How Far Can the Bench Go? The ABA on Judges’ Independent Research

By Elena Gurevich

Last month, the American Bar Association ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which develops model ethics standards for attorneys and judges, took on the judiciary’s use of the web in trial work.

The committee published Formal Opinion 478, “Independent Factual Research by Judges Via the Internet,” highlighting how “a vast amount of information available on the Internet exposes judges to potential ethical problems.” Released Dec. 8, the opinion is available at

The formal opinion may have implications for alternative dispute resolution. It defines the term “judge” as “anyone who is authorized to perform judicial functions, including an officer such as a justice of the peace, magistrate, court commissioner, special master, referee, or member of the administrative law judiciary.” See Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Application § I(B)(2011).

The question is whether it can be inferred that arbitrators fall into this category as well, subjecting their neutrals’ roles to the opinion’s rules.

The general rule, the opinion notes, is Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.9(C).  The rule states: “A judge shall not investigate facts in a matter independently, and shall consider only the evidence presented and any facts that may properly be judicially noticed.” A comment to the rule says the ban on investigating facts “extends to information available in all mediums, including electronic.”

In the opinion, the committee stresses a distinction between the “legislative facts”—defined as “general facts which help the tribunal decide questions of law and policy and discretion”—and “adjudicative facts,” which are facts “concerning  the immediate parties—who did what, where, when, how, and with what motive or intent.”

The opinion notes that “research of legislative facts does not raise the same due process concerns as research of adjudicative facts.”

The ABA provides guidelines in the opinion for independent Internet factual research by judges. These guidelines are designed to help judges decide whether to independently investigate facts on the Internet.

They include (1) assessing whether additional information is necessary to decide the case, and (2) whether the judge is corroborating or discrediting facts, or filling in factual gaps in the record—and, where, in the case adjudicative facts, it would be improper to do so.

But there is still a possibility that a judge can misjudge—pun intended—a situation when it comes to verifying sources. For example, a third guideline states that when a judge is “seeking general or educational information that is useful to provide the judge with a better understanding of a subject unrelated to a pending or impending case . . . [then] the inquiry is appropriate. Judges may use the Internet as they would other educational sources, like judicial seminars and books.”

A fourth and final guideline looks at a judge seeking background information about a party or subject matter of a case.

The question with these guidelines is what if, while doing research unrelated to a case, a judge stumbles upon and reads something that is related? The research might start as a need for a better understanding, but the moment a judge obtains that information it can affect his or her judgment.

The ABA underscores that the key inquiry for the judge is “whether the information to be gathered is of factual consequence in determining the case.”  The opinion, which illustrates its points with hypothetical examples, continues, “If it is, it must be subject to testing through the adversary process.”

The opinion also equates general background learning on the Internet to “attending judicial seminars or reading books”, but warns that it can be of service “so long as there is reason to believe the source is reliable.”

And here lies another problem: the definition of “reliable.” To different individuals, it is all a matter of perspective.  To some prominent judges, Wikipedia has been a reliable source. See, e.g., Lubavitch-Chabad of Illinois Inc. v. Northwestern Un., 772 F.3d 443 (2014)(7th Cir. 2014)(available at

For judges, the dangers are not only on the World Wide Web, but even in the court’s computerized records systems, where judges are essentially urged to rely on their skill and capability in order to get the search right. The committee quotes Illinois Judicial Ethics Opinion 2016-02, which cautions judges that

the particular judge’s competence to navigate the computerized court records is essential . . . only facts which are ‘not subject to reasonable dispute’ are the proper subject of judicial notice. The judge must be confident that his or her review will lead to accurate information. For example, indexes of computerized court records are likely to contain individuals with the same name; is the inquiring judge capable of finding the appropriate records and accurately matching them to the party in question? Judges must be aware of their own skills and, more importantly, their limitations.  . . . [Emphasis is in the opinion.]

The bottom line is that judges are walking a fine line every time they are taking on a case. After all, it is very easy to make a mistake when it’s only one click away.

The opinion also notes that Model Rule 2.9(D) requires judges to make sure the court staff and officials do not perform improper independent investigations.

The ABA’s website explains that the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility “periodically issues ethics opinions to advise lawyers, courts and the public in interpreting and applying ABA model ethics rules to specific issues of legal practice, client-lawyer relationships and judicial behavior.”

ABA Formal Opinions have been cited as persuasive when courts around the nation interpret state-adopted Rules of Professional Conduct.

Formal Opinion 478 and previous ABA ethics opinions are available on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility website under “Latest Ethics Opinions,” or directly at the link above.  For more analysis, see Debra Cassens Weiss, “May judges search the internet for facts? ABA ethics opinion sees problems,” ABA Journal (Dec. 8)(available at

The author is a CPR Institute intern.

Sealing of Record to Confirm Arbitration Award Rejected in Favor of Specific Redactions of Only the Most Sensitive Information

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

A decision of the US District Court for the District of Columbia in the middle of last month offers a reminder of the hurdle a party must meet in order to seal from public access the entire record of a proceeding to confirm or vacate an arbitration award.  In XPO INTERMODAL, INC. v. American President Lines, Ltd., Civ. Action No. 17-2015 (PLF) (D. D.C., October 16, 2017)(available here –, the applicant (XPO INTERMODAL) sought an order in a confirmation proceeding to seal its petition to confirm the arbitration award (denominated, oddly, as a “Binding Mediation Decision”), as well as all exhibits.  US District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman denied the request notwithstanding a confidentiality provision in the contract underlying the arbitrated dispute (“this matter can and should be open to the public to the greatest extent possible”).  But he did order that the parties seek to agree in redactions of “only the most sensitive information.”

