Supreme Court Rejects Decade-Old Class Arbitration Employment Discrimination Case

By Cristina Carvajal

A contentious employment discrimination case now focusing on whether an arbitrator is within her authority to bind a class of employees who did not affirmatively opt-in or consent to class arbitration will not resurface now at the Supreme Court.

This morning, in its first 2020-2021 term order list (available at https://bit.ly/3la3Y72), declined to hear Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 942 F.3d 617 (2d Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/30yP3eZ).

The Second Circuit decision in the case last year will return the case to federal district court in New York for more proceedings ahead of arbitration in the 12-year-old-case.

The nation’s top Court today denied cert in Sterling Jewelers Inc. v. Jock, No. 1382 (Supreme Court case page available at https://bit.ly/3lgflL2). While the opt-in is the issue most recently litigated, the Court considered and rejected today a petition by the national jewelry chain on an event broader question presented,

Whether an arbitrator may compel class arbitration—binding the parties and absent class members—without finding actual consent, and instead based only on a finding that the agreement does not unambiguously prohibit class arbitration and should be construed against the drafter.

The employment case’s gender-based discrimination claim was first filed in 2008 by then-present and former women Sterling Jewelers employees. All workers were required to sign its Resolve agreement subject to American Arbitration Association rules, which included a mandatory arbitration clause, as well as a litigation waiver. For more, see Anne Muenchinger, “Still No Arbitration: In Its latest Jock decision, Second Circuit Reverses for More Contract Interpretation,” 38 Alternatives 77 (2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2GuxplA).

Not only has this case been moved from New York’s Southern U.S. District Court to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four times, but today’s rejection was its second at the Supreme Court. Today’s decision puts the case back on a road to the case’s arbitrator, former New York Southern District magistrate Kathleen A. Roberts, now a JAMS Inc. neutral in the firm’s New York office.

David Bouffard, vice president of corporate affairs at Signet Jewelers Ltd.in Akron, Ohio, notes in a statement,

While we respect the Court’s decision, we believe the claims in this matter are without merit and are not substantiated the relevant facts and statistics. We will continue to vigorously defend against these claims, which do not accurately reflect our company or our culture. Indeed, we have long been committed to fostering a culture of respect, integrity, diversity, and inclusion where all employees feel safe, supported, and empowered—this is a tenet of who we are. In particular, Signet is a recognized leader among companies for gender diversity, with women filling 74% of store management positions and gender parity in both the C-Suite and Board of Directors. Under the leadership of our CEO, Gina Drosos, we continue to champion diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority, as we have been honored to be included on the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index for two consecutive years.

Plaintiffs’ attorney, Joseph M. Sellers, a Washington, D.C., partner in Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, declined to comment on the cert denial.

In its latest decision last year, the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s judgment and held “that the arbitrator was within her authority in purporting to bind the absent class members to class proceedings because, by signing the operative arbitration agreement, the absent class members no less than the parties, bargained for the arbitrator’s construction of their agreement with respect to class arbitrability.” Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 942 F.3d 617 (2d Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/30yP3eZ).

The Second Circuit referred to its previous decisions as Jock I, Jock II and Jock III. (For more on the case’s knotty procedural history, see the Alternatives’ link above). Noting that a court’s standard of review of arbitrator decisions is highly deferential, the unanimous panel in the opinion written by Circuit Judge Peter W. Hall reasoned that the arbitration agreement’s incorporation of the AAA Rules, in particular the Supplementary Rules which give an arbitrator authority to decide if an arbitration clause permits class arbitration, makes it clear that the arbitrator can decide on the question of class arbitrability.

The panel further noted the arbitration agreement itself provides that “’[q]uestions of arbitrability’ and ‘procedural questions’ shall be decided by the arbitrator.” Id.at 624.

The decision underscored that while in Jock II the panel pointed out that Jock I did not address “whether the arbitrator had the power to bind absent class members to class arbitration given that they . . . never consented to the arbitrator determining whether class arbitration was permissible under the agreement in the first place.” (Quoting an earlier decision in the case.)

That fact, however, was not a basis to alter the Second Circuit’s analysis given that class actions in arbitration and courts may bind absent class members as part of mandatory or opt-out classes.

 The Second Circuit noted that its “use of ‘consent’ as shorthand” left unclear “the possibility that the absent class members consented in a different way to the arbitrator’s authority to decide class arbitrability.” Id.at 626.

In remanding the case, the Second Circuit left open for the District Court to decide “whether the arbitrator exceeded her authority in certifying an opt-out, as opposed to a mandatory, class for injunctive and declaratory relief.” The Second Circuit already reversed an affirmative determination on that issue, but in the 2019 decision, the panel states that the lower court may revisit the issue “after allowing the parties an opportunity to present renewed argument in light of any subsequent developments in the law.”

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The author, a third-year student at the City University of New York School of Law, is a Fall 2020 CPR Institute student intern.  Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation editor Russ Bleemer assisted with reporting for this post.

[END]

A Look Ahead: The Supreme Court’s Arbitration Docket in Focus

In a preview of the September issue of Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation, author Heather Cameron discusses the arbitration year at the U.S. Supreme Court with editor Russ Bleemer.

