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Archive for the ‘FAA Chapter 1’ Category

Application to Confirm U.S.-Made Arbitration Award | A Checklist

March 27th, 2020 Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Consent to Confirmation, COVID-19 Considerations, FAA Chapter 1, FAA Chapter 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 9, Petition or Application to Confirm Award No Comments »
Application to Confirm

Our most recent post discussed time the limits applicable to an application to confirm a U.S.-made arbitration award. It explained how awards falling under Chapter One of the Federal Arbitration Act are subject to a one-year limitation period while awards falling under Chapter Two are subject to a three-year period.

Mindful of how many of us would, if possible, like to spend at least a few minutes thinking of something other than the currently raging coronavirus pandemic, we’ve prepared a checklist of things one needs to consider and address before serving and filing a motion to confirm a U.S.-made award falling under Chapter One or Chapter Two of the Federal Arbitration Act. But I’m afraid the respite will be brief indeed, for it is important to consider the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the preparation, service, and filing of an application to confirm. This post accordingly concludes with a brief discussion about how those considerations bear on confirmation strategy.

This checklist is not legal advice, a substitute for legal advice, or a “do-it-yourself” guide, and should not be relied upon as such. It simply provides a broad-perspective outline of what is involved in planning for, preparing, and serving and filing an application to confirm.

If you are going to file an application to confirm an award, then you should engage an attorney with arbitration-law experience to represent you or your business. That person should, for a reasonable fee, be able to prepare and file the application and otherwise represent your interests in the process.

Application to Confirm: Checklist

  1. Timing of the Application. Consider how much time you have left to apply for confirmation. A good place to start is by reading our recent post on deadlines for motions to confirm U.S.-made awards. Determine when you would like to file the application. You may want to consider allowing your adversary’s three-month period for moving to vacate to expire before you serve and file, which, at least in federal court, means your adversary will be barred from asserting vacatur grounds in response to your motion. (See here).
  2. State or Federal Court? Determine which federal courts, if any, would have subject matter jurisdiction over your application, and select one having personal jurisdiction over the respondent, as well as venue. (See here.) If no federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction, or if you prefer to proceed in state court, then determine what state courts have subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction and venue over the application. If a federal court has subject matter jurisdiction, but you proceed in state court, the respondent may, depending on the circumstances, be able to “remove” the case to federal court.
  3. The Papers to be Served and Filed. The papers on an application to confirm ordinarily consist of: (a) a notice of application; (b) a summons (if the application is not made in a pending lawsuit); (c) the application; (d) a memorandum of law in support; and (e) any supporting affidavits or declarations, principally (but not necessarily exclusively) for putting before the court pertinent documents. Sometimes the application is referred to as a “petition,” rather than an “application,” but the variation in nomenclature does not change the substance or legal effect of the document.
  4. Pertinent Documents Made part of Application. Documents that should be submitted to the Court ordinarily include copies of: (a) the contract containing the arbitration agreement; (b) the arbitration demand; (c) documents evidencing the selection of the arbitrator (or arbitration panel); (d) documents evidencing the granting of (or consent to) any extensions of the time within which to make the award; and (e) the award (a certified copy if the award falls under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, which is implemented by Chapter Two of the Federal Arbitration Act). In some instances it may be necessary to submit a copy of the hearing transcript, if one was made, or some other evidence demonstrating that there is at least a barely colorable basis for the award in the contract or law. In addition, in some cases it may be necessary to include documentary evidence of the issues submitted to arbitration (such as a submission document, issue statements, or the like).
  5. What the Application and Supporting Papers Should Establish. Your application should show that: (a) the court has subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue; (b) the parties agreed to an arbitration agreement falling under the Federal Arbitration Act; (c) the parties implicitly or explicitly agreed that the court could enter judgment on the award (not applicable if the award falls under Chapter Two of the Federal Arbitration Act); (d) the parties selected the arbitrator or arbitration panel pursuant to the parties’ agreement or with their consent; (e) the parties submitted their dispute to the arbitrator or arbitrators (or had a reasonable opportunity to do so); (f) the parties presented their arguments and evidence to the arbitrators; (g) the arbitrators made a final award deciding all the matters submitted to them; and (h) the arbitrator’s award has at least a barely colorable basis in the parties’ contract, the law, or both.   
  6. Service of the Application. Where the application to confirm is not made in an already pending federal action, then it must ordinarily be served in the same manner as a summons and complaint in such an action. That said, Section 9 provides for service in certain cases by U.S. Marshall and one needs to consult the case law to be sure that courts in the relevant district are not following strictly that archaic rule, which was promulgated before the advent of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Service in state court motions to confirm may be subject to different rules.
  7. Next Steps after Service and Filing of Application. The respondent will have an opportunity to respond to the application, and ordinarily you will have an opportunity to file reply papers. If the other side files a cross-application to vacate, modify, or correct the award, then you will have an opportunity to respond to that motion and the other side an opportunity to reply.
  8. Decision on Application. The Court is supposed to treat the application like it would a motion in an action, which means that it will ordinarily decide the application (and any cross-application) after reviewing the papers. Sometimes a judge will schedule oral argument. How long it will take to decide the application(s) depends on the judge’s calendar; whether a cross-application to vacate, modify, or correct the award has been made; and other considerations. A decision may be rendered in a few weeks, a few months, several months, a year or so, or at any time in between.
  9. Will there be an Appeal? If the motion is granted the other side may file an appeal. If the motion is denied in whole or in part, then you may file an appeal.

COVID-19 Considerations

The COVID-19 crisis requires careful consideration of confirmation strategy. While courts across the country have limited their regular operations significantly, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, for example, “[c]ases filed electronically will continue to be processed and assigned to judges.” (See March 20, 2020 Memo from Edward Friedland, District Executive, to SDNY BAR, at 3, here.) Applications to confirm arbitration awards can be filed electronically in the Southern District of New York, and most likely in many other districts as well (check your district court’s website).

In New York State, the Governor suspended state-law limitations periods until April 19, 2020, but the Governor’s order will not affect a federal limitations period in a case filed in the federal courts. To date, and to the best of our knowledge, federal statute of limitations periods for civil matters, although the Department of Justice is apparently considering statute-of-limitations-related proposals, which are discussed (along with other COVID-19-related limitations period issues) in this excellent, March 26, 2020 article on the subject. But it remains uncertain whether federal statutes of limitations applicable to Federal Arbitration Act proceedings will be suspended, and if so, for how long. (See, generally, here.)

COVID-19 considerations make it more complicated and difficult to effect service of process. Waiting to the last minute to try to effect service is a very bad strategy,

The COVID-19-related considerations discussed above make it all the more important for persons who want to confirm their arbitration awards to take steps now to protect their interests, and develop a plan to ensure that they can timely file properly supported applications.

About the Author

Philip J. Loree Jr. is a partner and founding member of Loree & Loree. He has nearly 30 years of experience handling matters arising under the Federal Arbitration Act and in representing a wide variety of clients in arbitration, litigation, and arbitration-related litigation. He is a former partner of the litigation departments of the New York City firms of Rosenman & Colin LLP (now known as Katten Munchin Rosenman LLP ) and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP.

Loree & Loree focuses its practice on solving arbitration problems for small businesses and professional practices, usually by representing them in arbitration proceedings and in arbitration-related litigation.

It represents private and government-owned-or-controlled business organizations, and persons acting in their individual or representative capacities, and often serves as co-counsel, local counsel or legal adviser to other domestic and international law firms requiring assistance or support.

Loree & Loree was recently selected by Expertise.com out of a group of 1,763 persons or firms reviewed as one of Expertise.com’s top 18 “Arbitrators & Mediators” in New York City for 2019, and now for 2020. (See here and here.)

You can contact Phil Loree Jr. at (516) 941-6094 or at PJL1@LoreeLawFirm.com.

ATTORNEY ADVERTISING NOTICE: Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Photo Acknowledgment

The photo featured in this post was licensed from Yay Images and is subject to copyright protection under applicable law.

How Much Time do I have to Serve and File a Motion to Confirm a U.S.-Made Arbitration Award under the Federal Arbitration Act?

March 24th, 2020 Applicability of Federal Arbitration Act, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration Law, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, FAA Chapter 1, FAA Chapter 2, Federal Arbitration Act 202, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 207, Federal Arbitration Act Section 9, New York Convention 1 Comment »
Statute of Limitations, Confirm

Chapter One of the Federal Arbitration Act authorizes courts to confirm arbitration awards falling within the scope of the Act, if the parties implicitly or expressly agree that a judgment may be entered on the award.

To confirm an award is to reduce it to a judgment of the court, which can be enforced like any other judgment. For some detailed information on confirming arbitration awards, see here.

But how much time do you or your business have to confirm an arbitration award that is made in the United States? The answer depends on whether your arbitration award falls under Chapter One of the Federal Arbitration Act or also under Chapter Two of the Federal Arbitration Act, which implements the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “Convention”). Because some arbitration awards made in the United States are completely domestic, while others are not, and different limitation periods apply to applications to confirm them.

