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Archive for February, 2010

Professor Aaron Bruhl’s Analysis of Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson (No. 09-497)

February 24th, 2010 Arbitrability, Authority of Arbitrators, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Professor Aaron Bruhl’s Analysis of Rent-A-Center, West v. Jackson (No. 09-497)

Professor Aaron Bruhl, an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, recently published in PrawfsBlawg a thought-provoking and insightful article on Rent-A-Center West v. Jackson (No. 09-497).  (Post here)  Regular readers no doubt remember that the United States Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Rent-A-Center, and will be hearing argument on April 26, 2010.  (See our prior posts here and here).

Professor Bruhl points out that, in addition to being of interest to those practicing employment, consumer or plain old arbitration law, Rent-A-Center “is just as interesting for those who study federal courts and judicial politics.”   He reminds us that one of the few remaining “safety valves” for challenging arbitration agreements is unconscionability:     

In the last few years, as other routes for challenging arbitration have been closed off, unconscionability has become a surprisingly common and surprisingly effective way of attacking arbitration agreements.  The challenges do not attack arbitration per se – federal law favors arbitration – but instead target various aspects of a particular arbitration process:  a given clause might forbid class arbitrations, bar punitive damages or otherwise restrict remedies, sharply curtail discovery, require a consumer to pay hefty arbitrator’s fees, etc.  There have been many cases on these topics in recent years, and a good number of them sustain the challenge to the arbitration clause.

He notes that the United States Supreme Court has consistently denied certiorari in cases where lower courts have invalidated arbitration agreements on state-law unconscionability grounds and the question is whether the invalidation offended the Federal Arbitration Act.  He suspects “the Court has avoided these cases because it feels ill-equipped to resolve whether a lower court is discriminating against arbitration:” 

First, unconscionability analysis often requires a fact-intensive inquiry.  Second, and more important, determining whether a lower court is using unconscionability differently when it comes to arbitration requires an engagement with the details of state law and a comparison of lots of prior unconscionability cases.  Third, and maybe most important of all, a holding that the lower court is applying unconscionability unfairly, especially when the lower court says it is applying the same analysis it applies elsewhere, carries with it some serious expressive baggage.  Essentially, it requires the Supreme Court to say that the lower court is being dishonest.  That happens, but when it does so, it is a big deal (think cases like Bush v. Gore or the cases from the 50s/60s rejecting supposed procedural defaults in the state courts).

 But the Court granted certiorari in Rent-A-Center, a case involving not the merits of a state law unconscionability challenge, but the question who gets to decide unconscionability when the parties clearly and unmistakably submit it to the arbitrators.  Professor Bruhl believes certiorari was granted because addressing the “who” question, and resolving it in favor of arbitration, will cleanly dispose of the unconscionability problem from the standpoint of the federal courts, at least in cases where the parties clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate arbitrability: 

That doesn’t require diving into the weeds of state law and the record. If the Court assigns the issue to the arbitrator, that will be a very easy rule to monitor for compliance (unlike deciding whether the lower court applied unconscionability correctly).  All of those unconscionability cases out there will instantly become not wrong but irrelevant – because courts won’t be deciding the issue anymore.  And it won’t matter whether some lower courts can be trusted to apply unconscionability correctly, because they will be cut out of the picture. Continue Reading »

The LinkedIn Commercial and Industry Arbitration Group is 600 Members Strong!

February 23rd, 2010 ADR Social Media, Commercial and Industry Arbitration and Mediation Group, Mediation Comments Off on The LinkedIn Commercial and Industry Arbitration Group is 600 Members Strong!

On May 21, 2009 Disputing and the Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum announced the formation of the LinkedIn Commercial and Industry Arbitration and Mediation Group (post available here), an open forum for the discussion of industry and commercial ADR.   At that time the group was 29 members strong, and if someone had told me that there was even a chance the group might reach the 600 member mark in a year or less, then I probably would have had second thoughts about that person’s grasp of reality.   But I would have been dead wrong, because today the group reached the 600 member mark after being in existence for approximately nine months.  And we expect it will continue to grow.       

