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Assignment and Separability: Can an Assignor Compel Arbitration? The South Carolina Supreme Court Says the Arbitrators Get to Decide

August 2nd, 2023 Application to Compel Arbitration, Arbitrability | Clear and Unmistakable Rule, Arbitrability | Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Law, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Clear and Unmistakable Rule, Contract Defenses, Existence of Arbitration Agreement, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 1, Federal Arbitration Act Section 2, Federal Arbitration Act Section 3, Federal Arbitration Act Section 4, Federal Policy in Favor of Arbitration, Gateway Disputes, Gateway Questions, Practice and Procedure, Questions of Arbitrability, Section 4, Separability, Severability, South Carolina Supreme Court, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Assignment and Separability: Can an Assignor Compel Arbitration? The South Carolina Supreme Court Says the Arbitrators Get to Decide

Introduction: Assignment and the Separability Doctrine 

Separability and Assignment

Suppose A and B enter a contract imposing mutual obligations on them. The contract contains an arbitration agreement requiring arbitration of all disputes arising out of or related to the contract. The contract does not purport to prohibit assignment, and the parties’ rights under the contract are otherwise capable of assignment.

A assigns to assignee C its rights to receive performance under the contract. B commences an action against A under the contract and A demands arbitration. B resists arbitration, arguing that A has assigned to C its right to enforce the contract (we’ll call it a “container contract” because it contains an arbitration agreement) and thus there is no longer any arbitration agreement that A can enforce against B. Judgment for whom?

In Sanders v. Svannah Highway Auto Co., No. 28168, slip op. (July 26, 2023),  the Supreme Court of North Carolina said that, under the Federal Arbitration Act’s “separability” doctrine, the claim that the contract—including the arbitration agreement— could no longer be enforced was an issue that concerned the enforceability of the container contract as a whole, not the enforceability of the arbitration agreement specifically. And because the assignment concerned only the continued existence of the container contract, and not a claim that the container contract was never formed, the exception to the separability doctrine under which courts get to decide whether a contract has been concluded did not apply.

Accordingly, explained the South Carolina Supreme Court, it was for the arbitrator to decide what effect, if any, the assignment had on A’s right to enforce the container contract, including the arbitration agreement. Continue Reading »