The Nominee and ADR: Circuit Judge Barrett on Arbitration

By Alice Albl

Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded last week, was on the federal circuit court based in South Bend, Ind., for less than three years before being nominated by President Trump for the Supreme Court on Sept. 26.

This small window has not allowed much time for alternative dispute resolution decisions. There are five opinions involving ADR in which Circuit Judge Barrett participated, four authored by the nominee and one on which she served as a panelist. The cases primarily are centered around employment law.

Barrett is a prolific academic, having written extensively about civil procedure, legal construction, evidence rules, and constitutional originalism over her 23-year career. She has taught at her alma mater, Notre Dame Law School, since 2002. See her University of Notre Dame Faculty Directory page at https://bit.ly/34WMa9h.

Barrett did not mention any work focused on ADR in her self-reported “Questionnaire for Nominee to the Supreme Court” to the U.S. Senate. The questionnaire is posted on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s website at https://bit.ly/3jdqBX1.  

Barrett has given several presentations on her time clerking for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Her style echoes Scalia’s by favoring a narrow, textualist interpretation of the law. See Imre Szalai, “Judge Amy Coney Barrett & the FAA – A Disciple of Scalia,” Outsourcing Justice blog (Setp. 27) (available at https://bit.ly/2H2hb3K). 

On ADR issues, Barrett also has followed in Scalia’s footsteps by demonstrating a distaste for class actions. But she apparently does not share Justice Scalia’s strong views on the progress of ADR. See George H. Friedman, Securities Arbitration Alert blog (Oct. 1) (available at https://bit.ly/3k8QKYc) (in which Friedman covers the cases here and adds discussion of a Legaspy v. FINRA, No. 1:20-cv-04700, in which Barrett joined a panel denying a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop a pandemic-era video arbitration.)

Apart from her ruling in Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. (see below), mirroring Scalia’s perspective on class-action suits, Circuit Judge Barrett’s ADR opinions have been filtered through analyses of civil procedure, textualism, and the rules of evidence. Id. All three are topics heavily present in Barrett’s academic writing. See the Senate link above.

The following is an overview of the five ADR-related decisions in which Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett participated, four written by the nominee, and one for which she served as a panelist:

  1. Wallace v. Grubhub Holdings Inc., 970 F.3d 798 (7th Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/33MvFwX).   

In organizing a class-action suit against defendant Grubhub for an alleged violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act–referred to in this post as the FLSA–plaintiff Wallace had to contend with the fact that all members of the class had signed an agreement to settle disputes with the defendant through arbitration.

Wallace requested to have the class recognized as exempt from arbitration under FAA Section 1, normally reserved for interstate transportation workers, because the class members transported food that generally included ingredients brought across state lines. The plaintiff said that the residual clause in the Section 1 exception, “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” applied.

The plaintiff’s request was denied by the lower court. In her Seventh Circuit opinion, Barrett similarly rejected the designation. This firmly placed the Seventh Circuit on one side of a debate about the scope of Section 1 as it applies to workers and interstate commerce. See, e.g., Michael S. Kun, “Ninth Circuit Conclusion that Amazon Delivery Drivers Don’t Need to Arbitrate their Claims under FAA’s ‘Transportation Worker’ Exemption Highlights Conflict among Courts,” Wage and Hour Defense Blog Epstein Becker Green (Aug. 24) (available at https://bit.ly/37hpza1), and Kris Olson, “FAA exemption extend to ‘last mile’ drivers,” New England In-House blog (Aug. 24) (available at https://bit.ly/3lZLYNm).

This issue involves the Supreme Court’s decision in Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105 (2001) (available at https://bit.ly/2HhwYLu), which stated that the Section 1 phrasing—“…nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce”–should only be applicable for “transportation workers,” but left the meaning of “transportation workers” open to interpretation.

The Grubhub delivery workers in the case contested that they were independent contractors, and contended they are employees, in suits around the country.

Some courts have allowed the breadth of “transportation workers” to expand through comparison with the FLSA’s use of the term, or a historical analysis.  See, e.g., Waithaka v. Amazon.com, Inc., 966 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 2020); Rittman v. Amazon.com, Inc., 971 F.3d 904 (9th Cir. 2020). Circuit Judge Barrett wielded textualism to create a test featuring a narrower version of the term.

Her analysis began with the interpretative canon ejusdem generis as defined by Justice Scalia in his book on statutory interpretation. Antonin Scalia, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 199 (2012) (“Where general words follow an enumeration of two or more things, they apply only to persons or things of the same general kind or class specifically mentioned.”) The canon states that generic terms at the end of lists including specific items should be interpreted to only include things similar to the specific items.

