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Archive for the ‘Exceeding Powers’ Category

Absent Class Members, Class Arbitration, Class Certification Awards, Consent, Coercion, and the Second Circuit

November 29th, 2019 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Confirm Award | Exceeding Powers, Consent to Class Arbitration, Exceeding Powers, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit No Comments »
absent class members

While federal, and many state, courts have class-action procedural rules that permit them to bind absent class members to a judgment or settlement, arbitration is different because it is based on party consent, not coercion. While the critical, threshold issues presented in class arbitration is party consent to class arbitration, class certification disputes arising out of a class arbitration proceeding can be just as challenging, especially when they involve absent class members who have not opted in to the proposed or certified class (“absent class members” or “absent members”).

Suppose Employer A requires each of its employees to sign a form arbitration agreement that clearly and unmistakably authorizes the arbitrator to decide all disputes arising out of or relating to the employment relationship as well as arbitrability and procedural issues. More than 250 employees (including putative class representatives) assert that an arbitrator (the “Arbitrator”) should determine whether Employer A consented to class arbitration. Employer A submits that issue to the Arbitrator.

The Arbitrator hears and considers the evidence and arguments and makes a Clause Construction Award, which rules that Employer A and each of the employees consented to class arbitration by signing the employment agreement. Employer A challenges the award as exceeding the arbitrator’s powers under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, but the challenge fails because an appellate court finds that the Arbitrator was at least arguably construing the employment agreement. .

After further proceedings the Arbitrator makes another award, this one certifying a class consisting of approximately 44,000 employees, which included not only the more than 250 persons who were either class representatives or opted in to the class, but also tens of thousands of persons who were absent class members in the sense that they had been notified of the class arbitration and proposed class but had not opted in to the class and had not otherwise appeared in the arbitration proceedings.  

Did the Arbitrator have the power to make that class certification award, which purports to bind each of the 44,000 class members, the vast majority of whom were never parties to the arbitration and had never submitted to the Arbitrator any of the issues that were decided by the Arbitrator’s Clause Construction and class certification awards?  

On November 18, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the answer to that question was “yes.”  But with all due respect to the Second Circuit, and understanding that reasonable minds can and do differ on this subject, we think the better answer would have been “no.”

This post briefly discusses the Second Circuit’s decision.

A subsequent post will explain why we believe the Second Circuit should have held that the arbitrator in that case did not have the authority to bind absent class members, who were not parties to the Clause Construction Award, did not opt into the class, did not otherwise agree to be bound by the Clause Construction Award or the class certification award, and did not otherwise submit to the Arbitrator the issues decided by the Clause Construction and class certification Awards.

 The result would be that the class arbitration could proceed, albeit with a far smaller, certified class (which might be expanded to accommodate any absent members who might be given an additional opportunity to opt-in). But that result, we think, is consistent with the consensual nature of arbitration— a dispute resolution method that is fundamentally different from its coercive counterpart, court litigation.   

Absent Class Members: Background and Procedural History of Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc.

The Second Circuit’s recent decision was the fourth appeal in the Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc. case, a long-running class arbitration dispute. The first of these appeals,  Jock v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., 646 F.3d 113 (2d Cir. 2011) (“Jock I”), was decided in 2011—the most recent one, Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., No. 18-153-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. November 18, 2019) (“Jock IV”), and the subject of this post, was decided November 18, 2019.

Jock and her co-plaintiffs are retail sales employees of Sterling Jewelers, Inc. (“Sterling”). Back in 2008 they sought relief on behalf of a class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and under the Equal Pay Act, alleging Sterling, based on their gender, paid them less than their similarly situated male co-workers. 

Sterling employees, including Jock and her co-plaintiffs were required to sign a “RESOLVE Program” agreement (the “Agreement”), which imposed mandatory arbitration. By executing the agreement employees expressly “waiv[ed] right[s] to obtain any legal or equitable relief . . . through any government agency or court, and . . . also waiv[ed] [their] right[s] to commence any court action.” The Agreement provided that they “may. . . seek and be awarded equal remedy through the RESOLVE Program.”

The Agreement provided that “[t]he Arbitrator shall have the power to award any types of legal or equitable relief that would be available in a court of competent jurisdiction[,]” and that any claim arising thereunder will be arbitrated “in accordance with the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association.”