Some LinkedIn groups are a little dull, featuring little or no meaningful discussion and plenty of shameless self promotion.  But this group is a lively one that enjoys debating issues and sharing information and experiences.  Discussions have been frequent and spirited, the group is internationally and professionally diverse, and group members have access to several ADR blog feeds, as well as articles posted by other group members.  It is an excellent networking and learning opportunity for anyone interested in commercial and industry ADR.

Membership in the group is recommended to those interested in keeping abreast of current events pertinent to arbitration (including consumer and international arbitration), tracking judicial and legislative developments relevant to arbitration law, learning more about the subject, or simply sharing information.  We are proud to have as members a number of commercial and industry arbitrators, attorneys, law professors, industry people and arbitration professionals.   

Membership is also recommended if you are a mediator, a business person who utilizes mediation to resolve disputes, an attorney who represent clients in mediation or a person interested in learning about mediation or sharing information on the subject.  The group’s membership features a number of highly-accomplished mediators, dispute resolution professionals, and ADR bloggers and professors.  Not being a mediator myself, I have learned much about mediation simply through group discussions.      

We welcome new members.  The group is not a forum for, and does not permit, advertising or blatant self-promotion, so our members need not be concerned about being subject to sales pitches, and the like. 

If you are already a member of LinkedIn, please click here to apply for membership in the group. If you are not a LinkedIn member, click here, and you will be guided through the process of creating a profile (which does not need to be completed in one step).  Once your profile is started, and you have a log-in name and password, you can apply for membership in the group (which entails no more than clicking on a button).  Joining LinkedIn is free, as is joining the group. 

We hope you’ll join up!

Diane Levin’s Mediation Channel Reminds Us to Blog Responsibly

February 19th, 2010 ADR Social Media, Reinsurance Social Media 3 Comments »

Diane Levin’s blog, Mediation Channel recently posted “Blog responsibly:  a public service reminder for dispute resolution bloggers,”  in which she recommends that ADR bloggers to follow three important rules: 

1.  Create good content.

2.  Be social.

3.  Don’t plagiarize. 

This sage advice applies not only to ADR blogging, but to serious blogging in general.  And Diane’s Mediation Channel is a fine example of a blog that sticks to these important principles. 

Diane was also kind enough to mention the Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum — along with several other, excellent ADR blogs — as “examples of [blogs that] .  .  .  make the ADR blogosphere a great neighborhood to hang out in,” and which “consistently honor[]” her three principles of responsible blogging.   We were, of course, flattered by this mention, and thank Diane for her support of not only our blog, but of the many other great ADR blogs with whom we are honored to keep company.

Diane’s comments made me reflect on the question whether there is a cohesive reinsurance blogging community in place, and, if not, what we could do to help foster one.  There is unquestionably a very social and accomplished group of bloggers that cover ADR-related topics.  While there are a few blogs out there that regularly cover reinsurance-related matters, there are not that many, and they do not interact as much as one might think they would.  There are exceptions to this rule — we’ll make it a point to survey the “reinsurance blogosphere” in the near future  and report to readers on what is out there — but, let’s face it, compared to the ADR blogosphere, the reinsurance blogosphere is still pretty undeveloped.  

I think reinsurance bloggers could learn much from ADR bloggers.  In the coming weeks we’ll give some thought to how the reinsurance blogosphere might improve itself.  And we’ll draw on Diane Levin’s teachings, as well as those of other accomplished ADR bloggers.

The Great Debate Over Written Claims Guidelines and Procedures

February 18th, 2010 Asbestos-Related Claims, Bad Faith, Claims Guidelines and Procedures, Claims Handling, Claims Spot, Environmental Contamination Claims, Internal Controls, Late Notice, Reinsurance Claims, Utmost Good Faith 1 Comment »

Our friend and fellow Long Islander Marc Lanzkowsky, Founder and Principal of Lanzko Consulting, Inc., recently launched the blog Claims Spot, which discusses and comments on direct, excess and reinsurance-related claims issues.  Marc has done a great job with Claims Spot and, not surprisingly, his blog is drawing some heavy traffic. 

