Continuing its focus on arbitration, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday granted certiorari in Viking River Cruises v. Moriana, No. 20-1573, where the question presented is whether the Federal Arbitration Act requires enforcement of an arbitration agreement that waives a signatory’s ability to bring a labor law claim on behalf of California labor law agencies in court pursuant to California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA).
The official issue presented:
Whether the Federal Arbitration Act requires enforcement of a bilateral arbitration agreement providing that an employee cannot raise representative claims, including under the California Private Attorneys General Act.
PAGA enables an individual employee to seek a court judgment for breach of California labor laws as a “private attorney general” on behalf of the state of California.
An employee bringing a PAGA action does so as the “proxy” or “agent” of California’s labor law enforcement agencies, who are the real parties in interest. A successful employee-plaintiff may obtain civil penalties under PAGA for violations committed against similarly placed employees, Cal. Lab. Code § 2699(g)(1), just as the state could if it brought the enforcement action directly. Civil penalties recovered in a PAGA representative action must be allocated 75% to the state enforcement agency and 25% to the aggrieved employee. Cal. Lab. Code § 2699(i).
California state courts, and federal courts applying the California law, have held that a PAGA representative claim in court cannot be overcome by an arbitration agreement. Employers consider that jurisprudence to be contrary to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
The Supreme Court will now take up that issue for review.
The Court’s docket page for Viking River Cruises with filings is linked above. The Scotusblog page containing the lower court opinion and amicus briefs can be found here.
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It has been a busy week for arbitration at the Supreme Court, and with recent moves, the Court has provided itself a full arbitration docket, with six separate cases pending in five matters, only one of which has been argued, as the others await argument dates.
Last Friday, the Court accepted two cases and consolidated them into one argument, date to be announced, on a long-running issue about the reach of a federal law that provides discovery in foreign matters. Details on the Dec. 10 cert grant on the consolidated cases, which will determine whether the law applies to discovery in international arbitration matters, can be found at John Pinney, “International Arbitration Is Back at the Supreme Court with Today’s Cert Grant on Two Section 1782 Cases,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 10) (available here).
The Court on Friday also accepted a case on Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 1 that will examine the extent of the exception from the FAA involving workers in interstate commerce. For details on that new case, as well as a roundup of the six arbitration cases now at the U.S. Supreme Court, see Russ Bleemer, “Court Adds a Third Arbitration Case in Friday’s Cert Granted Order List,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 10) (available here).
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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panel of Distinguished Neutrals. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups. 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). He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management. He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.
One of the advantages of arbitration over litigation is efficiency. Arbitration does not have to contend with the numerous rules of civil procedure. This saves time and, therefore, cost. However, parties to arbitration still expect and do receive procedural fairness in the adjudication of their disputes.
The concept of efficiency combined with procedural fairness is sometimes challenging for arbitration counsel from different jurisdictions who argue that, without all the court system’s procedural steps, parties do not receive fairness.
Trained commercial arbitrators would argue they are misconstruing the whole arbitration process. One of the fundamentals of arbitration is that, at the first pre-hearing conference, the parties have input into the procedural rules that will govern the process before those rules are set out in the first preliminary order.
Unfortunately, document disclosure and witness presentation are two areas that can bedevil the tribunal, arbitration counsel and the parties.
The Protocol’s stated aims are: (1) to give parties to arbitration agreements the opportunity to adopt certain modes of dealing with the disclosure of documents and the presentation of witnesses; and where they have not done so, (2) to assist CPR or other tribunals in carrying out their responsibilities regarding the conduct of arbitral proceedings.
The Protocol does not supersede the institutional rules or ad hoc arbitrations. Instead, it helps tribunals to refer to the Protocol in organizing and managing arbitrations under rules such as those for CPR (for example, CPR’s arbitration rules are available here), other institutions, or ad hoc arbitrations.
In dealing with the disclosure of documents, the Protocol considers the philosophy underlying document disclosure; attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product protection; party-agreed disclosure; disclosure of electronic information, and tribunal orders for the disclosure of documents and information. It provides schedules of the wording that can be adopted by parties in their agreements and tribunals in their orders.
In the section on the presentation of witnesses, the Protocol reminds arbitrators to bring to the attention of the parties at the pre-hearing conference the options for adducing evidence and encourage the exploration of those options with the parties.
The first option is that the parties can agree that the tribunal will decide the arbitration on documents only. It then sets out guidance on how evidence can be submitted by witness statements, oral testimony, depositions, and presentations by party-appointed experts. Also included are procedures that may be applied to the conduct of the hearing.
This does not negate party-agreed procedures for the presentation of witnesses but, of course, the tribunal must be careful not to allow the parties to encumber the arbitration with all the court rules. The Protocol also includes schedules setting out the modes of presenting witnesses, including experts.
This Protocol contains guidance that most commercial arbitrators know, but it is another important tool that tribunals can use to educate counsel and the parties while bringing efficiency into arbitration procedures.
I have added it to my toolkit!
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The author, a mediator and arbitrator who heads Toronto-based Isiko, an ADR consulting firm, conducts adjudicative processes in estates, family, civil, and commercial disputes. She is a Professor of ADR at Centennial College, Toronto, Canada, and a member of the CPR Panel of Distinguished Neutrals.
Here are the matters discussed, and links on this CPR Speaks blog to details on the cases and potential cases along with resources including links to lower court opinions and briefs.
Morgan v. Sundance Inc., No. 21-328, an employment case on the extent to which a federal court may defer to an arbitration agreement, which the nation’s top Court agreed to hear last week. For details, see Mark Kantor, “U.S. Supreme Court Adds an Arbitration Issue: Is Proof of Prejudice Needed to Defeat a Motion to Compel?” CPR Speaks (Nov. 15) (available here).
The Court has scheduled two cases involving the reach of 28 U.S.C § 1782 for a Dec. 3 conference that will determine whether it should hear the matters or let lower court opinions stand. The cases examine whether the statute, which authorizes “any interested person” in a proceeding before a “foreign or international tribunal” to ask for and receive discovery from a person in the United States, covers international arbitration tribunals. The cases, AlixPartners LLP v. The Fund for Protection of Investors’ Rights in Foreign States, No. 21-518, and ZF Automotive US Inc. v. Luxshare Ltd., No. 21-401, are discussed at Bryanna Rainwater, “The Law on Evidence for Foreign Arbitrations Returns to the Supreme Court,” CPR Speaks (Oct. 22, 202) (available here). CPR has filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to accept and decide the AlixPartners case; the NYC-based nonprofit which publishes this blog did not take a position in the case. The details on the filing can be found at “CPR Asks Supreme Court to Consider Another Foreign Tribunal Evidence Case,” CPR Speaks (Nov. 12) (available here) (containing information and links to CPR’s previous amicus brief in Servotronics v. Rolls Royce PLC, No. 20-794, another Section 1782 case that the Supreme Court dismissed in September and removed from the Court’s October argument calendar).
Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143, an employment discrimination case that dives into the jurisdiction of federal courts under Federal Arbitration Act sections on enforcing and overturning arbitration awards. The case was most recently discussed on CPR Speaks at Russ Bleemer, “Supreme Court Hears Badgerow, and Leans to Allowing Federal Courts to Broadly Decide on Arbitration Awards and Challenges,” CPR Speaks (Nov 2) (available here).
The question in AlixPartners LLP, et al. v. The Fund for Protection of Investors’ Rights in Foreign States, No. 21-518, is whether the law on international tribunals applies to arbitration panel requests.
It’s the second Supreme Court amicus request by CPR in 2021.
CPR didn’t take a position in its Monday amicus filing, but instead asked the Court to hear the matter and clear up a federal circuit split over whether overseas arbitration tribunals may obtain requests for discovery under the law as, say, a foreign court can do.
The reach of 28 U.S.C § 1728 has become a hot topic in federal appellate courts over the past two years. It was thought to be nearing a conclusion when the nation’s top Court granted cert on the issue in Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, et al., No. 20-794.
But while the parties waited for the October Court argument date, they also proceeded in arbitration. After a July award by a London tribunal, the Court granted the parties’ request to dismiss the case in September, and it was removed from the docket. For more on Servotronics’ details and history, see Bryanna Rainwater, “Case Dismissed: Supreme Court Lightens Its Arbitration Load as Servotronics Is Removed from 2021-22 Docket,” CPR Speaks (Sept. 8) (available here).
CPR last January also had filed an amicus brief, linked at the CPR Speaks post, urging the Court to accept Servotronics. That brief also can be found at the Court’s docket page here.
CPR’s motion for leave to file the AlixPartners amicus brief, as well as the brief itself, is posted on the Supreme Court’s docket page for the case, linked above, and can be accessed directly here. The matter is expected to be considered by the Court at a conference before year end.
The question of whether a foreign or international tribunal includes arbitration panels for the purposes of providing evidence under a federal court order is back before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is being briefed and is expected to be added for a conference in which the Court’s members will decide whether to hear the case.
The issue had been set as one of the first tasks for the Court in the opening week of the new 2021-2022 term, earlier this month.
But in September, the Court dismissed the case at the parties’ request, and the issue about the reach of 28 U.S.C. §1782—”Assistance to foreign and international tribunals and to litigants before such tribunals”–disappeared from the court’s docket.
The latest case, ZF Automotive US, Inc., v. Luxshare, Ltd., Docket No. 21-401, filed Sept. 10, presents the identical question as the dismissed case, with one key difference. The issue presented is:
Whether 28 U.S.C. § 1782(a), which permits litigants to invoke the authority of United States courts to render assistance in gathering evidence for use in “a foreign or international tribunal,” encompasses private commercial arbitral tribunals, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th and 6th Circuits have held, or excludes such tribunals, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd, 5th and 7th Circuits have held.
The difference in the new version of the case, according to the petitioners, is that it is a “live controversy” and therefore “free from a potential jurisdictional hurdle” that plagued Servotronics, Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, No. 20-794, the case that was dismissed by the nation’s top Court on Sept. 29.
The hurdle referred to by the ZF Automotive petitioners, a Michigan auto parts manufacturer and a subsidiary of Germany’s ZF Friedrichshafen AG, and two executives associated with the company, is Servotronics’ mootness, because the discovery in the case was no longer needed in the face of the arbitration proceedings and the award. (The cert petition is available here.)
Servotronics had sought to end the Circuit split about the interpretation of the meaning “foreign international tribunal.”The Fourth and Sixth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have held that 28 U.S.C. § 1782 encompasses private commercial arbitrable tribunals, as noted in the new ZF Automotive petition and its question presented, while the Second, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits have gone with a more limited approach which does not consider these private arbitrable tribunals to fit within the meaning of the statute and, therefore, have denied discovery requests.
Servotronics was scheduled for oral argument on Oct. 5, the second day of the Court’s term, but removed from the calendar after the arbitration in the case was conducted in the spring, and the parties moved to dismiss the case in the wake of a July award.
For more on the Servotronics case dismissal and the case history, see Bryanna Rainwater, “Case Dismissed: Supreme Court Lightens Its Arbitration Load as Servotronics Is Removed from 2021-22 Docket,” CPR Speaks (Sept. 8) (available here).
The ZF Automotive petitioners urge the Court to clear up the circuit split and decide the true interpretative meaning of §1782. They argue that Servotronics amicus briefs warn that without resolving the §1782 issue for private international tribunals, there could be a disincentive for parties from entering into international contractual agreements.
Respondent Luxshare, a Hong Kong limited liability company, bought ZF AG’s Global Body Control Systems business in August 2017. During this transaction, the parties signed a Master Purchase Agreement which provides that disputes are to be governed under German law. The petitioners noted that Luxshare waited to file a §1782 application for discovery for more than two years after the transaction’s closing in pursuit of the purchaser’s fraud allegations.
Because the arbitration agreement specified that the DIS—that is, the German Arbitration Institute–would provide the panel to arbitrate the issues between the parties, the petitioner argues that the panel does not satisfy the requirement of being a “tribunal” within the meaning of §1782.
Luxshare filed the original claim in Michigan’s federal Eastern U.S. District Court under §1728 to seek discovery—documents and testimony–from ZF Automotive US and the officers before the arbitration. U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony P. Patti granted the discovery in a limited scope, and ZF Automotive US’s subsequent motion to stay was denied by the district court.
Arguing that the interpretation of the Sixth Circuit—which oversees Michigan cases–is mistaken, the petitioners cite legal scholars, the Court’s own precedent and dictionary definitions to support their proposition that §1728(a) “includes only governmental or intergovernmental adjudicative bodies, and excludes private arbitrators that have no sovereign authority.”
In its reply brief, Luxshare counters that the case is a poor vehicle to examine the statute. “[T]he question presented may not be dispositive of this case, and may not even be necessary to resolve this case,” the reply notes, because even if the foreign tribunal definition included the DIS arbitration panel, their adversaries maintain that there are case-specific reasons for vacating discovery in the case. (The reply brief in opposition to certiorari is available here.)
Moreover, the reply notes that, like Servotronics, the case is likely to become moot before the Court can rule due to the unlikelihood of the petitioners agreeing to extend the time for arbitration.
In fact, the petitioners filed an Oct. 15 application for a Supreme Court stay on discovery to avoid the mootness issue with Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is the Court’s justice for the Sixth Circuit. (Available here.)
In a response filed yesterday, Luxshare contended that the ZF Automotive petitioners had not met the standards to grant a stay, and added that the stay would injure the company because it “will deny Luxshare the basic right to have its fraud claims against ZF US adjudicated based on the evidence.”
Luxshare also wrote in its reply that the Court should deny the stay “for the additional reason that it would disserve the public interest, by both frustrating Congress’s purpose in enacting § 1782(a) and permitting fraud to go unremedied.”
An order had not been issued as of this post.
