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.

Update: Legislatures on Invalidating Pre-Dispute Arbitration Agreements

By Andrew Garcia

A federal court has slowed the momentum by legislatures—in this case, New York state’s—to bar arbitration in employment cases. A New York U.S. District Court judge has struck down the application of a recent state law which allowed employees to avoid mandatory pre-dispute employment agreements to arbitrate sexual harassment claims.

The statute at issue, NYCPLR § 7515, originally passed and signed into law a year ago, aimed to void arbitration clauses in employment contracts that require the use of arbitration proceedings to resolve workplace sexual harassment claims in New York state. In June, the New York Senate and Assembly passed amendments to § 7515 that expanded this prohibition to agreements that sought to arbitrate all workplace discrimination claims.

This year’s bill, awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s expected signature (see http://bit.ly/2SKnH0c), was a victory for lawmakers like the sponsor, State Democratic Senator Alessandra Biaggi. (She wrote on Twitter on June 19: “6 months & 2 public hearings later, we passed #BiaggiBill S6577 to expand protections for survivors, & hold New York employers, agencies, & organizations liable for all forms of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination.” See @SenatorBiaggi.)

But any victories may be short-lived. A federal court found that the currently enacted version of § 7515 was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act and therefore invalid about a week after the amendments passed both New York houses.

On June 26, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote issued an opinion that deemed a recently modified New York State law preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC et al., No. 18cv11528 – Document 52 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2y9w6AL). In Latif, the plaintiff filed a suit against his employer, alleging discrimination and sexual assault claims. At the beginning of his employment, Latif signed an offer letter that incorporated by reference Morgan Stanley’s CARE Arbitration Program Arbitration Agreement.

Judge Cote found that the application of § 7515 to invalidate the parties’ agreement to arbitrate Latif’s claims would be inconsistent with the FAA. The opinion states that § 7515 does not displace the FAA’s presumption that arbitration agreements are enforceable. Judge Cote did not address the viability of § 7515 in purely an intrastate matter where the FAA would not be implicated.

The recently passed amendments to § 7515 are part of a growing trend in state and federal legislatures to pass laws that ban pre-dispute arbitration agreements for sexual harassment claims and more. In 2018, the Maryland legislature passed the Disclosing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act, which prohibited employers from enforcing arbitration agreements for sexual harassment or retaliation claims. In Vermont, the legislature passed “An Act Relating to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment,”  which prohibited agreements that prevent an employee from filing a sexual harassment claim in court.

The states have moved faster than Congress, but there is no shortage of proposals at the federal level. In the current session, there have been at least 11 new bills introduced to amend the FAA, the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the National Labor Relations Act to prohibit most employment and consumer pre-dispute arbitration agreements.

Table 1: 116th Legislative Session Bills Pertaining to Arbitration (Senate = S; House = HR)

Bill Name Bill Number Sponsors Current Status
Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act S. 610 Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D., Conn. 2/28/19: Introduced
H.R. 1423 Rep. Hank Johnson, D., Ga. 4/8/19: Referred to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law
Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act S. 1082 Sen. Patty Murray, D. Wash. 4/9/19: Introduced
H.R. 2148 Rep. Katherine Clark, D. Mass. 5/3/19: Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties
Restoring Justice for Workers Act S. 1491 Sen. Patty Murray D., Wash. 5/15/19: Introduced and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
H.R. 2749 Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D., N.Y. 6/26/19: Referred to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law
Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act H.R. 1443 Rep. Cheri Bustos, D. Ill. 4/8/19: Referred to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law
Restoring Statutory Rights and Interests of the States Act S. 635 Sen. Patrick Leahy, D., Vt. 2/28/19: Introduced
Preventing Risky Operations from Threatening the Education and Career Trajectories of (PROTECT) Students Act S. 867 Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan, D. N.H. 3/26/19: Referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Court Legal Access and Student Support (CLASS) Act S. 608 Sen. Richard Durbin, D., Ill. 2/28/19: Referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
H.R. 1430 Rep. Maxine Waters, D. Calif. 4/8/19: Referred to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law
Safety Over Arbitration Act S. 620 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D., R.I. 2/28/19: Referred to the Committee on the Judiciary
Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act S. 630 Sen. Sherrod Brown, D., Ohio 2/28/19: Referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Justice for Servicemembers Act H.R. 2750 Rep. David Cicilline, D. R.I. 6/26/2019: Referred to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law

 

Ending Forced Arbitration for Victims of Data Breaches Act H.R. 327 Rep. Ted Lieu, D. Calif. 1/25/19: Referred to the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce

The bill with the most co-sponsors (215 House members and 34 Senators) and the most prominent media coverage is the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, which would ban pre-dispute arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust, and civil rights disputes. Introduced in both the House and the Senate, the FAIR Act was recently referred to the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law.

Another bill with growing support (96 House members and 18 Senators co-sponsoring) is the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace Act. The BE HEARD in the Workplace Act bans all pre-dispute arbitration agreements that require arbitration of a work dispute, and all post-dispute arbitration agreements where an employee’s consent was coerced, or if the agreement was not in sufficiently plain language likely to be understood by the average worker.

The BE HEARD in the Workplace Act would also amend the NLRA to expand “Unfair Labor Practices” to situations where an employer enters into or attempts to enforce any agreement that prevents litigation, or support of joint, class, or collective claims arising from or relating to the employment of a worker, coerces the worker to enter into such an agreement, and retaliates against a worker for refusing to enter into such an agreement. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Katherine Clark, D., Mass., is currently in the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.

Another key bill, with 48 members of the House and 18 Senators co-sponsoring, is the Restoring Justice for Workers Act. This bill would amend the NLRA to prohibit pre-dispute arbitration agreements that require arbitration of work disputes, retaliation against workers for refusing to enter into arbitration agreements and ensure that post-dispute arbitration agreements are “truly voluntary.” The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D., is currently in the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law.

The Latif holding that the FAA preempts § 7515 might push federal and state lawmakers to accelerate the momentum of the pending federal legislation. Judge Cote in Latif notes that the law already had been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, in dissent, as an example of state action that seeks to protect workers’ ability to bring sexual harassment suits in court in the wake of other top court decisions backing employment arbitration. See Lamps Plus v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 1422 (2019) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (available at http://bit.ly/2GxwFbC).

Although legislation that has sought to ban fully pre-dispute arbitration agreements has not been successful, this could change given the political landscape and outcome of the 2020 election.

The author, a Summer 2019 CPR Institute intern, is a law student at Brooklyn Law School.

 

 

Was It Really a Foreign Arbitral Award? Ninth Circuit Says No.

By Brian Chihera

The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s order which had treated an order made by a Philippines arbitrator as a foreign arbitral award.

The appeals court ruled on an unusual situation.  It found that the case had been settled, and there was no outstanding dispute to arbitrate by the time the arbitrator got the case, and therefore nothing for the federal district court to confirm.

In Castro v. Tri Marine Fish Co., No. 17-35703 (Feb. 27) (available at http://bit.ly/2Zwoa8x), the three-judge appellate panel said that the arbitration decision was not a decision at all and should not be enforced under the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, best known as the New York Convention.

“We review foreign arbitral awards deferentially, but we do not blind ourselves to reality when presented with an order purporting to be one,” concluded Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown, writing for a unanimous Ninth Circuit panel. “To cloak its free-floating settlement agreement in the New York Convention’s favorable enforcement regime, Tri Marine asked an arbitrator to wave his wand and transform the settlement into an arbitral award. That is not sufficient to produce an award subject to the Convention.”

At the heart of the convention and related federal law, notes Circuit Judge McKeown, “is the principle insulating foreign arbitral awards from second-guessing by courts. But this appeal involves an even more fundamental question—whether we are presented with a foreign arbitral award at all. In the mine run of cases, the answer is uncontroversial: when it looks, swims, and quacks like an arbitral award, it typically is. Yet, in this unusual appeal, we have an arbitral award in name only. There was no dispute to arbitrate, as the parties had fully settled their claims before approaching an arbitrator.”

Michael Castro, a Philippines citizen, moved to American Samoa where he lived with his fiancé. Castro was employed by Tri Marine and worked in the company’s warehouse. He was offered a deck-hand position on a fishing vessel it owned, which he accepted.

The dispute between Castro and his employer started with an employment contract that was signed just before the fishing expedition launched. Both parties dispute the contents of what was signed. Castro said he believed that he was only signing a “a half sheet of paper with a few sentences on it” that designated the pay rate, and the employer contended that Castro signed an employment contract.

Castro, however, said that he signed the employment contract when he appeared before an arbitrator. The contract contained a clause which was applicable to all disputes or claims arising out of the employment on the vessel.

Castro injured his knee after falling down ship stairs two weeks into the trip, and immediately requested to be returned to American Samoa so he could travel to Hawaii for medical care. Tri Marine arranged for Castro to be treated in the Philippines, where he also underwent surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn meniscus. Castro also received physical therapy and his employer paid for the medical expenses and his monthly maintenance.

Castro approached Rhodylyn De Torres, a Tri Marine agent in the Philippines after his father had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. He negotiated a settlement of his disability claims in exchange for an advance of $5,000 to help pay for his father’s care. This was followed by an agreement in principle to release Castro’s claims in exchange for an additional $16,160.

Castro was accompanied by his fiancé when he went to see De Torres at her office to finalize the settlement. Castro was not aware of the fact that he was participating in an arbitration. Castro and De Torres both gave different versions of events of their meeting. Castro is not fluent in English and disputes that De Torres translated documents into Tagalog, the Philippine language. There was a dispute as to when the agreement was signed, although Castro did not dispute signing the agreement.

The settlement agreement signed between Castro and De Torres meant that he had released himself from any and all liability or claims. After the meeting on the release, Castro was told that he had to pick up the settlement receipt at the National Conciliation and Mediation Board, but in fact he was led to an arbitration.

Gregorio Biares was present as the arbitrator. This was the first time for Castro to be in an arbitration hearing and he was not aware of any dispute between himself and his former employer. Castro asserted that Biares hurriedly flipped through papers asking Castro to sign  and stating that the settlement was favorable to Castro. Biares reportedly told Castro that the settlement papers were “just a first payment.”

But there was no arbitral case filed by either party. Tri Marine provided Biares the release paperwork signed by Castro and a joint two-page motion to dismiss.

The New York Convention recognizes the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards. A court is obliged to confirm a foreign arbitral award unless the party resisting enforcement meets the substantial burden of proving one of the seven interpreted defenses.

The major question for the U.S. courts was whether there was an “arbitral award” that would fall under the New York Convention. In coming to its decision, the courts had to look at the definitions of “arbitration” and “arbitral award”.

The two terms, however, do not have definitions under the New York Convention and in the Federal Arbitration Act. Case law provided direction.  Using the definitions from American Law Institute’s Restatement, the Ninth Circuit decided that there was no arbitral award, tribunal or arbitration because the requirements of the parties’ arbitration agreements and the forum were not met.

