Second Circuit Affirms on Sending a Contract’s Arbitrability to a Court, Not a Tribunal

By Mark Kantor 

It has become common to report on federal circuit court decisions deferring “who decides” gateway arbitrability issues to arbitrators based on the adoption by contract parties of a set of arbitration rules containing a “competence-competence” clause, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court consistently declining to take on that question. 

On Friday, though, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the existence of such a clause in the American Arbitration Association Commercial Arbitration Rules (here, R-7(a)) was not per se sufficient to satisfy the Supreme Court’s “clear and unmistakable” gateway test from First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995) (available at http://bit.ly/2WEXGnF).

 In DDK Hotels LLC et al v. Williams-Sonoma Inc., et al, No. 20-2748-cv (2d Cir. July 23) (available at https://bit.ly/3zIUIhv), a unanimous three-judge appeals panel concluded that the gateway question of whether a dispute about “prevailing party” fees was arbitrable under a joint venture agreement was “one for the district court, not the arbitrator, to decide.” 

The manner in which the U.S. District Court, and then the Second Circuit, reached this conclusion is an interesting approach toward limiting the impact of the rulings in all but one of the circuits (including the Second Circuit) that a “competence-competence” clause in arbitration rules–a provision that the tribunal decides its own jurisdiction as to whether a case is arbitrated–constitutes a “clear and unmistakable” showing that the contract parties intended for gateway arbitrability issues to be decided by the arbitral tribunal.

The core U.S. Federal Arbitration Act  (at 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq.) test for allocating gateway issues between courts and arbitral tribunals is well known.  Gateway issues are to be decided by the courts unless there is clear and unmistakable evidence that the contracting parties intended to allocate the gateway issue to the arbitrator.  Ordinary contract law principles apply to that inquiry.

Writing for the unanimous panel, Second Circuit Senior Judge Robert D. Sack noted, “Courts should not assume that the parties agreed to arbitrate arbitrability unless there is ‘clea[r] and unmistakabl[e]’ evidence that they did so. First Options, 514 U.S. at 944 (alterations in original) (quoting AT & T Techs. Inc. v. Commc’ns Workers of Am., 475 U.S. 643, 649 (1986)).  . . .  We ‘apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts’ in conducting this inquiry into the parties’ intent. First Options, 514 U.S. at 944.”

Like every other circuit court that has ruled on the question, the Second Circuit has held that “[w]here the parties explicitly incorporate procedural rules that empower an arbitrator to decide issues of arbitrability, that incorporation may serve ‘as clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent to delegate arbitrability to an arbitrator.’” Citing Contec Corp. v. Remote Sol. Co., 398 F.3d 205, 208 (2d Cir. 2005).

The DDK Hotels appeals court, however, went on to point out a limiting aspect of those decisions: “[C]ontext matters,” such that incorporation of such rules does not per se show satisfaction with the First Options “clear and unmistakable” standard if other aspects of the parties’ agreement create ambiguity as to the requisite intent. Specifically, opinion states,

We have also advised, however, that in evaluating the import of incorporation of the AAA Rules (or analogous rules) into an arbitration agreement, context matters. 

Incorporation of such rules into an arbitration agreement does not, per se, demonstrate clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent to delegate threshold questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator where other aspects of the contract create ambiguity as to the parties’ intent.

The appellate panel stated that, “where the arbitration agreement is broad and expresses the intent to arbitrate all aspects of all disputes,” then the First Options test will be met to allocate issues of arbitrability to an arbitrator.  If, however, “the arbitration agreement is narrower, vague, or contains exclusionary language” that the parties intended to arbitrate “only a limited subset of disputes,” then “incorporation of rules that empower an arbitrator to decide issues of arbitrability, standing alone, does not suffice to establish the requisite clear and unmistakable inference of intent to arbitrate arbitrability.” (Emphasis added.)  

Senior Circuit Judge Sack pointed to a Second Circuit ruling in NASDAQ OMX Grp. Inc. v. UBS Sec. LLC, 770 F.3d 1010, 1031 (2d Cir. 2014), to reinforce this conclusion: “[W]here a broad arbitration clause is subject to a qualifying provision that at least arguably covers the present dispute . . . we have identified ambiguity as to the parties’ intent to have questions of arbitrability . . . decided by an arbitrator.”

The Court of Appeals then applied these principles to the joint venture contract at issue in DDK Hotels.  Section 16(b) of the joint venture agreement limited arbitration solely to “Disputed Matters”:

“(b) Arbitration. The parties unconditionally and irrevocably agree that, with the exception of injunctive relief as provided herein, and except as provided in Section 16(c), all Disputed Matters that are not resolved pursuant to the mediation process provided in Section 16(a) may be submitted by either Member to binding arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) for resolution in accordance with the Commercial Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures of the AAA then in effect.  . . .” (Emphasis added by Court of Appeals.)”

