1 applies to actions and proceedings … to the extent that chapter is not in conflict with this chapter or the [New York Convention]. . . .”).

* * *

As recognized by Circuit Judge Jordan’s concurrence, the number of international arbitrations has been rising in the Eleventh Circuit. The circuit’s deference to the New York Convention for award enforcement likely plays an important role in its popularity.

It is unusual for a panel to urge a rehearing en banc to overturn circuit precedents, especially when the majority and concurrence provide two different routes for the basis of overturning the precedents. How Corporacion AIC will continue to develop in the circuit or at the U.S. Supreme Court will significantly affect international arbitration in the circuit and beyond.

Attorneys for the parties did not immediately reply to email requests for comment.

* * *

The author, who will be a second-year student at Columbia University Law School in New York this fall, is a 2022 CPR summer intern.

[END]

More on Section 1782: Why the U.S. Supreme Court Says the Law Doesn’t Permit Discovery Requests from International Arbitrations

By Tamia Sutherland & Russ Bleemer

Here is a deeper dive into today’s U.S. Supreme Court consolidated decision in ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd.No. 21-401, which was consolidated with and covers AlixPartners LLP v. Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign StatesNo. 21-518. Does the new decision, which restricts discovery under a law aiding foreign governmental entities in U.S. courts, also limit discovery under the Federal Arbitration Act?

Our post covering the opinion from this morning can be found on CPR Speaks here.

In today’s unanimous 9-0 opinion, available here, the Court held that the use of 28 U.S.C. § 1782 for discovery in international proceedings was limited. “Only a governmental or intergovernmental adjudicative body constitutes a ‘foreign or international tribunal’ under 28 U. S. C. §1782,” wrote Justice Amy Coney Barrett in her first arbitration decision since ascending to the bench in 2020, “and the bodies at issue in these cases do not qualify.”

The statute, as the opinion notes, “permits district courts to order testimony or the production of evidence ‘for use in a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal.’”

Specifically, Section 1782 states:

The district court of the district in which a person resides or is found may order him to give his testimony or statement or to produce a document or other thing for use in a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal, including criminal investigations conducted before formal accusation.

Justice Barrett focused in the opinion on the phrase “foreign or international tribunal,” citing Black’s Law Dictionary and the Court’s only previous Sec. 1782 holding, Intel Corp. v. Advanced Micro Devices Inc., 542 U. S. 241  (2004) (available at https://bit.ly/3xKIMO5), which permitted discovery to a foreign tribunal but didn’t decide the arbitration-application issue. She parses the definitions individually of “foreign,” “international,” and “tribunal.”

Citing the U.S. government’s brief, which sought a limited use of the statute that didn’t include arbitration, Barrett writes,

“Tribunal” is a word with potential governmental or sovereign connotations, so “foreign tribunal” more naturally refers to a tribunal belonging to a foreign nation than to a tribunal that is simply located in a foreign nation. And for a tribunal to belong to a foreign nation, the tribunal must possess sovereign authority conferred by that nation.”

John B. Pinney, counsel to Cincinnati’s Graydon Head & Ritchey–who is counsel of record on an AlixPartners amicus brief urging the Court to accept the case on behalf of CPR, publisher of this blog (details here)–says that the government’s intervention in the case was pivotal. He cites the government brief and, in particular, Assistant Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler’s participation in the March 23 Supreme Court hearing.

“Between the lines,” notes Pinney in an email, “Kneedler’s argument on behalf of the United States did change the momentum of the proponents’ arguments as well as bolstering the opponents’ arguments.  . . . Justice [Stephen G.] Breyer, whose early questions seemed to put him in the proponent’s camp, appeared to move toward the opponents’ position during Kneedler’s argument when he made a comment that the well-heeled users of international arbitration could petition Congress if they wanted authorization for federal court judicial assistance.  In other words: the view that the operative phrase, ‘foreign or international tribunal,’ in Sec. 1782 ought not be expansively interpreted and that, as a result, it should be up to Congress to be clear if it truly wanted federal courts to have jurisdiction to provide discovery assistance for international arbitral tribunals.”

The Supreme Court opinion’s section on the meaning of the statutory wording concludes by excluding private matters, stating,

“[F]oreign tribunal” and “international tribunal” complement one another; the former is a tribunal imbued with governmental authority by one nation, and the latter is a tribunal imbued with governmental authority by multiple nations.

* * *

The opinion then compares 28 U.S.C. 1782 discovery to the Federal Arbitration Act. It notes that limiting the law’s use to “only bodies exercising governmental authority is consistent with Congress’ charge to the Commission,” referring to the Commission on International Rules of Judicial Procedure, which studied U.S. judicial assistance to foreign countries, and recommended improvements, including the law.

Barrett discusses the effects of adopting a broader reading, and, rejecting the plea, notes:

[T]he animating purpose of §1782 is comity: Permitting federal courts to assist foreign and international governmental bodies promotes respect for foreign governments and encourages reciprocal assistance. It is difficult to see how enlisting district courts to help private bodies would serve that end. Such a broad reading of §1782 would open district court doors to any interested person seeking assistance for proceedings before any private adjudicative body—a category broad enough to include everything from a commercial arbitration panel to a university’s student disciplinary tribunal. [The opinion cites petitioner ZF Automotive’s brief.]

An extension to private bodies of Section 1782 would create “significant tension with the FAA” because the discovery allowed under Section 1782 is broader, Barrett explains.