XPO INTERMODAL sought the order to seal “its Petition to Confirm Arbitration Award, as well as two exhibits attached thereto: the Binding Mediation Decision issued by the three-member mediation panel and the parties’ Amended and Restated Stacktrain Services Agreement and Schedules A-F and Appendices 1-4 thereto.”  The Court characterized that as a request deny public access to “what, in effect, amounts to the entire substantive record in this case.”   In support, the petitioner referred to the confidentiality provisions of the services agreement out of which the underlying dispute arose, and further stated that the award and exhibits contained “highly sensitive propriety [sic] commercial information,” including information regarding the parties’ “rates and business practices.””  Apart from those general arguments, however, XPO INTERMODAL offered little to the court to justify sealing the record.

In support of its motion, applicant directs the Court to the confidentiality terms of the parties’ Services Agreement and represents that “[b]oth parties have strong property and privacy interests in maintaining the confidentiality of these documents, as they contain highly sensitive propriety [sic] commercial information,” including information regarding the parties’ “rates and business practices.” See Mot. 4. Beyond these general assertions, however, applicant’s motion proffers little to justify sealing what, in effect, amounts to the entire substantive record in this case.

The District Court began its analysis by referring to the “strong tradition” of public access to judicial proceedings.

This country has a “strong tradition of access to judicial proceedings.” United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293, 317 n.89 (D.C. Cir. 1980). “[A]s a general rule, the courts are not intended to be, nor should they be, secretive places for the resolution of secret disputes.” United States v. Bank Julius, Baer & Co., 149 F. Supp. 3d 69, 70 (D.D.C. 2015) (citing Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978))….

Therefore, “[t]he starting point in considering a motion to seal court records is a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings.”  To obtain an order to seal judicial records in the Federal courts despite this presumption, the applicant must satisfy the court regarding whether there is a need for public access, the extent of prior public access, whether someone has objected to disclosure, the strength of property and privacy interests, and the purposes of the documents in the court proceeding.

To determine whether a party seeking to seal court records has overcome this presumption, courts apply a six-factor balancing test to assess:

(1) the need for public access to the documents at issue; (2) the extent of previous public access to the documents; (3) the fact that someone has objected to disclosure, and the identity of that person; (4) the strength of any property and privacy interests asserted; (5) the possibility of prejudice in those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purposes for which the documents were introduced during the judicial proceedings.

After reciting this “six-factor balancing test,” though, Judge Friedman simply jumped to his conclusion without addressing how the various factors weighed in the circumstances of this application.  The only two factors noted by the District Court Judge in his analysis were the presumption in favor of public access and the ease of redaction.

Given the strong presumption in favor of public access and the ease with which confidential information may be redacted from documents before they are publicly filed, the Court concludes that this matter can and should be open to the public to the greatest extent possible.

Importantly, Judge Friedman was not persuaded that exhibits should be sealed in their entirety “simply because they contain or refer to confidential information.”  Generalized business interests in confidentiality (even if mutual between the parties) would not suffice, especially if redaction is feasible.

First, generalized business interests in confidentiality simply “do[] not rise to the level of the privacy and property interests that courts have permitted to outweigh the public’s right of access.” ….   This is particularly so where trade secrets, pricing, and other sensitive information regarding business practices or strategies may be redacted. ….

Judge Friedman noted in particular a line of cases rejecting the argument that confidentiality provisions in the underlying contract were sufficient to provide for sealing the judicial record.

Furthermore, the parties’ mutual desire for confidentiality, without more, does not justify the sealing of the entire substantive record of the case. See Grynberg v. BP P.L.C., 205 F. Supp. 3d 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2016) (explaining that even if disclosure would violate the terms of the parties’ settlement and confidentiality agreements, such agreements between private parties “do not dictate whether documents can be filed under seal” (citing In re Fort Totten Metrorail Cases, 960 F. Supp. 2d 2, 9-11 (D.D.C. 2013))); see also Am. Prof. Agency v. NASW Assurance Serv., 121 F. Supp. 3d 21, 25 (D.D.C. 2013); Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, 710 F.2d at 1180.

The District Court acknowledged that XPO INTERMODAL’s confirmation filings appeared to contain “some potentially sensitive business information, including rates and schedules.”  Accordingly, the Court ordered the parties to seek to agree on redactions to the documents rather than complete sealing of the filings.

Here, it appears that the exhibits to applicant’s Petition do include some potentially sensitive business information, including rates and schedules, but the filings otherwise do not warrant sealing from the public. The Court thus sees no reason why the Petition itself should not be made publicly available in full, nor any reason why the exhibits thereto should not be made generally available, with only the most sensitive information redacted. The Court is confident that a more rigorous examination undertaken in good faith will lead to a more tailored and appropriate proposal for redaction.


FURTHER ORDERED that the parties shall confer regarding the Petition’s exhibits and submit proposed redactions to the Court on or before October 30, 2017

The simple lesson from XPO INTERMODAL is that, if the judge is paying attention, requests to seal the entirety of a judicial proceeding to confirm an arbitration award are likely to be met with an instruction instead to identify particular redactions of “only the most sensitive information.”