In addition: ZF Automotive is no longer alone before the Court on § 1782. The Luxshare brief advocating that the Court deny the cert petition points out that AlixPartners, LLC v. Fund for Protection of Investor Rights in Foreign States, No. 21-518, covers the same turf. The Oct. 5 petition (available here) for certiorari asks, similarly, “Whether an ad hoc arbitration to resolve a commercial dispute between two parties is a ‘foreign or international tribunal’ under 28 U.S.C. § 1782(a) where the arbitral panel does not exercise any governmental or quasi-governmental authority.”
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The author, a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School, is a 2021 CPR Fall Intern. Alternatives editor Russ Bleemer contributed to this post.
CPR’s Arbitration Committee conducted a Sept. 23 Zoom on recent India conflict resolution developments. The session also provided an update on the “CPR Corporate Counsel Manual for Cross-Border Dispute Resolution–India Supplement.” (See the new supplement on CPR’s website at https://bit.ly/3oR6y7l.)
Viren Mascarenhas, a partner in King & Spalding’s London and New York offices who is the India Supplement’s co-editor and CPR Arbitration Committee vice chair, moderated the discussion. The panel included:
Tapasi Sil, general counsel–South Asia, GE Renewable Energy, Dehli, India
Sanjeev K. Kapoor, partner, Khaitan & Co., New Dehli, India
Quentin Pak, director, Burford Capital, Singapore
For more on the panelists’ and the program’s background, see CPR’s website here.
Viren Mascarenhas kicked off the discussion, welcoming the panelists, and updating on the new version of the CPR Corporate Counsel Manual for Cross-Border Dispute Resolution–India Supplement.
Tapasi Sil provided a view on her international work as an in-house counsel, and how business sees the development of India arbitration from her position as GE Renewable Energy counsel. She acknowledged the positive impacts amendments to the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996, but she also noted that business might face strains in using arbitration over time and costs.
Sil also noted a lack of expertise in commercial and technical knowledge required by the current India arbitrators. She said she hoped that India would welcome diversity and inclusion in arbitration in the future, and increase the numbers of women arbitrators.
Panelist Rishab Gupta also addressed the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996, which he said is based on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration (1985). While pointing out many similarities of the Indian arbitration law with other common law jurisdictions, he noted that the law still required multiple amendments due to cultural factors such as:
A long history of having only ad hoc arbitration and a lack of institutional arbitration;
The need for a more professional arbitration body that focuses on arbitration expertise emphasizing commercial and technical knowledge;
A lack of professional arbitrators, and more focus on litigation for dispute resolution;
A lack of trust in the arbitration process, which, according to Gupta, is a result of the above three factors, and
The frequent move to Singapore as an arbitration seat for most corporate and cross-border disputes.
Shaneen Parikh of Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas covered India’s current Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996 amendment. She spoke about the April pro-arbitration judgment from the Indian Supreme Court, citing Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman in PASL Wind Solutions v. GE Power Conversion India (available, after cutting and pasting, at https://bit.ly/2WZpll8), where it was concluded that two Indian parties could choose a foreign seat of arbitration.
The judgment, noted Parikh, upholds a fundamental ADR principle, party autonomy. She also spoke about the interim relief covered in Section 9 (available, after cutting and pasting, at https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1079220) of the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996.
Furthermore, in the PASL Wind Solutions case, India Supreme Court Justice Nariman referred to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Award, better known as the New York Convention (see www.newyorkconvention.org), to rule that different international commercial arbitration and foreign awards are enforceable. In the decision, Parikh pointed out, Justice Nariman also held that awards considerations should involve the territory involved, not the parties’ nationality.
Parikh concluded her segment of the panel discussion by discussing the need for more institutional arbitration for domestic and foreign matters.
Khaitan’s Sanjeev Kapoor discussed the interim arbitration procedures and how they are being enforced in India. He said that there are three major issues often faced by the Indian courts:
1) interim orders by arbitration tribunals or domestic arbitration institutions;
2) interim orders by emergency arbitrators in India, and interim orders from foreign arbitration tribunals, and
3) challenges to foreign awards, though he added that there are not many challenges when it comes to enforcing domestic awards in India.
Kapoor said that interim relief involves getting the award from a domestic tribunal and then filing an application under Section 9 of the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996. He also discussed PASL Wind Solutions.
Burford’s Quentin Pak shared his thoughts on the Indian capital market and third-party funding. He pointed out three major factors he said he believes are the factors in the increase in the third-party funding of international arbitration proceedings:
1) Singapore and Hong Kong are passing legislation encouraging third-party funding of arbitration.
2) International companies prefer the Singapore International Arbitration Centre over domestic seats, and
3) The Covid-19 pandemic put pressure on corporations’ balance sheets, accelerating the use of third-party funding.
Pak concluded by talking about the requirement of funding in India-seated arbitrations, and the monetization of India awards because of the size and growth of the Indian market to international investors.
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The author, a CPR 2021 Fall Intern, is an LLM candidate at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, at Malibu, Calif.’s Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.
An Oct. 1 College of Commercial Arbitrators online program provided interesting nuts and bolts on arbitration before proceedings begin.
The CCA, an invite-only membership group of about 250 arbitrators based in Austin, Texas, that advocates for best practices, presented the first of a series of 20th anniversary arbitrator talks with Juris Publishing of New York.
“Using the Pre-Hearing Conference to Win Your Commercial Arbitration (CCA Series, Session I),” featured the following panelists:
The panel discussed issues surrounding preliminary hearings, including preparation before the hearing, knowledge of the arbitral rules that will govern the preliminary hearing, and advice for speaking with counsel beforehand.
The panel members stressed the value of flexibility among the parties and the need to come prepared to the preliminary hearing. Tyrone Holt advised, “You need to be as prepared to talk to the arbitrator as the arbitrator is to talk to you.” Laura Kaster noted, “One of the things that I think is very different about arbitration is that the advocates have an opportunity to define the process if they want to.”
Holt added, “As an arbitrator I come to the preliminary hearing with three modes and three goals. My first mode is to listen,” as a way to gather information and see if the parties are in line with the rules of arbitration they chose. He continued, “My second mode . . . is to try mediate, cajole, [and] serve as a communication link to resolve by agreement those disputes which you have, or disagreements that need to be addressed, in order to get a scheduling order in place.”
The final goal “which is by default, when necessary,” said Holt, “is to decide those issues which need to be decided that you all can’t agree upon during the scheduling conference.”
When asking whether the parties should routinely meet ahead of the preliminary hearing, Laura Kaster, who heads her own independent ADR practice, noted, “I think this is a topic that actually . . . arbitrators differ about, and differ in different cases about.”
Panelist Eugene Farber said that he encourages the practice “because it saves time and money,” which is a key aspect and drawing point for parties interested in alternative dispute resolution. But he cautioned that “it depends on the nature of the case. If I perceive that counsel are not getting along, . . . and this is a really significant dispute, then I won’t do it.”
The panel also discussed issues surrounding subpoenas and depositions, noting arbitration’s difference from courts and that the practice is not subject to traditional civil procedure rules. Farber noted that “this is complicated. . . . In some states like New York, and I think Illinois, counsel has the independent right to issue subpoenas, so that makes it more complicated. If you’re in one of those states, you may want to check with your arbitrator because a lot of arbitrators don’t like that. They don’t want counsel issuing their own subpoenas. They want to control their own proceeding.”
