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Does the Presumption of Arbitrability Apply if a Contract Contains two Broad, Overlapping Forum Selection Clauses, one for Arbitration and one for Litigation?

June 7th, 2015 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Contract Interpretation, Contract Interpretation Rules, FAA Preemption of State Law, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Moses Cone Principle, Presumption of Arbitrability, Stay of Litigation, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Comments Off on Does the Presumption of Arbitrability Apply if a Contract Contains two Broad, Overlapping Forum Selection Clauses, one for Arbitration and one for Litigation?

Introduction

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Back in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark decision Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24-25 (1983) (Brennan, J.), famously declared that “[t]he [Federal] Arbitration Act establishes that, as a matter of federal law, any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration, whether the problem at hand is the construction of the contract language itself or an allegation of waiver, delay, or a like defense to arbitrability.” Moses Cone thus established that there was a presumption in favor of arbitrability in cases governed by the Federal Arbitration Act, a conclusion that a number of other lower courts had previously reached, and which the Court had adopted about 23 years previously as a matter of federal labor law derived from Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (sometimes referred to as the “Taft-Hartley Act”). See United Steel Workers of Am. v. Warrier & Gulf Nav. Co., 363 U.S. 574, 582-83 (1960) (Douglas, J.) (“An order to arbitrate the particular grievance should not be denied unless it may be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute. Doubts should be resolved in favor of coverage.”)

The presumption of arbitrability is not a talismanic solution to every arbitration-law related problem. In fact it is designed to address only questions about the scope of an arbitration agreement.

The presumption has two related components. First, when courts construe the scope provision of an arbitration agreement to determine what merits-related issues the parties agreed to arbitrate, the court resolves ambiguities in favor of arbitration.  See, e.g., Mastrobuono v. Shearson Lehman Hutton, Inc., 514 U.S. 52, 62 (1995). Second, it presumes that procedural issues arising out of arbitrable disputes, and contract-related defenses to arbitrability—that is, “allegation[s] of waiver, delay and like defenses to arbitrability[,]” are presumptively for the arbitrator. See Moses Cone, 460 U.S. at 24-25; Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 84 (2002).

Roughly ten days ago, in a post about U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner’s Sprint Spectrum decision, we wrote about how some judges have interpreted the presumption too expansively:

The federal policy in favor of arbitration has, at least arguably, been interpreted to apply more expansively than the U.S. Supreme Court likely intended. As a result, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has said many times that arbitration is supposed to be a “matter of contract,” or one of “consent not coercion,” an overly expansive interpretation of the policy has, at least in some cases, arguably resulted in arbitration agreements being placed on a considerably more advantaged footing than ordinary contracts. As we read it, Judge Posner’s comment in Roughneck raises the question whether this might have more to do with “limit[ing] judicial workloads” than a desire to enforce contracts as written and according to their terms.

(Read our Sprint Spectrum post here.)

With all the hoopla about the presumption of arbitrability, one would think it very difficult to find a case that didn’t apply the presumption of arbitrability in a situation where it was supposed to apply it. In general that’s probably true, but on June 2, 2015 the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington proved that truth is not a universal one.

In Scolari v. Elliot Rust Co., No. C15-5163 (BHS), slip op. (W.D. Wash. June 2, 2015) the court considered whether ambiguity created by apparently conflicting forum selections clauses: one arbitral and two judicial. While the Court’s reasoning indicated that it considered the issue before it one of contract interpretation—the resolution of ambiguity—it nevertheless held that the ambiguity had to be resolved against the drafter of the contract, which the district court thought Washington law required, rather than in favor of arbitration, which was what federal law required. While it apparently recognized that application of the presumption, rather than a state-law contra proferentem rule, would have required the court to stay the litigation, it nevertheless denied the requested stay of litigation, concluding that the issue before it concerned the enforceability of the arbitration agreement, rather than an interpretation of its scope.

The net effect of the ruling was for the district court to implicitly have found that a judicial forum selection clause trumped an arbitral one, simply because they overlapped in scope, and that accordingly the arbitral forum selection clause was not enforceable. There was no legal basis for such a finding and the district court cited none.

The seriousness of the error was compounded by the district court’s acknowledgement that the arbitration proponent had advanced a reasonable interpretation of the arbitration agreement and judicial forum selection clauses, which harmonized them, and would have allowed arbitration to proceed, with the district court staying its hand in the interim. Instead of adopting that interpretation, it said that the arbitration challenger’s interpretation was likewise “reasonable,” but the court did not say what the challenger’s interpretation was, and given the disposition of the case, we assume that the “interpretation” was that the parties must not have intended to include a concededly existing and valid arbitration agreement in their agreement. But that interpretation not only ignored the presumption of arbitrability, but the general rule of contract interpretation that one contract provision not be construed to negate another.