The article wraps up the Court year ended this summer, and previews the new fall 2020-2021 term. [UPDATE: The article is now available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/alt.21852.]

The subject, of course, is the Court’s seemingly favorite business topic, arbitration. 

In this video preview of the article, which will be available at altnewsletter.com on or around Sept. 1, Heather first looks at the GE Energy case, the sole Supreme Court arbitration opinion issued in the last term. GE Energy, which was decided June 1, is about international arbitration practice, an area the Court doesn’t visit often. Heather discusses why the opinion’s guidance is intertwined with the factor the Court avoided discussing, arbitration costs.

Next, Heather looked ahead to the term that starts in October, to the Schein case.  Schein was just decided last year, and now the same case is back on another similar arbitration point.  See our most recent CPR Speaks blog post on the case here.

Finally, in the video and the article, Heather fills us in on a case the Court rejected, and tell us why maybe the Court shouldn’t have declined the case and why its effects are a crucial practice point for arbitration advocates and, especially, neutrals.

Will the U.S. Supreme Court Allow Discovery in Private International Arbitrations?

By Russ Bleemer

Under federal circuit court case law, 28 U.S.C. §1782(a) did not include private international arbitration tribunals under its provisions for ““Assistance to foreign and international tribunals and to litigants before such tribunals.”

In other words, “foreign and international tribunals” didn’t include arbitrations.

Suddenly, last fall, that court view began to change, and an esoteric and once-sedentary point of law is facing upheaval. 

In an article in the new July/August issue of Alternatives, and in the video above, John B. Pinney of Graydon in Cincinnati explains how seemingly settled law has erupted into six federal circuit court cases, and is about to be put before the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court on a cert petition.

Will the nation’s top Court take up the matter?

John ties together the cases and sets out the prospects on whether the Court will decide to incorporate arbitral tribunals into the §1782 definition in his just-posted article, “Will the Supreme Court Take Up Allowing Discovery Under Section 1782 for Private International Arbitrations?” 38 Alternatives 103 (available in multiple formats at https://bit.ly/2ZwUt8N; see altnewsletter.com for full issues and archives).

He also discusses in the video and the article the practice implications—what arbitrators, arbitration users, and providers need to do now in the wake of the evolving caselaw.

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The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation, on publisher CPR Institute’s website here, and on the Wiley Online Library at altnewsletter.com.

Monster Energy and Evident Partiality

Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation Editor Russ Bleemer is joined by veteran arbitrator-litigators Philip J. Loree Jr., in New York, and Richard Faulkner, in Dallas, to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday cert denial in Monster Energy v. City Beverages LLC. The panel also discusses a recent Pennsylvania federal court case that follows Monster Energy, Martin v. NTT Data Inc., No. 20-CV-0686 (E.D. Pa. June 23) (available at https://bit.ly/2VwZi0V).   

By Heather Cameron

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to grant certiorari on a petition requesting clarification of the Federal Arbitration Act’s “evident partiality” standard.

This means that the Court, for now, will not revisit the “evident partiality” standard for arbitrators that can be used to overturn an arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act at 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(2). And a Ninth Circuit decision overturning an arbitration award because a JAMS Inc. arbitrator failed to disclose his ownership ties to the Irvine, Calif., provider, will stand.

The Court’s docket page for the case, Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages LLC, No. 19-1333, is available HERE.

Monster Energy was an appeal from a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last October, throwing out an arbitration award in favor of Monster Energy and ruling that “arbitrators are required to disclose their ownership interests in the organizations they are affiliated with and the organizations’ business dealings with the arbitration parties.” Monster Energy Co. v. City Beverages LLC, Nos. 17-55813/17-56082 (9th Cir. Oct. 22, 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2PjmXzq); for more background and analysis, see Daniel Bornstein, “Ninth Circuit, Overturning an Award, Backs More Arbitrator Disclosure,” 37 Alternatives 170 (December 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2NE7Q1x).

The decision is unusual because of its emphasis on the “repeat-player” phenomenon in arbitration.  It highlighted a circuit split over disclosure requirements for arbitrators, and reflected concern over bias in favor of repeat players in arbitration—an issue usually restricted to employment and consumer arbitration cases, not big companies. See Lisa Bingham, “Employment Arbitration: The Repeat Player Effect, 1 Emp. Rights & Emp. Policy J. 189, 209–17 (1997) (available at https://bit.ly/2VuElDJ).

The questions presented to the Supreme Court were:

  1. What is the standard for determining whether an arbitration award must be vacated for “evident partiality” under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(2)?
  2. Under the correct “evident partiality” standard, must an arbitration award be vacated when the arbitrator does not disclose that (i) he has a de minimis “ownership interest” in his arbitration firm and (ii) that firm has conducted a “nontrivial” number of arbitrations with one of the parties?

City Beverages, which distributed its adversary’s energy drinks in the Pacific Northwest, alleged that Monster Energy committed breach of contract in 2015 when it terminated their distribution contract without good cause. Monster Energy  exercised the contract’s clause permitting such termination so long as severance of $2.5 million was paid.

Though City Beverages rejected payment, the move was upheld in arbitration and Monster Energy was awarded $3 million in attorneys’ fees.

Overturning that award, the Ninth Circuit agreed with City Beverages’ claim that the arbitrator had failed to adequately disclose his relationship to JAMS and his firm’s relationship with Monster Energy.