If the award falls under Chapter One of the Federal Arbitration Act, but not Chapter Two, then your application to confirm must be made within one-year of the date on which the “award was made.” 9 U.S.C. § 9. But if your domestic award falls under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, then your application to confirm must be made “[w]ithin three years after. . . [the]. . . award. . . is made.” 9 U.S.C. § 207.

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Provider Rules: Should I Agree to Arbitrate under Them?

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provider rules

Should your business agree to arbitrate under arbitration provider rules? Well, that depends.

Ideally, you should review those rules to see what they say, and discuss them with a knowledgeable and experienced arbitration attorney, or perhaps with another businessperson who has meaningful experience arbitrating under them. If, after doing your due diligence, you’re satisfied with the rules, understand how they might materially affect your arbitration experience, and are prepared to accept the consequences, then you may want to agree. If not, then you need to consider other options.

Granted, most of us do not bother to review arbitration rules before agreeing to arbitrate, or even to consult briefly with someone who is familiar with how they work in practice. And that can lead to some surprises, some of which may be unpleasant.

Here’s a nonexclusive list of a few things to keep in mind when considering whether to agree to arbitrate under arbitration provider rules:

  1. Agreeing to arbitrate under arbitration rules generally makes those rules part of your agreement, which means they are binding on you like any other part of your arbitration agreement;
  2. Arbitration provider rules generally provide that “arbitrability” issues—i.e., issues about the validity, enforceability, or scope of the arbitration agreement—must be decided by the arbitrator, not the court;
  3. They will govern not only the procedures to be used in the arbitration, but key substantive issues, such as arbitrator selection, arbitrator qualifications, and the number of arbitrators;
  4. They may empower the arbitration provider to resolve, at least in the first instance, questions about arbitrator impartiality, questions that one would otherwise reasonably expect were within the exclusive province of a court;
  5. They may determine whether your arbitration is placed on an expedited or complex-case track; and
  6. They may contain information about arbitration provider fees, which may be steeper than you anticipated.

And this list is by no means comprehensive.

Do any of these things really matter in business arbitration? They do, and to take but a single example, let’s look at how agreeing to provider rules may result in your business forefeiting its right to have a court decide disputes about the validity, enforceability, or scope of the arbitration agreement.

Arbitration Provider Rules May Require Arbitration of Disputes About Your Arbitration Agreement

Arbitration provider rules often require that parties arbitrate disputes about the arbitration agreement, such as whether a particular issue must be arbitrated or even whether an arbitration agreement is valid or otherwise enforceable.

According to settled arbitration law, parties agree to arbitrate such issues—known as “arbitrability issues” or “questions of arbitrability”—only where they have “clearly and unmistakably” agreed to do that. In other words, the law presumes that the parties did not agree to arbitrate those issues, leaving them to a court to decide. (See here, here, here, and here.)

Consider this “standard” arbitration clause recommended by the American Arbitration Association, one of the leading arbitration providers in the U.S.:

Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this contract, or the breach thereof, shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association under its Commercial Arbitration Rules, and judgment on the award rendered by the arbitrator(s) may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.

American Arbitration Association, Commercial Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures (the “AAA Commercial Rules”) 8 (2013) (emphasis added).

If you agreed to a contract containing the above arbitration clause did you “clearly and unmistakably” agree to arbitrate disputes about your arbitration agreement?  

Most U.S. Circuirt Courts of Appeal in the U.S. have said the answer is “yes.” They hold that such an arbitration agreement constitutes a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate disputes about validity, enforceability, or scope of the arbitration agreement, provided that the incorporated arbitration rules (here, the AAA Commercial Rules) clearly and unmistakably require the parties to arbitrate such “arbitrability questions.”

Rule 7(a) of the AAA Commercial Rules clearly and unmistakably provides that the arbitrators are empowered to decide arbitrability issues:

The arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope, or validity of the arbitration agreement or to the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim.

AAA Commercial Rules R-7(a).

The court decisions requiring parties to arbitrate arbitrability do not turn on whether a party read the incorporated arbitration-provider rules or otherwise understood the consequences of agreeing to them. That’s just a reality of basic contract law: parties to a contract are ordinarily bound by the contracts they sign, even if they did not read or understand them. Unless you can demonstrate unconscionability relating specifically to the agreement to arbitrate arbitrability, or can show that no agreement to arbitrate under provider rules was ever formed, then you’re pretty much out of luck.

So let’s say your business agreed to a contract containing an agreement to arbitrate pursuant to the AAA Commercial Arbitration Rules (or under other provider rules requiring arbitration of arbitrability). A dispute arises under a different contract not containing an arbitration agreement, which you reasonably believe is not “related to” the contract containing the arbitration clause. But your adversary claims that the dispute must be submitted to arbitration.  

Your business does not wish to arbitrate that claim, which you believe can be decided by a court more quickly and less expensively. You also believe your chances of obtaining a favorable decision are higher in court than in arbitration.

But because the incorporated-by-reference arbitration provider rules require arbitration of arbitrability, your business must submit the arbitrability claim to arbitration.

Will arbitrating, rather than litigating, the arbitrability question change the outcome? It could, and materially so.

Arbitrators, as disinterested as they may strive and believe themselves to be, are human beings like the rest of us. Because they are generally paid by the hour (or on another basis that directly or indirectly depends on how much work will be required to resolve the case), finding the dispute is not arbitrable will result in a fairly quick and simple resolution from the arbitrator’s standpoint, and thus a smaller fee.

In a close case the arbitrator’s conclusion could be unconsciously influenced by the indirect stake the arbitrator has in the outcome. And even apart from that, an arbitrator’s understandable institutional preference for arbitration over litigation could, in a close case, also increase the chances the arbitrator will rule the dispute arbitrable.

These indirect economic interests and institutional predispositions might be better managed if the arbitrator who makes the arbitrability decision would not be permitted to make the decision on the merits without the express, post-arbitrability-determination consent of the party who challenged arbitrability. But arbitrator provider rules do not ordinarily provide for that or any other kind of solution to the problem.

Whatever decision the arbitrator reaches on the arbitrability issue, a court ultimately reviewing the arbitrator’s arbitrability decision will not overturn it as long as the arbitrator even arguably interpreted the arbitration agreement, even if that interpretation was egregiously wrong. Translation: you’re stuck with the decision except in very unusual circumstances.  

That is just one reason why businesspeople have to do their due diligence before agreeing to arbitrate under arbitration provider rules with which they may not be sufficiently familiar.

A Solution: Tailor Your Agreement to Incorporate only the Rules you Conclude are Reasonable and Appropriate in the Circumstances

Just because there may be certain aspects of a given set of provider rules that you are uncomfortable with doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to reject all of the provider’s rules. Arbitration provider rules often allow parties to opt out of or modify certain aspects of the rules, provided both parties consent.

That means you can tailor-make your arbitration agreement to incorporate only the rules you conclude are reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances.

The time to negotiate over which rules do and do not apply, of course, is before a dispute arises, that is, at the time the parties agree to include an arbitration clause in their contract.

To illustrate why that is so, consider once again the hypothetical discussed above. You wanted a court to decide arbitrability, but the other side wanted an arbitrator to decide arbitrability.

Obviously, once a dispute has arisen, and your adversary has determined it wants to arbitrate arbitrability, then you obviously cannot expect that your adversary is going to agree that arbitrability questions are for the court to decide. But at the pre-dispute, contract-formation stage, the other party might be perfectly willing to agree to opt out of Rule 7(a) and agree that any arbitrability questions have to be resolved by the court.

Photo Acknowledgments:

The photo featured in this post was licensed from Yay Images and is subject to copyright protection under applicable law.

Stay of Litigation | Waiver of Arbitration | The Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide III | Pre-Award Litigation under Chapter 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act | Litigating Gateway Disputes | The Nuts and Bolts of Pre-Award Federal Arbitration Act Practice under Sections 2, 3, and 4 (Part I)

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Section 3 Stay of Litigation

Today we’re going to focus on Section 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act, which authorizes a Court to stay litigation.

In the last segment of this series we answered the following FAQs about how gateway disputes are decided by courts and arbitrators:

  1. What is the Presumption of Arbitrability?
  2. Does the Presumption of Arbitrability Apply to all Questions of Arbitrability?
  3. What Law Applies to Determine Gateway Disputes about Arbitrability to which the Presumption of Arbitrability does not Apply?
  4. How is the Presumption of Arbitrability Applied to Resolve Gateway Questions about the Scope of an Arbitration Agreement?
  5. What Defenses, if any, Can Parties Assert against Enforcement of an Arbitration Agreement, and what Law Governs these Defenses?

The answers to these questions, along with those provided in prior segments, were designed to provide you with a solid foundation for understanding how pre-award Federal Arbitration Act litigation works and what to expect if your business is or becomes embroiled in it.

