Supreme Court Adds an Arbitration Case for the 2021-2022 Term

By Mark Kantor

Today is an important day in the US Supreme Court, as the Court agreed for the first time in many years to hear a case on abortion rights.  Court watchers will rightly focus extensively on that development.

In far-less significant news, but perhaps of interest to the arbitration community, this morning the U.S. Supreme Court also denied certiorari in Selden v. Estate of Silverman, 20-895, a Federal Arbitration Act case involving (1) whether vacatur on public policy grounds is permitted and (2) the proper standard for “evident partiality” vacatur.  The March 2020 Nebraska Supreme Court decision in the matter stands, upholding the confirmation of an arbitration as well as sanctions and attorneys fees.

The Court, however did grant certioraritoday in another FAA case, Badgerow v. Walters, No. 20-1143 (documents available at https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/badgerow-v-walters/).

The Question Presented in Badgerow is:

Whether federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under Sections 9 and 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act when the only basis for jurisdiction is that the underlying dispute involved a federal question.

Badgerow is thus a dispute regarding when, if at all, the U.S. federal courts have “federal question” jurisdiction over an FAA confirmation/vacatur dispute.  It will accordingly be of primary interest for U.S. litigators seeking a court ruling on whether a local state court or a federal court is the proper forum to decide whether an arbitration award can be confirmed or vacated under the FAA when the underlying arbitration award resolves a question of federal law.

Federal courts are forums of limited jurisdiction.  Longstanding jurisprudence holds that the FAA itself does not create federal court jurisdiction.  Rather, a party seeking to have a U.S. federal court forum for an FAA-related dispute must find an independent ground for jurisdiction. 

The implementing statutes for the New York and Panama Conventions do, however, expressly create federal subject matter jurisdiction for their covered international awards.  Consequently, the issue does not arise for those awards.

Badgerow poses the question of whether a federal court may “look through” to see if the underlying subject matter of the arbitration award resolves a “Federal question” and, if the answer is “yes,” take jurisdiction of the case.

The petitioner’s cert petition summarizes the legal issue and circuit split succinctly:

As this Court has repeatedly confirmed, the FAA does not itself confer federal-question jurisdiction; federal courts must have an independent jurisdictional basis to entertain matters under the Act.  In Vaden  v.  Discover Bank, 556 U.S. 49 (2009), this Court held that a federal court, in reviewing a petition to compel arbitration under Section 4 of the Act [failure to arbitrate under agreement; petition to United States court having jurisdiction for order to compel arbitration], may “look through” the petition to decide whether the parties’ underlying dispute gives rise to federal-question jurisdiction.  In so holding, the Court focused on the particular language of Section 4, which is not repeated elsewhere in the Act.

After Vaden, the circuit courts have squarely divided over whether the same “look-through” approach also applies to motions to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under Sections 9 and 10. In Quezada v. Bechtel OG & C Constr. Servs. Inc., 946 F.3d 837 (5th Cir. 2020), the Fifth Circuit acknowledged the 3-2 “circuit split,” and a divided panel held that the “look-through” approach applies under Sections 9 and 10. In the proceedings below, the Fifth Circuit declared itself “bound” by that earlier decision, and applied the “look-through” approach to establish jurisdiction.  That holding was outcome-determinative, and this case is a perfect vehicle for resolving the widespread disagreement over this important threshold question.

The question presented is:

Whether federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to confirm or vacate an arbitration award under Sections 9 and 10 of the FAA where the only basis for jurisdiction is that the underlying dispute involved a federal question.

[Emphasis is in the brief, which can be found here.]

The dispute will likely come up for oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court sometime in its October Term.

Badgerow is the second arbitration case slated for the new fall term.  On March 22, the Court agreed to hear Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, et al., No. 20-794, which will examine “[w]hether the discretion granted to district courts in 28 U.S.C. §1782(a) to render assistance in gathering evidence for use in ‘a foreign or international tribunal’ encompasses private commercial arbitral tribunals, as the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have held, or excludes such tribunals without expressing an exclusionary intent, as the Second, Fifth, and, in the case below, the Seventh Circuit, have held.”

Argument dates for both cases are expected this summer.

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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups. 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). He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management. He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.

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US Sup Ct: Will the “Next Big Arbitration Issue” Be Whether Provisions of Arbitration Rules Constitute Clear and Unmistakable Evidence That the Disputing Parties Allocated “Who Decides” Authority to the Arbitrators?

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two arbitration-related cases on Monday, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc. and Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela.  The issue before the Court in Henry Schein was whether or not there is a “wholly groundless” exception to the general Federal Arbitration Act caselaw rule that, if the parties have “clearly and unmistakably” allocated the “who decides” question to the arbitrators, then issues of jurisdiction/arbitrability are for the arbitrator to decide in the first instance, not the courts.