But in discussing the contrast, the passage that followed also appears to refine the FAA’s use, and is sure to raise questions about the limits among veteran practitioners:

Among other differences, the FAA permits only the arbitration panel to request discovery, see 9 U. S. C. §7, while district courts can entertain §1782 requests from foreign or international tribunals or any “interested person,” 28 U. S. C. §1782(a). In addition, prearbitration discovery is off the table under the FAA but broadly available under §1782. See Intel, 542 U. S., at 259 (holding that discovery is available for use in proceedings “within reasonable contemplation”).

“This wouldn’t be the first time the Court made arbitration law via dicta,” notes Fordham University School of Law adjunct George H. Friedman, a former longtime senior vice president of dispute resolution at FINRA in an email, adding, “Manifest disregard” [which had been used in addition to FAA Sec. 10 to overturn awards] was announced via dicta in Wilko v. Swan back in 1953.” For more on the Court’s FAA gloss, see George H. Friedman, “SCOTUS Decides ZF Automotive: Yet Another Unanimous Decision, This One Holding that Section 1782 Discovery in Foreign Arbitrations Applies Only to Governmental Tribunals,” Securities Arbitration Alert (June 13) (available here).

Barrett concludes the Court’s Section 1782 definition by noting,

§1782 requires a “foreign or international tribunal” to be governmental or intergovernmental. Thus, a “foreign tribunal” is one that exercises governmental authority conferred by a single nation, and an “international tribunal” is one that exercises governmental authority conferred by two or more nations. Private adjudicatory bodies do not fall within §1782.

* * *

In looking at the facts in the two arbitration cases on appeal to the Supreme Court, the opinion analyzed whether the “adjudicative bodies” were “governmental or intergovernmental,” concluding that the matters were private arbitration, and not subject to Section 1782 discovery.

It was an easy call on the ZF Automotive case:

[P]rivate entities do not become governmental because laws govern them and courts enforce their contracts—that would erase any distinction between private and governmental adjudicative bodies. [Respondent] Luxshare’s implausibly broad definition of a governmental adjudicative body is nothing but an attempted end run around §1782’s limit.  

The opinion quickly notes, however, that the AlixPartners case involving the Lithuanian government is harder. It features a government on one side of a case where the arbitration option is contained in an international treaty rather than a private contract, making the case appear to be an intergovernmental dispute under Section 1782.

“Yet neither Lithuania’s presence nor the treaty’s existence is dispositive, because Russia and Lithuania are free to structure investor-state dispute resolution as they see fit,” the opinion states.

Instead, wrote Barrett, “What matters is the substance of their agreement: Did these two nations intend to confer governmental authority on an ad hoc panel formed pursuant to the treaty?”

The Supreme Court analyzed the parties’ contractual arbitration options, which included using court-related processes, as well as Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and the  International Chamber of Commerce’s Court of Arbitration.

But the parties chose “an ad hoc arbitration in accordance with Arbitration Rules of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL).”

That, wrote Justice Barrett, “by contrast, is not a pre-existing body, but one formed for the purpose of adjudicating investor-state disputes. And nothing in the treaty reflects Russia and Lithuania’s intent that an ad hoc panel exercise governmental authority. For instance, the treaty does not itself create the panel; instead, it simply references the set of rules that govern the panel’s formation and procedure if an investor chooses that forum. In addition, the ad hoc panel “functions independently” of and is not affiliated with either Lithuania or Russia.”

The opinion adds, “So inclusion in the treaty does not, as the [respondent] Fund suggests, automatically render ad hoc arbitration governmental.” Still, after its focus on the ad hoc nature of the investor-state bilateral investment treaty dispute resolution process, the opinion notes that in the future, sovereign parties may be able to “imbue an ad hoc arbitration with official authority.”

In reversing the lower court decisions in both consolidated cases, Justice Barrett lays out the new rule of law on overseas discovery under 28 U.S. 1782 succinctly in her conclusion:

In sum, only a governmental or intergovernmental adjudicative body constitutes a “foreign or international tribunal” under §1782. Such bodies are those that exercise governmental authority conferred by one nation or multiple nations. Neither the private commercial arbitral panel in the first case nor the ad hoc arbitration panel in the second case qualifies.

* * *

Sutherland, a former year-long 2021-2022 CPR intern, will be a third-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C. this fall. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR and John Wiley & Sons.

[END]

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Supreme Court Bars Discovery Assistance for Private Overseas Arbitration Panels Under U.S. Law

By Tamia Sutherland & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning restricted the use of 28 U.S.C. § 1782 for discovery in international proceedings to “[o]nly a governmental or intergovernmental adjudicative” body, but not cross-border arbitration matters.

The unanimous 9-0 decision in consolidated cases by Justice Amy Coney Barrett—her first arbitration opinion as a member of the nation’s high Court—clarifies the use of the 1964 law, which recently split the federal circuit courts over its reach for arbitration parties.

“Interpreting §1782 to reach only bodies exercising governmental authority is consistent with Congress’ charge to the Commission,” wrote Barrett–referring to the 1960’s Commission on International Rules of Judicial Procedure, to improve U.S. laws reaching overseas–in today’s decision in ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd.No. 21-401, which was consolidated with and covers AlixPartners LLP v. The Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign StatesNo. 21-518.

The opinion can be found here.

The issue was whether 28 U.S.C. § 1782 can be invoked in international arbitrations to obtain U.S.-style discovery for evidence. This inquiry looked at whether the statutory language—“foreign or international tribunal”—extends to arbitration panels.

The opinion had little problem removing arbitration discovery requests from a private arbitration tribunal in ZF Automotive, where a federal district court permitted discovery under the statute in the U.S. for parties in the court’s jurisdiction. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a ZF Automotive request to stay the order.

