By Hew Zhan Tze
The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that class arbitrability is to be determined by the Court instead of the arbitrators in a class arbitration case. 20/20 Comms. Inc. v. Lennox Crawford, No. 18-10260 (5th Cir. July 22, 2019). The case appears to add a level of inquiry in the subject matter that may run counter to a U.S. Supreme Case earlier this year.
Several employees of 20/20 Communications, a marketing firm based in Fort Worth, Texas, filed individual arbitration claims against the employer. The arbitrator commenced a class arbitration despite an arbitration agreement contract clause prohibiting the consolidation of individual claims, “on the theory that the parties’ class arbitration bar is prohibited by federal law.”
Following the views of the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits, the Fifth Circuit held that where class arbitration is an issue, a legal presumption arises that the Court will determine the availability of class arbitration unless the arbitration agreement contained clear and unmistakable language to the contrary.
The Fifth Circuit, in a unanimous opinion written by Circuit Judge James C. Ho, reversed the decisions of two district courts. In one case, the district court held that the arbitration agreement authorized the arbitrator to determine class arbitrability instead of the court. See 20/20 Comms. Inc. v. Randall Blevins, No. 4:16-cv-00810-Y (N.D. Tex.) (Means, J.). In the other case, the district court held that the class arbitration bar was unenforceable under the National Labor Relations Act. See 20/20 Comms. Inc. v. Lennox Crawford, No. 4:17-cv-929-A (N.D. Tex.) (McBryde, J.).
The Fifth Circuit determined that class arbitrability is a gateway issue for the court. It rejected the employee’s arguments that the delegation provisions in the arbitration agreement clearly and unmistakably delegated the determination of class arbitrability to the arbitrator.
The circuit court said class arbitrability falls under the category of a gateway issue which would presumptively be determined by the courts because (i) the increased size and complexity of the dispute, (ii) the due process concerns that are raised and (iii) the privacy and confidentiality of the parties may be compromised.
While these factors point toward class arbitrability being a gateway issue, the appeals court stops short of elaborating on why arbitrators are not well-equipped to handle these concerns. An arbitrator could undertake these considerations and determine not to consolidate the individual claims.
Regardless, it means that the court could be involved despite the parties’ attempt to resolve the dispute via arbitration. Additionally, to the extent the employee can bargain, the individual may not reach an agreement with the employer to use the “clear and unmistakable” language sought by the courts to override the legal presumption that the court is to decide class arbitrability.
Having raised the legal presumption that class arbitrability is to be determined by the court, not the arbitrator, the court’s next task, according to the Fifth Circuit, would be to assess whether the arbitration agreement contained delegation provisions in clear and unmistakable language that would override the legal presumption. The circuits courts are currently split on whether traditional delegation provisions are sufficient to override this legal presumption.
The Arbitration Nation blog points out that in the Second, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, traditional delegation provisions which submits any dispute to the arbitrator were held to be sufficient to overcome the presumption, citing Wells Fargo Advisors LLC v. Sappington, 884 F. 3d 392 (2nd Cir. 2018) and Spirit Airlines, Inc. v. Maizes, 899 F. 3d 1230 (11th Cir. 2018). See Henry Allen Blair, “The Fifth Circuit Weighs in About Who Decides Class Arbitrability,” Arbitration Nation (July 28) (available at http://bit.ly/2KqcIFu). It is noted that the Tenth Circuit held similarly in Dish Network L.L.C. v. Matthew Ray, 900 F.3d 1240 (10th Cir. 2018).
On the other hand, Blair’s Arbitration Nation post notes that the Third, Fourth, Sixth and Eighth Circuits concluded that notwithstanding traditional delegation provisions or provisions incorporating institutional rules which delegates the decision of class arbitrability to the arbitrator, the decision of class arbitrability still lies with the Court. See Opalinski v. Robert Half Intern Inc., 761 F. 3d 326 (3rd Cir. 2014); Dell Web Communities Inc. v. Carlson, 817 F.3d 867 (4th Cir. 2016); Reed Elsevier Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F. 3d 594 (6th Cir. 2013), and Catamaran Corp. v. Towncrest Pharmacy, 864 F. 3d 966 (8th Cir. 2017), among others.
In the Fifth Circuit Crawford opinion, typical delegation provisions were included in the arbitration provision. Interestingly, after a brief discussion of the delegation provisions at issue, the court stated that it ultimately need not make a conclusion on “[w]hether these provisions, standing alone, clearly and unmistakably empower the arbitrator to decide questions of class arbitrability.” Instead, the Court considered it sufficient to compare the class arbitration bar at issue with the delegation provisions to reach the conclusion that none of the provisions “state with the requisite clear and unmistakable language that arbitrators, rather than courts, shall decide questions of class arbitrability.”
The Fifth Circuit’s conclusion raises an important question: What language used in the arbitration agreement would be clear and unmistakable enough to overcome the legal presumption that it is the courts that will decide class arbitrability instead of the arbitrators when there is a contractual clause barring class arbitration?
“[T]here is tension in this decision,” notes Philip J. Loree Jr., of New York’s Loree & Loree, who closely watches class arbitration cases, “and I think the culprit is the Court’s ruling that the clarity of the class arbitration waiver should be considered as evidence that the parties did not clearly and unmistakably intend arbitrators to decide arbitrability.”
Loree notes in an email, “Whether or not the class arbitration waiver is clear and unmistakable says nothing about who is supposed to interpret and apply the waiver. This, he notes, gives the impression that the Fifth Circuit is —perhaps unintentionally— making an end around this year’s U.S. Supreme Court rejection of the “wholly groundless” exception to the clear and unmistakable rule set out in Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer And White Sales, Inc., 139 S.Ct. 524 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2YLDkWQ) (see Mark Kantor, “Implications of Henry Schein and New Prime US Supreme Court Decisions,” CPR Speaks (Jan. 22) (available at http://bit.ly/33d5nSo).
Loree notes that where an arbitrator ignores the parties’ clear and unmistakable class arbitration waiver, the award would presumably be vacated under Federal Arbitration Act Section 10(a)(4), following the Supreme Court’s decisions in Stolt-Nielsen S.A v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010) and Oxford Health Plans LLC v. John Ivan Sutter, 133 S.Ct. 2064 (2013).
“But rather than allow that scenario to play itself out,” he continues, “the Fifth Circuit has effectively conflated the clarity of the contract on the merits issue (class arbitration consent) with the clarity of the contract on the issue of who gets to decide class arbitration consent.”
This, according to Loree, runs counter to the Supreme Court’s Schein decision.
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The author is a CPR Institute summer intern.