Class arbitration ensued, and the arbitrator construed the Agreement to permit class arbitration. The district court overturned the award on the ground that the class construction award exceeded under the arbitrator’s powers for the reasons stated in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010).

Jock I

But the Second Circuit in Jock I reversed the district court’s judgment. As the Court explained in Jock IV, the Jock I Court “reversed, holding that the District Court impermissibly substituted its own legal analysis for that of the arbitrator instead of focusing its inquiry on whether the arbitrator was permitted to reach the question of class arbitrability that had been submitted to her by the parties.” Jock IV, slip op. at 5-6. The Jock I Court also “explained. . . that the arbitrator had a colorable justification under the law to reach the decision she did.” Jock IV, slip op. at 6.

Jock I “distinguished Stolt-Nielsen on the ground that the parties in Stolt-Nielsen stipulated that their arbitration agreement contained ‘no agreement’ on the issue of class arbitration, whereas the plaintiffs in [Jock I] merely conceded that there was no explicit agreement to permit class arbitration, thus leaving open the possibility of an ‘implied agreement to permit arbitration.’”  Jock IV, slip op. at 6 (citation omitted). 

The Class Certification Award

After Jock I the arbitrator made a class certification award, certifying a class of “approximately 44,000 women, comprising the then-254 plaintiffs as well as other individuals who had neither submitted claims nor opted in to the arbitration proceeding (‘the absent class members’).” Jock IV, slip op. at 6 (parenthetical in original). The arbitrator’s class certification was limited to those with Title VII disparate impact claims seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

The district court denied Sterling’s motion to vacate the certification award. As Jock IV explains, the district court reasoned “that Sterling’s argument that the arbitrator had exceeded her powers in ‘purporting to bind absent class members who did not express their consent to be bound’ was ‘foreclosed by’ this Court’s holding in Jock I that ‘there is no question that the issue of whether the agreement permitted class arbitration was squarely presented to the arbitrator.’” ”  Jock IV, slip op. at 7 (citation omitted).

Jock II

The district court’s decision refusing to vacate the class certification award resulted in the second appeal, Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 703 Fed. Appx. 15 (2d Cir. 2017) (summary order). (“Jock II”). In July 2017 we wrote a short post (here) about Jock II.

Jock II vacated and remanded the district court’s decision refusing to vacate the certification award because it purported to bind absent members, who (because of their absence) could not have “squarely presented” to the arbitrator the question whether the agreement authorized class procedures, let alone the issue of whether they should be deemed part of a class in a class arbitration to which they had not consented. See Jock II, 703 Fed. Appx. at 16, 17-18 (quotation and citation omitted).

In Jock II, the Second Circuit directed the district court to “consider[] on remand. . . ‘whether an arbitrator, who may decide. . . whether an arbitration agreement provides for class procedures because the parties “squarely presented” it for decision, may thereafter purport to bind non-parties to class procedures on this basis.’”) Jock IV, slip op. at 7-8 (citation omitted).  

The Jock II Remand

The district court vacated the class determination award on remand for two reasons. First, the district court said that it had ruled in 2010 that the Agreement did not authorize class procedures and that, accordingly, the absent class members had not consented to class arbitration.

Second, the submission by the plaintiffs and defendants (not the absent members) to the arbitrator of the question whether the Agreement authorized class arbitration did not confer on the arbitrator the authority to make a ruling binding on the absent members (who did not submit the issue to the Arbitrator). “The District Court[,]” said the Second Circuit, “reasoned that, even if the arbitrator’s ‘erroneous interpretation’ of the [Agreement] could bind the 254 plaintiffs who had ‘authorized the arbitrator to make that determination by submitting the question to her or opting into the proceeding, that erroneous interpretation could not bind absent class members.” Jock IV, slip op. at 8.

The Jock IV Appeal

The district court ruling on the Jock II remand resulted in the Jock IV appeal. (The Jock III decision was the dismissal of an appeal of a district court ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to vacate an interim decision rendered by the arbitrator. Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 691 F. App’x 665 (2d Cir. 2017) (summary order).) 

Since the issue before the district court on the Jock II remand  was whether the arbitrator’s class certification decision should be vacated under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, the applicable standard of review was the manifest disregard of the agreement standard set forth in Stolt-Nielsen and Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 569 U.S. 564, 568-69 (2013). See Jock IV, slip op. at 9-11. (For discussion of that deferential standard, see here, here, here, and here)  

Sterling (the “Award Challenger”) argued, consistent with the district court’s decision,  that the deferential standard should not apply to the question whether the absent members had consented to class arbitration, because they were not parties to the class construction award that was the subject of Jock I, did not submit the issue of class consent to the arbitrator, or otherwise agree to be bound by a determination of consent to class arbitration to which they were not parties.