Today’s opinion, however, states that the legislative history behind the statute, as well as a comparison to the domestic-focused Federal Arbitration Act, which allows far narrower discovery than Section 1782, puts the law’s focus on discovery for governmental bodies, not private arbitration tribunals.

The Court had more difficulty with the AlixPartners case, which involved the government of Lithuania. But the Barrett opinion says that the parties’ actions under a bilateral investment treaty are the key here–the parties were acting more like private parties than governmental entities in setting up an ad hoc ADR process. 

“An ad hoc arbitration panel, by contrast, is not a pre-existing body, but one formed for the purpose of adjudicating investor-state disputes,” wrote Barrett, “And nothing in the treaty reflects Russia and Lithuania’s intent that an ad hoc panel exercise governmental authority.”

AlixPartners focused on investor-state arbitration, in which one of the parties is the Lithuanian government. In AlixPartners, the respondent is a Russian entity representing investors pursuing claims before an ad hoc UNCITRAL-rules arbitral tribunal against Lithuania for the investors’ financial losses resulting from the insolvency of a Lithuanian bank. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals permitted discovery, finding that the ad hoc panel qualified under Section 1782 as a “foreign or international” tribunal rather than a private arbitration matter.

The Barrett opinion notes that the inclusion of arbitration in the BIT did not automatically make the process a governmental proceeding meriting the use of Section 1782. “Instead,” wrote Barrett, “it reflects the countries’ choice to offer investors the potentially appealing option of bringing their disputes to a private arbitration panel that operates like commercial arbitration panels do.”

[The publisher of this blog, CPR, urged the Court in an amicus brief to hear the AlixPartners case last year, without taking a merits position on the case. Details are available here.]

In ZF Automotive, a private commercial contract with ZF Automotive’s German parent required that disputes be arbitrated before the German Arbitration Institute, an arbitration provider. The ZF Automotive case, however, was brought in Detroit before the commencement of the Germany private international arbitration. 

The U.S. District Court allowed the requested discovery.  On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, ZF Automotive, in an unusual move, petitioned for certiorari before judgment to bypass waiting for the Sixth Circuit to decide its appeal. The Sixth Circuit, as noted, declined to stay the lower court’s order. Respondent Luxshare had requested and was granted discovery for the arbitration, in which it alleged fraud against ZF Automotive, under Section 1782. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on Dec. 10, and reversed the lower court decision today.

During a two-week, four-argument deep dive into arbitration law and practice in March (see this CPR Speaks link for previews, argument summaries, and reports on the decisions issued so far here), the Supreme Court heard these Sec. 1782 consolidated arguments as well as an oral argument from the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.

Veteran Assistant Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler’s contention that the Court should be cautious in accepting respondents’ arguments because any expansion of the scope of Section 1782’s reach should be addressed by Congress is reflected in the decision-making process, and the U.S. government’s brief is cited by Justice Barrett. Full details on the March 23 ZF Automotive oral arguments are available on this CPR Speaks blog here.

* * *

Sutherland, a former year-long 2021-2022 CPR intern, will be a third-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C. this fall. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR and John Wiley & Sons.

[END]

Supreme Court Backs Airport Worker, Applies Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 Exemption, and Sends Employment Dispute to Court

By Russ Bleemer and R. Daniel Knaap

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed unanimously a Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a worker who loads or unloads goods from vehicles that engage in interstate commerce, but does not physically transport goods, is exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act as a “worker engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” under FAA Sec. 1, resolving a circuit split.

Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon, No. 21-309 (today’s decision is available here), involves a Fair Labor Standards Act suit brought by Illinois respondent Latrice Saxon against petitioner Southwest Airlines Co., her employer. Southwest was initially successful, moving to dismiss under the FAA despite Saxon’s argument that she, as a ramp supervisor, is exempt from the FAA under FAA Sec. 1. Case No, 19-cv-0403 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 8, 2019) (available here). The District Court had followed the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the Seventh Circuit reversed, agreeing with Saxon that airplane cargo loaders are engaged in interstate commerce, even though she was located solely at Chicago Midway International Airport. Saxon, in the Seventh Circuit’s view, consequently is a transportation worker whose employment contract is exempt from the FAA. 993 F.3d 492 (7th Cir. 2021) (available here).

That view was affirmed today in the 8-0 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, erasing the circuit split with the Fifth Circuit. Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate.

Southwest “maintain[ed] that §1 ‘exempts classes of workers based on their conduct, not their employer’s,’ and the relevant class therefore includes only those airline employees who are actually engaged in interstate commerce in their day-to-day work,” according to today’s opinion.

The view that the localized worker was not engaged in interstate commerce and was therefore subject to arbitration was soundly rejected in today’s opinion. The case may have implications for app-based companies, like Amazon and Lyft, who strongly urged the Court to back Southwest in amicus briefs and reject the use of the FAA Sec. 1 carve-out exemption from arbitration for Saxon.

* * *

The Court has usually been focused on getting cases into arbitration, and that hasn’t meant success for individuals fighting arbitration and seeking court processes.

Yet the three arbitration cases decided this term, all based in employment matters, backed the workers. In addition to affirming today’s employee victory in the Seventh Circuit, last month, the Court ruled in favor of a Taco Bell worker resisting her employer’s motion to compel arbitration in a unanimous opinion by Justice Elena Kagan. The Court found that a party need not show it was prejudiced by the moving party’s actions, but instead focuses on the employer’s actions to indicate whether the employer had waived its right to arbitration. Details on Morgan v. Sundance Inc., No. 21-328 (available at https://bit.ly/3NywXj5) are available on CPR Speaks here.