The segment of which this post is Part I answers FAQs about the nuts and bolts of pre-award Federal Arbitration Act practice and procedure under Sections 2, 3, and 4 of the Act, the Sections that address gateway disputes about whether arbitration should proceed.

In this Part I we address the following FAQs, which focus on Section 3 stays of litigation:

  1. What Gateway Disputes do Sections 2, 3, and 4, Address, and How do they Address them?  
  2. How does Section 3 Work in Practice?

Future parts of this segment will address questions concerning Section 4 of the Federal Arbitration Act, which authorizes courts to compel arbitration. And we’ll move forward from there.

What Gateway Disputes do Sections 2, 3, and 4, Address, and How do they Address them?   

Section 2, as we’ve said, is the enforcement command of the Federal Arbitration Act, which deems all arbitration agreements falling within its scope to be “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. (See here and here.) Section 2 requires, as a matter of federal law, that arbitration agreements falling within its scope are to be enforced to the same extent as contracts generally. (See here.)  

But the Federal Arbitration Act does more than require the enforcement of arbitration agreements by putting them on “an equal footing with all other contracts.” Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P’ship v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421, 1424 (2017) (quotations and citations omitted). It provides for specific performance of arbitration agreements, both in the form of an order staying litigation of an arbitrable controversy under Section 3 of the FAA, and an order directing a party to proceed with arbitration in accordance with their agreement. 9 U.S.C. §§ 3 & 4.

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The Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide III: Pre-Award Litigation under Chapter 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act—Gateway Disputes about Whether Arbitration Should Proceed (Part II)

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gateway disputes

Gateway disputes, which concern whether parties are required to arbitrate a dispute on the merits, are the principal subject of pre-award Federal Arbitration Act litigation. In the last segment of this series, Gateway Disputes about Whether Arbitration Should Proceed (Part I), we answered a number of FAQs concerning gateway disputes, including who gets to decide those disputes:  

  1. What is the Difference between Pre-Award and Post-Award Litigation under the Federal Arbitration Act?
  2. What are Gateway Questions?
  3. Who Decides Gateway Questions?
  4. How do Parties Clearly and Unmistakably Agree to Submit Questions of Arbitrability to Arbitrators?
  5. Are there any Arbitrability Disputes that Courts Decide when the Contract at Issue Clearly and Unmistakably Provides for the Arbitrator to Decide Questions of Arbitrability?

Today we’ll answer some more FAQs about how gateway disputes are decided (or at least are supposed to be decided) by courts and arbitrators:

  1. What is the Presumption of Arbitrability?
  2. Does the Presumption of Arbitrability Apply to all Questions of Arbitrability?
  3. What Law Applies to Determine Gateway Disputes about Arbitrability to which the Presumption of Arbitrability does not Apply?
  4. How is Presumption of Arbitrability Applied to Resolve Gateway Questions about the Scope of an Arbitration Agreement?
  5. What Defenses, if any, Can Parties Assert against Enforcement of an Arbitration Agreement, and what Law Governs these Defenses?

The answers to these questions, along with the answers provided in Part I, will provide you with a solid foundation for understanding how pre-award Federal Arbitration Act litigation works and what to expect if your business is or becomes embroiled in it. The next segment will answer FAQs about the nuts and bolts of pre-award Federal Arbitration Act practice and procedure under Sections 2, 3, and 4 of the Act.

What is the Presumption of Arbitrability?

Back in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark decision Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24-25 (1983), famously declared that “[t]he [Federal] Arbitration Act establishes that, as a matter of federal law, any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration, whether the problem at hand is the construction of the contract language itself or an allegation of waiver, delay, or a like defense to arbitrability.” 

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The Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide III: Pre-Award Federal Arbitration Act Litigation – Gateway Questions about Whether Arbitration Should Proceed (Part I)

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Arbitration Law | Gateway Questions | Arbitrability

This third instalment of the Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide concerns pre-award litigation under the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA” or the “Federal Arbitration Act”) and focuses on so-called “gateway” disputes about whether arbitration should proceed.

What is the Difference between Pre-Award and Post-Award Litigation under the Federal Arbitration Act?

The Federal Arbitration Act contains certain remedial provisions that are designed to address specific problems that arise before an arbitrator or arbitration panel makes a final award on matters submitted (or allegedly submitted) to arbitration. The litigation these provisions authorize is “pre-award” FAA litigation. Other provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act apply only to arbitration awards. The litigation those other provisions authorize is “post-award” FAA litigation.

Sections 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the FAA, concerning stays of litigation in favor of arbitration, motions to compel arbitration, the appointment of arbitrators, and the enforcement of subpoenas issued by arbitrators. They therefore pertain to pre-award FAA litigation.

Section 8 allows a party to invoke the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction “by libel and seizure of the vessel or other property of the other party. . . ,” and subsequently to obtain an order directing parties to proceed to arbitration, with the court “retain[ing] jurisdiction to enter its decree upon the award. . . .” Section 8 thus authorizes both pre-award and post-award relief, albeit only in cases falling under the admiralty jurisdiction.    

Sections 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13, which concern motions to confirm, vacate, or modify awards, pertain to post-award FAA litigation.

What are Gateway Questions?

A “gateway” question is one which “determine[s] whether the underlying controversy will proceed to arbitration on the merits.” Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83 (2002). Disputes raising gateway questions arise when one party fails or refuses to proceed to arbitration or asserts that it is not required to proceed to arbitration on the merits.

For example, suppose A and B, parties to a contract containing an FAA-governed  arbitration agreement find themselves embroiled in a dispute. A thinks the arbitration agreement does not require it to submit the dispute to arbitration but B disagrees.

A accordingly commences litigation in a federal district court, which has subject matter jurisdiction because the parties are citizens of different states and the amount of A claim against B exceeds $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs. 

B moves the court under FAA Section 3 to stay litigation in favor of arbitration, and under Section 4 to compel arbitration. 9 U.S.C. §§ 3 & 4.

The dispute between A and B over whether B is required to arbitrate the dispute presents a gateway question because it will determine whether A’s and B’s dispute on the merits will proceed to arbitration.

Who Decides Gateway Questions?

Some gateway questions are for the courts, with the answer determining whether the Court directs the parties to proceed to arbitration on the merits. Other gateway questions are for the for the arbitrator (or arbitration panel), and the Court simply directs the parties to submit their gateway question to arbitration, the arbitrator decides the question, and, if the answer to the gateway question is that arbitration on the merits may proceed, then the arbitrator decides the merits.

Whether or not a court or an arbitrator decides a particular gateway question depends on whether or not the question is a “question of arbitrability.”

The term “question of arbitrability” is a term of art. The Federal Arbitration Act embodies and implements a federal policy in favor of arbitration, applicable in both state and federal courts. See, e.g., Nitro-Lift Techs., L.L.C. v. Howard, 133 S. Ct. 500, 501 (2012). But arbitration’s “first principle” is that arbitration is “strictly a matter of consent,” Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 1415-16 (2019) (citation and quotations omitted), and “a party cannot be required to submit to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit.” Steelworkers v. Warrior Gulf Nav. Co., 363 U.S. 574, 582 (1960); see also First Options of Chicago v. Kaplan, 543 U.S. 938, 942-943 (1995); Howsam, 537 U.S. at 83.

Courts presume that the question “whether the parties have submitted a particular dispute to arbitration” to be a “question of arbitrability,” which is for the Court to decide unless the parties “clearly and unmistakably” agree otherwise. Howsam, 537 U.S. at 83 (quotations and citations omitted).

This, however, is an “interpretive rule” that is narrower than might first appear. Howsam, 537 U.S. at 83. The Supreme Court has said “[l]inguistically speaking, one might call any potentially dispositive gateway question a “question of arbitrability,” but “for purposes of applying the interpretive rule, the phrase ‘question of arbitrability’ has a far more limited scope.” Howsam, 537 U.S. at 83.

The term “question of arbitrability” is “applicable in the kind of narrow circumstance where contracting parties would likely have expected a court to have decided the gateway matter, where they are not likely to have thought that they  had agreed that an arbitrator would do so, and consequently, where reference of the gateway dispute to the court avoids the risk of forcing parties to arbitrate a matter that they may well have not agreed to arbitrate.” Howsam, 537 U.S. at 83-84.

Questions of arbitrability thus turn on whether: (a) the dispute is legally capable of resolution by arbitration; (b) the scope of an arbitration agreement, that is, whether the parties agreed to arbitrate particular controversy or type of controversy; (c) the validity or enforceability of an arbitration agreement “upon upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract[,]” 9 U.S.C. § 2; or (d) whether an arbitration agreement has been formed or concluded, that is, whether an arbitration agreement exists in the first place. See Howsam, 537 U.S. at 84 (citing examples and cases); Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524, 530 (2019) (“To be sure, before referring a dispute to an arbitrator, the court determines whether a valid arbitration agreement exists.”); Compucredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 565 U.S. 95, 104 (2012) (finding federal statutory claims arbitrable “[b]ecause the [statute] is silent on whether claims under the [statute] can proceed in an arbitra[l] forum, [and accordingly] the FAA requires the arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms”); Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 561 U.S. 287, 296-97, 299, 303 (2010) (“[O]ur precedents hold that courts should order arbitration of a dispute only where the court is satisfied that neither the formation of the parties’ arbitration agreement nor (absent a valid provision specifically committing such disputes to an arbitrator) its enforceability or applicability to the dispute is in issue.”)