We do not know whether the arbitration proponent preserved the argument for appeal, but there was another ground for a stay of litigation in this case that would have bypassed the issue of the presumption of arbitrability. The arbitration agreement contained a delegation clause, which clearly and unmistakably required the parties to submit to arbitration all disputes about arbitrability. Because there was no dispute about the existence or validity of the delegation clause, the Court should have held that the resolution of the apparent conflict between arbitral and judicial forum selection clauses was a question for the arbitrators.

If the arbitration proponent decides to appeal the decision, we hope that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will correct these errors without delay, so that the parties can arbitrate their disputes, which is, after all, what they agreed to do.

Background

yay-12775922-digitalScolari v. Elliot Rust Co., No. C15-5163 (BHS), slip op. (W.D. Wash. June 2, 2015), arose out of the purchase, sale, termination and buyback of an interest in a limited liability company. Effective January 1, 2013 the plaintiff (the “Buyer”) purchased a ten-percent ownership interest in  Elliot Rust Companies, LLC (the “LLC”), the purchase and sale of which was governed by a “Grant Agreement” executed by the parties “according to the terms of [an] Amended and Restated LLC Agreement of Elliot Rust Companies, LLC dated January 1, 2013.” Both agreements were apparently part of the same transaction and were entered into at or about the same time.

The Buyer and LLC were the only parties to the Grant Agreement, which provided that the Buyer would acquire its 10% interest “according to the terms of the terms of the Amended and Restated LLC Agreement of Elliot Rust Companies, LLC dated January 1, 2013

The Grant Agreement provided, among other things, that:

[Scolari] understands, acknowledges and agrees that, upon execution of this Grant Agreement and the joinder to the LLC Agreement, [Scolari] shall, without further action or deed, thereupon be bound by the LLC Agreement, as it may thereafter be restated or amended, as though a direct signatory thereto.

It contained a “jurisdiction” clause that stipulated Washington law as governing and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington as the exclusive judicial forum:

Governing Law: Jurisdiction. This Grant Agreement and the transaction contemplated hereby shall be governed by and construed according to the laws of the state of Washington. With respect to any dispute arising out of or related to this Grant Agreement or the LLC Agreement, the parties hereby consent to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. . . .

yay-1916763-digitalThe LLC Agreement, unlike the Grant Agreement, contained a broad arbitration agreement, which said:

Arbitration. All disputes, claims or controversies relating to this Agreement that are not resolved by mediation shall be submitted to final and binding arbitration. . . . Questions or arbitrability or the scope of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate shall be determined by the arbitrator.

But like the Grant Agreement, the LLC Agreement also contained a jurisdiction and venue clause:

Jurisdiction and Venue. Any suit involving any dispute or matter arising under this Agreement may only be brought in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington or the Superior Court of Pierce County. All Members hereby consent to the exercise of personal jurisdiction by any such court with respect to any such proceeding.

The LLC terminated the plaintiff on November 6, 2014, and on December 15, 2014 offered to buy plaintiff’s 10% interest out for $158,882.60. The plaintiff refused the offer one week later, claiming that he did not believe it to be accurately valued.

yay-13760132Unable to agree a resolution the plaintiff filed suit in March 2015, requesting a judgment declaring he has a 20% interest in the profits of the LLC, and equitable relief.

The LLC moved on April 3, 2015 to dismiss for improper venue or to stay the action pending arbitration under Section 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act pending arbitration. The Court denied the motion.

The District Court’s Analysis and Conclusions

The Court began its analysis by acknowledging that its “role” was confined “‘to determining (1) whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists and, if it does, (2) whether the agreement encompasses the dispute at issue.’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting Chiron Corp. v. Ortho Diagnostic Sys., Inc., 207 F.3d 1126, 1130 (9th Cir. 2000)). If the arbitration proponent establishes that the answers to both questions are “yes,” then, said the Court, the Court must “‘enforce the arbitration in accordance with its terms.’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting 207 F.3d at 1130). And in discussing the standard applicable to question (2), the Court, playing homage to the strong presumption in favor of arbitration, said “‘any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration. . . .’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting 207 F.3d at 1131).