Farber also cautioned that, on the other hand, “There are some states and federal circuits that say that an arbitrator does not have the right to issue a subpoena to a third-party witness.”
As to arbitration hearing confidentiality, Laura Kaster said that “this is an area that most people confuse. Arbitration is private, but . . . there aren’t constrictions on confidentiality with respect to everyone. Most of the rules apply to the arbitral institution and the arbitrators but many of the rules do not apply to the parties, the counsel and the witnesses.”
She further stressed the need for witnesses to be subject to confidentiality since they are often overlooked.
When discussing relief requested and dispositive motions, the panel had differing views. On granting relief, Tyrone Holt said he uses the practice of setting out relief requested early on to avoid a possible “fishing expedition” for relief.
But panelists Laura Kaster and Eugene Farber noted that there are times when the amount or type of relief requested may change over the course of discovery and disclosure.
The panel members agreed that a request for a dispositive motion is a tricky subject. Farber noted that arbitrators are more reluctant than a typical trial judge to grant dispositive motions. “We got to get it right,” he said, “because there’s no appeal” in arbitration which makes the arbitrator’s decision more final than a judge’s ruling. Farber suggested that using an “ex-judge arbitrator” in these situations may be helpful.
Overall, the panel suggested that to make a positive impression on your arbitrator, come to the preliminary hearing well prepared. Kaster reminded the online attendees that “it is a small room when you’re in an arbitration. [In] a small room or a small Zoom, you have to keep the civility level up and the antagonism down.”
Holt said, “Come prepared based upon the facts, the law and the rules.” Farber advised to “not be particularly hard-nosed,” especially in light of family or personal issues in relation to the other parties in scheduling the session. The panel members emphasized as important arbitration management skills the need for knowing the rules, making an effort to speak to the other side before the session, being courteous, and perhaps even using humor when appropriate.
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The author, a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School, is a 2021 CPR Fall Intern.
At the three-week session concluding July 16, the commission adopted the UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules and the Explanatory Notes to the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules. These rules and notes complement and are intended to be read together with UNCITRAL’s well-known arbitration rules, which are for resolving international disputes and applicable both in administered arbitrations under the auspices of an arbitral institution, as well as in ad hoc arbitrations.
The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules were originally developed as an alternative to other major rule systems. UNCITRAL’s innovative rules were initially viewed with skepticism, but over time, they have been frequently used in investment arbitrations, commercial arbitrations, arbitrations between states, and between states and individuals, such as for the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunals and several bilateral investment treaties. Latham & Watkins Guide to International Arbitration (2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2VeZKU8).
The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules have gone through three versions, in 1976, 2010 (revised to meet the needs of modern business including improvements to procedural efficiency, inclusion of provisions on multi-party arbitration and the development of rules on interim measures; available at https://bit.ly/3i7UrPq), and 2013 (incorporated rules on transparency for investment arbitrations based on treaties; available at https://bit.ly/2UZMEKH). See general background on the rules from UNCITRAL at https://bit.ly/3l6RyjD.
In 2018, UNCITRAL mandated Working Group II to explore ways to improve the efficiency of the arbitral proceedings through streamlining and simplifying procedures, resulting in the drafting of the UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules. The goal is to reach a final dispute resolution in a cost- and time-effective manner while ensuring due process and fair treatment for the disputants. (See https://undocs.org/en/A/CN.9/934 for the 2018 statement on expedited rules.)
For coverage of the early drafting process of the UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules, see Piotr Wójtowicz & Franco Gevaerd, “How UNCITRAL’s Working Group II on Arbitration Is Analyzing the Field to Help Expedited Processes” 37 Alternatives 90 (June 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/377Nfwg), and Piotr Wójtowicz & Franco Gevaerd, “The Framework: The U.N.’s Working Group II Debates New Expedited Arbitration Rules,” 37 Alternatives 99 (July/August 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3l5OLqS).
Special features in the UNCITRAL expedited arbitration rules include the following:
Disputes under the expedited procedures shall be settled in accordance with the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules as modified by the expedited rules.
The expedited rules shall apply only with express consent by the disputants.
To facilitate speedy constitution of the tribunal, the claimant must include, with its notice of arbitration, the proposal of an appointment authority and the arbitrator. The notice of arbitration constitutes the claimant’s statement of claim. The respondent then has 15 days to file a response to the notice of arbitration. By contrast, under UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, the time to respond is 30 days from the receipt of the notice of arbitration.
When the disputants cannot agree on an appointing authority, any disputant can request that the Permanent Court of Arbitration Secretary-General designate the appointing authority or serve as appointing authority. The PCA Secretary-General has discretion to decline serving as appointing authority and designate another authority if it deems it more appropriate. In this way, the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules have deviated from the default two-step designation/appointment procedure found in the non-expedited UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules.
The tribunal has discretion in shaping the proceedings, including extending or abridging timeframes (except for award issuance, as discussed in the bullet below) and determining whether hearings will be held or evidence taken. This discretion represents an expansion of the discretion contained in the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules.
The time period for rendering the award employs a bifurcated approach. If the tribunal considers that it is at risk of not rendering an award within nine months, it shall propose a final extended time limit. If all disputants agree, the extension is considered adopted. If a party objects to the extension, however, any party may make a request that the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules no longer apply to the arbitration. After hearing the disputants, the tribunal may then decide that it will instead conduct the proceedings in accordance with the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, which do not contain the time limits.
The most contentious issue was the last bullet point above regarding the time period for rendering the award. Working Group II spent more than six hours debating on this point during the 54th session, focusing on how to balance the policy interest of promoting a truly expedited process with the goal of ensuring that the result of that process would be enforceable through the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, better known as the New York Convention.
At one point, the U.S. delegation objected vehemently that “[u]sing this approach, as the default in the rules, creates a very concerning precedent for an uncontrolled instrument in our delegation’s experience. . . . That is why we have drafted the compromise language that . . . seeks to bridge the gap between delegations like ours, who are very concerned about adopting a system that will likely produce unknowable awards, and those delegations who primarily are concerned that without a hard stop at nine months, the rules will enable arbitrators who were not very diligent, or who simply procrastinated to continue to take extensions.”
There were more concerns about protecting those with lesser means and bargaining power:
The U.S. delegation noted, “We think that given that these rules may be used by unsophisticated parties because they are expedited, . . . one of the goals is to reach out to parties who might be otherwise deterred from pursuing arbitration because of the cost. . . .”
The Israel delegation point out that “[t]here could be concerns of parties with weaker bargaining powers that would have to be essentially compelled to agree to this. . . .”
While the debate was heated, ultimately the member states drafted an innovative approach to reach a consensus.
The UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules will appear together with the explanatory notes toward the end of the year as an appendix to the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. In the fall, Working Group II will deliberate on rules about early dismissal of frivolous claims that will require modifications to the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. Working Group II will post the final rules, and currently has the drafts, here.