But not every question about what a party agreed to arbitrate is, within Howsam’s interpretive rule, a “question of arbitrability” presumptively for the court to decide. The term “question of arbitrability” is “not applicable in other kinds of general circumstance where parties would likely expect that an arbitrator would decide the gateway matter.” Howsam, 537 U.S. at 84 (emphasis in original).

One such “general circumstance” concerns “procedural questions which grow out of the dispute and bear on its final disposition,” which are “presumptively not for the judge, but for an arbitrator, to decide.” Howsam, 537 U.S. at 84 (emphasis in original) (quotations and citation omitted). Likewise, “allegation[s] of waiver, delay and like defenses to arbitrability[,]” are presumptively for the arbitrator. See Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24-25 (1983); Howsam, 537 U.S. at 84.

Gateway questions concerning conditions precedent and other “prerequisites” to arbitration, “such as time limits, notice, laches, estoppel, and other conditions precedent to an obligation to arbitrate” are also presumptively for arbitrators, not courts. See Howsam, 537 U.S. at 84-85 (emphasis deleted; quotations omitted) (quoting Revised Uniform Arbitration Act of 2000 (“RUAA”) § 6(c), and comment 2, 7 U.L.A. 12-13 (Supp. 2002)).

While Howsam distinguishes between “questions of arbitrability” and questions which are not questions of arbitrability, sometimes courts distinguish between “issues of “substantive arbitrability,” which are presumptively for the Court, and “issues of procedural arbitrability,” which are presumptively for the arbitrators to decide. See Howsam, 537 U.S. at 85 (quoting RUAA § 6, comment 2, 7 U.L.A. 13) (quotations omitted).  

How do Parties Clearly and Unmistakably Agree to Submit Questions of Arbitrability to Arbitrators?

The presumption that courts get to decide arbitrability questions can be rebutted if the parties clearly and unmistakably submitted (or agreed to submit) those questions to arbitrators. See First Options, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944-45 (1995). As a practical matter that means the party seeking to arbitrate an arbitrability question must show that the parties: (a) unambiguously agreed to submit questions of arbitrability (or questions concerning the arbitrators’ “jurisdiction”) to the arbitrators; or (b) during an arbitration unreservedly  submitted to the arbitrator an arbitrability question to arbitration. See First Options, 543 U.S. at 944-46.

Unreservedly submitting a question to the arbitrator means that both parties argue the merits of the arbitrability question to the arbitrator without either party informing the arbitrator that it believes it did not agree to submit the arbitrability question to the arbitrator and that any decision the arbitrator makes on that issue will be subject to independent (non-deferential) review by a court on a motion to vacate the award. First Options, 543 U.S. at 944-46.

Suppose the Court has compelled Parties A and B from our earlier hypothetical to arbitrate their breach of contract claim, which arises out of B’s alleged breach of Contract 1. During the arbitration Party A requests that the arbitrator determine whether Party B breached not only Contract 1, but a different contract, Contract 2, which does not contain an arbitration agreement. B argues to the arbitrator that it did not agree to arbitrate A’s claim for alleged breach of Contract 2, and that, in any event, it did not agree to arbitrate arbitrability questions, which are for the Court to decide.

Under those facts, Party A did not unreservedly submit to the arbitrator arbitrability questions because it argued that the arbitrator did not have the authority to decide arbitrability questions. If the arbitrator decides that Party A agreed to arbitrate claims arising out of A’s breach of Contract 2, then Party A should be entitled to independent (non-deferential) review of the arbitrability question by the Court on a motion to vacate the arbitration award. See First Options, 543 U.S. at 944-46.

That said, A would have been well-advised not only to argue that the arbitrator had no authority to resolve arbitrability questions, but to explicitly advise the arbitrator in writing that all of its arguments concerning the arbitrability of the Contract 2 breach claim, and the arbitrator’s power to decide arbitrability questions, were made under a full reservation of A’s rights to obtain independent, judicial review of those questions.   

Now suppose the same basic scenario, except that A does not argue that the arbitrator has no authority to decide arbitrability questions, and clearly and unmistakably represents to the arbitrator that it is submitting the merits of the arbitrability question for a final and binding determination by the arbitrator, without reservation of any right it might otherwise have to independent judicial review of that question. Under that scenario, A will have unreservedly submitted the arbitrability question to arbitration and will not be entitled to independent review upon a timely motion to vacate the award.

While the notion of agreeing to arbitrate arbitrability questions may seem odd to the uninitiated (which is why the clear and unmistakable requirement exists in the first place), such agreements are not uncommon. For example, an unambiguous agreement to arbitrate according to an arbitration-provider’s rules that clearly provide for arbitration of arbitrability questions generally will satisfy the clear and unmistakable requirement.  See, e.g., Dish Network L.L.C. v. Ray, 900 F.3d 1240, 1245-46 (10th Cir. 2018); Contec Corp. v. Remote Solution, Co., 398 F.3d 205, 208 (2d Cir.2005); Apollo Computer, Inc. v. Berg, 886 F.2d 469, 473 (1st Cir.1989). The rules of leading arbitration providers provide that arbitrators decide such questions. See, e.g., American Arbitration Association, Commercial Rules and Mediation Procedures, Including Procedures for Large, Complex Commercial Disputes, R. 7(a); JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures, R 11(c); International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (“CPR”) 2007 Non-Administered Arbitration Rules, R. 8.

Agreements to arbitrate arbitrability questions are often referred to as “Delegation Provisions” or “Delegation Agreements.” (See, e.g., Loree Reinsurance and Arbitration Law Forum posts hereherehere, and here.)

Typically, a “Delegation Provision” states in clear and unmistakable terms that arbitrability questions are to be decided by the arbitrators. For example, by making part of their contract Rule 8.1 of the 2018 version of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution (CPR)’s Non-administered Arbitration Rules, parties agree to the following broad Delegation Provision:

Rule 8: Challenges to the Jurisdiction of the Tribunal

8.1 The Tribunal shall have the power to hear and determine challenges to its jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope or validity of the arbitration agreement. This authority extends to jurisdictional challenges with respect to both the subject matter of the dispute and the parties to the arbitration.

CPR Non-Administered Arbitration Rule 8.1 (2018) (emphasis added).

Are there any Arbitrability Disputes that Courts Decide when the Contract at Issue Clearly and Unmistakably Provides for the Arbitrator to Decide Questions of Arbitrability?

Yes. But to understand why, when, and to what extent that is so, we need to understand that: (a) typically a clear and unmistakable Delegation Agreement or Delegation Provision is part of the parties’ arbitration agreement; (b) the arbitration agreement, and the Delegation Agreement it contains, is also, in turn, ordinarily part of a larger agreement; and (c) the Federal Arbitration Act doctrine of “separability” requires Courts to consider each of those three agreements as separate and independent from the other two. See Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63, 70-75 (2010) Buckeye Check Cashing v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 448-49 (2006); Prima Paint v. Flood Conklin, 388 U.S. 395, 403-04, 406-07 (1967).

Within this “separability” framework, Courts always decide whether a Delegation Agreement was formed and exists. See Henry Schein, 139 S. Ct. at 530.

Ordinarily, that does not present problems from the standpoint of the separability doctrine. For example, suppose A signs a contract under which B undertakes to perform services for A. The contract contains an arbitration agreement as well as a Delegation Agreement. But the contract is signed by C, purportedly as agent for B, not by B itself. As it turns out, B never authorized C to sign the contract on its behalf, and C did not have apparent or inherent authority to sign for B.

B (understandably) does not perform the contract, and A demands arbitration against B. B refuses to arbitrate, contending that it never entered into the contract because C was not authorized to act on B’s behalf.

A then brings an action in court seeking to compel B to arbitrate, B asserts it is not obligated to arbitrate because it never agreed to do so, and A contends that, in any event, the Court must compel arbitration of the issue whether the contract exists because of the Delegation Agreement in the contract C signed. B counters that just as it never agreed to the arbitration agreement, so too, it never agreed to the Delegation Agreement.

In this hypothetical, B wins—the Court would determine whether C was authorized to act on behalf of B, and would presumably conclude that A and B never entered into a contract, let alone an arbitration or Delegation Agreement.

Courts also decide whether a Delegation Agreement is valid, but only when the challenge to the Delegation Agreement relates specifically to the Delegation Agreement itself, not just the contract containing the arbitration and Delegation Agreements, and not just the arbitration agreement containing the Delegation Agreement. See Rent-a-Center, 561 U.S. at 70-75.

