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

By Mark Kantor 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals.  Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups.  He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator.  He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor).  He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.  He is a frequent contributor to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.

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Supreme Court Again Declines a “Who Decides?” Case in Class Arbitration

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear a case that would have covered two issues that are familiar arbitration turf at the nation’s top court—whether rules incorporated into an ADR agreement are a specific-enough designation for the arbitration to go forward, and whether arbitrators can invoke class processes.

The court denied cert in Shivkov v. Artex Risk Solutions Inc., 20-1313, where an appeals court, compelling arbitration, also held that “the availability of class arbitration is a gateway issue that a court must presumptively decide,” but because the agreements “do not clearly and unmistakably delegate that issue to the arbitrator,” and “[b]ecause the Agreements are silent on class arbitration, they do not permit class arbitration.” Shivkov v. Artex Risk Sols. Inc., 974 F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3y6e9jL).

This morning’s order can be found here.

The issues presented challenging the Ninth Circuit petition to the Supreme Court by the petitioners—more than 80 individual and business plaintiffs who had filed suit against insurance management companies that set up captive insurance firms for the petitioners that were audited and held liable for unpaid federal taxes—covered the incorporation by reference rules question, and class arbitration.  The specific questions presented by the petitioners that the Court declined today were:

1. The parties’ arbitration clause expressly designates the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) as their default dispute-resolution method. The clause did not also specifically mention the AAA Rules themselves, which, according to the AAA, apply whenever parties select a AAA arbitration. Must an agreement that specifies arbitration before the AAA as the default dispute-resolution method also specifically mention the AAA Rules to avoid being considered ambiguous about whether the parties intended to apply the AAA Rules?

2. Under the plain text of the Federal Arbitration Act, courts—not arbitrators—decide gateway issues, such as whether there is an agreement to arbitrate and what controversies does it cover. Procedural questions, however, are reserved for arbitrators. Is the availability of class arbitration a matter for an arbitrator to decide, or for a court to decide?

The Shivkov cert denial isn’t surprising because the incorporation of AAA rules issue that the petitioner attempted to have the Court examine already was rejected, indirectly, in a startling move earlier this term.  The Court heard arguments in December in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 19-963 on whether a contract’s delegation agreement sending a matter to arbitration “clearly and unmistakably” designated the case for arbitration because the contract had a carve-out provision from arbitration for injunctions.

But in January, just a month after the oral arguments, the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted, after justices at the hearing appeared to get stuck on whether the incorporation by reference to the AAA rules was sufficient for the clear and unmistakable delegation to arbitration.

The Court a year ago, in focusing on the Henry Schein contract carve-out language in granting certiorari, had denied a cross petition in the case on the incorporation-by-reference issue. The cross petition had asked the Court to address the AAA rules that encompassed a provision that arbitrators decide arbitrability. That denial appeared to have a hand in the Court’s January dismissal of the carve-out language interpretation issue.

At the same time in Shivkov, on the petitioners’ second issue, there have been attempts to revisit class arbitration at the U.S. Supreme Court periodically since the Court’s recent seminal cases reviewing and restricting arbitrators’ power to use a class process without a contract authorization. See Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407 (2019); Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 569 U.S. 564 (2013); Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010).

The Shivkov petitioners contended that the Court has left open the class arbitration determination. They urged the Court to preserve the decision for judges.

For example, last year, the Court declined to hear a case asking whether an arbitrator may compel class arbitration—binding the parties and absent class members—without finding actual consent, instead based only on a finding that the agreement does not unambiguously prohibit class arbitration and should be construed against the drafter. See Cristina Carvajal, “Supreme Court Rejects Decade-Old Class Arbitration Employment Discrimination Case,” CPR Speaks (Oct. 5, 2020) available at https://bit.ly/35WsvHm) (discussing the Court’s second cert denial in the history of Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 942 F.3d 617 (2d Cir. 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/30yP3eZ)).