In addition, UNCITRAL is contemplating developing a new framework for adjudication. commonly known as dispute resolution boards, to complement the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. There has been a recurring expression of interest within UNCITRAL member states in the principle of rapid decision common to adjudication in construction projects. The U.S. delegation noted that it hoped that this principle can be adapted to expedite the resolution of disputes in other long-term contracts, or at least to mitigate the impact of those disputes.
UNCITRAL expects to conduct colloquiums to discuss adjudication next spring. With the adoption of the expedited rules, UNCITRAL is taking steps to expand the use of arbitration as a method of dispute resolution available to a wider range of parties.
Thomas W. Walsh, special counsel based in the New York office of Freshfields, who in his arbitration work focuses on UNCITRAL matters and worked on an early draft of the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules, said that the rules “are a welcome example of the arbitration community responding to the needs of the businesses that use arbitration. If parties have a commercial need to expedite the resolution of their dispute, the rules offer a thoughtful, ready-made procedure that they can select to meet that commercial need.”
The UNCITRAL Expedited Rules eliminate many of the obstacles that made arbitration costly and overly time-consuming, and the role of UNCITRAL as a global trend-setter on arbitration means that these new provisions are likely to be used as models worldwide.
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The author, an LLM candidate at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, has covered UNCITRAL’s 54th Session proceedings for CPR Speaks as a 2021 CPR Summer Intern. Her articles can be found using the search box on the upper right of this page.
It has become common to report on federal circuit court decisions deferring “who decides” gateway arbitrability issues to arbitrators based on the adoption by contract parties of a set of arbitration rules containing a “competence-competence” clause, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court consistently declining to take on that question.
In DDK Hotels LLC et al v. Williams-Sonoma Inc., et al, No. 20-2748-cv (2d Cir. July 23) (available at https://bit.ly/3zIUIhv), a unanimous three-judge appeals panel concluded that the gateway question of whether a dispute about “prevailing party” fees was arbitrable under a joint venture agreement was “one for the district court, not the arbitrator, to decide.”
The manner in which the U.S. District Court, and then the Second Circuit, reached this conclusion is an interesting approach toward limiting the impact of the rulings in all but one of the circuits (including the Second Circuit) that a “competence-competence” clause in arbitration rules–a provision that the tribunal decides its own jurisdiction as to whether a case is arbitrated–constitutes a “clear and unmistakable” showing that the contract parties intended for gateway arbitrability issues to be decided by the arbitral tribunal.
The core U.S. Federal Arbitration Act (at 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq.) test for allocating gateway issues between courts and arbitral tribunals is well known. Gateway issues are to be decided by the courts unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that the contracting parties intended to allocate the gateway issue to the arbitrator. Ordinary contract law principles apply to that inquiry.
Writing for the unanimous panel, Second Circuit Senior Judge Robert D. Sack noted, “Courts should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is ‘clea[r] and unmistakabl[e]’ evidence that they did so. First Options, 514 U.S. at 944 (alterations in original) (quoting AT & T Techs. Inc. v. Commc’ns Workers of Am., 475 U.S. 643, 649 (1986)). . . . We ‘apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts’ in conducting this inquiry into the parties’ intent. First Options, 514 U.S. at 944.”
Like every other circuit court that has ruled on the question, the Second Circuit has held that “[w]here the parties explicitly incorporate procedural rules that empower an arbitrator to decide issues of arbitrability, that incorporation may serve ‘as clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent to delegate arbitrability to an arbitrator.’” Citing Contec Corp. v. Remote Sol. Co., 398 F.3d 205, 208 (2d Cir. 2005).
The DDK Hotels appeals court, however, went on to point out a limiting aspect of those decisions: “[C]ontext matters,” such that incorporation of such rules does not per se show satisfaction with the First Options “clear and unmistakable” standard if other aspects of the parties’ agreement create ambiguity as to the requisite intent. Specifically, opinion states,
“We have also advised, however, that in evaluating the import of incorporation of the AAA Rules (or analogous rules) into an arbitration agreement, context matters.
Incorporation of such rules into an arbitration agreement does not, per se, demonstrate clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent to delegate threshold questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator where other aspects of the contract create ambiguity as to the parties’ intent.“
The appellate panel stated that, “where the arbitration agreement is broad and expresses the intent to arbitrate all aspects of all disputes,” then the First Options test will be met to allocate issues of arbitrability to an arbitrator. If, however, “the arbitration agreement is narrower, vague, or contains exclusionary language” that the parties intended to arbitrate “only a limited subset of disputes,” then “incorporation of rules that empower an arbitrator to decide issues of arbitrability, standing alone, does not suffice to establish the requisite clear and unmistakable inference of intent to arbitrate arbitrability.” (Emphasis added.)
Senior Circuit Judge Sack pointed to a Second Circuit ruling in NASDAQ OMX Grp. Inc. v. UBS Sec. LLC, 770 F.3d 1010, 1031 (2d Cir. 2014), to reinforce this conclusion: “[W]here a broad arbitration clause is subject to a qualifying provision that at least arguably covers the present dispute . . . we have identified ambiguity as to the parties’ intent to have questions of arbitrability . . . decided by an arbitrator.”
The Court of Appeals then applied these principles to the joint venture contract at issue in DDK Hotels. Section 16(b) of the joint venture agreement limited arbitration solely to “Disputed Matters”:
“(b) Arbitration. The parties unconditionally and irrevocably agree that, with the exception of injunctive relief as provided herein, and except as provided in Section 16(c), all Disputed Matters that are not resolved pursuant to the mediation process provided in Section 16(a) may be submitted by either Member to binding arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) for resolution in accordance with the Commercial Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures of the AAA then in effect. . . .” (Emphasis added by Court of Appeals.)”
The term “Disputed Matters” was defined in the JV agreement to cover corporate governance “deadlock” issues requiring Board or LLC Member approval or on which the Board was unable to reach agreement.
The “Deadlock” section is a corporate governance mechanism that applies only to “Disputed Matters,” which are defined as matters “requiring Board or Member approval” on which the board is unable to reach agreement.
Looking at that definition and at other provisions of the contract giving content to the term “Disputed Matters,” the Second Circuit found ambiguity as to the parties’ intent.
Payment of prevailing party fees pursuant to Section 21(h) is not on that list, the opinion notes, suggesting that disputes under Section 21(h), on prevailing party fees, may very well fall outside the scope of Section 16’s arbitration provision.
Nothing in Section 21(h), the opinion states, “suggests that such relief [compelling payment of prevailing party fees] is contingent upon board approval; to the contrary, it unambiguously directs the non-prevailing member to pay such costs and fees ‘upon demand.’”