In the Supreme Court’s only prior case examining the FAA’s evident partiality  standard, which authorizes vacatur of arbitration awards “where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators,” a majority agreed to overturn the award in question, but no clear rationale emerged. See Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Continental Cas. Co., 393 U.S. 145 (1968) (available at https://bit.ly/3g766Ks); see also Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 6–8 (available at https://bit.ly/2Bo3VU7).

Commonwealth Coatings, written by Justice Hugo Black, interpreted evident partiality as coextensive with the judicial standard, finding that arbitrators must not only be unbiased, “but must also avoid even the appearance of bias.” Commonwealth Coatings, 393 U.S. at 150.

Two of the five justices joining Black’s opinion, however, wrote a narrowing concurrence, penned by Justice Byron White, concluding that vacatur was only appropriate where the arbitrator failed to disclose “a substantial interest in a firm which has done more than trivial business with a party” to the arbitration. Id. at 151­–52. They found that the mere “appearance of bias” disqualification standard for federal judges does not establish evident partiality on the part of an arbitrator. See Petition at 19.

A majority of federal circuit courts have applied something akin to Justice White’s reasoning, according to the petition. “The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits require those seeking vacatur of an arbitration award for evident partiality to show ‘a reasonable person would have to conclude that an arbitrator was partial to one party to an arbitration.’” Id. (Citations omitted; emphasis is in the brief.)

In its Monster Energy decision, the Ninth Circuit joined the Eleventh Circuit in adopting Justice Black’s less-demanding “reasonable impression of partiality” standard.

In her dissenting opinion in Monster Energy,Ninth Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland wrote that such a standard will have the effect of generating endless litigation over arbitral awards, defeating arbitration’s benefits of expedience and finality, echoing Monster Energy’s claims. See Bornstein, supra at 172.

JAMS, noting its role as a neutral organization “that has always refrained from supporting or opposing challenges to the arbitral process or arbitration awards,” filed an amicus brief in support of Monster’s rehearing petition. (Available HERE).

Both Monster Energy’s petition and JAMS’ brief stressed the lack of evidence to support the Ninth Circuit’s assumption that arbitrators might be biased in favor of repeat players since the law review article it cited on the phenomenon described a single study of employment, rather than commercial, arbitrations. See Petition at 31–32.

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Cameron, a second-year Fordham University School of Law student, is a CPR Institute 2020 Summer Intern.

Supreme Court Returns Schein To Its Docket, With a Focus on Arbitrability

By Russ Bleemer & Heather Cameron

Schein is back.

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning agreed to hear a new arbitration petition on an old case. 

The Court granted cert today on the issue of “Whether a provision in an arbitration agreement that exempts certain claims from arbitration negates an otherwise clear and unmistakable delegation of questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator.”

The case, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 19-963, is expected to be scheduled in the Court’s 2020-2021 term beginning in October. The Court’s docket page is available at https://bit.ly/30L3gX4.

The issue will be on the delegation agreement in the arbitration contract in a case the Court saw and decided last year, Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (Jan. 8, 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2CXAgPw).

The new case, which comes at the request of New York-based health care supplier Schein, will likely center on whether the arbitration agreement’s exclusion of injunctive relief from an arbitrator decision in favor of a court overrides the agreement’s delegation to an arbitrator a decision on whether the matter should be arbitrated.

But that’s also only half the Court’s arbitration story today.  It also denied a cross petition in the case by Texas dental supply company Archer & White Sales on two more arbitration issues that still could still work their way into the decision or, at the least, are guaranteed to see more litigation in state and circuit courts. 

The cross-petition cert denied issues were

(1) Whether an arbitration agreement that identifies a set of arbitration rules to apply if there is arbitration clearly and unmistakably delegates to the arbitrator disputes about whether the parties agreed to arbitrate in the first place; and

(2) whether an arbitrator or a court decides whether a nonsignatory to an arbitration agreement can enforce the arbitration agreement through equitable estoppel.

A question related to the latter issue already appeared just this month in the Court’s decision in an international arbitration case, GE Energy Power Conversion France SAS Corp. v. Outokumpu Stainless USALLC, et al., No. 18-1048 (available at https://bit.ly/2XogerH) (see a CPR Speaks article and video analysis at https://bit.ly/2U1QrDs).

When the Court first decided Schein in January 2019, it reversed the Fifth Circuit and unanimously held that under the Federal Arbitration Act, an arbitrator, not the court, should determine the threshold question of arbitrability—whether an arbitration agreement applies to a particular dispute—when the parties have clearly and unmistakably delegated that question to an arbitrator via delegation agreement, even if the argument for arbitrability is “wholly groundless.” See Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 139 S. Ct. at 526 (Jan. 8, 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2CXAgPw).

The case was remanded to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether the parties’ contract contained a delegation agreement, sending the determination of arbitrability to a tribunal rather than a court, and satisfied the Supreme Court’s “clear and unmistakable” intent standard established in First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995) (available at https://www.oyez.org/cases/1994/94-560).

Rule 7(a) of the AAA Commercial Arbitration Rules, which the parties incorporated into their contract in the case, explicitly gives the arbitrator power to determine his or her own jurisdiction as well as the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim. (available at https://www.adr.org/Rules).

