New Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception to the Old Clear and Unmistakable Rule? (Part II)

loreejrII

By Philip J. Loree Jr.

Part I of this post discussed how the Second and Fifth Circuits, in  Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Bucsek, ___ F.3d ___, No. 17-881, slip op. (2d Cir. Mar. 22, 2019), and 20/20 Comms. Inc. v. Lennox Crawford, ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-10260 (5th Cir. July 22, 2019), suggest a trend toward what might (tongue-in-cheek) be called a “Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception” to the First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability (a/k/a the “Clear and Unmistakable Rule”).

Under this Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule, courts consider the merits of an underlying arbitrability issue as part of their analysis of whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability issues.

But the Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception runs directly counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Schein v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 586 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 524 (January 8, 2019), and thus contravenes the Federal Arbitration Act as interpreted by Schein. 139 S. Ct. at 527-28, 529-31.

This Part II analyzes and discusses how Met Life and 20/20 Comm. effectively made an end run around Schein and considers what might have motivated those Courts to rule as they did.

Making an End Run Around Schein?

When, prior to 20/20 Comm. we wrote about Met Life, we said it “an important decision because it means in future cases where parties have not expressly agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions, but have agreed to a very broad arbitration agreement, the question whether the parties’ have nevertheless clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions may turn, at least in part, on an analysis of the merits of the arbitrability question presented.” (See here. )

But after the Fifth Circuit decided 20/20 Comm. this July, in comments we made to Russ Bleemer, Editor of Alternatives, the Newsletter of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (“CPR”)—which were reproduced with our consent in Mr. Zhan Tze’s CPR Speaks blog article about 20/20 Comm. (here)—we expressed the belief that the Fifth Circuit was (whether intentionally or unintentionally) making an end run around Schein, effectively creating an exception to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule.

After analyzing 20/20 Comm. and comparing it to the Second Circuit’s Met Life decision, we concluded that the Second Circuit’s decision also ran counter to Schein.

Schein’s Abrogation of the “Wholly Groundless Exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule

In Schein the U.S. Supreme Court abrogated the so-called “wholly groundless exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule. Prior to Schein certain courts, including the Fifth Circuit, held that even when parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions, courts could effectively circumvent the parties’ agreement and decide for itself arbitrability challenges that it determined were “wholly groundless.”

The rationale Schein used to jettison the “wholly groundless exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule is incompatible with the rationales the Second and Fifth Circuit used to support their decisions in Met Life and 20/20 Comm.

Under FAA Section 2, the Schein Court explained, “arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms.” Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 529 (citation omitted). When those contracts delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator, “a court may not override the contract[,]” and has “no power to decide the arbitrability issue.” 139 S. Ct. at 529. That is so even where a Court “thinks that the argument that the arbitration agreement applies to a particular dispute is wholly groundless.” 139 S. Ct. at 529.

Schein explained that its conclusion was supported not only by the FAA’s text, but also by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Citing and quoting cases decided under Section 301 of the Labor Management and Relations Act, the Court explained that courts may not “‘rule on the potential merits of the underlying’ claim that is assigned by contract to an arbitrator, ‘even if it appears to the court to be frivolous[,]’” and that “[a] court has “‘no business weighing the merits of the grievance’” because the “‘agreement is to submit all grievances to arbitration, not merely those which the court will deem meritorious.’” 139 S. Ct. at 529 (quoting AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U.S. 643, 649–650 (1986) and Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 568 (1960)).

This “principle,” said the Schein Court, “applies with equal force to the threshold issue of arbitrability[]”—for “[j]ust as a court may not decide a merits question that the parties have delegated to an arbitrator, a court may not decide an arbitrability question that the parties have delegated to an arbitrator.” 139 S. Ct. at 530.

Exception to Clear and Unmistakable Rule? Why the Second and Fifth Circuit Decisions Conflict with Schein

Both the Second Circuit and Fifth Circuit decided that the parties before them did not clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability because each Court believed that there was not even a barely colorable basis for a court or an arbitrator to find that the underlying dispute should be submitted to arbitration. In other words, both courts focused on contractual provisions governing the merits of the arbitrability dispute rather than confining their analysis to the terms of the contract dealing directly with whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.

In Met Life the Court decided the merits of the underlying arbitrability issue before analyzing whether the provisions of the contract directly pertinent to the arbitration of arbitrability did or did not clearly and unmistakably delegate arbitrability to the arbitrators. The Court quite correctly found it implausible that the parties agreed to arbitrate a dispute that arose years after one of the parties had left the NASD and was not a member of FINRA.

But that was a conclusion about the merits of the arbitrability dispute, not about whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability disputes. The Clear and Unmistakable Rule turns solely on whether the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability questions to the arbitrator, irrespective of what the merits of those arbitrability questions may be.

In 20/20 Comm. the Court’s focus was on the parties’ broad class arbitration waiver. Class arbitration waivers are ordinarily dispositive of the merits of whether the parties consented to class arbitration, but the class arbitration waiver in 20/20 Comm., like most or all others we’ve seen, says nothing about who decides whether or not the parties consented to class arbitration.

Had the Fifth Circuit not focused on the class arbitration waiver, and instead on the three provisions directly relating to arbitrability, then it could have easily found that the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated class arbitration consent issues to the arbitrator.

The so-called “exception language” in those provisions (see Part I, here) was quite beside the point. There is nothing “inconsistent” with an arbitrator, rather than a court, deciding the effect of the class arbitration waiver, no matter how clear it may be that the outcome will, or at least should, be an arbitral determination that the parties did not consent to class arbitration.

Exception to Clear and Unmistakable Rule?Second Circuit Attempted to Distinguish Schein, but Fifth Circuit did not

The Second Circuit articulated the reasons it believed that Schein did not foreclose its examination of the merits of the arbitrability issue before it, but the Fifth Circuit did not address Schein.

The Second Circuit said “[t]he point of the [Schein] opinion was that, where the parties have agreed to submit arbitrability to arbitration, courts may not nullify that agreement on the basis that the claim of arbitrability is groundless.” Met Life, slip op. at 24 (emphasis in original). The Court said it “reject[s] [A’s] claim for arbitration of arbitrability not because” it considers the “claim of arbitrability” to be “groundless[,]” but “because, upon consideration of all evidence of the intentions of the arbitration agreement, including the groundlessness of [A’s] claim of arbitrability, the agreement does not clearly and unambiguously provide for arbitration of the question of arbitrability.” Met Life, slip op. at 25. That “reasoning is based on the parties’ contract, and not based on any exception to what the parties have contracted for.” Met Life, slip op. at 25.