For the Second Circuit, that ambiguity blocked a conclusion that the “competence-competence” provision in AAA Rule R-7(a) clearly allocated the “who decides” gateway decision to the arbitrator. Consequently, under First Options, the gateway decision lay with the courts:
“While the arbitration agreement does indeed incorporate the AAA Rules, which empower the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability, Section 16(b) provides that the AAA Rules ‘apply to such arbitrations as may arise under the [JV] Agreement.’ See NASDAQ OMX, 770 F.3d at 1032; SA.16. Because Section 16(b)’s arbitration clause applies only to ‘Disputed Matters’ not resolved pursuant to the mediation process outlined in Section 16(a), the AAA Rules do not apply ‘until a decision is made as to whether [DDK Hospitality’s supplemental claim] does or does not fall within the intended scope of arbitration[.]’ NASDAQ OMX, 770 F.3d at 1032. In other words, whether the AAA Rules, including Rule 7(a), apply turns on the conditional premise that the dispute falls within the definition of ‘Disputed Matter.’ If it does not, then the AAA Rules do not govern and no delegation of authority to the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability arises. The narrow scope of the arbitration provision therefore obscures the import of the incorporation of the AAA Rules and creates ambiguity as to the parties’ intent to delegate arbitrability to the arbitrator.”
Thus, the Second Circuit held in DDK Hotels that the contractual agreement in the JV agreement limiting arbitration to “Disputed Matters” operated to prevent allocation of the arbitrability decision to the arbitrator under the “clear and unmistakable” First Options test. Accordingly, “[t]he district court therefore correctly determined that it, rather than the arbitrator, should decide whether the supplemental claim [for prevailing party fees] was arbitrable.”
One might reasonably ask how DDK Hotels squares with the unanimous 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2YLDkWQ), rejecting a “wholly groundless” basis for declining to forward a gateway question to arbitrators for decision.
In Henry Schein, the Court’s summary does a good job of setting out the core of that ruling:
“Held: The ‘wholly groundless’ exception to arbitrability is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act and this Court’s precedent. Under the Act, arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms. . . . The parties to such a contract may agree to have an arbitrator decide not only the merits of a particular dispute, but also ‘’gateway’ questions of ‘arbitrability.’’ . . . Therefore, when the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, a court may not override the contract, even if the court thinks that the arbitrability claim is wholly groundless.”
Under the doctrine rejected by the Supreme Court in Henry Schein, the courts would have construed the parties’ contract to determine if the claimant’s arbitrability argument was “wholly groundless.” Even in the face of a “clear and unmistakable” agreement to delegate arbitrability issues to the arbitrator, if the court was satisfied the arbitrability argument was “wholly groundless” under the contract, then the court could determine the arbitrability issue itself instead of referring the gateway question to the arbitrator.
In DDK Hotels, the district court and the Second Circuit again construed the parties’ contract, this time to determine if the parties’ intention to delegate the gateway issue to the arbitrator was ambiguous rather than clear and unmistakable.
To distinguish DDK Hotels from Henry Schein, one must come up with a persuasive explanation for how (i) the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ inquiry into whether the dispute at issue in DDK Hotels arguably fell outside the meaning of the contract term “Disputed Matters” differs from (ii) the judicial inquiry into the contract terms in Henry Schein to determine if the claim of arbitrability was “wholly groundless.”
This is perhaps a task the US Supreme Court declined to take on when it dismissed certiorari in Henry Schein II as improvidently granted earlier this year?
Any volunteers to tackle that job? Please feel free to comment below.
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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups. 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). He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management. He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.
Last week, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued one of the rare rulings addressing the authority of an arbitral institution to make decisions.
In the case, the appeals court considered the authority of an American Arbitration Association administrator to make what the court considered a “gateway” decision under the AAA’s Healthcare Policy Statement and rules rather than allowing that decision to be made by arbitrators.
The 2-1 majority opinion ruled that only an arbitrator could make the decision, not the administrator. That ruling has significant implications for the administrability of due process protocols and policy statements in patient healthcare, consumer and employment disputes.
In Ciccio, et al. v. SmileDirectClub LLC, No. 20-5833 (6th Cir. June 25, 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/2U8OqZ8), Senior Circuit Judge David W. McKeague authored the majority Sixth Circuit panel opinion overturning an AAA decision to apply the AAA’s policy against accepting a claim that “implicated various AAA policies that precluded arbitration unless the parties signed a post-dispute arbitration agreement or a court otherwise ordered arbitration.”
The AAA’s Consumer Arbitration Rules, Healthcare Policy Statement and Healthcare Due Process Protocol bar the AAA from arbitrating a patient healthcare dispute unless either (1) all parties have agreed to submit the matter to arbitration after the dispute has arisen or(2) a court has ordered the disputing parties to arbitrate the matter. The AAA Healthcare Policy Statement describes this policy succinctly:
In 2003, the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) announced that it would not administer healthcare arbitrations between individual patients and healthcare service providers that relate to medical services, such as negligence and medical malpractice disputes, unless all parties agreed to submit the matter to arbitration after the dispute arose. . . . However, the AAA will administer disputes between patients and healthcare providers to the extent a court order directs such a dispute to arbitration where the parties’ agreement provides for the AAA’s rules or AAA administration.
The dispute in this case arose out of a false advertising claim brought by plaintiffs and former patients Dena Nigohosian, Dr. Joseph Ciccio, Dr. Arthur Kapit, and Dr. Vishu Raj, and joined by Dana Johnson and others, against SmileDirect, originally in federal court. The U.S. District Court first held that an arbitration agreement in SmileDirect’s customer contract applied and ordered Nigohosian to arbitrate. The other plaintiffs then voluntarily dismissed their court claims.
The arbitration clause in question read:
AGREEMENT TO ARBITRATE – I hereby agree that any dispute regarding the products and services offered [b]y SmileDirectClub and/or affiliated dental professionals, including but not limited to medical malpractice disputes, will be determined by submission to arbitration and not [b]y lawsuit filed in any court, except claims within the jurisdiction of Small Claims Court . . . . I agree that the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator selected by the parties and shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association.
Johnson thereafter filed a class arbitration claim against SmileDirect with the AAA on behalf of consumer claimants who had been SmileDirect patients.
At that point, the AAA itself became involved in deciding whether the class arbitration should proceed in light of AAA policies and rules. An AAA administrator advised the parties that that AAA’s Healthcare Due Process Protocol and Healthcare Policy Statement in the circumstances required healthcare providers and their consumers to sign post-dispute arbitration unless a court order has compelled arbitration, according to the Sixth Circuit opinion:
An AAA administrator informed the parties that AAA’s Healthcare Due Process Protocol and Healthcare Policy Statement applied, which require healthcare providers and their patients to sign an arbitration agreement after a dispute arises in certain cases unless a court order has compelled arbitration. SmileDirect’s counsel asked the AAA administrator to reverse this decision but the AAA administrator maintained his “initial, administrative determination [that] the Protocol [and the Healthcare Policy Statement] appl[y].” . . . SmileDirect’s counsel objected again, noting that the district court had already compelled Nigohosian to arbitrate “whether the claims themselves are arbitrable” and argued that “AAA’s administrative decision to apply the Protocol [and the Healthcare Policy Statement] to these consumer claims is erroneous. ***
The AAA administrator “reaffirm[ed] [his] administrative determination” that the Healthcare Policy Statement applied to Johnson’s claims. . . . He concluded that arbitration could only proceed following a court order (seemingly like the court order already entered for Nigohosian) or a post-dispute arbitration agreement.