The term “Disputed Matters” was defined in the JV agreement to cover corporate governance “deadlock” issues requiring Board or LLC Member approval or on which the Board was unable to reach agreement.

The “Deadlock” section is a corporate governance mechanism that applies only to “Disputed Matters,” which are defined as matters “requiring Board or Member approval” on which the board is unable to reach agreement.

Looking at that definition and at other provisions of the contract giving content to the term “Disputed Matters,” the Second Circuit found ambiguity as to the parties’ intent.

Payment of prevailing party fees pursuant to Section 21(h) is not on that list, the opinion notes, suggesting that disputes under Section 21(h), on prevailing party fees, may very well fall outside the scope of Section 16’s arbitration provision.

Nothing in Section 21(h), the opinion states, “suggests that such relief [compelling payment of prevailing party fees] is contingent upon board approval; to the contrary, it unambiguously directs the non-prevailing member to pay such costs and fees ‘upon demand.’”

For the Second Circuit, that ambiguity blocked a conclusion that the “competence-competence” provision in AAA Rule R-7(a) clearly allocated the “who decides” gateway decision to the arbitrator.  Consequently, under First Options, the gateway decision lay with the courts:

“While the arbitration agreement does indeed incorporate the AAA Rules, which empower the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability, Section 16(b) provides that the AAA Rules ‘apply to such arbitrations as may arise under the [JV] Agreement.’ See NASDAQ OMX, 770 F.3d at 1032; SA.16.  Because Section 16(b)’s arbitration clause applies only to ‘Disputed Matters’ not resolved pursuant to the mediation process outlined in Section 16(a), the AAA Rules do not apply ‘until a decision is made as to whether [DDK Hospitality’s supplemental claim] does or does not fall within the intended scope of arbitration[.]’ NASDAQ OMX, 770 F.3d at 1032.  In other words, whether the AAA Rules, including Rule 7(a), apply turns on the conditional premise that the dispute falls within the definition of ‘Disputed Matter.’ If it does not, then the AAA Rules do not govern and no delegation of authority to the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability arises.  The narrow scope of the arbitration provision therefore obscures the import of the incorporation of the AAA Rules and creates ambiguity as to the parties’ intent to delegate arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

Thus, the Second Circuit held in DDK Hotels that the contractual agreement in the JV agreement limiting arbitration to “Disputed Matters” operated to prevent allocation of the arbitrability decision to the arbitrator under the “clear and unmistakable” First Options test.  Accordingly, “[t]he district court therefore correctly determined that it, rather than the arbitrator, should decide whether the supplemental claim [for prevailing party fees] was arbitrable.”

One might reasonably ask how DDK Hotels squares with the unanimous 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2YLDkWQ), rejecting a “wholly groundless” basis for declining to forward a gateway question to arbitrators for decision. 

In Henry Schein, the Court’s summary does a good job of setting out the core of that ruling:

“Held: The ‘wholly groundless’ exception to arbitrability is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act and this Court’s precedent.  Under the Act, arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms.  . . . The parties to such a contract may agree to have an arbitrator decide not only the merits of a particular dispute, but also ‘’gateway’ questions of ‘arbitrability.’’ . . . Therefore, when the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, a court may not override the contract, even if the court thinks that the arbitrability claim is  wholly groundless.”

Under the doctrine rejected by the Supreme Court in Henry Schein, the courts would have construed the parties’ contract to determine if the claimant’s arbitrability argument was “wholly groundless.”  Even in the face of a “clear and unmistakable” agreement to delegate arbitrability issues to the arbitrator, if the court was satisfied the arbitrability argument was “wholly groundless” under the contract, then the court could determine the arbitrability issue itself instead of referring the gateway question to the arbitrator.

In DDK Hotels, the district court and the Second Circuit again construed the parties’ contract, this time to determine if the parties’ intention to delegate the gateway issue to the arbitrator was ambiguous rather than clear and unmistakable.

To distinguish DDK Hotels from Henry Schein, one must come up with a persuasive explanation for how (i) the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ inquiry into whether the dispute at issue in DDK Hotels arguably fell outside the meaning of the contract term “Disputed Matters” differs from (ii) the judicial inquiry into the contract terms in Henry Schein to determine if the claim of arbitrability was “wholly groundless.” 

This is perhaps a task the US Supreme Court declined to take on when it dismissed certiorari in Henry Schein II as improvidently granted earlier this year?

Any volunteers to tackle that job? Please feel free to comment below.