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral and a regular contributor to CPR Speaks. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

Subpoenas to Arbitrators Quashed for Lack of Clear Evidence of Impropriety

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

Last week, a Magistrate Judge in the US District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina quashed document subpoenas served on three arbitrators seeking evidence of alleged non-disclosures of relationships with counsel in connection with a FINRA securities arbitration award.  In In the Matter of Arbitration Between Shepherd, et al., v. LPL Financial LLC, No. 5:17-CV-150-D (Order, Nov. 1, 2017), Magistrate Judge Robert Jones decided that the failure by one arbitrator, Lynne T. Albert, to disclose in the current arbitration two previous arbitrations where counsel for the arbitration defendants had represented parties before her, did not constitute “clear evidence of impropriety” justifying post-award discovery from the arbitrator.  Moreover, Magistrate Judge Jones additionally rejected petitioner Shepherd’s effort to seek discovery by means of document subpoenas addressed to the two other arbitrators, Richard J. Igou and Richard S. Zaifert, which petitioner Shepherd sought to justify not on grounds of “impropriety” but rather because “the alleged impropriety by Albert makes it necessary to “double-check” the other two panelists for additional nondisclosures.”  This decision is yet another in the string of Federal court rulings rejecting aggressive efforts by disappointed parties to extend the “evident partiality” standard under the US Federal Arbitration Act for vacatur of awards due to arbitrator misconduct, as well as reiterating a high hurdle that must be met before the court will permit discovery from an arbitrator.

The Magistrate Judge first concluded that the proper standard for permitting post-award discovery from an arbitrator was “clear evidence of impropriety,” rather than the lesser general standard from Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) that the information sought was “relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case” (footnotes omitted).

the weight of persuasive case law demands a heightened showing of “clear evidence of impropriety” to obtain discovery from a non-party arbitrator. See Lucent Techs. Inc. v. Tatung Co., 379 F.3d 24, 32 (2d Cir. 2004) (concluding discovery into potential arbitrator bias was not appropriate where the party “has not presented the ‘clear evidence of impropriety’ we have held necessary before granting post-award discovery into potential arbitrator bias.”) (citing Andros v. Marc Rich & Co., A.G., 579 F.2d 691, 702 (2d Cir. 1978)); Van Pelt v. UBS Fin. Servs., No. 3:05-CV-477, 2006 WL 1698861, at * 2 (W.D.N.C. June 14, 2006) (applying the clear evidence of impropriety standard and denying discovery of an arbitrator’s employment records to determine whether he failed to disclose a material fact); see also TransAtlantic Lines LLC v. Am. Steamship Owners Mut. Prat. & Indem. Ass’n, Inc., 253 F. Supp. 3d 725 (S.D.N.Y. 2017)(“In order to take discovery from the ADR panel itself, a litigant must present ‘clear evidence of impropriety,’ such as bias or corruption.”) (citation omitted).

Arguing in the alternative, Shepherd also asserted that arbitrator Albert’s alleged non-disclosures constituted the requisite “clear evidence.”  Magistrate Judge Jones was unmoved.

Plaintiffs argue they have presented clear evidence of impropriety based on Albert’s two nondisclosures. …  The Second Circuit’s decision in the Andros case is instructive here. The Andros court determined that an arbitrator’s undisclosed professional relationship with one of the parties was insufficient to establish clear evidence of impropriety and did not justify discovery into the issue. …  The arbitrator in Andros knew the president of one of the companies involved in the arbitration, as both men previously served on 19 arbitration panels together. …  Despite claims by the opposing side that the president and arbitrator were “close personal friends,” the lower court found the relationship was professional in nature because the interactions were limited to arbitration panels and other social functions related to arbitrations. ….  Moreover, the arbitrator had no financial stake or other interest in the outcome of the arbitration. … Based on these facts, the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and found no “clear evidence of impropriety” was presented to support an evidentiary hearing, to compel discovery, or to vacate the ruling.

The Judge considered the instant dispute to be similar to the 2nd Circuit Andros case.  The contact between Albert and the counsel in the other two arbitrations was, he wrote, “strictly professional.”  Further, the FINRA arbitration award was unanimous, and thus any “interactions” between Albert and the counsel had no impact on the result.  And, in any event, Albert eventually disclosed the “interactions” six months before petitioners chose to allege that the conduct constituted impropriety.

Similarly here, the undisclosed relationship is strictly professional-a lawyer appearing before an arbitrator-and the circumstances surrounding Albert’s nondisclosures do not give the impression of clear impropriety: Plaintiffs won the Underlying Arbitration with a unanimous award from all three panelists, including Albert…; and instead of exhibiting behavior consistent with wrongdoing, such as hiding her interactions with Defense Counsel, Albert disclosed this relationship in the June and July 2016 Arbitrations almost six months before Plaintiffs first alleged any impropriety by the Arbitrators in the Underlying Arbitration….

At bottom, “[t]o allow discovery of an arbitrator under these circumstances would “encourage the losing party to every arbitration to conduct a background investigation of each of the arbitrators in an effort to uncover evidence of a former relationship” and “increase the cost and undermine the finality of arbitration, contrary to the purpose of the United States Arbitration Act of making arbitration a swift, inexpensive, and effective substitute for judicial dispute resolution.””  Accordingly, Judge Jones quashed the subpoena addressed to arbitrator Albert.

The Judge then dealt shortly with Shepherd’s further subpoenas seeking documents from the other two arbitrators to “double-check” for possible non-disclosures (“Such reasoning is in direct conflict with a policy favoring the finality of arbitration and does not establish the requisite clear evidence of impropriety”).