The Shivkov petition contended that the agreement to use the AAA means agreeing to the AAA rules, which put the arbitrability question in the arbitration tribunal’s hands–a cousin to the Jock argument, and which achieved the same cert-denied result. 

The Ninth Circuit Shivkov decision linked above stands, and the case, at least for now, is headed for arbitration under the AAA rules, with the appeals court, not the arbitration tribunal, determining that there will not be a class process.

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The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation, which CPR Speaks’ owner, the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution publishes with John Wiley & Sons.

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Court Declines Question on Email Service, Leaving an International Arbitration Award Confirmation Intact

By Jacqueline Perrotta

Today, the Supreme Court declined to hear Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua S.A.B. de C.V., et al. v. Compañía de Inversiones Mercantiles S.A., No. 20-1033, an international arbitration case regarding a breached stock-purchase agreement. The petitioner had asked the Supreme Court whether service of process by email, in line with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 4(f)(3), to a foreign entity’s U.S. counsel violates the Hague Service Convention.

This morning’s order list denying cert in Grupo Cementos can be found here.

The Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters, Nov. 15, 1965, 20 U.S.T. 361, better known as the Hague Service Convention, details what constitutes valid service on parties in another country. The petitioner argued that the dispute falls under the Hague Service Convention and “service,” as instructed by the convention, does not include service by email.

The parties are a Bolivian company, Compañía de Inversions Mercantiles S.A. (“Cimsa”), the respondent in the U.S. Supreme Court case and the original plaintiff, and Mexican companies Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, S.A.B. de C.V. and GCC Latinoamerica, S.A. de C.V. (collectively “GCC”), which appealed the case to the Court (cert petition available here) and who are the original defendants.

GCC had agreed to give Cimsa a right of first refusal if GCC decided to sell shares it acquired in a third-party cement company. GCC sold shares to a Peruvian company, and Cimsa alleged the sale breached its right of first refusal.

The companies had agreed to arbitrate disagreements arising from the stock deal. In a Bolivian arbitration, Cimsa was awarded several million dollars for the breach of its right of first refusal. GCC challenged this decision; litigation over the arbitration damages award is continuing in Bolivia.

This case came before a Colorado U.S. District Court when Cimsa filed an arbitral award confirmation action through the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, which recognizes and enforces foreign arbitral awards.

Cimsa received court permission to serve GCC through its U.S. counsel, which GCC claimed was improper service. The district court found that alternative service through the GGC’s U.S. Counsel was proper under the Hague Service Convention, and confirmed the award.

The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that service was proper, and also affirmed the district court’s decision to back the Bolivian arbitration tribunal’s decision. Compania De Inversiones v. Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, No. 19-1151 (10th Cir. 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3vBlh65).

In holding that the district court correctly confirmed the arbitration tribunal, the Tenth Circuit found that courts construe the New York Convention defenses to enforcing awards “`narrowly’ to ‘encourage recognition and enforcement of commercial arbitration contracts’ citing OJSC Ukrnafta v. Carpatsky Petroleum Corp., 957 F.3d 487, 497 (5th Cir. 2020).

By affirming the district court’s decision, the Tenth Circuit has found that proper service under the Hague Convention includes service by email. By this morning’s Supreme Court action, that case stands, and the arbitration award’s confirmation will not be affected.

At the same time, in its cert petition, GCC had challenged the U.S. award confirmation on the basis that the U.S. courts did not have sufficient contacts for personal jurisdiction, which was also the subject of then-pending U.S. Supreme Court cases, Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, No. 19-368 and Ford Motor Co. v. Bandemer, No. 19-369 (S. Ct.).  The Court decided the consolidated cases in Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, No. 19-368 (March 25, 2021) (available at https://bit.ly/3wU5sbO).

With today’s cert denial, the Court also declined the petitioners’ suggestion to grant certiorari, vacate the matter, and remand for a decision on personal jurisdiction in accordance with the Ford Motor decision.