But the Second Circuit did not agree with the district court or the Award Challenger. It agreed with the plaintiff-appellants (the “Award Defending Parties”), who “argue[d] that the absent class members have, in fact, authorized the arbitrator to determine whether the [Agreement] permits class arbitration procedures.” Jock IV, slip op. at 11.  They urged “that because all Sterling employees signed the RESOLVE Agreement, all Sterling employees “agreed that, if any of them initiated a putative class proceeding, the arbitrator in that proceeding would be empowered to decide class-arbitrability—and, if he or she found it appropriate, to certify a class encompassing other employees’ claims.” Jock IV, slip op. at 11-12.

The Award Defending Parties asserted that “the District Court erred by ‘never ask[ing] what authority absent class members conferred on [the arbitrator] by joining the RESOLVE Program [i.e., signing the Agreement],’ a question that is a matter of contract interpretation.” Jock IV, slip op. at 12.

The Second Circuit determined that, by signing the Agreement, the employer and the absent class members agreed that: (a) any other employee who signed the Agreement was authorized to arbitrate on behalf of any absent member of a yet-to-be certified class the issue of consent to class arbitration, irrespective of whether the absent class member was a party to the arbitration, and irrespective of whether the absent member had notice of, and consented to, the arbitration; (b) any absent class member would be bound by the outcome of such a class-arbitration-consent arbitration proceeding, even though the absent class member did not participate in the arbitration, did not consent to the arbitration (apart from signing the Agreement), and did not play any role in the selection of the arbitrator who presided over the arbitration; and (c) the decision on class arbitration reached by the arbitrator in his or her absence would be subject to review under the exceedingly deferential Oxford/Stolt-Nielsen standard only, and the absent members would be bound by the result of that judicial review even though they were not parties to the Clause Construction Award or to the judicial proceeding in which the Clause Construction Award was reviewed.  

Absent Class Members: What to Make of Jock IV?

We’ll discuss that in an upcoming post….

Manifest Disregard of the Law | Manifest Disregard of the Agreement | Second Circuit Remands Award to Arbitrator for Do-Over

October 25th, 2019 Authority of Arbitrators, Award Vacated, Awards, Challenging Arbitration Awards, Contract Interpretation, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, Exceeding Powers, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Grounds for Vacatur, Manifest Disregard of the Agreement, Manifest Disregard of the Law, Uncategorized, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Vacate Award | 10(a)(4), Vacate Award | Manifest Disregard of the Law, Vacatur No Comments »
Second Chance to Make Award not in Manifest Disregard of Law or Agreement

Arbitrators are human and occasionally they make awards that cannot be squared with logic and law, and courts may, in appropriate circumstances, vacate those awards as being in manifest the agreement, or in some circuits, in manifest disregard of the law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit considered such an award in Weiss v. Sallie Mae, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-2362, slip op. (Sept. 12, 2019), and solved the problem in a way that imposed minimal costs and delay on the parties and, at the same time, gave effect to the parties’ reasonable contractual expectations, including that the arbitrator would make an award with a colorable basis in the law or the parties’ agreement, not one in manifest disregard of the law or the agreement. It is therefore a good example of a case that promotes arbitration as an alternative to litigation.

Background

W is a student-loan borrower who in 2011 defaulted on a loan issued by S (N is the successor of S, but we shall refer to both as “S”). W gave S her phone number (“Phone Number 1”) when she obtained the loan and consented to S contacting her via an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”). S made ATDS calls to her using Phone Number 1 prior to her default on the loan in 2011.

Also prior to her 2011 default W obtained a second telephone number (“Phone Number 2”) but did not give S consent to contact her on that number via an ATDS.

After W’s 2011 default, S contacted W seven or eight times a day at Phone Number 2 via an ATDS, attempting to collect the debt. S made 774 ATDS calls to Phone Number 2 during the period September 16, 2011 through July 1, 2013.

The Arbitration

A dispute arose between W and S about whether S’s ATDS calls had violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) and W commenced an action in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. The action was stayed after the parties stipulated to arbitration pursuant to an arbitration agreement in a student-loan promissory note.