With respect to Igou and Zaifert, Plaintiffs present no evidence of impropriety, but rather argue that the alleged impropriety by Albert makes it necessary to “double-check” the other two panelists for additional nondisclosures. …. Such reasoning is in direct conflict with a policy favoring the finality of arbitration and does not establish the requisite clear evidence of impropriety to justify the discovery sought from Igou and Zaifert.

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral and a regular contributor to CPR Speaks. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

A Lesson from the Third Circuit on Arbitration Clauses: Say What You Mean

By Stephen M. Orlofsky and Deborah Greenspan, Blank Rome LLP

A recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reminds us that when we want an arbitration clause to apply in certain situations or to certain parties, we have to build that intention into the plain terms of the contract.  In White v. Sunoco, Inc., — F.3d —, No. 16-2808, 2017 WL 3864616 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), Sunoco promoted the “Sunoco Awards Program,” under which customers who used a Citibank-issued “Sunoco Rewards Card” credit card were supposed to receive a 5-cent per gallon discount on gasoline purchased at Sunoco gas stations. The promotional materials included a document entitled “Terms and Conditions of Offer,” which indicated that Citibank issued the Sunoco Rewards Card and applicants had to meet Citibank’s creditworthiness criteria to obtain the credit card.

Plaintiff Donald White obtained the Sunoco Rewards Card and realized that Sunoco did not apply the 5-cent discount on all fuel purchases at every Sunoco location. He then brought various class action claims for fraud against Sunoco, alleging that Sunoco omitted that limitation to the rewards program from the promotional materials to induce customers to sign up for the Sunoco Rewards Card and patronize Sunoco gas stations.

The Sunoco Rewards Card is governed by a card agreement, which White obtained from Citibank when he first obtained the credit card. The only parties to the card agreement were Citibank and White.  Sunoco was not a signatory to the card agreement. Neither Sunoco nor the 5-cent discount program are mentioned in the card agreement.

After White brought his lawsuit, Sunoco filed a motion to compel arbitration based on the arbitration clause in the card agreement. The card agreement provided that either party to the card agreement could elect mandatory arbitration to resolve any disputes between them: “[e]ither you or we may, without the other’s consent, elect mandatory, binding arbitration for any claim … between you and us.” The card agreement defined ‘we’ and ‘us’ as Citibank – the card issuer and ‘you’ as the card holder. In a paragraph entitled “Whose Claims are subject to arbitration?” the agreement stated, “[n]ot only ours and yours, but also claims made by or against anyone connected with us or you or claiming through us or you, such as a co-applicant or authorized user of your account, an employee, agent, representative, affiliated company, predecessor or successor, heir, assignee, or trustee in bankruptcy.” The key issue on Sunoco’s motion to compel arbitration was whether Sunoco could invoke the arbitration provision even though it was not a signatory to the card agreement.

The District Court denied Sunoco’s motion to compel, holding that the agreement itself did not allow a non-signatory to invoke the arbitration clause and that Sunoco could not compel arbitration under any contract, agency or estoppel principles because it was not a third-party beneficiary of the card agreement or an agent of Citibank and that estoppel principles did not apply. Accordingly, the District Court denied the motion to compel arbitration.

On appeal, Sunoco argued that its promotional materials and Citibank’s card agreement had to be considered as an “integrated whole” contract between White, Citibank, and Sunoco. The Third Circuit disagreed, noting that Sunoco’s promotional materials were not an “offer” such that they supplied any terms or obligations to be integrated with the card agreement. The court also reasoned that Sunoco failed to identify any ambiguity in the card agreement that would allow it to use the promotional materials as parol evidence to construe the meaning of the card agreement.

Sunoco also argued that it was “connected” to Citibank for purposes of the card agreement’s “Whose Claims” provision and that under that provision, “connected” entities such as Sunoco could demand arbitration for resolution of any claims relating to the Sunoco Rewards Card. The court disagreed with this argument, too, finding that Sunoco confused the “nature of the claims covered by the arbitration clause with the question of who can compel arbitration.” The court found that the “Whose Claims” clause applied to the former and that the arbitration clause applied to the latter. The court concluded that “[n]owhere does the agreement provide for a third party, like Sunoco, the ability to elect arbitration or to move to compel arbitration.” Finally, the court expressed its skepticism that Sunoco’s and Citibank’s joint marketing efforts rendered the two “connected” entities for purposes of the “Whose Claims” provision, especially since Sunoco was not even mentioned in the card agreement.

Judge Roth filed a dissenting opinion in which she concluded that because Citibank and Sunoco were jointly involved in the paper process by which a customer could obtain a Sunoco Rewards Card, the card agreement and promotional materials comprised an integrated contract between White, Citibank and Sunoco. In support of her opinion, Judge Roth drew on the legal precept that multiple documents may constitute a single contract and reasoned that the nature and terms of the various documents, including their internal references to and dependence on each other, indicated that the parties’ intent was for the promotional materials and card agreement to be read together as one contract. Based on that characterization of the contract, Judge Roth concluded that Sunoco was a party to the contract and that the parties’ intent was to allow Sunoco to invoke the mandatory arbitration clause Judge Roth also disagreed with the majority’s reading of the provisions of the card agreement describing the mechanism for electing mandatory arbitration as allowing only the signatories—Citibank and White—to make that election. Judge Roth concluded that the majority’s reading was overly narrow and neglected to account for or harmonize other provisions in the card agreement.