GCC’s Supreme Court cert petition can be found at https://bit.ly/2SOkTnl

* * *

The Court today declined to hear a second arbitration case, Amazon.com Inc., et al. v. Bernard Waithaka, No. 20-1077.

Amazon had asked the Court to consider ” Whether the Federal Arbitration Act’s exemption for classes of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce, 9 U.S.C. 1, prevents the Act’s application to local transportation workers who, as a class, are not engaged to transport goods or passengers across state or national boundaries.”

Amazon had cited conflicting lower court authority on whether drivers who signed up for an Amazon distribution program and who stayed within state lines could avoid arbitration provisions under the FAA exemption in their disputes with online retailing giant.

Both the federal district court and appeals court declined to compel arbitration. Those decisions stand, with other cases still pending. Earlier this year, in a similar case Amazon linked to today’s decision, the Court declined cert in Amazon.com Inc. v. Rittmann, No. 20-622 (Feb. 22).

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The author, a J.D. student who will enter her second year this fall at Brooklyn Law School, is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern.

[END]

Let’s Schein Again!

The International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution presents a CPR Speaks blog discussion of the 1/25/2021 U.S. Supreme Court per curiam decision dismissing Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 19-963, and a same-day order declining to hear Piersing v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, No. 20-695. Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation Editor Russ Bleemer hosts Prof. Angela Downes, University of North Texas-Dallas College of Law, and arbitrator-advocates contributors Richard Faulkner, also of Dallas, and Philip J. Loree Jr. in New York.

By Russ Bleemer

The panel returns to CPR Speaks and YouTube to analyze the Monday Henry Schein dismissal–a one-line decision–just a month after the Court heard oral arguments on the issue of how a contract carve-out removing injunctions from arbitration affects the delegation of the entire matter to arbitration.

In fact, the Dec. 8, 2020, Henry Schein oral argument repeatedly turned to an issue in the rejected Piersing case on the effectiveness of the incorporation by reference of arbitration rules in designating an arbitration tribunal to decide whether a case is arbitrated, rather than a court deciding whether the matter is to be arbitrated. A cross-petition by Archer and White asking for review of the incorporation by reference of the arbitration contract’s American Arbitration Association rules was declined by the Supreme Court the same day it agreed to hear the carve-out issue last June.

Our panel discussed these issues after the oral argument on this blog.  See “Schein II: Argument in Review,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 9) (available at http://bit.ly/2VXfyIa) (in which the panelists also discuss their work on an amicus brief in the case, a subject that arose in this post’s video).

You can see today’s per curiam decision on the Supreme Court’s website here.

Monday’s Henry Schein dismissal ends a long period of Supreme Court litigation in the case that also included a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision. For now, the case returns to the Fifth Circuit for proceedings on whether the parties properly intended to arbitrate the case.

Details on the Supreme Court’s Monday cert denial in Piersing v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, No. 20-695, are available on CPR Speaks here.

For more analysis on the Henry Schein dismissal, see Ronald Mann, “Justices dismiss arbitrability dispute,” Scotusblog (Jan. 25, 2021) (available at http://bit.ly/2Yh9U4O), in which the Columbia University professor and Scotusblog analyst concludes that

it seems likely that the justices ultimately decided that they couldn’t sensibly say anything about this matter without addressing the question of whether the contract called for arbitration of the gateway question. Because they had declined to call for briefs on that question, it did not make sense to address it here. A logical course of action, then, was to dismiss the matter from the docket, providing a rare victory for a party opposing arbitration.

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The author edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.

Scotus’s Henry Schein No-Decision

By Russ Bleemer

If the U.S. Supreme Court appeared frustrated at last month’s arbitration argument in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., No. 19-963, this morning’s one-line decision confirmed it.

The Court today dismissed the entire case without a decision on the merits.  The entire per curiam decision:  “The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted.”

You can view it on the Supreme Court’s website here.

