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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 »