A controversial issue that Marc has been covering is whether or not insurance companies should have in place written claims guidelines and procedures.  One school of thought is fearful of their use (or abuse) by insureds in coverage actions.  For example, a company employee might mistakenly not follow written guidelines and procedures in the course of handling a claim, and a dispute might arise as a result.  The insured will legitimately be able to argue  that the company’s handling of the claim did not comply with its own guidelines and procedures, and that, accordingly, the company mishandled the claim.  Proponents of this view will say that having claims guidelines and procedures is fine as long as they are merely aspirational and not in writing. 

Others advocate the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” view.  If a large, professional insurer has no written guidelines and procedures, then the insured’s refrain in a coverage or bad faith action will be that the company is grossly negligent because it lacks the internal or external controls necessary to regulate a very significant portion of its business operations.   But if the company has written claims guidelines and procedures, then surely they will come back to haunt it in the event of litigation.  

Others, including Marc, believe the benefits associated with well-drafted and carefully considered claims guidelines and procedures outweigh the costs associated with formulating and implementing them, and, more importantly, whatever costs might be incurred by the insured’s potential use or abuse of the procedures in the event of a dispute.  Drawing on his experience as a lawyer and a claims executive for two major insurance companies, Marc offers assistance to companies that are interested in implementing written claims guidelines and procedures or improving existing ones. 

Marc recently brought the discussion up to the reinsurance level in his post, “Absence of Procedures to Notify Reinsurance is a Basis for Bad Faith.”   He was kind enough to mention what inspired his thoughtful post — an interesting discussion he and I had about the subject not long ago over a delicious sushi and bento box lunch at Misaki — Manhasset, New York’s best (and only) Japanese restaurant. 

As Marc points out there has been law in the Second Circuit for some time stating that a ceding company’s failure to have in place procedures for notifying reinsurers of claims can constitute bad faith, which may relieve a reinsurer of liability for a late-noticed claim without any showing of prejudice.    That is a pretty good argument for having in place written, ceded-claims handling procedures designed to ensure timely notice to reinsurers.    

In the reinsurance-late-notice context the cost-benefit analysis is probably less challenging than it might be in the direct-insurance-bad-faith context.  If the ceding company does not have in place written guidelines and procedures, and cannot establish by credible and consistent testimony the existence of unwritten guidelines and procedures, then, at least in a case pending in court (as opposed to arbitration), the reinsurer may get a “pass” on a claim based on late notice without any showing of prejudice.  (Prejudice has been defined as “tangible economic injury.”)

On the other hand, if the ceding company has written procedures in place, but they are not followed in a given case, then that, in conjunction with other evidence, may establish that notice was late.  But the reinsurer still has to show prejudice to be relieved of liability.   

So in our hypothetical, counsel for the reinsurer may be able to make some hay at a deposition concerning the cedent’s failure to follow its own guidelines and procedures.  But points scored at depositions can be (and in this case are) ephemeral:  without evidence of prejudice, failure to comply with the guidelines is, for all practical purposes, irrelevant.  

In this day and age of internal controls and corporate responsibility, it seems to us that appropriate written claims guidelines and procedures can benefit insurers, cedents and reinsurers, provided they are carefully drafted, implemented and managed.  We offer the following, very general and non-exclusive list of things companies might consider:   

1.  If written claims procedures are to be adopted and implemented they should be carefully prepared by claims experts and reviewed by experienced counsel.   Poorly drafted and ill-conceived written claims procedures are probably worse than none at all. 

2. Careful thought should be given to privilege issues associated with in-house or outside attorney review of draft guidelines and the involvement of counsel in other aspects of the drafting and implementation process.   The process should be carefully managed and attention should be paid to the company’s document retention policies as respects the maintenance or destruction of drafts.   Remember, in a future litigation or arbitration the insured’s attorneys will likely request prior drafts and depositions of all involved in the preparation and implementation process.  While the insured may or may not be successful in obtaining all the discovery it seeks, it will likely get at least some of it.  