Johnson refused to sign a post-dispute agreement consenting to arbitration, while Nigohosian (who was bound by the earlier District Court order compelling arbitration) never initiated arbitration herself. When claimants renewed their court proceedings in the U.S. District Court, however, “SmileDirect responded that they couldn’t rejoin the case because the Agreement required an arbitrator to decide the merits of any dispute, including any gateway issues about whether the dispute was arbitrable.” (Emphasis added.)
The district court, though, decided that SmileDirect and Johnson “got what they bargained for” because the dispute had been “resolved using the rules of the [AAA].” Consequently, the court determined that Johnson could renew the dispute before the judicial forum:
The district court interpreted the Agreement to fully incorporate Rule 1(d), the Consumer Due Process Protocol, and the Healthcare Policy Statement. The court’s interpretation of these rules and policies next led it to conclude that Johnson had discharged his obligations under the Agreement and could “submit [his] dispute to the appropriate court for resolution.” . . . Under the district court’s reasoning, Rule 1(d) incorporates the Consumer Due Process Protocol, which in turn states that AAA has subject-specific policies (incorporating the Healthcare Due Process Protocol and Healthcare Policy Statement by implication), and the Healthcare Policy Statement requires a post-dispute arbitration agreement or a court order. Therefore, the court held that “the AAA process to which the parties mutually agreed ha[d] been completed in Johnson’s case.”
With respect to Nigohosian, however, the Court decided that she was bound by the existing Court order compelling arbitration. The District Court therefore stayed her claims, pending arbitration.
SmileDirect thereafter appealed the decision regarding Johnson to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals did not resolve the substantive arbitrability issue. Rather, Judge McKeague held on behalf of a majority of a divided appellate panel that “The text of the [parties’ arbitration agreement] confirms that the parties didn’t intend to allow an administrator to short-circuit arbitration by refusing to appoint an arbitrator to answer this initial gateway question. Accordingly, we don’t have anything further to say on the matter until and unless a party asks us to review an arbitrator’s decision under 9 U.S.C. § 10.”
To reach this result, the appellate panel started with basic principles in U.S. arbitration jurisprudence that “[w]hether the parties have agreed to arbitrate or whether their agreement covers a particular controversy” are gateway arbitrability questions.” The parties may decide to send these gateway issues to an arbitrator rather than a court, but only upon a showing of “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties did indeed intend to delegate those issues to an arbitrator under the ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Options v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995).
In the Sixth Circuit, like almost all other federal circuit courts, the incorporation of AAA rules authorizing the arbitrator to decide on the scope or validity of the arbitration agreement or the arbitrability of a claim satisfies the First Options standard.
Thus far, the Court of Appeal’s reasoning paralleled the U.S. District Court’s reasoning on gateway arbitration questions. But, stated the McKeague opinion, “What remains is the related question of whether the parties intended to allow an AAA administrator to apply the Healthcare Policy Statement before sending any gateway-arbitrability questions to the arbitrator,” explaining that
The Agreement dictates that “any dispute . . . will be determined by submission to arbitration,” not by litigation, and “that the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator selected by the parties.” The parties never got that far here because an AAA administrator “ma[d]e an initial, administrative determination [that] the [Healthcare Policy Statement] applie[d].”
The appeals court read the arbitration agreement between the parties to show that they intended to send gateway questions of arbitrability “exclusively” to an arbitrator, not to an AAA administrator. Senior Circuit Judge McKeague expressed confusion as to the basis relied upon by the AAA administrator to take this decision rather than referring the question to an arbitral panel:
It is unclear what the administrator was doing. There are two ways to view his decision. Perhaps the administrator independently interpreted the Agreement and read it to incorporate the Healthcare Policy Statement, which led the administrator to conclude that the parties did not intend to arbitrate the instant dispute without a post-dispute agreement or court order. Or perhaps the administrator was simply applying AAA’s Healthcare Policy Statement because he concluded that this case concerns healthcare and the AAA follows this policy no matter what a particular agreement says or what particular parties intended.
“Either way,” wrote Judge McKeague, “the end result was contrary to the text of the Agreement and the FAA.” Arbitrators and arbitral administrators “are distinct.” Under AAA instruments, he wrote, administrators do not decide the merits of a dispute.
The opinion notes, “The arbitrator decides the merits of a dispute. And if an administrator could preempt a final merits ruling by an arbitrator, the administrator would effectively run afoul of the provision that administrators ‘cannot overrule or change an arbitrator’s decisions or rulings.’” It continues later:
Under AAA’s rules, an arbitrator and an administrator are distinct. “The [a]dministrator’s role is to manage the administrative aspects of the arbitration, such as the appointment of the arbitrator. . . . [T]he [a]dministrator does not decide the merits of a case or make any rulings on issues such as what documents must be shared with each side.” . . . Unsurprisingly, the administrator helps disputes get to an arbitrator and doesn’t make merits rulings. On the other hand, “[a]rbitrators are neutral and independent decision makers who . . . make the final, binding decision on the dispute. . . . The [a]rbitrator makes all the procedural decisions on a case not made by the administrator.” …. The arbitrator decides the merits of a dispute. And if an administrator could preempt a final merits ruling by an arbitrator, the administrator would effectively run afoul of the provision that administrators “cannot overrule or change an arbitrator’s decisions or rulings.”
Therefore, concluded the Sixth Circuit, “the arbitrability of Johnson’s claim, thus should’ve gone to an arbitrator for a ‘final, binding decision.’”
The appellate court also considered whether the issue of compliance with the AAA’s post-dispute agreement requirement for consumer healthcare arbitrations is a “procedural decision” delegated to an AAA administrator rather than an arbitral panel. The appeals panel stated, “We don’t see how it could be.”
In so deciding, the appellate judges reminded the parties that contract interpretation is a legal question. Procedural decisions, stated the Court of Appeals, are more like administrative aspects of the arbitration such as appointment of arbitrators, location of hearings and fees:
The procedural decisions AAA administrators make, in turn, are more akin to “administrative aspects of the arbitration, such as the appointment of the arbitrator, . . . preliminary decisions about where hearings might take place, and . . . handl[ing] the fees.” *** So it generally wouldn’t make sense to require clear intent to delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator but then allow either arbitrators or administrators to decide that legal question. [Citation and footnote omitted.]
The appellate court distinguished in this regard a Fourth Circuit decision upholding resolution by AAA administrators of a dispute as to how many arbitrators would be appointed, Dockser v. Schwartzberg, 433 F.3d 421 (4th Cir. 2006).
Not only were the clauses in the two disputes different, said the Sixth Circuit majority, but the issue in that latter case was procedural. “Dockser dealt with ‘what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to,’ whereas here the relevant question is arbitrability—what the Agreement itself means.”
If, instead of interpreting the parties’ arbitration agreement, the AAA was applying its own “sound policy,” then according to Judge McKeague that conduct too would contravene applicable law. Nor did the arbitration agreement grant the AAA administrator the authority to make this policy choice for the parties. The majority opinion states:
Although the AAA may choose for itself which claims it will arbitrate, it is not at liberty to “impose its own view of sound policy” regarding when or how parties should be allowed to arbitrate independent of the parties’ own choices in their contract.