Although the order was issued as an arbitral order, there were aspects of it that indicated otherwise. First, there was no dispute between Castro and his former employer Tri Marine. There was no genuine disagreement between the parties.  Therefore, they reached an agreement and there was no arbitral award handed down. Castro and Tri Marine had settled their dispute before they visited the arbitrator, with Castro releasing Tri Marine of any liability and all claims.

Arbitration is a consensual procedure, and there was no consent between Castro and Tri Marine to participate in an arbitration that was a meeting with a third party. Parties may waive contractual terms, but by his conduct, Castro did not have any intent to arbitrate the dispute in the Philippines. The meeting between the parties did not follow Philippines arbitral procedures.

The Ninth Circuit opinion stated that the parties’ free-floating settlement agreement did not transform into an arbitral award and the fact that there was an arbitrator present does not make it an arbitral award. The appeals court concluded that Tri Marine could seek to enforce the release as a contract matter, but the arbitrator’s order was not an award and it did not fall under a foreign arbitral award.

The author, a CPR Institute Summer 2019 intern, graduated last month with an LLM in dispute resolution from the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia, Mo.

UPDATED/No Class: Supreme Court Reverses Ninth Circuit On State Law Over FAA

By Echo K.X. Wang and Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning re-affirmed that if parties want class arbitration, they need to contract for it.  Specifically.

The Court today issued a long-anticipated opinion for Lamp Plus Inc. v. Varela, No. 17-988 (April 24) (available on the Court’s website at The decision is available on the Supreme Court website at http://bit.ly/2GxwFbC), holding that as a “fundamental arbitration” question, ambiguity in a contract “cannot provide the necessary contractual basis for concluding that the parties agreed to submit to class arbitration.”

The 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. reverses a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that used a California state law interpretation to allow a class arbitration.  The divided appellate panel opinion inferred mutual assent to class arbitration from language in the parties’ agreement.

But the statutory interpretation principle deployed by the appeals court, relying on public policy, was rejected. “[C]lass arbitration, to the extent it is manufactured by [state law] rather than consen[t], is inconsistent with the FAA,” wrote Roberts, adding,

We recently reiterated that courts may not rely on state contract principles to ‘reshape traditional individualized arbitration by mandating classwide arbitration procedures without the parties’ consent.’ . . . . But that is precisely what the court below did, requiring class arbitration on the basis of a doctrine that ‘does not help to determine the meaning that the two parties gave to the words, or even the meaning that a reasonable person would have given to the language used.’ 3 Corbin, Contracts §559, at 269–270. Such an approach is flatly inconsistent with “the foundational FAA principle that arbitration is a matter of consent.  . . .

In that key passage, Roberts cited three seminal class arbitration cases to back up his point: AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333 (2011) (available at https://bit.ly/2KJc8RE), Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018) (available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8), and on the last point, the key Court case rejecting class arbitration unless it was permitted in the parties’ contract, Stolt-Nielsen S. A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U. S. 662 (2010) (available at http://bit.ly/2Pp3Jq4).

The chief justice began and ended the opinion emphasizing Stolt-Nielsen.

Today’s Lamps Plus decision demonstrates the court’s profound conservative-liberal split. There are four dissents—the first by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor; two solo dissents by Breyer and Sotomayor, and the last by Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Breyer and Ginsburg, and, for one part of the opinion, Sotomayor.

Kagan’s 14-page opinion, the longest of the dissents, rejects the Court’s Stolt-Nielsen backing and suggests it’s a screen for the majority’s own preferences. She writes that the Lamps Plus holding “is rooted instead in the majority’s belief that class arbitration ‘undermine[s] the central benefits of arbitration itself.’ But that policy view—of a piece with the majority’s ideas about class litigation—cannot justify displacing generally applicable state law about how to interpret ambiguous contracts.” [Citations omitted.]

Kagan writes that the Ninth Circuit applied a neutral interpretation rule in dealing with an ambiguity.

But Roberts rejected her reasoning in the majority opinion, the only dissent discussed beyond the footnotes in his majority opinion.  He cites AT&T Mobility for the principle that the interpretation “interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA.”  He states that the same rule applies in Lamps Plus: “[The] rule cannot be applied to impose class arbitration in the absence of the parties’ consent.”

Roberts continues:

Our opinion today is far from the watershed Justice Kagan claims it to be. Rather, it is consistent with a long line of cases holding that the FAA provides the default rule for resolving certain ambiguities in arbitration agreements. For example, we have repeatedly held that ambiguities about the scope of an arbitration agreement must be resolved in favor of arbitration. See, e.g., [Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler-Plymouth Inc., 473 U.S. 614 (1985 (available at http://bit.ly/2VmubpU); Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U. S. 1, 24–25 (1983) (available at http://bit.ly/2VhK0OE)%5D. In those cases, we did not seek to resolve the ambiguity by asking who drafted the agreement. Instead, we held that the FAA itself provided the rule. As in those cases, the FAA provides the default rule for resolving ambiguity here.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurrence noting that he remains skeptical of the Court’s use of the Federal Arbitration Act to preempt state law, but concurs in the majority opinion because of its backing of the Epic Systems and AT&T Mobility precedents.

* * *

 

Lamps Plus, the last of three arbitration cases to be decided in the Court’s current term, resolves a circuit splits between the Ninth and the Sixth, Third and Fifth Circuits on whether an arbitration agreement can be read to permit class wide arbitration where the agreement is silent on the matter. Compare, e.g., AlixPartne LLP v. Brewington, 836 F.3d 543, 547 (6th Cir. 2016), with Varela v. Lamps Plus Inc., No. 16-56085, 701 F. App’x 670, 673 (9th Cir. 2017)(unpublished)(available at http://bit.ly/2W66tv1), cert. granted, 138 S. Ct. 1697 (2018).

The case marks a return to a class arbitration issue after the Court’s first two 2018-2019 cases were mostly focused on other Federal Arbitration Act areas.  Both were decided in January:

  • Henry Schein v. Archer & White Sales, 139 S.Ct. 524 (Jan, 8, 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2CXAgPw), mandating that arbitrators, rather than the courts, decide whether a case should be arbitrated in the face of an allegation that an argument for arbitration is “wholly groundless,” and
  • New Prime v. Oliveira, No. 17–340 (Jan. 15) (available at https://bit.ly/2JnrFWf), which enforced an FAA exclusion from arbitration a pre-dispute agreement with independent contractors who work in interstate transportation.

The Lamps Plus issue was “[w]hether the Federal Arbitration Act forecloses a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements.”

In its statement on the question presented, the Court invoked its best-known class arbitration case, Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., which it noted held that a court could not order arbitration to proceed using class procedures unless there was a “contractual basis” for concluding that the parties have “agreed to” class arbitration. 559 U.S. at 684. The Court’s introduction to the Lamps Plus issue explained that courts may not “presume” such consent from “mere silence on the issue of class arbitration” or “from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.” Id. at 685, 687.

That presumption carried today’s opinion, which focused on arbitration agreement ambiguity, rather than silence. The Ninth Circuit majority had inferred mutual assent to class arbitration, according to Lamps Plus’s court papers, from language stating that “arbitration shall be in lieu of any and all lawsuits or other civil legal proceedings” and a description of the substantive claims subject to arbitration.

Plaintiff Frank Varela, filed suit in 2016 against his employer, Lamp Plus Inc., a Chatsworth, Calif., home lighting retailer. Varela, who had worked at the company for nine years, has signed documents as a condition of his employment, including an arbitration agreement.  He also provided personal information to Lamp Plus prior to starting his job.

In March 2016, Lamp Plus was subject to a phish scam attack, resulting in sensitive personal information, such as employee tax forms for 1,300 Lamp Plus current and former employees, to be sent to a third party. As a result of the breach, Varela’s 2015 income tax was fraudulently filed with the stolen information.

Varela initiated a class action suit in California’s Central District state court on behalf of current and former employees affected by the breach, asserting both statutory and common law claims for the data breach, negligence, contract breach, and invasion of privacy. Lamp Plus moved to compel individual arbitration.

The court interpreted the contract under California state law and granted Lamp Plus’s motion compel to arbitration. The court, however, found ambiguities about whether class arbitration is permissible under the employer-drafted agreement. Varela v. Lamp Plus Inc., 2016 WL 9110161, at *7 (C.D. Cal. July 7, 2016), aff’d, No. 16-56085, 701 F. App’x 670, 673 (9th Cir. 2017)(unpublished)(available at http://bit.ly/2W66tv1).

Lamp Plus argued that the arbitration should be compelled on an individual basis, because since the agreement does not mention class arbitration, there was “no contractual basis for finding that the parties intended to arbitrate on a class-wide basis.” Id. at *6. Relying on Stolt-Nielsen, Lamp Plus contended that if an arbitration clause is “silent” as to class arbitration, that parties cannot be compelled to submit their disputes to class arbitration. Id.

The district court rejected this argument. The district court distinguished the case from Stolt-Nielsen by interpreting the “silence” in Stolt-Nielsen to mean an “absence of agreement” rather than the absence of language within an agreement that explicitly refers to class arbitration (“The lack of an explicit mention of class arbitration does not constitute the ‘silence’ contemplated in Stolt-Nielsen, as the parties did not affirmatively agree to a waiver of class claims in arbitration.”) Lamp Plus, 2016 WL 9110161, at *7.

The court then found that the arbitration agreement was ambiguous as to the class claim, and interpreted the ambiguity against the contract drafter, noting that “the drafter of an adhesion contract must be held responsible for any ambiguity in the agreement”. Lamp Plus, 2016 WL 9110161, at *7 (citing Jacobs v. Fire Ins. Exch., 36 Cali. App. 4th 1258, 1281 (1995)).  Accordingly, the district court granted Lamp Post’s motion to compel arbitration, but compelled arbitration on a class-wide basis rather than an individual basis.

Lamp Plus appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Before a panel of Senior Circuit Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez, Circuit Judge Kim M. Wardlaw, and the late Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Lamps Plus argued that the parties did not intend to permit class arbitration.

In an unpublished opinion, the Circuit court affirmed the district court decision authorizing class proceedings. Varela v. Lamps Plus Inc., No. 16-56085, 701 F. App’x 670, 673 (9th Cir. 2017)(unpublished)(available at http://bit.ly/2W66tv1). Judge Fernandez authored a short dissenting opinion, in which he opined that the majority opinion as a “palpable evasion of Stolt-Nielsen.”  Id.

Lamp Plus then petitioned and was granted certiorari at the Supreme Court. Oral argument was heard on Oct. 29, 2018 (a transcript of the oral argument is available at https://bit.ly/2FukX2d).

