The Nominee and ADR: Circuit Judge Barrett on Arbitration

By Alice Albl

Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded last week, was on the federal circuit court based in South Bend, Ind., for less than three years before being nominated by President Trump for the Supreme Court on Sept. 26.

This small window has not allowed much time for alternative dispute resolution decisions. There are five opinions involving ADR in which Circuit Judge Barrett participated, four authored by the nominee and one on which she served as a panelist. The cases primarily are centered around employment law.

Barrett is a prolific academic, having written extensively about civil procedure, legal construction, evidence rules, and constitutional originalism over her 23-year career. She has taught at her alma mater, Notre Dame Law School, since 2002. See her University of Notre Dame Faculty Directory page at https://bit.ly/34WMa9h.

Barrett did not mention any work focused on ADR in her self-reported “Questionnaire for Nominee to the Supreme Court” to the U.S. Senate. The questionnaire is posted on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s website at https://bit.ly/3jdqBX1.  

Barrett has given several presentations on her time clerking for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Her style echoes Scalia’s by favoring a narrow, textualist interpretation of the law. See Imre Szalai, “Judge Amy Coney Barrett & the FAA – A Disciple of Scalia,” Outsourcing Justice blog (Setp. 27) (available at https://bit.ly/2H2hb3K). 

On ADR issues, Barrett also has followed in Scalia’s footsteps by demonstrating a distaste for class actions. But she apparently does not share Justice Scalia’s strong views on the progress of ADR. See George H. Friedman, Securities Arbitration Alert blog (Oct. 1) (available at https://bit.ly/3k8QKYc) (in which Friedman covers the cases here and adds discussion of a Legaspy v. FINRA, No. 1:20-cv-04700, in which Barrett joined a panel denying a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop a pandemic-era video arbitration.)

Apart from her ruling in Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. (see below), mirroring Scalia’s perspective on class-action suits, Circuit Judge Barrett’s ADR opinions have been filtered through analyses of civil procedure, textualism, and the rules of evidence. Id. All three are topics heavily present in Barrett’s academic writing. See the Senate link above.

The following is an overview of the five ADR-related decisions in which Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett participated, four written by the nominee, and one for which she served as a panelist:

  1. Wallace v. Grubhub Holdings Inc., 970 F.3d 798 (7th Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/33MvFwX).   

In organizing a class-action suit against defendant Grubhub for an alleged violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act–referred to in this post as the FLSA–plaintiff Wallace had to contend with the fact that all members of the class had signed an agreement to settle disputes with the defendant through arbitration.

Wallace requested to have the class recognized as exempt from arbitration under FAA Section 1, normally reserved for interstate transportation workers, because the class members transported food that generally included ingredients brought across state lines. The plaintiff said that the residual clause in the Section 1 exception, “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” applied.

The plaintiff’s request was denied by the lower court. In her Seventh Circuit opinion, Barrett similarly rejected the designation. This firmly placed the Seventh Circuit on one side of a debate about the scope of Section 1 as it applies to workers and interstate commerce. See, e.g., Michael S. Kun, “Ninth Circuit Conclusion that Amazon Delivery Drivers Don’t Need to Arbitrate their Claims under FAA’s ‘Transportation Worker’ Exemption Highlights Conflict among Courts,” Wage and Hour Defense Blog Epstein Becker Green (Aug. 24) (available at https://bit.ly/37hpza1), and Kris Olson, “FAA exemption extend to ‘last mile’ drivers,” New England In-House blog (Aug. 24) (available at https://bit.ly/3lZLYNm).

This issue involves the Supreme Court’s decision in Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105 (2001) (available at https://bit.ly/2HhwYLu), which stated that the Section 1 phrasing—“…nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce”–should only be applicable for “transportation workers,” but left the meaning of “transportation workers” open to interpretation.

The Grubhub delivery workers in the case contested that they were independent contractors, and contended they are employees, in suits around the country.

Some courts have allowed the breadth of “transportation workers” to expand through comparison with the FLSA’s use of the term, or a historical analysis.  See, e.g., Waithaka v. Amazon.com, Inc., 966 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 2020); Rittman v. Amazon.com, Inc., 971 F.3d 904 (9th Cir. 2020). Circuit Judge Barrett wielded textualism to create a test featuring a narrower version of the term.

Her analysis began with the interpretative canon ejusdem generis as defined by Justice Scalia in his book on statutory interpretation. Antonin Scalia, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 199 (2012) (“Where general words follow an enumeration of two or more things, they apply only to persons or things of the same general kind or class specifically mentioned.”) The canon states that generic terms at the end of lists including specific items should be interpreted to only include things similar to the specific items.

While other courts used ejusdem generis to allow FAA Sec. 1 language to include any workers involved in the “flow” of interstate commerce (see Rittman above), Circuit Judge Barrett tested for whether interstate commerce was a “central part of the class members’ job description.”

The plaintiff’s class did not pass the test, and the exception to arbitration under the FAA did not apply. According to Barrett, even though GrubHub workers delivered goods from other states, or even countries, that interstate aspect was characteristic of the goods and not the role served by the worker. This made them unlike railroad workers and seamen whose jobs focused on “the channels of commerce.”

Barrett distinguished the earlier New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 139 S.Ct. 532 (2019) (holding that an independent contractor’s contract is a “’contract of employment’ within the FAA Sec. 1 language that excepts such contracts from FAA application), which involved goods in interstate commerce. She wrote that the New Prime distinction between independent contractors and employees wasn’t a part of the case.

Author George Friedman noted last week that Wallace came up at Circuit Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearings.  See his account at “No Surprise Here: Arbitration Comes Up At Coney Barrett Confirmation Hearings,” Securities Arbitration Alert (Oct. 16) (available at https://bit.ly/37gsm3d).

Barrett sat on a panel that issued an opinion on giving notice to employees for a collective-action suit under the FLSA. The panel wrote that when a court considered allowing employees to opt-in to a collective-action FLSA suit, it was the defendant employer’s burden to prove whether those employees were ineligible or already bound to arbitration.

In this case, the plaintiff-employee Bigger brought an action against the defendant-employer Facebook. She alleged that the company should have paid overtime to her position and another, similar role. The plaintiff asked the lower court for authorization to form a collective-action suit. Notice of the suit was to be sent to every individual in the United States who worked in either of the roles. The lower court granted this authorization.

Facebook appealed to the Seventh Circuit, saying the court had erred because most would-be plaintiff employees had already entered arbitration agreements precluding litigation, so giving them notice about the suit would be misinformation. The defendant further argued that an inflated number of employees attempting to enter the collective-action suit would create undue pressure for a settlement.

The Seventh Circuit panel acknowledged the logic of the defendant’s argument but declined its request to deny plaintiff Bigger authorization for the formation of a collective action. Instead, the panel created a set of instructions. After a plaintiff had contested the existence of applicable arbitration agreements, it was the defendant’s responsibility to demonstrate that these agreements not only existed but precluded entrance into the collective action. Proof had to be given for every individual who would be precluded and not receive notice about the collective-action suit.

“Specifically, the court on remand should allow the parties to submit additional evidence on the existence of valid arbitration agreements between Facebook and proposed notice recipients,” wrote Circuit Judge Michael S. Kanne, joined by Supreme Court nominee Barrett and Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane P. Wood, adding, “If Facebook proves that certain proposed recipients entered valid arbitration agreements waiving their right to join the action, or if Bigger does not contest that those employees entered such agreements, the court may not authorize notice to those employees.”

In reviewing the enforcement order of a $10 million-plus arbitration award for employees, Circuit Judge Barrett vacated the award entirely. She held for a unanimous panel that “the availability of class or collective arbitration is a threshold question of arbitrability” and therefore, goes to the court, not the arbitrator. In the case, the arbitrator had allowed the plaintiff to pursue a collective action but, as stated in Barrett’s opinion, only the court had the authority to make such a decision.

The defendant argued that, even with the waiver struck, it only agreed to bilateral arbitration, with no consent given to class- or collective-action. Instead, the arbitrator used the rules chosen by the parties to control their arbitration proceedings to justify permitting the plaintiff’s class/collective-action suit. 

Plaintiff Harrington contested the validity of the agreement to arbitrate that she had signed with defendant Waterstone. While the lower court determined that the agreement was valid, it struck a waiver in the contract that barred others from joining the suit. The court gave an order to the arbitrator that the plaintiff “must be allowed to join other employees to her case.” The arbitrator then allowed the plaintiff to proceed with a collective action, in which employees could opt into the matter.

