Supreme Court Rejects Prejudice Requirement for Defeating a Motion to Compel Arbitration

By R. Daniel Knaap & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court backed a Taco Bell worker resisting her employer’s motion to compel arbitration this morning when it ruled, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, that a party need not show it was prejudiced by the moving party’s actions.

The decision vacated an Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that arbitration was not waived because the resisting party did not prove it was prejudiced by the adversary’s actions.

Morgan v. Sundance, Inc., No. 21-328 (today’s decision available at https://bit.ly/3NywXj5), means that parties waive their right to compel arbitration based on their actions, not on the judicially established prejudice requirement—a plain reading of the Federal Arbitration Act.

“Did Sundance knowingly relinquish the right to arbitrate by acting inconsistently with that right?” writes Kagan, framing the state of the law on the inquiry for courts. The opinion concludes: “On remand, the Court of Appeals may resolve that question, or determine that a different procedural framework (such as forfeiture) is appropriate. The Court’s sole holding today is that it may not make up a new procedural rule based on the FAA’s ‘policy favoring arbitration.’”

The decision resolves a 9-2 circuit split; nine jurisdictions require a party resisting arbitration under waiver to prove that they have been prejudiced, while two jurisdictions do not have such a requirement. Today’s opinion sides with the minority position, rejecting the idea that the FAA authorizes federal courts to invent arbitration-specific procedural rules, holding that the “federal policy is about treating arbitration contracts like all others, not about fostering arbitration.”

Morgan is the second arbitration opinion of the term, and the second by Kagan invoking a plain reading of the FAA that backs the plaintiff’s position. Today’s 9-0 decision was preceded by Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (available here), an 8-1 March 31 decision rejecting FAA jurisdiction in federal courts for statutory sections on enforcing and challenging awards. For more on Badgerow, see Russ Bleemer & Andrew Ling, “Supreme Court Rejects Federal FAA Jurisdiction for Arbitration Award Enforcement and Challenges, (March 31) (available at https://bit.ly/3wB2hZ8).

In fact, three more decisions are pending. Morgan is one of four arbitration cases argued in the nation’s top Court in the second half of March. Decisions on the other three cases are pending. More information can be found by inserting “Supreme Court” in the box in the upper right of this page to search CPR Speaks, or by clicking here.

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In Morgan, Justice Kagan takes both narrow and broad views of different arbitration points.

First, the opinion narrowly declines to tackle a variety of analogous analysis points on state law in assessing waiver, focusing the decision on the Eighth Circuit’s approach that has “generally resolved cases like this one as a matter of federal law, using the terminology of waiver.”

“For today,” writes Kagan, “we assume without deciding they are right to do so.”

After declining to rule fully on that approach, the opinion said that instead it looked solely at “the next step,” whether federal courts “may create arbitration-specific variants of federal procedural rules, like those concerning waiver, based on the FAA’s ‘policy favoring arbitration.’”

That made the case an easy call. The Court agreed in just seven pages that the answer is a hard no on adding a prejudice requirement to the inquiry of whether the party knew it was subject to arbitration, and acted inconsistently with that right.

The opinion notes that “in demanding . . . proof [of prejudice] before finding the waiver of an arbitration right, the Eighth Circuit applies a rule found nowhere else—consider it a bespoke rule of waiver for arbitration.”

Instead, the Court adopted the views of the Seventh and District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals that there is no prejudice requirement.

But more broadly, Kagan also used the opinion to tamp down perceptions of the Court’s tilt to arbitration. The effect of the clarification is an unmistakable unanimous Court acknowledgment to criticism that it has elevated arbitration over courtroom litigation.

The opinion returned to seminal cases to explain—in the opinion’s view, re-emphasize–that the Court’s policy favoring arbitration–emanating from Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Construction Corp., 460 U.S. 1 (1983)–“does not authorize federal courts to invent special, arbitration-preferring procedural rules.” Nor does it allow courts to “devise novel rules to favor arbitration over litigation,” referring to Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. v. Byrd, 470 U. S. 213, 218–221 (1985).

Citing Granite Rock Co. v. Teamsters, 561 U. S. 287, 302 (2010), Kagan writes that the policy “is merely an acknowledgment of the FAA’s commitment to overrule the judiciary’s longstanding refusal to enforce agreements to arbitrate and to place such agreements upon the same footing as other contracts.”

She then added the Prima Paint pronouncement: “The policy is to make ‘arbitration agreements as enforceable as other contracts, but not more so.’” Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U. S. 395, 404, n. 12 (1967).

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Morgan involves a Fair Labor Standards Act suit brought by petitioner Robyn Morgan against Sundance Inc., which owns 150 Taco Bell franchises throughout the United States, including the Iowa franchise where Morgan was an hourly employee. The complaint alleged that Sundance did not fully compensate its employees for the hours they worked. Although the suit was initially filed as a nationwide collective action, Michigan hourly employees were excluded because they were able to join a similar action filed two years earlier in Michigan’s Eastern U.S. District Court–the so-called Wood action.

The Morgan and Wood plaintiffs engaged in joint mediation with Sundance in April 2019. The mediation settled the Wood action, but not Morgan. Sundance then moved to compel individual arbitration of Morgan’s claims in May 2019, invoking the arbitration provision in the employment contract.

Morgan opposed this, arguing that Sundance had waived its right to compel arbitration by engaging in litigation. The Iowa Southern U.S. District Court denied the motion, finding that Morgan was prejudiced by having to defend to Sundance’s earlier motion to dismiss and by spending time and resources on the class-wide mediation instead of individual arbitration.

The oral arguments were discussed in detail at “Supreme Court Reviews the Role of Prejudice to a Party in Determining Arbitration Waiver,” CPR Speaks (March 21) (available here).

For more on the history of the case, see Mark Kantor, “U.S. Supreme Court Adds an Arbitration Issue: Is Proof of Prejudice Needed to Defeat a Motion to Compel?” CPR Speaks (November 15, 2021) (available here), and Russ Bleemer, “The Supreme Court’s Six-Pack Is Set to Refine Arbitration Practice,” 40 Alternatives 17 (February 2022) (available here).

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Knaap, a law student at Columbia University Law School in New York, is a 2022 CPR Summer intern. Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

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