While other courts used ejusdem generis to allow FAA Sec. 1 language to include any workers involved in the “flow” of interstate commerce (see Rittman above), Circuit Judge Barrett tested for whether interstate commerce was a “central part of the class members’ job description.”

The plaintiff’s class did not pass the test, and the exception to arbitration under the FAA did not apply. According to Barrett, even though GrubHub workers delivered goods from other states, or even countries, that interstate aspect was characteristic of the goods and not the role served by the worker. This made them unlike railroad workers and seamen whose jobs focused on “the channels of commerce.”

Barrett distinguished the earlier New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 139 S.Ct. 532 (2019) (holding that an independent contractor’s contract is a “’contract of employment’ within the FAA Sec. 1 language that excepts such contracts from FAA application), which involved goods in interstate commerce. She wrote that the New Prime distinction between independent contractors and employees wasn’t a part of the case.

Author George Friedman noted last week that Wallace came up at Circuit Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearings.  See his account at “No Surprise Here: Arbitration Comes Up At Coney Barrett Confirmation Hearings,” Securities Arbitration Alert (Oct. 16) (available at https://bit.ly/37gsm3d).

Barrett sat on a panel that issued an opinion on giving notice to employees for a collective-action suit under the FLSA. The panel wrote that when a court considered allowing employees to opt-in to a collective-action FLSA suit, it was the defendant employer’s burden to prove whether those employees were ineligible or already bound to arbitration.

In this case, the plaintiff-employee Bigger brought an action against the defendant-employer Facebook. She alleged that the company should have paid overtime to her position and another, similar role. The plaintiff asked the lower court for authorization to form a collective-action suit. Notice of the suit was to be sent to every individual in the United States who worked in either of the roles. The lower court granted this authorization.

Facebook appealed to the Seventh Circuit, saying the court had erred because most would-be plaintiff employees had already entered arbitration agreements precluding litigation, so giving them notice about the suit would be misinformation. The defendant further argued that an inflated number of employees attempting to enter the collective-action suit would create undue pressure for a settlement.

The Seventh Circuit panel acknowledged the logic of the defendant’s argument but declined its request to deny plaintiff Bigger authorization for the formation of a collective action. Instead, the panel created a set of instructions. After a plaintiff had contested the existence of applicable arbitration agreements, it was the defendant’s responsibility to demonstrate that these agreements not only existed but precluded entrance into the collective action. Proof had to be given for every individual who would be precluded and not receive notice about the collective-action suit.

“Specifically, the court on remand should allow the parties to submit additional evidence on the existence of valid arbitration agreements between Facebook and proposed notice recipients,” wrote Circuit Judge Michael S. Kanne, joined by Supreme Court nominee Barrett and Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane P. Wood, adding, “If Facebook proves that certain proposed recipients entered valid arbitration agreements waiving their right to join the action, or if Bigger does not contest that those employees entered such agreements, the court may not authorize notice to those employees.”

In reviewing the enforcement order of a $10 million-plus arbitration award for employees, Circuit Judge Barrett vacated the award entirely. She held for a unanimous panel that “the availability of class or collective arbitration is a threshold question of arbitrability” and therefore, goes to the court, not the arbitrator. In the case, the arbitrator had allowed the plaintiff to pursue a collective action but, as stated in Barrett’s opinion, only the court had the authority to make such a decision.

The defendant argued that, even with the waiver struck, it only agreed to bilateral arbitration, with no consent given to class- or collective-action. Instead, the arbitrator used the rules chosen by the parties to control their arbitration proceedings to justify permitting the plaintiff’s class/collective-action suit. 

Plaintiff Harrington contested the validity of the agreement to arbitrate that she had signed with defendant Waterstone. While the lower court determined that the agreement was valid, it struck a waiver in the contract that barred others from joining the suit. The court gave an order to the arbitrator that the plaintiff “must be allowed to join other employees to her case.” The arbitrator then allowed the plaintiff to proceed with a collective action, in which employees could opt into the matter.

Barrett disagreed with the move. Allowing a class/collective-action was a question of “arbitrability” that bore upon the fundamental terms and legal validity of the arbitration, and was reserved for the court. Although the Seventh Circuit had not previously recognized the authorization of collective action as a question of arbitrability, identifying it this way fell in line with every other circuit court to decide on the matter. See, e.g., Del Webb Communities Inc. v. Carlson, 817 F.3d 867, 877 (4th Cir. 2016), and  Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594, 599 (6th Cir. 2013), among others Barrett cites. 