Between the grant of certiorari and the oral argument, several organizations filed amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court in favor of reversing the Ninth Circuit decision, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the New England Legal Foundation, the Retail Litigation Center, Inc., the Voice of the Defense Bar, and the Center for Workplace Compliance. Friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of Respondent Varela were filed by a group of contract law scholars, and the American Association for Justice. The amicus curiae briefs can be accessed from https://bit.ly/2Ojt44n.

* * *

In his brief 13-page majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts first disposes of a late-in-the-litigation motion Varela challenging both the Ninth Circuit’s and the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over the case. The opinion states that the determination of class over individual arbitration affects a fundamental characteristic of arbitration, and the result did not provide the defense what it sought—therefore, a final and appealable decision.

The meat of the majority opinion was reserved for the Ninth Circuit’s examination of California state law, which allowed for the class arbitration determination. It accepted the lower court’s state law “interpretation and application” that the agreement “should be regarded as ambiguous.”

But ambiguity from the state law statute wasn’t enough—“a conclusion,” Roberts writes, “that follows directly from our decision in Stolt-Nielsen.” He continues:

Class arbitration is not only markedly different from the “traditional individualized arbitration” contemplated by the FAA, it also undermines the most important benefits of that familiar form of arbitration. [Citing Epic Systems and Stolt-Nielsen.] The statute therefore requires more than ambiguity to ensure that the parties actually agreed to arbitrate on a classwide basis.

Roberts notes that in carrying out the parties’ arbitration contracting wishes and intent, courts must “recognize the ‘fundamental’ difference between class arbitration and the individualized form of arbitration envisioned by the FAA,” again citing Epic Systems, AT&T Mobility and Stolt-Nielsen.  Noting that class arbitration lacks the benefits of lower costs, greater efficiency and speed—“‘crucial differences’ between individual and class arbitration”—mutual consent is needed.

The opinion states that Stolt-Nielsen’s reasoning on silence being insufficient to infer class arbitration applies to ambiguity, too. “This conclusion aligns with our refusal to infer consent when it comes to other fundamental arbitration questions,” Roberts writes.

The chief justice explains that the Ninth’s Circuit’s use of the contra proferentem doctrine—construe the ambiguous document against the drafter—produced the result in favor of class arbitration. But the doctrine should only be invoked where “a court determines that it cannot discern the intent of the parties.” (The emphasis is Roberts’.)

Class arbitration provided by state law, explains Roberts, is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act. “The general contra proferentem rule cannot be applied to impose class arbitration in the absence of the parties’ consent,” the chief justice concludes.

* * *

In addition to Justice Thomas’s concurrence, and Justice Kagan’s dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Kagan’s opinion but writes separately “to emphasize once again how treacherously the Court has strayed from the principle that ‘arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion,’” also citing to Stolt-Nielsen at 681.

Decrying the Court’s use of mandatory arbitration in consumer disputes, Ginsburg says that the majority’s Lamps Plus decision “underscores the irony of invoking ‘the first principle’ that “arbitration is strictly a matter of consent,” citing to the majority opinion.

Invoking her own dissents in three cases, among others, Ginsburg concludes that “mandatory individual arbitration continues to thwart ‘effective access to justice’ for those encountering diverse violations of their legal rights,” and repeats her Epic Systems dissent calling on Congress to intervene.

* * *

Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined in the Kagan and Ginsburg dissents, but also provides a nine-page analysis disputing the Court’s quick work on the jurisdiction question.

Breyer writes that the case should be arbitrated as determined by the California courts. “[T]he appellate scheme of the FAA reflects Congress’ policy decision that, if a district court determines that arbitration of a claim is called for, there should be no appellate interference with the arbitral process unless and until that process has run its course,” he writes.

Breyer notes later that Lamps Plus successfully obtained appellate review by “transform[ing]” an interlocutory order in a final decision.

* * *

Justice Sonia Sotomayor also joined Justices Ginsburg’s and Kagan’s separate dissents, but added her view that the Court’s class arbitration view is, at best, highly confused.  She began:

This Court went wrong years ago in concluding that a “shift from bilateral arbitration to class-action arbitration” imposes such “fundamental changes,” Stolt-Nielsen S. A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U. S. 662, 686 (2010), that class-action arbitration “is not arbitration as envisioned by the” Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, 351 (2011). See, e.g., id., at 362–365 (Breyer, J., dissenting). A class action is simply “a procedural device” that allows multiple plaintiffs to aggregate their claims, 1 W. Rubenstein, Newberg on Class Actions § 1:1 (5th ed. 2011), “[f]or convenience . . . and to prevent a failure of justice,” Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur v. Cauble, 255 U. S. 356, 363 (1921).

Sotomayor says that the FAA should not preempt a “neutral principle of state contract law,” at least not in this instance. She concludes, “[T]he majority today invades California contract law without pausing to address whether its incursion is necessary. Such haste is as ill-advised as the new federal common law of arbitration contracts it has begotten.”

 

* * *

Wang was a Spring 2019 CPR Institute intern, and a student at Brooklyn Law School. Bleemer edits Alternatives, which the CPR Institute publishes. See altnewsletter.com.

 

US District Court Grants Appellate Arbitration Panel Award the Same Deference under FAA Jurisprudence

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

There are very few court decisions addressing the impact of an appellate review process administered by the arbitral institution that administered the underlying arbitration.  On February 14, Judge Paul Crotty of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an opinion in a case in which an American Arbitration Association (AAA) appellate arbitration panel had reversed the decision of the AAA original arbitrator, Hamilton v. Navient Solutions, LLC., No. 18 Civ. 5432 (PAC) (S.D.N.Y. February 14, 2019), available on TDM at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/legal-and-regulatory-detail.asp?key=21638 (subscription required).  Judge Crotty upheld the decision of the appellate arbitral panel, giving it the same deference as is customary for arbitration awards generally under the Federal Arbitration Act.

The underlying dispute involved a situation in which Ms. Hamilton, a student loan borrower, claimed that Navient, a collection company, had breached a U.S. Federal statute limiting collection calls relating to unpaid loans (the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227).  After Ms. Hamilton had expressly sought to revoke her consent to such calls, Navient nevertheless made an additional 237 calls to her (yikes!) using autodialer technology.

Ms. Hamilton brought an arbitration claim against Navient for harassment under the AAA arbitration agreement in her student loan documents.  That arbitration agreement included a reference to the AAA’s Optional Appellate Arbitration Rules (available at https://www.adr.org/sites/default/files/AAA%20ICDR%20Optional%20Appellate%20Arbitration%20Rules.pdf).

Ms. Hamilton had apparently consented in her student loan documents to being called by a collection company.  After she defaulted on her loan payments, Navient then began using an autodialer to call her repeatedly as part of its collection efforts.  However, after being called a number of times, Ms. Hamilton contacted Navient and sought to revoke her consent to be called.  Navient [here, NSL] and Ms. Hamilton stipulated as follows.

  1. On April 21, 2016, Ms. Hamilton instructed one of NSL’s call-center agents to stop calling her on her cellular telephone.  She was advised that she would be “taken off the autodialer.”
  2. On April 21, 2016, NSL’s call-center agent updated NSL’s system of record to update Ms. Hamilton’s autodial consent permission from “Y” to “N.”
  3. After the conversation on April 21, 2016 NSL no longer possessed Ms. Hamilton’s consent to place calls to her cellular telephone using an automatic telephone dialing system.
  4. NSL called Ms. Hamilton’s cellular telephone number two hundred thirty-seven (237) times after April 21, 2016.

In reliance on that stipulation, the sole arbitrator in the arbitration decided that Ms. Hamilton had properly revoked her consent for Navient to call, consistent with the TCPA.  The arbitrator therefore held Navient liable for damages on that basis.  However, after the hearing in the arbitration but before the arbitrator had issued the award, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an opinion concluding that the TCPA did not permit unilateral revocation of a prior consent to be called.

On June 22, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held in Reyes v. Lincoln Automotive Financial Services, 861 F.3d 51 (2d Cir. 2017), that the TCPA does not permit a party to unilaterally revoke consent that was made as part of a bargained-for exchange, rather than gratuitously.

Promptly after the Reyes decision was released, Navient emailed the arbitrator, asking that the record in the arbitration be reopened to consider the potentially dispositive effect of Reyes on Ms. Hamilton’s claim.  The arbitrator, though, denied Navient’s request and, the next day, issued the award in favor of Ms. Hamilton.

On June 27, 2017, the arbitrator denied Navient’s request to reopen the record because Navient had stipulated that it “no longer possessed Ms. Hamilton’s consent to place calls to her cellular telephone using an automatic telephone dialing system” and “[r]evocation of consent by [Hamilton] [wa]s . . . not an issue presented for decision in this arbitration.”

Navient appealed under the AAA Optional Appellate Procedure.  Considering the impact of Reyes on the stipulation, the 3-person appellate arbitration panel held that Ms. Hamilton’s consent was, by operation of the Reyes decision, not unilaterally revocable.  The appellate panel therefore overturned the part of the initial arbitrator’s award giving effect to that revocation of consent, and awarded in favor of Navient.

On July 5, 2017, Navient filed a Notice of Appeal of the award to a three-judge arbitration panel, and on November 17, 2017, the arbitration panel denied Hamilton’s motion to dismiss the appeal. …  The arbitration panel issued a final award on March 19, 2018, finding that under Reyes, Hamilton’s “consent was not revocable, and her withdrawal of consent was null and void,” reversing and vacating the portion of the initial award ruling in Hamilton’s favor, and affirming the initial award ruling in favor of Navient the outstanding balance of the Loan — $12,512.72.

Ms. Hamilton then turned to the District Court seeking to vacate the appellate award, arguing that the appellate arbitration panel had exceeded its powers and manifestly disregarded the law by vacating the initial award in her favor and awarding instead in Navient’s favor.  Judge Crotty, however, applied the traditional test under Federal Arbitration jurisprudence, that “a district court’s role in reviewing an arbitral award is “narrowly limited,” and requires “great deference” to arbitrators’ determinations.”  He declined to vacate the appellate arbitration award.

Navient did not believe or agree that Hamilton was permitted to unilaterally revoke the consent she gave in her student loan agreement.  The arbitration panel did not exceed its powers or act improperly in applying Reyes.

The arbitration panel also did not manifestly disregard the law in this case.  To the contrary, rather than “willfully flout[ing] the governing law by refusing to apply it,” …, the arbitration panel applied a Second Circuit holding to conclude that the factual stipulation regarding withdrawal of consent had no legal impact.   The arbitration panel did not ignore a clear law, but rather obeyed one. ….   Moreover, even if the Court believed that Reyes was ambiguous (it does not), application of an ambiguous legal standard would still not constitute manifest disregard.

(Citations and footnotes omitted.)

The District Court therefore confirmed the award as modified by the appellate arbitration panel.

The noteworthy aspect of Hamilton v. Navient for us is that the District Court made no distinction for purposes of judicial review between an initial arbitration award and an award as modified by an appellate arbitration panel.  The appellate panel had the last word under the AAA’s Optional Appellate Arbitration Rules, and the Court gave effect to that structure without a second thought.