The Fifth Circuit might have made the same or a similar argument, but said nothing about whether it thought its decision was consistent with Schein.

While the Second Circuit’s reasoning was theoretically sound, it doesn’t hold up in practice. Apart from questions concerning the existence of the contract, the merits of most, if not all, arbitrability questions turn in large part on the language of the parties’ contract. That was certainly the case in both Met Life and 20/20 Comm.

Under the reasoning of those cases, however, the language directly relating to the question whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability must be viewed in conjunction with the language of the contract bearing on the merits of the arbitrability dispute. If the language pertinent to the merits of the arbitrability issue suggests that the parties did not agree to arbitrate the dispute (or did not consent to class arbitration), then under the Second and Fifth Circuits’ reasoning, that conclusion weakens (or eliminates) the inference that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.

Met Life and 20/20 Comm. Contravene the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Schein

The Met Life/20-20 Comm. analytical regime effectively revives—and potentially might even expand the scope of—the “wholly groundless exception” that the U.S. Supreme Court laid to rest in Schein. Remember that disputes about arbitrability of arbitrability can be analytically broken down into at least four separate questions: (a) what the dispute on the merits is; (b) does that dispute raise a question of arbitrability, which is ordinarily decided by the court; (c) if so, did the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability disputes (i.e, does the Clear and Unmistakable Rule apply); and (d) what is the outcome of the dispute on the merits that the proper decisionmaker should reach once he or she decides it?

The Clear and Unmistakable Rule is concerned only with question (c), above, that is, did the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability disputes? The “wholly groundless exception” to the Clear and Unmistakable Rule—and the analytical regime imposed by the Second and Fifth Circuits—focuses not only on  question (c), above, but simultaneously considers question (d), that is, what is the outcome on the dispute on the merits that the proper decisionmaker should reach?

Assuming the dispute on the merits is a question of arbitrability (as was the case in Schein, Met Life, and 20/20 Comm.), if the provisions of the parties’ agreement suggest that there is only one proper outcome that a decisionmaker should reach on the merits of the arbitrability dispute—the subject of question (d), above— then a Court following Met Life and 20/20 Comm. would be more chary about concluding the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability—the subject of question (c), above.

Schein forecloses any consideration of the merits of the arbitrability issue (question (d), above), limiting the scope of the Court’s analysis to whether the parties’ clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability (question (c), above).

Schein explains that, if the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to arbitrate arbitrability disputes, then courts should direct the parties to arbitrate the arbitrability issue. Just as it is with any other arbitrable issue, judicial review is postponed until the final award stage, and is limited to the grounds enumerated by Section 10 of the FAA, including manifest disregard of the agreement under Section 10(a)(4), and, in Circuits which recognize it (such as the Second—but not the Fifth—Circuit) manifest disregard of the law.

In Schein the proponent of the “wholly groundless exception” argued that the “back-end judicial review” available if an arbitrator “exceeds his or her powers” impliedly authorizes courts to determine that an arbitrability question is “wholly groundless” and obviates the need to submit the arbitrability question to arbitration. Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 530. But the Supreme Court said “[t]he dispositive answer to [the “wholly groundless exception” proponent’s] §10 argument is that Congress designed the Act in a specific way, and it is not our proper role to redesign the statute.”  Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 530.

The Schein Court further explained that acceptance of the “wholly groundless exception” proponent’s “argument would mean. . . that courts presumably also should decide frivolous merits questions that have been delegated to an arbitrator.” But, said the Supreme Court, “[we] have already rejected that argument: When the parties’ contract assigns a matter to arbitration, a court may not resolve the merits of the dispute even if the court thinks that a party’s claim on the merits is frivolous. So, too, with arbitrability.” 139 S. Ct. at 530 (citation omitted).

Under Schein the proper course for the Second and Fifth Circuits was to determine whether the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability issues to the arbitrators without determining or analyzing the merits of those underlying arbitrability issues. If the answer was “yes,” then the Courts should have directed the arbitrators to decide those arbitrability questions.

If the arbitrators, after having decided those underlying arbitration issues, decided that the issues were arbitrable, then the arbitration opponents could challenge them as being in manifest disregard of the contract (and, in the Second Circuit, perhaps also in manifest disregard of the law).

But rather than let the arbitration and post-award review process run its course, the Second and Fifth Circuit took it upon themselves to decide arbitrability issues that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to submit to arbitration. Met Life and 20/20 Comm. cannot be meaningfully squared with Schein.

What Might have Motivated Met Life and 20/20 Comm. Courts to Rule the way they did?

While we respectfully believe that Met Life and 20/20 Comm. are inconsistent with Schein, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that the very able and experienced judges who decided those cases were faced with unusual circumstances that would presumably be of concern to many or most other fair-minded jurists. In Met Life a FINRA arbitration claim was made against an entity that had never been a member of FINRA, and had not been a member of the NASD, FINRA’s predecessor, for several years. The claim itself arose out of conduct that took place after the entity had left the NASD.

The Second Circuit concluded the dispute was not arbitrable because FINRA had no regulatory interest in the dispute, but apparently there were no FINRA rules, or terms in the parties’ agreement, which addressed directly the unusual arbitrability question the case presented. And prior Second Circuit precedent suggested that, under the Clear and Unmistakable Rule, the breadth of the parties’ arbitration agreement, together with a provision of the applicable arbitration rules, constituted clear and unmistakable evidence of an intent to arbitrate arbitrability.

The Second Circuit might have been legitimately concerned about whether a FINRA arbitrator would necessarily reach the same conclusion as the Court did, and if so, whether the award could be vacated if the arbitrator got it wrong. That would mean that the arbitration opponent might have been forced to arbitrate not only the underlying arbitrability issue, but also the entire dispute on the merits, before there was any opportunity for FAA Section 10 review.

If the award was ultimately vacated, the parties would be forced to incur a great deal of time and expense vindicating their rights. But if the award was not, and could not be, vacated, and the arbitration opponent lost on the merits, then the arbitration opponent would effectively have been forced to arbitrate a dispute that the Second Circuit strongly believed the parties never agreed to arbitrate.

“Hard cases,” the adage goes, “make bad law.”

The Fifth Circuit might have had similar reservations about the case before it, although the stakes were probably not as high as they were in Met Life. The contract’s incorporation of AAA employment arbitration rules, which brought into play the AAA Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitration, meant that the arbitrator would have been empowered to make a “Clause Construction Award,” which the parties are deemed to agree is a final award subject to judicial review under Section 10.

