Court Again Rejects Review on Incorporating Rules that Define Arbitrability

By Temitope Akande & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear a case that presented a persistent arbitration issue: whether the incorporation of a set of arbitration rules that state that an arbitrator decides whether a case goes to arbitration, instead of a court making the arbitrability decision, provides sufficient “clear and unmistakable evidence” that the parties agreed for the tribunal to make the decision.

It was the second time in eight months that the Court has rejected a significant case on the issue.

Piersing v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, No. 20-695, would have analyzed the clear-and-unmistakable evidence standard for delegation to arbitrability from the Court’s First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944 (1995) (available at https://bit.ly/39fAwcR).  

The question presented by the petitioner, a former employee of two Domino’s franchisers who had a claim against the parent company, was:

In the context of a form employment agreement, is providing that a particular set of rules will govern arbitration proceedings, without more, “clear and unmistakable evidence” of the parties’ intent to have the arbitrator decide questions of arbitrability?

Last June, the Court declined to hear the question on arbitrability in a cross-petition in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., No. 19-1080 (June 15, 2020), while accepting the case on the original cert petition on another, close issue involving the reach of carve-out provisions in arbitration agreements. 

In its December arguments in Schein, which awaits decision, the discussion of incorporation by reference on arbitrability arose.  See “Schein II: Argument in Review,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 9) (available at http://bit.ly/2VXfyIa). In its brief in Piersing, the petitioner “acknowledges that [the] Court recently denied certiorari of a cross-petition presenting a similar question,” citing Schein, adding, “however, the question is presented in this case cleanly and as a stand-alone question.”

In Piersing, the petitioner worked as a delivery driver for a franchisee of respondent Domino’s, and later got an employment offer from Carpe Diem, another Washington state Domino’s franchisee. While the petitioner intended to increase his hours and earnings, the first franchisee fired him based on a no-poach clause in his employment agreement.

He eventually brought a U.S. District Court class-action suit against Domino’s alleging that the hiring rules violated, among other things, antitrust laws.

Domino’s sought to compel arbitration of Piersing’s claims based on the arbitration agreement between the employee and Carpe Diem.  Domino’s asked for arbitration, according to the Sixth Circuit opinion in the case that was the subject of the cert petition (see Blanton v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, 962 F.3d 842 (6th Cir. 2020) (available at http://bit.ly/3sWDlrg)), “because the agreement’s reference to the AAA rules constituted a delegation clause in that the AAA rules supposedly provide for delegation.”

The district court held that equitable estoppel applies to permit franchiser Domino’s to enforce franchisee Carpe Diem’s agreement against Piersing and, according to the petitioner’s cert petition brief, “that the clause providing the AAA rules would govern any arbitration amounted to ‘clear and unmistakable’ evidence of Piersing’s and Carpe Diem’s intent to delegate questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

Piersing appealed the district court’s decision. Relying on Rent-a-Center, West Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63 (2010), and more, the Sixth Circuit held that the incorporation of arbitration rules that permit the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability is sufficient to delegate those questions to the arbitrator.

Piersing’s Supreme Court cert petition brief analyzed the holdings in First Options, Rent-a-Center, West, and the first Henry Schein decision, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (2019), which wrestled with the question of and the standard for who decides arbitrability, the tribunal or the court.

Based on these precedents, the petitioner argued that the existing circuit court analysis allowing for incorporation of rules that included arbitrators determining arbitrability wasn’t “clear and unmistakable evidence” of the parties’ intent to arbitrate.  It emphasized that, particularly for consumers and employees, the cases weren’t sufficiently thorough in light of the First Options standard. The petitioner also noted that the Sixth Circuit’s decision conflicts with the holdings of several state high courts.

Domino’s countered that an agreement incorporating privately promulgated arbitral rules that assign questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator clearly and unmistakably show the parties’ agreement that an arbitrator, not the court, will resolve whether the case is suitable for arbitration.

Domino’s successfully argued for the nation’s top Court to reject the petition and thereby uphold the Sixth Circuit.

An amicus brief in support of the petitioner was filed by Columbia University Law School Prof. George Bermann, who described the issue in the appeal as “a central but unsettled issue of domestic and international arbitration.” Echoing the petitioner, the brief noted the importance of the issue in both Henry Schein Supreme Court cases, but stated that “the delegation question is presented front and center for review in this case.” It also cited the divergence between state and federal court views.

The amicus brief discussed the principle of “competence-competence” in international commercial law—the international equivalent of the arbitrability question under which the tribunal is presumed to be in a position to determine its jurisdiction, and which the Sixth Circuit invoked.  Bermann’s brief discussed the concept under the “clear and unmistakable” agreement standard of parties to arbitrate.

The amicus noted that the competence-competence language does not constitute “clear and unmistakable” evidence. “[A]ll modern arbitral procedure rules contain a ‘competence-competence’ clause,” the brief argued, “so that treating such language as clear and unmistakable evidence of a delegation means that parties will almost invariably lose their right to a judicial determination of what this Court has multiple times referred to as the very cornerstone of arbitration, viz. consent to arbitrate.”