_______________________________________________

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.

Implications of Henry Schein and New Prime US Supreme Court Decisions

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

As you know, the US Supreme Court has now issued its opinions in two of the three arbitration-related cases it heard this Term, the 8-0 (with an additional short concurrence by Justice Ginsburg) unanimous decision authored by Justice Gorsuch in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira and the 9-0 unanimous decision authored by Justice Kavanaugh in Henry Schein v. Archer & White Sales.  Only Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela remains to be decided this Term (Question Presented: whether the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) overrides a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements).

The headlines in those decisions relate to excluding from the FAA obligation to enforce arbitration any pre-dispute agreements with independent contractor transportation workers (New Prime v. Oliveira) and the rejection of a “wholly groundless” exception to a court’s obligation to allow the arbitral tribunal to decide jurisdictional disputes where the parties have “clearly and unmistakably” allocated that authority to the arbitrators (Henry Schein v. Archer & White Sales).  But there are other implications of those decisions to which we should pay attention.

First, with respect to the decision in Henry Schein and as discussed on the listserv, the lower courts had relied on the competence-competence Rule 7(a) in the AAA Commercial Arbitration Rules to conclude that the parties had “clearly and unmistakably” allocated that decision-making power to the arbitrators, as required by First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan.  However, the Henry Schein Court stated:

We express no view about whether the contract at issue in this case in fact delegated the arbitrability question to an arbitrator.  The Court of Appeals did not decide that issue.  Under our cases, courts “should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that they did so.” First Options, 514 U. S., at 944 (alterations omitted).  On remand, the Court of Appeals may address that issue in the first instance, as well as other arguments that Archer and White has properly preserved.

As has been explained by others, there is an existing Circuit split as to whether a competence-competence provision in arbitration rules is sufficient to satisfy the First Options standard.  Moreover, Prof. George Bermann’s amicus brief on that issue, reflecting the view of the draft Restatement that a provision within the arbitration rules should not by itself be sufficient, triggered critical questioning by the Justices (particularly Justice Ginsburg) at the case’s oral argument.  That issue was not, however, part of the Question Presented on which the Supreme Court had granted certiorari for review.  It thus appears the Justices are preparing themselves to resolve that Circuit split in a future case.  In that regard, you may recall my October 31 post (see below, triggered by Prof. Bermann’s amicus brief) asking whether that question will be “the Next Big Arbitration Issue”.

Second, the New Prime decision makes clear that independent contractors may nevertheless be transportation “workers” with “employment agreements” who cannot be bound by a pre-dispute arbitration agreement enforceable under the FAA.  Mr. Oliveira himself is an independent trucker.  But I suggest to you the bigger practical impact will be to reinvigorate class actions in US courts brought by Uber and Lyft drivers against their respective ride-sharing employers.  Many of those judicial class actions had been dismissed in favor of arbitration due to mandatory arbitration clauses in the drivers’ independent contracts with the ride-sharing companies.

Similarly, seamen on shipping and fishing vessels and working personnel on cruise ships are not often employees of their shipping companies, fishing vessels or cruise lines etc.  Instead, they are regularly engaged under independent contractor agreements containing arbitration clauses.  There too, we can anticipate a resurgence of claims in US courts, rather than in arbitration, including possible class actions against shipping companies and cruise lines on various compensation, hiring and firing, and working conditions issues.  Unlike ride-sharing companies, though, those maritime companies generally operate internationally.  Consequently, we may anticipate as well that even more of those maritime companies will specify in their employment/independent contractor agreements an arbitration situs outside FAA jurisdiction, such as the many maritime employment arbitrations now being conducted in Caribbean seats.

Rail workers may also employ New Prime to move some disputes from arbitration to courts, although much of that field in the US is unionized under collective bargaining agreements for which arbitration is statutorily authorized outside the FAA.  Independent contractor relationships are less common.

But Justice Gorsuch may have gone further in his opinion.  He wrote:

Given the statute’s terms and sequencing, we agree with the First Circuit that a court should decide for itself whether §1’s “contracts of employment” exclusion applies before ordering arbitration. After all, to invoke its statutory powers under §§3 and 4 to stay litigation and compel arbitration according to a contract’s terms, a court must first know whether the contract itself falls within or beyond the boundaries of §§1 and 2. The parties’ private agreement may be crystal clear and require arbitration ofevery question under the sun, but that does not necessarily mean the Act authorizes a court to stay litigation and send the parties to an arbitral forum.

(Emphasis added)

It is certainly possible to interpret that statement to mean that a court must itself determine whether the arbitration agreement falls within or outside §2 of the FAA, not just FAA §1.  FAA Section 1 excludes, according to long-standing precedent, maritime transportation workers from the obligations of the court to stay litigation and compel arbitration.  But FAA §2, the basic provision of the FAA enforcing covered arbitration agreements, contains the well-known savings clause for “such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract”:

A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction, or the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof, or an agreement in writing to submit to arbitration an existing controversy arising out of such a contract, transaction, or refusal, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

(Emphasis added)

The quoted language authored by Justice Gorsuch (and endorsed by seven other Justices) can be read to suggest that, regardless of any “clear and unmistakable” delegation of jurisdictional decisions to arbitrators by the contracting parties, a supervising court must itself determine whether a challenge to an arbitration agreement on grounds such as unconscionability, duress or mistake is successful before the dispute proceeds to arbitration; i.e., a challenge under FAA §2 on grounds that exist in law or equity for revocation of any contract.  Certainly, counsel for parties seeking to avoid an arbitral forum in favor of a judicial forum will seize upon that language in New Prime to try to place the dispute in the courts.  We do not know if that was what Justice Gorsuch intended, but we can therefore anticipate a string of US court cases addressing the “who decides” issue again from that perspective, ultimately returning to the US Supreme Court for further clarification.

There is also another important conceptual issue embedded in Justice Gorsuch’s New Prime opinion that may affect many other issues relating to the FAA.  Justice Gorsuch spent considerable effort in his opinion focusing on the original legislative intent in 1925 for the FAA.  For example, these selections from the opinion.

Why this very particular qualification?  By the time it adopted the Arbitration Act in 1925, Congress had already prescribed alternative employment dispute resolution regimes for many transportation workers.  And it seems Congress “did not wish to unsettle” those arrangements in favor of whatever arbitration procedures the parties’ private contracts might happen to contemplate.

****

In taking up this question, we bear an important caution in mind. “[I]t’s a ‘fundamental canon of statutory construction’ that words generally should be ‘interpreted as taking their ordinary . . . meaning . . . at the time Congress enacted the statute.’” Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 9) (quoting Perrin v. United States, 444 U. S. 37, 42 (1979)). See also Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., 571 U. S. 220, 227 (2014).  After all, if judges could freely invest old statutory terms with new meanings, we would risk amending legislation outside the “single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered, procedure” the Constitution commands. INS v. Chadha, 462 U. S. 919, 951 (1983).  We would risk, too, upsetting reliance interests in the settled meaning of a statute. Cf. 2B N. Singer & J. Singer, Sutherland on Statutes and Statutory Construction §56A:3 (rev. 7th ed. 2012).  Of course, statutes may sometimes refer to an external source of law and fairly warn readers that they must abide that external source of law, later amendments and modifications included. Id., §51:8 (discussing the reference canon).  But nothing like that exists here.  Nor has anyone suggested any other appropriate reason that might allow us to depart from the original meaning of the statute at hand.

****

To many lawyerly ears today, the term “contracts of employment” might call to mind only agreements between employers and employees (or what the common law sometimes called masters and servants).  Suggestively, at least one recently published law dictionary defines the word “employment” to mean “the relationship between master and servant.” Black’s Law Dictionary 641 (10th ed. 2014).  But this modern intuition isn’t easily squared with evidence of the term’s meaning at the time of the Act’s adoption in 1925.  At that time, a “contract of employment” usually meant nothing more than an agreement to perform work.

****

What’s the evidence to support this conclusion?  It turns out that in 1925 the term “contract of employment” wasn’t defined in any of the (many) popular or legal dictionaries the parties cite to us.  And surely that’s a first hint the phrase wasn’t then a term of art bearing some specialized meaning.  It turns out, too, that the dictionaries of the era consistently afforded the word “employment” a broad construction, broader than may be often found in dictionaries today.  Back then, dictionaries tended to treat “employment” more or less as a synonym for “work.”  Nor did they distinguish between different kinds of work or workers: All work was treated as employment, whether or not the common law criteria for a master-servant relationship happened to be satisfied.

What the dictionaries suggest, legal authorities confirm.  This Court’s early 20th-century cases used the phrase “contract of employment” to describe work agreements involving independent contractors.  Many state court cases did the same.  So did a variety of federal statutes.  And state statutes too.  We see here no evidence that a “contract of employment” necessarily signaled a formal employer-employee or master-servant relationship.

****

If courts felt free to pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal, we would risk failing to “tak[e] . . . account of ” legislative compromises essential to a law’s passage and, in that way, thwart rather than honor “the effectuation of congressional intent.” Ibid.  By respecting the qualifications of §1 today, we “respect the limits up to which Congress was prepared” to go when adopting the Arbitration Act. United States v. Sisson, 399 U. S. 267, 298 (1970).

****

When Congress enacted the Arbitration Act in 1925, the term “contracts of employment” referred to agreements to perform work.  No less than those who came before him, Mr. Oliveira is entitled to the benefit of that same understanding today.

****

(footnotes omitted)

As US arbitration practitioners are aware, the US Federal courts have for many decades strayed from the exact text of the FAA in the course of developing US federal arbitration law.  Instead, the Federal courts have developed a sort of “common law” of arbitration, building on their notions of how to fill legislative gaps or to find modern interpretations to effectuate the FAA’s purposes.  The most obvious example lies in the continuing Circuit split over the meaning of arbitrator “evident partiality” as a ground for vacatur of arbitration awards by arbitrators alleged to have conflicts of interest.  So too, the judicial presumption in favor of arbitration itself.  If Justice Gorsuch’s “1925 legislative intent” approach is applied to such issues, US arbitration jurisprudence on arbitrator conflicts, presumptions of arbitration and many other issues may be in for a vigorous shaking up.

Justice Ginsburg was attentive to the implications of this interpretive approach, although I rather doubt her primary focus was on FAA jurisprudence.  In her short concurrence to the unanimous opinion (in which she also joined), Justice Ginsburg pointed out a more flexible view for interpreting legislative meaning.

