A Lesson from the Third Circuit on Arbitration Clauses: Say What You Mean

By Stephen M. Orlofsky and Deborah Greenspan, Blank Rome LLP

A recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reminds us that when we want an arbitration clause to apply in certain situations or to certain parties, we have to build that intention into the plain terms of the contract.  In White v. Sunoco, Inc., — F.3d —, No. 16-2808, 2017 WL 3864616 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), Sunoco promoted the “Sunoco Awards Program,” under which customers who used a Citibank-issued “Sunoco Rewards Card” credit card were supposed to receive a 5-cent per gallon discount on gasoline purchased at Sunoco gas stations. The promotional materials included a document entitled “Terms and Conditions of Offer,” which indicated that Citibank issued the Sunoco Rewards Card and applicants had to meet Citibank’s creditworthiness criteria to obtain the credit card.

Plaintiff Donald White obtained the Sunoco Rewards Card and realized that Sunoco did not apply the 5-cent discount on all fuel purchases at every Sunoco location. He then brought various class action claims for fraud against Sunoco, alleging that Sunoco omitted that limitation to the rewards program from the promotional materials to induce customers to sign up for the Sunoco Rewards Card and patronize Sunoco gas stations.

The Sunoco Rewards Card is governed by a card agreement, which White obtained from Citibank when he first obtained the credit card. The only parties to the card agreement were Citibank and White.  Sunoco was not a signatory to the card agreement. Neither Sunoco nor the 5-cent discount program are mentioned in the card agreement.

After White brought his lawsuit, Sunoco filed a motion to compel arbitration based on the arbitration clause in the card agreement. The card agreement provided that either party to the card agreement could elect mandatory arbitration to resolve any disputes between them: “[e]ither you or we may, without the other’s consent, elect mandatory, binding arbitration for any claim … between you and us.” The card agreement defined ‘we’ and ‘us’ as Citibank – the card issuer and ‘you’ as the card holder. In a paragraph entitled “Whose Claims are subject to arbitration?” the agreement stated, “[n]ot only ours and yours, but also claims made by or against anyone connected with us or you or claiming through us or you, such as a co-applicant or authorized user of your account, an employee, agent, representative, affiliated company, predecessor or successor, heir, assignee, or trustee in bankruptcy.” The key issue on Sunoco’s motion to compel arbitration was whether Sunoco could invoke the arbitration provision even though it was not a signatory to the card agreement.

The District Court denied Sunoco’s motion to compel, holding that the agreement itself did not allow a non-signatory to invoke the arbitration clause and that Sunoco could not compel arbitration under any contract, agency or estoppel principles because it was not a third-party beneficiary of the card agreement or an agent of Citibank and that estoppel principles did not apply. Accordingly, the District Court denied the motion to compel arbitration.

On appeal, Sunoco argued that its promotional materials and Citibank’s card agreement had to be considered as an “integrated whole” contract between White, Citibank, and Sunoco. The Third Circuit disagreed, noting that Sunoco’s promotional materials were not an “offer” such that they supplied any terms or obligations to be integrated with the card agreement. The court also reasoned that Sunoco failed to identify any ambiguity in the card agreement that would allow it to use the promotional materials as parol evidence to construe the meaning of the card agreement.

Sunoco also argued that it was “connected” to Citibank for purposes of the card agreement’s “Whose Claims” provision and that under that provision, “connected” entities such as Sunoco could demand arbitration for resolution of any claims relating to the Sunoco Rewards Card. The court disagreed with this argument, too, finding that Sunoco confused the “nature of the claims covered by the arbitration clause with the question of who can compel arbitration.” The court found that the “Whose Claims” clause applied to the former and that the arbitration clause applied to the latter. The court concluded that “[n]owhere does the agreement provide for a third party, like Sunoco, the ability to elect arbitration or to move to compel arbitration.” Finally, the court expressed its skepticism that Sunoco’s and Citibank’s joint marketing efforts rendered the two “connected” entities for purposes of the “Whose Claims” provision, especially since Sunoco was not even mentioned in the card agreement.