Barrett disagreed with the move. Allowing a class/collective-action was a question of “arbitrability” that bore upon the fundamental terms and legal validity of the arbitration, and was reserved for the court. Although the Seventh Circuit had not previously recognized the authorization of collective action as a question of arbitrability, identifying it this way fell in line with every other circuit court to decide on the matter. See, e.g., Del Webb Communities Inc. v. Carlson, 817 F.3d 867, 877 (4th Cir. 2016), and  Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594, 599 (6th Cir. 2013), among others Barrett cites. 

According to Circuit Judge Barrett, “The availability of class or collective arbitration involves a foundational question of arbitrability: whether the potential parties to the arbitration agreed to arbitrate.” She noted that decisions on class/collective-action suits were questions of arbitrability in three different ways. First, they affected who would participate in an arbitration. Second, they affected the scope of an arbitration. Third, these decisions affected the structure of an arbitration. 

The late Justice Antonin Scalia had strong opinions on how class-collective-suits affect the structure of an arbitration, and Barrett devoted most of her attention to this factor. Citing heavily Scalia’s AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion opinion, Barrett reiterated her mentor’s viewpoint, stating that the structural shifts caused by switching to class/collective-action gives up the advantage of informality in an arbitration. AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740 (2011). She described this as “reduced efficiency.” 

Barrett concluded her analysis of the structural aspect of class/collective-action arbitration by referencing another Scalia misgiving, that the finality of arbitration increases the risk for defendants when facing potentially thousands of plaintiffs in class/collective-suits. Barrett projected the risk of this finality onto arbitration as a whole, an association that Prof. Szalai of Loyola Law School found contentious.

In his blog, “Outsourcing Justice,” linked above, Szalai wrote that Barrett’s arbitration view would be in good company among the conservative justices of the Supreme Court, saying that, overall, the Court’s arbitration decisions have been critiqued as reflecting “an overly-simplistic manner [that] tend to conceptualize arbitration as a homogeneous process, and they sometimes have flawed assumptions or preconceived notions regarding arbitration.“

Nevertheless, plaintiff Herrington’s case was allowed to continue.  Barrett remanded the case on behalf of the appellate panel to the district court, rather than the arbitrator, to evaluate whether Herrington’s contract with Waterstone permitted class or collective arbitration.

  • Webb v. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc., 889 F.3d 853 (7th Cir. 2018), (available at https://bit.ly/3iNuh1l).

In writing for the court, Barrett declined to consider the applicability of arbitral immunity. Instead, she determined that the lower court had erred in allowing the case to be heard at all, because it was not within federal jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Webb and a colleague filed suit when a dispute with their former employer could not be resolved in defendant FINRA’s arbitration forum after two-and-a-half years.

The plaintiffs sought damages “in excess of $50,000” in Illinois state court, alleging that the defendant had mismanaged the arbitration—”including failing  to  properly  train  arbitrators,  failing  to  provide  arbitrators  with  appropriate  procedural  mechanisms,  interfering  with  the  arbitrators’  discretion,  and  failing  to  permit  reasonable  discovery.”

The defendant responded by removing to federal court, then moving to have the case dismissed on multiple grounds, including arbitral immunity. This doctrine protects arbitrators from civil liability when performing their duties as neutrals. The lower court decided that the doctrine was applicable and granted the defendant’s motion. Webb v. Fin. Indus. Regulatory Auth., Inc., No. 16-CV-04664 (N.D. Ill.  2017), vacated, 889 F.3d 853 (7th Cir. 2018). The plaintiffs appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Barrett declined to apply arbitral immunity, but found that the lower court had erred in allowing the case to be heard at all. The damages the plaintiffs sought either could not be recovered under controlling Illinois law, or did not meet the $75,000 minimum amount necessary to grant federal jurisdiction.

The defendant argued that federal jurisdiction was valid because its U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission-approved Code of Arbitration Procedure was involved in the suit. Barrett rebuffed this by echoing the Supreme Court’s rulings in Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering  &  Manufacturing,  545  U.S.  308  (2005) and Merrill  Lynch,  Pierce,  Fenner  &  Smith  v.  Manning,  136  S.  Ct.  1562,  1566  (2016), noting that one party having a “federal role” did not necessarily make a case eligible for federal court consideration.

Defendant WeConnect appealed after the lower court stated that it was not a party to plaintiff Goplin’s arbitration agreement. The agreement compelled the plaintiff to arbitrate with another entity, AEI, and not the defendant.

Although defendant WeConnect’s website stated that AEI was a separate entity, it claimed through an employee affidavit that AEI was actually the defendant’s former name. It further asserted that the lower court was mistaken in considering the website, violating rules of judicial notice by performing its own research.

With a short opinion focused on this evidence issue, Circuit Judge Barrett affirmed the lower court determination. The plaintiff had referenced the website in a brief to the court along with several other examples that provided a more convincing case than the defendant’s single affidavit about a human resources document. The defendant had conclusively portrayed itself as separate from the entity mentioned in plaintiff Goplin’s arbitration agreement.

In reporting Goplin, George Friedman of the Securities Arbitration Alert blog noted that Circuit Judge Barrett maintained a narrow focus on the evidentiary issue, and not on arbitration law. See Friedman’s Oct. 1 blog post linked above.

* * *

The author, a CPR Institute Fall 2020 intern, is a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

Supreme Court Rejects Decade-Old Class Arbitration Employment Discrimination Case

By Cristina Carvajal

A contentious employment discrimination case now focusing on whether an arbitrator is within her authority to bind a class of employees who did not affirmatively opt-in or consent to class arbitration will not resurface now at the Supreme Court.

This morning, in its first 2020-2021 term order list (available at https://bit.ly/3la3Y72), declined to hear Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 942 F.3d 617 (2d Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/30yP3eZ).

The Second Circuit decision in the case last year will return the case to federal district court in New York for more proceedings ahead of arbitration in the 12-year-old-case.

The nation’s top Court today denied cert in Sterling Jewelers Inc. v. Jock, No. 1382 (Supreme Court case page available at https://bit.ly/3lgflL2). While the opt-in is the issue most recently litigated, the Court considered and rejected today a petition by the national jewelry chain on an event broader question presented,

Whether an arbitrator may compel class arbitration—binding the parties and absent class members—without finding actual consent, and instead based only on a finding that the agreement does not unambiguously prohibit class arbitration and should be construed against the drafter.

The employment case’s gender-based discrimination claim was first filed in 2008 by then-present and former women Sterling Jewelers employees. All workers were required to sign its Resolve agreement subject to American Arbitration Association rules, which included a mandatory arbitration clause, as well as a litigation waiver. For more, see Anne Muenchinger, “Still No Arbitration: In Its latest Jock decision, Second Circuit Reverses for More Contract Interpretation,” 38 Alternatives 77 (2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2GuxplA).

Not only has this case been moved from New York’s Southern U.S. District Court to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four times, but today’s rejection was its second at the Supreme Court. Today’s decision puts the case back on a road to the case’s arbitrator, former New York Southern District magistrate Kathleen A. Roberts, now a JAMS Inc. neutral in the firm’s New York office.

David Bouffard, vice president of corporate affairs at Signet Jewelers Ltd.in Akron, Ohio, notes in a statement,

While we respect the Court’s decision, we believe the claims in this matter are without merit and are not substantiated the relevant facts and statistics. We will continue to vigorously defend against these claims, which do not accurately reflect our company or our culture. Indeed, we have long been committed to fostering a culture of respect, integrity, diversity, and inclusion where all employees feel safe, supported, and empowered—this is a tenet of who we are. In particular, Signet is a recognized leader among companies for gender diversity, with women filling 74% of store management positions and gender parity in both the C-Suite and Board of Directors. Under the leadership of our CEO, Gina Drosos, we continue to champion diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority, as we have been honored to be included on the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index for two consecutive years.

Plaintiffs’ attorney, Joseph M. Sellers, a Washington, D.C., partner in Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, declined to comment on the cert denial.

In its latest decision last year, the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s judgment and held “that the arbitrator was within her authority in purporting to bind the absent class members to class proceedings because, by signing the operative arbitration agreement, the absent class members no less than the parties, bargained for the arbitrator’s construction of their agreement with respect to class arbitrability.” Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 942 F.3d 617 (2d Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/30yP3eZ).