Following circuit precedent, the Fifth Circuit noted that by incorporating the AAA’s rules, the parties had indeed entered into a delegation agreement for at least some disputes. But in its remand, the Fifth Circuit also found an explicit “carve-out” exception in the contract for disputes, like the one at hand, seeking injunctive relief.

The appeals court, therefore, affirmed the district court’s denial of Schein’s motion to compel arbitration. Archer & White Sales, Inc. v. Henry Schein, Inc., 935 F.3d 274 (5th Cir. 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/33Cb78g).

Schein petitioned the Supreme Court again to challenge that decision. That’s the case and the issue the Court agreed to hear today, while Archer & White’s conditional cross-petition issues were not accepted.

For more on the case and an in-depth discussion of the issues involved, see Philip J. Loree Jr., CPR Speaks, “Schein Returns: Scotus’s Arbitration Remand Is Now Back at the Court” (Feb. 19, 2020) (available at http://bit.ly/3bQXQgl); Richard D. Faulkner & Philip J. Loree Jr., “Schein’s Remand Decision: Should Scotus Review the Provider Rule Incorporation-by-Reference Issue?” 38 Alternatives 70 (May 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2C6Ksap), and Richard D. Faulkner & Philip J. Loree Jr., “Why the U.S. Supreme Court Should Review Whether Arbitrability May Be Incorporated by Reference,” 38 Alternatives 87 (June 2020) (available athttps://bit.ly/2YB0zVj).

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Bleemer edits Alternatives at altnewsletter.com for the CPR Institute.  Cameron, a second-year Fordham University School of Law student, is a CPR Institute 2020 Summer Intern.

Supreme Court Declines to Hear a California Supreme Court Case on Arbitration and Unconscionability

By Seorae Ko

Alternatives editor Russ Bleemer is joined once more by Richard Faulkner and Philip Loree Jr., this time talking about the Supreme Court recently declining to hear a California Supreme Court case on arbitration and unconscionability, OTO LLC v. Kho, discussed below

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined a certiorari petition ona California Supreme Court decision to render a wage arbitration agreement unenforceable as procedurally and substantively unconscionable.

While the issue of unconscionability overhangs the breadth of arbitration jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has used the Federal Arbitration Act to preempt such concerns in favor of arbitration’s predominance. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S.333, 344, 348 (2011). Today’s cert denial can be seen as a divergence from the pattern.

On the other hand, today’s declined case, OTO LLC v. Kho, No. 19-875, reinforces the California’s top Court decision that, though it found in favor of the employee opposing arbitration, permitted an agreement to arbitrate wage disputes “so long as it provides an accessible and affordable process.” The California decision follows AT&T Mobility in that it states that the “FAA preempts a state-law rule that categorically prohibits an adhesive arbitration agreement from requiring an employee to waive access to a Berman hearing.”

The Berman hearing is a California administrative process designed to provide a quick, informal, and affordable method for resolving disputes over unpaid wages, according to a brief filed in the case by the state’s labor commissioner. (See below.)

The California Supreme Court OTO decision held that a court “faced with a petition to compel arbitration under these circumstances must grant the petition unless the party opposing the petition asserts a valid contract defense.”

In the case, the parties contested the enforceability of an arbitration agreement on wage disputes, which the employee, Ken Kho, challenged as unconscionable. OTO L.C. v. Ken Kho, 447 P.3d 680 (Cal. 2019) (available at https://casetext.com/case/oto-llc-v-kho-1).

The California Supreme Court first noted that general contract defenses such as unconscionability may be applied to invalidate arbitration agreements without contravening the FAA or state arbitration acts, citing Pinnacle Museum Tower Assn. v. Pinnacle Market Development (US), LLC, 282 P.3d 1217, 1231 (Cal. 2012)).

The opinion then evaluated the agreement’s substantive and procedural unconscionability on a “sliding scale,” and stated that substantive fairness must be considered in the context of the agreement’s procedural unconscionability, citing Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 6 P.3d 669, 689 (Cal. 2000); Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., LLC, 353 P.3d 741(Cal. 2015)).

Ultimately, the California Supreme Court ruled that the arbitration agreement in question was unenforceable as unconscionable. It found that the agreement was made under such oppression and surprise as to produce a high degree of procedural unconscionability. In light of the substantial procedural unconscionability, the court also found substantive unconscionability in the agreement.

OTO filed a cert petition in January to have the decision reversed. Petitioner argued that the California Supreme Court’s decision violated U.S. Supreme Court precedent in two ways.

First, the petitioner argued that the decision went against precedent mandating that the FAA preempt state rules discriminating against arbitration. The California Supreme Court’s comparative approach to substantive unconscionability, unique to arbitration agreements, failed to place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other agreements. Brief for Petitioner at 4 (citing AT&T Mobility, 563 U.S. at 339-340 (2011)) (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/128316/20200113114622841_OTO%20cert%20petition.pdf).

