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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)

February 4th, 2020 Arbitrability, Arbitrability | Clear and Unmistakable Rule, Arbitrability | Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Law, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Businessperson's FAQ Guide to the Federal Arbitration Act, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, FAA Chapter 1, FAA Preemption of State Law, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 3, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, First Principle - Consent not Coercion, Gateway Disputes, Gateway Questions, McCarran-Ferguson Act, Moses Cone Principle, Practice and Procedure, Pre-Award Federal Arbitration Act Litigation, Presumption of Arbitrability, Procedural Arbitrability, Questions of Arbitrability, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration, Stay of Litigation, Substantive Arbitrability 2 Comments »
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)

January 29th, 2020 Arbitrability, Arbitrability | Clear and Unmistakable Rule, Arbitrability | Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Law, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Arbitration Providers, Authority of Arbitrators, Businessperson's FAQ Guide to the Federal Arbitration Act, Clear and Unmistakable Rule, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 3, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, First Options Reverse Presumption of Arbitrability, First Principle - Consent not Coercion, Fraud, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Rescission and Reformation, Separability, Severability 3 Comments »
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.

2018-2019 Term SCOTUS Arbitration Cases: What About Lamps Plus?

June 20th, 2019 Appellate Jurisdiction, Appellate Practice, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Class Action Arbitration, Clause Construction Award, Consent to Class Arbitration, Contract Interpretation, Contract Interpretation Rules, Drafting Arbitration Agreements, FAA Preemption of State Law, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States Supreme Court 2 Comments »
Lamps Plus - Supreme Court Building
U.S. Supreme Court

On April 24, 2019 in Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, 587 U.S. ___, No. 17-998 (April 24, 2019), the United States Supreme Court considered whether whether consent to class arbitration may be inferred from ambiguous contract language.

In a 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. the Court held that ambiguity in and of itself was not enough to infer party consent to class arbitration. Parties would have to clearly express their consent to class arbitration before courts could impose it on them under the Federal Arbitration Act.

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If an Arbitration Panel Rules on an Issue the Parties did not Agree to Submit to that Panel, Should a Court Vacate the Award?

April 12th, 2019 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Award Vacated, Awards, Enforcing Arbitration Agreements, Exceeding Powers, FAA Chapter 3, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Grounds for Vacatur, Practice and Procedure, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Vacatur 2 Comments »

Introduction: Arbitration as a Way to Resolve those Disputes—and Only those Disputes—Parties Submit to Arbitrators

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The “first principle” of labor and commercial arbitration law is that “arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion” —put differently, arbitration “is a way to resolve those disputes—but only those disputes—that the parties have agreed to submit to arbitration.” Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 678-80 (2010) (citation and quotations omitted); First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 943 (1995) (citations omitted); 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). That first principle is integrally intertwined with “the central or primary purpose of the [Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)][,]” which is “to ensure that  private agreements to arbitrate are enforced according to their terms.”Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 679 (citations and quotations omitted).

What happens if the parties agree to submit one category of disputes to a two-person arbitration panel and to submit another category of disputes to a three-person panel?

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Up Narrow Arbitration Clause Creek without a Papalote?—Narrow Arbitration Clauses and the Difference between Interpretation and Performance

March 26th, 2019 Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Practice and Procedure, Presumption of Arbitrability, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 1 Comment »
Narrow Arbitration Clauses: Papalote
Hang Glider or Papalote

I am told “papalote” is a Spanish word meaning “kite” or “hang glider.” It also appears in the name of a party to a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concerning narrow arbitration clauses, Papalote Creek II, L.L.C. v. Lower Colo. River Auth., No. 17-50852, slip op. (5th Cir. Mar. 15, 2019) (“Papalote II”). The party was Papalote Creek II, L.L.C. (“Papalote”). It won the appeal.

What was the appeal about? Narrow arbitration clauses, and in particular whether a dispute about maximum, aggregate liability under a wind-energy purchase and sale contract was a dispute “with respect to performance” within the meaning of the parties’ narrow arbitration clause.

The appeal was not the first, but the second, and the procedural history was tangled, both in terms of what transpired in the disputed arbitration and in the district court. The first appeal, Papalote I, resulted in a remand because at the time the district court compelled arbitration, the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The issue on which the arbitration proponent sought arbitration was not ripe, even though it became ripe during the time Papalote I was pending. See Lower Colo. River Auth. v. Papalote Creek II, L.L.C., 858 F.3d 916 (5th Cir. 2017) (“Papalote I”).

By the time Papalote I was decided, the arbitration panel had ruled against Papalote, the arbitration opponent. But Papalote I obligated the district court to vacate the arbitration award and to reconsider the issue of whether arbitration should be compelled under the narrow arbitration clause.

On remand the district court adhered to its previous decision that the dispute fell within the scope of the narrow arbitration clause, which resulted in another order to compel arbitration and the second appeal, Papalote II.