In the first of the 2021-2022 arbitration cases to be decided, the Court embraced a narrow construction of subject-matter jurisdiction in arbitration matters. The March 31 decision reversed a Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that a federal trial court had jurisdiction under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act to confirm and overturn arbitration awards. The decision in Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (available here) potentially gave the employee, who filed suit over workplace discrimination, a new shot at overturning an arbitration award in state court.

* * *

So in today’s case, the Court also backs a worker trying to avoid arbitration, following similarly the 2019 New Prime v. Oliveira case, where Justice Neil Gorsuch, in his first Supreme Court arbitration opinion, read FAA Sec. 1 to exempt an independent contractor/interstate truck driver from arbitration. The Court has limited the exemption from FAA application to transportation workers “engaged in” interstate commerce only in Circuit City Stores Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105 (2001) (available at https://bit.ly/2HhwYLu). But since then, the Court has only recognized an FAA Sec. 1 exemption for an independent contractor—a long-haul truck driver—in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 139 S. Ct. 532 (2019) (available here).

Today’s decision revisits the limited scope of the FAA Sec. 1 exemption, and says it applies to the original plaintiff/respondent in the case.

First, Justice Thomas notes that Saxon, who is a Southwest ramp supervisor located solely at Chicago Midway, belongs to a class of workers who physically load and unload cargo on and off airplanes, using plain language and textual analysis to put the respondent/original plaintiff in the FAA Sec. 1 exemption. He finds that such workers are “as a practical matter, part of the interstate transportation of goods.” (Citation omitted.)

He used the Circuit City Sec. 1 analysis holding that the exemption applies only to transportation workers to establish the backing for Saxon’s position, finding, “Cargo loaders exhibit this central feature of a transportation worker.”

In analyzing the nature of interstate commerce in a key part of the opinion, Thomas notes, “any class of workers that loads or unloads cargo on or off airplanes bound for a different State or country is ‘engaged in foreign or interstate commerce’”—a point sure to refocus attorneys on the employment arbitration policies of app-based commerce. Amazon, for example, strongly urged the Court to reverse and back Southwest in an amicus brief, available here. (See the docket link above for more amicus briefs supporting both sides.) In a footnote, the Court notes that the issues most important to delivery companies weren’t needed to be addressed to decide Southwest Airlines.

Still, Thomas stopped short of including all airline industry employees as “transportation workers” for purposes of the FAA Sec. 1 exemption, which states, “nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

In a painstaking dictionary analysis, Thomas notes that seamen and railroad workers are not industry-wide categories, and therefore don’t include the entire industry workforces. The implication is that a job-by-job, task-by-task analysis with the effects on interstate commerce, will be required for exempting workers from arbitration under FAA Sec. 1.

At the same time, the Thomas opinion rejects three Southwest points that sought to keep Saxon out of the exemption and require her to arbitrate under her employment agreement. Similar to the opinion’s rejection of the generalized interpretation of transportation workers that would include all airline workers by Saxon, the Court also states that the idea that the employee must ride on transportation in interstate commerce is too broad a reading of the FAA Sec. 1 language.

Next, Thomas notes that the goods that Saxon loaded only in Illinois were destined for interstate commerce, pointedly rejecting other Southwest-cited cases where the Court found localized activity was not in interstate commerce.

Finally, the opinion rejects a “statutory purpose” argument by Southwest, which claimed that the Seventh Circuit’s Sec. 1 interpretation hurts the pro-arbitration lean of the rest of the statute, particularly FAA Sec. 2, which “broadly requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements in any ‘contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce.'”

“Here,” countered Justice Thomas, “§1’s plain text suffices to show that airplane cargo loaders are exempt from the FAA’s scope, and we have no warrant to elevate vague invocations of statutory purpose over the words Congress chose.”

The opinion concludes, “Latrice Saxon frequently loads and unloads cargo on and off airplanes that travel in interstate commerce. She therefore belongs to a ‘class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce’ to which §1’s exemption applies.”

* * *

While the nation awaits decisions on abortion and gun rights, the decision comes in an unprecedented time for arbitration at the Court. While there are usually one or two arbitration decisions per term, the Court has heard six cases—two consolidated–on how arbitration works during the 2021-2022 term, four of which were argued in March alone.  Highlights of the cases can be found on CPR Speaks, here, including with the preview and argument reports for the three cases already decided, including today’s case. Detailed oral argument coverage for Southwest Airlines v. Saxon can be found on CPR Speaks here; and the preview with background can be found here. The remaining two 2021-2022 Supreme Court arbitration cases are expected to be decided before the current term ends at the end of this month.

* * *

Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR; Knaap, a law student at Columbia University Law School in New York, is a 2022 CPR Summer intern.

[END]

One Declined, One Pending: Scotus Asked to Enforce an Arbitration Award against a Sovereign and an Oil Company

By R. Daniel Knaap

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week declined to hear a case where Saudi Arabian landowners sought to enforce an arbitration award against the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., best known as Saudi Aramco.

The long-running matter, rooted in a nearly 90-year oil development land lease agreement, isn’t over. There’s a companion case from the same petitioners before the Court–against Chevron Corp., Saudi Aramco’s predecessor in the oil exploration and production deal–scheduled to be considered at a Supreme Court conference on June 16.

The Saudi Aramco case explores the limits of sovereign immunity in the face of a request to enforce an arbitral award against a government-tied entity. Now, at least in the Fifth Circuit’s view, the matter’s complex back story was sufficient to deny enforcement of the award against the state-owned enterprise in the absence of a 28 U.S.C. §1605 exception to foreign sovereign immunity.