There was no reason to think that the briefing, argument, and decision of the Clause Construction issue, and the rendering of the Clause Construction Award, would take a great deal of time, given how narrow the issue was, and given the clear class arbitration waiver. And FAA Section 10 review would have been available once the Clause Construction Award was made.

Thus, had the Fifth Circuit compelled arbitration of the class arbitration consent issue, and had the arbitrator made a ruling in favor of class arbitration consent by ignoring the class arbitration waiver (or at least by not even arguably interpreting it), FAA Section 10 review would be available in relative short order, and certainly long before the parties were forced to engage in a class arbitration that could drag on for several years before Section 10 review could take place.

But the Fifth Circuit might nevertheless have been very concerned that a class arbitration opponent who had taken the time to include a broad class arbitration waiver in its contract, the enforceability of which is not really open to legitimate question in light of the many U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have closed state- and federal-law enforcement loopholes, should be forced to engage in the several months of arbitration and litigation necessary to vindicate its legitimate, bargained-for right to arbitrate on a bilateral basis only. Even apart from the extra costs imposed on the class arbitration opponent, compelling arbitration would have virtually guaranteed that within a relatively short period, the district court and, possibly also the Fifth Circuit, would again have to devote substantial time and effort into matters that were the subject of the consolidated appeal in 20/20 Comm.

Those concerns about economic inefficiency and judicial economy are unquestionably legitimate. But Schein, as we’ve seen, has already said that the courts do not, in the name of public policy or judicial economy, have the power to amend or alter the post-award-review-only procedures mandated by the FAA.

And the class arbitration opponent, a sophisticated business entity, could have drafted its contract more precisely, providing that notwithstanding anything to the contrary, disputes about class arbitration consent, including the application and interpretation of the class arbitration waiver, must be decided by courts, not arbitrators. In fact, other class arbitration opponents would be well advised to consider carefully whether they might find themselves in a situation where they are forced to arbitrate and litigate in the district court (and perhaps in an appellate court) for several months or more court, and if so, to take appropriate steps to mitigate this risk by more precisely drafting their contracts’ class arbitration waivers.

***

 

Philip J. Loree Jr. is a co-founder and partner at law firm, Loree and Loree. This post was originally published on the firm’s blog, Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Forum, and has been republished with permission here.

New Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception to the Old Clear and Unmistakable Rule? (Part I)

loreejrIIBy Philip J. Loree Jr.

Arbitration law is replete with presumptions and other rules that favor one outcome or another depending on whether one thing or another is or is not clear and unmistakable. Put differently, outcomes often turn on the presence or absence of contractual ambiguity.

There are three presumptions that relate specifically to questions arbitrability, that is, whether or not an arbitrator or a court gets to decide a particular issue or dispute:

  1. The Moses Cone Presumption of Arbitrability: Ambiguities in the scope of the arbitration agreement itself must be resolved in favor of arbitration. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24-25 (1983). Rebutting this presumption requires clear and unmistakable evidence of an intent to exclude from arbitration disputes that are otherwise arguably within the scope of the agreement.
  2. The First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability:  Parties are presumed not to have agreed to arbitrate questions of arbitrability unless the parties clearly and unmistakably agree to submit arbitrability questions to arbitration. First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 942-46 (1995)
  3. The Howsam/John Wiley Presumption of Arbitrability of Procedural Matters: “‘[P]rocedural’ questions which grow out of the dispute and bear on its final disposition are presumptively not for the judge, but for an arbitrator, to decide.” Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 84 (2002) (quoting John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston, 376 U.S. 543, 557 (1964)) (internal quotation marks omitted). To rebut this presumption, the parties must clearly and unmistakably exclude the procedural issue in question from arbitration.

These presumptions usually turn solely on what the contract has to say about the arbitrability of a dispute, not on what the outcome an arbitrator or court would—or at least should—reach on the merits of the dispute.

Some U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the Fifth Circuit, recognized an exception to the First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability called the “wholly groundless exception.” Under that “wholly groundless exception,” courts could decide “wholly groundless” challenges to arbitrability even though the parties have clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability issues to the arbitrators. The apparent point of that exception was to avoid the additional time and expense associated with parties being required to arbitrate even wholly groundless arbitrability disputes, but the cost of the exception was a judicial override of the clear and unmistakable terms of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.

Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court in Schein v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 586 U.S. ___, slip op. at *1 (January 8, 2019) abrogated the “wholly groundless” exception. Schein, slip op. at *2, 5, & 8. “When,” explained the Court, “the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.” Schein, slip op. at 2, 8. The “wholly groundless” exception, said the Court, “is inconsistent with the statutory text and with precedent[,]” and “confuses the question of who decides arbitrability with the separate question of who prevails on arbitrability.” Schein,slip op. at 8.

But since Schein both the Second and Fifth Circuits have decided First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability cases by effectively conflating the question of who gets to decide an arbitrability issue with the separate question of who should prevail on the merits of that arbitrability issue. The Courts in both cases determined whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions by considering, as part of the clear and unmistakable calculus, the merits of the arbitrability question.

These two cases suggest a trend toward what might (tongue-in-cheek) be called a “Clear and Unmistakable Outcome Exception” to the First OptionsReverse Presumption of Arbitrability. But the problem with that trend is that it runs directly counter to the Supreme Court’s decision in Schein, and thus contravenes the Federal Arbitration Act as interpreted by Schein.

In Part I of this post we discuss the Second Circuit and Fifth Circuit decisions. In Part II we analyze and discuss how— and perhaps why — those courts effectively made an end run around Schein.

Clear and Unmistakable Rule: The Second Circuit’s Met Life Decision

We first wrote about the Second Circuit decision, Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Bucsek, ___ F.3d ___, No. 17-881, slip op. (2d Cir. Mar. 22, 2019), in an April 3, 2019 post. In Met Life the Second Circuit was faced with an unusual situation where party A sought to arbitrate against party B, a former member of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”)’s predecessor, the National Association of Securities Dealers (“NASD”), a dispute arising out of events that occurred years after party B severed its ties with the NASD.

The district court rejected A’s arguments, ruling that: (a) this particular arbitrability question was for the Court to decide; and (b) the dispute was not arbitrable because it arose years after B left the NASD, and was based on events that occurred subsequent to B’s departure. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

After the district court decision, but prior to the Second Circuit’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Schein, which—as we explained earlier—held that even so-called “wholly-groundless” arbitrability questions must be submitted to arbitration if the parties clearly and unmistakably delegate arbitrability questions to arbitration. Schein, slip op. at *2, 5, & 8.

The Second Circuit was faced a situation where a party sought to arbitrate a dispute which clearly was not arbitrable, but in circumstances under which prior precedent suggested that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.