The immediate effect is that respondent Archer and White Sales sees a big win:  It will get the determination of whether its long-running case over a medical equipment contract dispute is to be arbitrated made by a judge, not an arbitrator.  A Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision now stands. See Archer & White Sales, Inc. v. Henry Schein, Inc., 935 F.3d 274 (5th Cir. 2019) (available at http://bit.ly/2NC7EmL).

Archer and White contended that a delegation agreement sending a matter to arbitration did not “clearly and unmistakably” send the case to arbitration because of a contract carve-out for injunctions.

With a one-line dismissal, it’s unknown why the Court did what it did. In shutting down the case, it may be backing Archer and White’s and the Fifth Circuit’s view. 

Or it may have reconsidered a point that Henry Schein’s successor status to the contract didn’t sustain its arbitration demand.

Or, in a point returned to repeatedly in last month’s argument, the Court may have botched the case on its own. When it granted Henry Schein’s cert petition on June 15 on the carve-out issue, the Supreme Court simultaneously rejected Archer and White’s cross petition challenging the determination of arbitrability of the case on a question of incorporation by reference. The cross petition contended that the “clear and unmistakable” evidence of an intent to arbitrate was insufficient; the contract incorporated American Arbitration Association rules that include a provision that arbitrators decide arbitrability.

Even though the Court rejected the cross-petition, the issue returned in the December arguments, at times overwhelming the discussion of the question of the carve-out’s effect. For more on the argument, see “Schein II: Argument in Review,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 9) (available at http://bit.ly/2VXfyIa).

One thing is certain:  The Court won’t use a follow-up petition to address the incorporation-by-reference issue, which would have interpreted the standard from the Court’s seminal decision on arbitrability, First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944 (1995) (available at https://bit.ly/39fAwcR).

That’s because a case that a petitioner and an amicus stated presented the issue cleanly—unencumbered by the carve-out issue and Henry Schein’s long history, including a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision—was denied certiorari 30 minutes ahead of today’s one-line opinion. Details on the Court’s cert denial in Piersing v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, No. 20-695, are available on CPR Speaks here.

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The author edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.

[END]

Court Again Rejects Review on Incorporating Rules that Define Arbitrability

By Temitope Akande & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear a case that presented a persistent arbitration issue: whether the incorporation of a set of arbitration rules that state that an arbitrator decides whether a case goes to arbitration, instead of a court making the arbitrability decision, provides sufficient “clear and unmistakable evidence” that the parties agreed for the tribunal to make the decision.

It was the second time in eight months that the Court has rejected a significant case on the issue.

Piersing v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, No. 20-695, would have analyzed the clear-and-unmistakable evidence standard for delegation to arbitrability from the Court’s First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944 (1995) (available at https://bit.ly/39fAwcR).  

The question presented by the petitioner, a former employee of two Domino’s franchisers who had a claim against the parent company, was:

In the context of a form employment agreement, is providing that a particular set of rules will govern arbitration proceedings, without more, “clear and unmistakable evidence” of the parties’ intent to have the arbitrator decide questions of arbitrability?

Last June, the Court declined to hear the question on arbitrability in a cross-petition in Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., No. 19-1080 (June 15, 2020), while accepting the case on the original cert petition on another, close issue involving the reach of carve-out provisions in arbitration agreements. 

In its December arguments in Schein, which awaits decision, the discussion of incorporation by reference on arbitrability arose.  See “Schein II: Argument in Review,” CPR Speaks (Dec. 9) (available at http://bit.ly/2VXfyIa). In its brief in Piersing, the petitioner “acknowledges that [the] Court recently denied certiorari of a cross-petition presenting a similar question,” citing Schein, adding, “however, the question is presented in this case cleanly and as a stand-alone question.”

In Piersing, the petitioner worked as a delivery driver for a franchisee of respondent Domino’s, and later got an employment offer from Carpe Diem, another Washington state Domino’s franchisee. While the petitioner intended to increase his hours and earnings, the first franchisee fired him based on a no-poach clause in his employment agreement.