The petitioner connected this approach to a broader trend in the California Supreme Court to adopt “sharply anti-arbitration rules, only to be reversed by this Court.” Brief by Petitioner at 13 (citing DIRECTV Inc. v. Imburgia, 136 S. Ct. 463, 468-471 (2015); AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 339-340 (2011); Preston v. Ferrer, 552 U.S. 346, 353-354 (2008); Perry v. Thomas, 482 U.S. 483, 492 n.9 (1987); Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1, 16 n.11 (1984)).

Citing Sonic-Calabasas A Inc. v. Moreno, 247 P.3d 130 (2011) (Sonic I), the petitioner explained that the California Supreme Court’s substantive unconscionability analysis was a method devised to reach “effectively the same result” as its decision in Sonic I, which had been vacated by the Supreme Court for violating the equal treatment principle. Brief for Petitioner at 13. The Sonic I decision had been condemned because its class-arbitration rule uniquely addressed arbitration agreements; by the same reasoning, the petitioner suggested, the OTO decision could not stand.

Second, the petitioner, an auto dealership, argued that the decision went against precedent mandating the FAA to preempt even a general contract defense if it interferes with the “‘fundamental attributes of arbitration,’ including lower costs, greater efficiency and speed, and the ability to choose an expert adjudicator to resolve specialized disputes.”

Accordingly, a contract defense erecting “preliminary litigating hurdles” that destroy the “prospect of speedy resolution” is preempted by the FAA. Brief for Petitioner at 6 (citing AT&T Mobility, 563 U.S. at 344, 348). The petitioner argued that the California Supreme Court’s approach erected such a litigating hurdle because it required a prolonged fact-intensive inquiry. Brief for Petitioner at 17 (referring to American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 570 U.S. 228 (2013)).

A particularly salient point pursued by the petitioner focused on the California Supreme Court’s substantive unconscionability analysis. The petitioner suggested that the court condemned the arbitration agreement, which it claimed covered a wage dispute with the respondent, a service technician, as a time-consuming hurdle to litigation when the agreement consumed time because it “offered too many of the protections of civil litigation.” Brief for Petitioner at 12. (Emphasis is in the brief.) Such an approach evaluates an agreement to be substantively unconscionable for the reason that it tries too hard to avoid unfairness.

The petitioner also stressed that the case holds enormous significance in “safeguard[ing] the [FAA]’s commitment to the enforceability of arbitration agreements.” Brief for Petitioner at 19.

Petitioner OTO was not alone in its view. Five amicus briefs were filed in support of the objections. Cautioning against “judicial hostility towards arbitration” (Amicus Brief by Atlantic Legal Foundation at 2 (citing Nitro-Lift Techs., L.L.C. v. Howard, 133 S. Ct. 500, 503 (2012) (per curiam)) (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/133006/20200213191401278_19-875tsac%20Atlantic%20Legal%20Foundation%20%20-OTO%20v%20Kho%20FINAL.pdf)), they called out the decision below as “a thinly veiled effort to bar wage-dispute arbitration altogether.” Amicus Brief by Washington Legal Foundation at 8 (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/133008/20200214090311910_19-875%20tsac%20Washington%20Legal%20Foundation.pdf).

The petitioner’s reasoning on both the equal treatment principle and the litigating hurdle assessment found support in the amicus briefs.

On the other side, respondent Kho argued that the California Supreme Court’s decision was consistent with the Supreme Court’s arbitration precedents. Brief for Respondent California Labor Commissioner at 10 (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/142627/20200429130457818_No.%2019-875%20DOJ%20CA%20FINAL%20BIO.pdf). Pointing to the California courts’ tradition of comprehensive and contextual approach to unconscionability, the respondent emphasized that OTO had offered “no conflicting case remotely similar which creates a need to hear [the] case.” Brief for Respondent Ken Kho at 18 (available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-875/142640/20200429135355866_OTO%20v.%20Kho%20Opposition%20to%20Petition%20for%20Writ%20of%20Certiorari%2019-875.pdf). The respondent further asserted that, instead of disfavoring arbitration, the California Supreme Court had promoted arbitration by “requir[ing] an arbitration procedure that has all of the ‘fundamental attributes of arbitration.’” Brief for Respondent Ken Kho at 25.

As a tangentially related matter, Kho also challenged the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, arguing that petitioner had failed to establish either that the FAA applies or that the dispute effects commerce as per the commerce clause. Brief for Respondent Ken Kho at 27.

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The author, a second-year Harvard Law School student, is a 2020 CPR Institute Summer intern.

Holding There Is No Treaty-FAA Conflict, Supreme Court Permits Equitable Estoppel for International Arbitration Parties

By Russ Bleemer

Philip J. Loree and Richard D. Faulkner discuss the GE Energy v. Outokumpu Supreme Court decision with Alternatives editor, Russ Bleemer

Seeing no conflict between key international arbitration enforcement law implemented by the Federal Arbitration Act and state laws, the U.S. Supreme Court today permitted a company that was not a party to an arbitration contract to make its case in using the doctrine of equitable estoppel to enforce an arbitration agreement.

GE Energy Power Conversion France SAS Corp. v. Outokumpu Stainless USALLC, et al., No. 18-1048 (available at https://bit.ly/2XogerH), reverses and remands an Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said that GE Energy, which provided motors to Outkumpu via a general contractor, could not use the contract between Outokumpu and the general contractor to take the case to arbitration.