Noting the state-federal divide in the interpretation of whether the incorporation of rules satisfies First Options, the brief concluded, “Only this Court can definitively resolve that issue and ensure that parties do not forfeit their right to a judicial determination of arbitrability unless they manifest that intention clearly and unmistakably.”

For more information on the case and an in-depth discussion of the issues involved, see the Supreme Court’s docket page at http://bit.ly/39Zxed1.

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Akande, who received a Master of Laws in Alternative Dispute Resolution last May at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in Los Angeles, is volunteering with the CPR Institute through Spring 2021. Bleemer edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.

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CPR Files Amicus Brief Asking U.S. Supreme Court to Tackle Foreign Discovery for Arbitration

The International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution has filed an amicus brief requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiorari to resolve a federal circuit court split on whether 28 U.S.C. § 1782 allows federal district courts to order discovery for private commercial arbitration abroad.

CPR did not take a position on the merits of the case.

Yesterday’s filing in Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, et al., No. 20-794, highlights the circuit split underlying the case.  Petitioner Servotronics presents the question,

Whether the discretion granted to district courts in 28 U.S.C. § 1782(a) 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 without expressing an exclusionary intent, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd, 5th and, in the case below, the 7th Circuit, have held.

CPR urged the Court to resolve this circuit court split, noting in the brief that “the question of whether United States district courts may entertain applications for judicial assistance in obtaining evidence for presentation in arbitral proceedings before international tribunals is one of great relevance to CPR and its constituents.”

The friend-of-the-Court brief states that the “current existence of opposite rules on whether district courts have jurisdiction to render assistance under Section 1782 in gathering evidence for international arbitral tribunals creates both the opportunity for blatant forum shopping and the likelihood of protracted litigation on the threshold jurisdictional question in each of the seven remaining regional circuits that have not decided the question.”

CPR also argues that the court should set the case for argument this term to avoid the likelihood that it will become moot prior to decision.

Section 1782 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.  But the conflicting federal circuit cases differ on whether the statute’s definition of tribunals would cover arbitration matters. The Servotronics parties have decisions going both ways, one in the Fourth Circuit, and the second, the subject of the cert petition, in the Seventh Circuit.

CPR has created a web page for the brief at http://bit.ly/3nklaYp.

CPR Speaks has addressed the issues in this case as they arose.  John Pinney, counsel to Graydon in Cincinnati who prepared the amicus filing on CPR’s behalf, discusses the case in a video post here.  Updates on the circuit split as it developed in 2020’s second half are available here and here.

You can find the CPR amicus filing, as well as other filings in the case, on the Supreme Docket page, here. Law360 covered the filing here, available with a subscription.

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Schein II: Argument in Review

Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation Editor Russ Bleemer hosts analysis by Prof. Angela Downes, University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, and arbitrator-advocate-amicus brief contributors Richard Faulkner, also of Dallas, and Philip J. Loree Jr. in New York.

Court’s Rejected Cert Request Is Argued Anyway

By Russ Bleemer

Was the U.S. Supreme Court having second thoughts about how it has approached Tuesday’s arbitration case?

Back for its second round of arguments at the Court after a decision just last year, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 19-963, returned to explore the issue, “Whether a provision in an arbitration agreement that exempts certain claims from arbitration negates an otherwise clear and unmistakable delegation of questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator.”

Schein’s attorney, Kannon K. Shanmugam, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, argued that the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in deciding not to compel arbitration in the case, misapplied the historical presumption of arbitrability. 

He also emphasized that “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties delegated the matter to arbitration puts the initial question of arbitrability to an arbitrator, even with the carveout for injunctions. 

The appeals court had said that clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties wanted to arbitrate existed, but not to arbitrate the injunctive relief—a drafting issue that justified sending the case to the courts.

In his counterargument, respondent attorney Daniel L. Geyser, of Dallas’s Alexander Dubose & Jefferson, countered with, among other things, a focus on the delegation to arbitration by the parties.

That focus produced an usual argument.  It wasn’t because many of the justices also focused on the particulars of the clause delegating the matter to arbitration.  In fact, Geyser and Archer and White had cross-petitioned the Court to take on the issue of the delegation clause’s incorporation by reference of arbitration rules.

The Court granted certiorari on June 15 on Shanmugam and Henry Schein’s issue on the sweep of the injunction carveout. But the Court rejected the cross petition on delegation and incorporation of rules. 

Yet at times, the rejected clause delegation issue was the argument’s primary focus.

“I want you to assume that we are not going to decide the question that you wanted us to decide in the cross-petition,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. during Geyser’s argument. “And if we make that assumption, I really don’t know how to answer the question that we granted review on because it does seem to turn on the degree of the delegation to the arbitrator of the power to decide whether the arbitrator can decide.”

Alito wasn’t the only one. 

Archer and White had persisted with the question in its brief in the case even after the cert denial. More significantly, the failed cross-petition or the delegation clause itself was raised directly or in passing by nearly every one of the nine justices, who argued the case in an online broadcast, as has become the custom in the pandemic since May.

