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Posts Tagged ‘Class Arbitration Waivers’

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 1 Comment »
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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Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Posner Weighs in on Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration

May 23rd, 2015 Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Class Action Waivers, Contract Interpretation, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Labor Arbitration, Practice and Procedure, Presumption of Arbitrability, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Posner Weighs in on Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration

Introduction

Ronald v. Sprint Spectrum L.P., No. 14-3478, slip op. (7th Cir. May 11, 2015) (Posner, J.)

Ronald v. Sprint Spectrum L.P., No. 14-3478, slip op. (7th Cir. May 11, 2015) arose out of a class action lawsuit brought in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois by a putative class of mobile phone customers—represented by Mr. and Ms. Andermann (the “Andermanns”)—against Sprint, which sought damages for alleged violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227.

Sprint moved to compel arbitration, but the district court denied its motion. Sprint appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit as authorized by 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1)(B). The Seventh Circuit, in an opinion written by Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner, and joined in by Circuit Judge Diane S. Sykes and Chief District Court Judge Philip P. Simon of the Northern District of Indiana (sitting by designation), reversed and remanded with instructions to compel arbitration.

The Sprint Spectrum facts; the legal rules and principles that determined the outcome; and the outcome itself were not controversial.  Had the court limited its task to applying the material facts to the applicable law, then the case likely would not have warranted a reported opinion.

But occasionally appellate judges, particularly ones as prominent, skilled and engaged as Judge Posner, will use a case like Sprint to make a point in passing that might influence other judges in the future and perhaps provide valuable information to attorneys and their clients. Judge Posner, with the apparent blessing of the other two judges, used the case to make a couple of points, one purely legal, the other bearing on both the law and, and at least to some extent, on matters pertinent to court administration.

The purely legal issue concerned the  proper scope and practical significance of the federal policy in favor of arbitration, which a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Posner and some other judges apparently believe lawyers and judges may misunderstand or misinterpret. In Sprint Spectrum Judge Posner, in dictum, raises the topic and shares some important insights about it.

The hybrid legal and judicial administration point concerned his view of the merits of the underlying Telephone Consumer Protection Act dispute.  While the Court acknowledged that it was for the arbitrators to decide the merits, it nevertheless explained why it believed the claim would likely fail, whether in arbitration or in court.

Sprint Spectrum: Background

yay-985888-digital---CopyIn 2000 the Andermanns entered into a two-year renewable mobile-phone service contract with U.S. Cellular, which was renewed continuously, and for the last time in 2012. The contract contained an arbitration agreement requiring arbitration of “any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this agreement.” The parties agreed that the obligation to arbitrate would “survive[] the termination of [the] [mobile phone] service agreement[,]” and that “U.S. Cellular may assign this Agreement without notice to” the customer.

In 2013 U.S. Cellular sold the contract to Sprint, and notified the Andermanns of the sale in a letter sent months later. The letter informed the Andermanns that their service would be terminated effective January 2014  because of a compatibility problem between the Andermann’s mobile phone and the Sprint network. The letter explained that the Andermanns would have to obtain a new cell phone or find a new carrier, but “that Sprint was offering attractive substitutes for the terminated service,” and, if interested, the customer should contact Sprint by telephone. See slip op. at 2.

In December Sprint phoned the Andermanns to remind them that their service was about to expire, and added that Sprint had “a great set of offers and devices available to fit [their] needs.'” Slip op. at 3. Sprint called each of three members of the Andermann family twice (a total of six calls), but by the time the calls were made, the Andermanns had obtained cell phone service from another carrier.

yay-10331162-digitalThe Andermanns did not answer any of the six calls, except by commencing a class action lawsuit against Sprint, which contended that the unsolicited calls violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Sprint moved to compel arbitration, contending that the dispute arose out of and related to the contract renewed in 2012. Even though that contract was between U.S. Cellular and the Andermanns, U.S. Cellular had, as permitted by the contract, assigned its rights to Sprint, who had now stepped into U.S. Cellular’s shoes under the contract.