Congress, however, may design legislation to govern changing times and circumstances. See, e.g., Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 14) (“Congress . . . intended [the Sherman Antitrust Act’s] reference to ‘restraint of trade’ to have ‘changing content,’ and authorized courts to oversee the term’s ‘dynamic potential.’” (quoting Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics Corp., 485 U. S. 717, 731‒732 (1988))); SEC v. Zandford, 535 U. S. 813, 819 (2002) (In enacting the Securities Exchange Act, “Congress sought to substitute a philosophy of full disclosure for the philosophy of caveat emptor . . . . Consequently, . . . the statute should be construed not technically and restrictively, but flexibly to effectuate its remedial purposes.” (internal quotation marks and paragraph break omitted)); H. J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Telephone Co., 492 U. S. 229, 243 (1989) (“The limits of the relationship and continuity concepts that combine to define a [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] pattern . . . cannot be fixed in advance with such clarity that it will always be apparent whether in a particular case a ‘pattern of racketeering activity’ exists. The development of these concepts must await future cases . . . .”). As these illustrations suggest, sometimes, “[w]ords in statutes can enlarge or contract their scope as other changes, in law or in the world, require their application to new instances or make old applications anachronistic.” West v. Gibson, 527 U. S. 212, 218 (1999).

These different approaches toward divining legislative meaning are part of the basic legal philosophy differences between the conservative and liberal wings of the Supreme Court.  Those differences will play out in many areas of US law but, in light of New Prime, one of them now may be the interpretation of the FAA.

_______________________________________________

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.

Kavanaugh on Arbitration

By Russ Bleemer, Sara Higgins & George Somi

President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has worked on a healthy dose of arbitration cases during his tenure on the federal appeals court following his confirmation, after a three-year Senate battle, in 2006. In this unusually lengthy post, presented in installments this week, CPR has taken a look at 21 of these cases. 

Overview

Kavanaugh’s arbitration decisions mostly adhere to the portrait of the nominee recently presented by both his supporters and detractors—that of a deeply conservative justice who leans hard toward business arguments and away from employees’ interests, and harbors a suspicion of government bureaucracy indicated most prominently by his disdain for federal agency law interpretations. See, e.g., Elliott Ash and Daniel L. Chen, “Kavanaugh is radically conservative. Here’s the data to prove it.” Washington Post (July 10)(available at https://wapo.st/2mdYxrf); Jess Bravin and Brent Kendall, “Who Is Brett Kavanaugh?” Wall Street Journal (July 9)(available at https://on.wsj.com/2NGECOf).

But, characteristic of judiciary views of ADR, Kavanaugh’s work in arbitration cases is less predictable on which party gets his backing, because he tends to stick to a narrow statutory interpretation.  For the Federal Arbitration Act cases, he attributes the stance to reflecting Congress’s preference for the practice. In a case involving another 1940’s labor statute, Kavanaugh joined a panel backing union claims in arbitration, reinstating an award against a big employer.

The arbitration-related decisions below are dominated by labor cases, a function of Kavanaugh’s place on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court which is a frequent site for appeals of National Labor Relations Board cases.

Kavanaugh’s views in those cases have received widespread praise from his conservative backers, and have inspired concerns about the future vitality of unions from the oppositions. Jeff Stein, “3 Ways Trump’s Supreme Court pick could transform U.S. labor law,” Washington Post (July 10)(available at https://wapo.st/2LaIBRN).

Kavanaugh’s views of the law on the relationship between management and labor surely will be a flashpoint during his confirmation hearings. See, e.g., Erin Mulvaney, “Brett Kavanaugh ‘Looks for Ways to Rule for Employers’” Nat’l Law Journal (July 12)(available at https://bit.ly/2Ld4qA8).

One of those cases in particular has fired up labor organizations, who looked beyond the ADR implications and cited an erosion of National Labor Relations Act protections in Kavanaugh’s decision. The case, Verizon New England Inc. v. Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., has been cited as emblematic of the nominee’s anti-worker stance. One major union pointed to the arbitration case as soon as Kavanaugh was nominated, calling on the Senate to vote against the nomination. More below.

Kavanaugh’s arbitration views, if confirmed, will emerge early in his tenure. The U.S. Supreme Court already has scheduled three arbitration cases for the 2018-2019 term scheduled to begin Oct. 1. Lewis Tan, “Ready To Reverse? Supreme Court Will Revisit Class Arbitration,” 36 Alternatives 98 (July/August 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2JnrFWf).

The following are highlights of cases in which Circuit Judge Kavanaugh participated that involve arbitration based on searches of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals website and commercial databases. The first three are authored by the nominee, and the remainder are cases in which he was a panel member. The final entry reviews a brief on a regulatory pricing issue that emanated from arbitrations on which Kavanaugh participated as part of a big legal team in a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case.

  1. Verizon New England Inc. v. Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., 826 F.3d 480 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (available at https://bit.ly/2NKd8Yn).

Kavanaugh began the opinion by setting out the parameters of labor arbitration agreements in a simple-to-understand fashion, stating that unions may collectively bargain to waive certain National Labor Relations Act rights, and agree to arbitration.  He noted that the National Labor Relations Board may intervene by reviewing a decision where the loser says it has been deprived of an NLRA right.

“But consistent with the national labor policy favoring arbitration,” Kavanaugh’s first paragraph concluded, “the Board reviews the arbitration decisions under a highly deferential standard.  . . .”

And, consistent with the conservative justice’s suspicion of the reach of administrative agencies’ powers, the opinion restored an arbitrator’s award in favor of the telecommunications company.  The award had been confirmed by an administrative law judge, but overturned by the National Labor Relations Board.

The opinion is controversial because the union had agreed to bar its members from picketing, and was taken to arbitration by the company.  The union lost because its members put signs in their car windows during a dispute.

Rather than focusing on fundamental NLRA rights, Kavanaugh stuck to arbitration procedure in reversing the NLRB—noting the appellate panel’s review is for reasonableness, not de novo—and adopted a stance in which the union had agreed to the picketing restriction.

He wrote that the NLRB violated its own “highly deferential standard” for reviewing an arbitration decision, known as the Spielberg-Olin standard, when it issued its decision.  Olin Corp., 268 N.L.R.B. 573, 574 (1984); Spielberg Manufacturing Co., 112 N.L.R.B. 1080, 1082 (1955).

The NLRB “misapplied its highly deferential standard for reviewing arbitration decisions,” wrote Kavanaugh. “Under that standard, the Board should have upheld the arbitration decision in this case. The Board acted unreasonably by overturning the arbitration decision.”

He added later in the opinion, “All agree that the National Labor Relations Act allows a union to waive its members’ Section 7 right to display pro-union signs in vehicles parked on company property.” Kavanaugh supported a limited inquiry by the panel into the arbitrator’s decision, but says the award should be restored because it “was not a ‘palpably wrong’ interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Fellow D.C. Circuit panelists concurred in the result but questioned the appropriate NLRB review standards of the arbitration, and the Kavanaugh’s deferral standard toward the NLRB decision.

The case was cited by the Communications Workers of America on Monday in its announcement asking senators to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination. See https://bit.ly/2uieX6L.

2. Nat’l Postal Mail Handlers Union v. Am. Postal Workers Union, 589 F.3d 437 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (available at https://bit.ly/2zqyEOB).

In an arbitration case between two unions at odds over their respective division of mail-handling duties, Kavanaugh, writing for a unanimous appellate panel, noted that the arbitrator “probably erred as a matter of contract interpretation,” but backed a federal district court ruling upholding the arbitration award.

He wrote, “[I]n light of the deference courts must afford to a labor arbitrator’s contract interpretation—including an arbitrator’s decision on arbitrability where, as here, the parties agree to present that issue to the arbitrator—we agree with the District Court that we must uphold the arbitrator’s decision in this case.”

3. U.S. Dep’t of the Navy v. Fed. Labor Relations Auth., 665 F.3d 1339 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (available at https://bit.ly/2NaiBpX).

Writing for the panel, Kavanaugh overturned an arbitral decision finding that the Navy had a duty to bargain with unions representing civilian employees before removing free bottled water provided to workers at a Newport, R.I., facility, after the Navy determined that water available from water fountains was no longer unsafe.

In 2005, the Navy had issued an email informing base personnel that previously contaminated drinking water was now safe, and that federal appropriations law precluded the Navy from providing bottled water given that safe and drinkable tap water was available.

Civilian employees at the base are represented by two unions: (i) the National Association of Government Employees, Local R1–134, known as NAGE, and (ii) the Federal Union of Scientists and Engineers, Local R1–144, known as FUSE. NAGE negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the Navy; FUSE had a grievance procedure agreement with the Navy, but no collective bargaining agreement.

These unions filed grievances under their negotiated dispute resolution procedures, arguing that the Navy had a duty to bargain with them before removing the bottled water. When the grievances were not resolved through negotiation, the unions sought binding arbitration.

The arbitrator found that any change regarding the bottled water “required conferring and negotiating between the parties bound by the Collective Bargaining Agreement(s).”

“The arbitrator declined to consider the Navy’s argument that federal appropriations law barred it from providing bottled water,” according to the Kavanaugh opinion, adding, “The arbitrator said that looking to federal appropriations law ‘would be looking outside of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the parties.’”

The Navy filed exceptions to the arbitration award with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, arguing that (1) the arbitrator refused to consider its argument that federal appropriations law precluded it from providing bottled water, and (2) the arbitrator’s findings drew no distinction between NAGE and FUSE, even though only NAGE had a collective bargaining agreement with the Navy.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority declined the Navy’s exceptions and affirmed the arbitrator’s conclusion that the Navy was obligated to bargain before removing the bottled water. The Navy petitioned for review in the D.C. Circuit.

Writing for the majority, Kavanaugh vacated the arbitrator’s decision on the grounds that federal appropriations law barred Navy from providing free bottled water to employees when safe drinkable tap water was available. After finding that the statute governing federal labor relations explicitly relieves agencies of the duty to bargain over any matter that would be “inconsistent with any Federal law or any Government-wide rule or regulation” 5 U.S.C. § 7117(a)(1), the Court turned to the issue of whether providing bottled water under these circumstances would violate federal appropriations law.  The panel concluded that it did.

Applying the “necessary expense” doctrine in the construction of appropriations laws, Kavanaugh wrote “[p]roviding bottled water when safe and drinkable tap water is available would serve no purpose other than accommodating employees’ personal tastes—a purpose that generally cannot justify the expenditure of appropriated funds.”

Kavanaugh vacated the arbitral award and remanded to the Federal Labor Relations Authority to determine the more fundamental question of whether the tap water is in fact safe to drink. “If the water at the Newport facilities is safe to drink,” wrote Kavanaugh, “then the Authority must rule for the Navy.” 

4. Kelleher v. Dream Catcher L.L.C., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 9831, *1.

This per curiam D.C. Circuit panel decision affirmed a lower court ruling that the petitioner contractor had forfeited its contract right to compel arbitration by delaying its request for eight months after a complaint had been filed. The petitioner had, instead, filed an answer, rather than a pre-answer motion to compel. The district court had found that the delay causes substantial prejudice to the respondent and the court.