The cert grant, and simultaneous cert denial, made sense on paper.  The Fifth Circuit had said the delegation was valid, putting the focus on the appellate court’s interpretation that the carveout for injunctions preceded the arbitrator’s work and had to be decided by a court.

But even Shanmugam’s argument on behalf of the petitioner anticipated the presence of his adversaries’ rejected issue. Before facing a single question, Shanmugam took on the cert denial himself, noting that 12 circuit courts agree that a delegation clause incorporating rules is sufficient.

The contract in the matter incorporated American Arbitration Association rules that give arbitrability decisions to the arbitrator.

Shanmugam opened his argument on behalf of petitioners Henry Schein stating that the Fifth Circuit review hierarchy was wrong for two reasons.  “First, a delegation is simply an antecedent agreement that is subject to the rules governing arbitration agreements more generally,” he said, continuing, “Second,  any doubts concerning the scope of arbitration agreements are resolved in favor of arbitration.”

If that arbitration presumption had been applied correctly, he argued, a carveout that doesn’t speak specifically to the delegation to an arbitrator cannot interfere with the overall delegation of a case to an arbitrator.  “The Court should stick to the question it agreed to decide,” advised Shanmugam on behalf of Henry Schein, “and it should decide that question in petitioner’s favor.”

The argument highlights below are based on the audio feed of the case, available on the Supreme Court’s webpage at https://bit.ly/3m2RCxz, and the transcript, also on the Court’s site at https://bit.ly/3a6xDMv. For background on the case, including links to key documents and the 2019 Supreme Court decision in the same matter, see “Supreme Court Argument Preview: Looking Ahead to Round 2 on Schein and Arbitrability,” CPR Speaks blog (Dec. 3)  (available at https://bit.ly/2VyD1z6) (The CPR Speaks link also contains information on the participants in the accompanying YouTube video discussion, conducted on Tuesday, Dec. 8.).

* * *

The Supreme Court generally seemed to agree with Kannon Shanmugam’s opening words, but still returned to the delegation and rules’ incorporation questions almost as much as the Fifth Circuit’s denial of arbitration.

“They don’t want arbitrators deciding this,” said  Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in opening the questioning, referring to the presence of the contract clause carveout sending injunctions to court, adding, “Why would they want arbitrators to decide who gets to decide it?”

Shanmugam said that the Fifth Circuit divided the responsibility of who decides between the court and the arbitrator, while the contract was a clear delegation of the case to arbitration.  The result of the appeals court opinion was negating that arbitration intention because of the carveout sending the case to court instead.

He returned repeatedly to a need to assert the presumption of arbitrability in viewing the parties’ arbitration clause and the context for the carveout.

The contract clause states, “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 . . .), shall be resolved by binding arbitration in accordance with the arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association [the “AAA”].”

Justice Clarence Thomas focused on the delegation clause, asking Shanmugam to walk the Court through its use in the case.  “I don’t see the word ‘delegation’ at all or a verb ‘delegate’ at all,” said Thomas.

Shanmugam replied that the Supreme Court “has never required magic words on the face of the agreement. Instead, all that the Court has said is that you have to have clear and unmistakable evidence. And under ordinary objective principles of contract formation, the incorporation of a document [referring to the arbitration agreement’s AAA rules referral] suffices in order to render that document part of the contract.”

Borrowing from labor law and referencing key Supreme Court precedents, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that the presumption of arbitration still requires a deciding court to judge the scope of that arbitration.  Shanmugam said that the delegation is “a kind of miniature contract formation,” that contemplates whether there was “a meeting of the minds that the arbitrator should decide questions concerning the scope of the arbitration agreement.” 

The incorporation of the AAA rules, he said, was sufficient under ordinary contract formation principles.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked Henry Schein’s attorney about the basis for the presumption for arbitration.  Shanmugam replied it rested in the Federal Arbitration Act’s Section 2, as well as “flowing from the policy underlying the arbitration act as a whole.” He added, “if I were pressed, I would say it’s probably ultimately a matter of federal common law” as well as emanating from statute.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor returned immediately to the cross-petition on the delegation agreement’s incorporation of rules by reference, and said that the Henry Schein brief conceded that the Court could reach the issue to decide the case. She questioned whether the delegation to arbitration was clear for the injunction and all other issues.

Echoing the Fifth Circuit, Sotomayor agreed there was a clear delegation, but suggested she found ambiguity on the injunction’s decision maker. Shanmugam said that the appeals court incorrectly considered the presumption for arbitrability.  Even with an unclear scope of arbitration, he explained, the Fifth Circuit should have applied a presumption that the case was to be arbitrated once it found that valid delegation.

Justice Elena Kagan was focused on the injunction carveout, posing a hypothetical change in the contract wording, and concluding, “if you have something which at least arguably seeks injunctive relief, the court should deal with the question of whether it does and then should go on to decide the issue.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch pressed Shanmugam on the point discussed with Alito on a statutory basis for the presumption for arbitration. The Henry Schein attorney stuck to FAA Section 2.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh retraced Shanmugam’s argument points with the attorney, and asked about “real world” contracting situations–“how people draft these contracts, what they expect, my understanding was that the question of who decides arbitrability, the who-decides question, is almost never divided between a court and an arbitrator because that would be almost nonsensical in the real world because you need one person to decide, and it’s either going to be the court or the arbitrator, not both the court and the arbitrator.”