Judge Roth filed a dissenting opinion in which she concluded that because Citibank and Sunoco were jointly involved in the paper process by which a customer could obtain a Sunoco Rewards Card, the card agreement and promotional materials comprised an integrated contract between White, Citibank and Sunoco. In support of her opinion, Judge Roth drew on the legal precept that multiple documents may constitute a single contract and reasoned that the nature and terms of the various documents, including their internal references to and dependence on each other, indicated that the parties’ intent was for the promotional materials and card agreement to be read together as one contract. Based on that characterization of the contract, Judge Roth concluded that Sunoco was a party to the contract and that the parties’ intent was to allow Sunoco to invoke the mandatory arbitration clause Judge Roth also disagreed with the majority’s reading of the provisions of the card agreement describing the mechanism for electing mandatory arbitration as allowing only the signatories—Citibank and White—to make that election. Judge Roth concluded that the majority’s reading was overly narrow and neglected to account for or harmonize other provisions in the card agreement.

Both the majority and the dissent turn on the contract language. (Although Judge Roth’s dissent contends that the contract is not limited to the card agreement, the ultimate conclusion is that the majority misread the arbitration election clause to preclude a non-signatory from invoking arbitration.) The majority’s critical conclusion was that: “[n]owhere does the agreement provide for a third party, like Sunoco, the ability to elect arbitration or to move to compel arbitration.” If Sunoco and Citibank intended the card agreement to govern Sunoco’s relationship with White, in addition to Citibank’s relationship with White, Sunoco and Citibank easily could have included a clear provision in the agreement so stating.  But they didn’t—and perhaps more significantly, Sunoco’s name was nowhere to be found in the agreement.

Sunoco’s omission was not a fluke. Days after the Third Circuit issued its opinion in White, the court in Pacanowski v. Alltran Financial, LP, — F. Supp. 3d —, No. 3:16-CV-1778, 2017 WL 4151181, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 19, 2017) considered an identical arbitration provision in another card agreement. Relying on White, the court held that “because the plain language of the Card Agreement does not provide for non-signatories to initiate arbitration proceedings, Alltran cannot compel arbitration against Pacanowski in the instant case.”

Obviously, companies may want to consider revising this form credit card agreement. But the lesson of White applies more generally: if a party wants an arbitration clause in a contract to apply broadly to multiple claims or multiple parties—including non-signatories (where agency, third party beneficiary or estoppel principles might not apply), it needs to say so.

Stephen Orlofsky leads Blank Rome LLP’s appellate practice and is the administrative partner of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office. Judge Orlofsky concentrates his practice in the areas of complex litigation and alternative dispute resolution. He can be reached at Orlofsky@BlankRome.com.

Deborah Greenspan is a leading advisor on mass claims strategy and resolution. Her practice focuses on class actions, mass claims, dispute resolution, insurance recovery, and mass tort bankruptcy. She can be reached at DGreenspan@BlankRome.com.

Gorsuch on Arbitration

By Russ Bleemer

A review of the arbitration opinions involving Tenth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who last night was nominated to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, doesn’t provide a definitive indication on how his arbitration votes might fall if the U.S. Senate approves of his nomination.

The 49-year-old Gorsuch, who has been on the Tenth Circuit bench since President George W. Bush nominated him and he was confirmed by the Senate in 2006, has participated in appellate panels that have backed awards, compelled arbitration and reversed a failure to compel arbitration.

But the narrow scope of arbitration cases in which the circuit judge has participated, and the issues on which the cases were decided, don’t show a pronounced tilt toward business or consumers.

Adherence to Contract Law Principles, Combined with Customary View of FAA

In his most arbitration-centric decision, Gorsuch’s preferred path is adherence to contract law principles, combined with a customary view of the Federal Arbitration Act among federal judges.

