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Posts Tagged ‘Barely Colorable’

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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Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Do Arbitrators Necessarily Exceed their Powers by Making an Award that Conflicts with the Unambiguous Terms of the Parties’ Agreement?

November 11th, 2014 Appellate Practice, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, New York Court of Appeals, New York State Courts, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Practice and Procedure, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Do Arbitrators Necessarily Exceed their Powers by Making an Award that Conflicts with the Unambiguous Terms of the Parties’ Agreement?

We’ve addressed on many occasions the Enterprise WheelStolt-Nielsen/Oxford contract-based outcome review standard, which permits courts to vacate awards when they do not “draw their essence” from the parties’ agreement. Under that standard the “sole question is whether the arbitrators (even arguably) interpreted the parties’ contract, not whether [they] got its meaning right or wrong.” See Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064, 2068 (2013) (parenthetical in original). (See, e.g.,  Loree Reins. & Arb. L. F. posts here, here, here, here, here & here.)

While exceedingly deferential, the standard is not toothless. Arbitration awards that disregard or contravene the clear and unmistakable terms of a contract are subject to vacatur under it. See Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 676 (panel had “no occasion to ascertain the parties’ intention in the present case because the parties were in complete agreement regarding their intent.”) (quotation omitted); United Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987) (“The arbitrator may not ignore the plain language of the contract. . . .”). That’s because an arbitrator who makes an award that lacks “any contractual basis” has not even arguably interpreted the contract, and therefore has strayed from his or her task. See Oxford, 133 S. Ct. at 2069 (distinguishing Stolt-Nielsen); Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 668-69, 672; Misco, 484 U.S. at 38.

An arbitrator whose award contradicts the unambiguous provisions of the parties’ contract may—but will not necessarily—exceed her powers. The answer depends on what the agreement says, what the award says and whether the award is at least arguably grounded in the agreement.

Whether or not a contract or contract term is “ambiguous” depends on whether it is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning. See, e.g., White v. Continental Cas. Co., 9 N.Y.3d 264, 267 (2007); Greenfield v. Philles Records, 98 N.Y.2d 562, 570-71 (2002). When a contract is unambiguous, a court can interpret it as a matter of law; if it is ambiguous, its meaning is a question of fact for trial.

Can the Interpretation of the Arbitrators be “Unreasonable,” yet still Colorable or Plausible?

The legal standard for lack of ambiguity is that there be only one “reasonable” interpretation of the contract terms, not that there are no other at least barely plausible or barely colorable interpretations of what the contract might mean. In probably the majority of contract interpretation cases concerning alleged contract ambiguity, each litigant supports its position with good-faith, reasonable arguments for why the disputed contract terms are allegedly susceptible to one or more than one meaning. Whenever courts determine that a contract is unambiguous, that conclusion necessarily means that the losing party’s interpretation of the contract is unreasonable as a matter of law. Continue Reading »