In contrast, the Chevron case involves the issue of whether its predecessor’s arbitration agreement applies to the dispute.

The petitioners instituted two different enforcement proceedings regarding an $18 billion International Arbitration Center award against Saudi Aramco (Al-Qarqani v. Arab AMOCO, 2020 WL 6748031 (S.D. Tex., Nov. 17, 2020) and Chevron (Al-Qarqani v. Chevron Corp., 2019 WL 4729467 (N.D. Cal., Sept. 24, 2019).

Both the California and Texas U.S. District Courts refused to confirm the award. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the California district court, holding that the enforcement petition should be denied on the merits and not dismissed for failure to state a claim. Al-Qarqani v. Chevron Corp., 8 F.4th 1018 (9th Cir. 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3zhYVvM). It further denied the petitions for rehearing and rehearing en banc, Al-Qarqani v. Chevron Corp., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 33976 (9th Cir. Cal., Nov. 16, 2021).

The case continues. A petition for certiorari in the nation’s top Court for Waleed Khalid Abu Al-Waleed Al Hood Al-Qarqani, et al. v. Chevron Corp., No. 21-1153, is pending and distributed for the June 16 conference.

In the Saudi Aramco case, the Fifth Circuit vacated the Southern District of Texas’s judgment, remanding with instructions that the case should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction since Saudi Aramco qualified as a foreign state immune from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. §1603. Al-Waleed v. Saudi Arabian Oil Co., 19 F.4th 794 (5th Cir. 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3zgvSZC).

The petition for certiorari in that case, Waleed Khalid Abu Al-Waleed Al Hood Al Qarqani, et al. v. Saudi Arabian Oil Co., No. 21-1335, was denied on May 31; Tuesday’s order declining cert is available here.

* * *

According to the Supreme Court filings and lower court decisions, the case concerns a dispute between Saudi landowners and Saudi Aramco, which is Chevron’s successor in interest and fully owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1933, an agreement was concluded between Chevron’s predecessor, Standard Oil Co. of California, and Saudi Arabia, which provided for rent payments to private landowners of oil-rich land, who were not a party to the agreement.

A deed of concession was concluded in 1949, which transferred the property from the landowners to Arabian American Oil Co., now Saudi Aramco. The petitioners, heirs of the landowners that were a party to the 1949 deed, claim that the land was leased, not sold, and that the 1933 agreement arbitration provision was imported into the 1949 deed. The petitioners initially sought back rent in Saudi Arabian courts. That proceeding took place in 2011, and a “Saudi Legal Committee” found that the 1949 deed was a sale, not a lease. 19 F.4th 794, 797.

The petitioners commenced arbitration proceedings at the International Arbitration Center in Egypt against Aramco and Chevron entities. Aramco rejected the arbitration and did not participate in the proceedings. The Chevron entities objected but nominated an arbitrator. Initially, the tribunal held that it lacked jurisdiction, but the proceedings were reopened by a panel with different members, resulting in an opinion in favor of the petitioners, awarding them $18 billion. Id. In the aftermath of the arbitration, an Egyptian court convicted two IAC administrators and three arbitrators of fraud, forgery, and other crimes relating to the second proceeding. Id.

* * *

The Saudi Aramco petition presented the following questions: whether a foreign sovereign or instrumentality of a state that (1) is a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards–the New York Convention–may assert the FSIA as a defense to enforcement of a foreign arbitral award, (2) accepts and accedes the United Nations Conventions on Jurisdictional Immunities amounts to an express waiver of sovereign immunity under the New York Convention, and (3) fails to timely file a cross appeal from a U.S. district court order that denied the sovereign’s assertion of the FSIA as a defense amounts to waiver and bars a subsequent request for a jurisdictional dismissal on appeal that is based on the merits.

Since certiorari was denied, the Fifth Circuit’s judgment stands. It held that Saudi Aramco is a foreign state under the FSIA since it was “a distinct legal entity incorporated under Saudi law, a majority of whose shares are owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and whose principal place of business is in Saudi Arabia” and thus “presumptively immune from suit in the courts of the United States.” 19 F.4th 794, 800. This immunity was not waived by the exceptions set out in FSIA’s 28 U.S.C. §1605(a). It was not waived under §1605(a)(1) because “the dispute underlying the arbitral award at issue … is clearly outside its scope,” since neither Saudi Aramco, its predecessor, nor the petitioners were party to the 1933 agreement. Id.

The immunity was also not waived under §1605(a)(2) by Saudi Aramco conducting business in the United States since the arbitration took place in Egypt and “did not cause a ‘direct effect’ in the United States.” Id., at 801.

The expropriation exception provided in §1605(a)(3) also does not apply because the action is to enforce an arbitral award, “not litigation of a property dispute involving international law.” Id.

Finally, immunity also was not waived under §1605(a)(6)’s arbitration agreement exception since neither Saudi Aramco, its predecessor, nor the petitioners were party to the 1933 agreement, and the 1949 deed did not mention arbitration nor did it refer to the 1933 agreement’s arbitration clause. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit concluded, the action should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction instead of denying the petition for enforcement. Id. at 801-2.

The cert denial allowing the Fifth Circuit decision to stand in turn appears to provide some answers to the petitioner’s questions presented.