The facts of the Henry Schein case involved the relatively commonplace occurrence of a commercial arbitration agreement referencing arbitration rules (here, AAA Commercial Arbitration Rule 7(a)) that grant the arbitrators the power to decide their own jurisdiction.  The lower courts in Henry Schein, like many other Federal courts before them, concluded that provision of the Rules constituted “clear and unmistakable evidence” (as called for by the Supreme Court in First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan) allocating the “who decides” authority to the arbitrators, and then proceeded to consider whether or not an exception to that allocation exists if the claim of arbitrability is “wholly groundless”.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled below in Henry Schein that such a “wholly groundless” exception does exist.  Further, said the Court of Appeals, that “wholly groundless” exception applied in the dispute such that the Federal courts could refuse to compel arbitration in the circumstances.  The disappointed claimant then sought, and obtained, U.S. Supreme Court review on the question of whether such a “wholly groundless” exception to the “clear and unmistakable evidence” allocation rule exists under Federal arbitration law.

However, Prof. George Bermann of Columbia Law School, known to many of us as inter alia the chief reporter of the ALI’s Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration, felt moved to submit an amicus brief in Henry Schein questioning, not the issue expressly before the Court, but instead the underlying principle that incorporation of arbitration rules granting jurisdiction/arbitrability power to the arbitrators satisfies the “clear and unmistakable evidence” test for allocating “who decides” authority to the arbitrators .

Although a majority of courts have found the incorporation of rules containing such a provision to satisfy First Options’ “clear and unmistakable” evidence test, the ALI’s Restatement of the U.S. Law of International Commercial and Investor-State Arbitration has concluded, after extended debate, that these cases were incorrectly decided because incorporation of such rules cannot be regarded as manifesting the “clear and unmistakable” intention that First Options requires.

https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-1272/65270/20181001112810079_REPRINT%20Amicus-GAB.pdf .

Many of the Supreme Court Justices commented that this issue of “clear and unmistakable evidence … due to incorporation by reference” was not part of the Question Presented on which the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Henry Schein.  Based on those comments, it seems unlikely that the eventual decision of the Court in Henry Schein will resolve the issue posed by Prof. Bermann.  Nevertheless, Justices from across the judicial spectrum commented respectfully regarding Prof. Bermann’s amicus argument.  See comments and questions of Justice Ginsburg, Tr. 7:16-23; Justice Breyer, Tr. 49:15-23; Justice Gorsuch, Tr. 42:13-20; Justice Sotomayor, Tr. 38:4-7; Justice Alito, Tr. 35:7-36:4.

Counsel for the Petitioner did take substantive issue with Prof. Bermann’s argument, in addition to arguing that the issue was not within the Question Presented and thus in any event not before the Court.

What is going on in this case, if you look at the four corners of the delegation -of the arbitration agreement **** is that the arbitration agreement by its terms incorporates the rules of the American Arbitration Association and it does so very clearly. That is a quite common arrangement, particularly in commercial arbitrations like the one at issue here.

Then, if you take a look at the rules of the American Arbitration Association, those rules, and, in particular, Rule 7(a), clearly give the arbitrator the authority to decide arbitrability.  And under this Court’s decision in First Options, the relevant inquiry is whether or not the parties were willing to be bound by the arbitrator’s determination on the issue in question.

And so, with all due respect to Professor Bermann and his amicus brief, the position that he propounds has been rejected by every court of appeals to have considered this issue.  And if the Court has any interest in this issue, I would refer the Court to the very thoughtful opinion of the Tenth Circuit in the Belnap case, which discusses this issue in some detail.

Tr. 8:9-9:13.

The transcript of the oral argument in Henry Schein, available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-1272_bqmc.pdf, is very much worth reading in this regard.

The arguably positive comments by some Justices in reaction to Prof. Bermann’s amicus argument create the possibility that opportunistic counsel in other cases will see a signal that raising the principle to the Supreme Court in a future case might be worth the effort.  Consequently, I suggest that the “Next Big Arbitration Issue” to come to the U.S. Supreme Court may be whether or not an arbitration agreement incorporating arbitration rules that include within themselves a provision authorizing the arbitrators to rule on their own competence satisfies the “clear and unmistakable evidence” test in First Options for allocating “who decides” authority to the arbitrators in the first instance.

By the way, reading the tea leaves in the Henry Schein oral argument, at least some observers believe the comments/questions of the Supreme Court Justices indicate that the Court is not inclined to validate a “wholly groundless” exception to the allocation of “who decides” authority to the arbitrators.  See, e.g., http://www.scotusblog.com/2018/10/argument-analysis-justices-signal-opposition-to-vague-exceptions-that-would-limit-enforceability-of-arbitration-agreements/#more-276785.

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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.