US Sup Ct Grants Cert to Review Whether Courts Can Decline to Enforce Delegation of Arbitrability to Arbitrators When Court Concludes Arbitrability Claim is Wholly Groundless

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

Continuing their now years-long effort to mold the relationship between the courts and arbitrators, the US Supreme Court today granted certiorari in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 17-1272, to answer the question of “[w]hether the Federal Arbitration Act permits a court to decline to enforce an agreement delegating questions of arbitrability to an arbitrator if the court concludes the claim of arbitrability is “wholly groundless.””  In the lower appellate phase of this dispute, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had ruled last December that Federal courts did indeed have the authority to do so.

Granting this cert petition will allow the Supreme Court to resolve a “Circuit split” on the issue between the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Federal Circuits, holding on the one hand that Federal courts may decide an arbitrability issue if the claim for arbitrability is “wholly groundless,” and the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, holding on the other hand that if there is a contractual delegation of arbitrability to the arbitrators then the courts must compel arbitration to resolve the arbitrability issue even if it appears to the court that the claim of arbitrability is entirely groundless.

The dispute will be argued in the October Term of the Court.

The case record for this matter, including the appeals court decision and the filings relating to certiorari, can be found on www.Scotusblog.com at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/henry-schein-inc-v-archer-and-white-sales-inc/.

 

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.

Future Challenges Nixed? Thomas Writes That Public Policy is Not FAA Illegality

By Russ Bleemer

There were two opinions in addition to the five-justice majority opinion this morning in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285, covering three consolidated cases that declared that employers may require their employees to use mandatory individual arbitration to resolve workplace disputes, and waive their rights to class processes in either traditional litigation class actions, or in class arbitration processes.

[Our first blog post on the majority opinion here: https://bit.ly/2KEuXFN  Opinion here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-285_q8l1.pdf.%5D

Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority, wrote separately to explain why he believes that the Federal Arbitration Act Sec. 2 savings clause relied upon by the employees didn’t apply.

Thomas’s concurrence explains that the Sec. 2 ground for revocation of an arbitration agreement—“valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract” (9 U. S. C. §2)—concern the contract’s formation.

But the employees, Thomas writes, said the National Labor Relations Act makes the class waivers illegal, which is a public policy defense.

Because “‘[r]efusal to enforce a contract for public-policy reasons does not concern whether the contract was properly made,’ the saving clause does not apply here,” according to Thomas, quoting his concurrence in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, 353, 357 (2011).

The position is a significant distinction and expands the majority opinion’s view that there was no Sec. 2 violation because the National Labor Relations Board interfered with a fundamental attribute of arbitration, also from AT&T Mobility.  Thomas’s position could be used by the Court to reject future challenges to arbitration contracts.

AT&T Mobility was the case in which the Court permitted mandatory individual arbitration with class waivers in consumer contracts.  Today’s Epic Systems decision mirrors AT&T Mobility in the workplace.

More on the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg-authored dissent soon.

 

Russ Bleemer is editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives.

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.

Predispute Arbitration Would be Barred for Sex Harassment Claims Under Legislative Proposal

By Elena Gurevich

The Federal Arbitration Act is being targeted in Congress in a bill that seeks to ban predispute arbitration in matters involving sexual harassment.

Last month, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D., N.Y., along with 13 co-sponsors., introduced U.S. Senate bill S-2203, titled “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017.”

The act makes predispute arbitration agreements unenforceable for sex discrimination disputes.  It would put the responsibility for determining arbitrability on courts, not arbitrators.

The Dec. 6 proposal was immediately referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.  It was introduced in the House by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D. Ill., on Dec. 26, with seven co-sponsors, and sent to the Judiciary Committee.

The act would amend United States Code Title 9—the FAA—by adding a new Chapter 4 “Arbitration of Sex Discrimination Disputes” at the end.

In a proposed Section 401, the legislation would define “predispute arbitration agreement” as “any agreement to arbitrate a dispute that had not yet arisen at the time of the making of the agreement,” and “sex discrimination dispute” as “a dispute between an employer and employee arising out of conduct that would form the basis of a claim based on sex under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [citation omitted] if the employment were employment by an employer [as defined in the act], regardless of whether a violation of such title VII is alleged.”

Proposed Section 402, on validity and enforceability, states that “no predispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of a sex discrimination dispute.”

According to a blog by employment attorneys at the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, if the act is passed into law, it “would not make employment arbitration agreements altogether unenforceable.” Joe Liburt, Allison Riechert Giese and Akasha Perez, “The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act: A Legislative Response to #MeToo,” Orrick Employment Law and Litigation blog (Dec. 14) (available at http://bit.ly/2rmpHSx).