First, a foreign sovereign or instrumentality of a state that is a signatory to the New York Convention may assert the FSIA as a defense to enforcement of a foreign arbitral award. Second, a foreign sovereign or instrumentality of a state that accepts and accedes the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities does not amount to an express waiver of sovereign immunity under the New York Convention. The third question, however, was not explicitly addressed since the appeal was found to be timely.

* * *

The author, a law student at Columbia University Law School in New York, is a 2022 CPR Summer intern.

[END]

Supreme Court Won’t Hear Rates-Review Arbitration Request, Sending Customer Dispute to Court

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear a case on whether the nearly century-old Federal Arbitration Act preempts state law—this time, a clash with Tennessee common law on contracts.

The FAA has shown a lot of muscle in the U.S. Supreme Court over its history, and it’s rarely displaced.  Petitioners seeking to avoid arbitration under a state law are almost always sent to arbitration.

That was not outcome in today’s cert denial in Branch Banking and Trust Co. v. Sevier County Schools Federal Credit Union, et al., No. 21-365. The matter also was about arbitrability–not on the merits of a dispute as to whether the respondents get the money market interest rate on their investment guaranteed by a predecessor of the petitioner bank, which wanted the case over its rate-drop arbitrated.

The petitioner bank had required account holders to arbitrate disputes by amending its agreement with the fund holders after it had purchased the predecessor bank.

The respondent account holders’ argument–successful in the federal appeals court at Sevier Cnty. Sch. Fed. Credit Union v. Branch Banking & Tr. Co., 990 F.3d 470 (6th Cir. 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3K7BxnV)–was straightforward:  The so-called FAA Sec. 2 Savings clause (an arbitration agreement “shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract “) backs a state-law challenge to the contract. 

And the Sixth Circuit held that there was a lack of mutual assent to the arbitration clause, which is required under Tennessee law. The bank services agreements “in question are clearly contracts of adhesion,” stated the Sixth Circuit opinion.

That opinion stands as a result of the today’s cert denial.

The appeals court criticized the petitioner bank’s unilateral imposition of the arbitration clause and, while noting that the rate promised two decades ago was several times higher than current available rates, it agreed with the plaintiffs’ analysis that the bank couldn’t require ADR where there had been none in the original bank services agreement.

The bank countered in its Supreme Court cert petition, “The Sixth Circuit’s decision is directly at odds with this Court’s recent arbitration decisions and with the law in other courts.”

The issue formally presented to the Court by the petitioner bank was

Whether the Federal Arbitration Act displaces a state common-law rule forbidding companies from adding an arbitration requirement to their standard form contract with customers unless the contract already includes a dispute-resolution clause.

The bank noted in its petition,

The Sixth Circuit’s adoption of a rule that singles out arbitration agreements and subjects them to heightened contract-formation requirements conflicts with [Kindred Nursing Ctrs. Ltd. P’ship v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421, 1424 (2017) (available at https://bit.ly/3GojOWE), which struck a Kentucky rule that “singles out arbitration agreements for disfavored treatment”] and other recent precedents from this Court holding that arbitration agreements cannot be “disfavored” or subjected to more demanding requirements than other contracts. The panel opinion did not cite, let alone distinguish, any of this Court’s modern FAA precedents.

Today’s order denying cert, available here, granted a motion by the American Bankers Association to file an amicus brief, which strongly urged the Court to take the case and reverse the Sixth Circuit. That brief is available at the Court’s docket page linked above (directly here).

The original plaintiffs’ Sixth Circuit success in avoiding arbitration is a rarity once cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s top Court has taken six arbitration cases over five arguments in the current term. Two have been decided, and three cases, all argued in March’s second half, await decision.  Details on the decisions, arguments, and case previews can be found on this blog by searching on the U.S. Supreme Court here.

* * *

Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

[END]

Supreme Court Rejects Prejudice Requirement for Defeating a Motion to Compel Arbitration

By R. Daniel Knaap & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court backed a Taco Bell worker resisting her employer’s motion to compel arbitration this morning when it ruled, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, that a party need not show it was prejudiced by the moving party’s actions.

The decision vacated an Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that arbitration was not waived because the resisting party did not prove it was prejudiced by the adversary’s actions.

Morgan v. Sundance, Inc., No. 21-328 (today’s decision available at https://bit.ly/3NywXj5), means that parties waive their right to compel arbitration based on their actions, not on the judicially established prejudice requirement—a plain reading of the Federal Arbitration Act.

“Did Sundance knowingly relinquish the right to arbitrate by acting inconsistently with that right?” writes Kagan, framing the state of the law on the inquiry for courts. The opinion concludes: “On remand, the Court of Appeals may resolve that question, or determine that a different procedural framework (such as forfeiture) is appropriate. The Court’s sole holding today is that it may not make up a new procedural rule based on the FAA’s ‘policy favoring arbitration.’”

The decision resolves a 9-2 circuit split; nine jurisdictions require a party resisting arbitration under waiver to prove that they have been prejudiced, while two jurisdictions do not have such a requirement. Today’s opinion sides with the minority position, rejecting the idea that the FAA authorizes federal courts to invent arbitration-specific procedural rules, holding that the “federal policy is about treating arbitration contracts like all others, not about fostering arbitration.”

Morgan is the second arbitration opinion of the term, and the second by Kagan invoking a plain reading of the FAA that backs the plaintiff’s position. Today’s 9-0 decision was preceded by Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (available here), an 8-1 March 31 decision rejecting FAA jurisdiction in federal courts for statutory sections on enforcing and challenging awards. For more on Badgerow, see Russ Bleemer & Andrew Ling, “Supreme Court Rejects Federal FAA Jurisdiction for Arbitration Award Enforcement and Challenges, (March 31) (available at https://bit.ly/3wB2hZ8).