* * *

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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Another Appeals Court Take on ‘Who Decides’: The Sixth Circuit Overturns Provider’s Ruling to Reject Arbitration

By Mark Kantor

Last week, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued one of the rare rulings addressing the authority of an arbitral institution to make decisions. 

In the case, the appeals court considered the authority of an American Arbitration Association administrator to make what the court considered a “gateway” decision under the AAA’s Healthcare Policy Statement and rules rather than allowing that decision to be made by arbitrators. 

The 2-1 majority opinion ruled that only an arbitrator could make the decision, not the administrator.  That ruling has significant implications for the administrability of due process protocols and policy statements in patient healthcare, consumer and employment disputes.

In Ciccio, et al. v. SmileDirectClub LLC, No. 20-5833 (6th Cir. June 25, 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/2U8OqZ8), Senior Circuit Judge David W. McKeague authored the majority Sixth Circuit panel opinion overturning an AAA decision to apply the AAA’s policy against accepting a claim that “implicated various AAA policies that precluded arbitration unless the parties signed a post-dispute arbitration agreement or a court otherwise ordered arbitration.” 

The AAA’s Consumer Arbitration Rules, Healthcare Policy Statement and Healthcare Due Process Protocol bar the AAA from arbitrating a patient healthcare dispute unless either (1) all parties have agreed to submit the matter to arbitration after the dispute has arisen or(2) a court has ordered the disputing parties to arbitrate the matter.  The AAA Healthcare Policy Statement  describes this policy succinctly:

In 2003, the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) announced that it would not administer healthcare arbitrations between individual patients and healthcare service providers that relate to medical services, such as negligence and medical malpractice disputes, unless all parties agreed to submit the matter to arbitration after the dispute arose. . . .  However, the AAA will administer disputes between patients and healthcare providers to the extent a court order directs such a dispute to arbitration where the parties’ agreement provides for the AAA’s rules or AAA administration.

The dispute in this case arose out of a false advertising claim brought by plaintiffs and former patients Dena Nigohosian, Dr. Joseph Ciccio, Dr. Arthur Kapit, and Dr. Vishu Raj, and joined by Dana Johnson and others, against SmileDirect, originally in federal court.  The U.S. District Court first held that an arbitration agreement in SmileDirect’s customer contract applied and ordered Nigohosian to arbitrate.  The other plaintiffs then voluntarily dismissed their court claims. 

The arbitration clause in question read:

AGREEMENT TO ARBITRATE – I hereby agree that any dispute regarding the products and services offered [b]y SmileDirectClub and/or affiliated dental professionals, including but not limited to medical malpractice disputes, will be determined by submission to arbitration and not [b]y lawsuit filed in any court, except claims within the jurisdiction of Small Claims Court . . . .   I agree that the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator selected by the parties and shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association.

Johnson thereafter filed a class arbitration claim against SmileDirect with the AAA on behalf of consumer claimants who had been SmileDirect patients.

At that point, the AAA itself became involved in deciding whether the class arbitration should proceed in light of AAA policies and rules.  An AAA administrator advised the parties that that AAA’s Healthcare Due Process Protocol and Healthcare Policy Statement in the circumstances required healthcare providers and their consumers to sign post-dispute arbitration unless a court order has compelled arbitration, according to the Sixth Circuit opinion:

An AAA administrator informed the parties that AAA’s Healthcare Due Process Protocol and Healthcare Policy Statement applied, which require healthcare providers and their patients to sign an arbitration agreement after a dispute arises in certain cases unless a court order has compelled arbitration.  SmileDirect’s counsel asked the AAA administrator to reverse this decision but the AAA administrator maintained his “initial, administrative determination [that] the Protocol [and the Healthcare Policy Statement] appl[y].” . . . SmileDirect’s counsel objected again, noting that the district court had already compelled Nigohosian to arbitrate “whether the claims themselves are arbitrable” and argued that “AAA’s administrative decision to apply the Protocol [and the Healthcare Policy Statement] to these consumer claims is erroneous. ***

The AAA administrator “reaffirm[ed] [his] administrative determination” that the Healthcare Policy Statement applied to Johnson’s claims.  . . .  He concluded that arbitration could only proceed following a court order (seemingly like the court order already entered for Nigohosian) or a post-dispute arbitration agreement.

Johnson refused to sign a post-dispute agreement consenting to arbitration, while Nigohosian (who was bound by the earlier District Court order compelling arbitration) never initiated arbitration herself.  When claimants renewed their court proceedings in the U.S. District Court, however, “SmileDirect responded that they couldn’t rejoin the case because the Agreement required an arbitrator to decide the merits of any dispute, including any gateway issues about whether the dispute was arbitrable.” (Emphasis added.)