The Second Circuit referred to its previous decisions as Jock I, Jock II and Jock III. (For more on the case’s knotty procedural history, see the Alternatives’ link above). Noting that a court’s standard of review of arbitrator decisions is highly deferential, the unanimous panel in the opinion written by Circuit Judge Peter W. Hall reasoned that the arbitration agreement’s incorporation of the AAA Rules, in particular the Supplementary Rules which give an arbitrator authority to decide if an arbitration clause permits class arbitration, makes it clear that the arbitrator can decide on the question of class arbitrability.

The panel further noted the arbitration agreement itself provides that “’[q]uestions of arbitrability’ and ‘procedural questions’ shall be decided by the arbitrator.” Id.at 624.

The decision underscored that while in Jock II the panel pointed out that Jock I did not address “whether the arbitrator had the power to bind absent class members to class arbitration given that they . . . never consented to the arbitrator determining whether class arbitration was permissible under the agreement in the first place.” (Quoting an earlier decision in the case.)

That fact, however, was not a basis to alter the Second Circuit’s analysis given that class actions in arbitration and courts may bind absent class members as part of mandatory or opt-out classes.

 The Second Circuit noted that its “use of ‘consent’ as shorthand” left unclear “the possibility that the absent class members consented in a different way to the arbitrator’s authority to decide class arbitrability.” Id.at 626.

In remanding the case, the Second Circuit left open for the District Court to decide “whether the arbitrator exceeded her authority in certifying an opt-out, as opposed to a mandatory, class for injunctive and declaratory relief.” The Second Circuit already reversed an affirmative determination on that issue, but in the 2019 decision, the panel states that the lower court may revisit the issue “after allowing the parties an opportunity to present renewed argument in light of any subsequent developments in the law.”

* * *

The author, a third-year student at the City University of New York School of Law, is a Fall 2020 CPR Institute student intern.  Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation editor Russ Bleemer assisted with reporting for this post.

[END]

The Dissent, and the Majority’s Push Back

By Russ Bleemer

The divisive battle over class waivers associated with mandatory arbitration, settled today in the Supreme Court with strong backing for Federal Arbitration Act supremacy over the National Labor Relations Act, was almost destined for a closely divided Court.

It’s unlikely any Court watchers were surprised by the majority’s 5-4 opinion in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (opinion in the consolidated cases is available at https://bit.ly/2rWzAE8), written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Court’s newest member, especially in light of the arguments, which kicked off the term last Oct. 2.  [For details on the arguments, see the CPR Speaks: Mark Kantor, “Supreme Court Oral Argument on NLRB Class Actions vs. Arbitration Policy,” (Oct. 2)(available at http://bit.ly/2fLwU9C), and Russ Bleemer, “The Class Waiver-Arbitration Argument: The Supreme Court Transcript,” (Oct. 3) (available at http://bit.ly/2yWjWuf).]

The Court delayed the case from the previous term apparently with an eye to a full Court that would avoid a 4-4 split that would have allowed different laws depending on the circuit decisions.  In the interim, Gorsuch was confirmed.

His opinion today for the majority strongly backs the waivers and employers’ ability to require workplace disputes to be resolved in individual arbitration.  It is summarized on this CPR Speaks blog here: bit.ly/2KEuXFN 

Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence is summarized on CPR Speaks here: https://bit.ly/2wYEKEB.

And the generally expected lengthy dissent emerged too, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

“The Court today subordinates employee protective labor legislation to the [Federal] Arbitration Act,” notes Ginsburg at the dissent’s outset. “In so doing, the Court forgets the labor market imbalance that gave rise to the [Norris-LaGuardia Act] and the [National Labor Relations Act], and ignores the destructive consequences of diminishing the right of employees ‘to band together in confronting an employer.’ NLRB v. City Disposal Systems Inc., 465 U. S. 822, 835 (1984).”

The dissenters immediately asked for an intervention: “Congressional correction of the Court’s elevation of the FAA over workers’ rights to act in concert is urgently in order,” Ginsburg writes.

Ginsburg outlined her attack on the majority’s view in two intertwined points:  an analysis of “the extreme imbalance once prevalent in our Nation’s workplaces, and Congress’ aim in the NLGA and the NLRA to place employers and employees on a more equal footing,” as well as a counter-analysis of the FAA’s reach, which “does not shrink the NLRA’s protective sphere.”

Tracing the history of the nation’s labor movement, Ginsburg notes that actions enforcing “workplace rights collectively fit comfortably under the umbrella ‘concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection.’ 29 U.S.C. § 157”—the NLRA’s Sec. 7, at the heart of the consolidated cases decided by the Court.

She notes that the Court’s view that the NLRA doesn’t protect class litigation is counter to the statute’s “text, history, purposes, and longstanding construction.”

The core dissent argument over Sec. 7 is the activity it enumerates.  Gorsuch, writing for the majority, describes a “regulatory regime” for the law that offers “specific guidance” for protective activities.  Ginsburg attacks the majority’s view that the NLRA doesn’t discuss employees’ collective litigation, about which Gorsuch noted that “it is hard to fathom why Congress would take such care to regulate all the other matters mentioned in [§7] yet remain mute about this matter alone—unless, of course, [§7] doesn’t speak to class and collective action procedures in the first place.”

But the dissent counters that NLRA Sec. 7 only discussed collective bargaining representatives’ selection with specificity. Ginsburg notes that the section didn’t offer “specific guidance” about forming labor organizations, the right to strike, or “other concerted activities” as provided in the law.

Later specific guidance on “some of the activities protected” under the law doesn’t “shed[] any light on Congress’s initial conception” of Sec. 7’s scope, which protects “numerous activities for which the [NLRA provides no ‘specific’ regulatory guidance.”

The dissent blasts the Court’s view that the employees should realize that with class action rules they use also provide inherent limits—that they can be contracted away in favor of individualized arbitration.

“The freedom to depart asserted by the Court,” writes Ginsburg, “is entirely one sided.” She concludes the section noting that NLRA Sec. 7 rights include the right to pursue collective litigation, and therefore “employer-dictated collective-litigation stoppers, i.e., ‘waivers,’ are unlawful.”

* * *

Similarly, Ginsburg analyzes the FAA’s history to conclude that it should not override NLRA protections she and her colleagues say are present in the labor statute. “In recent decades,” the dissent says, “this Court has veered away from Congress’ intent simply to afford merchants a speedy and economical means of resolving commercial disputes.”

Specifically, the dissent cites Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U. S. 20, 23 (1991)—which provided that the FAA authorized arbitration of Age Discrimination in Employment Act claims as long as the remedies available in courts were also available in arbitration—and Circuit City Stores Inc. v. Adams, 532 U. S. 105, 109 (2001), which opened FAA application up to a wide range of employment contracts containing arbitration clauses.

“Few employers imposed arbitration agreements on their employees in the early 1990’s,” Ginsburg writes. “After Gilmer and Circuit City, however, employers’ exaction of arbitration clauses in employment contracts grew steadily. “

The dissent calls that application “exorbitant,” and said it pushed the National Labor Relations Board to confront the issue in In re Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012)(PDF download link at http://1.usa.gov/1IMkHn8).

“As I see it,” Ginsburg writes, “in relatively recent years, the Court’s [FAA] decisions have taken many wrong turns. Yet, even accepting the Court’s decisions as they are, nothing compels the destructive result the Court reaches today.”

She continues her FAA analysis by noting that the NLRA prohibition doesn’t discriminate against arbitration in violation of the arbitration law. “That statute neither discriminates against arbitration on its face, nor by covert operation,” notes the dissent, adding, “It requires invalidation of all employer-imposed contractual provisions prospectively waiving employees’ §7 rights.” [Emphasis in the opinion.]

The dissent concluded with a plea on behalf of U.S. workers, who Ginsburg writes will be subject to under-enforcement of federal and state statutes. “In stark contrast to today’s decision,” she writes, “the Court has repeatedly recognized the centrality of group action to the effective enforcement of antidiscrimination statutes.” The dissent passage cites a 2015 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau study that pre-dispute agreements cut off consumers’ claims; the study was used to outlaw mandatory consumer arbitration in financial services contracts, but was overturned by the Senate under the Congressional Review Act when Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote to kill the regulation last October.

* * *

Justice Gorsuch countered the dissent arguments as vehemently as Ginsburg’s dissent took on the majority decision.