According to Circuit Judge Barrett, “The availability of class or collective arbitration involves a foundational question of arbitrability: whether the potential parties to the arbitration agreed to arbitrate.” She noted that decisions on class/collective-action suits were questions of arbitrability in three different ways. First, they affected who would participate in an arbitration. Second, they affected the scope of an arbitration. Third, these decisions affected the structure of an arbitration. 

The late Justice Antonin Scalia had strong opinions on how class-collective-suits affect the structure of an arbitration, and Barrett devoted most of her attention to this factor. Citing heavily Scalia’s AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion opinion, Barrett reiterated her mentor’s viewpoint, stating that the structural shifts caused by switching to class/collective-action gives up the advantage of informality in an arbitration. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740 (2011). She described this as “reduced efficiency.” 

Barrett concluded her analysis of the structural aspect of class/collective-action arbitration by referencing another Scalia misgiving, that the finality of arbitration increases the risk for defendants when facing potentially thousands of plaintiffs in class/collective-suits. Barrett projected the risk of this finality onto arbitration as a whole, an association that Prof. Szalai of Loyola Law School found contentious.

In his blog, “Outsourcing Justice,” linked above, Szalai wrote that Barrett’s arbitration view would be in good company among the conservative justices of the Supreme Court, saying that, overall, the Court’s arbitration decisions have been critiqued as reflecting “an overly-simplistic manner [that] tend to conceptualize arbitration as a homogeneous process, and they sometimes have flawed assumptions or preconceived notions regarding arbitration.“

Nevertheless, plaintiff Herrington’s case was allowed to continue.  Barrett remanded the case on behalf of the appellate panel to the district court, rather than the arbitrator, to evaluate whether Herrington’s contract with Waterstone permitted class or collective arbitration.

  • Webb v. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc., 889 F.3d 853 (7th Cir. 2018), (available at https://bit.ly/3iNuh1l).

In writing for the court, Barrett declined to consider the applicability of arbitral immunity. Instead, she determined that the lower court had erred in allowing the case to be heard at all, because it was not within federal jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Webb and a colleague filed suit when a dispute with their former employer could not be resolved in defendant FINRA’s arbitration forum after two-and-a-half years.

The plaintiffs sought damages “in excess of $50,000” in Illinois state court, alleging that the defendant had mismanaged the arbitration—”including failing  to  properly  train  arbitrators,  failing  to  provide  arbitrators  with  appropriate  procedural  mechanisms,  interfering  with  the  arbitrators’  discretion,  and  failing  to  permit  reasonable  discovery.”

The defendant responded by removing to federal court, then moving to have the case dismissed on multiple grounds, including arbitral immunity. This doctrine protects arbitrators from civil liability when performing their duties as neutrals. The lower court decided that the doctrine was applicable and granted the defendant’s motion. Webb v. Fin. Indus. Regulatory Auth., Inc., No. 16-CV-04664 (N.D. Ill.  2017), vacated, 889 F.3d 853 (7th Cir. 2018). The plaintiffs appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Barrett declined to apply arbitral immunity, but found that the lower court had erred in allowing the case to be heard at all. The damages the plaintiffs sought either could not be recovered under controlling Illinois law, or did not meet the $75,000 minimum amount necessary to grant federal jurisdiction.

The defendant argued that federal jurisdiction was valid because its U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission-approved Code of Arbitration Procedure was involved in the suit. Barrett rebuffed this by echoing the Supreme Court’s rulings in Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering  &  Manufacturing,  545  U.S.  308  (2005) and Merrill  Lynch,  Pierce,  Fenner  &  Smith  v.  Manning,  136  S.  Ct.  1562,  1566  (2016), noting that one party having a “federal role” did not necessarily make a case eligible for federal court consideration.

Defendant WeConnect appealed after the lower court stated that it was not a party to plaintiff Goplin’s arbitration agreement. The agreement compelled the plaintiff to arbitrate with another entity, AEI, and not the defendant.

Although defendant WeConnect’s website stated that AEI was a separate entity, it claimed through an employee affidavit that AEI was actually the defendant’s former name. It further asserted that the lower court was mistaken in considering the website, violating rules of judicial notice by performing its own research.

With a short opinion focused on this evidence issue, Circuit Judge Barrett affirmed the lower court determination. The plaintiff had referenced the website in a brief to the court along with several other examples that provided a more convincing case than the defendant’s single affidavit about a human resources document. The defendant had conclusively portrayed itself as separate from the entity mentioned in plaintiff Goplin’s arbitration agreement.

In reporting Goplin, George Friedman of the Securities Arbitration Alert blog noted that Circuit Judge Barrett maintained a narrow focus on the evidentiary issue, and not on arbitration law. See Friedman’s Oct. 1 blog post linked above.

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The author, a CPR Institute Fall 2020 intern, is a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School in New York.