Both the majority and the dissent turn on the contract language. (Although Judge Roth’s dissent contends that the contract is not limited to the card agreement, the ultimate conclusion is that the majority misread the arbitration election clause to preclude a non-signatory from invoking arbitration.) The majority’s critical conclusion was that: “[n]owhere does the agreement provide for a third party, like Sunoco, the ability to elect arbitration or to move to compel arbitration.” If Sunoco and Citibank intended the card agreement to govern Sunoco’s relationship with White, in addition to Citibank’s relationship with White, Sunoco and Citibank easily could have included a clear provision in the agreement so stating.  But they didn’t—and perhaps more significantly, Sunoco’s name was nowhere to be found in the agreement.

Sunoco’s omission was not a fluke. Days after the Third Circuit issued its opinion in White, the court in Pacanowski v. Alltran Financial, LP, — F. Supp. 3d —, No. 3:16-CV-1778, 2017 WL 4151181, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 19, 2017) considered an identical arbitration provision in another card agreement. Relying on White, the court held that “because the plain language of the Card Agreement does not provide for non-signatories to initiate arbitration proceedings, Alltran cannot compel arbitration against Pacanowski in the instant case.”

Obviously, companies may want to consider revising this form credit card agreement. But the lesson of White applies more generally: if a party wants an arbitration clause in a contract to apply broadly to multiple claims or multiple parties—including non-signatories (where agency, third party beneficiary or estoppel principles might not apply), it needs to say so.

Stephen Orlofsky leads Blank Rome LLP’s appellate practice and is the administrative partner of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office. Judge Orlofsky concentrates his practice in the areas of complex litigation and alternative dispute resolution. He can be reached at

Deborah Greenspan is a leading advisor on mass claims strategy and resolution. Her practice focuses on class actions, mass claims, dispute resolution, insurance recovery, and mass tort bankruptcy. She can be reached at

Second Circuit Backs Overturning Award That Had Been Annulled At Arbitral Seat

By Ugonna Kanu

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer affirmed a New York Southern District federal court decision to vacate the trial court’s previous enforcement of an arbitral award after the award was annulled at its seat in Malaysia.

In Thai-Lao Lignite (Thailand) Co., Ltd. v. Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Docket Nos. 14-597, 12-1052, 14-1497 (2d Cir. July 20, 2017)(available at at, a commercial dispute arose between Thai-Lao Lignite (Thailand) with its subsidiary, Hongsa Lignite (Lao PDR), and the Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which the parties submitted to arbitration in Malaysia.

According to the Second Circuit opinion, in the 2009 Kuala Lumpur arbitration, a panel of three U.S. lawyers conducting the matter under the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Arbitration Rules found the defendants—the government of Laos–in breach over a dispute on mining rights the defendants had granted to the mining company petitioners.

The tribunal awarded the petitioners about $57 million.

The case, the opinion states, addresses “how a district court should adjudicate a motion to vacate a judgment that it has entered enforcing a foreign arbitral award, when that award has later been set aside by courts in the arbitral seat.” It examines the interaction between a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) motion and the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, better known as the New York Convention.

After a period for challenging the award expired, the petitioners successfully brought enforcement proceedings in the United States and United Kingdom. But almost a year after the award, the defendants applied at the Malaysian courts for the award to be set aside on the grounds that the arbitrators exceeded their jurisdiction by addressing disputes under contracts not covered by the relevant arbitration agreement.

The motion setting aside the award was granted in 2012. Then, returning to the United States, the defendants moved to vacate the order enforcing the award.

U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood relied on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), in which the court can relieve a party from a final judgment if the judgment is based on an earlier judgement that has been vacated or reversed.

Wood analyzed the FRCP in conjunction with the New York Convention Article V(1)(e), which gives courts the discretion to refuse to recognize or enforce an award on party’s request under specific circumstances. In 2011, a year after confirming the award, Wood vacated the judgment to enforce, following the Malaysian nullification.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed Wood’s decision to vacate her original judgment. In backing the district court decision, the Second Circuit referred to the clash between the federal rules and the convention. The appellate decision cited TermoRio S.A. E.S.P. v. Electranta S.P., 487 F.3d 928 (D.C. Cir. 2007)(available at, where a unanimous panel, in an opinion written by Circuit Judge Susan L. Carney, noted that the convention’s “text appears to leave the District Court with discretion to enforce an award that has been annulled in the primary jurisdiction—after all, it does not say that enforcement of the award ‘must’ be refused—[but] held . . . that the scope of that discretion is ‘constrained by the prudential concern of international comity.’”

The Thai-Lao Lignite opinion endorsed TermoRio, where the D.C Circuit affirmed a decision denying enforcement of an annulled award, stating “when a competent foreign court has nullified a foreign arbitration award, United States courts should not go behind that decision absent extraordinary circumstances.” (Quoting the TermoRio appellees’ brief).  The D.C. Circuit said the exception to enforcement would be where a judgment is contrary to U.S. public policy.

The Second Circuit opinion notes that TermoRio followed the Second Circuit view on foreign awards in Baker Marine Ltd. v. Chevron Ltd., 191 F.3d 194 (2d Cir.  1999)(available at In Baker, the appellate court upheld the district court’s refusal to enforce an award that had been annulled in Nigeria, the arbitration seat, because to do otherwise would give a losing party “every reason to pursue its adversary with enforcement actions from country to country until a court is found, if any, which grants the enforcement.”

The result would be a loss of finality and conflicting judgments, as well as overall difficulty in maintaining a uniform and predictable arbitral framework and to prevent producing regularly conflicting judgments.