The district court, though, decided that SmileDirect and Johnson “got what they bargained for” because the dispute had been “resolved using the rules of the [AAA].”  Consequently, the court  determined that Johnson could renew the dispute before the judicial forum:

The district court interpreted the Agreement to fully incorporate Rule 1(d), the Consumer Due Process Protocol, and the Healthcare Policy Statement.  The court’s interpretation of these rules and policies next led it to conclude that Johnson had discharged his obligations under the Agreement and could “submit [his] dispute to the appropriate court for resolution.” . . .  Under the district court’s reasoning, Rule 1(d) incorporates the Consumer Due Process Protocol, which in turn states that AAA has subject-specific policies (incorporating the Healthcare Due Process Protocol and Healthcare Policy Statement by implication), and the Healthcare Policy Statement requires a post-dispute arbitration agreement or a court order.  Therefore, the court held that “the AAA process to which the parties mutually agreed ha[d] been completed in Johnson’s case.”

With respect to Nigohosian, however, the Court decided that she was bound by the existing Court order compelling arbitration.  The District Court therefore stayed her claims, pending arbitration.

SmileDirect thereafter appealed the decision regarding Johnson to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The Court of Appeals did not resolve the substantive arbitrability issue.  Rather, Judge McKeague held on behalf of a majority of a divided appellate panel that “The text of the [parties’ arbitration agreement] confirms that the parties didn’t intend to allow an administrator to short-circuit arbitration by refusing to appoint an arbitrator to answer this initial gateway question.  Accordingly, we don’t have anything further to say on the matter until and unless a party asks us to review an arbitrator’s decision under 9 U.S.C. § 10.”

To reach this result, the appellate panel started with basic principles in U.S. arbitration jurisprudence that “[w]hether the parties have agreed to arbitrate or whether their agreement covers a particular controversy” are gateway arbitrability questions.”  The parties may decide to send these gateway issues to an arbitrator rather than a court, but only upon a showing of “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties did indeed intend to delegate those issues to an arbitrator under the ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Options v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938 (1995). 

In the Sixth Circuit, like almost all other federal circuit courts, the incorporation of AAA rules authorizing the arbitrator to decide on the scope or validity of the arbitration agreement or the arbitrability of a claim satisfies the First Options standard. 

Thus far, the Court of Appeal’s reasoning paralleled the U.S. District Court’s reasoning on gateway arbitration questions.  But, stated the McKeague opinion, “What remains is the related question of whether the parties intended to allow an AAA administrator to apply the Healthcare Policy Statement before sending any gateway-arbitrability questions to the arbitrator,” explaining that

The Agreement dictates that “any dispute . . . will be determined by submission to arbitration,” not by litigation, and “that the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator selected by the parties.” The parties never got that far here because an AAA administrator “ma[d]e[] an initial, administrative determination [that] the [Healthcare Policy Statement] applie[d].”

The appeals court read the arbitration agreement between the parties to show that they intended to send gateway questions of arbitrability “exclusively” to an arbitrator, not to an AAA administrator.  Senior Circuit Judge McKeague expressed confusion as to the basis relied upon by the AAA administrator to take this decision rather than referring the question to an arbitral panel:

It is unclear what the administrator was doing.  There are two ways to view his decision.  Perhaps the administrator independently interpreted the Agreement and read it to incorporate the Healthcare Policy Statement, which led the administrator to conclude that the parties did not intend to arbitrate the instant dispute without a post-dispute agreement or court order.  Or perhaps the administrator was simply applying AAA’s Healthcare Policy Statement because he concluded that this case concerns healthcare and the AAA follows this policy no matter what a particular agreement says or what particular parties intended.

“Either way,” wrote Judge McKeague, “the end result was contrary to the text of the Agreement and the FAA.” Arbitrators and arbitral administrators “are distinct.”  Under AAA instruments, he wrote, administrators do not decide the merits of a dispute. 

The opinion notes, “The arbitrator decides the merits of a dispute.  And if an administrator could preempt a final merits ruling by an arbitrator, the administrator would effectively run afoul of the provision that administrators ‘cannot overrule or change an arbitrator’s decisions or rulings.’”  It continues later:

Under AAA’s rules, an arbitrator and an administrator are distinct.  “The [a]dministrator’s role is to manage the administrative aspects of the arbitration, such as the appointment of the arbitrator.  . . .  [T]he [a]dministrator does not decide the merits of a case or make any rulings on issues such as what documents must be shared with each side.” . . .  Unsurprisingly, the administrator helps disputes get to an arbitrator and doesn’t make merits rulings.  On the other hand, “[a]rbitrators are neutral and independent decision makers who . . . make the final, binding decision on the dispute.  . . .  The [a]rbitrator makes all the procedural decisions on a case not made by the administrator.” ….  The arbitrator decides the merits of a dispute.  And if an administrator could preempt a final merits ruling by an arbitrator, the administrator would effectively run afoul of the provision that administrators “cannot overrule or change an arbitrator’s decisions or rulings.”

