By Philip J. Loree Jr.
A party fighting to arbitrate under its contract has sought U.S. Supreme Court review of a Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case holding that an injunctive action carve-out clause effectively negates the parties’ arbitration contract delegating the decision whether the case should be arbitrated to an arbitrator, not the courts.
If the Court agrees to accept the case, which is the subject of the Jan. 30 petition, it would be the second time in about two years that the nation’s top Court has heard the case.
The decision challenged in the cert petition, Archer and White Sales Inc. v. Henry Schein Inc., et al., No. 16‐41674 (5th Cir. Aug. 14, 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/33Cb78g) (“Schein II”), was a remand of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion of a year ago, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (Jan. 8, 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2CXAgPw) (Schein I).
There were several important 2019 cases concerning the application and effect of what are commonly referred to as “Delegation Clauses,” “Delegation Provisions,” or “Delegation Agreements.” These clear and unmistakable undertakings by parties to submit arbitrability issues to arbitration usually are expressly set forth in an arbitration agreement. Other times they are contained in arbitration rules that the parties incorporate by reference into their agreement.
Much of the controversy in the Delegation Agreement cases centers on whether the terms of the arbitration agreement should define or circumscribe the scope of a Delegation Agreement–or even effectively negate it.
These cases have conflated the question of who gets to decide whether an issue is arbitrable with the separate question of what the outcome of the arbitrability dispute should be, irrespective of who decides it.
The most important of the recent cases is Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., which for discussion purposes is conveniently bifurcated into its two most prominent components, Schein I and Schein II.
In Schein I, the Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, held that where parties have clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability disputes, courts must compel the process even if the argument in favor of arbitrability is “wholly groundless.” Schein I, 139 S.Ct. at 528-531.
The Schein I Court vacated an order and judgment of the Fifth Circuit, which held that, even assuming the parties entered into a Delegation Agreement, the arbitration proponent was not required to submit to arbitration the question whether a dispute concerning injunctive relief was arbitrable because that arbitrability dispute was, according to the Fifth Circuit, wholly groundless.
The Schein I Court remanded to the Fifth Circuit the question whether the parties entered into a Delegation Agreement, an issue that the Fifth Circuit had left open, but which had to be addressed in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision abrogating the so-called “wholly groundless exception.”
And that remand case is Schein II.
In Schein II, the Fifth Circuit set out to determine whether the parties had clearly and unmistakably agreed to submit arbitrability disputes to arbitration. The essential facts pertinent to this question can be distilled down to these:
- Party A’s and Party B’s contract contained an arbitration agreement, which featured a “carve-out” for certain claims, including “actions seeking injunctive relief”: “Any dispute arising under or related to this Agreement (except for actions seeking injunctive relief and disputes related to trademarks, trade secrets, or other intellectual property of Party B), shall be resolved by binding arbitration in accordance with the arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association [the “AAA”].”
- Party A commenced an action against Party B that sought, among other things, injunctive relief, which A said was outside the scope of the arbitration agreement.
- Party B said that A’s arbitrability argument had to be submitted to arbitration because the parties clearly and unmistakably delegated arbitrability questions to the arbitrator by incorporating AAA Commercial Arbitration Rules into their contract, including Rule 7 of those rules.
- Rule 7(a) of the AAA Commercial Arbitration Rules provided:
(a) The arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope, or validity of the arbitration agreement or to the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim.
On remand, the Fifth Circuit observed that under circuit precedent, incorporating arbitrator provider rules that clearly and unmistakably require arbitration of arbitrability constitute clear and unmistakable evidence of an intent to arbitrate arbitrability. The Court therefore recognized that the parties had entered into a Delegation Agreement.
But here, stated the Fifth Circuit, the “placement of the [injunctive action] carve-out . . . is dispositive[,]” and “[w]e cannot rewrite the words of the contract.”