The Award: Was it in Manifest Disregard of the Law or the Agreement?

Final Award 2 - yay-15399450

Following a hearing an arbitrator made an award granting W $108,000 in statutory damages under the TCPA. But the award held that W was a class member in a class action that S had settled. The class-action settlement (the “Arthur Settlement”) “included as a class member, ‘any person who received ATDS calls from [S] between October 27, 2005 and September 14, 2010.’” Slip op. at 5 (citation omitted).

W did not contend that the calls S made to Phone Number 1 violated the TCPA (W had consented to those calls), and W contended that, accordingly, she was not bound by the settlement, even though she had received ATDS on Phone Number 1 during the specified period. The arbitrator, however, found that argument “‘unpersuasive,’” and “ruled that Weiss was a class member and that ‘the proof was conclusive that [S] provided [W] with the required notice of the settlement and of her rights and obligations under the terms of the settlement.’” Slip op. at 5-6 (citation omitted).

The Arthur Settlement “notice offered class members the opportunity to file a ‘consent Revocation’ document by September 15, 2012; absent such a filing, ‘the ATDS calls would not stop and the borrower’s prior consent to give them [sic] would be deemed to have been given.’” Slip op. at 6 (citation omitted; bracketed text in original).  

While W contended that she was not aware of the Arthur Settlement, S testified that notice was successfully emailed to W.

The agreement implementing the Arthur Settlement featured a general release, “under which class members were ‘deemed to have fully released and forever discharged [S]’. . . from any and all claims and causes of action, inter alia, ‘that arise out of or are related in any way to the use of an [ATDS]. . . used by any of the Released Parties in connection with efforts to contact or attempt to contact Settlement Class Members including, but not limited to, claims under or for violations of the [TCPA].’” Slip op. at 6 (citations omitted; some bracketed text in original).

Even though the general release, to which the arbitrator determined W was bound, deemed W to have “waived ‘any and all’ TCPA claims effective the date of final judgment in the Arthur Settlement action[,]” the arbitrator’s award did not acknowledge the existence of that release. Slip op. at 6-7. “Instead,” said the Court, “the arbitrator interpreted [W]’s failure to submit a consent revocation pursuant to the Arthur class notice as precluding recovery for any calls placed to [Phone Number 2] after the September 15, 2012 deadline but also as permitting recovery for ATDS calls placed to [Phone Number 2] between September 6, 2011, and September 16, 2012.” Slip op. at 7.

The arbitrator awarded TCPA statutory damages in the amount of $108,500 ($500 per call for 217 calls during the applicable period). W moved to confirm the award and S cross-moved to vacate it.

The district court vacated the award, finding that “by neglecting to ‘apply—or even address—an explicit, unambiguous term of the settlement agreement,’ which “clearly and unambiguously bars recovery for claims until and including the date of the agreement,’ the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law.” Slip op. at 7. W appealed.

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Attorney Fees and Arbitrability Addressed by New York Appellate Court

July 30th, 2019 Applicability of Federal Arbitration Act, Arbitrability, Arbitrability | Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Attorney Fees and Sanctions, Authority of Arbitrators, Award Confirmed, Award Vacated, Awards, Choice-of-Law Provisions, Confirm Award | Attorney Fees, Confirm Award | Exceeding Powers, Confirm Award | Manifest Disregard of the Law, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, Exceeding Powers, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Manifest Disregard of the Law, New York Arbitration Law (CPLR Article 75), Practice and Procedure, Vacate Award | 10(a)(4), Vacate Award | Arbitrability, Vacate Award | Attorney Fees, Vacate Award | Exceeding Powers, Vacate Award | Excess of Powers, Vacate Award | Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Vacate Award | Manifest Disregard of the Law, Vacatur Comments Off on Attorney Fees and Arbitrability Addressed by New York Appellate Court
Attorney Fees in Arbitration | TV

In Steyn v. CRTV, LLC (In re Steyn), ____ A.D. 3d ____, 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 5341, at *1 (1st Dep’t July 2, 2019), New York’s Appellate Division, First Department decided a case falling under the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”) that involved two challenges: one to an award of attorney fees on manifest disregard of the law grounds, and the other to an award that a nonsignatory obtained by joining the petitioner’s counterclaim.