We also see nothing in the Agreement that gives the administrator the right to make this policy choice for the parties. To be sure, the Agreement incorporates the AAA rules, which perhaps could be read to include the AAA’s due process review under Consumer Rule 1(d). And Consumer Rule 53 says that “[t]he arbitrator shall interpret and apply these Rules as they relate to the arbitrator’s powers and duties” but that “[a]ll other Rules shall be interpreted and applied by the AAA.” . . . But Consumer Rules 1(d) and 53 must be read together with the Agreement and the other rules to ascertain the parties’ intent. . . . When an arbitration agreement and its incorporated rules seem to conflict, our job is to find the “best way to harmonize” them. [Emphasis is the court’s.]
“We won’t,” stated the appellate majority, “interpret this agreement to arbitrate to permit Johnson to avoid arbitration.”
Moreover, the appeals panel pointed out that its decision to require an arbitrator to decide the gateway question, rather than an administrator, was not inconsistent with AAA policy. The court’s resulting order would satisfy the AAA Healthcare Policy alternative that the AAA will arbitrate consumer healthcare disputes if so directed by a court order. The opinion notes:
The Healthcare Policy Statement also does not stand in the way of such an appointment. It makes clear that “the AAA will administer disputes between patients and healthcare providers” either when the parties enter into a post-dispute agreement or when “a court order directs such a dispute to arbitration where the parties’ agreement provides for the AAA’s rules or AAA administration.” . . . Our decision will lead to such a court order—seemingly clearing the administrative path. Here, to give effect to both the parties’ agreement that “the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator” and that the arbitration “shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association,” we can’t read the AAA rules to preclude decision by an arbitrator.
.The Sixth Circuit opinion also drew attention to the fact that the approach taken by the majority will result in a different, narrower judicial review standard by the federal courts–review for vacatur of an arbitral decision rather than de novo review:
The district court effectively reviewed the Agreement de novo. In doing that, the district court relied on a court’s interpretation of the same set of AAA rules and policies to hold that the AAA rules effectively nullified an arbitration agreement. . . . But by agreeing, clearly and unmistakably, to send the arbitrability question to the arbitrator, the parties here bargained for the narrow 9 U.S.C. § 10 review, not de novo review. . . .
This is where the Agreement’s requirement that the dispute would not be determined by litigation comes in. The district court determined the contract-interpretation question, so the dispute was determined by litigation contrary to the intent of the parties. But once an arbitrator interprets the Agreement, any judicial review under 9 U.S.C. § 10 wouldn’t be review of the arbitrability question de novo but under the limited grounds identified (for fraud, corruption, etc.). Because the parties bargained for an arbitrator to interpret the Agreement and for the courts to have a very limited role, it wouldn’t make sense to allow an administrator’s preemptive contract interpretation to be a portal to de novo judicial review.
Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay dissented, noting “I agree with the majority’s statement at the onset of its opinion that “this case is about whether the Agreement incorporates the Healthcare Policy Statement,” even though it then proceeds to repudiate the Healthcare Policy Statement.” The parties, Circuit Judge Clay reasoned, “made their decision to abide by the rules when they signed the contract incorporating rules that included the Healthcare Policy Statement.” He added:
Turning to the plain language of the agreement, the threshold question of what the agreement incorporated is readily apparent: [disputes] shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association. . . . As part of the AAA rules, the AAA maintains consumer protocols that ensure a fair process in healthcare disputes. The Healthcare Policy Statement’s incorporation into the agreement was clear to anyone who read the AAA’s rules. The parties made their decision to abide by the rules when they signed the contract incorporating rules that included the Healthcare Policy Statement, but in my colleagues’ view, those rules may simply be disregarded if they interfere with requiring the parties to proceed with the arbitration.
Here, the AAA determined that proceeding to arbitration would violate their due process rules without its mandatory post-dispute agreement. When the parties agreed that the dispute “shall be resolved using the rules of the AAA,” they were aware that those rules called for an administrator to render the AAA’s initial determination regarding the requirements of the organization’s own rules before proceeding to arbitration. That was not an unusual decision, nor a decision out of lockstep with the rules of the AAA. Quite the contrary, that decision followed the process by which the AAA typically administers all of its arbitrations. That provides the “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties intended to have these gateway issues decided in accordance with the AAA’s procedures and policies.
The majority opinion addressed Circuit Judge Clay’s dissent in footnotes 3 and 4. Notably, in footnote 4 the Court of Appeals stated, “we interpret the words of this Agreement in conjunction with AAA’s rules without deference to AAA’s ‘typical’ practice.” The footnotes state:
3The dissent agrees that AAA’s rules specifically assign arbitrability questions to the arbitrator while reserving AAA’s “administrative duties” for the administrator as detailed in the arbitration agreement and the AAA’s rules themselves. . . . Where we differ is whether the AAA rules include an initial arbitrability decision among these “administrative duties.” The dissent points to no rule granting the administrator such authority, but instead locates the authority in the general requirement that “the AAA will administer the arbitration.” . . . Our decision to follow the AAA’s rule granting such authority to an arbitrator doesn’t mean that the parties “contract[ed] the AAA’s administrator out of the process,” but instead means the parties intended the administrator to have the role the AAA’s rules mandate: “to manage the administrative aspects of the arbitration, such as the appointment of the arbitrator, preliminary decisions about where hearings might take place, and handling the fees associated with the arbitration.”
4The dissent suggests that requiring an administrator to determine arbitrability “was not an unusual decision” but is rather “the process by which the AAA typically administers all of its arbitrations”—a fact that “any party doing their due diligence would have seen.” . . . But we interpret the words of this Agreement in conjunction with AAA’s rules without deference to AAA’s “typical” practice. The Agreement or the AAA Rules could grant the administrator that authority, but in this case they do not.
Judge Clay volleyed back at the majority by arguing in his own footnote 1 that “The majority claims that we agree that the AAA’s rules assign arbitrability to the arbitrator, and ‘administrative duties’ to the administrator, but that is not the case. To the contrary, the AAA’s rules do not clearly delineate these roles as the majority alleges. Instead, as stated in the rule cited above, the AAA has the final decision on who administers cases under its rules.”
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Whether one agrees with Senior Circuit Judge McKeague’s opinion on behalf of the majority or with Circuit Judge Clay’s dissent, this ruling has significant implications for many disputes in the U.S. involving healthcare, consumer and employment matters.
The AAA has adopted due process protocols for those areas, as well as making policy statements regarding how the AAA will handle applications for arbitration in many areas. The reasoning by the Ciccio majority could vitiate the authority of an AAA administrator to apply those instruments to decline to accept cases that do not comply with those protocols and policy statements.
Instead, application of those instruments would be allocated to an arbitral panel, resulting in significant delay and expense while the panel is constituted and briefed before a decision on the applicability of due process protocols and policies crystallizes.
Given the dissent, it is worth wondering whether this case is headed toward en banc review by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals or will be the subject of a certiorari petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups. 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). He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management. He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.