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Archive for the ‘Class Arbitration – Class Certification Awards’ Category

Class Arbitration, Absent Class Members, and Class Certification Awards: Consent or Coercion?

January 6th, 2020 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Authority of Arbitrators, Class Action Arbitration, Class Arbitration - Class Certification Awards, Clause Construction Award, Confirm Award | Exceeding Powers, Consent to Class Arbitration, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, First Principle - Consent not Coercion, Practice and Procedure, Rights and Obligations of Nonsignatories, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Comments Off on Class Arbitration, Absent Class Members, and Class Certification Awards: Consent or Coercion?
absent class members | class arbitration

On November 29, 2019 we posted Absent Class Members, Class Arbitration, Class Certification Awards, Consent, Coercion, and the Second Circuit, which discussed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., No. 18-153-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. November 18, 2019) (“Jock IV”).

In Jock IV the Second Circuit reversed a district court order vacating an arbitrator’s class certification award, which the district court vacated because it made tens of thousands of absent class members part of a certified class even though none: (a) was a party to the class arbitration; (b) opted in to the proposed class; or (c) participated in or otherwise consented to the class arbitration. The Second Circuit held it was enough that the absent class members, like all other employees, had executed an identical, form pre-dispute arbitration agreement (the “Agreement”), which required the absent class members to submit, among other things, arbitrability and arbitration procedure disputes to arbitration.

Absent Class Members: The Federal Arbitration Act’s First Principle and Consent to Class Arbitration

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)’s “first principle” is that “arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion.” Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 678-80, 684 (2010) (citation and quotations omitted); see, e.g., Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 1417 (2019); Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 561 U.S. 287, 295 & n.7, 294 n.6 (2010); AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U. S. 643, 648 (1986).

Beginning in Stolt-Nielsen,and most recently in Lamps Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the importance of consent to class arbitration. In Stolt-Nielsen, the Court required a “contractual basis” for imposing class arbitration, and explained that “[a]n implicit agreement to authorize class arbitration, however, is not a term that the arbitrator may infer solely from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.” 599 U.S. at 685.  

Most recently, in Lamps Plus the Court imposed a federal presumption against consent to class arbitration under which silent or ambiguous contract language cannot establish consent to class arbitration, and under which the FAA is deemed to preempt state-law contract interpretation rules that are not intent-based—such as contra proferentem, the rule that ambiguities are, at least in the absence of any other extrinsic evidence of intent, construed against the contract’s drafter. See Lamps Plus,139 S. Ct. at 1416-19.

The Lamps Plus presumption requires more than simply “a contractual basis” for finding consent to class arbitration. As a practical matter it means that the parties must clearly and unmistakably consent to class arbitration. (See, e.g., our Lamps Plus post, here.)

What does the Agreement Have to Say About Class Arbitration?

The Agreement is a form dispute resolution agreement that was signed by each of an employer (the “Employer”)’s many employees. By signing the Agreement the signatory Employer and employee agreed to arbitrate their disputes, “waiv[ed] [their] right to obtain any legal or equitable relief . . . through any government agency or court, and . . . also waiv[e] [their] right to commence any court action.”

The Agreement provides that the employee “may. . . seek and be awarded equal remedy” under the Agreement, that “‘[t]he Arbitrator shall have the power to award any types of legal or equitable relief that would be available in a court of competent jurisdiction[,]’ and that any claim arising thereunder will be arbitrated ‘in accordance with the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association.’” Jock IV, slip op. at 4 (citations omitted).

The Agreement does not purport to be, or evidence consent to, a multi-lateral agreement – i.e., a collective Agreement between the employer and all the tens of thousands of other employees. Employees signing the Agreement do not purport to assign rights or delegate duties to other nonsignatory employees, nor do they purport to confer any authority upon any nonsignatory employees to arbitrate, or otherwise act on behalf of, the signatory employee.

The Agreement did not mention class arbitration, although the Arbitrator found in a June 1, 2009 Clause Construction Award, that the Agreement implicitly permitted class arbitration. In 2011 the Second Circuit in Jock I ruled that the arbitrator’s award should have been confirmed because, by finding that the language of the agreement implicitly permitted class arbitration, the arbitrator had at least arguably interpreted the contract.

The Jock IV Court said that the absent class members were bound by the Clause Construction Award even though they were never parties to the class arbitration, the Clause Construction Award, the certification award, or any of the Federal Arbitration Act enforcement proceedings (including Jock I, II, III, or IV, or any of the district court proceedings), and even though they never opted in to the class or otherwise consented to any of the arbitration or arbitration-related proceedings.

The Jock IV Court said that was so because each of the absent class members had signed an Agreement identical to the ones signed by the class representatives and employees who had opted into the class, and had agreed to submit arbitrability disputes to an arbitrator.

Further, said the Court, the absent class members could not collaterally attack the Clause Construction Award because the Agreement clearly and unmistakably authorized an arbitrator to decide both arbitrability questions and questions concerning procedure. Consequently, the absent class members were not entitled to a de novo determination of whether they consented to class arbitration, which, under Lamps Plus, would require the class arbitration proponents to demonstrate that the parties clearly and unmistakably consented to class arbitration.

What Result if the Court Determined the Class Arbitration Consent Issue on a De Novo Basis?

To test the soundness of the Jock IV Court’s conclusion, let’s assume that the Court should have determined on a de novo basis whether the absent class members consented to class arbitration, or, alternatively, whether the absent class members consented to be bound by Clause Construction and certification awards, which were made by arbitrators the absent class members had no part in selecting, and to which those absent class members did not consent after being given an opportunity to opt in to the class.

Lamps Plus requires clear and unmistakable consent to class arbitration. There is no possibility the arbitration agreements signed by the parties could satisfy that demanding requirement. As Jock I demonstrates, at most the Agreement was susceptible to an interpretation under which one might infer implied consent to class arbitration. But it was also susceptible to one or more other interpretations under which it contemplated only bilateral arbitration.

It was therefore ambiguous, and were the Court to have analyzed class arbitration consent on a de novo basis under Lamps Plus standard, then the Court would presumably have determined that the absent class members did not consent to class arbitration and therefore could not be made part of a class.

Did the Jock IV Court Err by Deeming the Absent Class Members to be Bound by the Clause Construction Award?   

The soundness of Jock IV thus depends on whether the absent class members’ signing of arbitration agreements identical to those signed by the Jock class representatives and opt-in class members can legitimately be construed to evidence their consent to be bound by a nearly-decade-old Clause Construction Award decided (a) by an arbitrator they played no part in selecting under (b) a legal standard that has been superceded by a 2019 United States Supreme Court decision (Lamps Plus). 

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