The Seventh Circuit’s Decision

The district court denied Sprint’s motion because its contract with the Andermanns had terminated prior to the allegedly offending telephone calls at issue in the lawsuit. The district court reasoned that the dispute did  not arise out of or relate to the terminated agreement.

But the Court  said “[a]ctually, there’s an intimate relation” between the dispute and the contract. “The contract,” said the Court, authorized an assignment, and because of the incompatibility of the assignor’s (U.S. Cellular’s) cellphones and the assignee’s (Sprint’s) mobile phone network, Sprint had had to terminate the U.S. Cellular customers, such as the Andermanns, whom it had acquired by virtue of the assignment.  .  .  .” Slip op. 4. Sprint made the calls, and “offer[red] substitute service[]”  “to prevent the loss of.  .  .  customers because of the incompatibility.  .  .  .” Slip op. at 4.

yay-10348120-digitalThe Andermanns attempted to support their argument by offering an “untenable interpretation” of Smith v. Steinkamp, 318 F.3d 775, 777 (7th Cir. 2003). See Slip op. at 4. Steinkamp explained “‘absurd results’ would ensue if the arising from and relating to provisions contained in a payday loan agreement defining what disputes would have to arbitrated rather than litigated, were cut free from the loan and applied to a subsequent payday loan agreement that did not contain those provisions.” Slip op. at 4-5 (quoting Steinkamp, 318 F.3d at 777).

The Andermanns argued that Steinkamp suggested that the same type of “absurd results” would ensue under the facts of this case. But Steinkamp, explained the Court, “is not this case[,]” which concerns a single contract containing an arbitration agreement, not two successive contracts, one with an arbitration agreement and one without an arbitration agreement. See slip op. at 5.

yay-2220659-digitalWhile the Andermanns received a mild (and perhaps well-deserved) rebuke, Sprint’s argument prompted the verbal version of a roll of the eyes coupled with a quiet sigh—not so much because there was anything really wrong with the argument, but presumably because it overstated the importance of the federal policy in favor of arbitration. But that gave Judge Posner an opportunity to make a somewhat subtle, but important point.

The Court  said “Sprint gilds the lily, however, in telling us that arbitration is a darling of federal policy, that there is a presumption in favor of it, that ambiguities in an arbitration clause should be resolved in favor of arbitration, and on and on in this vein.” Slip op. at 5. “It’s true,” said the Court, “that such language (minus the “darling”) appears in numerous cases.” Slip op. at 5 (citations omitted): “But the purpose of that language is to make clear, as had seemed necessary because of judges’ historical hostility to arbitration, that arbitration was no longer to be disfavored — especially in labor cases, see, e.g., Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 561 U.S. 287, 298­-99 (2010), where arbitration is now thought a superior method of dispute resolution to litigation.” Slip op. at 5.

Noting that “[t]he Federal Arbitration Act is inapplicable to labor disputes,  .  .  . and merely makes clauses providing for the arbitration of disputes arising out of transactions involving interstate or foreign commerce.  .  . enforceable in federal and state courts[,]” the Court said it was “not clear that arbitration, which can be expensive because of the high fees charged by some arbitrators and which fails to create precedents to guide the resolution of future disputes, should [in commercial cases] be preferred to litigation.” Slip op. at 5-6. Continue Reading »

Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter—SCOTUS Reaffirms FAA Section 10(a)(4) Manifest Disregard of the Agreement Outcome Review Standard and Elaborates on Its Scope: Part II.C

August 19th, 2013 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Consolidation of Arbitration Proceedings, Contract Interpretation, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Practice and Procedure, Unconscionability, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter—SCOTUS Reaffirms FAA Section 10(a)(4) Manifest Disregard of the Agreement Outcome Review Standard and Elaborates on Its Scope: Part II.C

Part II.C

Does Oxford Portend Judicial Reconsideration of

Whether Class-Arbitration Consent is a Question of Arbitrability?      

In Stolt-Nielsen and Oxford the parties voluntarily submitted the class-arbitration-consent question to arbitrators because a four-Justice plurality ruled in Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444 (2003), that the class-arbitration-consent issue was not a question of arbitrability for the court to decide.   While “courts assume that the parties intended courts, not arbitrators” to decide certain “gateway matters, such as whether the parties have a valid arbitration agreement at all or whether a concededly binding arbitration clause applies to a certain type of controversy,” the Court found that the issue did not fall into “this narrow exception.” 539 U.S. at 452 (citations omitted).  According to the Court, “the relevant question . . . is what kind of arbitration proceeding the parties agreed to:”

That question does not concern a state statute or judicial procedures. It concerns contract interpretation and arbitration procedures. Arbitrators are well situated to answer that question. Given these considerations, along with the arbitration contracts’ sweeping language concerning the scope of the questions committed to arbitration, this matter of contract interpretation should be for the arbitrator, not the courts, to decide.

539 U.S. at 452-53 (citations omitted).

Bazzle was well received by the lower courts, and even though it was only a plurality opinion, many courts, parties and practitioners apparently thought that the arbitrability of consent-to-class-arbitration was a foregone conclusion after Bazzle even though the plurality’s rationale was endorsed by only four justices – a hat-tip to Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s clearly and persuasively written plurality opinion. Some also apparently thought that Associate Justice John Paul Stevens’ concurring opinion was, for all intents and purposes, an endorsement of the plurality’s rationale, and that accordingly, Bazzle established precedent binding on the lower courts.

In 2003, prompted in part by Bazzle, the American Arbitration Association promulgated its Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitrations, Rule 3 of which directs the arbitrator or panel to “determine as a threshold matter, in a reasoned, partial, final award on the construction of the arbitration clause, whether the applicable arbitration clause permits the arbitration to proceed on behalf of or against a class.  .  .  .”  AAA Supplementary Rules, Rule 3.  The “Clause Construction” awards in Stolt-Nielsen and Oxford were made under Rule 3 of the AAA Supplementary Rules.

In light of Bazzle and the AAA Supplementary Rules, class-arbitration-consent-related disputes in cases where the relevant arbitration agreements did not expressly prohibit class arbitration – e.g., cases not involving class-arbitration waivers – were generally submitted to arbitration, usually pursuant to the AAA Supplementary Rules.  Most of the class-arbitration-related litigation concerned challenges to class arbitration waivers, rather than the arbitrability of class-arbitration-consent-related issues.

But Stolt-Nielsen explained that Bazzle did not establish binding precedent on any issue—including class-arbitration-consent arbitrability—because it “did not yield a majority decision.  .  .  .” See Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1772.  The Court said that “[u]nfortunately the opinions in Bazzle appear to have baffled the parties in this case at the time of the arbitration proceeding[,]” because “[f]or one thing, the parties appear to have believed that the judgment in Bazzle requires an arbitrator, not a court, to decide whether a contract permits class arbitration.”  Stolt-Nielsen, 130 S. Ct. at 1772 (citation omitted).  The Court did “not revisit that [allocation of decision-making power] question [in Stolt-Nielsen] because the parties’ supplemental agreement expressly assigned this issue to the arbitration panel, and no party argues that this assignment was impermissible.”  Id.