The Court rejected the manifest-disregard challenge to the attorney fee award in favor of a signatory to the arbitration agreement, but held that the trial court should have vacated the award made in favor of a nonsignatory (which included both damages and attorney fees).

Background: Attorney Fee and Arbitrability Challenges

Terms and Conditions

The appeal arose out of a contract “dispute between Mark Steyn, a renowned author and television and radio personality, and CRTV, an online television network, currently known as BlazeTV, which features conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck and Phil Robertson.” 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 5341, at *2. We’ll call Steyn the “Host” and CRTV the “Network.”

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Can Arbitrators Exceed their Powers by Making an Award in Manifest Disregard of the Parties’ Agreement?

April 17th, 2019 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Challenging Arbitration Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Contract Interpretation Rules, Exceeding Powers, Grounds for Vacatur, Manifest Disregard of the Agreement, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Outcome Risk, Practice and Procedure, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, United States Supreme Court, Vacatur Comments Off on Can Arbitrators Exceed their Powers by Making an Award in Manifest Disregard of the Parties’ Agreement?
authority

Suppose arbitrators decide an issue within the scope of their authority but do so in manifest disregard the parties’ contract. Do they exceed their authority by making an award that has not even a barely colorable basis in the parties’ contract or in applicable law?

The answer to that question, is, of course, “yes,” and over the years we’ve discussed in a number of posts how arbitrators can exceed their powers under Federal Arbitration Act Section 10(a)(4) or Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act by making awards in manifest disregard of the parties’ agreement. (See Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum Posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) As discussed in those posts, the U.S. Supreme Court has on multiple occasions ruled that commercial and labor arbitrators can exceed their powers by making an award that manifestly disregards—or does not “draw its essence” from—the parties’ agreement. See Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Inc., 130 S.Ct. 1758, 1768-70 (2010); Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S.Ct. 2064, 2067, 2068 (2013); Eastern Associated Coal Corp. v. Mine Workers, 531 U.S. 57, 62 (2000); Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593, 599 (1960); Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987).

In our April 12, 2019 post (here) we reviewed how it is that the limited review powers courts have to vacate commercial and labor arbitration awards are designed to provide a limited, but very important, safety net to protect parties against egregious, material violations of arbitration agreements. Without that limited protection, the risks associated with agreeing to arbitrate would be intolerably high and parties would be much less apt to opt for arbitration over court litigation.

Courts vacate arbitration awards where arbitrators act outside the scope of their authority by ruling on issues that the parties did not agree to submit to them. That’s what happened in Brock Indus. Servs., LLC v. Laborers’ Int’l Union., __ F.3d ___, No. 17-2597, slip op. (7th Cir. April 8, 2019), which we discussed in our April 12, 2019 post here.

But to obtain vacatur of an award based on manifest disregard of the agreement, however, an award challenger must satisfy an exceedingly demanding standard. We’ve addressed the parameters of that standard in a number of other posts. (See, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Our blog has also tried to give a feel for how Courts apply (or are supposed to apply) the standard by comparing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Stolt-Nielsen, which held that an award should be vacated for manifest disregard of the agreement, to the Supreme Court decision in Oxford, which held that an award should not be vacated under that manifest disregard standard. (See Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum posts here, here, and here.) And from time-to-time we’ve reported on other cases that have applied the standard.

While challenges to awards based on manifest disregard of the agreement are not uncommon, a very large majority of those challenges are either virtually certain to fail or at least highly unlikely to succeed. It is a relatively small universe of remaining, close cases that pose the biggest challenges for parties and courts.

Today we’ll look at one of those close cases, which was decided by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and explain why the case failed to satisfy the demanding standard, even though, at least at first glance, it may be difficult to square the arbitration award with the parties’ agreement.

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If an Arbitration Panel Rules on an Issue the Parties did not Agree to Submit to that Panel, Should a Court Vacate the Award?

April 12th, 2019 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Award Vacated, Awards, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, Exceeding Powers, FAA Chapter 3, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Grounds for Vacatur, Practice and Procedure, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Vacatur 2 Comments »

Introduction: Arbitration as a Way to Resolve those Disputes—and Only those Disputes—Parties Submit to Arbitrators

authority


The “first principle” of labor and commercial arbitration law is that “arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion” —put differently, arbitration “is a way to resolve those disputes—but only those disputes—that the parties have agreed to submit to arbitration.” Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 678-80 (2010) (citation and quotations omitted); First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 943 (1995) (citations omitted); Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 561 U.S. 287, 295 & n.7, 294 n.6 (2010); AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U. S. 643, 648 (1986). That first principle is integrally intertwined with “the central or primary purpose of the [Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)][,]” which is “to ensure that  private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 679 (citations and quotations omitted).