“Everyone knows the Federal Arbitration Act favors arbitration,” Gorsuch wrote in the opening to Howard v. Ferrellgas Partners, No. 13-3061 (10th Cir. April 8, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTm6Wi), but, he emphasized, “before the Act’s heavy hand in favor of arbitration swings into play, the parties themselves must agree to have their disputes arbitrated.”

He continued, “While Congress has chosen to preempt state laws that aim to channel disputes into litigation rather than arbitration, even under the FAA it remains a ‘fundamental principle’ that ‘arbitration is a matter of contract,’ not something to be foisted on the parties at all costs.”

Possible Role in Employment Contract Class Action Waiver Cases

There is little in the 38 arbitration opinions that the Tenth Circuit website produces in a search of Gorsuch’s work—mostly incidental mentions–that rises to the level of significance of the preemption of state law and class waiver issues that have steadily appeared at the U.S. Supreme Court in its recent history.

But if confirmed quickly, Gorsuch could find himself participating in the decisions on three cases taken by the Court on Jan. 13 that will be argued together this term, and will settle whether employees can be required as a condition of employment to arbitrate their workplace disputes individually, while waiving their rights to a class process.

The long-simmering group of cases is a clash between the National Labor Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act, and an extension to the employment arena of the leading class waiver/mandatory arbitration case in consumer contracts, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), which Gorsuch was quoting directly in the passage above.

Arbitration watchers who want to try to handicap the Court’s path likely will need to become acquainted with Gorsuch’s by now well-publicized animosity toward the so-called Chevron Doctrine, in which the U.S. Supreme Court has backed deference to administrative agency determinations.  See Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984)(available at http://bit.ly/1EirXXt).

In an immigration law decision last year, Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, No. 14-9585  (Aug. 23, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2kPDvh5), Gorsuch blasted Chevron in a concurrence, writing that its deference to the executive branch agencies in derogation of legislative power runs counter to the Constitution’s separation of powers checks-and-balance system.

The issue could control the arbitration outcome in the three employment arbitration cases at the Court, which currently are being briefed and not yet scheduled for oral argument. They emanate from a January 2012 opinion by the National Labor Relations Board.

In one of the three cases, the Board itself is a party, appealing a Fifth Circuit decision which overturned its earlier administrative decision. See NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court case page is available here: http://bit.ly/2kOPxal. Scotusblog’s page including briefs and a link to the Fifth Circuit opinion is available here: http://bit.ly/2kPvTyi).

If the Chevron Doctrine doesn’t figure in a Gorsuch view of the current arbitration cases, the NLRB’s moves to preserve class actions by forbidding mandatory arbitration may be another hot button for the former U.S. Supreme Court clerk.

Gorsuch on Class Actions

Gorsuch has problems with class actions in securities cases.  When he was in private practice, he wrote that “economic incentives unique to securities litigation encourage class action lawyers to bring meritless claims and prompt corporate defendants to pay dearly to settle such claims.” Neil M. Gorsuch and Paul B. Matey, “Settlements in Securities Fraud Class Actions: Improving Investor Protection,” Critical Legal Issues–Working Paper Series No. 128 (Washington Legal Foundation April 2005)(available at http://bit.ly/2kTBDCZ).

Two Opinions, One Dissent

Despite involvement as a panel member in cases producing about a dozen opinions or orders, the Howard case discussed above is one of only three arbitration writings exclusively by Gorsuch in his decade-long tenure on the court.  One of the three is a dissent.

The Tenth Circuit website revealed Gorsuch’s opinions, and orders with judgments, but didn’t produce unpublished opinions in which Gorsuch may have participated.

In Howard, Gorsuch wrote that the customarily swift determination by a lower court of whether the parties in the suit agreed to arbitration didn’t take place—fast or slow.