Therefore, concluded the Sixth Circuit, “the arbitrability of Johnson’s claim, thus should’ve gone to an arbitrator for a ‘final, binding decision.’”

The appellate court also considered whether the issue of compliance with the AAA’s post-dispute agreement requirement for consumer healthcare arbitrations is a “procedural decision” delegated to an AAA administrator rather than an arbitral panel.  The appeals panel stated, “We don’t see how it could be.” 

In so deciding, the appellate judges reminded the parties that contract interpretation is a legal question.  Procedural decisions, stated the Court of Appeals, are more like administrative aspects of the arbitration such as appointment of arbitrators, location of hearings and fees:

The procedural decisions AAA administrators make, in turn, are more akin to “administrative aspects of the arbitration, such as the appointment of the arbitrator, . . . preliminary decisions about where hearings might take place, and . . . handl[ing] the fees.” ***  So it generally wouldn’t make sense to require clear intent to delegate arbitrability questions to an arbitrator but then allow either arbitrators or administrators to decide that legal question. [Citation and footnote omitted.]

The appellate court distinguished in this regard a Fourth Circuit decision upholding resolution by AAA administrators of a dispute as to how many arbitrators would be appointed, Dockser v. Schwartzberg, 433 F.3d 421 (4th Cir. 2006). 

Not only were the clauses in the two disputes different, said the Sixth Circuit majority, but the issue in that latter case was procedural.  “Dockser dealt with ‘what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to,’ whereas here the relevant question is arbitrability—what the Agreement itself means.”

If, instead of interpreting the parties’ arbitration agreement, the AAA was applying its own “sound policy,” then according to Judge McKeague that conduct too would contravene applicable law.  Nor did the arbitration agreement grant the AAA administrator the authority to make this policy choice for the parties. The majority opinion states:

Although the AAA may choose for itself which claims it will arbitrate, it is not at liberty to “impose its own view of sound policy” regarding when or how parties should be allowed to arbitrate independent of the parties’ own choices in their contract.

***

We also see nothing in the Agreement that gives the administrator the right to make this policy choice for the parties.  To be sure, the Agreement incorporates the AAA rules, which perhaps could be read to include the AAA’s due process review under Consumer Rule 1(d).  And Consumer Rule 53 says that “[t]he arbitrator shall interpret and apply these Rules as they relate to the arbitrator’s powers and duties” but that “[a]ll other Rules shall be interpreted and applied by the AAA.” . . .  But Consumer Rules 1(d) and 53 must be read together with the Agreement and the other rules to ascertain the parties’ intent.  . . .  When an arbitration agreement and its incorporated rules seem to conflict, our job is to find the “best way to harmonize” them. [Emphasis is the court’s.]

“We won’t,” stated the appellate majority, “interpret this agreement to arbitrate to permit Johnson to avoid arbitration.”

Moreover, the appeals panel pointed out that its decision to require an arbitrator to decide the gateway question, rather than an administrator, was not inconsistent with AAA policy.  The court’s resulting order would satisfy the AAA Healthcare Policy alternative that the AAA will arbitrate consumer healthcare disputes if so directed by a court order. The opinion notes:

The Healthcare Policy Statement also does not stand in the way of such an appointment.  It makes clear that “the AAA will administer disputes between patients and healthcare providers” either when the parties enter into a post-dispute agreement or when “a court order directs such a dispute to arbitration where the parties’ agreement provides for the AAA’s rules or AAA administration.” . . . Our decision will lead to such a court order—seemingly clearing the administrative path.  Here, to give effect to both the parties’ agreement that “the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator” and that the arbitration “shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association,” we can’t read the AAA rules to preclude decision by an arbitrator.

.The Sixth Circuit opinion also drew attention to the fact that the approach taken by the majority will result in a different, narrower judicial review standard by the federal courts–review for vacatur of an arbitral decision rather than de novo review:

The district court effectively reviewed the Agreement de novo.  In doing that, the district court relied on a court’s interpretation of the same set of AAA rules and policies to hold that the AAA rules effectively nullified an arbitration agreement.  . . . But by agreeing, clearly and unmistakably, to send the arbitrability question to the arbitrator, the parties here bargained for the narrow 9 U.S.C. § 10 review, not de novo review.  . . .