What happens if the parties agree to submit one category of disputes to a two-person arbitration panel and to submit another category of disputes to a three-person panel?

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Delegation Provisions: SCOTUS Says Courts Must Compel Arbitration of Even “Wholly-Groundless” Arbitrability Disputes

January 16th, 2019 American Arbitration Association, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Authority of Arbitrators, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Exceeding Powers, Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Stay of Litigation, United States Supreme Court 3 Comments »
Wholly Groundless 1

Arbitrability questions are ordinarily for courts to decide, but parties may, by way of a “delegation provision,” clearly and unmistakably agree to submit them to arbitration. See, e.g., First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 942-46 (1995); Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 130 S. Ct. 2772, 2777 (2010). (See, e.g., Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum posts here, here, and here.)

But suppose parties to a delegation provision disagree about whether they are required to arbitrate a dispute, yet their contract clearly excludes the dispute from arbitration. Can a Court preemptively decide the merits of an arbitrability question delegated to the arbitrators, and refuse to compel arbitration of the arbitrability question, if the Court decides that the argument for arbitration of the underlying dispute is wholly groundless?

Some federal courts have held that a federal court can, despite a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate arbitrability, refuse to compel arbitration of a “wholly groundless” arbitrability question, but others have held that the FAA requires Courts to refer to arbitration even “wholly groundless” arbitrability questions. Compare Simply Wireless, Inc. v. T-Mobile US, Inc., 877 F. 3d 522 (4th Cir. 2017); Douglas v. Regions Bank, 757 F. 3d 460 (5th Cir. 2014); Turi v. Main Street Adoption Servs., LLP, 633 F. 3d 496 (6th Cir. 2011); Qualcomm, Inc. v. Nokia Corp., 466 F. 3d 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2006), with Belnap v. Iasis Healthcare, 844 F. 3d 1272 (10th Cir. 2017); Jones v. Waffle House, Inc., 866 F. 3d 1257 (11th 2017); Douglas, 757 F. 3d, at 464 (Dennis, J., dissenting).

On January 8, 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, held that where parties have clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability disputes, courts must compel arbitration even if the argument in favor of arbitration is “wholly groundless.” Schein v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 586 U.S. ____, slip op. at *2, 5, & 8 (January 8, 2019).

Wholly Groundless Exception 2

The Court said that “[t]he [FAA] does not contain a ‘wholly groundless’ exception, and we are not at liberty to rewrite the statute….” Slip op. at 2; see also slip op. at 8. “When,” said the Court, “the parties’ contract delegates the arbitrability question to an arbitrator, the courts must respect the parties’ decision as embodied in the contract.” Slip op. at 2; see also slip op. at 8. The “wholly groundless” exception, said the Court, “is inconsistent with the statutory text and with precedent[,]” and “confuses the question of who decides arbitrability with the separate question of who prevails on arbitrability.” Slip op. at 8.

Facts and Procedural History

Wholly Groundless Exception 3

Schein was a dispute between a dental equipment manufacturer and a distributor. The parties’ contract contained an arbitration agreement, which required arbitration of “[a]ny dispute arising under or related to [the Parties’] Agreement (except for actions seeking injunctive relief and disputes related to trademarks, trade secrets, or other intellectual property of [the manufacturer]….” Slip op. at 2. Arbitration was to be “in accordance with the arbitration rules of the American Arbitration Association [(the “AAA”)].” Slip op. at 2.

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Eighth Circuit: Arbitrator did not Disregard Parties’ Missouri Choice-of-Law Provision

August 19th, 2018 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Choice-of-Law Provisions, Exceeding Powers, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Manifest Disregard of the Agreement, Manifest Disregard of the Law, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit Comments Off on Eighth Circuit: Arbitrator did not Disregard Parties’ Missouri Choice-of-Law Provision

Introduction

Choice-of-Law Provision 1

Choice-of-Law Provision 1

A choice-of-law provision is as much a part of a parties’ contract as any other, and an arbitrator might manifiestly disregard the parties’ contractual choice-of-law, which might provide grounds for vacating the award under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). But, as well-illustrated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eigth Circuit’s decision in Beumer Corp. v. ProEnergy Servs., LLC, ___ F.3d ____, slip op. (8th Cir. August 8, 2018), the circumstances that might justify such a decision would be very unusual, to say the least.