“In its view,” writes Gorsuch at the beginning of a section addressing the minority dissent, “today’s decision ushers us back to the Lochner era when this Court regularly overrode legislative policy judgments. The dissent even suggests we have resurrected the long-dead “yellow dog” contract. [Such contracts prohibited unionization; citation to Ginsburg’s opinion omitted.] But like most apocalyptic warnings, this one proves a false alarm.”

First, Gorsuch says that the decision doesn’t override Congressional policy. Workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively “stand every bit as strong today as they did yesterday,” the majority opinion states.

“[T]oday’s decision merely declines to read into the NLRA a novel right to class action procedures that the [NLRB’s] own general counsel disclaimed as recently as 2010,” the opinion says.

The minority’s problem, according to Gorsuch, is that it doesn’t like the Court’s FAA jurisprudence:

Shortly after invoking the specter of Lochner, it turns around and criticizes the Court for trying too hard to abide the Arbitration Act’s “‘liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements,’” Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., 537 U. S. 79, 83 (2002), saying we “‘ski’” too far down the “‘slippery slope’” of this Court’s arbitration precedent.  . . . [Internal citation omitted.] But the dissent’s real complaint lies with the mountain of precedent itself. The dissent spends page after page relitigating our [FAA] precedents, rehashing arguments this Court has heard and rejected many times in many cases that no party has asked us to revisit.

Similarly, Gorsuch and the majority also hammer the Ginsburg-minority NLRA view. “The dissent imposes a vast construction on Section 7’s language,” the opinion notes, “But a statute’s meaning does not always ‘turn solely’ on the broadest imaginable “definitions of its component words.” Yates v. United States, 574 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (plurality opinion) (slip op., at 7). Linguistic and statutory context also matter. We have offered an extensive explanation why those clues support our reading today. By contrast, the dissent rests its interpretation on legislative history.  . . . But legislative history is not the law.” [Internal citations omitted.]

Gorsuch writes that the Court’s decision wasn’t between the laws the justices preferred but on the precise issue:

[T]he question before us is whether courts must enforce particular arbitration agreements according to their terms. And it’s the [FAA] that speaks directly to the enforceability of arbitration agreements, while the NLRA doesn’t mention arbitration at all. So if forced to choose between the two, we might well say the Arbitration Act offers the more on-point instruction. Of course, there is no need to make that call because, as our precedents demand, we have sought and found a persuasive interpretation that gives effect to all of Congress’s work.  . . .

Finally, the majority rejects the dissent policy arguments, noting that that the “respective merits of class actions and private arbitration as means of enforcing the law are questions constitutionally entrusted not to the courts to decide but to the policymakers in the political branches where those questions remain hotly contested.”

Gorsuch then, immediately, notes that the Senate’s repeal of the CFPB’s move to ban mandatory arbitration.

 

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

Supreme Court Oral Argument on NLRB Class Actions vs. Arbitration Policy

By Mark Kantor

The US Supreme Court heard oral argument this morning in the three consolidated cases involving the policy of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) prohibiting arbitration clauses in employment agreements that bar class actions (Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris and National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA).  The transcript of that oral argument will be available here later this afternoon – https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcript/2017

Many observers believe the Court’s decision in these cases will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote.  For what it is worth, Reuters characterized Justice Kennedy’s questions as “pro-employer” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-labor/u-s-supreme-court-divided-over-key-employment-dispute-idUSKCN1C71RP).

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote in major cases, asked questions that appeared to favor employers, as did two fellow conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Kennedy indicated that a loss for workers would not prevent them from acting in concert because they would still be able to join together to hire the same lawyer to bring claims, even though the claims would be arbitrated individually. That would provide “many of the advantages” of collective action, Kennedy said.

See also Bloomberg’s take, which picked up on the same Kennedy comment –  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-02/justices-suggest-they-will-divide-on-worker-class-action-rights.

Anne Howe, the respected Court-watcher writing on her own blog Howe on the Court and on Scotusblog, started her review of the proceedings with her bottom line; “In the first oral argument of the new term, a divided Supreme Court seemed likely to uphold employment agreements that require an an employee to resolve a dispute with an employer through individual arbitration, waiving the possibility of proceeding collectively.” (http://amylhowe.com/2017/10/02/argument-analysis-epic-day-employers-arbitration-case/, republished at www.scotusblog.com/2017/10/argument-analysis-epic-day-employers-arbitration-case/#more-262296 ).

Not often noted in the analyses of these cases, the NLRB regulatory policy at issue in Epic Systems et al may in any event become moot.  Effective just a few days ago, the Board of the NLRB now has a Republican majority (http://fortune.com/2017/09/26/nlrb-labor-workers-rights-william-emanuel/).  Moreover, the incumbent NLRB General Counsel (a separate position appointed directly by the President, not the NLRB Board, and subject to Senate confirmation), who actually argued the cases for the NLRB, is scheduled to leave his post in November, thereby opening up that position to a Republican nominee who has apparently already been identified (http://www.insidecounsel.com/2017/09/19/peter-robb-trumps-pick-for-nlrb-general-counsel-is).  It would not at all be surprising for Republican control of the NLRB to result in a reversal of this NLRB policy, just as Democratic control of the NLRB led to promulgation of the policy in the first place.  This dispute is a reminder that many aspects of arbitration in the US are now a partisan political issue, with regulatory measures addressing arbitration shifting back and forth as political party control shifts back and forth.

More broadly, for those of you who feel that these individual employment cases (and similar measures by Federal regulators, under general regulatory statutes, preferring class actions in court over mandatory arbitration of individual claims) are not relevant to your commercial or investment arbitration practice, the precedential impact of a Supreme Court ruling overturning the NLRB’s pro-class action policy may extend far beyond employment and consumer-related claims.  Illustratively, for many years, the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has maintained an informal policy of refusing to register public offerings of stock by companies that include mandatory arbitration clauses in their charter documents for disputes between shareholders and the issuing company.  As a result, shareholder law suits (such as shareholder class actions) are brought in the US courts.

In July of this year, Republican SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar stated publicly that the SEC is now open to the idea of allowing companies contemplating initial public securities offerings to include mandatory shareholder arbitration provisions in their company charter documents.  That idea, if implemented, could arguably kill off shareholder securities class actions in the US courts.  One might think that a Republican majority of Commissioners on the SEC would be amenable to changing the SEC’s shareholder claims policy barring arbitration.  It is not, however, yet clear whether the SEC’s new Republican Chairman Jay Clayton is also receptive to the idea. See  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-otc-arbitration/shareholder-alert-sec-commissioner-floats-class-action-killing-proposal-idUSKBN1A326T .

The SEC’s unwritten policy barring mandatory arbitration of shareholder claims came under interest group pressure in 2006-2007.  It was also the subject of several corporate efforts to cause a change in the SEC’s policy, most notably in connection with a 2012 proposed share offering by the Carlyle Group.  But the SEC policy survived due to inter alia push-back from the Democratic-controlled Congress.  A broad pro-arbitration decision by the US Supreme Court, rejecting the NLRB’s regulatory effort to preserve employment class actions by prohibiting mandatory arbitration, could easily have a significant impact on the SEC’s unwritten policy to deny registration of securities offerings covered by a mandatory arbitration provision in the issuer’s charter documents.

The SEC question is sure to trigger aggressive lobbying by both sides as it arises again – indeed, it has already done so in the blogosphere.  Illustratively:

For shareholder arbitration and against class actions  – http://clsbluesky.law.columbia.edu/2017/08/21/shareholders-deserve-right-to-choose-mandatory-arbitration/

Against shareholder arbitration and for class actions – http://clsbluesky.law.columbia.edu/2017/08/28/mandatory-arbitration-does-not-give-stockholders-a-choice/

 

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral and a regular contributor to CPR Speaks. 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.

DOJ to NLRB: You’re On Your Own in the Supreme Court

CLASS WAIVER/MANDATORY ARBITRATION CASES

By Nicholas Denny

In the clearest illustration so far of the Trump Administration’s evolving hands-off policy toward mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers, the U.S. Solicitor General authorized the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week to represent itself in one of three consolidated arbitration cases to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been representing the board in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court docket page at http://bit.ly/2kOPxal) until last week, switched sides in the case, filing an amicus brief backing the employer in the matter.

Justice, via the friend-of-the-court briefs, is now advocating against the NLRB, and against its previous position.