Suppose C was authorized to act on behalf of B, but further suppose that C made fraudulent representations to A about B’s qualifications, experience, and ability to perform the services that B undertook to perform for A. A entered into the contract, reasonably and justifiably relying on C’s false representations, which were made on behalf B.

A discovers the fraud and sues B, seeking rescission of the contract. A demands arbitration but B says it is not required to arbitrate because if A prevails on the rescission claim, then it means the arbitration and Delegation Agreements will also be rescinded, and the arbitrator’s conclusion will demonstrate that she had no authority to decide the matter in the first place.

This time A wins. Under the doctrine of separability the contract itself is separate from its arbitration and delegation agreements. See Buckeye Check Cashing, 546 U.S. at 448-49; Prima Paint, 388 U.S. at 403-04, 406-07. Because the alleged fraud does not specifically relate to the arbitration agreement, and because the arbitration agreement is at least arguably broad enough to encompass the fraud claim, the Court will direct the parties to arbitrate the rescission claim. See 546 U.S. at 448-49; 388 U.S. at 406-07.

Now let’s change the facts yet again. This time A demands arbitration against B and B resists arbitration on the ground that the arbitration agreement is unconscionable on state law grounds because it limits the number of depositions that may be taken. A counters that the unconscionability claim directed at the arbitration agreement is a question of arbitrability that, under the Delegation Agreement, must be submitted to the arbitrator for decision. B does not contend that the Delegation Agreement itself is unconscionable because the arbitration agreement limits deposition discovery.

A wins again. Under the doctrine of separability the Delegation Agreement is separate from the arbitration agreement and, consequently, a challenge to the validity of the arbitration clause, which does not specifically relate to the delegation agreement, does not affect the parties’ obligations to arbitrate arbitrability. See Rent-a-Center, 561 U.S. at 70-75.

While the arbitration agreement limits deposition discovery, B did not (and probably could not) demonstrate that the arbitration agreement’s limits on deposition discovery would provide an independent basis for finding the Delegation Agreement unconscionable. To show that the unconscionability argument was specifically directed at the Delegation Agreement, B would have had to demonstrate not only that the limits on deposition discovery applied to arbitrability determinations made under the Delegation Agreements, but that it was unconscionable for A to have required B to agree to allow the arbitrator to make arbitrability determinations with only limited deposition discovery. See Rent-a-Center, 561 U.S. at 71-75.

It is one thing to argue that such a limitation on deposition discovery might be unconscionable in an agreement to arbitrate factbound disputes on the merits, but it is another to argue that the same principle applies equally to a agreement to arbitrate arbitrability disputes, which courts commonly decide without the need for deposition discovery. See Rent-a-Center, 561 U.S. at 71-75.

More to come….

In Part II of “Gateway Disputes about Whether Arbitration Should Proceed” we will begin by addressing the question, “What is the presumption of arbitrability?”  

Please note. . .

This guide, including the instalments that will follow in later posts, and prior instalments, is not designed to be a comprehensive recitation of the rules and principles of arbitration law. It is designed simply to give clients, prospective clients, and other readers general information that will help educate them about the legal challenges they may face and how engaging a skilled, trustworthy, and experienced arbitration attorney can help them confront those challenges more effectively.

This guide is not intended to be legal advice and it should not be relied upon as such. Nor is it a “do-it-yourself” guide for persons who represent themselves pro se, whether they are forced to do so by financial circumstances or whether they voluntarily elect to do so.

If you want or require arbitration-related legal advice, or representation by an attorney in an arbitration or in litigation about arbitration, then you should contact an experienced and skilled attorney with a solid background in arbitration law.

About the Author

Philip J. Loree Jr. is a partner and founding member of Loree & Loree. He has nearly 30 years of experience handling matters arising under the Federal Arbitration Act and in representing a wide variety of clients in arbitrations and litigations.

Loree & Loree represents private and government-owned-or-controlled business organizations, and persons acting in their individual or representative capacities, and frequently serves as co-counsel, local counsel or legal adviser to other domestic and international law firms requiring assistance or support.

Loree & Loree was recently selected by Expertise.com out of a group of 1,763 persons or firms reviewed to be one of Expertise.com’s top 18 “Arbitrators & Mediators” in New York City for 2019, and now for 2020. (See here and here.)

You can contact Phil Loree Jr. at (516) 941-6094 or at PJL1@LoreeLawFirm.com.

ATTORNEY ADVERTISING NOTICE: Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Photo Acknowledgment

The photo featured in this post was licensed from Yay Images and is subject to copyright protection under applicable law.

Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide II: Three Threshold Questions about the Federal Arbitration Act

January 21st, 2020 Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Businessperson's FAQ Guide to the Federal Arbitration Act, Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, FAA Chapter 1, FAA Chapter 2, FAA Chapter 3, FAA Preemption of State Law, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Courts, Federal Question, Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration, New York Arbitration Law (CPLR Article 75), New York Convention, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Panama Convention, Practice and Procedure, Rights and Obligations of Nonsignatories, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration, State Arbitration Law, State Arbitration Statutes, State Courts, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Supreme Court 1 Comment »
Federal Arbitration Act | Arbitrator

This second instalment of the Businessperson’s Federal Arbitration Act FAQ Guide addresses three threshold questions pertinent to the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA” or “Federal Arbitration Act”):

1. Does Chapter 1 of the FAA apply to my arbitration agreement?

2. Assuming it does, will a federal district court have subject matter jurisdiction over FAA litigation concerning the agreement or any awards made under it?

3. Does the Federal Arbitration Act apply in state court?

Does Chapter 1 of the FAA Apply to My Arbitration Agreement?

If your written arbitration agreement is contained in a maritime contract or a contract affecting commerce, or concerns a dispute arising out of such a contract, then it falls under Chapter 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act, unless it falls within Section 1’s exemption for contracts of employment of transportation workers engaged in interstate commerce. (See here.) It may also fall under Chapters 2 or 3 of the FAA, which implement the New York and Panama Conventions.

In our first instalment of this FAQ guide (here) we explained that Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, applies to written, pre-dispute arbitration agreements in: (a) “maritime contract[s]” (“Maritime Contracts”); or (b) “contract[s] evidencing a transaction involving commerce. . . .” (“Contracts Affecting Commerce”). It also applies to written post-dispute arbitration agreements “to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such [Maritime Contracts or Contracts Affecting Commerce], or the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof. . . .” 9 U.S.C. § 2; see Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265, 273-282 (1995)Citizens Bank v. Alafabco, Inc., 539 U.S. 52, 55-58 (2003).

Section 2’s requirement that an arbitration agreement be “written” seems simple enough, and, for the most part, it is, at least in wholly domestic arbitrations to which Chapters 2 or 3 of the FAA do not concurrently apply. But there are some caveats.

First, just because a contract is required to be “written” doesn’t necessarily mean the arbitration agreement must be signed. The arbitration agreement between the parties need only be in writing, although the arbitration-agreement proponent would need to show that the parties assented to the writing.

For example, suppose A agrees to provide services for B and further agrees that any disputes arising out of or relating to their agreement will be submitted to arbitration. A and B proceed to memorialize their agreement in a writing, including the agreement to arbitrate, spelling out the essential terms of their agreement. While the writing is not signed or initialed, both parties agree that it reflects the essential terms of the parties’ bargain. The written memorialization of the agreement is sufficient to establish a “written” agreement, even though it is not signed by the party opposing its enforcement. 

Second, provided there is a written agreement between at least two parties,  persons who are not parties to that agreement (“nonparties”) may, in appropriate circumstances, enforce the agreement or be bound by it if general principles of state law permit that result. Such general principles include “‘assumption, piercing the corporate veil, alter ego, incorporation by reference, third-party beneficiary theories, waiver and estoppel[.] . . .’” . Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, 556 U.S. 624, 631 (2009) (citations omitted). This Term the United States Supreme Court is to determine whether such principles apply in cases governed by Chapter 2.

As respects whether a “contract” “evidenc[es] a transaction involving commerce,” the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Section 2 broadly to mean the Federal Arbitration Act applies to arbitration agreements in contracts or transactions that “affect” commerce, that is, to any contract or transaction that Congress could regulate in the full exercise of its Commerce Clause powers. See Allied-Bruce, 513 U.S. at 281-82; U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, Cl. 3 (giving Congress power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes”).

Whether a contract “affects” commerce depends on the facts concerning, among other things, the parties, the contract’s subject matter, and the actual or contemplated transactions constituting the contract’s performance or contemplated performance. See Alafabco, 539 U.S. at 56-57. A party does not have to demonstrate that the contract has a “specific” or “substantial” “effect upon interstate commerce if in the aggregate the economic activity in question would represent a general practice subject to federal control.” Id. (citations and quotations omitted).  The question is whether the “aggregate economic activity in question” “bear[s] on interstate commerce in a substantial way.” Id. at 57.