He eventually brought a U.S. District Court class-action suit against Domino’s alleging that the hiring rules violated, among other things, antitrust laws.

Domino’s sought to compel arbitration of Piersing’s claims based on the arbitration agreement between the employee and Carpe Diem.  Domino’s asked for arbitration, according to the Sixth Circuit opinion in the case that was the subject of the cert petition (see Blanton v. Domino’s Pizza Franchising LLC, 962 F.3d 842 (6th Cir. 2020) (available at http://bit.ly/3sWDlrg)), “because the agreement’s reference to the AAA rules constituted a delegation clause in that the AAA rules supposedly provide for delegation.”

The district court held that equitable estoppel applies to permit franchiser Domino’s to enforce franchisee Carpe Diem’s agreement against Piersing and, according to the petitioner’s cert petition brief, “that the clause providing the AAA rules would govern any arbitration amounted to ‘clear and unmistakable’ evidence of Piersing’s and Carpe Diem’s intent to delegate questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

Piersing appealed the district court’s decision. Relying on Rent-a-Center, West Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63 (2010), and more, the Sixth Circuit held that the incorporation of arbitration rules that permit the arbitrator to resolve questions of arbitrability is sufficient to delegate those questions to the arbitrator.

Piersing’s Supreme Court cert petition brief analyzed the holdings in First Options, Rent-a-Center, West, and the first Henry Schein decision, Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer & White Sales Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524 (2019), which wrestled with the question of and the standard for who decides arbitrability, the tribunal or the court.

Based on these precedents, the petitioner argued that the existing circuit court analysis allowing for incorporation of rules that included arbitrators determining arbitrability wasn’t “clear and unmistakable evidence” of the parties’ intent to arbitrate.  It emphasized that, particularly for consumers and employees, the cases weren’t sufficiently thorough in light of the First Options standard. The petitioner also noted that the Sixth Circuit’s decision conflicts with the holdings of several state high courts.

Domino’s countered that an agreement incorporating privately promulgated arbitral rules that assign questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator clearly and unmistakably show the parties’ agreement that an arbitrator, not the court, will resolve whether the case is suitable for arbitration.

Domino’s successfully argued for the nation’s top Court to reject the petition and thereby uphold the Sixth Circuit.

An amicus brief in support of the petitioner was filed by Columbia University Law School Prof. George Bermann, who described the issue in the appeal as “a central but unsettled issue of domestic and international arbitration.” Echoing the petitioner, the brief noted the importance of the issue in both Henry Schein Supreme Court cases, but stated that “the delegation question is presented front and center for review in this case.” It also cited the divergence between state and federal court views.

The amicus brief discussed the principle of “competence-competence” in international commercial law—the international equivalent of the arbitrability question under which the tribunal is presumed to be in a position to determine its jurisdiction, and which the Sixth Circuit invoked.  Bermann’s brief discussed the concept under the “clear and unmistakable” agreement standard of parties to arbitrate.

The amicus noted that the competence-competence language does not constitute “clear and unmistakable” evidence. “[A]ll modern arbitral procedure rules contain a ‘competence-competence’ clause,” the brief argued, “so that treating such language as clear and unmistakable evidence of a delegation means that parties will almost invariably lose their right to a judicial determination of what this Court has multiple times referred to as the very cornerstone of arbitration, viz. consent to arbitrate.”

Noting the state-federal divide in the interpretation of whether the incorporation of rules satisfies First Options, the brief concluded, “Only this Court can definitively resolve that issue and ensure that parties do not forfeit their right to a judicial determination of arbitrability unless they manifest that intention clearly and unmistakably.”

For more information on the case and an in-depth discussion of the issues involved, see the Supreme Court’s docket page at http://bit.ly/39Zxed1.

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Akande, who received a Master of Laws in Alternative Dispute Resolution last May at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in Los Angeles, is volunteering with the CPR Institute through Spring 2021. Bleemer edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.