To give effect to the parties’ probable intent not to arbitrate before the NASD (or its successor, FINRA) arbitrability questions that arose after B left the NASD, the Second Circuit apparently believed it had no choice but to distinguish and qualify its prior precedent, and to attempt to do so without falling afoul of the Supreme Court’s recent pronouncement in Schein.

That required the Second Circuit to modify, to at least some extent, the contractual interpretation analysis in which courts within the Second Circuit are supposed to engage to ascertain whether parties “clearly and unmistakably” agreed to arbitrate arbitrability in circumstance where they have not specifically agreed to arbitrate such issues.

Met Life modified that analysis to mean that in cases where parties have not expressly agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions, but have agreed to a very broad arbitration agreement, the question whether the parties’ have nevertheless clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability questions may turn, at least in part, on an analysis of the merits of the arbitrability question presented.

Effectively articulating a new interpretative rule necessitated by the unusual case before it, the Court said “what the arbitration agreement says about whether a category of dispute is arbitrable can have an important bearing on whether it was the intention of the agreement to confer authority over arbitrability on the arbitrators.” Slip op. at 13-14.

To that end, said the Court, “broad language expressing an intention to arbitrate all aspects of all disputes supports the inference of an intention to arbitrate arbitrability, and the clearer it is from the agreement that the parties intended to arbitrate the particular dispute presented, the more logical and likely the inference that they intended to arbitrate” arbitrability questions.  Slip op. at 12-13 (citations and quotations omitted).

The contrapositive, the court explained, was also true (at least conditionally): “the clearer it is that the terms of an arbitration agreement reject arbitration of the dispute, the less likely it is that the parties intended to be bound to arbitrate the question of arbitrability, unless they included clear language so providing . . . .” Slip op. at 13. But, added the Court, “vague provisions as to whether the dispute is arbitrable are unlikely to provide the needed clear and unmistakable inference of intent to arbitrate arbitrability.” Slip op. at 13.

What the Court appears to be saying is that where the parties have not expressly, clearly and unmistakably expressed their intent to arbitrate arbitrability questions, the strength of the inference of clear and unmistakable intent to arbitrate arbitrability is inversely proportional to how clear it is that the terms of the agreement reject arbitration of the dispute.

In other words, if the terms of the agreement strongly suggest that a court, rather than an arbitrator, should resolve the dispute on its merits, then the strength of the inference of clear and unmistakable intent to arbitrate the arbitrability of the dispute will be weaker. But, all else equal, if the terms of the agreement suggest that an arbitrator rather than a court should resolve the dispute on its merits, then the inference of clear and unmistakable intent to arbitrate arbitrability of the dispute will be stronger.

The Fifth Circuit’s 20/20 Comm. Decision

A few months after Met Life was decided, on July 22, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided 20/20 Comms. Inc. v. Lennox Crawford, ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-10260 (5th Cir. July 22, 2019). Although 20/20 Comms did not cite Met Life, it engaged in what might be roughly described as a simplified version of the Second Circuit’s reasoning in that case.

Hew Zhan Tze, an International Institute for Conflict Resolution and Prevention (“CPR”) summer intern has published— under the very able tutelage of our friend Russ Bleemer, a New York attorney who is the editor of CPR’s Alternatives, an international ADR newsletter published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.—a well-written and insightful article about 20/20 Comm.in the CPR Speaks blog. (A shout-out also to CPR’s Tania Zamorsky, who is the blog master of CPR Speaks.)

Mr. Zhan Tze’s excellent article discusses the case and quotes some commentary I provided by email to Russ about the case, as both Russ and I were quite intrigued by the decision. You can read that article in the CPR Speaks Blog here.

Zhan Tze’s article thoroughly discusses the background of the case, its reasoning, and holding. (See here.) The case involved consent to class arbitration.

There were two questions before the Court: (a) whether class arbitration consent was a question of arbitrability for the Court; and (b) if so, whether the parties, under the First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability, had clearly and unmistakably agreed to submit class arbitration consent questions to the arbitrator.

As to the first issue, the Court determined that consent to class arbitration was a question of arbitrability, thereby joining the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh circuits, which have likewise concluded that class arbitration consent presents a question of arbitrability. See Del Webb Cmtys., Inc. v. Carlson, 817 F.3d 867, 877 (4th Cir. 2016); Reed Elsevier, Inc. ex rel. LexisNexis Div. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594, 599 (6th Cir. 2013); Herrington v. Waterstone Mortg. Corp., 907 F.3d 502, 506-07 (7th Cir. 2018); Catamaran Corp. v. Towncrest Pharmacy, 864 F.3d 966, 972 (8th Cir. 2017); Eshagh v. Terminix Int’l Co., L.P., 588 F. App’x 703, 704 (9th Cir. 2014) (unpublished); JPay, Inc. v. Kobel, 904 F.3d 923, 935-36 (11th Cir. 2018).

As respects the second issue—whether the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate class-arbitration consent issues— the Court held that the parties did not clearly and unmistakably so agree.

The parties’ contract contained three provisions pertinent to arbitrability questions:

1.      “If Employer and Employee disagree over issues concerning the formation or meaning of this Agreement, the arbitrator will hear and resolve these arbitrability issues.”

2.      “The arbitrator selected by the parties will administer the arbitration according to the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes (or successor rules) of the American Arbitration Association (‘AAA’) except where such rules are inconsistent with this Agreement, in which case the terms of this Agreement will govern.” (emphasis added)

3.      “Except as provided below, Employee and Employer, on behalf of their affiliates, successors, heirs, and assigns, both agree that all disputes and claims between them . . . shall be determined exclusively by final and binding arbitration.” (emphasis added)

But the parties’ contract also contained a broad class arbitration waiver, which provided:

[T]he parties agree that this Agreement prohibits the arbitrator from consolidating the claims of others into one proceeding, to the maximum extent permitted by law. This means that an arbitrator will hear only individual claims and does not have the authority to fashion a proceeding as a class or collective action or to award relief to a group of employees in one proceeding, to the maximum extent permitted by law.

(Emphasis added.)

The Court said that the first three provisions, “[d]ivorced from other provisions of the arbitration (most notably, the class arbitration bar). . . could arguably be construed to authorize arbitrators to decide gateway issues of arbitrability, such as class arbitration.” Slip op. at 8. As respects the second of the three, the incorporation by reference of the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes (or successor rules) of the AAA, the Court noted that “Rule 3 of the AAA Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitration provides that the arbitrator is empowered to determine class arbitrability.” Slip op. at 8. And, according to the Court, “the third provision states in broad terms that ‘all disputes and claims between them’ shall be determined by the arbitrator, language arguably capacious enough under this court’s previous rulings to include disputes over class arbitrability.” Slip op. at 8.