3.  Written claims procedures should be drafted to confer upon claims personnel an appropriate degree of discretion where such discretion is appropriate.   Locking adjusters into particular claims positions without regard to the facts, circumstances and practical realities can cause a myriad of problems. 

4.  To the extent claims procedures provide a certain period of time within which a particular action must be taken, and to the extent that the period is not an inflexible one provided by law or contract, flexibility should be built in to account for minor delays caused by special circumstances or the press of business.   

5.  If written claims guidelines and procedures are to be adopted, the company should ensure claims personnel take them very seriously and do their best to abide by them at all times.   

6.  Written claims procedures should be subject to periodic review by in-house counsel and the claims department to ensure that they comply with current legislation and recent case law developments. 

7.  Outside counsel handling coverage or other, claims-related matters for the company should keep the company’s general counsel apprised of any problems that might be caused or exacerbated by written guidelines and procedures.  

SCOTUS Oral Argument in Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc. Set for April 26, 2010

February 17th, 2010 Arbitrability, Authority of Arbitrators, Practice and Procedure, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on SCOTUS Oral Argument in Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc. Set for April 26, 2010

The United States Supreme Court has set for April 26, 2010 oral argument in Jackson v. Rent-A-Center West, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, slip op. (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2009), petition for cert. granted  Jan. 15, 2010 (No. 09-497) (oral argument calendar here).  Jackson addresses the question who decides unconscionability of an arbitration agreement when the agreement clearly and unmistakably says arbitrators decide arbitrability.  The Ninth Circuit said the court decides the question, but we think there is a reasonable chance the United States Supreme Court will reverse.   We touched on some of the reasons why in prior posts, here and here

We shall keep readers apprised of further developments as and when they occur.  .  .  .

Stolt-Nielsen Oral Argument Analysis, Part V: Should Class or Consolidated Arbitration be Imposed if the Contract is Silent?

February 16th, 2010 Arbitrability, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Consolidation of Arbitration Proceedings, Practice and Procedure, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Stolt-Nielsen Oral Argument Analysis, Part V: Should Class or Consolidated Arbitration be Imposed if the Contract is Silent?

I.   Introduction

This is the final installment of our five-part series on the Stolt-Nielsen oral argument.  It addresses the fourth issue identified in Part I (here):  what the import of the agreements’ silence is or should be.  It assumes the Court reaches the merits; as explained in Parts III and IV (here and here), the United States Supreme Court may take another “pass” on the question presented (the first pass was taken in Bazzle), and hold that the predicate for granting certiorari was not established because the arbitrators ruled that the agreement was not silent on class arbitration.  

Part I identified two loose “coalitions” of Justices – the “Breyer Coalition”  consisting of Associate Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen G. Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the “Roberts Coalition,” consisting of Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin G. Scalia and Samuel A.  Alito, Jr.  The Breyer Coalition appears to be leaning toward either taking a pass or affirming the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which upheld the arbitrators’ award imposing class arbitration, while the Roberts Coalition appears to be leaning toward reversal.   We explore the import of the charter-party agreements’ silence on class arbitration from the standpoint of both coalitions.  Continue Reading »

Ninth Circuit Approves Ex Parte Hearing Procedures in Reinsurance Case: United States Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Nat’l Ins. Co.

February 7th, 2010 Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Grounds for Vacatur, Practice and Procedure, Procedural Misconduct, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Comments Off on Ninth Circuit Approves Ex Parte Hearing Procedures in Reinsurance Case: United States Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Nat’l Ins. Co.

I.          Introduction

Back in January the Ninth Circuit decided United States Life Ins. Co. v. Superior National Ins. Co., ___ F.3d ___, slip op. (9th Cir. Jan. 4, 2010), a Federal Arbitration Act Section 10(a)(3) procedural misconduct decision that affords reinsurance and other arbitrators a good deal of leeway to devise and implement nontraditional procedures for resolving complex problems.   The case centered around a rather unusual procedure the arbitrators ordered and implemented to determine whether the cedents improperly handled some 12,604 contested workers compensation claims.  It also concerned the authority of arbitrators to interpret the scope of the submission and to award a disgorgement of investment income remedy in addition to pre-award interest.  Continue Reading »