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CPR Files Amicus Brief Asking U.S. Supreme Court to Tackle Foreign Discovery for Arbitration

The International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution has filed an amicus brief requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiorari to resolve a federal circuit court split on whether 28 U.S.C. § 1782 allows federal district courts to order discovery for private commercial arbitration abroad.

CPR did not take a position on the merits of the case.

Yesterday’s filing in Servotronics Inc. v. Rolls-Royce PLC, et al., No. 20-794, highlights the circuit split underlying the case.  Petitioner Servotronics presents the question,

Whether the discretion granted to district courts in 28 U.S.C. § 1782(a) to render assistance in gathering evidence for use in “a foreign or international tribunal” encompasses private commercial arbitral tribunals, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th and 6th Circuits have held, or excludes such tribunals without expressing an exclusionary intent, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd, 5th and, in the case below, the 7th Circuit, have held.

CPR urged the Court to resolve this circuit court split, noting in the brief that “the question of whether United States district courts may entertain applications for judicial assistance in obtaining evidence for presentation in arbitral proceedings before international tribunals is one of great relevance to CPR and its constituents.”

The friend-of-the-Court brief states that the “current existence of opposite rules on whether district courts have jurisdiction to render assistance under Section 1782 in gathering evidence for international arbitral tribunals creates both the opportunity for blatant forum shopping and the likelihood of protracted litigation on the threshold jurisdictional question in each of the seven remaining regional circuits that have not decided the question.”

CPR also argues that the court should set the case for argument this term to avoid the likelihood that it will become moot prior to decision.

Section 1782 authorizes “any interested person” in a proceeding before a “foreign or international tribunal” to ask for and receive discovery from a person in the United States.  But the conflicting federal circuit cases differ on whether the statute’s definition of tribunals would cover arbitration matters. The Servotronics parties have decisions going both ways, one in the Fourth Circuit, and the second, the subject of the cert petition, in the Seventh Circuit.

CPR has created a web page for the brief at http://bit.ly/3nklaYp.

CPR Speaks has addressed the issues in this case as they arose.  John Pinney, counsel to Graydon in Cincinnati who prepared the amicus filing on CPR’s behalf, discusses the case in a video post here.  Updates on the circuit split as it developed in 2020’s second half are available here and here.

You can find the CPR amicus filing, as well as other filings in the case, on the Supreme Docket page, here. Law360 covered the filing here, available with a subscription.

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Supreme Court Rejects an International Arbitration Case

By Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to hear the international arbitration case of Big Port Service DMCC v. China Shipping Container Lines, No. 20-128.

The issue in the case was the standard for issuing an injunction related to arbitration–specifically, “Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit erred in recognizing a cause of action for a party seeking to avoid arbitration and in concluding that courts have remedial power — untethered to any federal statute and unconstrained by the Supreme Court’s precedents governing the grant of injunctive relief — to issue injunctions against arbitration.”

The Second Circuit’s March 5 unpublished summary order (available at https://bit.ly/3lD1IpA) stands. It affirmed a U.S. District Court order barring U.S. arbitration in the case, deferring instead to the Singapore High Court which had determined that there was no agreement to arbitrate, according to court decisions and papers filed in the case.

The case is six years old. While Big Port took the matter to the nation’s top Court, the parties continued to litigate the costs incurred while the U.S. actions were stayed and the case proceeded in Singapore. 

China Shipping’s request for attorneys fees went to a report and recommendation by a federal judge, which was adopted in August by another New York Southern District federal court judge.  China Shipping sought more than $45,000 in attorneys fees against Big Port, but was awarded just $43.20 in copying and other administrative fees by the report, and the case. See China Shipping Container Lines Co. v. Big Port Service DMCC, 15 Civ. 2006 (AT) (DF) (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/36A2Jsi).

The Supreme Court’s Big Port case page, with the cert petition and briefs in the case, is available at https://bit.ly/36yOfJ2.

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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