The case—along with its companions, Ernst & Young v. Morris, No. 16-300 (Docket page at http://bit.ly/2kLxCEg) and Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (Docket page at http://bit.ly/2kFVxm6)—asks whether mandatory arbitration clauses as a condition of employment bar individual employees from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Mandatory arbitration clauses are used throughout employment settings and apply to employees regardless of titles or union affiliation; two of the three cases involve white-collar office workers.

The Supreme Court will hear the consolidated cases in the term beginning in October.

The issue in the consolidated cases is whether employers can continue to unilaterally require that employees agree to a mandatory arbitration clause in employment contracts. Often, these clauses are non-negotiable: either employees accept the employer’s terms or the employer finds someone else to hire.

The Supreme Court must decide which of two laws controls: the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151, et seq., or the Federal Arbitration Act, at 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. Under the NLRA, an employee’s rights to collective bargaining and action are protected. Under the FAA, however, an employment contract that includes a mandatory arbitration clause binds the worker to arbitrate with the employer instead of litigating in court, and is accompanied by a waiver barring the employee from bringing a class-action suit in favor of an individualized process.

As a result, arbitration clauses can deliver a one-two punch: (1) workers arbitrating individually may have less power, because they are not operating as part of a collective whole as contemplated by the NLRA, and (2) a worker may be less likely to find counsel because arbitration awards are perceived to be much smaller than court and class-action outcomes—meaning a lawyer working for a portion of the settlement would be less likely to take the case.

On the other hand, employers contend that mandatory arbitration clauses protect the company and benefit the employee. They argue that arbitration clauses ensure a speedier and more cost-effective conclusion to conflicts: class actions are harder and more costly to fight than arbitrations.

The disagreement over the use of mandatory arbitration clauses has arisen in the political arena, too. While the Obama Administration focused on pro-employee, anti-mandatory arbitration policies that prohibited employers from unilaterally waiving workers’ rights to concerted action under the NLRA, the Trump Administration is leaning toward an employer-centric policy by permitting mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts and as a condition of hiring.

This drastic shift in policy culminated with Friday’s news that the NLRB will represent itself, and that the Department of Justice would switch sides. The NLRB, as an autonomous government entity, is tasked with protecting “the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activities—group action to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions and to engage in union activities and support a union,” according to its website, as well as protecting the right of workers to refrain from engaging in protected concerted or union activities.

While the Justice Department prosecutes on behalf of the nation as well as defends government agencies, it is exceedingly rare for it to withdraw its representation of an agency it had been representing and subsequently file a brief in opposition to the position had it previously taken.

The Justice Department amicus brief switching sides in Murphy Oil is available at http://bit.ly/2sUnFbL.  The NLRB’s June 16 announcement that it would represent itself without Justice Department support can be found on the board’s website at http://bit.ly/2traH2s.

The move, however, is consistent with another recent Trump Administration policy shift on arbitration. In early June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, withdrew a 2016 Obama Administration position prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses in long-term care nursing home contracts.

CMS’s new position allows arbitration agreements provided that the provisions are written in plain language, and explained to and accepted by the applying resident.  Among other conditions, the CMS requires that the nursing home retain a copy of the signed agreement and post a notice that details the nursing home’s arbitration policy.

In addition, House Republicans introduced the “Financial CHOICE Act” earlier this month, a proposed law that aims to dismantle the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Dodd-Frank is an extensive law that was passed to ensure higher accountability in the U.S. financial sector after the economic recession of 2008 and it was endorsed by former President Obama.

Among its many goals, Dodd-Frank pointed its then-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer finance contracts. A lengthy study concluded last year by the CFPB resulted in a promise to finalize regulations that would ban the use of predispute mandatory arbitration in consumer financial contracts, such as cellphone agreements.

But should the “Financial CHOICE Act” become law, it likely would allow financial institutions to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts and agreements, and negate the CFPB efforts.

President Trump’s stance on mandatory arbitration clauses is becoming clear. Whether the clauses are legal in the employment context, and whether they will withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, are developing issues that are expected to be answered within the year. Watch CPR Speaks for updates.


The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 intern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorsuch on Arbitration

By Russ Bleemer

A review of the arbitration opinions involving Tenth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who last night was nominated to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, doesn’t provide a definitive indication on how his arbitration votes might fall if the U.S. Senate approves of his nomination.

The 49-year-old Gorsuch, who has been on the Tenth Circuit bench since President George W. Bush nominated him and he was confirmed by the Senate in 2006, has participated in appellate panels that have backed awards, compelled arbitration and reversed a failure to compel arbitration.

But the narrow scope of arbitration cases in which the circuit judge has participated, and the issues on which the cases were decided, don’t show a pronounced tilt toward business or consumers.

Adherence to Contract Law Principles, Combined with Customary View of FAA

In his most arbitration-centric decision, Gorsuch’s preferred path is adherence to contract law principles, combined with a customary view of the Federal Arbitration Act among federal judges.

“Everyone knows the Federal Arbitration Act favors arbitration,” Gorsuch wrote in the opening to Howard v. Ferrellgas Partners, No. 13-3061 (10th Cir. April 8, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTm6Wi), but, he emphasized, “before the Act’s heavy hand in favor of arbitration swings into play, the parties themselves must agree to have their disputes arbitrated.”

He continued, “While Congress has chosen to preempt state laws that aim to channel disputes into litigation rather than arbitration, even under the FAA it remains a ‘fundamental principle’ that ‘arbitration is a matter of contract,’ not something to be foisted on the parties at all costs.”

Possible Role in Employment Contract Class Action Waiver Cases

There is little in the 38 arbitration opinions that the Tenth Circuit website produces in a search of Gorsuch’s work—mostly incidental mentions–that rises to the level of significance of the preemption of state law and class waiver issues that have steadily appeared at the U.S. Supreme Court in its recent history.

But if confirmed quickly, Gorsuch could find himself participating in the decisions on three cases taken by the Court on Jan. 13 that will be argued together this term, and will settle whether employees can be required as a condition of employment to arbitrate their workplace disputes individually, while waiving their rights to a class process.

The long-simmering group of cases is a clash between the National Labor Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act, and an extension to the employment arena of the leading class waiver/mandatory arbitration case in consumer contracts, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), which Gorsuch was quoting directly in the passage above.

Arbitration watchers who want to try to handicap the Court’s path likely will need to become acquainted with Gorsuch’s by now well-publicized animosity toward the so-called Chevron Doctrine, in which the U.S. Supreme Court has backed deference to administrative agency determinations.  See Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984)(available at http://bit.ly/1EirXXt).

In an immigration law decision last year, Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, No. 14-9585  (Aug. 23, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2kPDvh5), Gorsuch blasted Chevron in a concurrence, writing that its deference to the executive branch agencies in derogation of legislative power runs counter to the Constitution’s separation of powers checks-and-balance system.

The issue could control the arbitration outcome in the three employment arbitration cases at the Court, which currently are being briefed and not yet scheduled for oral argument. They emanate from a January 2012 opinion by the National Labor Relations Board.

In one of the three cases, the Board itself is a party, appealing a Fifth Circuit decision which overturned its earlier administrative decision. See NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court case page is available here: http://bit.ly/2kOPxal. Scotusblog’s page including briefs and a link to the Fifth Circuit opinion is available here: http://bit.ly/2kPvTyi).

If the Chevron Doctrine doesn’t figure in a Gorsuch view of the current arbitration cases, the NLRB’s moves to preserve class actions by forbidding mandatory arbitration may be another hot button for the former U.S. Supreme Court clerk.

Gorsuch on Class Actions

Gorsuch has problems with class actions in securities cases.  When he was in private practice, he wrote that “economic incentives unique to securities litigation encourage class action lawyers to bring meritless claims and prompt corporate defendants to pay dearly to settle such claims.” Neil M. Gorsuch and Paul B. Matey, “Settlements in Securities Fraud Class Actions: Improving Investor Protection,” Critical Legal Issues–Working Paper Series No. 128 (Washington Legal Foundation April 2005)(available at http://bit.ly/2kTBDCZ).

Two Opinions, One Dissent

Despite involvement as a panel member in cases producing about a dozen opinions or orders, the Howard case discussed above is one of only three arbitration writings exclusively by Gorsuch in his decade-long tenure on the court.  One of the three is a dissent.

The Tenth Circuit website revealed Gorsuch’s opinions, and orders with judgments, but didn’t produce unpublished opinions in which Gorsuch may have participated.

In Howard, Gorsuch wrote that the customarily swift determination by a lower court of whether the parties in the suit agreed to arbitration didn’t take place—fast or slow.