The Second Circuit’s Thai-Lao Lignite opinion suggested that the result would have been different if the decision of the foreign court was contrary to the “fundamental notions of what is decent and just” in the United States.  It based this public policy exception on Corporación Mexicana de Mantenimiento Integral, S. De R.L. de C.V. v. Pemex-Exploración y Producción, 832 F.3d 92, 107 (2d Cir. N.Y. Aug. 2, 2016)(available at

In that case, the Second Circuit affirmed a district court enforcement decision to confirm an award that had been nullified at the primary jurisdiction in Mexico, on the grounds that the Mexican appellate court had retroactively applied Mexican law and deprived the plaintiff of a remedy, contrary to fundamental U.S. public policy.

The Second Circuit Thai-Lao Lignite panel notes that it held its opinion until a U.S. Supreme Court cert petition in Corporación Mexicana had been decided. The request was denied earlier this year.

But in Thai-Lao Lignite, the U.S appeals court saw no grounds for public policy concerns.  A question as to the defendant’s delay in challenging the award, and its dilatory tactics in discovery matters arising in the U.S. courts, were viewed by as justifiable by the district court; “these factors would not have materially changed the outcome,” the opinion states, considering the district court’s reasons for vacating the award.

The author is an attorney in Nigeria who has just completed her L.L.M. in Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.  She was a CPR Institute 2017 summer intern.

Second Circ. Holds Arbitration Provision in Uber App’s Terms of Service Created Valid Agreement to Arbitrate

By Michael S. Oberman

By opinion issued August 17 in Meyer v. Uber Technologies, the Second Circuit reversed a district court denial of a petition to compel arbitration and held that the arbitration provision within Uber’s terms of service as presented in Uber’s app interface resulted in a valid agreement to arbitrate.

Finding that New York and California law was essentially the same on contract formation but applying California law, the Second Circuit stated (at 21) that “we may determine that an agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous and manifestation of assent unambiguous as a matter of law.”

The court found reasonably conspicuous notice on these bases (at 24-26):

Accordingly, when considering the perspective of a reasonable smartphone user, we need not presume that the user has never before encountered an app or entered into a contract using a smartphone. Moreover, a reasonably prudent smartphone user knows that text that is highlighted in blue and underlined is hyperlinked to another webpage where additional information will be found.

Turning to the interface at issue in this case, we conclude that the design of the screen and language used render the notice provided reasonable as a matter of California law. The Payment Screen is uncluttered, with only fields for the user to enter his or her credit card details, buttons to register for a user account or to connect the userʹs pre‐existing PayPal account or Google Wallet to the Uber account, and the warning that ʺBy creating an Uber account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.ʺ The text, including the hyperlinks to the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy, appears directly below the buttons for registration. The entire screen is visible at once, and the user does not need to scroll beyond what is immediately visible to find notice of the Terms of Service. Although the sentence is in a small font, the dark print contrasts with the bright white background, and the hyperlinks are in blue and underlined. This presentation differs sharply from the screen we considered in Nicosia, which contained, among other things, summaries of the userʹs purchase and delivery information, ʺbetween fifteen and twenty‐five links,ʺ ʺtext . . . in at least four font sizes and six colors,ʺ and several buttons and advertisements. Nicosia, 834 F.3d at 236‐37. Furthermore, the notice of the terms and conditions in Nicosia was ʺnot directly adjacentʺ to the button intended to manifest assent to the terms, unlike the text and button at issue here. Id. at 236.

In addition to being spatially coupled with the mechanism for manifesting assent ‐‐ i.e., the register button ‐‐ the notice is temporally coupled… Here, notice of the Terms of Service is provided simultaneously to enrollment, thereby connecting the contractual terms to the services to which they apply. We think that a reasonably prudent smartphone user would understand that the terms were connected to the creation of a user account.

That the Terms of Service were available only by hyperlink does not preclude a determination of reasonable notice…. Moreover, the language ʺ[b]y creating an Uber account, you agreeʺ is a clear prompt directing users to read the Terms and Conditions and signaling that their acceptance of the benefit of registration would be subject to contractual terms. As long as the hyperlinked text was itself reasonably conspicuous ‐‐ and we conclude that it was ‐‐ a reasonably prudent smartphone user would have constructive notice of the terms. While it may be the case that many users will not bother reading the additional terms, that is the choice the user makes; the user is still on inquiry notice.

The Court further held (at 27), expressly reversing the district court, that although the terms were lengthy and must be reached by a hyperlink, the arbitration clause was not unreasonably hidden. “Once a user clicks through to the Terms of Service, the section heading (‘Dispute Resolution’) and the sentence waiving the user’s right to a jury trial on relevant claims are both bolded.”

Finally, the Court found manifestation of assent given the objectively reasonable notice and the user’s election to click on the registration button. “The fact that clicking the register button has two functions—creation of a user account and assent to the Terms of Service—does not render Meyer’s assent ambiguous.” (At 29). The Court added (at 30): “The transactional context of the partiesʹ dealings reinforces our conclusion. Meyer located and downloaded the Uber App, signed up for an account, and entered his credit card information with the intention of entering into a forward‐looking relationship with Uber. The registration process clearly contemplated some sort of continuing relationship between the putative user and Uber, one that would require some terms and conditions, and the Payment Screen provided clear notice that there were terms that governed that relationship.”

In sum, the Court applied traditional contract principles to smartphone technology, and placed heavy emphasis on Uber’s screen design—the clarity of the hyperlink to the Terms of Service and, within the Terms of Service, the bolding of the Dispute Resolution heading. This reasonable disclosure, coupled with the user’s intent to create an account with Uber, proved sufficient for an agreement to arbitrate. In distinguishing the present case from the Court’s own recent opinion in Nicosia, the Court has provided some specific guidance on the graphic features that can separate a binding agreement from an unenforceable agreement in the smartphone era.