But the Court did not decide whether those “provisions, standing alone, clearly and unmistakably” required arbitration of the class arbitration consent issue, because the Court held that the class arbitration waiver foreclosed such a finding. Slip op. at 8, 6-7.

The court said “that this class arbitration bar operates not only to bar class arbitrations to the maximum extent permitted by law, but also to foreclose any suggestion that the parties meant to disrupt the presumption that questions of class arbitration are decided by courts rather than arbitrators.” Slip op. at 6-7. “[I]t is[,]” observed the Court, “difficult for us to imagine why parties would categorically prohibit class arbitrations to the maximum extent permitted by law, only to then take the time and effort to vest the arbitrator with the authority to decide whether class arbitrations shall be available.” Slip op. at 7.  “Having closed the door to class arbitrations to the fullest extent possible,” queried the Court rhetorically, “why would the parties then re-open the door to the possibility of class arbitrations, by announcing specific procedures to govern how such determinations shall be made?” Slip op. at 7.

Comparing the first three provisions “with the class arbitration bar at issue in this case, we conclude that none of them state with the requisite clear and unmistakable language that arbitrators, rather than courts, shall decide questions of class arbitrability.” Slip op. at 8.

Two of the provisions, said the Court, “include express exception clauses. . . , which “expressly negate any effect these provisions might have in the event they conflict with any other provision of the arbitration agreement—as they plainly do here in light of the class arbitration bar.” Slip op. at 9.

Even apart from “the exception clauses,” none of the three provisions “speak with any specificity to the particular matter of class arbitration.” Slip op. at 9. “[B]]y contrast[,]” said the Court, [t]he class arbitration bar. . . specifically prohibits arbitrators from arbitrating disputes as a class action, and permits the arbitration of individual claims only.” Slip op. at 9 (citations and quotations omitted).

Those three provisions “[a]ccordingly[]. . . do not clearly and unmistakably overcome the legal presumption—reinforced as it is here by the class arbitration bar—that courts, not arbitrators, must decide the issue of class arbitration.” Slip op. at 9.

In our next post we’ll analyze and discuss how Met Life and 20/20 Comm. effectively make an end run around Schein and what might have motivated those courts to rule as they did.

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Philip J. Loree Jr. is a co-founder and partner at law firm, Loree and Loree. This post was originally published on the firm’s blog, Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Forum, and has been republished with permission here.

Henry Schein Redux – The Appeals Court Decides “The Placement of the Carve-Out is Dispositive”

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)You may recall that the US Supreme Court last term in Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer and White Sales, Inc. rejected a “wholly groundless” exception to its general principles allocating arbitrability issues between court and arbitrator (the First Options rule that “Unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise, the question of whether the parties agreed to arbitrate is to be decided by the court, not the arbitrator.”).  The Supreme Court then sent the case back to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Yesterday, the Fifth Circuit issued its new opinion in that case (Archer and White Sales, Inc. v. Henry Schein, Inc., No. 16-41674, Aug. 14, 2019, available on TDM at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/legal-and-regulatory-detail.asp?key=22906, subscription required).  In that opinion, the Appeals Court concluded that the arbitration clause in question did not clearly and unmistakably allocate the relevant question to the arbitrators.  The Court then held that, based on the exclusion for “actions seeking injunctive relief” from arbitration under the relevant clause, the dispute in question was not arbitrable.  As explained more fully below, the appeals court relied on contract interpretation principles to reach this result.  The court thereby emphasized the importance of precise drafting of the arbitration clause and any exceptions – “the placement of the carve-out here is dispositive.”

The underlying court proceeding brought by Archer and White Sales, Inc. is an antitrust complaint against Henry Schein, Inc. and others relating to alleged anticompetitive agreements entered into among the defendants with respect to sales of dental equipment.  Complainant Archer and White Sales “alleges violations of federal and Texas antitrust law and seeks money damages and injunctive relief.”  The defendants argued that an exclusion in the relevant arbitration clause of “actions seeking injunctive relief” operated to prevent arbitrability of the dispute.

The arbitration clause in the underlying contract reads as follows (emphasis added):

Disputes. This Agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of North Carolina.  Any dispute arising under or related to this Agreement (except for actions seeking injunctive relief and disputes related to trademarks, trade secrets, or other intellectual property of Pelton & Crane), shall be resolved by binding arbitration in accordance with the arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association [(AAA)].  The place of arbitration shall be in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Under AAA Commercial Arbitration  Rule 7(a), “[t]he arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope, or validity of the arbitration agreement or to the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim.”  However, the Fifth Circuit interpreted this arbitration clause in the agreement to exclude actions seeking injunctive relief from arbitration.  By doing so, the parties, said the appeals court, had placed the relevant dispute entirely outside the AAA arbitration rules.  Thus, Rule 7(a) did not come into play, and the parties had not clearly and unmistakably delegated the issue of arbitrability of an action seeking injunctive relief to the arbitrator.

Finding that the exclusion in the arbitration clause was itself clear, the Court of Appeals itself then determined that the dispute was not arbitrable because the court claims sought injunctive relief in addition to damages.

The decision of the Fifth Circuit avoids reconsidering the issue raised by amicus and discussed by Justice Ginsburg in her separate Supreme Court opinion – do provisions in arbitration rules such AAA Rule 7(a) in fact constitute a clear and unmistakable delegation of arbitrability decisions to the arbitrator.  As the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted in footnote 11, “While both parties read the tea leaves in the questions asked by the Justices at oral argument, attempting to shepherd them to support their own positions, the Court declined to decide whether this agreement in fact delegated the arbitrability question.”

In the Fifth Circuit, precedent holds that an arbitration rule such as AAA Rule 7(a) satisfies the First Options test; “As we held in [Petrofac, Inc. v. DynMcDermott Petroleum Operations Co., 687 F.3d 671, 675 (5th Cir. 2012)], an arbitration agreement that incorporates the AAA Rules “presents clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability.””  That issue, as to which the ALI Restatement of The U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration takes the contrary position, therefore remains the subject of a circuit split among Circuit Courts of Appeals in the US to be resolved in the future by the US Supreme Court.

The manner in which the Fifth Circuit judges reached this conclusion is particularly relevant to patent licensing disputes, where the parties to a patent license agreement or similar IP agreement often provide for arbitration but contractually exclude patent validity, infringement and similar disputes from arbitration.