The plaintiff had filed a class action for overcharges against the propane supplier defendant.  The defense asked for arbitration, and Gorsuch described how the lower court botched its inquiry.  He first noted that the district court, “[u]nsure whether [defendant] Ferrellgas had shown an agreement to arbitrate in its initial motion, . . . entertained discovery and further motions practice.”

The trial court, Gorsuch reported, found “too many unresolved factual questions remained and proceeded to invite yet more discovery followed by yet more motions practice.”

Nearly a year and half after the defendant filed its motion to compel arbitration, the district court, Gorsuch wrote, “issued an order in which it found that material disputes of fact still prevented it from saying for certain whether or not the parties had agreed to arbitrate. But rather than proceeding to resolve the conflicting factual accounts through trial as the Act requires, the court entered an order denying arbitration outright.” [Emphasis is Circuit Judge Gorsuch’s.]

“That was error,” continued Gorsuch, exhibiting his breezy writing style in an area dry even by circuit law standards, explaining, “In these circumstances, the [Federal Arbitration] Act’s summary trial can look a lot like summary judgment. But when, as in this case, a quick look at the case suggests material disputes of fact do exist on the question whether the parties agreed to arbitrate, round after round of discovery and motions practice isn’t the answer. Parties should not have to endure years of waiting and exhaust legions of photocopiers in discovery and motions practice merely to learn where their dispute will be heard. The Act requires courts process the venue question quickly so the parties can get on with the merits of their dispute in the right forum. It calls for a summary trial—not death by discovery.”

Then, Gorsuch spread the blame around for arbitration disaster.  “Of course, the parties here didn’t exactly help themselves,” he wrote, adding, “They were anything but quick to seek the trial promised by the Act. In fact, they seemed content enough to haggle along together in the usual way of contemporary civil litigation, all about discovery disputes and motions practice and with only the most glancing consideration given to the possibility of trial.”

The case is a war over a contract, and whether and when it took effect.  Gorsuch explained that it was unclear from the record whether an oral contract for the propane tank and initial delivery was followed by a written contract for future deliveries containing the arbitration clause—and restricting it to the subsequent deliveries.

Regardless, Gorsuch–joined by his two fellow appeals panel members–ruled that with material facts in dispute, the district court should have proceeded to a trial on whether an arbitration agreement existed, and should not have denied the request to arbitration.

He wrote that the Federal Arbitration Act should have shown the path to the case’s resolution.  “We appreciate both sides’ evident frustration at how long this case has lingered at the transom without having entered either the door into arbitration or litigation,” Gorsuch concluded, adding, “It’s understandable that everyone might want us to give the case a firm nudge (one way or the other) so the parties’ dispute can finally progress past preliminary venue questions to the merits. But unresolved material disputes of fact block our way—disputes that could and should have been resolved years ago according to the procedures the FAA provides.”

Taking a Broader FAA View

Gorsuch took a broader FAA view in a dissent in a 2-1 Tenth Circuit arbitration case, Ragab v. Howard, No. 15-1444 (Nov. 21, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2gCL3pn).  The dissent—in a case where his panel affirmed a lower court’s ruling that conflicting arbitration agreements in six contracts between two parties should not be arbitrated because there was no meeting of the minds as to conducting the arbitration—appears to be is his most demonstrative view of the FAA’s effect on state laws.

Gorsuch strongly rejects the majority’s use of a New Jersey case that struck arbitration where multiple contracts conflicted on the terms of arbitration.  He notes that the New Jersey ruling had little application to Colorado laws, but also explains that it may not pass muster with the Supreme Court for its disregard of the FAA.

The New Jersey ruling, he explains, was a deep dive into the state’s consumer protection laws, in a case where the Tenth Circuit Colorado plaintiff more closely resembled a merchant.  But he noted that federal preemption is a big issue:  “Whether or not the FAA would preempt New Jersey’s special ‘extra clarity’ rule for certain kinds of arbitration agreements, that possibility undoubtedly exists and seems to me to counsel against endorsing it without a good deal more careful investigation than the parties offer us in this case.”

He wrote that with six of the parties’ interrelated commercial agreements containing arbitration clauses, and other circumstances, “In my view, parties to a commercial deal could have hardly demonstrated with greater clarity an intention to arbitrate their disputes and I see no way we might lawfully rescue them from their choice.”

Procedural holes are frequently filled by the parties, he explained, in providing “two easy workarounds that I believe would be more consistent with the parties’ expressed purposes than the course my colleagues chart.”

Additional Arbitration Work

Gorsuch was the author of one additional unanimous panel order and judgment on the Tenth Circuit’s website that backed a lower court’s refusal to compel arbitration for a former top executive who was fired by a pharmaceutical company. Genberg v. Porter, No. 13-1140 (May 12, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kpuRs7).

The bulk of Gorsuch’s arbitration work appearing on the Tenth Circuit website, at www.ca10.uscourts.gov, was as part of a panel where others wrote the opinion or order. Among the opinions, Gorsuch joined his fellow circuit judges in backing a lower court ruling that a suit by a union under the Railway Labor Act  belonged in mandatory arbitration (BMWE v. BNSF Railway, No. 12-3061 (March 2, 2010)(available at http://bit.ly/2kpIwif).

In addition, he participated in panels in the following cases but didn’t write the unanimous opinion or order and judgment:

  • An order noting that an arbitration acts as a res judicata bar against a subsequent suit related to the wrongful discharge suit by an ex-Department of Veterans Affairs employee, backing a Merits Systems Protection Board order. Johnson v. DOVA, No. 14-9619 (May 22, 2015)(available at http://bit.ly/2kOYaBK).
  • An order strongly backing a major defense contractor’s mandatory arbitration clause contained in its employment dispute resolution program. Pennington v. Northrop Grumman Space & Mission Systems Corp., No. 07-2250 (March 14, 2008)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTh49F).
  • An affirmance of a Colorado court that overturned an arbitration award against a company which claimed that an arbitration notice presented by its Chinese business partner didn’t put the company on notice of a deadline it missed to participate in the ADR process. CEEG (Shanghai) Solar Science v. Lumos, No. 15-1256 (July 19, 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2kOUorT).
  • An nonprecedential order and judgment as to arbitration backing a lower court that refused to compel arbitration, noting that the defendants seeking ADR didn’t establish that an arbitration agreement existed. Bellman v. i3Carbon, No. 12-1275 (May 2, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kp3FJT).
  • An order, also nonprecedential as to the FAA, sending a case to arbitration and entitling the party to attorneys’ fees and costs “incurred in enforcing its right to arbitrate.” The order reversed a federal district court denial of arbitration. The winning defendant in the Tenth Circuit was a builder that sold the plaintiffs two condominiums with a mediation and arbitration clause in the sales agreement. Lamkin v. Morinda Properties Weight Parc, No. 11-4022 (Sept. 19, 2011)(available at http://bit.ly/2jTdKeS).
  • A case affirming dismissal of an employee’s wrongful termination suit after it had been arbitrated, citing claims preclusion under the arbitration award. Lewis v. Circuit City Stores, 05-3383 (Aug. 31, 2007)(available at http://bit.ly/2keVY6J).
  • A decision reversing two federal district court denials of arbitration against an employer charged by workers with violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and an Oklahoma labor law, focusing on the scope of an arbitration clause, but in the remand order asking the lower court to consider whether the arbitration agreement preserves FLSA rights. Sanchez v. Nitro Lift Technologies, 12-7046 (Aug. 8, 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/2kT2Ple).
  • A determination that one of “two factually distinct injuries” related to a commercial contract fell under an arbitration clause, reversing in part a magistrate judge and a federal district court which had found that the case couldn’t be arbitrated. Chelsea Family Pharmacy PLLC v. Medco Health Solutions Inc., No. 08-5103 (June 2, 2009)(available at http://bit.ly/2jtiefT).

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

*Updated at 12 p.m.

Ninth Circuit Backs NLRB’s View Barring Mandatory Pre-dispute Class Waivers, Deepening a Circuit Split

By Ksenia Koriukalova

The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals Monday joined the Seventh Circuit in supporting the position of the National Labor Relations Board against “concerted action waivers” in employment agreements

Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 13-16599 (9th Cir. August 22, 2016) (available at http://bit.ly/2bqiU0k) contributes to deepening the circuit split regarding the enforceability of class waivers that compel employees to take their employment disputes to individual arbitration.