The plaintiff had filed a class action for overcharges against the propane supplier defendant.  The defense asked for arbitration, and Gorsuch described how the lower court botched its inquiry.  He first noted that the district court, “[u]nsure whether [defendant] Ferrellgas had shown an agreement to arbitrate in its initial motion, . . . entertained discovery and further motions practice.”

The trial court, Gorsuch reported, found “too many unresolved factual questions remained and proceeded to invite yet more discovery followed by yet more motions practice.”

Nearly a year and half after the defendant filed its motion to compel arbitration, the district court, Gorsuch wrote, “issued an order in which it found that material disputes of fact still prevented it from saying for certain whether or not the parties had agreed to arbitrate. But rather than proceeding to resolve the conflicting factual accounts through trial as the Act requires, the court entered an order denying arbitration outright.” [Emphasis is Circuit Judge Gorsuch’s.]

“That was error,” continued Gorsuch, exhibiting his breezy writing style in an area dry even by circuit law standards, explaining, “In these circumstances, the [Federal Arbitration] Act’s summary trial can look a lot like summary judgment. But when, as in this case, a quick look at the case suggests material disputes of fact do exist on the question whether the parties agreed to arbitrate, round after round of discovery and motions practice isn’t the answer. Parties should not have to endure years of waiting and exhaust legions of photocopiers in discovery and motions practice merely to learn where their dispute will be heard. The Act requires courts process the venue question quickly so the parties can get on with the merits of their dispute in the right forum. It calls for a summary trial—not death by discovery.”

Then, Gorsuch spread the blame around for arbitration disaster.  “Of course, the parties here didn’t exactly help themselves,” he wrote, adding, “They were anything but quick to seek the trial promised by the Act. In fact, they seemed content enough to haggle along together in the usual way of contemporary civil litigation, all about discovery disputes and motions practice and with only the most glancing consideration given to the possibility of trial.”

The case is a war over a contract, and whether and when it took effect.  Gorsuch explained that it was unclear from the record whether an oral contract for the propane tank and initial delivery was followed by a written contract for future deliveries containing the arbitration clause—and restricting it to the subsequent deliveries.

Regardless, Gorsuch–joined by his two fellow appeals panel members–ruled that with material facts in dispute, the district court should have proceeded to a trial on whether an arbitration agreement existed, and should not have denied the request to arbitration.

He wrote that the Federal Arbitration Act should have shown the path to the case’s resolution.  “We appreciate both sides’ evident frustration at how long this case has lingered at the transom without having entered either the door into arbitration or litigation,” Gorsuch concluded, adding, “It’s understandable that everyone might want us to give the case a firm nudge (one way or the other) so the parties’ dispute can finally progress past preliminary venue questions to the merits. But unresolved material disputes of fact block our way—disputes that could and should have been resolved years ago according to the procedures the FAA provides.”

Taking a Broader FAA View

Gorsuch took a broader FAA view in a dissent in a 2-1 Tenth Circuit arbitration case, Ragab v. Howard, No. 15-1444 (Nov. 21, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2gCL3pn).  The dissent—in a case where his panel affirmed a lower court’s ruling that conflicting arbitration agreements in six contracts between two parties should not be arbitrated because there was no meeting of the minds as to conducting the arbitration—appears to be is his most demonstrative view of the FAA’s effect on state laws.

Gorsuch strongly rejects the majority’s use of a New Jersey case that struck arbitration where multiple contracts conflicted on the terms of arbitration.  He notes that the New Jersey ruling had little application to Colorado laws, but also explains that it may not pass muster with the Supreme Court for its disregard of the FAA.

The New Jersey ruling, he explains, was a deep dive into the state’s consumer protection laws, in a case where the Tenth Circuit Colorado plaintiff more closely resembled a merchant.  But he noted that federal preemption is a big issue:  “Whether or not the FAA would preempt New Jersey’s special ‘extra clarity’ rule for certain kinds of arbitration agreements, that possibility undoubtedly exists and seems to me to counsel against endorsing it without a good deal more careful investigation than the parties offer us in this case.”