A unanimous opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas held that the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (available at https://bit.ly/2ZVazuK), which is codified in United States in the FAA’s second chapter, does not conflict with domestic equitable estoppel doctrines that permit the enforcement of arbitration agreements by nonsignatories.

On remand, GE Energy will be able to use the equitable estoppel doctrine to invoke the arbitration contract between Outokumpu and the general contractor, and argue that the contract contemplates that nonparty suppliers to the general contractor may use arbitration to settle disputes.

Much of the opinion centered on the role of nonparties in invoking arbitration agreements under the international and national laws, deploying, in Thomas’s words, a “textual” analysis of the Convention and the FAA.

The predecessors and affiliates of Outokumpu, a Calvert, Ala., steel manufacturer, signed a contract for the construction of three mills. The contract contained an arbitration clause. The construction company subcontracted for nine motors to run the plants from petitioner GE Energy. When Outokumpu filed suit against GE Energy after it refused repairs on the motors, all of which failed, GE Energy asked a court to compel arbitration under the Outokumpu-general contractor agreement, also objecting to Outokumpu’s attempted federal-court joinder of foreign insurers.

GE Energy was not a party to the Outokumpu construction contract. Still, an Alabama federal district court granted GE Energy’s motion, and Outokumpu appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which reversed and sent the case back to the trial court.

The Supreme Court today reversed again, remanding the case back for further proceedings, likely eventually to the district court, which had granted GE Energy’s motion to compel arbitration with Outokumpu and an insurer. But the lower court had granted the arbitration request because it said that, in its role as a subcontractor, GE Energy qualified as a party under the contract.

The Supreme Court today used the opinion to uphold the principle of equitable estoppel, which didn’t figure in the trial court’s decision.

The Eleventh Circuit had reversed the trial court, rejecting arbitration, because it said that the Convention required that the party actually sign an arbitration agreement, excluding nonparties’ ability to invoke the contract using a state law doctrine like equitable estoppel.

Thomas’s reasoning started with the FAA, which he wrote “permits courts to apply state-law doctrines related to the enforcement of arbitration agreements.” That would allow the application of states’ equitable estoppel doctrines. 

The opinion states, “Generally, in the arbitration context, ‘equitable estoppel allows a nonsignatory to a written agreement containing an arbitration clause to compel arbitration where a signatory to the written agreement must rely on the terms of that agreement in asserting its claims against the nonsignatory.’” 21 R. Lord, Williston on Contracts §57:19, p. 200 (2017).

The Convention, noted Thomas, focuses almost entirely on enforcement, and the short Article II on agreements “in writing,” which discusses the need for a signature, wasn’t in conflict with the FAA-backed equitable estoppel doctrines.

The opinion notes that the New York Convention is silent on the status of nonsignatories. “This silence is dispositive here,” wrote Justice Thomas, “because nothing in the text of the Convention could be read to otherwise prohibit the application of domestic equitable estoppel doctrines.”

The opinion analyzes the treaty’s “negotiating and drafting history,” and says that the Court found “Nothing in the drafting history [that] suggests that the Convention sought to prevent contracting states from applying domestic law that permits nonsignatories to enforce arbitration agreements in additional circumstances.”

The opinion also dodges the need to interpret the significance of the executive branch’s view of the treaty. The United States, which argued in the case in January, backing GE Energy, claimed that the Court should give deference and “great weight” to its amicus interpretation of the treaty, which it had  submitted in another unrelated D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals case. 

Outokumpu countered “that the Executive’s noncontemporaneous interpretation sheds no light on the meaning of the treaty, asserting that the Executive expressed the “opposite . . . view at the time of the Convention’s adoption.”

But Justice Thomas concluded,

We have never provided a full explanation of the basis for our practice of giving weight to the Executive’s interpretation of a treaty. Nor have we delineated the limitations of this practice, if any. But we need not resolve these issues today. Our textual analysis aligns with the Executive’s interpretation so there is no need to determine whether the Executive’s understanding is entitled to “weight” or “deference.”

The Court’s remand order addressed the big issue in the Eleventh Circuit about the New York Convention’s requirement that the agreement in writing needs to be signed by the parties.  Noting that the Convention provisions cited by the Eleventh Circuit address the recognition of arbitration agreements, not who is bound by the agreements, Thomas wrote, “Because the Court of Appeals concluded that the Convention prohibits enforcement by nonsignatories, the court did not determine whether GE Energy could enforce the arbitration clauses under principles of equitable estoppel or which body of law governs that determination. Those questions can be addressed on remand.”

The opinion concluded by limiting the holding to the issue of the Convention and domestic-law equitable estoppel doctrines, finding no conflict between the two.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred separately, agreeing that the Convention “does not categorically prohibit the application of domestic doctrines. She noted, “however, that the application of such domestic doctrines is subject to an important limitation: Any applicable domestic doctrines must be rooted in the principle of consent to arbitrate.”

Sotomayor said that consent is foundational to arbitration practice.  “This limitation is part and parcel of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) itself,” she wrote.

For a discussion of the Jan. 21 oral arguments in the case, see David Chung and Russ Bleemer’s post on CPR Speaks, “Tuesday’s SCOTUS Argument: Can Non-Signatories Compel Arbitration in the United States Under the New York Convention?” (January 22) (available at https://bit.ly/2ZVqPfg). For an examination of the GE Energy parties’ and amicus’s briefs, see “The Friends Speak: Here’s What Scotus Will Decide In the GE Energy International Arbitration Case,” 38 Alternatives 2 (January 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2TXmcO2).

