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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 No Comments »
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.

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Look Through: Second Circuit Holds that District Courts Must “Look Through” a Section 9 Petition to Confirm to Ascertain Subject Matter Jurisdiction

May 13th, 2019 Amount in Controversy, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, Diversity Jurisdiction, FAA Chapter 1, FAA Chapter 2, FAA Chapter 3, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, Federal Arbitration Act Section 10, Federal Arbitration Act Section 11, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Arbitration Act Section 9, Federal Courts, Federal Question, Look Through, Petition to Modify Award, Petition to Vacate Award, Subject Matter Jurisdiction, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Comments Off on Look Through: Second Circuit Holds that District Courts Must “Look Through” a Section 9 Petition to Confirm to Ascertain Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Look Through

In Landau v. Eisenberg, ___ F.3d ___, No. 17-3963, slip op. (May 1, 2019) (per curiam), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently held that district courts must “look through” a Section 9 petition to confirm an arbitration award to determine whether the court has subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the petition. District courts must therefore ascertain whether the district court would, absent an arbitration agreement, have had subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying controversy that resulted in the arbitration, and ultimately the award.

While the Second Circuit ruled in a per curiam decision, the issue it decided was of first impression. But it followed on the heels of, and heavily relied on, Doscher v. Sea Port Grp. Sec., LLC, 832 F.3d 372, 379-89 (2d Cir. 2016), which held that district courts should look through a Section 10 or 11 petition to ascertain the existence of federal subject matter jurisdiction. Doscher instructed federal courts to focus not on whether the Section 10 and 11 FAA award review and enforcement process presented substantial federal questions, but on the same thing they would have focused on had they been asked to compel arbitration of the controversy: whether the underlying controversy, in keeping with the well-pleaded complaint rule, would have been within the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction had it not been submitted to arbitration. See Doscher, 882 F.3d at 379-89.  

While Eisenberg and Doscher concerned the question whether federal-question subject matter jurisdiction exists over FAA Sections 9, 10, and 11 petitions, the reasoning of those cases also applies to the question whether there is federal subject matter jurisdiction over such petitions based on the diversity jurisdiction.

The Problem Addressed by Eisenberg and Doscher

Problem | Issue

The Federal Arbitration Act is “something of an anomaly in the realm of federal legislation: It bestows no federal jurisdiction but rather requires for access to a federal forum an independent jurisdictional basis over the parties’ dispute.” Vaden v. Discover Bank, 556 U.S. 49, 59 (2009).

Section 4 of the FAA, which governs motions to compel arbitration, provides that to determine the “independent jurisdictional basis” the court must ascertain whether “save for such agreement, [the district court] would have jurisdiction. . . of the subject matter of a suit arising out of the controversy [claimed to be arbitrable][:]”

[a] party aggrieved by the alleged failure, neglect, or refusal of another to arbitrate under a written agreement for arbitration may petition any United States district court which, save for such agreement, would have jurisdiction under title 28, in a civil action or in admiralty of the subject matter of a suit arising out of the controversy between the parties, for an order directing that such arbitration proceed in the manner provided for in such agreement.


9 U.S.C. § 4 (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court held in Vaden that “§ 4 of the FAA does not enlarge federal court jurisdiction,” 556 U.S. at 66, and district courts must “look through” the petition to the controversy between the parties to ascertain whether the court had subject matter jurisdiction over the controversy. 556 U.S. at 62. District courts must therefore “assume the absence of the arbitration agreement and determine whether it would have jurisdiction under title 28 without it.” Id. at 63.

But section 4 of the FAA expressly specifies the circumstances under which a federal district court will have jurisdiction over an application to compel arbitration, whereas Sections 9, 10, and 11 of the FAA—which address applications to confirm, vacate, and modify awards—say nothing about subject matter jurisdiction. The availability of relief under those portions of the FAA is not conditioned on either the existence of a lawsuit over which the Court already has subject matter jurisdiction (and which may have been stayed pending arbitration under Section 3 of the FAA) or on a party having previously invoked the court’s jurisdiction by filing a proceeding to compel arbitration under Section 4.

Sections 9, 10, and 11 of the FAA do not in and of themselves vest jurisdiction in a district court simply because they are part of a federal statute—the FAA requires an independent basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction. But what determines subject matter jurisdiction, the nature of the petition to confirm, vacate, or modify the award, or the nature of the underlying dispute that ultimately resulted in the arbitration award?   

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