Assuming that Chapter 1 of the FAA Applies to my Arbitration Agreement, Will a Federal District Court have Subject Matter jurisdiction over FAA Litigation Concerning the Agreement or any Awards Made under it?

Not necessarily. Unless an arbitration agreement also falls under Chapters 2 or 3 of the FAA, then there must be an independent basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction.

Continue Reading »

The Federal Arbitration Act: a Businessperson’s FAQ Guide

January 15th, 2020 Applicability of Federal Arbitration Act, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Providers, Arbitration Risks, Businessperson's FAQ Guide to the Federal Arbitration Act, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, FAA Chapter 1, FAA Chapter 2, FAA Chapter 3, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Federal Arbitration Act Section 11, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 3, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Arbitration Act Section 9, First Principle - Consent not Coercion, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Practice and Procedure, Repeat Players, Small and Medium-Sized Business Arbitration Risk, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration 3 Comments »
Federal Arbitration Act | Text Added

This is the first in a series of posts that will pose and answer several important questions about the Federal Arbitration Act (the “Federal Arbitration Act” or “FAA”), and FAA practice and procedure. The Federal Arbitration Act is the federal statute that governs arbitration agreements that “affect commerce,” making them irrevocable, valid and enforceable to the same extent as contracts generally. It provides for the expedited enforcement (including the challenge) of arbitration awards, empowers arbitrators to issue hearing subpoenas that are enforceable in court against third parties, and authorizes Courts in appropriate circumstances to compel arbitration, stay litigation, and appoint arbitrators.

Chapter One of the Federal Arbitration Act, and the many court decisions construing it, constitute the main body of arbitration law governing arbitration agreements in contracts “affecting commerce.” That body of arbitration law also includes state law governing contracts generally as well as state arbitration law, where applicable. More on that another day.

Before addressing specific FAQs, we review why arbitration law is important and what small businesses can do to help protect themselves in today’s challenging arbitration environment. We next provide an overview of Chapter One of the Federal Arbitration Act, summarizing its provisions.

This guide, including the instalments that will follow in later posts, is not designed to be a comprehensive recitation of the rules and principles of arbitration law. It is designed simply to give clients, prospective clients, and other readers general information that will educate them about the legal challenges they may face and how engaging a skilled, trustworthy, and experienced arbitration attorney can help them confront those challenges more effectively.

Why is Federal Arbitration Act Arbitration Law Important and How can Small Businesses Protect Themselves in Today’s Challenging Arbitration Environment?

Arbitration can be a very effective way of resolving a wide range of disputes arising out of many legal and commercial relationships. It can benefit the parties if they make informed decisions about agreeing to it, craft their agreement accordingly, invest ample time and resources into the dispute-resolution process, proactively manage it, and make reasonable strategic and tactical decisions aimed at maximizing the odds of a beneficial outcome. It can benefit the courts and the general public by shifting to the private sector dispute-resolution costs that the public-sector (funded by tax payers) would otherwise bear.

Arbitration is not a perfect form of dispute resolution (and none is, including court litigation). That is so even when: (a) parties carefully draft their arbitration agreements and arbitrate in good faith; and (b) arbitrators, arbitration service providers and courts do their best to ensure the integrity, reliability, and cost-efficiency of the process and otherwise strive to protect the legitimate contractual expectations of the parties.

But at least over the last few decades or so, arbitration has, in the eyes of many, become a less attractive alternative to court litigation than it was intended to be, could be, and once was. One reason for the decline is because courts and arbitrators do not always enforce arbitration agreements in a way most likely to promote arbitration, even though they may believe in good faith that their decisions make arbitration a more attractive alternative to litigation.

The Arbitration Cottage Industry: Repeat Players versus Outsiders

Yet another reason is that arbitration has evolved into a cottage industry consisting of arbitration providers; and professional arbitrators (whether affiliated or not with one or more arbitration providers or arbitration societies). This industry serves (or is supposed to serve) relatively large businesses as well as smaller businesses, individuals, and consumers.

But it is a business that frequently pits repeat playersbusinesses which frequently use an arbitration provider’s services, usually because they regularly appoint in their arbitration agreements the arbitration provider as administratoragainst outsidersbusinesses or individuals who find themselves in an arbitrations administered by an arbitration provider before which they do not find themselves on a regular basis, usually because they either do not regularly appoint the arbitration provider as administrator in their arbitration agreements, or because they do not ordinarily agree to arbitrate in the first place.

Repeat players generate more revenue for arbitration providers and their stable of arbitrators over time than do outsiders. In theory that shouldn’t matter, for at least ostensibly, providers and arbitrators offer the market neutral dispute resolution services that are not supposed to favor repeat players, outsiders, or anyone else.

But economic realities can make that ostensible goal difficult to achieve in practice, even for exceedingly-well-intentioned providers and arbitrators. Those economic realities suggest an actual or potential conflict of interestthat is, a conflict between the provider’s and arbitrator’s interest in neutrality and their interest in an arbitration outcome that will not dissuade the repeat player from continuing regularly to use the provider’s services.

Businesses, particularly smaller business that are not arbitration provider repeat players, thus may find themselves in a challenging environment, one in which they probably did not anticipate being when they agreed to arbitrate. They are outsiders in an arbitration system that may be administered by an organization, and presided over by one or more arbitrators, who may consciously or unconsciously habor, or at least labor under, institutional predispositions that could tip the scales in favor of the repeat player and against the outsider.  

The potential for such free-floating institutional bias or predisposition ordinarily will not, without more, support an argument that the arbitrator has a material conflict of interest. The reasons that is so are, for present purposes, beyond the scope of this post, but irrespective of whether arbitration law provides or should provide any relief from such a conflict, the economic realities described pose risks for outsiders, whose odds of success on the merits might not be what they would otherwise be if the tables were turned, and they, not their adversaries, were the repeat players.

Outsiders who find themselves in arbitration disputes with repeat players need all the help they can get.

Arbitration Law: Limited Relief, Arcane Rules, and Traps for the Unwary

The nature of arbitration law itself poses other challenges with which businesses (including repeat players) must grapple. Arbitration law authorizes courts to provide only very limited relief to parties who claim to be the victims of arbitration-agreement violations, whether committed by arbitrators or by an adverse party.

To make matters worse it is not unusual for certain judges to interpret and apply arbitration law in a way that makes it all the more difficult to obtain relief, even when granting that relief would, in all likelihood, promote arbitration as an attractive alternative to litigation, which is the main objective of arbitration law.

For example, courts will sometimes confirm arbitration awards that should have been vacated even though the facts reveal that the arbitrators egregiously violated the parties’ arbitration agreement by exceeding their powers, being guilty of fraud, corruption, or evident partiality, or committing prejudicial procedural misconduct. Courts seem conciously or unconsciously to go out of their way to avoid recognizing such grave improprieties, perhaps because the public might perceive the outcome – a vacated arbitration award and an arbitration do over – as disfavoring arbitration. And that is so even though vacatur would, in all likelihood, promote arbitration by enforcing the parties’ arbitration agreement and protecting reasonable expectations of fundamental fairness.

The same kind of scenario may play out in the context of a pre-arbitration dispute about compelling arbitration and staying litigation pending arbitration. Believing in good faith that they are promoting arbitration, and perhaps desiring an outcome that appears to favor arbitration—such as one that compels arbitration and stays litigation pending arbitration—Courts sometimes determine persons have consented to arbitration in circumstances where a comprehensive examination of the facts and applicable law may indicate otherwise.

Arbitration law doctrines, rules, and procedures remain somewhat arcane even though arbitration disputes and arbitration-related litigation are fairly common. Consequently, outcomes and rationales are often counterintuitive, unless the lawyer has thorough knowledge of and experience with arbitration law. We’ll discuss some examples in later posts.

Even apart from that, arbitation law’s procedural rules are fraught with traps for the wary, which are, among other things, designed to encourage early forfeiture of defenses that might otherwise be raised in FAA litigation. Most, if not all, of these rules nevertheless serve purposes which at least arguably promote arbitration as a viable alternative to litigation. If your attorney doesn’t know the rules well or doesn’t follow them, then your interests may be in jeopordy.

Protecting your Interests in Arbitration and Arbitration-Related Litigation

How can you best protect your interests in the seemingly informal, but sometimes covertly hostile, arbitration environment? First, you must make sure that you are represented by an attorney who has abundent knowledge of and experience in arbitration law and in representing parties in arbitrations and in FAA litigation.

This can make a huge difference – the author has, over the years, encountered situations where another lawyer did not, for example, detect or adequately preserve for judicial review issues that may otherwise have provided a basis for vacating an adverse award. As a consequence, these parties lost the race before it even started, and ended up being saddled with arbitration awards that, in a more perfect world, they may have been able to vacate.  Needless to say, situations like this are far less likely to occur if experienced arbitration counsel been involved from the start.