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The author edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.  CPR Institute Summer 2020 intern Heather Cameron, a second year law student at Fordham University School of Law in New York City, contributed research. 

Supreme Court Declines Arbitration Case that Would Have Preempted Public Injunction Relief

By Yixian Sun

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning let stand a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck a consumer arbitration agreement because it waived litigation including “public injunctive relief,” California’s so-called McGill Rule.

            Specifically, today, the Court this morning declined to hear AT&T Mobility LLC v. McArdle, Docket No. 19-1078, and Comcast Corp. v. Tillage, Docket No. 19-1066, two companion cases that raised a prominent question on consumer arbitration agreements.

            Arbitration experts believed the Court would take the case as a sequel to Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612, 1623 (2018), and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), which, respectively, backed individual arbitrations in employment and consumer cases.

McArdle is a Ninth Circuit case concerning the enforceability of a consumer arbitration agreement.  The specific issue, according to AT&T’s petition for certiorari, is that: “[w]hether California’s public-policy rule conditioning the enforceability of arbitration agreements on acquiescence to public-injunction proceedings is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).” Brief for Petitioner at i, AT&T Mobility LLC v. McArdle, No. 19-1078 (available on the Supreme Court’s website at https://bit.ly/2TYos7M).

Under the McGill Rule, any provision that precludes consumers from seeking public injunctive relief–injunctive relief that has the primary purpose and effect of prohibiting unlawful acts that threaten future injury to the general public–in arbitration or in other dispute resolution forums, is contrary to California public policy and thus is unenforceable in California. McGill v. Citibank, N.A., 393 P.3d 85, 86 (Cal. 2017).

In 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued similar holdings in three cases including McArdle; it held that the McGill Rule was not preempted by the FAA, which directed courts to treat arbitration agreements as “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” McArdle v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 772 Fed. Appx. 575, 575 (9th Cir. 2019) (unpublished) (available at https://bit.ly/3eQsmrx); see also Blair v. Rent-A-Ctr. Inc., 928 F.3d 819 (9th Cir. 2019) (articulating reasons for upholding the McGill Rule).

AT&T filed its cert petition in February, seeking to have the Ninth Circuit’s decision overruled. According to the petition, since public-injunction claims focus on third parties’ interests and frequently involve complicated proceedings, they are “fundamentally inconsistent with arbitration’s traditionally individualized and informal nature” protected by the FAA. Brief for Petitioner at 14–20.

Relying on Justice Clarence Thomas’s previous interpretation of the FAA’s saving clause, it added that the McGill Rule cannot be saved because it deals with the enforceability rather than the validity of arbitration clause. FAA Section 2, the source of the saving clause, states “an agreement in writing to submit to arbitration an existing controversy arising out of such a contract, transaction, or refusal, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” 9 U.S. Code § 2.

Many commentators believed that the petitioners should have had a compelling case if they were able to set foot into the Supreme Court, given the Court’s “35-year history of declaring numerous California laws preempted by the FAA,” and its “unabashedly pro-arbitration Justices” including the Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. See, e.g., Mark J. Levin, Possible Supreme Court Review of California’s “McGill Rule” Moves One Step Closer as Ninth Circuit Stays Mandates in Blair Appeals, JDsupra (Jan. 31) (available at https://bit.ly/2XNsFfz); Richard E. Gottlieb & Brad W. Seiling, Arbitration: Will U.S. Supreme Court Step In to Solve California’s McGill Problem? Manatt (Feb. 5) (available at https://bit.ly/2XmEgn5).  See also Alan S. Kaplinsky & Mark J. Levin, “FAA Preemption Petitions Now Ripe for Scotus Conference,” Consumer Finance Monitor (Ballard Spahr) (May 12) (available at https://bit.ly/3eFpOwg).

In addition to AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, and Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018), last year the Supreme Court sought to preserve the enforceability and the individualized nature of bilateral arbitration in the context of consumer and employment disputes via Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407 (2019). A major argument made by the petitioners is that Concepcion governed, because granting public injunctive relief would interfere with the bilateral nature of arbitration just as class action does. Brief for Petitioner at 20–22.

Precedents at lower courts on public injunction suits and arbitration are split, however, as AT&T Mobility reported itself in the McArdle cert petition. Brief for Petitioner at 26 (citing McGovern v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 362 F. Supp. 3d 850, 862-64 (S.D. Cal. 2019)).

The petitioners believed that the stakes are high. AT&T Mobility warned that under the Ninth Circuit ruling, it would only take a public-injunctive request for parties to circumvent an arbitration provision, thereby forcing companies to abandon consumer arbitration altogether.

Business interests strongly backed AT&T Mobility’s claim.  In order to support AT&T Mobility and Comcast’s position, more than half dozen pro-business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed amicus curiae briefs, reasoning that the McGill rule’s deterrence effect against traditional bilateral arbitration will leave both businesses and consumers worse off. See., e.g., Brief amici curiae of The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America at 7–11.

