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

loreejrII

By Philip J. Loree Jr.

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

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

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

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

Making an End Run Around Schein?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

loreejrIIBy Philip J. Loree Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fifth Circuit’s 20/20 Comm. Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Emphasis added.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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