The appeals panel, in the unpublished opinion, backed the district court and refused to stay the matter or compel arbitration.

5. Leidos Inc. v. Hellenic Republic, 881 F.3d 213 (Feb. 2, 2018)

Kavanaugh joined a unanimous circuit panel in denying a request to modify a large arbitration award related to services provided by the petitioner to Greece during the 2004 Olympics by allowing a currency conversion, to dollars from Euros, where the Euro had been devalued.  The long history in the case contemplated payment in Euros.

6. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 189 Labor Comm., 855 F.3d 335 (D.C. Cir. 2017)(Available at https://bit.ly/2N4SctW).

Kavanaugh was in the majority on a panel that affirmed, 2-1, a district court’s decision to vacate an arbitration award in favor of a police officer on the grounds that it was contrary to law.  He did not write the decision.

In the case, a union–the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 189–brought arbitration on an employee’s behalf against Amtrak. The employee was an Amtrak Police Department in the Canine Unit officer who was fired after Amtrak’s Inspector General found that the officer had lied about co-owning a home in Maryland with her supervisor.

After the officer unsuccessfully appealed the decision within Amtrak, she sought arbitration pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement’s grievance procedure. On her behalf, the Fraternal Order of Police claimed that she had been fired without just cause. Without reaching that claim, the arbitrator determined that the officer should be reinstated because the Inspector General’s investigator, when interviewing her, had not fully complied with the contract’s Rule 50 procedures.

The rule provides procedures for investigating officers—the “Police Officers Bill of Rights”– incorporated into the collective bargaining agreement.

The arbitrator ruled that the National Railroad Passenger Corp., better known as Amtrak, must reinstate, with backpay and lost seniority, the fired employee.

Pursuant to the Railway Labor Act, Amtrak brought an action in district court, seeking an order setting aside the arbitrator’s award. The district court, relying on the Inspector General Act of 1978, 5 U.S.C. app. 3, §§ 1-13, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security v. FLRA (DHS), 751 F.3d 665, 672 (D.C. Cir. 2014), agreed with the railroad, vacating the arbitrator’s award to the officer because the Amtrak Inspector General could not legally be governed by Rule 50 of the contract. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 142 F. Supp. 3d at 90.

The appellate panel decision cited limited grounds on which a court may set aside an arbitration award, specifically where a contractual provision is contrary to “law or public policy.” United Paperworkers Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 42 (1987).

The D.C. Circuit panel agreed with the district court’s finding that the arbitrator had improperly applied Rule 50 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement to the Amtrak Inspector General.

The opinion relied on U.S. Department of Homeland Security v. FLRA, 751 F.3d 665, 672 (D.C. Cir. 2014(“DHS”)), which held that under the Inspector General Act of 1978, “public sector unions and agencies can neither add to nor subtract from the OIG’s investigatory authority through collective bargaining.” 751 F.3d at 671.

7. Newco Ltd. v. Gov’t of Belize, 650 F. App’x 14 (D.C. Cir. 2016)(unpublished), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 619 (2017) (available at https://bit.ly/2mkxTxj).

Kavanaugh once again joined a panel decision affirming a district court’s order to enforce an international arbitral award.

The dispute between Newco Limited and the Government of Belize over an agreement to develop the country’s international airport was submitted to arbitration. A Miami arbitral tribunal issued an award in favor of Newco for $4.3 million. Belize agreed to pay the award on the condition that payment be made in Belize dollars rather than in U.S. dollars as required by the agreement, and that the parties first subtract unpaid taxes owed by Newco to Belize before paying the award.

Newco brought suit to enforce the award in the D.C. District Court. Belize brought its own suit in the Belize Supreme Court. Belize obtained an anti-suit injunction against Newco from the Belize court, while Newco’s federal court suit was stayed as Newco litigated in Belize.

The Belize Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Belize that the nation could subtract unpaid taxes and pay the remainder of the award in Belize dollars. But Newco refused to agree to the conditions and renewed its effort to enforce the arbitral award in the D.C. federal district court. Belize moved to dismiss the suit on a variety of grounds, including international comity, public policy, and forum non conveniens. The District Court rejected Belize’s arguments and enforced the award. Newco Ltd. v. Belize, No. 08-2010, 2015 WL 9810457 (D.D.C. Aug. 7, 2015).

The D.C. Circuit Court opinion, joined by Kavanaugh, affirmed this decision. The panel first rejected Belize’s request that the award not be enforced on the basis of international comity, finding that it failed to provide support for its assertion that the doctrine of international comity is a “’rule[] of procedure of the territory’ where the enforcement action is brought”—that is, the United States.

The panel noted that the allegations must be one of the grounds for refusal or deferral of recognition or enforcement of the award specified in the New York Convention.

Belize also alleged that the U.S. federal court should have refused to enforce the arbitral award “based on an alleged public policy interest in international comity.” The opinion noted that under the New York Convention, courts may decline to enforce an arbitral award if “enforcement of the award would be contrary to the public policy of that country.” New York Convention art. V(2)(b).

The opinion added that courts should rely on the public policy exception only “in clear-cut cases” where “enforcement would violate the forum state’s most basic notions of morality and justice.” Termorio S.A. E.S.P. v. Electranta S.P., 487 F.3d 928, 938 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). In this case, the panel determined that Belize did not show that enforcement “would violate the most basic U.S. notions of morality and justice.”

Finally, the appellate court found Belize’s contention that the district court should have dismissed the enforcement action on forum non conveniens grounds squarely foreclosed by precedent. See TMR Energy Ltd. v. State Property Fund of Ukraine, 411 F.3d 296 (D.C. Cir. 2005)(forum non conveniens does not apply to U.S. actions to enforce arbitral awards against foreign nations).

8BCB Holdings Ltd. v. Gov’t of Belize, 650 Fed. Appx. 17 (D.C. Cir. 2016)(available at https://bit.ly/2umHHuV).

In another 2016 unpublished opinion concerning a disputed Belize arbitration, D.C. Circuit Judge Kavanaugh was on a panel affirming the D.C. District Court’s enforcement of an international arbitral award, this time made in the U.K.

In 2005, BCB Holdings Limited and Belize Bank Limited—two Belize banking companies—signed an agreement with the nation’s prime minister addressing matters like their tax treatment.

In 2008, the firms invoked the agreement’s arbitration clause when the government repudiated the agreement. In 2009, an arbitral tribunal in London ruled against Belize, ordering that the country pay the banking companies about $20.5 million, plus interest and costs. Belize’s high court prevented the award’s enforcement, holding that it contravened the country’s separation-of-powers system.

BCB Holdings and Belize Bank sought to confirm the foreign arbitral award under the Federal Arbitration Act and New York Convention in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. They also sought recognition and enforcement of the foreign money judgment pursuant to the District of Columbia Foreign Money Judgments Recognition Act and to covert the award and its associated costs and interest to U.S. dollars. The District Court enforced the award.

On an appeal by the Belize government, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s ruling. The court held that under the FAA, the doctrine of international comity was not a “rule of procedure” and, therefore, it did not constitute a basis for denying the arbitral award’s enforcement.

Second, in response to Belize’s contention that there was a corrupt bargain between the former Belize prime minister and the two companies, the panel held that Belize had not demonstrated that enforcement “would violate the most basic U.S. notions of morality and justice.” The court reasoned that the arbitral tribunal didn’t find any corruption and that Belize’s high court never contemplated corruption when it refused to enforce the award.

Finally, the court held that while parties are time-barred to enforce arbitral awards within three years, 9 U.S.C. § 207, “the District Court equitably tolled the statute of limitations so that their claims were not time-barred.” The two companies diligently pursued their rights to the arbitral award in the face of a 2010 Belize criminal statute that imposed imprisonment and fines on those who violated an injunction by the country’s highest court—violations which included pursuing enforcement of an arbitration against Belize. Once that statute was deemed unconstitutional in 2014, BCB Holdings and Belize Bank filed the enforcement action in the U.S. district court within six months.

9. GSS Grp. Ltd. v. Nat’l Port Auth. of Liberia, 822 F.3d 598 (D.C. Cir. 2016)(available at https://bit.ly/2L3c7fe).

D.C. Circuit Judge Kavanaugh was on a panel affirming the district court’s denial of motion to enforce an international arbitral award, but did not write the opinion.

The D.C. Circuit agreed with a Washington, D.C., federal district court finding that issue preclusion barred relitigating personal jurisdiction over the Port Authority, and that GSS failed to demonstrate that the government Liberia was liable for the Port Authority’s alleged contract breach.

Following the end of a second civil war in Liberia in 2003, the Liberian Port Authority, a wholly Liberian-owned corporation that manages, operates and maintains all Liberian ports, awarded GSS a multi-million dollar contract to build a container park at the port in the nation’s capital, Monrovia. GSS is a British Virgin Islands corporation based in Israel.

Although Liberia’s Interim Public Procurement Policy and Procedures mandated that the Port Authority award such contracts through “open competitive bidding,” the Port Authority did not do so. As a result, in 2005, the Liberian Contract and Monopolies Commission informed the Port Authority that the GSS contract was invalid and reminded it that all contracts must result from competitive bidding.

The Port Authority subsequently petitioned the commission for a single-source exemption, which allows a Liberian entity to dispense with competitive bidding if, “there is an urgent need” for the contract and “engaging in bid proceedings . . . is impractical due to unforeseeable circumstances.” The commission granted the exemption on Aug. 12, 2005, and the parties re-negotiated the contract 10 days later.

The contract alarmed the International Contact Group on Liberia, a multinational advisory board including representatives of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the World Bank. In response to concerns over the contract’s validity and monetary value, the Port Authority and GSS amended the contract again.

Nevertheless, on Dec. 30, 2005, the National Transitional Government’s chairman directed the Port Authority to cancel the GSS contract. A Feb. 16, 2006, letter from the Port Authority notified GSS that the single-source exemption to competitive bidding was mistakenly granted, and therefore the Port Authority considered the contract “null and void ab initio.”

On March 15, 2006, GSS invoked the contract’s arbitration clause, which provided that disputes arising under the agreement were to be arbitrated in London and in accordance with the laws of England and Wales, against the Port Authority, but not against Liberia. “Meanwhile,” the D.C. Circuit opinion notes, “a separate Liberian governmental organization—the Liberian Public Procurement and Concession Commission —sought a Liberian-court declaration that the contract, including the arbitration provision, was invalid.”

Because of the Liberian judicial proceedings, the Port Authority refused to participate in the London arbitration; GSS appointed the sole arbitrator. On Feb. 8, 2008, the Liberian court held that the contract was unenforceable.

But one month later, the arbitrator determined that he had jurisdiction. In June 2008, he concluded that the Port Authority was liable for the cancellation. In May 2009, the arbitrator awarded GSS more than $44.3 million.

GSS filed a June 2009 petition in the D.C. federal district court to confirm the London arbitral award. The petition was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction. GSS appealed and the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed.

