A Headings Clause typically provides that contract provision headings and captions are for reference purposes only, and do not negate, modify or otherwise affect the provisions to which they relate. While arguments can be made for or against Headings Clauses, they are fairly common in commercial contracts.
Contract dispute outcomes rarely turn on the interpretation or application of these clauses. But on November 16, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided Infrassure, Ltd. v. First Mutual Trasp. Assur. Co., No. 16-306, slip op. (2d Cir. 2016) (summary order), which not only turned on the meaning and application of a headings clause, but did so in the context of an arbitration-law dispute in a reinsurance case. A confluence of the arcane, indeed!
Infrassure was a dispute between the parties to a facultative reinsurance contract. The facultative reinsurance contract (the “Certificate”) contained two different arbitration clauses. One was in the body of the pre-printed contract (the “Form Arbitration Clause”). The other was in Endorsement No. 2 (the “Endorsement No. 2 Arbitration Clause”). Endorsement No. 2 was titled “LONDON ARBITRATION AND GOVERNING LAW (UK AND BERMUDA INSURERS ONLY).”
The Form Arbitration Clause provided for arbitration of “any dispute arising out of the interpretation, performance or breach of this Certificate.” It designated a specific set of arbitration rules to govern the arbitration, and provided that “[a]ll arbitrators will be disinterested active or former officers of insurance or reinsurance companies.”
The Endorsement No. 2 Arbitration Clause provided for arbitration of “[a]ny dispute, controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this agreement or the breach, termination or invalidity thereof,” and prescribed different arbitration rules. It did not require arbitrators to be active or former officers of insurance or reinsurance companies.
Which Arbitration Clause Applies?
The parties disputed which arbitration clause applied. Reinsurer Infrassure, Ltd. (“Infrassure” or the “Reinsurer”), argued for the Form Arbitration Clause, with its more stringent arbitrator qualification requirements. Cedent First Mutual Transportation Assurance Company (“First Mutual” or the “Cedent”), a New York State captive insurer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, apparently wanted to appoint (or nominate) arbitrators or arbitrator candidates who were not current or former officers or directors of insurance or reinsurance companies. It therefore argued that the Endorsement 2 Arbitration Clause applied.
Infrassure, which is a Swiss company, argued that the Endorsement No. 2 Arbitration Clause did not apply because the title of the endorsement contained the parenthetical limitation “(UK and Bermuda Insurers only)” (the “Parenthetical Limitation”). It asserted in the alternative that the Endorsement No. 2 Arbitration Clause should be construed to impose the same arbitrator qualification criteria as the Form Arbitration Clause imposed.
The Headings Clause
First Mutual argued that the Certificate’s headings clause (the “Headings Clause,” which the Court refers to as the “Titles Clause”) rendered inapplicable the Parenthetical Limitation. The Headings Clause stated: “The several titles of the various paragraphs of this Certificate (and endorsements … attached hereto) are inserted solely for convenience of reference and will not be deemed in any way to limit or affect the provisions to which they relate.”
“This argument [was] thin,” observed the Court, but a reported opinion was in order, because the dispute “requires us to construe wording that apparently has not been construed before, and that is in a contract that may share features with other standard forms and endorsements.” Slip op. at 4.
Court Holds that Headings Clause did Not Strip the U.K.-and-Bermuda-Insurer-only Limitation on the Scope of Endorsement No. 2
The Court, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs (an esteemed member of the reinsurance bar before he was appointed to the Second Circuit), held that the Headings Clause was “unambiguous,” but did not negate the Parenthetical Limitation, even though that limitation appeared in the heading or title of Endorsement No. 2.
The Parenthetical Limitation, said the Court, “is not part of the title itself, though it shares the same line and bolded format.” The Heading Clause’s “purpose. . . is not to strip away an express indication as to the context in which a particular provision operative, but to ensure that the text of a provision is not discounted or altered by the words of its heading.” Slip op. at 4.
Court finds Further Support for its Conclusion by Applying First Mutual’s Heading Clause Interpretation to other Contract Provisions
The Court found confirmation of the accuracy of its conclusion “by consulting other [Certificate] provisions,” including “critical” ones, which would “would have no meaning at all if the Titles Clause were mechanically applied.” Id.
To illustrate, the Court referred to paragraph 14 of the Certificate, which, states:
Program Policy Limits
Various as per the attached schedule.
Id. (emphasis in original)
The Court observed that applying the Ceding Company’s interpretation of the Headings Clause to Paragraph 14 would reduce that paragraph to “the cryptic provision, ‘Various as per the attached schedule.’” Id. The “heading ‘Program Policy Limits,’ instructs the reader that the phrase ‘Various as per the attached schedule refers to program policy limits, as opposed to some other concern of the reinsurance agreement.” Id. That heading, said the Court, does not purport to contradict, alter or otherwise ambiguate the text that follows, but explains what the otherwise contextually ambiguous (indeed, meaningless) text was intended to mean in the context of the whole contract.
According to the Court, “other provisions beside Paragraph 14 likewise would be rendered meaningless if the [Headings Clause] were applied in the way pressed by First Mutual.” Slip op. at 4.
Given the Court’s holding, it was unnecessary to consider Infrassure’s alternative argument that the arbitrator selection provisions of the Form Arbitration Agreement should be made part of the Endorsement No. 2 Arbitration Agreement. All the Court had to say about this argument was “we need not reach [it], which is just as well for well for Infrassure.” Slip op. at 5.
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