On the second appeal the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision on arbitrability, ruling that the dispute was not about “performance,” but about “interpretation.” Going forward that means that the parties will either have to settle their dispute or litigate it in court, even though they’ve both no doubt already spent not only a good deal of time, but money, litigating about arbitration, and arbitrating a dispute they did not mutually consent to arbitrate. (Perhaps for Papalote that’s not necessarily a bad outcome, but it’s just speculation on our part.)

Bottom line: Irrespective of whether the parties considered the potential consequences associated with their narrow arbitration clause, at least one of them (and perhaps even both) may, at least to some extent, now feel like they’re up that proverbial creek without a paddle—or even a papalote….

This post takes a closer look at Papalote II, focusing exclusively on the issue whether the dispute fell within or without the scope of the parties’ narrow arbitration clause.

Narrow Arbitration Clauses: Papalote II Background

Narrow Arbitration Clauses

In Papalote II the Fifth Circuit held that a narrow arbitration clause that covered disputes about the “performance” of a contract did not cover a dispute concerning the meaning of an aggregate liability provision in a wind-energy contract. That dispute, said the Court, concerned the interpretation of the contract, not its performance, and therefore the arbitration opponent was not required to submit it to arbitration.

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Does the Presumption of Arbitrability Apply if a Contract Contains two Broad, Overlapping Forum Selection Clauses, one for Arbitration and one for Litigation?

June 7th, 2015 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Contract Interpretation, Contract Interpretation Rules, FAA Preemption of State Law, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Moses Cone Principle, Presumption of Arbitrability, Stay of Litigation, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Comments Off on Does the Presumption of Arbitrability Apply if a Contract Contains two Broad, Overlapping Forum Selection Clauses, one for Arbitration and one for Litigation?

Introduction

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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) (Brennan, J.), 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.” Moses Cone thus established that there was a presumption in favor of arbitrability in cases governed by the Federal Arbitration Act, a conclusion that a number of other lower courts had previously reached, and which the Court had adopted about 23 years previously as a matter of federal labor law derived from Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (sometimes referred to as the “Taft-Hartley Act”). See United Steel Workers of Am. v. Warrier & Gulf Nav. Co., 363 U.S. 574, 582-83 (1960) (Douglas, J.) (“An order to arbitrate the particular grievance should not be denied unless it may be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute. Doubts should be resolved in favor of coverage.”)

The presumption of arbitrability is not a talismanic solution to every arbitration-law related problem. In fact it is designed to address only questions about the scope of an arbitration agreement.

The presumption has two related components. First, when courts construe the scope provision of an arbitration agreement to determine what merits-related issues the parties agreed to arbitrate, the court resolves ambiguities in favor of arbitration.  See, e.g., Mastrobuono v. Shearson Lehman Hutton, Inc., 514 U.S. 52, 62 (1995). Second, it presumes that procedural issues arising out of arbitrable disputes, and contract-related defenses to arbitrability—that is, “allegation[s] of waiver, delay and like defenses to arbitrability[,]” are presumptively for the arbitrator. See Moses Cone, 460 U.S. at 24-25; Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 84 (2002).

Roughly ten days ago, in a post about U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner’s Sprint Spectrum decision, we wrote about how some judges have interpreted the presumption too expansively:

The federal policy in favor of arbitration has, at least arguably, been interpreted to apply more expansively than the U.S. Supreme Court likely intended. As a result, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has said many times that arbitration is supposed to be a “matter of contract,” or one of “consent not coercion,” an overly expansive interpretation of the policy has, at least in some cases, arguably resulted in arbitration agreements being placed on a considerably more advantaged footing than ordinary contracts. As we read it, Judge Posner’s comment in Roughneck raises the question whether this might have more to do with “limit[ing] judicial workloads” than a desire to enforce contracts as written and according to their terms.

(Read our Sprint Spectrum post here.)

With all the hoopla about the presumption of arbitrability, one would think it very difficult to find a case that didn’t apply the presumption of arbitrability in a situation where it was supposed to apply it. In general that’s probably true, but on June 2, 2015 the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington proved that truth is not a universal one.

In Scolari v. Elliot Rust Co., No. C15-5163 (BHS), slip op. (W.D. Wash. June 2, 2015) the court considered whether ambiguity created by apparently conflicting forum selections clauses: one arbitral and two judicial. While the Court’s reasoning indicated that it considered the issue before it one of contract interpretation—the resolution of ambiguity—it nevertheless held that the ambiguity had to be resolved against the drafter of the contract, which the district court thought Washington law required, rather than in favor of arbitration, which was what federal law required. While it apparently recognized that application of the presumption, rather than a state-law contra proferentem rule, would have required the court to stay the litigation, it nevertheless denied the requested stay of litigation, concluding that the issue before it concerned the enforceability of the arbitration agreement, rather than an interpretation of its scope.

The net effect of the ruling was for the district court to implicitly have found that a judicial forum selection clause trumped an arbitral one, simply because they overlapped in scope, and that accordingly the arbitral forum selection clause was not enforceable. There was no legal basis for such a finding and the district court cited none.