In March 2012, GSS filed a second district court to confirm the arbitral award, naming Liberia as the sole respondent, and amending three weeks later to add the Port Authority.

GSS’s second petition claimed that the Port Authority was Liberia’s agent and, therefore, Liberia was liable for the big London award. “Because Liberia, as a sovereign, may not assert a personal-jurisdiction defense,” the D.C. Circuit noted, “GSS believed that its second petition cleared the hurdle that blocked its first.”

The district court disagreed and denied GSS’s motion to enforce the award because, it stated, that GSS failed to prove that the Port Authority acted as Liberian government agent. GSS appealed and the D.C. Circuit panel, joined by Circuit Judge Kavanaugh, affirmed, refusing to enforce the arbitral award on the basis of issue preclusion, lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and a failure to demonstrate an agency relationship between Liberia and the Port Authority.

10. Cont’l Transfert Technique, Ltd. v. Fed. Gov’t of Nigeria, 603 Fed. Appx. 1, (D.C. Cir. 2015)(unpublished).

D.C. Circuit Judge Kavanaugh was on a panel affirming the District Court’s enforcement of an international arbitral award, but he did not write the unpublished opinion.

In 1999, Continental Transfert Technique Ltd., a Nigerian corporation, initiated arbitration against Nigeria’s Ministry of the Interior in a dispute relating to the creation of a computerized residence permit and alien card system.

In 2008, a London arbitration awarded Continental ₦29.6 billion in Nigerian naira in damages—in today’s dollars, more than $82 million—along with $247,500 in legal fees and expenses, and more than £253,000 in arbitral costs.

Continental sought enforcement under the District of Columbia Uniform Foreign Money Judgments Recognition Act at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The U.S. federal court confirmed the arbitral award under the New York Convention pursuant to Federal Arbitration Act, recognized the arbitral judgment under the D.C. Recognition Act, converted the award into U.S. dollars, and awarded Continental pre- and post-judgment interest. Nigeria appealed to the D.C. Circuit, arguing that the U.K. court’s order was not a “judgment” under the D.C. Recognition Act and that the U.K. award was obtained fraudulently because Continental had not informed the London court ordering enforcement about a Nigerian court’s restraining order.

The D.C. Circuit, relying on Church of Scientology of California v. United States, 506 U.S. 9, 12 (1992), held that it had no authority to decide legal questions if its judgments cannot provide redress. Since Nigeria had not presented any challenge to the arbitral award’s confirmation under the New York Convention, the court had no appellate jurisdiction to hear Nigeria’s challenges regarding the District Court’s recognition of the U.K. judgment under the D.C. Recognition Act.

Nigeria’s remaining challenges, the D.C. Circuit held, were without merit. For instance, the court, relying on Rule 54(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, held that conversion of arbitral awards from a foreign currency into U.S. dollars was warranted even though such relief was not explicitly requested by Continental in its complaint.

11. Nat’l Treasury Employees Union v. Fed. Labor Relations Auth., 754 F.3d 1031 (D.C. Cir. 2014)(available at https://bit.ly/2KOB6Up).

The union petitioned the court for review of the respondent’s determination that overruled an arbitrator’s finding of unfair labor practices against the employer, the Internal Revenue Service, in a dispute over workloads.

In a unanimous panel decision that Kavanaugh joined, the D.C. Circuit held that the Federal Labor Relations Authority correctly determined “that the IRS did not make any unilateral change” in the work rules, a holding “consistent with the Arbitrator’s factual finding that the IRS ‘divide[d] up an ever-growing pool of cases among virtually the same number of existing Case Advocates without making other reasonable adjustments.’” [Citation to the arbitration decision omitted.]

That, the opinion said, “was the critical finding,” under authority precedent, and required no notice to the union or opportunity to bargain.  “The IRS responded to outside factors,” according to the D.C. Circuit, “but initiated no change of its own to its policies, practices, or procedures.”  It denied review of the petition and didn’t reinstate the arbitrator’s unfair practices determination.

12. Oakey v. U.S. Airways Pilots Disability Income Plan, 723 F.3d 227 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (available at https://bit.ly/2L3cs1u).

This is another opinion in which Kavanaugh joined a panel decision but did not write it.  The decision affirms a federal district court’s dismissal of a claim arising under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act for lack of jurisdiction because the claim is grounded in the application and interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, and would need to be arbitrated if it is unable to be resolved informally.

The appeals panel held that the former pilot Oakey’s dispute fell under the Railway Labor Act, which has been applied to disputes between air carriers and their employees since 1936 and includes a mandatory arbitration provision, depriving the district court of jurisdiction.

Petitioner Oakley submitted a claim for disability benefits under a company plan to the retirement board, which approved the claim effective Jan. 30, 2002. In January 2003, US Airways notified Oakey he was to be “furloughed” on Feb. 4, 2003, as part of a fleet reduction. In March 2003, the plan administrator advised Oakey that, based on his furlough date, his disability benefits had terminated on Feb. 4, 2003.

In November 2003, Oakey filed an action under ERISA against US Airways and the plan for benefits allegedly owed to him. Oakey’s complaint asserts that that the 1997 Amendment was ineffective because it was not signed by an Air Line Pilots Association representative, and that as a result, Oakey’s disability coverage was governed by a 1975 Disability Plan, which didn‘t terminate benefits upon an employee’s furlough.

The district court granted the plan’s motion–on the ground that the RLA’s mandatory arbitration provision deprived the district court of jurisdiction–and dismissed the action in March 2012. Oakey v. U.S. Airways Pilots Disability Income Plan, 839 F. Supp. 2d 225 (D.D.C. 2012).

Upon de novo review of the district court’s grant of a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the D.C. Circuit appellate panel, joined by Judge Kavanaugh, affirmed.

The appeals panel cited earlier opinions in which it addressed the interplay between the RLA and ERISA and “concluded that the latter (and later-enacted) statute, notwithstanding its broad preemption of state law remedies, has no preemptive effect on other federal enactments—including the RLA.” Air Line Pilots Ass’n Int’l v. Northwest Airlines Inc., 627 F.2d 272 (D.C. Cir. 1980)(emphasis is in the opinion).

Given the “strong, comprehensive, express statement that ERISA is not to be read as displacing by implication any pre-existing federal legislation,” the Northwest court concluded that ERISA has no effect on RLA Section 204’s “mandate[ that] the carrier or the union [] refer disputes over the application or interpretation of bargaining agreements covering [rates of pay, rules, or working conditions’ terms including employee pensions], if they cannot be resolved informally, to arbitration.” Id. at 275-76 (quoting 45 U.S.C. § 184)(emphasis in the opinion).

Oakey argued that even if Northwest’s preclusion rule survives, it does not apply to his case because, he contended, that for the rule to apply (1) the claim must involve interpretation or construction of the collective bargaining agreement’s terms, and (2) the interpretative issue must be dispositive or conclusive of the claim.

The Court rejected this argument, holding that Oakey’s dispute, over which version of the plan agreement controls, is plainly such a dispute: regardless of the version of the plan agreement is controlling, its interpretation or application governs the outcome.

13. Belize Soc. Dev. Ltd. v. Gov’t of Belize, 668 F.3d 724 (D.C. Cir. 2012)(available at https://bit.ly/2ufkwTa).

Kavanaugh was in the minority in a 2-1 panel decision backing a writ of mandamus to end a stay of enforcement for an arbitration award.

In his dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that he would dismiss the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction and deny the petition for a writ of mandamus.

The case involved a petition to confirm and enforce a London arbitration award against the Government of Belize. The D.C. Circuit panel reversed a federal district court order to stay the proceeding pending the outcome of related litigation in Belize.

Following the respondent’s request, the appellate court opted to treat the appeal as an application for a writ of mandamus. The circuit court concluded that the stay order exceeded the district court’s proper exercise of authority and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In his dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that a mandamus order by the court was an unnecessary step that should be reserved for extraordinary situations. “Even if we think the District Court erred under the Federal Arbitration Act by entering a temporary stay,” he wrote, “its error was hardly ‘extraordinary.’ Mandamus for this case is akin to using a chainsaw to carve your holiday turkey. Indeed, if you ask me which is the more extraordinary–the District Court’s temporary stay or this Court’s invocation of mandamus jurisdiction under these circumstances–I would say the latter.”

14. New York & Presbyterian Hosp. v. N.L.R.B., 649 F.3d 723 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (available at https://bit.ly/2uBhNDd).

 A unanimous D.C. Circuit panel in which Kavanaugh joined rejected arguments by a New York hospital that an NLRB review of an arbitration agreement, backing a finding of a National Labor Relations Act violation, was erroneous. Kavanaugh was not the author of the opinion which supported a determination in favor of a union.

The case provided an interesting look at pre-ADR discovery.

The panel unanimously rejected the New York & Presbyterian Hospital’s petition for review of a decision and order by the NLRB, which found the Hospital in violation of National Labor Relations Act Section 8(a)(5) (at 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(5)), for failing to produce information requested by the labor union with which the hospital has a collective bargaining agreement, the New York State Nurses Association.

The petition arose from an alleged violation of the collective bargaining agreement. In 2004, the union filed a grievance alleging that the hospital hired nurse practitioners in a nonunion capacity to do bargaining unit work. The employer denied the grievance on May 18, 2005, explaining that the nurse practitioners were “not Hospital employees” and thus did “not fall within the Hospital’s span of control nor [were] they governed by the Hospital’s Policies and Procedures.

NYSNA subsequently filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB against both the Hospital and Columbia University. (The Hospital is affiliated with Columbia University School of Medicine, the opinion notes, adding that nearly all of its physicians are members of Columbia’s faculty and employed directly by Columbia.)  The charged alleged that they were “a single employer or alter egos of one another” responsible for “restrain[ing] and coerc[ing] nurse practitioners at [the Hospital] in exercising their Section 7 rights by employing nurse practitioners to work at [the Hospital] under terms and conditions of employment different from those specified in the collective bargaining agreement . . . covering nurse practitioners who work at the hospital.”

Acting pursuant to board policy, the NLRB’s regional director deferred consideration of the union’s unfair labor practice charge to the arbitration over NYSNA’s grievance. Columbia then informed the union and the hospital that, as a nonsignatory to the collective bargaining agreement, it did not intend to participate in the arbitration.

In preparing for the arbitration, the union made a number of information requests concerning the employment of nurse practitioners who were not designated as union-represented employees working on the hospital premises, but the hospital refused to provide the documentation.  And the arbitrator apparently failed to decide whether the hospital was obligated to produce the requested information.

An administrative law judge subsequently determined that the hospital was obligated to turn over the requested information. The hospital sought review in court, and the NLRB cross-applied for enforcement of its decision and order.

The hospital argued that union failed to demonstrate the relevance of its request; attacked the evidentiary foundation of the Board’s decision and order, and raised a number of additional arguments. But the majority, joined by Kavanaugh, rejected the Hospital’s arguments and denied its petition for review.