Mr. Oberman heads up Kramer Levin’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Practice Group. A fellow of the College of Commercial Arbitration, he serves as an arbitrator and a mediator, in addition to representing parties in ADR proceedings. He can be reached at

U.S. Court of Appeals Upholds Trial Court’s Sanctions Against Attorney for Frivolous Arguments Seeking to Avoid Arbitration Agreement

By Mark Kantor

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Appeal of Jana Yocum Rine in Hunt v. Moore Brothers, No. 16-2055 (June 27, 2017), recently upheld sanctions imposed by the trial court against an attorney personally for her frivolous arguments seeking to avoid an arbitration agreement in a contract between an independent trucker and a trucking company.  The appellate opinion is available at

Very briefly, the trial court had required Ms. Rine, counsel for Mr. Hunt, to pay $7,500 in legal fees and expenses incurred by Moore Brothers defending against frivolous claims in a complaint filed by Ms. Rine in District Court and frivolous arguments that the arbitration agreement in the contract between Hunt and Moore Brothers was unenforceable, including a claim that the trucking company was holding Hunt “in peonage.”

James Hunt worked as a truck driver in Nebraska. On July 1, 2010, he signed an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement with Moore Brothers, a small company located in Norfolk, Nebraska.  Three years later, Hunt and Moore renewed the Agreement.  Before the second term expired, however, relations between the parties soured.  Hunt hired Attorney Jana Yocum Rine to sue Moore on his behalf.  She did so in federal court, raising a wide variety of claims, but paying little heed to the fact that the Agreements contained arbitration clauses.  Rine resisted arbitration, primarily on the theory that the clause was unenforceable as a matter of Nebraska law.  Tired of what it regarded as a flood of frivolous arguments and motions, the district court granted Moore’s motion for sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 and ordered Rine to pay Moore about $7,500.  The court later dismissed the entire action without prejudice.


The relevant part of the arbitration clauses in the Agreements reads as follows:

This Agreement and any properly adopted Addendum shall constitute the entire Agreement and understanding between us and it shall be interpreted under the laws of the State of Nebraska. … To the extent any disputes arise under this Agreement or its interpretation, we both agree to submit such disputes to final and binding arbitration before any arbitrator mutually agreed upon by both parties.

When Rine decided to take formal action on Hunt’s part, she ignored that language and filed a multi‐count complaint in federal court.  The complaint was notable only for its breadth: it accused Moore of holding Hunt in peonage in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1581 (a criminal statute), and of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1962; the federal antitrust laws, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1, 4, 14; the Illinois Employee Classification Act, 820 ILCS 185/1 et seq.; and for good measure, the Illinois tort of false representation.

The Court of Appeals, and the District Court before then, concluded that Rine had blown up a simple commercial dispute beyond all rational proportion; “This was a simple commercial dispute between Hunt and Moore, but one would never know that from reading Rine’s complaint.  She blew it up beyond all rational proportion.”

Writing for a unanimous appellate panel, Chief Justice Wood upheld the trial court’s imposition of sanctions against Rine personally as “within the district court’s broad discretion, in light of all the circumstances of this case….”

We have no need to consider whether the sanctions imposed by the district court were also justified under the court’s inherent power.  See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 45–46 (1991).  Nor are we saying that the district court would have erred if it had denied Moore’s sanctions motion.  We hold only that it lay within the district court’s broad discretion, in light of all the circumstances of this case, to impose a calibrated sanction on Rine for her conduct of the litigation, culminating in the objectively baseless motion she filed in opposition to arbitration.  We therefore AFFIRM the district court’s order imposing sanctions.

The judicial decisions in Hunt v. Moore Brothers are yet another illustration of the increasing peril to counsel personally in US Federal courts if the attorney pursues a frivolous “take no prisoners” approach seeking to avoid arbitration.


Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at, and is republished with consent.

Third Circuit Clarifies its Standard on Motions to Compel

By Ugonna Kanu

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a federal district court had erred when it denied an employer’s motion to dismiss a suit before the court had determined the fate of its motion to compel arbitration. The case was Silfee v. Automatic Data Processing Inc.; ERG Staffing Service LLP, No. 16-3725 (3d. Cir. June 13, 2017)(unpublished)(available at

A unanimous Third Circuit panel ruled, in an unpublished decision, that the trial court first must determine the motion to compel arbitration before the motion to dismiss.

The plaintiff in Silfee filed suit against his former employer for violating Pennsylvania law on payroll practices. ERG, a Dickson City, Pa.-based employment agency, filed a motion to compel arbitration “arguing that the arbitration agreement between Silfee and ERG’s payroll vendor precluded Silfee’s suit against ERG,” according to the opinion.

ERG moved to dismiss Silfee’s suit. The district court, however, placed a hold on compelling arbitration, and denied the motion to dismiss the suit.

The Third Circuit panel opinion, written by Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, of Pittsburgh, distinguished between the case and Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 771 (3d Cir. 2013)(available at, in which the Third Circuit held that where it is apparent that a party’s claims are subject to an enforceable arbitration clause, a motion to compel arbitration should be considered without discovery delay under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

But, where the agreement to arbitrate is unclear, or the plaintiff facing the motion to compel has provided “additional facts sufficient to place the agreement to arbitrate in issue,” then the court may order limited briefing and discovery on the issue of arbitrability, and assess the question under a summary judgment standard of Rule 56, the opinion explained.