Though the question initially ignored the existence of the injunction carveout, Shanmugam quickly agreed. “That’s correct. And I’m aware of no examples of such a division.” Kavanaugh responded, “Right. Nor am I.”

Then, Kavanaugh tackled the contract carveout in the case sending the injunction to the court, noting that every contract has them. “And so, if that alone means the Court decides what is arbitrable, then the Court will always decide arbitrability and really eradicate the idea that arbitrators can ever decide arbitrability,” he said.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett also restated Shanmugam’s argument, acknowledging the cross-petition issue’s denial and accepting the delegation to the AAA rules as sending arbitrability to the arbitrator. But echoing Shanmugam, she indicated that it would be nonsensical “to carve up arbitrability questions.” She continued, “If that’s true, why isn’t that reason to interpret this clause as not being a clear and unmistakable delegation of all questions of arbitrability?”

“As a matter of contract formation,” concluded Shanmugam, focusing on the presumption of arbitration,  “there is an agreement to arbitrate arbitrability. At that point, Justice Barrett, everything else that we’re talking about is a question of interpretation. It’s a question of the scope of the delegation.”

Shanmugam summarized his argument for the Court, once again directing his attack on the delegation argument incorporating the AAA rules.  He noted that the “[r]espondent is really asking the Court to decide this case based on a different question, the incorporation question. And that would be a bold strategy in any case, but I would submit it’s a particularly bold strategy here because Respondent asked the Court to decide that question at the cert stage, and the Court seemingly consciously made the decision not to add it.”

He again asked the Court to avoid the issue it already declined to hear, noting, “All that the Court need do in this case is to hold that the court of appeals’ actual reasoning is inconsistent with this Court’s decisions applying familiar Federal Arbitration Act principles.”

* * *

Respondent attorney Daniel Geyser immediately attacked the delegation and incorporation points on behalf of his client Archer and White in his opening statement.  “It is simply not plausible that anyone would recognize this issue and choose to resolve it by relying on an oblique reference to the AAA rules rather than a simple, explicit sentence delegating the gateway issue,” he told the justices in his opening statement.  

He added that the injunction falls within the carveout from arbitration, and therefore isn’t subject to arbitration under the American Arbitration Association rules.  “It makes no difference what those rules say because the condition for activating them is unmet,” he said.

Using a hypothetical and invoking Justice Kavanaugh’s discussion, Chief Justice Roberts began questioning Daniel Geyser by asking why the carveout’s arbitrability should be treated differently than arbitrability issues in an arbitration contract with no express carveout.

“[N]ormally,” replied Geyser, “when parties include an express delegation provision, it’s unconditional and it’s categorical.  It’s not like what you have here.”

Roberts asked Geyser to leave the AAA rules’ delegation out of his answer.  “I think that’s what we tried to do when we denied cert on that question,” said the chief justice.

Geyser countered that the default is that the court decides the arbitrability issue.  He said, “The only time an arbitrator decides whether a dispute falls within the scope of the agreement is if there is, in fact, a delegation provision.”

Geyser suggested the problem was drafting:  “We absolutely concede that if the exception is limited solely to the scope of arbitration and there is a separate unconditional delegation provision, that the arbitrator gets to make that determination. “

He continued on the theme, telling Justice Thomas that phrasing matters, and the Court should focus on the delegation and the wording of exceptions. He said Archer and White would lose if there was a second sentence that said that arbitrator shall decide arbitrability—“an express unconditional delegation of the issue of arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

Geyser continued: “[U]nless there’s clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties wanted the arbitrator to decide arbitrability, then the default is with the court, and the court has to first identify a delegation agreement and identify any limits to that delegation agreement. “

Thomas was skeptical.  He noted that Geyser’s construction limits an arbitrator’s authority  on arbitrability after it had been granted by the contract.  “I don’t know how you can have it both ways,” said Thomas, “You [can’t] say he has the authority, and in these limited circumstances, he doesn’t.”

Geyser countered that the Court has “never” issued a “binary rule.” He said, “Parties are perfectly free under the Federal Arbitration Act to delegate some issues to arbitration and to delegate some arbitrability issues to arbitration.”

Facing Justice Alito’s concerns about the posture of the case, Geyser said the Court, in the face of the question of whether there was a clear and unmistakable delegation to arbitration of arbitrability, “could dismiss the case as improvidently granted,” or request additional briefing, though he quickly added that he thought the case was fully briefed.

But he also explained to Alito that he believed even in the face of a clear delegation, a plain-text reading of the agreement shows that the carveout for injunctions removes the case from the arbitrator. “[It’s] the most straightforward way to affirm in this case,” he said.