If you are already represented by an attorney in your arbitration, but find yourself facing challenging FAA enforcement litigation, or the prospect of such litigation, then your interests are best suited by hiring skilled and experienced counsel who regularly handle such litigation. Depending on the circumstances, your own needs, and other considerations, you may wish to retain a new lawyer to handle the FAA litigation, while continuing to retain your current lawyer for purposes of handling the merits of the underlying arbitration (but making sure the FAA litigation lawyer is consulted at each step along the way to help preserve and enhance the record for future FAA litigation).

Second, you should work closely with that attorney, advising him or her of all matters pertinent to your claims and defenses, including matters that may be peculiar to your particular business or industry, including customs, practice, and usage. Always be an active part of your case and work only with attorneys who allow and encourage you to do that.  

Third, you should keep yourself informed about arbitration-law related matters, as well as the legal rules and principles that bear on the merits of your case. This series of posts addresses numerous basic questions concerning the Federal Arbitration Act, and thus should be a useful educational aid for that purpose.

An Overview of the Federal Arbitration Act and its Provisions

The judicial and arbitral enforcement of arbitration agreements that affect interstate commerce is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”), a statute first enacted in 1925 as the “United States Arbitration Act.” As originally enacted, the FAA consisted of 15 provisions, section 14 of which Congress repealed in 1947, renumbering as Section 14 former Section 15.

In 1970 Congress designated those remaining 14 provisions as “Chapter 1” of the FAA, and added a “Chapter 2,” which consists of various provisions implementing and enabling the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (a/k/a the “New York Convention”).

In 1988 Congress added two additional provisions to Chapter 1 of the FAA, Sections 15 and 16. In 1990 Congress added to the FAA a Chapter 3, which consists of provisions implementing and enabling the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (a/k/a the “Panama Convention”).

The majority of U.S. domestic arbitration disputes are decided under Chapter One of the FAA, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16. Of these 16 relatively sparse statutory provisions, Sections 1 through 14 have been on the statute books in largely the same form for about 95 years.

The provisions of Chapter One have not only been on the books for nearly 100 years, but they are fairly sparse, and certainly do not even come close to addressing expressly and comprehensively all of the many issues that may arise concerning the enforcement of arbitration agreements and awards.

Out of necessity, a robust body of judicial interpretations and applications of the provisions has arisen to attempt to address these problems. These interpretations and applications of the FAA often vary from one circuit court of appeals to the next, and the U.S. Supreme Court has, on many occasions over the last four decades (and even before) stepped in to resolve such circuit splits and attempt to make FAA law more uniform by developing and implementing various FAA rules and principals, a number of which were first created in cases arising out of Labor Management and Relations Act (“LMRA”)-governed labor arbitration cases.

But before delving into any of the gory details, let’s look at the domestic, commercial arbitration-law outline that Chapter One of the FAA provides. Our starting point is Section 2, which is sometimes referred to as the FAA’s “enforcement command.” 

The Federal Arbitration Act’s Enforcement Command: Section 2

Section 2 of the FAA is the provision that declares that arbitration agreements falling within its scope are “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of of any contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2.

It also tells us what arbitration agreements fall within the scope of Section 2 and the other provisions of FAA Chapter One: (a) “[a] written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction, or the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof [;] or [(b)] an agreement in writing to submit to arbitration an existing controversy arising out of such a contract, transaction, or refusal. . . .” 9 U.S.C. § 2.

Section 2’s scope provision therefore, and as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, applies to written pre-dispute arbitration agreements in: (a) “maritime contract[s]” (“Maritime Contracts”); or (b) “contract[s] evidencing a transaction involving commerce. . . .” (“Contracts Affecting Commerce”). It also applies to written post-dispute arbitration agreements “to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such [Maritime Contracts or Contracts Affecting Commerce], or the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof. . . .” 9 U.S.C. § 2; see Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S. 265, 273-282 (1995); Citizens Bank v. Alafabco, Inc., 539 U.S. 52, 55-58 (2003). As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, Section 2’s use of the “word ‘involving,’ like ‘affecting,’ signals an intent to exercise Congress’ commerce power to the full.” Allied-Bruce, 513 U.S. at 277. More on that another day.

Under Section 2, “arbitration is a matter of contract, and courts must enforce arbitration contracts according to their terms.” Schein v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 139 S. Ct. 524, 529 (2019).  Section 2 also “requires courts to place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with all other contracts.” Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P’ship v. Clark, 137 S. Ct. 1421, 1424 (2017) (quotations and  citations omitted).    

Section 1 of the FAA : Definitions and an Exemption

Section 1 of the FAA provides some definitions and exempts from the FAA a fairly limited universe of agreements that would otherwise fall within the scope of the Act. See 9 U.S.C. § 1. As respects the exemption, Section 1 provides that “nothing [in the FAA] shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” 9 U.S.C. § 1.

According to the United States Supreme Court, the exemption applies “only” to “contracts of employment of transportation workers.” Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U. S. 105, 119 (2001). But those “contracts of employment” include not only contracts establishing an employer-employee relationship, but also contracts establishing independent contractor relationships. New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 139 S. Ct. 532, 539-41, 544 (2019).

The Rest of the FAA

The other provisions of Chapter 1 implement the enforcement command by lending judicial support to the enforcement of arbitration agreements and awards. These are briefly summarized below:

  • Section 3 – Requires courts to stay litigation in favor of arbitration.
  • Section 4 – Provides for courts to compel arbitration.
  • Section 5 – Provides for courts to appoint arbitrators when there has been a default in the arbitrator selection process.
  • Section 6 – Provides that motion practice rules apply to applications made under the FAA, thereby expediting the judicial disposition of such applications. 
  • Section 7 – Provides for the judicial enforcement of certain arbitration subpoenas.
  • Section 8 – Provides that where the basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction is admiralty, then “the party claiming to be aggrieved may begin his proceeding [under the FAA]…by libel and seizure of the vessel or other property….” 9 U.S.C. § 8.
  • Section 9 – Provides for courts to confirm arbitration awards, that is, enter judgment upon them.
  • Section 10 – Authorizes courts to vacate arbitration awards in certain limited circumstances.
  • Section 11 – Authorizes courts to modify or correct arbitration awards in certain limited circumstances.
  • Section 12 – Provides rules concerning the service of a motion to vacate, modify, or correct an award, including a three-month time limit.
  • Section 13 – Specifies papers that must be filed with the clerk on motions to confirm, vacate, modify, or correct awards and provides that judgment entered on orders on such motions has the same force and effect of any other judgment entered by the court.
  • Section 14 – Specifies that agreements made as of the FAA’s 1925 effective date are subject to the FAA.
  • Section 15 – Provides that “Enforcement of arbitral agreements, confirmation of arbitral awards, and execution upon judgments based on orders confirming such awards shall not be refused on the basis of the Act of State doctrine.”
  • Section 16 – Specifies when appeals may be taken from orders made under the FAA, and authorizing appeals from final decisions with respect to arbitration.

More to follow in future posts. . . .

You might also be interested in the following posts here, here, here, here, and here.

Photo Acknowledgment

The photo featured in this post was licensed from Yay Images and is subject to copyright protection under applicable law. L&L has added text to the photo.

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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Absent Class Members, Class Arbitration, Class Certification Awards, Consent, Coercion, and the Second Circuit

November 29th, 2019 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Confirm Award | Exceeding Powers, Consent to Class Arbitration, Exceeding Powers, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit 1 Comment »
absent class members

While federal, and many state, courts have class-action procedural rules that permit them to bind absent class members to a judgment or settlement, arbitration is different because it is based on party consent, not coercion. While the critical, threshold issues presented in class arbitration is party consent to class arbitration, class certification disputes arising out of a class arbitration proceeding can be just as challenging, especially when they involve absent class members who have not opted in to the proposed or certified class (“absent class members” or “absent members”).

Suppose Employer A requires each of its employees to sign a form arbitration agreement that clearly and unmistakably authorizes the arbitrator to decide all disputes arising out of or relating to the employment relationship as well as arbitrability and procedural issues. More than 250 employees (including putative class representatives) assert that an arbitrator (the “Arbitrator”) should determine whether Employer A consented to class arbitration. Employer A submits that issue to the Arbitrator.

The Arbitrator hears and considers the evidence and arguments and makes a Clause Construction Award, which rules that Employer A and each of the employees consented to class arbitration by signing the employment agreement. Employer A challenges the award as exceeding the arbitrator’s powers under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, but the challenge fails because an appellate court finds that the Arbitrator was at least arguably construing the employment agreement. .

After further proceedings the Arbitrator makes another award, this one certifying a class consisting of approximately 44,000 employees, which included not only the more than 250 persons who were either class representatives or opted in to the class, but also tens of thousands of persons who were absent class members in the sense that they had been notified of the class arbitration and proposed class but had not opted in to the class and had not otherwise appeared in the arbitration proceedings.  