Before Guidotti’s application, the panel opinion noted that the FAA provides a gateway test. It says that a trial court must make an inquiry under Federal Arbitration Act Section 4 where there is a motion to compel arbitration.

Section 4, the opinion emphasized, provides that “[a] party aggrieved by the alleged failure, neglect, or refusal of another to arbitrate under a written agreement for arbitration may petition any United States district court . . . for an order directing that such arbitration proceed in the manner provided for in such agreement.”

Plaintiff Silfee didn’t produce “additional facts sufficient to place the agreement to arbitrate in issue”—the Guidotti standard to get past a motion to dismiss. As a result, the Third Circuit ruled, the court should have applied the Rule 12(b)(6) standard.

While the appeals panel stopped short of dismissing Silfee’s suit and compelling arbitration, it remanded the case to the U.S. District Court with an order to consider the parties’ “competing arguments regarding arbitrability” under ERG’s motion to compel.

The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 intern.

DOJ to NLRB: You’re On Your Own in the Supreme Court


By Nicholas Denny

In the clearest illustration so far of the Trump Administration’s evolving hands-off policy toward mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers, the U.S. Solicitor General authorized the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week to represent itself in one of three consolidated arbitration cases to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been representing the board in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court docket page at until last week, switched sides in the case, filing an amicus brief backing the employer in the matter.

Justice, via the friend-of-the-court briefs, is now advocating against the NLRB, and against its previous position.

The case—along with its companions, Ernst & Young v. Morris, No. 16-300 (Docket page at and Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (Docket page at—asks whether mandatory arbitration clauses as a condition of employment bar individual employees from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Mandatory arbitration clauses are used throughout employment settings and apply to employees regardless of titles or union affiliation; two of the three cases involve white-collar office workers.

The Supreme Court will hear the consolidated cases in the term beginning in October.

The issue in the consolidated cases is whether employers can continue to unilaterally require that employees agree to a mandatory arbitration clause in employment contracts. Often, these clauses are non-negotiable: either employees accept the employer’s terms or the employer finds someone else to hire.

The Supreme Court must decide which of two laws controls: the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151, et seq., or the Federal Arbitration Act, at 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. Under the NLRA, an employee’s rights to collective bargaining and action are protected. Under the FAA, however, an employment contract that includes a mandatory arbitration clause binds the worker to arbitrate with the employer instead of litigating in court, and is accompanied by a waiver barring the employee from bringing a class-action suit in favor of an individualized process.

As a result, arbitration clauses can deliver a one-two punch: (1) workers arbitrating individually may have less power, because they are not operating as part of a collective whole as contemplated by the NLRA, and (2) a worker may be less likely to find counsel because arbitration awards are perceived to be much smaller than court and class-action outcomes—meaning a lawyer working for a portion of the settlement would be less likely to take the case.

On the other hand, employers contend that mandatory arbitration clauses protect the company and benefit the employee. They argue that arbitration clauses ensure a speedier and more cost-effective conclusion to conflicts: class actions are harder and more costly to fight than arbitrations.

The disagreement over the use of mandatory arbitration clauses has arisen in the political arena, too. While the Obama Administration focused on pro-employee, anti-mandatory arbitration policies that prohibited employers from unilaterally waiving workers’ rights to concerted action under the NLRA, the Trump Administration is leaning toward an employer-centric policy by permitting mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts and as a condition of hiring.

This drastic shift in policy culminated with Friday’s news that the NLRB will represent itself, and that the Department of Justice would switch sides. The NLRB, as an autonomous government entity, is tasked with protecting “the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activities—group action to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions and to engage in union activities and support a union,” according to its website, as well as protecting the right of workers to refrain from engaging in protected concerted or union activities.

While the Justice Department prosecutes on behalf of the nation as well as defends government agencies, it is exceedingly rare for it to withdraw its representation of an agency it had been representing and subsequently file a brief in opposition to the position had it previously taken.

The Justice Department amicus brief switching sides in Murphy Oil is available at  The NLRB’s June 16 announcement that it would represent itself without Justice Department support can be found on the board’s website at

The move, however, is consistent with another recent Trump Administration policy shift on arbitration. In early June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, withdrew a 2016 Obama Administration position prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses in long-term care nursing home contracts.

CMS’s new position allows arbitration agreements provided that the provisions are written in plain language, and explained to and accepted by the applying resident.  Among other conditions, the CMS requires that the nursing home retain a copy of the signed agreement and post a notice that details the nursing home’s arbitration policy.

In addition, House Republicans introduced the “Financial CHOICE Act” earlier this month, a proposed law that aims to dismantle the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Dodd-Frank is an extensive law that was passed to ensure higher accountability in the U.S. financial sector after the economic recession of 2008 and it was endorsed by former President Obama.

Among its many goals, Dodd-Frank pointed its then-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer finance contracts. A lengthy study concluded last year by the CFPB resulted in a promise to finalize regulations that would ban the use of predispute mandatory arbitration in consumer financial contracts, such as cellphone agreements.

But should the “Financial CHOICE Act” become law, it likely would allow financial institutions to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts and agreements, and negate the CFPB efforts.

President Trump’s stance on mandatory arbitration clauses is becoming clear. Whether the clauses are legal in the employment context, and whether they will withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, are developing issues that are expected to be answered within the year. Watch CPR Speaks for updates.

The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 intern.