Morris v. Ernst & Young was the first case in which the NLRB intervened as amicus curiae to urge the court to support its view on the issue, which has been rejected by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits, but backed by the Seventh Circuit in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., No. 15-2997 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016) (available at http://bit.ly/1U8lhTW).

Lewis, the first in which the NLRB argued, caused the split.  The Lewis parties requested and received an extension to decide upon and prepare a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Arbitration experts and analysts expect that employer Epic Systems will file for an appeal sometime next month.

On Monday, in the 2-1 Morris opinion written by Chief Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas, the Ninth Circuit vacated a federal district court order compelling individual arbitration in a class and collective action brought by Ernst & Young employees.

The action was originally brought in New York for the alleged misclassification of employees and violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. After the case was transferred to California’s Northern District, Ernst & Young filed a motion to compel arbitration in accordance with the agreements executed by the plaintiffs as a condition of their employment.

The agreements contained provisions requiring the employees to pursue their legal claims against the accounting and consulting giant exclusively through arbitration, and to arbitrate only in their individual capacity and in “separate proceedings.”

The plaintiffs argued that the “separate proceedings” clause of their agreements violated federal law, in particular the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA. The district court granted the employer’s motion to compel individual arbitration. The appellate court disagreed with that decision.

For full details on the November 2015 Morris argument in the Ninth Circuit, as well as information on the background of the case and resources on the class waivers-NLRA issue, see “Cutting Arbitration Classes: Facing Court Defeats on Workplace Waivers, the NLRB Refuses To Back Down,” 34 Alternatives 1 (January 2016)(available at http://bit.ly/2c3hewf).

This week, the Ninth Circuit overturned the district court decision and joined the Seventh Circuit view that class waivers mandating arbitration violate federal labor law.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit panel held that by requiring employees to sign agreements containing “concerted action waivers,” the employer interfered with the employees’ “essential, substantive right” to “engage in concerted activity” granted by the NLRA § 7.

The panel relied on the NLRB’s decision D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012)(PDF download link at http://1.usa.gov/1IMkHn8), enforcement denied in relevant part, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013) (Graves, J., dissenting)(PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1XRvjrM), reh’g denied, No. 12-60031 (Apr. 16, 2014).

In its original D.R. Horton decision, the NLRB concluded that an employer’s requirement that an employee sign a waiver as a condition of employment violated the NLRA. The Ninth Circuit analyzed NLRA § 7, which establishes an employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities, and NLRA § 8, which enforces collective action rights.  The circuit appeals court agreed with the NLRB’s D.R. Horton interpretation of these statutory provisions.

“This case turns on a well-established principle,” wrote Chief Circuit Judge Thomas, “employees have the right to pursue work-related legal claims together.  . . . Concerted activity—the right of employees to act together—is the essential, substantive right established by the NLRA. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Ernst & Young interfered with that right by requiring its employees to resolve all of their legal claims in ‘separate proceedings.’” [Citations omitted.]

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit also held that the application of the Federal Arbitration Act did not change its conclusion. The panel found that the requirement to pursue legal claims against an employer in “separate proceedings” violated the NLRA, irrespective of whether employees were required to bring their complaints in arbitration or in court.

Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta dissented, concluding that that the arbitration agreements signed by Ernst & Young employees were enforceable, because the NLRA did not contain a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA.

Morris v. Ernst & Young deepens the circuit split on enforceability of class action waivers in employment agreements. In addition to D.R. Horton, the Fifth Circuit also has reversed the NLRB’s decision repeatedly, most notably in Murphy Oil USA Inc., Case 10–CA–038804, 361 NLRB No. 72, 2014 WL 5465454 (Oct. 28, 2014) (PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1LVnR8d), enforcement denied in relevant part, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015)(PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1TMfDFO).

The Eighth Circuit followed the Fifth Circuit’s view in Cellular Sales of Missouri LLC v. NLRB, 824 F.3d 772 (8th Cir. 2016).  Earlier the Second Circuit also found class action waiver provisions in employment-related arbitration agreements to be enforceable. (see Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290 (2d Cir. 2013)) But the viability of Sutherland decision is in question following the oral argument in Patterson v. Raymours Furniture Co. heard by the Second Circuit this past Friday.

The Seventh Circuit supported the NRLB’s interpretation in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., where the appeals court reaffirmed the NLRB’s position that class action waivers contained in arbitration agreements employees were required to sign as a condition of their employment violated the NLRA.

Monday’s Ninth Circuit Morris decision is powerful support for Lewis. As a result, while the concerted action waivers in employment-related agreements are considered incompatible with the federal labor law in the Seventh and the Ninth Circuit, the Fifth, the Eighth and the Second Circuits render them enforceable–that is, until the Supreme Court of the United States addresses the issue of the compatibility of the NLRA and the FAA nationwide.

The author is a Fall 2016 CPR Legal Intern. And please stay tuned: there will be more on the Patterson case posted here before the weekend! 

The Nominee’s Record on Dispute Resolution

BY PETER FEHER & RUSS BLEEMER

President Obama’s nomination of District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland didn’t bring with it a substantial judicial record on alternative dispute resolution cases.

But a new U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Garland won’t be a stranger to litigation over arbitration either.

Garland, 63, is in a tough confirmation fight.  At this writing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., vowed not to allow a vote on a successor to the late Antonin Scalia before the November presidential election.

But Garland had bipartisan support when he was nominated to the D.C. Circuit in 1999 by President Clinton. He was confirmed 76-23, with a majority of Senators in both parties supporting him. Garland is well-respected on both sides of the aisle and in the legal community and reportedly was on the president’s list for SCOTUS nominees previously, when Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and confirmed in 2009, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan joined the Court a year later.

Research provided a limited number of arbitration cases before the D.C. Circuit in which Garland participated.  They show he backed arbitration.

It’s unclear whether and how the subject of ADR processes arose in his non-judicial career, which also is discussed below.  Garland’s extensive prosecutorial work at the U.S. Department of Justice as well as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia was on the criminal side; he also was a litigation partner at Washington, D.C.’s Arnold & Porter.

Garland is probably best known for his U.S. Justice Department service from 1993 to his 1999 appointment as U.S. Circuit Judge.  During the period, when he was DOJ’s Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, his responsibilities included supervising the Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber prosecutions.

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In the D.C. Circuit, Garland wrote the unanimous affirmance in Kurke v. Oscar Gruss and Son Inc., 454 F.3d 350 (D.C. Cir. 2006)(available at bit.ly/1MjsCPT). The opinion backs arbitrators who awarded a brokerage customer damages after his account was churned, and the defendants charged that the award was made in manifest disregard of the law.
The case concerned a customer who brought an action seeking confirmation of an arbitration award brought by plaintiff David Kurke against securities firm Oscar Gruss, and a firm executive, after the customer’s account was subjected to what the plaintiff charged was unauthorized trading, churning and a breach of fiduciary duty.

An arbitration panel agreed, awarding Kurke compensatory damages from both Oscar Gruss and the executive, in the amounts of $648,000 and $58,000, respectively. According to the Garland opinion, Oscar Gruss trading had turned Kurke’s $520,000 investment into $39,000, just four months after the account had been valued at more than $1 million.
The federal district court granted Kurke’s enforcement petition, and Oscar Gruss appealed the arbitration award.

The appellants urged that the awards can be vacated on the ground that the arbitrators made them in “manifest disregard” of the law.

The opinion indicated that manifest disregard “is an extremely narrow standard of review.” Under the standard, the reviewing court must find that arbitrators knew of governing legal principle yet refused to apply it or ignored it altogether, and the law ignored by the arbitrators was well-defined, explicit and clearly applicable to the case. Kurke, at 354 (quoting LaPrade v. Kidder, Peabody & Co. Inc., 246 F.3d 702, 706 (D.C.Cir. 2001)).

The firm argued that the arbitration panel’s award to Kurke was made in manifest disregard of the law because under the terms of his margin agreement, Kurke’s failure to object to the unauthorized trades in writing within the stipulated time frame effectively ratified those trades.  The defendants argued that Kurke’s failure to mitigate his damages after he became aware of them relieved the company for liability for Kurke’s losses. Kurke, at 355.

Circuit Judge Garland noted three exceptions to the rule that ratification agreements will be enforced.  The opinion notes that the arbitrators could have refused to enforce the ratification agreement if they credited Kurke’s testimony that he did not comprehend the highly complicated options trades contained on his monthly statements; that assurances or deceptive acts forestalled his filing of the written complaint; or that Kurke was not advised of his right to reject the unauthorized trades.  Kurke, at 356.