Did the Arbitrator have the power to make that class certification award, which purports to bind each of the 44,000 class members, the vast majority of whom were never parties to the arbitration and had never submitted to the Arbitrator any of the issues that were decided by the Arbitrator’s Clause Construction and class certification awards?  

On November 18, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the answer to that question was “yes.”  But with all due respect to the Second Circuit, and understanding that reasonable minds can and do differ on this subject, we think the better answer would have been “no.”

This post briefly discusses the Second Circuit’s decision.

A subsequent post will explain why we believe the Second Circuit should have held that the arbitrator in that case did not have the authority to bind absent class members, who were not parties to the Clause Construction Award, did not opt into the class, did not otherwise agree to be bound by the Clause Construction Award or the class certification award, and did not otherwise submit to the Arbitrator the issues decided by the Clause Construction and class certification Awards.

 The result would be that the class arbitration could proceed, albeit with a far smaller, certified class (which might be expanded to accommodate any absent members who might be given an additional opportunity to opt-in). But that result, we think, is consistent with the consensual nature of arbitration— a dispute resolution method that is fundamentally different from its coercive counterpart, court litigation.   

Absent Class Members: Background and Procedural History of Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc.

The Second Circuit’s recent decision was the fourth appeal in the Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc. case, a long-running class arbitration dispute. The first of these appeals,  Jock v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., 646 F.3d 113 (2d Cir. 2011) (“Jock I”), was decided in 2011—the most recent one, Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., No. 18-153-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. November 18, 2019) (“Jock IV”), and the subject of this post, was decided November 18, 2019.

Jock and her co-plaintiffs are retail sales employees of Sterling Jewelers, Inc. (“Sterling”). Back in 2008 they sought relief on behalf of a class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and under the Equal Pay Act, alleging Sterling, based on their gender, paid them less than their similarly situated male co-workers. 

Sterling employees, including Jock and her co-plaintiffs were required to sign a “RESOLVE Program” agreement (the “Agreement”), which imposed mandatory arbitration. By executing the agreement employees expressly “waiv[ed] right[s] to obtain any legal or equitable relief . . . through any government agency or court, and . . . also waiv[ed] [their] right[s] to commence any court action.” The Agreement provided that they “may. . . seek and be awarded equal remedy through the RESOLVE Program.”

The Agreement provided 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.”

Class arbitration ensued, and the arbitrator construed the Agreement to permit class arbitration. The district court overturned the award on the ground that the class construction award exceeded under the arbitrator’s powers for the reasons stated in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010).

Jock I

But the Second Circuit in Jock I reversed the district court’s judgment. As the Court explained in Jock IV, the Jock I Court “reversed, holding that the District Court impermissibly substituted its own legal analysis for that of the arbitrator instead of focusing its inquiry on whether the arbitrator was permitted to reach the question of class arbitrability that had been submitted to her by the parties.” Jock IV, slip op. at 5-6. The Jock I Court also “explained. . . that the arbitrator had a colorable justification under the law to reach the decision she did.” Jock IV, slip op. at 6.

Jock I “distinguished Stolt-Nielsen on the ground that the parties in Stolt-Nielsen stipulated that their arbitration agreement contained ‘no agreement’ on the issue of class arbitration, whereas the plaintiffs in [Jock I] merely conceded that there was no explicit agreement to permit class arbitration, thus leaving open the possibility of an ‘implied agreement to permit arbitration.’”  Jock IV, slip op. at 6 (citation omitted). 

The Class Certification Award

After Jock I the arbitrator made a class certification award, certifying a class of “approximately 44,000 women, comprising the then-254 plaintiffs as well as other individuals who had neither submitted claims nor opted in to the arbitration proceeding (‘the absent class members’).” Jock IV, slip op. at 6 (parenthetical in original). The arbitrator’s class certification was limited to those with Title VII disparate impact claims seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

The district court denied Sterling’s motion to vacate the certification award. As Jock IV explains, the district court reasoned “that Sterling’s argument that the arbitrator had exceeded her powers in ‘purporting to bind absent class members who did not express their consent to be bound’ was ‘foreclosed by’ this Court’s holding in Jock I that ‘there is no question that the issue of whether the agreement permitted class arbitration was squarely presented to the arbitrator.’” ”  Jock IV, slip op. at 7 (citation omitted).

Jock II

The district court’s decision refusing to vacate the class certification award resulted in the second appeal, Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 703 Fed. Appx. 15 (2d Cir. 2017) (summary order). (“Jock II”). In July 2017 we wrote a short post (here) about Jock II.

Jock II vacated and remanded the district court’s decision refusing to vacate the certification award because it purported to bind absent members, who (because of their absence) could not have “squarely presented” to the arbitrator the question whether the agreement authorized class procedures, let alone the issue of whether they should be deemed part of a class in a class arbitration to which they had not consented. See Jock II, 703 Fed. Appx. at 16, 17-18 (quotation and citation omitted).

In Jock II, the Second Circuit directed the district court to “consider[] on remand. . . ‘whether an arbitrator, who may decide. . . whether an arbitration agreement provides for class procedures because the parties “squarely presented” it for decision, may thereafter purport to bind non-parties to class procedures on this basis.’”) Jock IV, slip op. at 7-8 (citation omitted).  

The Jock II Remand

The district court vacated the class determination award on remand for two reasons. First, the district court said that it had ruled in 2010 that the Agreement did not authorize class procedures and that, accordingly, the absent class members had not consented to class arbitration.

Second, the submission by the plaintiffs and defendants (not the absent members) to the arbitrator of the question whether the Agreement authorized class arbitration did not confer on the arbitrator the authority to make a ruling binding on the absent members (who did not submit the issue to the Arbitrator). “The District Court[,]” said the Second Circuit, “reasoned that, even if the arbitrator’s ‘erroneous interpretation’ of the [Agreement] could bind the 254 plaintiffs who had ‘authorized the arbitrator to make that determination by submitting the question to her or opting into the proceeding, that erroneous interpretation could not bind absent class members.” Jock IV, slip op. at 8.

The Jock IV Appeal

The district court ruling on the Jock II remand resulted in the Jock IV appeal. (The Jock III decision was the dismissal of an appeal of a district court ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to vacate an interim decision rendered by the arbitrator. Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 691 F. App’x 665 (2d Cir. 2017) (summary order).) 

Since the issue before the district court on the Jock II remand  was whether the arbitrator’s class certification decision should be vacated under Section 10(a)(4) of the Federal Arbitration Act, the applicable standard of review was the manifest disregard of the agreement standard set forth in Stolt-Nielsen and Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 569 U.S. 564, 568-69 (2013). See Jock IV, slip op. at 9-11. (For discussion of that deferential standard, see here, here, here, and here)  

Sterling (the “Award Challenger”) argued, consistent with the district court’s decision,  that the deferential standard should not apply to the question whether the absent members had consented to class arbitration, because they were not parties to the class construction award that was the subject of Jock I, did not submit the issue of class consent to the arbitrator, or otherwise agree to be bound by a determination of consent to class arbitration to which they were not parties.

But the Second Circuit did not agree with the district court or the Award Challenger. It agreed with the plaintiff-appellants (the “Award Defending Parties”), who “argue[d] that the absent class members have, in fact, authorized the arbitrator to determine whether the [Agreement] permits class arbitration procedures.” Jock IV, slip op. at 11.  They urged “that because all Sterling employees signed the RESOLVE Agreement, all Sterling employees “agreed that, if any of them initiated a putative class proceeding, the arbitrator in that proceeding would be empowered to decide class-arbitrability—and, if he or she found it appropriate, to certify a class encompassing other employees’ claims.” Jock IV, slip op. at 11-12.

The Award Defending Parties asserted that “the District Court erred by ‘never ask[ing] what authority absent class members conferred on [the arbitrator] by joining the RESOLVE Program [i.e., signing the Agreement],’ a question that is a matter of contract interpretation.” Jock IV, slip op. at 12.

The Second Circuit determined that, by signing the Agreement, the employer and the absent class members agreed that: (a) any other employee who signed the Agreement was authorized to arbitrate on behalf of any absent member of a yet-to-be certified class the issue of consent to class arbitration, irrespective of whether the absent class member was a party to the arbitration, and irrespective of whether the absent member had notice of, and consented to, the arbitration; (b) any absent class member would be bound by the outcome of such a class-arbitration-consent arbitration proceeding, even though the absent class member did not participate in the arbitration, did not consent to the arbitration (apart from signing the Agreement), and did not play any role in the selection of the arbitrator who presided over the arbitration; and (c) the decision on class arbitration reached by the arbitrator in his or her absence would be subject to review under the exceedingly deferential Oxford/Stolt-Nielsen standard only, and the absent members would be bound by the result of that judicial review even though they were not parties to the Clause Construction Award or to the judicial proceeding in which the Clause Construction Award was reviewed.  

Absent Class Members: What to Make of Jock IV?

We’ll discuss that in an upcoming post….