He wrote that with six of the parties’ interrelated commercial agreements containing arbitration clauses, and other circumstances, “In my view, parties to a commercial deal could have hardly demonstrated with greater clarity an intention to arbitrate their disputes and I see no way we might lawfully rescue them from their choice.”

Procedural holes are frequently filled by the parties, he explained, in providing “two easy workarounds that I believe would be more consistent with the parties’ expressed purposes than the course my colleagues chart.”

Additional Arbitration Work

Gorsuch was the author of one additional unanimous panel order and judgment on the Tenth Circuit’s website that backed a lower court’s refusal to compel arbitration for a former top executive who was fired by a pharmaceutical company. Genberg v. Porter, No. 13-1140 (May 12, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kpuRs7).

The bulk of Gorsuch’s arbitration work appearing on the Tenth Circuit website, at www.ca10.uscourts.gov, was as part of a panel where others wrote the opinion or order. Among the opinions, Gorsuch joined his fellow circuit judges in backing a lower court ruling that a suit by a union under the Railway Labor Act  belonged in mandatory arbitration (BMWE v. BNSF Railway, No. 12-3061 (March 2, 2010)(available at http://bit.ly/2kpIwif).

In addition, he participated in panels in the following cases but didn’t write the unanimous opinion or order and judgment:

  • An order noting that an arbitration acts as a res judicata bar against a subsequent suit related to the wrongful discharge suit by an ex-Department of Veterans Affairs employee, backing a Merits Systems Protection Board order. Johnson v. DOVA, No. 14-9619 (May 22, 2015)(available at http://bit.ly/2kOYaBK).
  • An order strongly backing a major defense contractor’s mandatory arbitration clause contained in its employment dispute resolution program. Pennington v. Northrop Grumman Space & Mission Systems Corp., No. 07-2250 (March 14, 2008)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTh49F).
  • An affirmance of a Colorado court that overturned an arbitration award against a company which claimed that an arbitration notice presented by its Chinese business partner didn’t put the company on notice of a deadline it missed to participate in the ADR process. CEEG (Shanghai) Solar Science v. Lumos, No. 15-1256 (July 19, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2kOUorT).
  • An nonprecedential order and judgment as to arbitration backing a lower court that refused to compel arbitration, noting that the defendants seeking ADR didn’t establish that an arbitration agreement existed. Bellman v. i3Carbon, No. 12-1275 (May 2, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kp3FJT).
  • An order, also nonprecedential as to the FAA, sending a case to arbitration and entitling the party to attorneys’ fees and costs “incurred in enforcing its right to arbitrate.” The order reversed a federal district court denial of arbitration. The winning defendant in the Tenth Circuit was a builder that sold the plaintiffs two condominiums with a mediation and arbitration clause in the sales agreement. Lamkin v. Morinda Properties Weight Parc, No. 11-4022 (Sept. 19, 2011)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTdKeS).
  • A case affirming dismissal of an employee’s wrongful termination suit after it had been arbitrated, citing claims preclusion under the arbitration award. Lewis v. Circuit City Stores, 05-3383 (Aug. 31, 2007)(available at http://bit.ly/2keVY6J).
  • A decision reversing two federal district court denials of arbitration against an employer charged by workers with violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and an Oklahoma labor law, focusing on the scope of an arbitration clause, but in the remand order asking the lower court to consider whether the arbitration agreement preserves FLSA rights. Sanchez v. Nitro Lift Technologies, 12-7046 (Aug. 8, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kT2Ple).
  • A determination that one of “two factually distinct injuries” related to a commercial contract fell under an arbitration clause, reversing in part a magistrate judge and a federal district court which had found that the case couldn’t be arbitrated. Chelsea Family Pharmacy PLLC v. Medco Health Solutions Inc., No. 08-5103 (June 2, 2009)(available at http://bit.ly/2jtiefT).

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

*Updated at 12 p.m.