The blog post notes that the proposal “would require employers and employees to litigate sexual harassment claims, while leaving unaffected all other arbitration-eligible claims.  This could potentially require employees who bring both harassment and non-harassment legal claims to litigate some claims in court while simultaneously submitting other claims to arbitrators.”

The proposed law, however, does not prohibit workers and employers from agreeing to arbitration after a dispute arises.

The Orrick blog notes that the legislative proposal “has a long journey” before it is signed into law, explaining that “the bill must be assigned to a committee for consideration, withstand debate” and “pass a vote.” The blog post predicts that it “could take months or even years to complete, if ever.”

A USA Today article notes that Congress also “is wrestling with incidents of sexual harassment,” referring to a resolution passed by the Senate that requires sexual harassment training for senators and staff.

The article discusses a bipartisan bill that was introduced in November that would “overhaul the congressional complaint process and provide better protections for accusers.” The article also notes that “other lawmakers are looking to reform the secret process lawmakers have used to settle numerous workplace harassment and discrimination claims.” See Jessica Guynn, “‘Enough is enough’: Gretchen Carlson says bill ending arbitration would break silence in sexual harassment cases,” USA Today (Dec. 6)(available at https://usat.ly/2ynUM6y).

Some companies already have taken action in the light of the proposed legislation. Last month, Microsoft became the first Fortune 100 company to support the bill. Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith, stated that the company should “act immediately and not wait for a new law to be passed.” Brad Smith, “Microsoft endorses Senate bill to address sexual harassment,” Microsoft blog (Dec. 19)(available at http://bit.ly/2mR65jR).

The author is a CPR intern.

SCOTUS Says States Can’t Discriminate Against Arbitration, Directly or Indirectly

Adding to its line of pro-arbitration decisions led by AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333 (2011)(available at http://bit.ly/1Sf42Bm), the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed in a 7-1 ruling written by Justice Elena Kagan that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) both “preempts any state rule discriminating on its face against arbitration” and “displaces any rule that covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that (oh so coincidentally) have the defining features of arbitration agreements.” Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark, No. 16-32 (May 15)(available at http://bit.ly/2pCk94L ).

Kindred came to the Supreme Court after the Kentucky Supreme Court refused to enforce arbitration agreements signed on behalf of two residents of the Kindred Nursing Center, by relatives to whom the residents had given power of attorney. The two residents died, their families alleged, from substandard care provided by the nursing home.

The nursing home moved to dismiss the complaints on the grounds that the parties had agreed to arbitrate their claims. The trial court initially sent the cases to arbitration, but reconsidered later in light of a Kentucky Supreme Court opinion, and denied these motions. The Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed that the suits could proceed. The Kentucky Supreme Court consolidated the cases and affirmed, holding that a power of attorney must explicitly authorize the attorney in fact to waive jury trials in order to include arbitration agreements under the power.

As the Justices’ questioning during oral arguments earlier this year acknowledged, the facts of this case involved something more important and sensitive than a mere dispute over the arbitrability of a telephone or cable bill. But, with Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court seemed to be implying that, no matter how emotional the backdrop, the states cannot attack federal law that applies to that contract, even indirectly.

The Kentucky Supreme Court, wrote Kagan in the Kindred opinion, “did exactly what Concepcion barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement—namely, a waiver of the right to go to court and receive a jury trial.”

With this recent line of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the presence of unequal treatment of arbitration will control the results in these cases.

“There is no doubt that mandatory arbitration procedures, when abused, can be used to stack the deck in favor of companies against individuals, and the original case’s underlying facts are upsetting,” said CPR President & CEO, Noah J. Hanft. “But in ruling that the FAA precludes states from imposing rules that negatively single out arbitration agreements, the Supreme Court in Kindred has correctly protected a process that is fundamentally no less fair or favorable to individuals than a trial might be–and which arguably has the potential to offer many additional benefits. One can, and must, advocate simultaneously both for a robust arbitration option, and for its fair application.”

Justice Kagan’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito and Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch, who had not yet been confirmed when the case was argued, did not participate.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented–the seventh time he has issued a solo dissent noting that the FAA doesn’t apply to state court proceedings.  He would have backed the Kentucky Supreme Court, writing that in state courts, “the FAA does not displace a rule that requires express authorization from a principal before an agent may waive the principal’s right to a jury trial.”