Justice Sotomayor said that Geyser’s argument falls short because of a clear delegation to the AAA rule for arbitrability matters. Geyser countered that the delegation was limited by the injunction carveout.

In response to Justice Kagan’s questioning, Dan Geyser said that court decision for the gateway-to-arbitration issues is “traditionally what parties expect.” He continued, “It provides a critical judicial safeguard and it avoids the situation where the arbitrator is deciding the scope of his or her own jurisdiction.”

He added that the FAA backed delegating “certain issues but not others to the arbitrator.”  He urged the Court to support the requirement that “unless parties clearly and unmistakably override the strong presumption in favor of courts acting as gatekeepers, that Congress imagined in the Federal Arbitration Act, in Sections 3 and 4, that, in fact, the courts keep that gateway role.”

Justice Kavanaugh returned to the purpose of contracting, saying he had a problem with Geyser’s conception that contracting parties divvy up arbitrable matters and court matters. “[T]hat’s just not how it works in the real world, nor could it [realistically] work that way in the real world,” he said.

Kavanaugh asked Geyser if the justice’s interpretation was wrong.  “In the real world,” Geyser replied, “parties sometimes do limit a delegation.  They might say that the court decides whether class arbitration is appropriate. And parties are perfectly free to do that.”

He told Cavanaugh, “I don’t see any way to read the actual text of this agreement to say that the carveout wouldn’t include a carveout to the AAA rules.”

Geyser conceded to Justice Barrett that his client would lose if the Court does not agree that there was no clear and unmistakable delegation to arbitration and declines “to get into the question that we denied cert on, [and instead] assume[s] that incorporating the AAA rules by reference is enough to constitute a clear and unmistakable delegation.  . . .”

* * *

Dan Geyser began his summation on behalf of respondent Archer and White noting, “[W]e apologize for trying to get the Court back into an issue that maybe it doesn’t wish to address.” He warned against “a profoundly atextual construction of the plain text of this agreement,” and said, “I think it would be very difficult to construe this language in a sensible way without getting into the delegation.”

In his rebuttal, Henry Schein attorney Kannon Shanmugam urged the Court to reverse the Fifth Circuit, noting, “[I]t’s one thing to say that parties may want to divide up responsibility for different types of questions of arbitrability such as who is subject to the arbitration agreement or whether a class action waiver is valid, but as I’ve pointed out in my earlier colloquy with Justice Kavanaugh, we are not aware of any actual agreement in the real world that divides up responsibility for a particular question of arbitrability and in particular the paramount question of the scope of the arbitration agreement.”

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The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for the CPR Institute.

[END]

Supreme Court Rejects an International Arbitration Case

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear the international arbitration case of Big Port Service DMCC v. China Shipping Container Lines, No. 20-128.

The issue in the case was the standard for issuing an injunction related to arbitration–specifically, “Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit erred in recognizing a cause of action for a party seeking to avoid arbitration and in concluding that courts have remedial power — untethered to any federal statute and unconstrained by the Supreme Court’s precedents governing the grant of injunctive relief — to issue injunctions against arbitration.”

The Second Circuit’s March 5 unpublished summary order (available at https://bit.ly/3lD1IpA) stands. It affirmed a U.S. District Court order barring U.S. arbitration in the case, deferring instead to the Singapore High Court which had determined that there was no agreement to arbitrate, according to court decisions and papers filed in the case.

The case is six years old. While Big Port took the matter to the nation’s top Court, the parties continued to litigate the costs incurred while the U.S. actions were stayed and the case proceeded in Singapore. 

China Shipping’s request for attorneys fees went to a report and recommendation by a federal judge, which was adopted in August by another New York Southern District federal court judge.  China Shipping sought more than $45,000 in attorneys fees against Big Port, but was awarded just $43.20 in copying and other administrative fees by the report, and the case. See China Shipping Container Lines Co. v. Big Port Service DMCC, 15 Civ. 2006 (AT) (DF) (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/36A2Jsi).

The Supreme Court’s Big Port case page, with the cert petition and briefs in the case, is available at https://bit.ly/36yOfJ2.

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The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

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The Nominee and ADR: Circuit Judge Barrett on Arbitration

By Alice Albl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Lincoln & ADR: Pepperdine’s Stipanowich Discusses Evolution in Arbitration

By Alice Albl

The second series of New York Law School’s Conversations in Conflict drew to a close Sept. 23 with an interview featuring Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law Prof. Thomas J. Stipanowich.

The discussion centered around the progress of arbitration since the release of Stipanowich’s five-volume treatise on federal arbitration law in the 1990s; his expansive view included advancing the practice with lessons taken from the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Stipanowich’s theories focused on a tension between familiarity and efficiency. In drawing from what they know as lawyers, neutrals in arbitration may bind the process too closely to the establishment of litigation, he explained.

While neutrals may believe that apparently tried-and-true procedures inspired by litigation form the best avenues to successful dispute resolution, this mindset hinders the use of more creative, and potentially more effective, methods.

Instead, Stipanowich invited neutrals to follow in the footsteps of President Lincoln, whom he considered to be a “super functional” arbitrator. Like Lincoln, modern ADR community members should seek to work for the parties’ interests and not a nominal win.