So far, so good. But having accurately stated the governing rules, the Court inexplicably failed to heed them. Continue Reading »

Gateway Keeping: The Third Circuit Joins the Sixth in Holding that Courts get to Decide whether Parties Consented to Class Arbitration

August 28th, 2014 American Arbitration Association, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Consent to Class Arbitration, Consolidation of Arbitration Proceedings, Drafting Arbitration Agreements, Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Practice and Procedure, Stay of Litigation, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Gateway Keeping: The Third Circuit Joins the Sixth in Holding that Courts get to Decide whether Parties Consented to Class Arbitration

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 »

First Circuit Considers Whether an Arbitration Clause is Mandatory or Optional: PowerShare, Inc. v. Syntel, Inc.

March 5th, 2010 Arbitrability, Stay of Litigation, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit 1 Comment »

Not all arbitration agreements are mandatory.  Strange as it may seem, some are optional. 

In PowerShare, Inc. v. Syntel, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, No. 09-1625, slip op. (1st Cir. Mar. 1, 2010) the Court addressed a claim that the following arbitration clause was optional:

 All disputes, controversies and claims directly or indirectly arising out of or in relation to this Agreement or the validity, interpretation, performance, breach, enforceability of the Agreement (collectively referred to as “Dispute”) shall be resolved amicably between Syntel and PowerShare at an operational level in consultation with the top management of both companies.  If any such Dispute cannot be resolved, as stated above, the same shall be settled in accordance with the principles and procedures of the American Arbitration Association and per the decision of an accredited arbitrator acceptable to both parties.  Nothing in this clause shall prejudice Syntel or PowerShare’s right to seek injunctive relief or any other equitable/legal relief or remedies available under law.

A dispute arose under the parties’ contract, and PowerShare commenced an action in the Federal District  Court in Massachusetts.  Syntel moved for a stay under Federal Arbitration Act Section 3.  PowerShare said the arbitration agreement was optional, a Magistrate Judge denied the motion for a stay, and the District Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge’s order.  

The key question before the First Circuit  was whether the Magistrate Judge’s finding that the clause was optional was contrary to law.  The First Circuit reversed, finding that the arbitration clause was mandatory.   (The First Circuit also answered a question about the standard of review under which a district court should review a Magistrate Judge’s decision on a motion to stay litigation under Section 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act, but we need not dwell on that.)   

The crux of the Magistrate Judge’s order, and PowerShare’s position on appeal,  was the last sentence of the arbitration clause:  “[n]othing in this clause shall prejudice Syntel or PowerShare’s right to seek injunctive relief or any other equitable/legal relief or remedies available under law.”  The Magistrate Judge read that as preserving a party’s right to seek a jury trial in the event of a dispute — notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the arbitration clause —  because a jury trial is a “remedy” “under law.” 

But the First Circuit disagreed.  According to the First Circuit, the parties’ choice-of-law clause required application of the laws of the United States, which the parties agreed brought into play federal common and statutory law.  Under federal common law, “courts must be guided by commonsense rules of contract construction,” and one of those rules is that “an interpretation which gives effect to all the terms of a contract is preferable to one that harps on isolated provisions, heedless of context.”  (citations and quotation omitted) 

The Court reasoned that interpreting the third sentence as making arbitration optional would be to negate the mandatory nature of the second sentence:  

 [PowerShare’s].  .  .  interpretation cannot be reconciled with the unvarnished language of Paragraph 18’s second sentence.  That sentence states explicitly that disputes between the parties “shall” be settled through arbitration.  The word “shall” denotes obligation, not choice; therefore, accepting PowerShare’s interpretation of the third sentence would drain the second sentence of its essential meaning.  Put bluntly, the word “shall” in the second sentence would be rendered nugatory were we to read the arbitration provision as creating nothing more than an option.  That PowerShare’s interpretation of Paragraph 18 would negate the obvious meaning of the second sentence is a powerful argument against accepting that interpretation.  (citations and quotations omitted). 

The Court concluded that the only “plausible interpretation” of the arbitration clause that gave effect to the “plain meaning” of the second sentence  was that “the second sentence mandates arbitration and the third sentence furnishes the arbitrator with broad legal and equitable powers should either party seek special kinds of relief (say, an injunction).”  

The Court based its decision solely on contract interpretation principles without deciding whether the federal presumption of arbitrability applied.  The presumption of arbitrability requires ambiguities concerning the “scope” of an arbitration clause to be resolved in favor of arbitration.  PowerShare argued that the presumption did not apply where, as here, the question was not the scope of an arbitration clause, but whether a mandatory arbitration clause existed in the first place.