In fact, three more decisions are pending. Morgan is one of four arbitration cases argued in the nation’s top Court in the second half of March. Decisions on the other three cases are pending. More information can be found by inserting “Supreme Court” in the box in the upper right of this page to search CPR Speaks, or by clicking here.

* * *

In Morgan, Justice Kagan takes both narrow and broad views of different arbitration points.

First, the opinion narrowly declines to tackle a variety of analogous analysis points on state law in assessing waiver, focusing the decision on the Eighth Circuit’s approach that has “generally resolved cases like this one as a matter of federal law, using the terminology of waiver.”

“For today,” writes Kagan, “we assume without deciding they are right to do so.”

After declining to rule fully on that approach, the opinion said that instead it looked solely at “the next step,” whether federal courts “may create arbitration-specific variants of federal procedural rules, like those concerning waiver, based on the FAA’s ‘policy favoring arbitration.’”

That made the case an easy call. The Court agreed in just seven pages that the answer is a hard no on adding a prejudice requirement to the inquiry of whether the party knew it was subject to arbitration, and acted inconsistently with that right.

The opinion notes that “in demanding . . . proof [of prejudice] before finding the waiver of an arbitration right, the Eighth Circuit applies a rule found nowhere else—consider it a bespoke rule of waiver for arbitration.”

Instead, the Court adopted the views of the Seventh and District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals that there is no prejudice requirement.

But more broadly, Kagan also used the opinion to tamp down perceptions of the Court’s tilt to arbitration. The effect of the clarification is an unmistakable unanimous Court acknowledgment to criticism that it has elevated arbitration over courtroom litigation.

The opinion returned to seminal cases to explain—in the opinion’s view, re-emphasize–that the Court’s policy favoring arbitration–emanating from Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Construction Corp., 460 U.S. 1 (1983)–“does not authorize federal courts to invent special, arbitration-preferring procedural rules.” Nor does it allow courts to “devise novel rules to favor arbitration over litigation,” referring to Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. v. Byrd, 470 U. S. 213, 218–221 (1985).

Citing Granite Rock Co. v. Teamsters, 561 U. S. 287, 302 (2010), Kagan writes that the policy “is merely an acknowledgment of the FAA’s commitment to overrule the judiciary’s longstanding refusal to enforce agreements to arbitrate and to place such agreements upon the same footing as other contracts.”

She then added the Prima Paint pronouncement: “The policy is to make ‘arbitration agreements as enforceable as other contracts, but not more so.’” Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U. S. 395, 404, n. 12 (1967).

* * *

Morgan involves a Fair Labor Standards Act suit brought by petitioner Robyn Morgan against Sundance Inc., which owns 150 Taco Bell franchises throughout the United States, including the Iowa franchise where Morgan was an hourly employee. The complaint alleged that Sundance did not fully compensate its employees for the hours they worked. Although the suit was initially filed as a nationwide collective action, Michigan hourly employees were excluded because they were able to join a similar action filed two years earlier in Michigan’s Eastern U.S. District Court–the so-called Wood action.

The Morgan and Wood plaintiffs engaged in joint mediation with Sundance in April 2019. The mediation settled the Wood action, but not Morgan. Sundance then moved to compel individual arbitration of Morgan’s claims in May 2019, invoking the arbitration provision in the employment contract.

Morgan opposed this, arguing that Sundance had waived its right to compel arbitration by engaging in litigation. The Iowa Southern U.S. District Court denied the motion, finding that Morgan was prejudiced by having to defend to Sundance’s earlier motion to dismiss and by spending time and resources on the class-wide mediation instead of individual arbitration.

The oral arguments were discussed in detail at “Supreme Court Reviews the Role of Prejudice to a Party in Determining Arbitration Waiver,” CPR Speaks (March 21) (available here).

For more on the history of the case, see Mark Kantor, “U.S. Supreme Court Adds an Arbitration Issue: Is Proof of Prejudice Needed to Defeat a Motion to Compel?” CPR Speaks (November 15, 2021) (available here), and Russ Bleemer, “The Supreme Court’s Six-Pack Is Set to Refine Arbitration Practice,” 40 Alternatives 17 (February 2022) (available here).

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Knaap, a law student at Columbia University Law School in New York, is a 2022 CPR Summer intern. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

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Update: An Influx of Arbitration Legislation

By Tamia Sutherland

The passage and March 3 signing of H.R. 4445, Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 has inspired the introduction of more than 170 bills involving arbitration.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R., S.C., called H.R. 4445 the most significant workplace reform since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and said he is open to further arbitration law changes, on a bipartisan basis. Lindsay Wise and Jess Bravin, Senate Approves Bill Barring Forced Arbitration in Sexual-Assault, Harassment Claims, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 10)(available at https://on.wsj.com/38tmR3Q).

Of the current arbitration-related proposals, there are some duplicates with House and Senate introductions. Still, many facets of arbitration, in and out of government, are covered by the bills.

Activity on some is possible this year.

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In an April 6 Securities Arbitration Alert blog post, George Friedman, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, discussed Congress and the rise in arbitration legislation:

The recent pace of legislative activity prompted us to look up how many bills have been introduced in the 117th Congress that in some way, shape, or form, refer to arbitration.

search we conducted using the non-partisan www.govtrack.us Website shows that 171 bills have been introduced so far that contain the term “arbitration” or “arbitrate” – 106 in the House and 65 in the Senate.

Not all bills are anti-arbitration, although the majority would amend the Federal Arbitration Act, other federal laws, or both, to curb pre-dispute arbitration agreement use. Democrats introduced all but four bills.