But when Stipanowich began studying arbitration in the 1980s, neutrals weren’t the focus. Back then, arbitration suffered from a lack of procedural structure, most notably missing protocols for discovery and case management, he said.

In the ensuing years arbitrators filled these gaps. Stipanowich described this as the “legalization” of ADR, a process by which neutrals appropriated features from the practice of law into their work.

While legal processes may be effective in arbitration, their familiarity causes them to monopolize the roles they serve. Stipanowich cited examples in both the United States and abroad to demonstrate that the dominant legal processes are not necessarily the best.

Domestically, Stipanowich discussed the double-blind arbitration process used in contracts by the Writers’ Guild of America. Under this process, the disputants’ and arbitrators’ identities are not known to each other. This has the practical purpose of preventing conflict in the industry beyond the dispute, but it may also prove for a more equitable resolution beyond the reach of “legalized” ADR.

Abroad, Stipanowich, who is former president and chief executive officer of the CPR Institute, which publishes this blog, looked to the “multi-lane” duties neutrals performed in other cultures, such as the way German arbitrators help craft settlements or Chinese arbitrators often double as mediators.

U.S. arbitrators seem to be gradually warming to the idea of building multi-lane brands, something that Stipanowich encourages. He praised those who use a variety of roles and techniques to find the true conflict in disputes.

Stipanowich emphasized that finding the true conflict as early as possible will allow a neutral to spend more time balancing resolution with the interests and relationships among parties. After 40 years of study, he has found that this balance is key to success in ADR.

For Stipanowich, few could exemplify care for interests and relationships more than Abraham Lincoln. He closed the session by emphasizing the icon’s willingness to look beyond wins and vengeance during the Civil War, instead focusing on a goal of rights and equity. To see beyond the fray toward a fair resolution, Stipanowich says, is what ADR is about.

* * *

Recordings of NYLS’s Conversations in Conflict Resolution series are being posted at the school’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Skills Program at https://bit.ly/32A3aAP.  

* * *

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

[END]

Supreme Court Rejects Decade-Old Class Arbitration Employment Discrimination Case

By Cristina Carvajal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

[END]

A Boxer’s Day: First Circuit Refuses to Compel the WBO’s In-House Arbitration Scheme

By Alice Albl

The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated a judgement to enforce an arbitration agreement, ruling that the contract between a professional boxer and sanctioning organization was unconscionable because it allowed the organization to select arbitrators from its own staff. 

In Trout v. Organización Mundial de Boxeo Inc., 965 F.3d 71 (1st Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2FNdUEF), the First Circuit Court remanded a case against the World Boxing Organization to the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico. The court called the arbitrator-selection provision in the WBO’s Appeal Regulations “unconscionable.”

After declaring this selection process invalid, Circuit Judge David Barron, writing for a unanimous panel, left it to the federal district court to determine whether a severability clause from the separate but applicable WBO Championship Regulations would allow arbitration under the Appeal Regulations to continue.

In a concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Timothy Dyk wrote that, though the panel had declared the WBO arbitration setup unconscionable, it had omitted saying whether that determination would have to fall under state or federal law. Dyk noted that the court had avoided contribution to the thorny debate over how the Federal Arbitration Act may preempt state arbitration laws.

For now, according to the WBO’s attorney, Edward Ricco, a director at the Rodey Law firm in Albuquerque, N.M., the case can either proceed in the district court or transition into litigation. Ricco did not mention any plans to seek certiorari or a rehearing.

Professional boxer and World Boxing Organization member Austin Trout filed suit in a New Mexico state court in November 2015 alleging that “the WBO’s decision to remove him from its rankings for a certain weight class cost him a chance to pursue the world championship in that class,” as described in the opinion. Trout called the act a violation of the Muhammed Ali Boxing Reform Act (“MABRA”), and added claims under Puerto Rico law for breach of contract, fraud and negligence.

The WBO claimed that Trout had caused his own removal by committing to another fight while scheduled for a ranking match. The WBO invoked its Championship Regulations, which bound Trout as an organization member, and transferred venue to the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico.

There, the WBO filed a motion to compel arbitration. It cited a provision of the Championship Regulations that required disputes to be arbitrated under its separate Appeal Regulations.

The motion was granted despite Trout’s insistence that a MABRA complaint was entitled to federal court adjudication. Trout included this contention along with three others in an appeal to the First Circuit.

While the First Circuit was quick to disarm Trout’s claim about MABRA requirements, along with two other claims, it focused on his assertion that a provision in the Appeal Regulations was unfair.

 This provision notes that arbitrators are gathered into a Grievance Committee of “[t]hree persons designated by the President” of the WBO. Those chosen served for “indeterminate terms” and were “subject to replacement by the nomination of the President of the WBO.”

Trout contested the WBO’s President’s power to freely choose and replace arbitrators as unconscionable.

The WBO countered by indicating additional language stating: “the Grievance Committee shall act as a fair and independent arbitrator of any grievance arising out of WBO Participation and it shall conduct all of its proceedings as Amiable Compositeur, Ex Aequo et Bono.”