“The most natural reading of the arbitration clause,” said the Court, is “that any dispute, except actions seeking injunctive relief, shall be resolved in arbitration in accordance with the AAA rules.”
The agreement “incorporates the AAA rules” and therefore delegates arbitrability “for all disputes except those under the carve-out.” (Emphasis is the Fifth Circuit’s.) Because of “that carve out,” wrote Fifth Circuit Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham for the unanimous three-judge panel, “we cannot say that the Dealer Agreement evinces a ‘clear and unmistakable’ intent to delegate arbitrability.”
Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit held that the parties did not clearly and unmistakably agree to delegate the arbitrability decision and affirmed the district court’s denial of the arbitration proponents’ motions to compel arbitration.
On Aug. 28, 2019, the arbitration proponent moved for rehearing en banc. On Dec. 6, the Fifth Circuit denied the motion for rehearing. That’s when the proponent became the petitioner at the U.S. Supreme Court. Henry Schein Inc., a Melville, N.Y.-based dental equipment distributor, on Jan. 24 obtained from the Supreme Court a stay of litigation pending its petition for certiorari, which it filed on Jan. 30.
You can download a copy of the petition here. A response from Archer & White Sales, a Plano, Texas, distributor, seller, and servicer of dental equipment, is due March 2.
Schein II was Wrongly Decided
This author believes Schein II was wrongly decided. In “Back to SCOTUS’s Schein: A Separability Analysis that Resolves the Problem with the Fifth Circuit Remand,” 37 Alternatives 131(October 2019), this author argued that Schein II can be reasonably interpreted to mean either:
(a) the parties did not clearly and unambiguously agree to arbitrate any arbitrability issues; or
(b) the parties’ agreed to arbitrate only arbitrability disputes about matters that fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement.
The first interpretation would negate the parties’ incorporation of AAA Commercial Rule 7. The second interpretation would mean that the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate only questions that ask whether a matter that is at least arguably within the scope of the arbitration agreement, but clearly outside the scope of the carve-out, is arbitrable.
Because the presumption in favor of arbitrability deems such matters to be arbitrable as a matter of law, the second interpretation would mean that the parties agreed to arbitrate only arbitrability questions that were not only relatively rare, but also legally uncontroversial.
That makes little sense and would mean the parties’ incorporation of AAA Commercial Rule 7 was of little or no practical significance or effect.
The article proposes a solution to the interpretative problem that a Schein II-Type analysis creates, and under which courts interpret arbitration-agreement terms as overriding or defining the scope of Delegation Agreements that are made part of those arbitration agreements.
It argues that courts instead should use the analytical framework of the separability doctrine—first espoused in Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395 (1967), and applied to Delegation Agreements in Rent-a-Center West Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63 (2010)—to interpret Delegation Agreements as being independent from the arbitration agreements in which they are contained, and not graft upon those Delegation Agreements scope limitations that are based on the terms of the arbitration agreement containing the Delegation Agreement.
It explains in detail why using a separability-based analytical model has a number of advantages over the Schein II approach in that it gives full effect to the terms of the separate arbitration and Delegation Agreements, gives effect to the separate but related purposes that each of those agreements serves, and otherwise helps ensure that the parties’ legitimate contractual expectations are met.
The author hopes that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari, reverse, and clarify how the lower courts should address cases where parties agree to a broad arbitration agreement, incorporate by reference into that agreement a broad, unqualified, Delegation Agreement, but except from the scope of their arbitration agreement certain types of disputes.
There are many other reasons why the author believes SCOTUS should hear and reverse Schein II, but a thorough discussion of them must await another article or post.
The whole point of Schein I was that the merits of an arbitrability question has no bearing on the question of who gets to decide that question. Schein II does not comport with Schein I and should be reversed.
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Philip J. Loree Jr. is a co-founder and partner at the New York law firm, Loree & Loree. The opinions expressed in this post are his own, and not those of the blog publisher, the CPR Institute.