15. Winston & Strawn, LLP v. Doley, 384 F. App’x 1 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (unpublished decision available on Westlaw https://bit.ly/2LbfPn9).

Kavanaugh joined a panel decision that affirmed a district court order denying a motion for reconsideration of its summary judgment ruling. In the unpublished opinion, the Court rejected the contention of clients of the Winston & Strawn law firm that the district court erred in not staying the litigation proceedings to allow arbitration to go forward.

The Court held that this argument failed under the rule established in Khan v. Parsons Global Services, Ltd., 521 F.3d 421 (D.C.Cir.2008)–that a party is deemed to have waived the right to compel arbitration if it actively participated in the lawsuit.

Because at the time the client-appellants filed their motion to stay proceedings they already had filed a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion, the appellants already were actively participating in the suit, and the district court did not err in holding that they had waived their right to compel arbitration.

16. Verizon Washington, D.C. Inc. v. Communications Workers of Am., AFL-CIO, 571 F.3d 1296 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (available at https://bit.ly/2L3un8b).

A panel opinion in which Kavanaugh joined but didn’t write reinstated an arbitrator’s award in favor of union employees which had been overturned by a federal district court. The opinion said that the arbitrator’s award for the union and against Verizon had properly drawn its essence from the collective bargaining agreement in a case under a section of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 at 29 U.S.C. § 185(a).

17. Cephas v. MVM Inc., 520 F.3d 480 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

This unanimous panel decision Kavanaugh joined was about a statute of limitations issue that would allow a worker to proceed with a grievance against his employer under a collective bargaining agreement.

A federal district court rejected the filing as out-of-time under, respectively, the Labor Management Relations Act, because it “preempts a claim for breach of a CBA cast in terms of state contract law,”  and the National Labor Relations Act.

But the panel said that the lower court got the applicable limitation period wrong, and ruled it was in the District of Columbia Code. The ruling allowed the grievance by the employee—a federal court worker employed by a government contractor–to proceed, possibly to arbitration. 

18. Am. Postal Workers Union v. U.S. Postal Serv., 550 F.3d 27 (D.C. Cir. 2008)(available at https://bit.ly/2mdhomh).

In a case involving the arcane collective bargaining issue of classifying work roles in bargaining units, a unanimous panel in an opinion in which Kavanaugh joined but did not write conducted a de novo review supporting the arbitrator’s classification. The question was about the interpretation of the award, not its validity. The opinion noted the award was on the classification, not the work undertaken by the jobholder. It stated that the award had that focus, but, ultimately, the panel reversed the district court determination for a further inquiry on whether the award excluded disputed work, rather than the position, from the bargaining unit. 

19. Lessin v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 481 F.3d 813 (D.C. Cir. 2007)(available at https://bit.ly/2uclfVp).

Kavanaugh joined a panel decision affirming the District Court’s denial of petitioner’s motion to vacate an arbitral award in his favor because it didn’t approach the damages he sought, in a straightforward application of the Federal Arbitration Act.

In January 2000, the plaintiff transferred almost $5.3 million in Yahoo! Securities and a $2.1 million margin balance to his Merrill Lynch brokerage account. At Merrill Lynch he executed a Retail Account Profile stating that his investment objective was “growth” and that his risk tolerance was “aggressive.” Less than a year later, by October 2000, Lessin’s account had lost almost 100% of its value.

In February 2003, pursuant to a standard brokerage contract to arbitrate disputes before a panel of the National Association of Securities Dealers, plaintiff Lessin filed a statement of claim against Merrill Lynch and his broker for between $5 million and $10 million in compensatory damages as well as for punitive damages. The three-arbitrator NASD panel heard evidence over a six-day period. The panel found Merrill Lynch, but not the broker, liable to Lessin for nearly $33,000 in compensatory damages, and Lessin filed a motion to vacate the award in the D.C. Superior Court, which Merrill Lynch removed to the federal district court.

Reviewing the district court’s confirmation of the arbitration award for clear error as to findings of fact and de novo questions of law, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Lessin’s motion to vacate. The Court noted its limited jurisdiction to review arbitral awards under the Federal Arbitration Act, and rejected Lessin’s contention that the arbitration panel engaged in misconduct by refusing to hear pertinent and material evidence from one of his designated expert witnesses.

The panel also found no evidence on the record that the panel’s refusal to hear testimony from Lessin’s second expert deprived Lessin of a fair hearing, concluding that, given the evidence before the panel, Lessin failed to demonstrate that the award violated an explicit public policy.

20. Democratic Republic of Congo v. FG Hemisphere Assocs. LLC, 508 F.3d 1062 (D.C. Cir. 2007)(https://bit.ly/2Ji1L6p).

D.C. Circuit Judge Kavanaugh joined a panel affirming a federal district court’s denial of motions to vacate default judgments surrounding the enforcement of international arbitration awards, but he did not write the opinion.

FG Hemisphere’s predecessor-in-interest brought action in the district court against the Democratic Republic of Congo under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, seeking to confirm arbitration awards it had secured against the DRC. The DRC failed to appear in court, and default judgment was entered against it in the cases September 2004 and January 2005. The district court denied the DRC’s subsequent motions to vacate the judgments. The D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

At that point, the DRC raised its objections about service of process. The lower court denied motions to vacate for faulty service.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling, reasoning that the DRC had waived its right to challenge service of process pursuant to Rules 12(g) and 12(h)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The DRC had participated in 13 months of post-default judgment litigation to hold off the judgment creditor’s execution against its properties before finally claiming inadequate service of process and making any mention of personal jurisdiction issues.

21. GTE South Inc. v. Morrison, 199 F.3d 733 (4th Cir. 1999)(available at https://bit.ly/2KRa8LT).

In addition to service in the White House under President George W. Bush, Kavanaugh was an attorney at Kirkland & Ellis before ascending to the D.C. Circuit. He participated as one of five Kirkland attorneys named on the brief for the appellant, GTE South Inc., in a Fourth Circuit case, GTE South, Inc. v. Morrison.  A total of 13 attorneys appeared on the brief from Kirkland, co-counsel Hunton & Williams, and the company. Kavanaugh was a team member and not the counsel of record.

At issue was the Virginia State Corporation Commission’s determination of prices in arbitration proceedings brought by new entrants into Virginia’s telephone markets. In an effort to end monopolies by local exchange carriers, Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required local telephone companies that were monopolies to make available their facilities and services to would-be competitors at “just, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory” negotiated prices. If such negotiations failed, prices would be determined in arbitration before a state utility commission, such as the Virginia state corporation.

GTE, an incumbent company in this scenario, challenged the results of arbitration and filed suit against would-be competitors, Cox Fibernet Commercial Services Inc., AT&T Communications of Virginia Inc., and two MCI units, as well as the Virginia corporation’s commissioners, alleging that the state’s pricing decisions failed to meet the Telecommunications Act requirements. The district court granted summary judgment against GTE.

In its amended brief to the Fourth Circuit, the Kirkland team addressed the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Corp. v. Iowa Utils. Bd., 522 U.S. 366 (1999) (confirming FCC rulemaking power with respect to the Telecommunications Act) by arguing that the Federal Communication Commission’s pricing rules could not be applied retroactively.

Second, the team argued that Virginia pricing decisions violated the Telecommunications Act because the act’s plain terms required prices based on all of GTE’s costs, including the recovery of historical costs.

Third, if the rules applied retroactively to GTE, a remand to the Virginia corporation would be necessary.

Fourth, GTE argued that the court had to determine whether the FCC’s pricing methodology was at odds with the Telecommunications Act; if the court were to decide it lacked such jurisdiction, it should stay the appeal until deliberations on the substantive challenges to the rules were completed in the Eighth Circuit.

Finally, the amended brief contended that the Virginia corporation’s “Hatfield Model” pricing—a forward-looking methodology for estimating costs, differing from projections based on GTE’s actual past costs—violates the FCC’s requirements.

The brief was unsuccessful.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s ruling for summary judgment against GTE, upholding arbitration agreements issued by the Virginia state corporation.  It held that the FCC’s pricing methodology and determinations were not precluded by any retroactivity principles and that the Virginia corporation appropriately relied on the best available information to set prices.

Bleemer edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute; Higgins is a student at the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and a CPR Institute Summer 2018 intern. Somi, a student at Brooklyn Law School, also is a CPR Institute Summer 2018 intern.

District Court Overrules Arbitrator’s Authority on Class Certification

By Ginsey Varghese

A recent decision in a long-running New York case permitting federal review of an arbitrator’s authority in class arbitration may have substantial implications for arbitration law.

In January, a New York Southern District Court decision vacated an arbitrator’s class certification award to protect the due process rights of more than 70,000 absent class members in a gender discrimination matter, Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., No. 08 CIV. 2875, 2018 WL 418571 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2018) (available at http://bit.ly/2EjEQWp).

U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff held that the arbitrator exceeded her powers under the Federal Arbitration Act because an arbitrator cannot bind non-parties when the arbitration agreement does not allow class-action procedures. Id. at 2018 WL 418571, at *5; 9 U.S.C. §10(a)(statute available at http://bit.ly/120BmfV).

The FAA authorizes vacatur in four limited circumstances, one of which Rakoff employed in this case, “where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a . . . final and definite award upon the subject matter was not federal made.” 9 U.S.C. §10(a).

The case began in March 2008 with several female Sterling employees filing a class action discrimination suit against the company. The district court compelled arbitration. Jock v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., 564 F. Supp. 2d 307, 310-12 (S.D.N.Y 2008).

The case has since endured several procedural appeals, with the latest decision resting in part on U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s concurrence in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, where Alito distinguished “absent members,” reasoning that “it is far from clear [whether] they will be bound by the arbitrator’s ultimate resolution of the dispute.” 569 U.S. 564, 574 (2013).

This case appears to be the first time that Alito’s concurrence has been used to overrule an arbitrator’s authority. See Andrew C. Glass, Robert W. Sparkes III, Roger L. Smerage, and Elma Delic, “A First in Second (Circuit): On Remand, District Court Breaks New Ground by Vacating Arbitrator’s Class Certification Award,” K&L Gates blog (Feb. 1, 2018)(available at http://bit.ly/2ELn66I).

At this stage, Rakoff’s decision provides protection for companies with arbitration provisions that are silent on class action procedures, but it undermines and challenges arbitrator authority.

As has been a constant in the litigation, there’s more to come. Rakoff’s decision is the subject of a Jan. 18 notice of appeal, and is now, once again, pending review before the Second U.S. Circuit of Appeals. Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 18-153.

More on Jock, including its long history and pending appeal will appear in the April issue of Alternatives. March is out now, free here for CPR members, and here for the public.

The author is a CPR Institute 2018 intern. She is a law student at Pepperdine University’s School of Law in Malibu, Calif.

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.