Beumer Corp. v. ProEnergy Servs., LLC

Choice-of-Law Provision 2

Choice-of-Law Provision 2

Owner and Contractor had a construction contract that contained an arbitration agreement, limitation-of-liability, provision, and a Missouri choice-of-law clause. The Owner complained that the Contractor’s work was deficient and, accordingly, no payment was due. The Contractor commenced arbitration for the amount due under the contract and the Owner counterclaimed for damages.

The parties disputed the scope and enforceability of their contract’s limitation of liability provision, which stated:

Notwithstanding any of the foregoing or any other term in this Contract, the total liability of Contractor for any loss, indemnity, damage or delay of any kind will not under any circumstances exceed 100% of the Contract Sum.

The contract contained a broad Missouri choice-of-law clause, and provided that a prevailing party could collect its attorney’s fees.

The Award

Choice-of-Law Provision 3

Choice-of-Law Provision 3

The Arbitrator ruled that the clause was enforceable, that the Contract Sum (i.e., the liability cap) was $699,702.39., and that the terms “loss, indemnity, damage or delay of any kind” did not include the prevailing party’s contractual right to attorney fees. The Arbitrator thus awarded Beumer: (a) $699,702.39 in damages; (b) $191,680.14 in pre-judgment interest; (c) post-judgment interest at 9%; and (d) $916,027.90 in attorney’s fees and expenses.

On its motion to vacate the Award the Contractor did not dispute that the Arbitrator “arguably construed” the limitation of liability clause, but contended that the Arbitrator exceeded its powers by “disregarding” the Missouri choice-of-law clause, because: (a) the Arbitrator relied on caselaw from four jurisdictions outside of Missouri to support his construction of the limitation of liability provision as exclusive of costs and attorney fees, and did not cite any Missouri decisions on this construction question; and (b) the Contractor claimed that the Missouri cases required a cost-inclusive interpretation of the clause, not a cost-plus one.

The Arbitrator did not Disregard the Choice-of-Law Provision

Choice-of-Law Provision 4

Choice-of-Law Provision 4

Did the Arbitrator exceed his powers by ruling that the limitation of liability clause did not limit liability for contractual attorney fees? The Eighth Circuit, in a well-reasoned decision, said the answer was “no.” Continue Reading »

Appellate Division, Fourth Department Vacates Imperfectly Executed Arbitration Award

August 15th, 2018 Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Exceeding Powers, Imperfectly Executed Award or Powers, Labor Arbitration, New York State Courts Comments Off on Appellate Division, Fourth Department Vacates Imperfectly Executed Arbitration Award

Imperfectly Executed 1

Imperfectly Executed 1

New York Civil Practice Law & Rules (“CPLR”) Section 7511(b)(1)(iii) provides that an arbitration award “shall be vacated” where the arbitrator “so imperfectly executed [the award] that a final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made” CPLR 7511(b)(1)(iii). The Federal Arbitration Act similarly authorizes vacatur “where the arbitrators…so imperfectly executed [their powers] that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.” 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(4).

In Professional, Clerical, Tech. Emps. Ass’n v. Board of Ed. for Buffalo City School Dist., ___ A.D.3d ___, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 04128, at *1 (4th Dep’t June 8, 2018), the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that the trial court erred by confirming a labor arbitration award that did not adequately explain the basis for the compensation to be awarded or how it should be calculated. Continue Reading »

The Fourth Circuit: What Constitutes a Final Award and Who Makes the Call?

August 3rd, 2018 Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Exceeding Powers, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Manifest Disregard of the Agreement, Manifest Disregard of the Law, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit 1 Comment »

Final Award 2 - yay-15399450

Final Award 2

What constitutes a “final arbitration award” for purposes of the Federal Arbitration Act is important because it bears on whether an award can be confirmed, vacated, or modified under Sections 9, 10, or 11 of the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”). We addressed the basics concerning final awards in a 2009 post, here.

In Northfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sprint Communications Co., L.P., 883 F.3d 417 (4th Cir. 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was faced with the question whether an award (the “Appraisal Award”), convened under an agreement’s appraisal clause, and issued by three appraisers, was a final arbitration award under the FAA. The unusual procedural posture of the case raised an additional, related question: whether under the FAA an arbitration panel, convened under the arbitration provision of the parties’ agreement, had the authority to declare the Appraisal Award to be a final award. That question matters, for if an arbitration panel has that power, then its decision concerning finality is subject only to the very highly deferential review permitted by Section 10 of the FAA. See First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 942-43 (1995); Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct.  2064, 2068-69 (2013).

Concededly with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we wonder whether a different litigation and appellate strategy might have yielded a different outcome. The Court held that the Appraisal Award was not final, and remanded the matter back to the appraisers. But the Court did not, for the reasons set forth below, definitively answer the “who” question. The Court’s decision that the Appraisal Award was not final was unquestionably correct if one considers from a purely objective standpoint, without deference to the Arbitration Award, which declared that the Award was final.  But the correct outcome would be considerably less certain had the Railroad sought confirmation of the Arbitration Award and urged the Court to accord deference to the arbitrators who made it.

Background: Northfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Sprint Communications Co., L.P., 883 F.3d 417 (4th Cir. 2018)

Final Award 1 - yay-1618918-digital

Final Award 1

The dispute between Northfolk Southern Railway Co. (the “Railroad” or the “Appraisal Award Defending Party”) and Sprint Communications Co., L.P. (the “Carrier” or the “Appraisal Award Challenging Party”) arose out of a 25-year-term 1987 licensing agreement (the “Agreement”) under which the Carrier’s predecessor licensed from the Railroad’s predecessor the right to use for fiber-optics-cable purposes certain parts of the Railroad’s rights of way. The Carrier renewed that Agreement for an additional 25-year term (the “renewed Agreement term”), and a dispute arose about the renewal price. Continue Reading »

Class Arbitration: Second Circuit in Jock II Rejects Jock I Bootstrapping Bid and Nixes Class Certification Award that Purported to Bind Non-Parties

July 26th, 2017 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Consent to Class Arbitration, Exceeding Powers, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Comments Off on Class Arbitration: Second Circuit in Jock II Rejects Jock I Bootstrapping Bid and Nixes Class Certification Award that Purported to Bind Non-Parties

Arbitration law’s “first principle” is “arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion[,]” and class arbitration is no exception. (See, e.g., here.) In Jock v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., 703 Fed.Appx. 15 (2d Cir. 2017) (summary order), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit enforced that principle by vacating and remanding the district court’s judgment, which confirmed in part a class arbitration class certification award that purported to bind non-parties, that is, persons (other than named class representatives), who had not opted into the putative class.

Because the Second Circuit held in an earlier appeal, Jock v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., 646 F.3d 113, 124 (2d Cir. 2011) (“Jock I”), that the “issue of whether the agreement permitted class arbitration was squarely presented to the Arbitrator,” see id., the district court concluded that holding was law of the case, and confirmed in part an award certifying a class that “included absent class members, i.e., employees other than the named plaintiffs and those who have opted into the class.” 703 Fed. Appx. at 17-18.

Photographer: stuartmilesThe Second Circuit vacated and remanded the judgment partially confirming the certification award because it purported to bind absent class members, who (because of their absence)  could not have “squarely presented’ to the arbitrator the question whether the agreement authorized class procedures, let alone the issue of whether they should be deemed part of a class in a class arbitration to which they had not consented. See 703 Fed. Appx. at 16, 17-18.

While in Jock I the parties had “squarely presented to the arbitrator” the issue of whether the agreement “permitted class arbitration,” Jock I did not address the more “narrow question” “whether an arbitrator, who may decide … whether an arbitration agreement provides for class procedures because the parties `squarely presented’ it for decision, may thereafter purport to bind non-parties to class procedures on this basis.” Id. at 18. The answer to that question is “no”— as Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. suggested in his concurring opinion in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064, 2071-72 (2013) (Alito, J., concurring), and as the Second Circuit confirmed in Jock II. See 703 Fed. Appx. at 16, 17-18.

Photo Acknowledgements:

All photos used in the text portion of this post are licensed from Yay Images and are subject to copyright protection under applicable law. The Yay Images abbreviations of the photographer’s name for each of the two images are:

Image 1: CartoonResource

Image 2: stuartmiles