The Circuit Court of Appeals (Judge Patrick Higginbotham writing for a unanimous court) began its analysis in the customary two-step fashion, asking first if there is any arbitration agreement at all and thereafter considering whether “this claim is covered by the arbitration agreement” (footnotes omitted here and elsewhere).

We review a ruling on a motion to compel arbitration de novo.  Our inquiry proceeds in two steps.  The first is a matter of contract formation—“whether the parties entered into any arbitration agreement at all.”  Next we turn to the question of contract interpretation and ask whether “this claim is covered by the arbitration agreement.”

Judge Higginbotham then restated the well-known First Options “clearly and unmistakably” formulation for allocating the second question between court and arbitrator.

While ordinarily both steps are questions for the court, the parties can enter into an arbitration agreement that delegates to the arbitrator the power to decide whether a particular claim is arbitrable. The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that “parties can agree to arbitrate ‘gateway’ questions of ‘arbitrability,’ such as whether the parties have agreed to arbitrate or whether their agreement covers a particular controversy.”

When considering whether there was a valid delegation, “the court’s analysis is limited.” As always, we ask if the parties entered into a valid agreement. If they did, we turn to the delegation clause and ask “whether the purported delegation clause is in fact a delegation clause—that is, if it evinces an intent to have the arbitrator decide whether a given claim must be arbitrated.”  When determining that intent, “[c]ourts should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is ‘clear and unmistakable’ evidence that they did so.” If there is a valid delegation, the court must grant the motion to compel.

Here, the disputing parties had agreed that a valid arbitration agreement existed, leaving only the second step for consideration – was the particular claim covered by that agreement.  Archer and White argued that decision was for the courts to make.

Archer asserts that the AAA rules (and resulting delegation) only apply to disputes that fall outside of the arbitration clause’s carve-out for actions seeking injunctive relief. Under their reading, if a case falls within the carve-out, the agreement does not incorporate the AAA rules and the gateway arbitrability question is not delegated to an arbitrator.

Henry Schein argued in response that, by operation of AAA Commercial Arbitration Rule 7(a), the parties had expressly delegated that issue to the arbitrator.

[D]efendants argue that the agreement’s incorporation of the AAA rules ends the inquiry.  They maintain that the carve-out for actions seeking injunctive relief does not trump the parties’ delegation.  Defendants warn that to read the contract as Archer suggests would require the court to make a merits determination about the scope of the carve-out—whether this is indeed an action seeing injunctive relief—to answer the delegation question, precisely the category of inquiries a court is precluded from making in answering the delegation question.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with claimant Archer and White, holding that the “plain language” of the arbitration clause did not incorporate the AAA rules for disputes “under the carve-out”.

that is precisely the point—the placement of the carve-out here is dispositive. We cannot re-write the words of the contract. The most natural reading of the arbitration clause at issue here states that any dispute, except actions seeking injunctive relief, shall be resolved in arbitration in accordance with the AAA rules. The plain language incorporates the AAA rules—and therefore delegates arbitrability—for all disputes except those under the carve-out.  Given that carve-out, we cannot say that the Dealer Agreement evinces a “clear and unmistakable” intent to delegate arbitrability.

The appellate court then considered whether the “backdrop of a strong presumption in favor of arbitration” would result in referring the dispute to arbitration.  But the language of the exclusion in the arbitration clause, said the judges, was clear.  Moreover, the court noted that the clause excluded “actions seeking injunctive relief,” not “actions seeking only injunctive relief.”  The appellate court therefore refused to compel arbitration, even of only the claim for damages.

We note first that the arbitration clause creates a carve-out for “actions seeking injunctive relief.” It does not limit the exclusion to “actions seeking only injunctive relief,” nor “actions for injunction in aid of an arbitrator’s award.” Nor does it limit the carve-out to claims for injunctive relief. Such readings find no footing within the four corners of the contract. Under North Carolina law, “[w]hen the language of a contract is clear and unambiguous, effect must be given to its terms, and the court, under the guise of construction, cannot reject what the parties inserted or insert what the parties elected to omit.” The mere fact that the arbitration clause permits Archer to avoid arbitration by adding a claim for injunctive relief does not change the clause’s plain meaning. “While ambiguities in the language of the agreement should be resolved in favor of arbitration, we do not override the clear intent of the parties, or reach a result inconsistent with the plain text of the contract, simply because the policy favoring arbitration is implicated.” Fundamentally, defendants ask us to rewrite the unambiguous arbitration clause. We cannot.

It is noteworthy that the appeals court did not consider severing Archer and White’s remedial request for injunctive relief from its remedial request for damages, which might have resulted in sending the latter to arbitration but keeping the former in court.

The appellate panel’s decision in Henry Schein is of particular importance to intellectual property practitioners.  It is common in the marketplace for patent licensing and similar agreements to contain arbitration clauses.  However, those clauses often expressly exclude from arbitration a dispute for example, “concerning the validity, scope, infringement and essentiality of a patent or a patent claim.”  Moreover, it is extremely common in all sorts of contracts for an arbitration clause to include as well an express authorization for a disputing party to seek injunctive relief from the courts.

Thus, the Fifth Circuit has previously compelled arbitration of the scope question in another precedent, Crawford Professional Drugs, Inc. v. CVS Caremark Corp., 748 F.3d 249, 256 (5th Cir. 2014), under  an arbitration clause stating inter alia “nothing in the arbitration provision “shall prevent either party from seeking injunctive relief for breach of th[e Agreement.”

In the Ninth Circuit, though, the appeals court there has concluded that the scope of arbitrability was for the arbitrator to decide under an arbitration clause providing that “all” disputes arising out of or relating to the subject license agreement were to be arbitrated, and then containing a carve-out for certain IP and licensing claims.

The Ninth Circuit considered a similar agreement in Oracle Am., Inc. v. Myriad Group A.G.  The arbitration clause adopted arbitration rules delegating arbitrability issues to the arbitrator and contained a carve-out for certain intellectual property and licensing claims.  Because the claims carved-out by that agreement “ar[ose] out of or relat[ed] to” the Source License, and the agreement explicitly provided that any claim arising out of the Source License was subject to arbitration, the Ninth Circuit held that Oracle’s carve-out argument “conflate[ed] the scope of the arbitration clause . . . with the question of who decides arbitrability.30

****

30.  ****  The court noted that the issue with Oracle’s carve-out argument was that the two categories of exempted claims by definition were claims arising out of or relating to the Source License, which were explicitly subject to arbitration. Id. at 1076.  No such circularity exists in the contract at issue here.