2nd Update*: Class Waivers and Arbitration: The Battleground Focus Moves to Labor and Employment Law

*The area of class action waivers and employment law saw an absolutely whirlwind close to 2015, with the NLRB releasing yet another decision midday, on 12/31, following two weeks that saw 16 decisions restricting arbitration practices. Please see below for an up-to-date summary of these rapidly breaking developments.

By Russ Bleemer

The emphasis on the law and politics of consumer arbitrations, and their relationship to class waivers, has overshadowed developments in another closely related area of conflict resolution law.

But the time has come for finality on the legality of employment law class-action waivers.  Developments in 2015’s final quarter indicate that decisive events are coming in the area, which involves the intersection of U.S. labor law and the Federal Arbitration Act.

On the first day of December, the National Labor Relations Board issued two decisions finding labor law violations against companies for using mandatory pre-dispute class action waivers with their arbitration agreements requiring individual processes.  The waivers, the NLRB said, violate Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act, which allows employees, among other things, “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

That was only the beginning:  By Christmas, the NLRB had issued at least 16 more decisions striking down mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses that coupled class waivers as a condition of employment.

The decisions are crucial because the rights of collective action under the NLRA address far more than union workplaces. The law applies to most employees, and key cases that have arisen in this area focus on white-collar employees.

It’s a major statement by the Board. The NLRB decisions’ reasoning—that the NLRA and the FAA co-exist compatibly but the latter isn’t preferred over workers’ rights to act in concert—had already been rejected by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  Twice, in fact, including in a decision just five weeks before the December Board decisions, in Murphy Oil Inc. v. NLRB, No. 14-60800, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015).

The Fifth Circuit relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s high-profile consumer-contract arbitration decision–AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), along with the business-to-business class waiver in American Express Co., et al. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2013)—to justify rulings that mandatory individualized arbitrations are authorized by the FAA.

Consumer arbitration controversy has rolled over into politics in 2015, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau moved to regulate the process by barring waivers of all class processes. Congressional Republicans introduced legislation to hamper the regulation efforts directly, as well as defund the federal agency.

In November, the NLRB said it would request a rehearing in Murphy Oil, but it did not appeal the Fifth Circuit reversal of its first case on the subject, D.R. Horton Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012), enforcement denied in relevant part, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013) (Graves, J., dissenting), reh’g denied, No. 12-60031 (Apr. 16, 2014).

December’s stream of cases from Board decisions backing its Murphy Oil and D.R. Horton decisions mostly occurred mid-month, leading up to Christmas.  But for good measure, just hours before the close of business on Dec. 31, the Board added its final 2015 decision, again affirming its view in the cases already rejected by the Fifth Circuit.  The decision, GameStop Corp., 363 NLRB No. 89, 20-CA-080497 (Dec. 15, 2015), went even further, affirming a line in those cases barring class waivers in employment arbitration agreements that provide an “opt out” allowing employees to waive participation in the ADR scheme.

“Regardless of the procedures required, the fact that employees must take any steps to preserve their Section 7 rights burdens the exercise of those rights,” the decision states.

It’s clear that the NLRB, an independent federal agency that oversees workplace conduct by enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, is picking and choosing its battles, which experts on both sides of the argument agree will be finalized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.  The NLRB appears to be seeking a suitable case to ask the Supreme Court to hear, unloading years of litigation in December sourced from a variety of forums that reject the FAA’s predominance over the NLRA.

And while it awaited Murphy Oil’s Fifth Circuit fate, and while preparing the Board decisions it released in December maintaining its insistence on the NLRA’s vitality in the face of required arbitration clauses, the NLRB for the first time filed an amicus brief in a court case on the subject in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 13-16599.

The November filing, just a week after the Fifth Circuit decided Murphy Oil, noted that the Board would seek en banc review of that decision, and strongly defended its own D.R. Horton/Murphy Oil lineage.

At the oral argument on Nov. 18, Ninth Circuit Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz prodded the attorneys on both sides to come up with a formula for NLRA and FAA co-existence.  He suggested severing the waiver clause, but keeping arbitration decisions for a tribunal, rather than blowing up the entire ADR process in favor of litigation.

The Ninth Circuit argument also dissected the class rights being waived by the pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreement in the context of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which establishes the ground rules for court class actions.

The details on the December NLRB decisions; the Fifth Circuit’s Murphy Oil reversal; the NLRB Morris amicus filing, and highlights of the Morris oral argument are the subject of the January 2016 cover article in Alternatives, out this week.

Alternatives is available HERE for CPR Institute members after logging into the CPR website.  The newsletter, marking its 33rd year of publication with the January issue, is available to nonmembers at altnewsletter.com.