The Securities Arbitration Alert post can be found here.

A few days after the passage of H.R. 4445, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a March 8 hearing on arbitration’s effects on consumers’ financial services contracts. The purpose was to introduce another arbitration bill.

Chairman Sherrod Brown, D., Ohio, presided over the hearing, and in his opening statement said that:

Big companies should not decide on behalf of Americans how they should pursue justice. Consumers–not corporations–should be able to decide whether they want to go through the public court system, through mediation, or through arbitration. . . . That’s why I introduced the Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act last week with 21 cosponsors in the Senate, many of whom serve on this Committee.”

The Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act would prohibit arbitration clauses in consumer financial products by amending the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010. Chairman Brown explained that the bill “gives consumers the right to decide how they want to pursue justice.” Brown’s website lists this press release and one-pager regarding the bill.

Following the opening statement, Ranking Member Patrick J. Toomey, R., Pa., provided background on Congressional attempts at arbitration restrictions in consumers’ financial services contracts:

In 2017, the CFPB issued a rule that would’ve banned these agreements for consumer financial products. However, Congress overturned this rule under the Congressional Review Act. Since then, Democrats have introduced bills that would undo Congress’ sensible decision.

Then, witnesses representing consumer interest groups Public Justice and Public Citizen, and the business-backed U.S. Chamber of Commerce, provided opposing testimony regarding the regulation of arbitration clauses in consumers’ financial services contracts.

In addition, law professors Todd J. Zywicki and Myriam Gilles from, respectively, Arlington, Va.’s George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of Law and Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York also provided expert testimony, with Zywicki anti-legislation and Gilles strongly supporting the proposal.

A video of the March 8 hearing and the witness statements are available here. Since its introduction, no further action has occurred on the Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act.

There’s more. The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act of 2022, a broad bill that would void all pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreements in employment, antitrust, consumer, and civil rights passed the House by a 222-209 vote on March 17. That vote’s margin is much narrower than the 335-97 vote the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act received in the House in February.

The FAIR Act passed the House despite strong opposition. Two reports from the Institute for Legal Reform, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce unit that lobbies for tort reform on behalf of businesses and has long opposed arbitration restrictions, concluded that consumers and workers typically do better in arbitration. A November 2020 Institute for Legal Reform report is available here, updated from 2019, and an even more recent November 2021 update is available here.

Consumer organizations, on the other hand, were elated. Following the FAIR Act’s passage Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, noted:

“…Today, in an important step forward, the House passed the FAIR Act, a measure that would end the tricks and traps that are endemic in form contracts, including those you enter by clicking ‘I agree’ on the internet.

Hundreds of millions of contracts contain forced arbitration provisions and class-action waivers, denying consumers and workers the ability to file lawsuits in court and preventing them from joining with other similarly situated people to sue together…Today, the House finally stated: No more.”

Gilbert’s full statement is available here.

The FAIR Act was introduced by longtime mandatory arbitration opponent Hank Johnson, D., Ga., who has introduced this legislation in the past. For a discussion of the act’s September 2019 House passage–it later stalled in the Senate–and the controversy over the Institute for Legal Reform’s original 2019 arbitration report, is available at Andrew Garcia, The Fairness Agenda: Arbitration Legislation Advances in the Wake of a Critical Report , 37 Alternatives 157 (November 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3LSoG93).

The House Committee on the Judiciary published this press release following last month’s passage of the FAIR act.  There has been no action yet on the Senate version, which is before the Judiciary Committee.

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Other arbitration bills have attracted attention, and could gain traction in the wake of H.R. 4445’s passage and signing.  They include:

  • The Justice for Servicemembers Act,
  • Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act, and
  • The Investor Choice Act.

The Justice for Servicemembers Act aims to amend Title 9 of the U.S. Code—the Federal Arbitration Act—to prohibit pre-dispute agreements that require arbitration of certain disputes arising from claims of servicemembers and veterans.  The disputes are claims brought under chapter 43 of U.S.C. Title 38 relating to employment and reemployment rights of members of the uniformed services, and under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (50 U.S.C. 3901–4043).

The Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act was introduced to amend titles XVIII and XIX of the Social Security Act “to prohibit skilled nursing facilities and nursing facilities from using pre-dispute arbitration agreements with respect to residents of those facilities under the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and for other purposes.”

The Investor Choice Act attempts to amend the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to prohibit mandatory pre-dispute arbitration in investment adviser agreements.

Also, H.R. 5974, the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act, was introduced in both the House and Senate to amend the Truth in Lending Act to extend to all consumers the consumer credit protections provided to U.S. Armed Forces members and their dependents under title 10 of the U.S. Code. The bill garnered a joint letter in support signed by 188 civil rights, community, consumer, faith, housing, labor, legal services, senior rights, small business, veterans’ organizations, and academics representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Some of the signatories include Main Street Alliance, Minority Veterans of America, the NAACP, National Fair Housing Alliance, and Public Citizen. The joint letter is available at the website of Public Justice, a Washington nonprofit law consumer- and employee-side law firm, here.

Many of these proposals are riding H.R. 4445’s coattails and have the potential to be framed as an extension of the bill ahead of the midterm elections.

For more background information on H.R. 4445, and how it restricts arbitration use for certain employment matters, see Tamia Sutherland & Russ Bleemer, Senate Sends Bill Restricting Arbitration for Workplace Sexual Assault Victims for Biden’s Signature, CPR Speaks (Feb. 10) (available here).

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The author, a second-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C., is a CPR 2021-22 intern.

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