On June 10, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064 (2013) considered whether an arbitrator exceeded his powers under Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) Section 10(a)(4) by finding that a fairly run-of-the-mill arbitration agreement authorized class arbitration. Applying the deferential, manifest-disregard-of-the-agreement outcome-review standard authorized by FAA Section 10(a)(4), the Court upheld an arbitrator’s determination that an arbitration agreement authorized class arbitration because the arbitrator had, at least arguably, interpreted the arbitration agreement, albeit in a highly creative and doubtful way. (See Loree Reins. & Arb. L. Forum posts here, here, here & here.)
In a footnote, the Court explained that it “would face a different issue if Oxford had argued below that the availability of class arbitration is a so-called ‘question of arbitrability.’” 133 S. Ct. at 2068 n.2. The Court said that Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 680 (2010), “made clear that this Court has not yet decided” whether class-arbitration-consent presents a question of arbitrability. But “Oxford agreed that the arbitrator should determine whether its contract with Sutter authorized class procedures[,]” and “Oxford submitted that issue to arbitrator not once, but twice—and the second time after Stolt-Nielsen flagged that it might be a question of arbitrability.” 133 S. Ct. at 2068 n.2. (emphasis added)
Had Oxford opted to request the Supreme Court to determine whether class- arbitration consent presented a question of arbitrability, and had the Court determined that it was such a question, then the Court would have determined independently—that is, without deferring to the arbitrator’s decision—whether the parties consented to class arbitration. See BG Group plc v. Republic of Argentina, No. 12-138, slip op. at 6 (U.S. March 5, 2014); First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 543 U.S. 938, 942 (1995). And we doubt that a majority of the Supreme Court would have upheld the Oxford award had it reviewed the class-arbitration-consent determination de novo. See, e.g., Oxford, 133 S. Ct. at 2071 (Alito, J., concurring) (“If we were reviewing the arbitrator’s interpretation of the contract de novo, we would have little trouble concluding that he improperly inferred “[a]n implicit agreement to authorize class-action arbitration … from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.”) (quoting Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 685).
Those who have been tracking developments in class and consolidated arbitration since the turn of this century no doubt recall that, after a plurality of the Court determined in Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444, 452-53 (2003), that a class-arbitration-consent-related dispute did not present a question of arbitrability, but merely a procedural question, parties began to submit routinely and unreservedly class-arbitration-consent questions to arbitration.
But after Stolt-Nielsen, and, no doubt with renewed vigor after Oxford, class arbitration opponents began to argue that class-arbitration-consent presented a question of arbitrability for the Court to decide. And U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals are beginning to rule on those challenges.
The first one to do so was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594 (6th Cir. 2013), where the Court in November 2013 held “that the question whether an arbitration agreement permits classwide arbitration is a gateway matter, which is reserved for judicial determination unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise.” 734 F.2d at 599 (quotation and citation omitted).
The second, and most recent Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on the issue, was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l Inc., ___ F.3d ___, No. 12-4444, slip op. (3rd Cir. July 30, 2014), which on July 30, 2014 “join[ed] the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in holding that. . . “the availability of” class arbitration “is a substantive gateway question rather than a procedural one[,]” and thus “is a question of arbitrability.” Slip op. at 15, 16-17. The Court’s decision turned on “the critical differences between individual and class arbitration and the significant consequences of that determination for both [a] whose claims are subject to arbitration[;] and [b] the type of controversy to be arbitrated.” Slip op. at 15 (emphasis added). Where, as in Opalinski, the arbitration agreement did not “mention” class arbitration, the Court “believ[ed] the parties would have expected a court, not an arbitrator, to determine the availability of class arbitration[,]” and that was “especially so given the critical differences between individual and class arbitration and the significant consequences” of the class-arbitration-consent determination as respects “whose claims are subject to arbitration and the type of controversy to be arbitrated.” slip op. at 16-17.
The Third Circuit’s Opalinski decision, like the Sixth Circuit’s in Reed Elsevier, is well reasoned and reaches the conclusion we likewise think is required by the Supreme Court’s long-line of arbitrability jurisprudence, and by its post-Bazzle class-arbitration cases, beginning with Stolt-Nielsen. We suspect that other circuits will, for largely the same reasons, that class-arbitration-consent presents a question of arbitrability.
Let’s have a look at what transpired in Opalinski. . . . Continue Reading »