It drew parallels between the regulations’ phrasing, and clauses deemed acceptable by other courts. Those clauses required the selection of arbitrators who were “qualified and independent.’”

That, held the First Circuit, was the problem. While cited precedent called for individuals who were “independent,” the WBO only required that an arbitrator’s performance be independent. Its selection provision called for “[t]hree persons designated by the President” of the WBO, none of whom may be members of the WBO Executive Committee.”

But the contract permitted the president to select biased individuals, even from within the WBO itself. “In fact,” the First Circuit opinion notes, “at oral argument the WBO conceded that the Appeal Regulations give the WBO’s president the power to nominate his or her own assistant to serve on the Grievance Committee.”

Allowing arbitrators to be biased toward one side of a dispute, even if expected to perform in an “independent” manner, was unconscionable, according to the First Circuit opinion.

With the selection provision struck as unconscionable, the First Circuit sent the case back to the district court to determine whether a severability clause that would allow the arbitration to continue applied. The severability clause was written not among the terms of the Appeal Regulations it was intended to preserve, but in the Championship Regulations which compelled WBO members to arbitrate.

In his concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Dyk, sitting by designation from the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, commented on an issue unaddressed by the court. Although the WBO’s selection provision was soundly unconscionable, he wrote: “whether arbitration-clause-specific issues of unconscionability (and certain related defenses) are governed by individual state law or federal common was up for debate.”

Dyk’s comment referred to a fiery debate ignited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (available at https://bit.ly/363u7jW) centered around whether the FAA preempts conflicting state law defense arbitration or rather acts a guideline for it. This topic, he concluded, “we appropriately leave to another day the question[…].”

While Trout awaits further action in the San Juan federal court, WBO counsel Edward Ricco says that he believes that the case’s impact on ADR practice will go back to contract construction. “I imagine the case will warn drafters away from the sort of arbitrator-selection provision at issue,” he said, “certainly in the First Circuit and presumably in other jurisdictions where the Trout decision may have persuasive value.”

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

[END]

Appropriations Bill to Prohibit Fed Contractors from Mandatory Arbitration of Employee or Independent Contractor Claims under Title VII or Torts Related to or Arising Out of Sexual Assault or Harassment

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)On March 21, Congressional negotiators reached last-minute agreement on a 2232-page “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018” to implement the bipartisan budget agreement from earlier this year (available at http://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20180319/BILLS-115SAHR1625-RCP115-66.pdf). Such “must pass” legislation is always a popular vehicle for “policy riders.” This year, one such rider that appears to have successfully made its way into the final legislation prohibits Federal contractors or subcontractors, under Federal contracts exceeding $1 million, from entering into or enforcing pre-dispute arbitration provisions under which an employee or independent contractor agrees in advance to resolve through arbitration “any claim under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or any tort related to or arising out of sexual assault or harassment, including assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, or negligent hiring, supervision, or retention.” Title VII, of course, covers all employment discrimination, not just sexual assault or harassment (https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm). There is an exclusion in the provision for agreements that may not be enforced in US courts. In addition, the Secretary of Defense can waive the prohibition if “the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary personally determines that the waiver is necessary to avoid harm to national security interests of the United States, and that the term of the contract or subcontract is not longer than necessary to avoid such harm.”

The agreed text reads as follows:

24 SEC. 8095. (a) None of the funds appropriated or
25 otherwise made available by this Act may be expended for
1 any Federal contract for an amount in excess of
2 $1,000,000, unless the contractor agrees not to—
3 (1) enter into any agreement with any of its
4 employees or independent contractors that requires,
5 as a condition of employment, that the employee or
6 independent contractor agree to resolve through ar-
7 bitration any claim under title VII of the Civil
8 Rights Act of 1964 or any tort related to or arising
9 out of sexual assault or harassment, including as-
10 sault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional
11 distress, false imprisonment, or negligent hiring, su-
12 pervision, or retention; or
13 (2) take any action to enforce any provision of
14 an existing agreement with an employee or inde-
15 pendent contractor that mandates that the employee
16 or independent contractor resolve through arbitra-
17 tion any claim under title VII of the Civil Rights Act
18 of 1964 or any tort related to or arising out of sex-
19 ual assault or harassment, including assault and
20 battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress,
21 false imprisonment, or negligent hiring, supervision,
22 or retention.
23 (b) None of the funds appropriated or otherwise
24 made available by this Act may be expended for any Fed-
25 eral contract unless the contractor certifies that it requires
1 each covered subcontractor to agree not to enter into, and
2 not to take any action to enforce any provision of, any
3 agreement as described in paragraphs (1) and (2) of sub-
4 section (a), with respect to any employee or independent
5 contractor performing work related to such subcontract.
6 For purposes of this subsection, a ‘‘covered subcon-
7 tractor’’ is an entity that has a subcontract in excess of
8 $1,000,000 on a contract subject to subsection (a).
9 (c) The prohibitions in this section do not apply with
10 respect to a contractor’s or subcontractor’s agreements
11 with employees or independent contractors that may not
12 be enforced in a court of the United States.
13 (d) The Secretary of Defense may waive the applica-
14 tion of subsection (a) or (b) to a particular contractor or
15 subcontractor for the purposes of a particular contract or
16 subcontract if the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary per-
17 sonally determines that the waiver is necessary to avoid
18 harm to national security interests of the United States,
19 and that the term of the contract or subcontract is not
20 longer than necessary to avoid such harm. The determina-
21 tion shall set forth with specificity the grounds for the
22 waiver and for the contract or subcontract term selected,
23 and shall state any alternatives considered in lieu of a
24 waiver and the reasons each such alternative would not
25 avoid harm to national security interests of the United
1 States. The Secretary of Defense shall transmit to Con-
2 gress, and simultaneously make public, any determination
3 under this subsection not less than 15 business days be-
4 fore the contract or subcontract addressed in the deter-
5 mination may be awarded.