Where, though, the meaning of a carve-out clause is ambiguous, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has previously allocated to the courts the scope question in NASDAQ OMX Grp., Inc. v. UBS Securities, LLC, 770 F.3d 1010 (2d Cir. 2014).

the parties in NASDAQ had not clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability “where a broad arbitration clause is subject to a qualifying provision that at least arguably covers the present dispute.”  Because there was ambiguity as to whether the parties intended to have arbitrability questions decided by an arbitrator—because the dispute arguably fell within the carve-out—the court held the arbitrability question was for the court to decide.

These varying precedents emphasize the point made by the Fifth Circuit in Henry Schein that the parties must take care in the drafting of their exclusionary clauses; “But that is precisely the point—the placement of the carve-out here is dispositive.  We cannot re-write the words of the contract.”

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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 https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

More Class: Fifth Circuit Sends Arbitrability to the Court, Not the Tribunal

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.

 

US Sup Ct: Will the “Next Big Arbitration Issue” Be Whether Provisions of Arbitration Rules Constitute Clear and Unmistakable Evidence That the Disputing Parties Allocated “Who Decides” Authority to the Arbitrators?

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two arbitration-related cases on Monday, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc. and Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela.  The issue before the Court in Henry Schein was whether or not there is a “wholly groundless” exception to the general Federal Arbitration Act caselaw rule that, if the parties have “clearly and unmistakably” allocated the “who decides” question to the arbitrators, then issues of jurisdiction/arbitrability are for the arbitrator to decide in the first instance, not the courts.

The facts of the Henry Schein case involved the relatively commonplace occurrence of a commercial arbitration agreement referencing arbitration rules (here, AAA Commercial Arbitration Rule 7(a)) that grant the arbitrators the power to decide their own jurisdiction.  The lower courts in Henry Schein, like many other Federal courts before them, concluded that provision of the Rules constituted “clear and unmistakable evidence” (as called for by the Supreme Court in First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan) allocating the “who decides” authority to the arbitrators, and then proceeded to consider whether or not an exception to that allocation exists if the claim of arbitrability is “wholly groundless”.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled below in Henry Schein that such a “wholly groundless” exception does exist.  Further, said the Court of Appeals, that “wholly groundless” exception applied in the dispute such that the Federal courts could refuse to compel arbitration in the circumstances.  The disappointed claimant then sought, and obtained, U.S. Supreme Court review on the question of whether such a “wholly groundless” exception to the “clear and unmistakable evidence” allocation rule exists under Federal arbitration law.

However, Prof. George Bermann of Columbia Law School, known to many of us as inter alia the chief reporter of the ALI’s Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration, felt moved to submit an amicus brief in Henry Schein questioning, not the issue expressly before the Court, but instead the underlying principle that incorporation of arbitration rules granting jurisdiction/arbitrability power to the arbitrators satisfies the “clear and unmistakable evidence” test for allocating “who decides” authority to the arbitrators .

Although a majority of courts have found the incorporation of rules containing such a provision to satisfy First Options’ “clear and unmistakable” evidence test, the ALI’s Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration has concluded, after extended debate, that these cases were incorrectly decided because incorporation of such rules cannot be regarded as manifesting the “clear and unmistakable” intention that First Options requires.

https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-1272/65270/20181001112810079_REPRINT%20Amicus-GAB.pdf .

Many of the Supreme Court Justices commented that this issue of “clear and unmistakable evidence … due to incorporation by reference” was not part of the Question Presented on which the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Henry Schein.  Based on those comments, it seems unlikely that the eventual decision of the Court in Henry Schein will resolve the issue posed by Prof. Bermann.  Nevertheless, Justices from across the judicial spectrum commented respectfully regarding Prof. Bermann’s amicus argument.  See comments and questions of Justice Ginsburg, Tr. 7:16-23; Justice Breyer, Tr. 49:15-23; Justice Gorsuch, Tr. 42:13-20; Justice Sotomayor, Tr. 38:4-7; Justice Alito, Tr. 35:7-36:4.

Counsel for the Petitioner did take substantive issue with Prof. Bermann’s argument, in addition to arguing that the issue was not within the Question Presented and thus in any event not before the Court.

What is going on in this case, if you look at the four corners of the delegation -of the arbitration agreement **** is that the arbitration agreement by its terms incorporates the rules of the American Arbitration Association and it does so very clearly. That is a quite common arrangement, particularly in commercial arbitrations like the one at issue here.

Then, if you take a look at the rules of the American Arbitration Association, those rules, and, in particular, Rule 7(a), clearly give the arbitrator the authority to decide arbitrability.  And under this Court’s decision in First Options, the relevant inquiry is whether or not the parties were willing to be bound by the arbitrator’s determination on the issue in question.

And so, with all due respect to Professor Bermann and his amicus brief, the position that he propounds has been rejected by every court of appeals to have considered this issue.  And if the Court has any interest in this issue, I would refer the Court to the very thoughtful opinion of the Tenth Circuit in the Belnap case, which discusses this issue in some detail.

Tr. 8:9-9:13.

The transcript of the oral argument in Henry Schein, available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-1272_bqmc.pdf, is very much worth reading in this regard.

The arguably positive comments by some Justices in reaction to Prof. Bermann’s amicus argument create the possibility that opportunistic counsel in other cases will see a signal that raising the principle to the Supreme Court in a future case might be worth the effort.  Consequently, I suggest that the “Next Big Arbitration Issue” to come to the U.S. Supreme Court may be whether or not an arbitration agreement incorporating arbitration rules that include within themselves a provision authorizing the arbitrators to rule on their own competence satisfies the “clear and unmistakable evidence” test in First Options for allocating “who decides” authority to the arbitrators in the first instance.

By the way, reading the tea leaves in the Henry Schein oral argument, at least some observers believe the comments/questions of the Supreme Court Justices indicate that the Court is not inclined to validate a “wholly groundless” exception to the allocation of “who decides” authority to the arbitrators.  See, e.g., http://www.scotusblog.com/2018/10/argument-analysis-justices-signal-opposition-to-vague-exceptions-that-would-limit-enforceability-of-arbitration-agreements/#more-276785.

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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 https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

US Sup Ct Grants Cert to Review Whether Courts Can Decline to Enforce Delegation of Arbitrability to Arbitrators When Court Concludes Arbitrability Claim is Wholly Groundless

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

Continuing their now years-long effort to mold the relationship between the courts and arbitrators, the US Supreme Court today granted certiorari in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 17-1272, to answer the question of “[w]hether the Federal Arbitration Act permits a court to decline to enforce an agreement delegating questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator if the court concludes the claim of arbitrability is “wholly groundless.””  In the lower appellate phase of this dispute, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had ruled last December that Federal courts did indeed have the authority to do so.