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The author, a second-year Harvard Law School student, is a 2020 CPR Institute Summer Intern in Cambridge, Mass.

Supreme Court Declines To Hear Arbitration Case on ‘Equal Footing’

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear an appeal in an Oklahoma arbitration case on the so-called equal-footing principle—the idea that the Federal Arbitration Act prevents courts and legislatures from targeting rulings and laws to arbitration agreements, and instead requires  them to place arbitration on an equal footing with other contracts.

The Court denied cert on Tamko Building Products, Inc. v. Williams, Daniel, et al., No. 19-959 (case documents including party briefs available on Scotusblog at https://bit.ly/3dcPrn7).

The Oklahoma Supreme Court case declined to enforce an arbitration agreement between homeowners and shingle manufacturers where the arbitration agreement was “printed on shingle wrapping viewed only by contractors and then discarded.”

Tamko, a Galena, Kansas, building supply company, contended that the Oklahoma court’s decision violated the principle in the Supreme Court case of Kindred Nursing Ctrs. Ltd. P’ship v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421 (2017) (available at https://bit.ly/2YvMji9), which held that the FAA couldn’t be held to higher standards than other contracts.

Tamko, according to its reply brief filed last month with the Court, contended that the Oklahoma Supreme Court “found an agency relationship that empowered contractors buying shingles to bind homeowners to the terms of sale concerning matters such as price and delivery, but not arbitration—because of the importance of the jury-trial right.”

But, it continued, “That decision blatantly violates the FAA’s equal-footing principle.”

As a result of the cert denial, the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision that the homeowners “never had an opportunity to make a knowing waiver of access to the courts,” stands, along with its reversal of a trial court order remanding the case for trial.

Supreme Court Rejects NFL’s Rams Bid to Arbitrate

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear Rams Football Co., et al. v. St. Louis Regional Convention & Sports Complex Auth., No. 19-672, a case involving a prominent question in the arbitration field.

Rams Football is a Missouri state appeals court case on arbitrability and the so-called delegation clause—the arcane lawyers’ law on who gets to decide whether a case is decided by arbitrators or the courts.

The case had been listed for Friday Court conferences, according to Scotusblog, at least eight times this before the Court turned it down at Friday’s conference, and noted the denial in this morning’s order list.

The CPR Speaks blog discussed Rams Football at length in David Chung, “Under Consideration: The Supreme Court May Be Ready to Tackle Arbitrability–Again” (March 23) (available at https://bit.ly/2wx0Nmf).

The Supreme Court set out the law on delegation clauses in First Options v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995) (available at http://bit.ly/2WEXGnF)—a case argued and won by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. when he was a Washington, D.C., partner in Hogan & Hartson—which held that courts should review arbitrability and should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that they did so.

And the standard has been elusive ever since.

Problems with arbitrability may be growing.  In addition to the Rams Football case, last year’s Supreme Court decision on the subject,  Henry Schein, Inc., et al. v. Archer and White Sales, Inc., 139 S.Ct. 524 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2YLDkWQ), was remanded, reheard, decided, and is back before the Court on basically the same issue.

In last year’s decision, the Court held unanimously that parties to a contract have the ultimate say in whether to have an arbitrator or a court resolve disputes on questions of arbitrability.  Schein’s main holding was that a court couldn’t refuse to enforce arbitration because it believed the claims for arbitration were “wholly groundless”; it sent the case back on remand to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the remand decision about the delegation clause is back before the Court for cert consideration.

So far as it is known, the new Schein has not yet made it to the Court’s conference table.  For more on Schein, see Philip J. Loree Jr., “Schein Returns: Scotus’s Arbitration Remand Is Now Back at the Court,” CPR Speaks (Feb. 19) (available at http://bit.ly/3bQXQgl).

See also, Philip J. Loree Jr., “Schein’s Remand Decision Goes Back to the Supreme Court. What’s Next?” 38 Alternatives 54 (April 2020) (available https://bit.ly/3aYy7Sg), and  Richard D. Faulkner & Philip J. Loree Jr., “Schein’s Remand Decision: Should Scotus Review the Provider Rule Incorporation-by-Reference Issue?” 38 Alternatives 70 (May 2020) (available at http://altnewsletter.com/ on May 1).

Late last month, an appellate court in Florida in a split decision trashed the concept of incorporating by a reference to American Arbitration Association rules as “clear and convincing evidence” of parties agreeing to an Internet app clickthrough contract as sending the arbitrability decision to an arbitrator. Doe and Doe v. Natt and Airbnb Inc., Case No. 2D19-1383 (Fla. 2d DCA March 25) (available at https://bit.ly/3byW6r6).

The Rams issue, according to the team’s cert request petition was

Whether the Federal Arbitration Act permits a court to refuse to enforce the terms of an arbitration agreement assigning questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator if those terms would be enforceable under ordinary state-law contract principles in a non-arbitration context.

For now, the Missouri Court of Appeals decision affirming a trial court’s decision denying arbitration and sending the case to trial stands, and the case is remanded to trial.

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Scotusblog’s case page, available at https://bit.ly/2QANwjk, contains the Rams’ cert petition, the respondent’s brief in opposition, and the Rams’ reply.

Russ Bleemer is the editor of Alternatives