The Court underscored that same point in Oxford, noting 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,’” an issue “Stolt-Nielsen made clear that [the Supreme Court] has not yet decided.  .  .  .”  Oxford, Slip op. at 4 n.2.    But Oxford gave the Court “no opportunity to do so because Oxford agreed that the arbitrator should determine whether its contract with Sutter authorized class procedures.”  Id Oxford submitted the issue to arbitration “not once but twice—and the second time after Stolt-Nielsen flagged that it might be a question of arbitrability.”  Id. Continue Reading »

United States Law Week Quotes Philip J. Loree Jr. Comments on Fensterstock

August 4th, 2010 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on United States Law Week Quotes Philip J. Loree Jr. Comments on Fensterstock

Last week I was interviewed by Tom P. Taylor, a reporter for The United States Law Week, about the Fensterstock v. Education Finance Partners, No. 09-1562-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. July 12, 2010), class-action waiver case (blogged here).  Yesterday, Tom’s excellent article on Fensterstock was published in 79 U.S.L.W. 1111 (Aug. 3, 2010) (BNA), and he quoted some of my comments in it. 

U.S. Law Week is a subscription only publication, but I received permission from the Bureau of National Affairs (“BNA”) to post a copy of the article on my LinkedIn profile.  So, if you are a member of Linkedin, you can access a copy of the article here (it does not appear in my “public” LinkedIn profile).

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Tom P. Taylor for conducting a very professional interview and following up with a very professional article.  We would also like to thank Bernard J. Pazanowski, who co-authored the article with Tom.

What to Make of the Second Circuit Voiding a Class Action Waiver Under California’s Discover Bank Rule?

July 23rd, 2010 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, California State Courts, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Practice and Procedure, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on What to Make of the Second Circuit Voiding a Class Action Waiver Under California’s Discover Bank Rule?

After deciding Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds, Inc. and Rent-A-Center West v. Jackson, the United States Supreme Court left federal arbitration law at a crossroads.  In both cases the Court adhered quite faithfully to its prior Federal Arbitration Act jurisprudence, under which it enforces arbitration agreements according to their terms, without regard to other considerations.  In Rent-A-Center the Court implicitly reaffirmed that these pro-enforcement rules apply equally to contracts of adhesion. 

We will find out whether the Court intends to continue down the same path when it decides AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion next term, a case that raises the question whether California’s Discover Bank  unconscionability rule is pre-empted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  That rule deems unconscionable under California law class-action or class-arbitration waivers where:  (a) “the waiver is found in a consumer contract of adhesion in a setting in which the disputes between the contracting parties predictably involve small amounts of damages”; and (b) “it is alleged that the party with the superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money.  .  .  .”  Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal. 4th 148, 162-63 (2005) (citing Cal. Civ. Code § 1668). 

The Discover Bank rule is grounded in a California-law principle – embodied in Cal. Civ. Code § 1668 – that “contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud.  .  .  are against the policy of the law.”   See Cal. Civ. Code § 1668.  If a company is allegedly engaging in fraudulent acts designed to cheat numerous consumers out of small amounts of money, a class action or class arbitration waiver may, if enforced, effectively act as an exculpatory provision that insulates the company from the consequences of its small scale, but widespread fraud, because the individual, allegedly defrauded consumers have little incentive to pursue separate actions or arbitrations to recoup trivial amounts of damages.  See Discover Bank, 36 Cal. 4th at 162-63.  Any contract that had that effect – whether it is a class action waiver in an arbitration clause, an exculpatory agreement or a contract that simply forbids class actions  — would be unconscionable under the rule.  

In Fensterstock v. Education Finance Partners, No. 09-1562-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. July 12, 2010), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit suggested one path that the United States Supreme Court might take on Discover Bank preemption.  In an interesting opinion, Senior Circuit Judge Amalya Lyle Kearse, joined by Circuit Judges José A. Cabranes and Chester J. Straub, held that the Discover Bank rule was not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  According to the Second Circuit, California’s  Discover Bank rule “’places arbitration agreements on the exact same footing as contracts that bar class action litigation outside the context of arbitration,’” and for that reason the rule is not preempted by the Act.  Slip op. at 16-17 (quoting Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Serv., Inc., 498 F.3d 976, 990 (9th Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original)). 

On first blush the Second Circuit’s decision seems reasonable.  But there are some important issues lurking beneath the surface that the Supreme Court will need to address when it decides AT&T MobilityContinue Reading »