This is where the Agreement’s requirement that the dispute would not be determined by litigation comes in.  The district court determined the contract-interpretation question, so the dispute was determined by litigation contrary to the intent of the parties.  But once an arbitrator interprets the Agreement, any judicial review under 9 U.S.C. § 10 wouldn’t be review of the arbitrability question de novo but under the limited grounds identified (for fraud, corruption, etc.).  Because the parties bargained for an arbitrator to interpret the Agreement and for the courts to have a very limited role, it wouldn’t make sense to allow an administrator’s preemptive contract interpretation to be a portal to de novo judicial review.   

Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay dissented, noting “I agree with the majority’s statement at the onset of its opinion that “this case is about whether the Agreement incorporates the Healthcare Policy Statement,” even though it then proceeds to repudiate the Healthcare Policy Statement.”  The parties, Circuit Judge Clay reasoned, “made their decision to abide by the rules when they signed the contract incorporating rules that included the Healthcare Policy Statement.” He added:

Turning to the plain language of the agreement, the threshold question of what the agreement incorporated is readily apparent: [disputes] shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association.  . . .  As part of the AAA rules, the AAA maintains consumer protocols that ensure a fair process in healthcare disputes.  The Healthcare Policy Statement’s incorporation into the agreement was clear to anyone who read the AAA’s rules.  The parties made their decision to abide by the rules when they signed the contract incorporating rules that included the Healthcare Policy Statement, but in my colleagues’ view, those rules may simply be disregarded if they interfere with requiring the parties to proceed with the arbitration.

***

Here, the AAA determined that proceeding to arbitration would violate their due process rules without its mandatory post-dispute agreement.  When the parties agreed that the dispute “shall be resolved using the rules of the AAA,” they were aware that those rules called for an administrator to render the AAA’s initial determination regarding the requirements of the organization’s own rules before proceeding to arbitration.  That was not an unusual decision, nor a decision out of lockstep with the rules of the AAA.  Quite the contrary, that decision followed the process by which the AAA typically administers all of its arbitrations.  That provides the “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties intended to have these gateway issues decided in accordance with the AAA’s procedures and policies.

The majority opinion addressed Circuit Judge Clay’s dissent in footnotes 3 and 4.  Notably, in footnote 4 the Court of Appeals stated, “we interpret the words of this Agreement in conjunction with AAA’s rules without deference to AAA’s ‘typical’ practice.” The footnotes state:

3The dissent agrees that AAA’s rules specifically assign arbitrability questions to the arbitrator while reserving AAA’s “administrative duties” for the administrator as detailed in the arbitration agreement and the AAA’s rules themselves.  . . .  Where we differ is whether the AAA rules include an initial arbitrability decision among these “administrative duties.”  The dissent points to no rule granting the administrator such authority, but instead locates the authority in the general requirement that “the AAA will administer the arbitration.” . . .  Our decision to follow the AAA’s rule granting such authority to an arbitrator doesn’t mean that the parties “contract[ed] the AAA’s administrator out of the process,” but instead means the parties intended the administrator to have the role the AAA’s rules mandate: “to manage the administrative aspects of the arbitration, such as the appointment of the arbitrator, preliminary decisions about where hearings might take place, and handling the fees associated with the arbitration.”

4The dissent suggests that requiring an administrator to determine arbitrability “was not an unusual decision” but is rather “the process by which the AAA typically administers all of its arbitrations”—a fact that “any party doing their due diligence would have seen.” . . .   But we interpret the words of this Agreement in conjunction with AAA’s rules without deference to AAA’s “typical” practice.  The Agreement or the AAA Rules could grant the administrator that authority, but in this case they do not.

Judge Clay volleyed back at the majority by arguing in his own footnote 1 that “The majority claims that we agree that the AAA’s rules assign arbitrability to the arbitrator, and ‘administrative duties’ to the administrator, but that is not the case.  To the contrary, the AAA’s rules do not clearly delineate these roles as the majority alleges.  Instead, as stated in the rule cited above, the AAA has the final decision on who administers cases under its rules.”

* * *

Whether one agrees with Senior Circuit Judge McKeague’s opinion on behalf of the majority or with Circuit Judge Clay’s dissent, this ruling has significant implications for many disputes in the U.S. involving healthcare, consumer and employment matters. 

The AAA has adopted due process protocols for those areas, as well as making policy statements regarding how the AAA will handle applications for arbitration in many areas.  The reasoning by the Ciccio majority could vitiate the authority of an AAA administrator to apply those instruments to decline to accept cases that do not comply with those protocols and policy statements. 

Instead, application of those instruments would be allocated to an arbitral panel, resulting in significant delay and expense while the panel is constituted and briefed before a decision on the applicability of due process protocols and policies crystallizes.