The agreed legislation is now expected to pass Congress very promptly. But, if the appropriations bill is not signed by the President before midnight Friday, then the US Government will once again shut down for lack of funds (https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/21/politics/congress-unveils-spending-package-fix-nics/index.html). Observers expect the bill to pass Congress on a bipartisan vote, just as the original agreement did earlier this year. But the timing of passage, and thus the possibility of another very short Government shutdown, may be affected by opponents’ parliamentary maneuvers.

 

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.

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Cert to Decide “Who Decides” “Independent Contractor” Employment Arbitration Case

Kantor Photo (8-2012)By Mark Kantor

On February 26, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, Case No. 17-340, a 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals decision in which the appeals court ruled on two questions: (1) Whether, under a contractual arrangement where the parties have delegated arbitrability questions to the arbitration, a court facing a motion to compel arbitration must first decide whether the US Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) covers or excludes the dispute or instead leave that question to be decided first by the arbitrators and (2) does the provision of Sec. 1 of the FAA excluding contracts of employment of transportation workers  from arbitration apply to an agreement that purports to establish an independent contractor relationship rather than an employer-employee relationship.

This case raises two questions of first impression in this circuit. First, when a federal district court is confronted with a motion to compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA or Act), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, in a case where the parties have delegated questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator, must the court first determine whether the FAA applies or must it grant the motion and let the arbitrator determine the applicability of the Act? We hold that the applicability of the FAA is a threshold question for the court to determine before compelling arbitration under the Act. Second, we must decide whether a provision of the FAA that exempts contracts of employment of transportation workers from the Act’s coverage, see id. § 1 (the § 1 exemption), applies to a transportation-worker agreement that establishes or purports to establish an independent-contractor relationship. We answer this question in the affirmative.

Oral argument in the matter will occur during the Fall term of the Supreme Court.

The underlying contractual agreements are easily summarized (footnotes omitted):

Among the documents Oliveira signed was an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement (the contract) between Prime and Hallmark.3 The contract specified that the relationship between the parties was that “of carrier and independent contractor and not an employer/employee relationship” and that “[Oliveira is] and shall be deemed for all purposes to be an independent contractor, not an employee of Prime.”4 Additionally, under the contract, Oliveira retained the rights to provide transportation services to companies besides Prime,5 refuse to haul any load offered by Prime, and determine his own driving times and delivery routes. The contract also obligated Oliveira to pay all operating and maintenance expenses, including taxes, incurred in connection with his use of the truck leased from Success. Finally, the contract contained an arbitration clause under which the parties agreed to arbitrate “any disputes arising under, arising out of or relating to [the contract], . . . including the arbitrability of disputes between the parties.”6

Ultimately, Oliveira filed a class action in US District Court against Prime notwithstanding the arbitration clause.  Oliveira alleged that Prime violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219, as well as the Missouri minimum-wage statute, by failing to pay its truck drivers minimum wage. Oliveira also asserted a class claim for breach of contract or unjust enrichment and an individual claim for violation of Maine labor statutes.  Prime moved to compel arbitration under the FAA.

The provision of the FAA at issue in this dispute is Section 1, which excludes from the coverage of the FAA “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

Section 1 of the FAA provides that the Act shall not apply “to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Id. § 1. The Supreme Court has interpreted this section to “exempt[] from the FAA . . . contracts of employment of transportation workers.”

On the “who decides” issue, the Court of Appeals held in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira that the courts, rather than the arbitrators, are the proper place to decide whether these disputes are covered by, or exempted from, the FAA.  Having decided the “who decides” question to place the resolution in the courts, the appellate judges then concluded that, on the particular facts of the case, “a transportation-worker agreement that establishes or purports to establish an independent-contractor relationship is a contract of employment under § 1,” and thus excluded from the FAA.

Given the dramatic increase in “independent contractor” agreements in the workplace over the last decades, this case may determine whether a large variety of labor disputes are heard in court or may instead be subjected to mandatory arbitration agreements.  The Scotusblog.com case page with the appellate decision and cert filings is here – http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/new-prime-inc-v-oliveira/.

 

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.