 

* * *

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

U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 Term Has Early Arbitration Focus

U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 Term Has an Early Arbitration Focus

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court began its new term with an early arbitration argument—the fourth case argued on the term’s second day, Oct. 6.

The argument followed a week after the nation’s top court agreed to hear a second arbitration case sometime this term.

Both of the cases involve California arbitration practice.  The new case on the docket–which started out focused on unconscionability but will be argued on whether a problematic arbitration clause is salvageable–is a federal case appeal from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the state.

The state-court matter that was the subject of the early-term argument, DirecTV Inc. v. Imburgia, No. 14-462, returned to an issue that already had been covered and decided by the Court: federal preemption of conflicting state law that affected arbitrability.

Or so it seemed.

The official issue in the case was “[w]hether the California Court of Appeal erred by holding, in direct conflict with the Ninth Circuit, that a reference to state law in an arbitration agreement governed by the Federal Arbitration Act requires the application of state law preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.”

The parties—a satellite television provider and an individual subscriber who filed a class action suit over early cancellation fees—had an agreement that provided for individual arbitrations. The form contract waived class arbitration, and was part of a purchase agreement before another California-derived case, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), backed class waivers.

In AT&T Mobility, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a rule from a California Supreme Court case, Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 113 P.3d 1100 (2005), which forbid class processes. The split AT&T Mobility Supreme Court overturned California’s Discover Bank rule because it interfered with the Federal Arbitration Act.

The DirecTV customer agreement the Court reviewed had hedged its terms about class waivers and arbitration in the wake of the then-pending litigation.  Under the purchase agreement, the parties were bound by the FAA.

But the contract stated that if “the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures unenforceable,” then the entire arbitration provision would be stricken from the purchase agreement.

Seemingly flying in the face of the since-decided AT&T Mobility, the California state Court of Appeal in DirecTV had concluded that the contract provision on “the law of your state,” in the words of the DirecTV petition to the Supreme Court, was a non-severable clause that “nullif[ied] the parties’ arbitration provision, even though [the Discover Bank] rule is concededly inconsistent with, and thus preempted by, the FAA under [AT&T Mobility], and even though the arbitration agreement here is concededly governed by the FAA.”

The petition said that the state appellate court had meant the phrase “the law of your state” to mean “state law immune from the preemptive force of federal law.”

It appeared that the U.S. Supreme Court took the case to reverse it and put it in line with its AT&T Mobility precedent.

At the argument, both conservative and liberal justices found the state appeals court’s reading of the contract, in refusing to enforce arbitration, puzzling.  Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said the state appeals court holding “flouts well-accepted universal contract-law principles.”  Associate Justice Elena Kagan lamented “the extent you can find reasoning in this opinion—which you have to search to find.”  The opinion under review is Imburgia v. DirecTV Inc., No. B239361 (Cal. 2nd App. Dist. April 7, 2014)(available at http://ow.ly/Tg4Mi).

The defense of the California state court opinion was that it must be maintained to prevent federal law from usurping state courts’ ability to interpret contract terms.

But the satellite television provider’s slam-dunk argument ran aground when the Court insisted DirecTV’s lawyer set a standard as to how the Court should evaluate state court contract interpretations.

Still, that argument was far simpler than the plaintiff’s argument, which faced a Court mostly unsympathetic to collective actions and which was looking at odd reasoning in the California appellate opinion.

The argument transcript is available at http://ow.ly/TfFui; the November Alternatives, available here on or before Nov. 9, has a full analysis.

* * *

The November Alternatives also will discuss the case that the Court accepted on Oct. 1, MHN Government Servs. Inc. v. Zaborowski, 14-1458, another matter with allegations of California hostility to arbitration.

The case focused originally on unconscionability.  MHN, a San Rafael, Calif., military contractor that provides life consulting services to military members and their families, sought to compel arbitration against the respondents, who were consultants in MHN’s network.

MHN’s motion to compel arbitration lost in both a California federal district court and in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, agreed with the lower court that MHN’s consulting contract was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable.

MHN avoided the unconscionability arguments in its successful U.S. Supreme Court cert petition, and instead counters with a focus on severability.  It tells the nation’s top Court that California has a rule on severability for contracts that operates differently when the contract is for arbitration, and the state is biased against arbitration.

The original plaintiffs counter that the federal court opinions exercised appropriate discretion in declining to sever clauses in an arbitration agreement that has been refused to be enforced “by over a dozen judges,” including in a 9-0 Washington state Supreme Court opinion that similarly refused to sever.

Full details, cites, links and analysis will be available in the November Alternatives at the link above.

Russ Bleemer is a CPR Consultant and the Editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives