Under Consideration: The Supreme Court May Be Ready to Tackle Arbitrability–Again

By David Chung

A Fifth Circuit case on whether a matter was correctly sent to arbitration was distributed for conference at the U.S. Supreme Court for the fifth time over the past two months on Friday, March 20, so the Court could consider hearing it.

The case didn’t appear on this morning’s order list, but that fact alone may be indicative of a lot more arbitration at the nation’s top court.

Any arbitration case before the Court would gain notice on its own in the ADR world.  But the new petition for certiorari is even more noteworthy because the Court had appeared to have decided the issue just a little more than a year ago in its previous term.  Henry Schein, Inc., et al. v. Archer and White Sales, Inc., 139 S.Ct. 524 (2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2YLDkWQ), the Court held unanimously that parties to a contract have the ultimate say in whether to have an arbitrator or a court resolve disputes on questions of arbitrability.

But Schein’s main holding was that a court couldn’t refuse to enforce arbitration because it believed the claims for arbitration were “wholly groundless,” and the nation’s top court sent the case back on remand to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The remand order was a step before actual arbitration, however.  The Court asked the Fifth Circuit to decide whether the contract’s delegation clause really pointed to an arbitrator deciding arbitrability.

The appeals panel looked at the contract again and said it didn’t, and found the decision was for the courts, again.

And the defense petitioned the Supreme Court to hear Schein, an appeal that was filed at the end of January and has not yet made it to a Court conference.  See Philip J. Loree Jr., “Schein Returns: Scotus’s Arbitration Remand Is Now Back at the Court,” (Feb. 19) (available at https://bit.ly/2U8ZumI); see also, Philip J. Loree Jr., “Schein’s Remand Decision Goes Back to the Supreme Court. What’s Next?” 38 Alternatives 54 (April 2020) (available next week at altnewsletter.com and on Lexis & Westlaw; CPR Institute membership access after logging in at www.cpradr.org/news-publications/alternatives).

But while Schein was being relitigated, at the same time and on the same issue about the extent of the reach of the clause that delegates arbitration decision making, The Rams Football Co. LLC v. St. Louis Regional Convention & Sports Complex Auth., No. 19-672, already was in front of the Court for consideration on whether it should be heard.

Closely mirroring Schein, the Rams issue, according to the team’s cert request petition is

Whether the Federal Arbitration Act permits a court to refuse to enforce the terms of an arbitration agreement assigning questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator if those terms would be enforceable under ordinary state-law contract principles in a non-arbitration context.

The case has made it to conference stage, repeatedly, without a denial or a “cert granted” or, indeed, any procedure other than rescheduling. The cert petition is dated Nov. 21, 2019, and the counsel of record is Paul Clement, a Washington, D.C., partner in Kirkland & Ellis who is a frequent participant in Supreme Court cases who, according to the Above the Law blog, argued his 101st case at the Court early this month.  See “Neil Gorsuch’s Frustration With Kirkland & Ellis Partner Paul Clement On Full Display,” Above the Law (March 4) (available at https://bit.ly/39dZS7A).

The Court had denied a stay in the case in October without comment.

Despite a government shutdown, including much of the judicial branch, the Court, after canceling oral arguments indefinitely, has continued its normal business of opinion writing and conferences, out of which come its orders, including cases it agrees to hear, and cases it denies. The Court’s Friday conference resulted in an order list earlier today, but Rams was not mentioned and should be back for consideration in the next conference, scheduled for Friday, March 27, with the latest version of Schein waiting to be listed.

The case is about a dispute between the NFL’s Rams, and three Missouri government entities, the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, the City of St. Louis, and the County of St. Louis.

The dispute is over an agreement on the Rams’ use of the former Edward Jones Dome stadium in St. Louis.  The team departed for Anaheim, Calif., after the 2015 season amidst a storm of controversy over owner E. Stanley Kroenke’s remarks about St. Louis’s viability as an NFL-hosting city. The Rams sought arbitration over whether it should pay damages in the wake of the team’s move to become the Los Angeles Rams for the second time in the team’s existence.

The agreement included an arbitration clause that incorporated terms by reference, stating that all disputes would be conducted “in accordance with the most applicable then existing rules of the American Arbitration Association.”  Those rules send the question of who decides whether a case should be arbitrated to an arbitrator, not a court.

The petitioner, the Rams, asserts that the key Missouri appellate court decision in a series of cases that include rulings by the state supreme court, should have simply “‘respect[ed] the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract’ by recognizing that it has ‘no power to decide the arbitrability issue.’” Petition for Writ of Certiorari citing Henry Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 528 (brief available at https://bit.ly/2U85jAG).

The Rams’ petition claims the “clear and unmistakable” test of whether the parties intended for an arbitrator, rather than a court, to decide whether an arbitration agreement should be arbitrated was too strict.  It contends the standard applied by the appellate court violated “an application of equal-footing principles,” which the Supreme Court requires under the Federal Arbitration Act—that is, that arbitration contracts are treated the same as other contracts.

While the Rams contend the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate under the then-existing AAA rule, the petition argues that the incorporation of the rule sending the arbitrability question to the arbitrator should have been recognized by state court to keep the arbitration contract on an equal footing with other contract principles.

The state respondents strongly dispute that the Missouri appellate court ignored the Court’s equal-footing principle.  It also asserted the parties could have never unequivocally agreed to arbitrate the issue because the AAA rule did not have the arbitrability provision when they signed the contract.

While conceding the applicable version of AAA rule confers power to the arbitrators to decide arbitrability, the respondents claim the incorporation principle is irrelevant to the case.  Instead, they argue that “[p]ursuant to fundamental Missouri contract law, the parties must agree to all essential terms of an agreement at the time of contracting.”  (Respondent’s Brief in Opposition to Petition for Writ of Certiorari (available at https://bit.ly/2U8ZumI).

Thus, “there must be an actual agreement to delegate at the time of contracting.” Id.

Despite the respondents’ denial of a division among federal and state courts on the applicable standard, the Rams’ petition claims that some state courts, including Missouri, are requiring an extraordinary degree of clarity for the “clear and unmistakable” test, which the petition says is contrary to how every federal court addresses the issue.

The petitioner urges that the Court provide guidance regarding the clear and unmistakable test, which it says is critical since the respondents’ position not only defies the FAA’s equal footing principle but also has been the subject of repeated requests for Court clarification, citing four cases the Court declined to hear between 2014 and 2018. The petition also notes that the situation has seen “every federal court resisting special rules disfavoring arbitration and only state courts on the anti-arbitration side of the dispute.”

Scotusblog’s case page, available at https://bit.ly/2QANwjk, contains the Rams’ cert petition, the respondent’s brief in opposition, and the Rams’ reply

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The author is a CPR Institute Spring 2020 intern.  Alternatives’ editor Russ Bleemer assisted with the research.

 

Schein Returns: Scotus’s Arbitration Remand Is Now Back at the Court

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.

Schein I

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.

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:

  1. 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”].”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.