The seriousness of the error was compounded by the district court’s acknowledgement that the arbitration proponent had advanced a reasonable interpretation of the arbitration agreement and judicial forum selection clauses, which harmonized them, and would have allowed arbitration to proceed, with the district court staying its hand in the interim. Instead of adopting that interpretation, it said that the arbitration challenger’s interpretation was likewise “reasonable,” but the court did not say what the challenger’s interpretation was, and given the disposition of the case, we assume that the “interpretation” was that the parties must not have intended to include a concededly existing and valid arbitration agreement in their agreement. But that interpretation not only ignored the presumption of arbitrability, but the general rule of contract interpretation that one contract provision not be construed to negate another.

We do not know whether the arbitration proponent preserved the argument for appeal, but there was another ground for a stay of litigation in this case that would have bypassed the issue of the presumption of arbitrability. The arbitration agreement contained a delegation clause, which clearly and unmistakably required the parties to submit to arbitration all disputes about arbitrability. Because there was no dispute about the existence or validity of the delegation clause, the Court should have held that the resolution of the apparent conflict between arbitral and judicial forum selection clauses was a question for the arbitrators.

If the arbitration proponent decides to appeal the decision, we hope that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will correct these errors without delay, so that the parties can arbitrate their disputes, which is, after all, what they agreed to do.

Background

yay-12775922-digitalScolari v. Elliot Rust Co., No. C15-5163 (BHS), slip op. (W.D. Wash. June 2, 2015), arose out of the purchase, sale, termination and buyback of an interest in a limited liability company. Effective January 1, 2013 the plaintiff (the “Buyer”) purchased a ten-percent ownership interest in  Elliot Rust Companies, LLC (the “LLC”), the purchase and sale of which was governed by a “Grant Agreement” executed by the parties “according to the terms of [an] Amended and Restated LLC Agreement of Elliot Rust Companies, LLC dated January 1, 2013.” Both agreements were apparently part of the same transaction and were entered into at or about the same time.

The Buyer and LLC were the only parties to the Grant Agreement, which provided that the Buyer would acquire its 10% interest “according to the terms of the terms of the Amended and Restated LLC Agreement of Elliot Rust Companies, LLC dated January 1, 2013

The Grant Agreement provided, among other things, that:

[Scolari] understands, acknowledges and agrees that, upon execution of this Grant Agreement and the joinder to the LLC Agreement, [Scolari] shall, without further action or deed, thereupon be bound by the LLC Agreement, as it may thereafter be restated or amended, as though a direct signatory thereto.

It contained a “jurisdiction” clause that stipulated Washington law as governing and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington as the exclusive judicial forum:

Governing Law: Jurisdiction. This Grant Agreement and the transaction contemplated hereby shall be governed by and construed according to the laws of the state of Washington. With respect to any dispute arising out of or related to this Grant Agreement or the LLC Agreement, the parties hereby consent to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. . . .

yay-1916763-digitalThe LLC Agreement, unlike the Grant Agreement, contained a broad arbitration agreement, which said:

Arbitration. All disputes, claims or controversies relating to this Agreement that are not resolved by mediation shall be submitted to final and binding arbitration. . . . Questions or arbitrability or the scope of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate shall be determined by the arbitrator.

But like the Grant Agreement, the LLC Agreement also contained a jurisdiction and venue clause:

Jurisdiction and Venue. Any suit involving any dispute or matter arising under this Agreement may only be brought in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington or the Superior Court of Pierce County. All Members hereby consent to the exercise of personal jurisdiction by any such court with respect to any such proceeding.

The LLC terminated the plaintiff on November 6, 2014, and on December 15, 2014 offered to buy plaintiff’s 10% interest out for $158,882.60. The plaintiff refused the offer one week later, claiming that he did not believe it to be accurately valued.

yay-13760132Unable to agree a resolution the plaintiff filed suit in March 2015, requesting a judgment declaring he has a 20% interest in the profits of the LLC, and equitable relief.

The LLC moved on April 3, 2015 to dismiss for improper venue or to stay the action pending arbitration under Section 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act pending arbitration. The Court denied the motion.

The District Court’s Analysis and Conclusions

The Court began its analysis by acknowledging that its “role” was confined “‘to determining (1) whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists and, if it does, (2) whether the agreement encompasses the dispute at issue.’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting Chiron Corp. v. Ortho Diagnostic Sys., Inc., 207 F.3d 1126, 1130 (9th Cir. 2000)). If the arbitration proponent establishes that the answers to both questions are “yes,” then, said the Court, the Court must “‘enforce the arbitration in accordance with its terms.’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting 207 F.3d at 1130). And in discussing the standard applicable to question (2), the Court, playing homage to the strong presumption in favor of arbitration, said “‘any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration. . . .’” Slip op. at 4 (quoting 207 F.3d at 1131).

So far, so good. But having accurately stated the governing rules, the Court inexplicably failed to heed them. Continue Reading »

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sprint Spectrum: Background

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

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

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

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

The Seventh Circuit’s Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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