Granting this cert petition will allow the Supreme Court to resolve a “Circuit split” on the issue between the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Federal Circuits, holding on the one hand that Federal courts may decide an arbitrability issue if the claim for arbitrability is “wholly groundless,” and the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, holding on the other hand that if there is a contractual delegation of arbitrability to the arbitrators then the courts must compel arbitration to resolve the arbitrability issue even if it appears to the court that the claim of arbitrability is entirely groundless.

The dispute will be argued in the October Term of the Court.

The case record for this matter, including the appeals court decision and the filings relating to certiorari, can be found on www.Scotusblog.com at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/henry-schein-inc-v-archer-and-white-sales-inc/.

 

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 https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

Delaware Chancery Defines ‘Quick’ Court Inquiry Before Referral to Arbitration

By Kelly Zhang

An action for a preliminary injunction to enjoin arbitration proceedings by officers of a Delaware limited liability company has been denied by the Delaware Court of Chancery.

The decision supports the vitality of a limited liability company’s use of arbitration in its operating agreement. But as it develops the Delaware business court’s view of cases to be sent for arbitration, the case arguably increases the chancery court’s gatekeeping function. Angus v. Ajio LLC, Civil Action No. 11895-VCG (May 13, 2016)(available for download at http://bit.ly/1sXAChn).

The matter concerned whether a dispute was arbitrable, and the question was whether the dispute should go to an arbitrator, or be decided by a court. The underlying suit included allegations of a breach of fiduciary duties and fraud brought by some members the company, MoGo Sport LLC, against MoGo’s officers, for entering into a transaction that ultimately sold the company.

Traditionally, questions of arbitrability have been left to the arbitrators, once a court has found that parties had agreed to submit their disputes to arbitration. The landmark case of Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Construction Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24 (1983) confirmed that the Federal Arbitration Act created a “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements,” and that “any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration.”

This suggested a first look to the arbitration tribunal, which further U.S. Supreme Court cases developed. But the determination of arbitrability ultimately follows the contract. First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U. S. 938 (1995), enshrined the principle that “courts should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is “clea[r] and unmistakabl[e]” evidence that they did so.” (Internal citation omitted.) The First Options inquiry turned upon what parties agreed to; the question was settled by the court once it was shown that parties had not agreed to arbitrate.

Subsequent cases like Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., 537 U.S. 79 (2002), and Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444 (2003), further narrowed courts’ ability to decide on arbitrability.

Howsam focused on time bars on arbitration, which the Supreme Court ruled was to be determined by arbitrators. Green Tree Financial further held that an ambiguity in the arbitration provision was to be resolved by an arbitration tribunal.

But the May Angus opinion in Delaware’s Chancery Court doesn’t follow the general deference toward arbitration. It shows the Delaware business court examining the frivolity of claims.

In his 12-page opinion, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III affirmed a two-pronged test to show a “clear and unmistakable” intent to arbitrate issues of arbitrability in James & Jackson LLC v. Willie Gary LLC, 906 A.2d 76 (Del. 2006)(available at http://bit.ly/1NZBonr).

The test, Glasscock wrote, requires a “’clear and unmistakable evidence’ of intent to arbitrate arbitrability . . . where there is:

‘1) an arbitration clause that generally provides for arbitration of all disputes; and
2) a reference to a set of arbitration rules that empower arbitrators to decide arbitrability, such as the American Arbitration Association . . . Rules.’”

Glasscock then expanded the test by citing McLaughlin v. McCann, 942 A.2d 616 (Del. Ch. 2008)(available at http://bit.ly/1RGfmke), noting that

only where “a non-frivolous argument in favor of substantive arbitrability exists and the first two prongs of Willie Gary are satisfied, [should] the Court . . . defer to the arbitrator.” [Emphasis added; citation omitted.]

The Angus opinion notes that the additional requirement serves the interests of justice by preventing wasted resources from the adjudication or arbitration of frivolous claims, allowing the court to strike the frivolous claims. But the court’s examination is limited; cases where “more than a quick, facial review of claims would be required” would proceed to arbitration.

Out of the four officers against whom the arbitration demand was brought, only Bruce Angus was a party to the MoGo operating agreement. Consistent with the contractual approach, the motion to halt the arbitration preliminarily against the remaining three officers was granted, as it was held that they would more likely would not be bound to arbitrate because of the lack of contractual obligations under the LLC operating agreement.

On the other hand, the court found at least one “non-frivolous” claim with regard to the original plaintiffs’ standing to force arbitration. As a result, Vice Chancellor Glasscock denied the motion for a preliminary injunction in Angus’s case, and deferred the decision to the arbitrators on the substantive issue of whether the case should be arbitrated.

The court conducted an analysis to determine if there were non-frivolous claims to arrive at the conclusion that the case should be arbitrated.

First, Angus and the other officers who sought to block the arbitration argued that the LLC members who filed for arbitration over the company’s sale lacked standing to enforce arbitration under the operating agreement when they cited a covenant not to compete. The theory was that only MoGo itself could enforce the non-compete provisions, and not the Members.

Glasscock saw these “issues of standing by signatories to a contract to enforce breaches of that contract” as non-frivolous, and that the officers failed to demonstrate that the original plaintiffs’ assertion of standing was frivolous. That finding sent the case to arbitrators for the determination of whether the case arbitrable.

In addition, the defendant officers had said that the arbitration claims against them for a breach of fiduciary duties were outside the scope of the LLC operating agreement because the contract was silent on fiduciary duty.

The court noted that the arbitration provision only covered disputes “among Members or former Member over the provisions of the Operating Agreement.” [Emphasis is the court’s.] It said that whether a breach-of-fiduciary-duties claim would arise from the agreement, and whether the agreement’s silence on the point incorporates default fiduciary duties from state law, was a “nice question” that needed deeper examination.

“This question,” Glasscock wrote, “which warrants more than a cursory inquiry by the Court into the frivolousness of the claim, should be referred to arbitration” under the parties’ agreement.

Angus arguably paves the way for courts to have more say in deciding the arbitrability of disputes despite arbitration provisions. “Litigants’ economy,” the opinion notes, mandates courts to conduct at least the “quick, facial review” of the frivolousness of claims, discussed above, before allowing them to proceed to arbitration. Cases would have to both show a clear intent to arbitrate, as well as present non-frivolous claims, in order to strike a balance between serving the economy and providing parties the benefits of their bargain.

Attorneys from both sides declined to comment.

The case proceeds. An answer and counter-claim was filed by the MoGo LLC members, as they proceed on their fiduciary and fraud claims against the officers not subject to arbitration, on May 27.

The author was a Summer 2016 CPR Institute summer intern and is a third-year LL.B. student from the Singapore Management University.