Focusing on statements by an Oscar Gruss employee that forestalled the plaintiff from acting, Judge Garland wrote, “we can readily ‘discern [a] colorable justification for the arbitrator[s’] judgment,’ . . .  and cannot say their award was made in manifest disregard of the law regarding ratification.’” Id.

Garland rejected the appellants’ other arguments to establish manifest disregard and affirmed the District Court’s arbitration award in full.

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In Aliron Int’l Inc., v. Cherokee Nation Indus. Inc., 531 F.3d 863 (D.C. Cir. 2008)(available at bit.ly/22BaC7J), Circuit Judge Garland, who became the D.C. Circuit’s chief judge in February 2013,  affirmed a district court’s decision to compel arbitration.

In the case, the U.S. Army entered into a “Prime Contract” with Cherokee Nation, or CNI, which in turn entered into a subcontract with Aliron to provide the service and staffing resources that CNI needed to fulfill its duties under the Prime Contract.

The parties agreed that the subcontract “shall be construed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the State of Oklahoma” and that “any dispute between the parties will be submitted to binding arbitration in the State of Oklahoma. The parties further agreed Oklahoma law “shall govern the arbitration proceedings.” Aliron International Inc., at 864.

About two weeks into the contract performance, the parties had to enter into an additional support agreement in order to comply with the Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Germany.  The SOFA precluded CNI from hiring a subcontractor under the Prime Contract. But unlike the subcontract, the Support Agreement did not include an express provision requiring arbitration of all disputes. Id. at 864.

Aliron filed an action against CNI for breach of obligations under the Support Agreement. CNI moved to compel arbitration of the dispute. CNI argued that although only the subcontract contained an express arbitration clause, the two documents should be read together.

The District of Columbia federal district court agreed with CNI, holding that “because the Subcontract and the Support Agreement involve the same subject matter, and because the plain language on the fact of the Support Agreement indicated that it was entered into to preserve the intent of the Subcontract, they must be construed together as one contract.” Id. at 865.

Garland noted in an opinion on behalf of the unanimous three-judge federal appellate panel that courts generally should apply ordinary state law principles that govern contract formation. He wrote, “The Oklahoma Supreme Court has long instructed that ‘[w]here two contracts, not executed at the same time, refer to the same subject matter and show on their face that one was executed to carry out the intent of the other, it is proper to construe them together as if they were one contract.’” [Citations omitted.]

Two criteria must be satisfied before the subcontract’s arbitration provision can be deemed to govern disputes under the Support Agreement, according to the Garland opinion:  “(1) the Subcontract and Support Agreement must each refer to the same subject matter, and (2) the Support Agreement must show on its face that it was executed to carry out” the subcontract’s intent. Id. at 866.

Judge Garland found both elements were satisfied and required the two contracts to be read together as one under Oklahoma law because they referred to the same subject matter, and because the Support Agreement plainly showed that it was executed to preserve the subcontract’s intent. Id. at 868.

In affirming the lower court, Garland rejected two additional arguments by Aliron, one which required extrinsic evidence about the contract, and another contesting the formation of an arbitration agreement.

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Judge Garland handed down another decision that mentioned alternative dispute resolution in labor law. In the case, Davenport v. Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL-CIO, members of a flight attendants union brought an action against the union and the employer challenging the union’s failure to submit a temporary side agreement on work hours to the collective bargaining accord to a rank-and-file ratification vote. 166 F.3d 356 (D.C. Cir. 1999)(available at bit.ly/1Vyplyw).

The flight attendants sought a temporary injunction against the side agreement—which had been sparked by a change in federal law—that was denied in the district court.  Again writing for a unanimous D.C. Circuit panel, Garland’s opinion affirmed the lower court.
The employer-airline in the case—Northwest Airlines Inc., now part of Delta Air Lines Inc.–was subject to the Railway Labor Act.  Under the act, an adjustment board established by the employer and the unions had exclusive jurisdiction over “minor disputes”–those arising “out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application” of existing collective bargaining agreements.

Circuit Judge Garland noted that in “’major disputes,’ however, the district courts have jurisdiction to enjoin violations of the status quo pending the completion of required bargaining and mediation procedures.” Id. at 367. Major disputes go to the formation of the collective agreements, the opinion says.

But Garland wrote that the plaintiffs’ contention that the dispute was a “major dispute” requiring an injunction couldn’t be sustained.  The opinion held that there wasn’t enough grounds to vacate the district order for major-dispute ADR treatment or any of the other grounds on which the plaintiffs sought the court’s intervention.

It did allow re-argument of the “major dispute” controversy, since it was bought by the union itself late in the litigation.  But it’s not clear that the case got beyond the argument stages, because the collective bargaining agreement was due to be renegotiated to account for the side agreement. Press reports indicate that the relationship between Northwest and its union became strained later in 1999 over several issues, and headed to mediation. See, e.g., Associated Press, “Protesters disrupt Northwest Airline meeting,” Deseret News (April 24, 1999)(available at bit.ly/1RhBNQ9).

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Some business lobbyists are wary of Garland’s nomination given his deference to government agencies.

According to a Corporate Counsel article, while Garland has significant experience deciding challenges to government regulations, given the focus of the D.C. Circuit on administrative appeals, he has less experience on corporate law and governance questions. Rebekah Mintzer, “Justice Merrick Garland: Bad for Business?” Corporate Counsel (March 21)(available at bit.ly/1UCwHkS).

The article points out that, like Justice Scalia, who he would replace, Garland adheres to the Chevron doctrine, under which the judiciary defers to agency interpretations on ambiguous statutes under the agency’s jurisdictions.

This tendency, Corporate Counsel notes, has business groups worried because they are not sure how Garland would come out on corporate law decisions.  The nation’s largest small-business lobbying group, the National Federation of Independent Business, opposes Garland’s confirmation.

One key area that may implicate conflict resolution practices is labor and employment. Garland has firmly backed the National Labor Relations Board, affirming the view of the agency—which oversees workplace issues as embodied in the National Labor Relations Act—in 18 out of 22 cases that have come before him.

It’s likely that the Supreme Court will get that exact task in the arbitration context soon.  Cases are bubbling up in which federal courts have firmly backed the Court’s view that the Federal Arbitration Act allows for mandatory individual arbitration processes in employment disputes where the employee is required to waive class action litigation or arbitration.

But the principal case from which federal courts are adopting that view is a consumer credit case, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011)(available at bit.ly/1MWMHVN).

The NLRB in 2012 decided that the NLRA trumps the FAA, and has produced dozens of decisions banning class action waivers.  It is continuing to issue those decisions even though it has been struck down in federal courts around the country, most notably in the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  Both the NLRB and management-side labor lawyers expect the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the conflict. For full details, see “Cutting Arbitration Classes: Facing Court Defeats on Workplace Waivers, the NLRB Refuses to Back Down,” 34 Alternatives 1 (January 2016)(available at bit.ly/1LEnG8o).

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While Merrick Garland apparently hasn’t dealt with arbitration during his professional career as a corporate litigator and prosecutor, upon his confirmation he would be dealing with a slate of cases involving business issues.  But at this writing, no arbitration cases are on the Court’s docket.

Although unrelated to ADR practice, several partners at Garland’s former firm, Washington, D.C.’s Arnold & Porter said that the D.C. Circuit chief judge focused on the arcane area of antitrust, which he reportedly taught at his alma mater, Harvard Law School.  “Garland worked on antitrust cases, a specialty of the firm, several former partners said, yet few remembered specific cases he worked on.” Katelyn Polantz, “Lightning Strikes Twice at Arnold & Porter with Merrick Garland Nomination,” National Law Journal (March 17)(available at  bit.ly/1Re0Jcs). The article also notes that in one year during his practice, Garland also published articles in both Harvard Law Review and Yale Law Journal.

Garland, unlike some of his fellow appellate judges, does not speak publicly much. The National Law Journal collected some highlights of his notable decisions and public statements at Zoe Tillman, “The Quotable Merrick Garland: A Collection of Writings and Remarks,” National Law Journal (March 16)(available at  bit.ly/1pxgKPY).

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Feher is a Spring 2016 CPR Institute intern, and currently is a student at Brooklyn Law School, Class of 2016. Bleemer edits the CPR Institute-published Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation.

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

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

By Russ Bleemer

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

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

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

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

Or so it seemed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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