Given the dissent, it is worth wondering whether this case is headed toward en banc review by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals or will be the subject of a certiorari petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

* * *

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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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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House Passes ‘PRO’ Act, Which Includes Arbitration Restrictions

By Mark Kantor

Yesterday, the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 225-206 vote, with five Republicans voting Yay and one Democrat voting Nay.  The bill was sent to the U.S. Senate for consideration. 

While much arbitration-related attention in the new Congress has focused on the arbitration-only FAIR Act (for details and links, see Mark Kantor, “House Reintroduces a Proposal to Restrict Arbitration at a ‘Justice Restored’ Hearing,” CPR Speaks (Feb. 12) (available at http://bit.ly/3rze7y1)), the PRO Act contains significant provisions that, if finally enacted, would limit employment arbitration.

Most important, the PRO Act would make it an unfair labor practice for an employer to prevent employees requiring arbitration agreements that obligate an employee “not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee in any forum that, but for such agreement, is of competent jurisdiction.” 

Note that the coverage of the proposed PRO Act encompasses both employment contracts of adhesion and individually negotiated employment contracts, as well as covering individual independent contractors.  See Section 101(b) of the legislation at the act’s link above.

Section 104 of the PRO Act would override Epic Systems v. Lewis,138 S. Ct. 1612 (May 21)(available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8), with respect to employment arbitration and class proceedings. 

According to the accompanying section-by-section analysis released by the House, “ . . .  on May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court held in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis that … employers may force workers into signing arbitration agreements that waive the right to pursue work-related litigation jointly, collectively or in a class action. This section overturns that decision by explicitly stating that employers may not require employees to waive their right to collective and class action litigation, without regard to union status.”  (The analysis is available at https://bit.ly/2OGrKNj).

The ultimate Senate fate of the PRO Act is linked to the fate of the filibuster.  As Politico states:

But the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which advanced mostly along party lines, is unlikely to win the 60 votes needed for passage in the narrowly controlled Senate. And already, some union leaders — who hold outsize sway in the Biden administration — are amping up pressure on Democrats to eliminate the filibuster so they can see one of their top priorities enacted.

Eleanor Mueller and Sarah Ferris, “House passes labor overhaul, pitting unions against the filibuster,” Politico (March 9) (available at http://politi.co/3vbgFEu). For the latest on the limited prospects for overturning the filibuster in the Senate, see Burgess Everett, “Anti-filibuster liberals face a Senate math problem,” Politico (March 9) (available at http://politi.co/2ObVou0). 

The filibuster affects large swaths of proposed legislation coming out of the House of Representatives and the Biden Administration agenda. We can anticipate daily media attention to every word any member of Congress or the administration speaks about the topic for some time to come.

The operative PRO Act text in Sec. 104 overriding Epic Systems reads as follows:

(e) Notwithstanding chapter 1 of title 9, United States Code (commonly known as the ‘Federal Arbitration Act’), or any other provision of law, it shall be an unfair labor practice under subsection (a)(1) for any employer—

“(1) to enter into or attempt to enforce any agreement, express or implied, whereby prior to a dispute to which the agreement applies, an employee undertakes or promises not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee in any forum that, but for such agreement, is of competent jurisdiction;

“(2) to coerce an employee into undertaking or promising not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee; or

“(3) to retaliate or threaten to retaliate against an employee for refusing to undertake or promise not to pursue, bring, join, litigate, or support any kind of joint, class, or collective claim arising from or relating to the employment of such employee: Provided, That any agreement that violates this subsection or results from a violation of this subsection shall be to such extent unenforceable and void: Provided further, That this subsection shall not apply to any agreement embodied in or expressly permitted by a contract between an employer and a labor organization.”;

Also, according to the proposal’s section-by-section analysis, PRO Act Section 109(c) would create a private right of action in U.S. federal court if the NLRB fails to pursue a retaliation claim.

(c) Private right to civil action.  If the NLRB does not seek an injunction to protect an employee within 60 days of filing a charge for retaliation against the employee’s right to join a union or engage in protected activity, that employee may bring a  civil  action  in  federal  district  court. The  district  court  may  award  relief  available  to employees who file a charge before the NLRB.

Yesterday’s hearings have gone viral via fiery words backing the act’s passage by Tim Ryan, D., Ohio, who chided Republicans for failing to support workers.  “Heaven forbid we pass something that’s going to help the damn workers in the United States of America!” shouted Ryan in the House chambers, adding, “Heaven forbid we tilt the balance that has been going in the wrong direction for 50 years!”

Republican opponents immediately fired back, saying that the bill would hurt workers by hurting business and the economy. For details, see Katie Shepherd, “Tim Ryan berates GOP over labor bill: ‘Stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us,’” Washington Post (March 10) (available at http://wapo.st/3bz2YaF).

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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. Alternatives editor Russ Bleemer contributed to the research.

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House Reintroduces a Proposal to Restrict Arbitration at a ‘Justice Restored’ Hearing

By Mark Kantor

On Thursday, Feb. 11, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law held a hearing, “Justice Restored: Ending Forced Arbitration and Protecting Fundamental Rights.” 

This hearing was held in connection with the same-day reintroduction of the “Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act” or the “FAIR Act” (See press release here).  That proposed act, co-sponsored by 155 House Members, would ban mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements in cases of employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes. 

In the previous Congress, the FAIR Act passed the House by a 225-to-186 vote, with virtually all Democrats and a number of Republicans in support.  The U.S. Senate, however, then controlled by the Republicans, did not take up the legislation.  The FAIR Act thus died at the end of term in that Congress, to be revived as a proposal in the current Congress that convened last month.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Hank Johnson, D., Ga., a leading FAIR Act sponsor.  Johnson strongly supported prohibiting such pre-dispute arbitration agreements.  In addition to employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes, Johnson also criticized the impact of mandatory arbitration on small business disputes with large businesses.

After Johnson’s opening statement, Ranking Minority Member Rep. Ken Buck, R., Colo., made his own opening remarks.  Buck opposed the FAIR Act’s general ban on pre-dispute arbitration clauses, arguing that arbitration is a fair system. 

It is very interesting to note that he did, however, offer support for reviewing coverage of sexual predation claims in arbitration and “doing away with the secrecy provisions in contracts” when workplace predatory conduct exists–“those are two issues I want to make sure we distinguish in the employment context.  . . .” 

Buck stated his particular interest in hearing the testimony from Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who made public her story of sexual harassment and filed suit against her boss at Fox News.  Other Republican members raised the prospect of excluding “sex and race discrimination” from mandatory arbitration and for overriding class action waivers for a “pattern of behavior” by a “bad actor” rather than individual claims. 

That focus on employment discrimination/harassment claims and overriding related confidentiality provisions may signal a possible path for narrower bipartisan legislation.  A narrower approach may arise if, as many anticipate, the broader approach of the FAIR Act fails again in the Senate for lack of the 60 cloture votes necessary to overcome a filibuster or a Senate decision to eliminate the filibuster.  

Four witnesses testified at the hearing:

  • Gretchen Carlson, Journalist, Author, and Advocate
  • Myriam Gilles, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
  • G. Roger King, Senior Labor and Employment Counsel, The HR Policy Association
  • Jacob Weiss, Founder and President, OJ Commerce

Carlson spoke about the adverse impact of “forced arbitration” on her sexual harassment claims, as well as the barrier federal arbitration law poses to implementation of local State laws seeking to move similar claims out of arbitration.

Gilles spoke more broadly in opposition to mandatory arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust, civil rights and small business/big business disputes, areas of her scholarship for many years. 

Weiss spoke in criticism of Amazon’s arbitration policy in contracts with its small business counterparties.  Notably, Weiss was discussing a category of B-to-B commercial claims where there is an imbalance of bargaining power, not claims involving individuals.

King testified in support of positive aspects of arbitration, the inclusion of due process rights for claimants based on procedures adopted by U.S. arbitral institutions, and reform of class action procedures.  Like Rep. Buck, he contended that concerns about confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements can be addressed separately from arbitration.

Readers should note that other legislation has also been introduced in the new Congress focusing among other matters on banning pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses in employment arrangements.  The most notable legislation in that respect is the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act.  Among as many as 50 pro-employee proposals in the PRO Act, it would prohibit employers from using mandatory arbitration agreements with employees.

Senate control has shifted to the Democrats in this Congress, even though by the narrowest of margins.  We can therefore anticipate hearings and committee activity in both the House and the Senate for these legislative proposals.  In each case, though, the fundamental political calculus in the U.S. Congress will be driven by the role of the Senate’s filibuster.

A video of the hearing, statements from House Members, witness written testimony and statements from interested parties can be found here.

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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 has contributed frequently 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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For more from author Mark Kantor, join CPR’s Employment Disputes Committee and Government & ADR Task Force for a free public online panel discussion on Feb. 24 on labor and employment ADR under the Biden Administration. Kantor and other experts will discuss how the current composition of the Supreme Court, the new Democratic majority in Congress, and the new leadership of the NRLB and EEOC will affect arbitration and mediation of U.S. labor and employment disputes.  For a list of Kantor’s co-panelists and registration information, please visit the CPR website at https://bit.ly/3nV4fgf.

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