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Archive for the ‘United States Supreme Court’ Category

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Another Class Arbitration Case: Can the Federal Arbitration Act Spare DIRECTV an Extended Stay in Class-Arbitration-Waiver Purgatory?

March 31st, 2015 Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, California State Courts, Choice-of-Law Provisions, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Contract Interpretation, FAA Preemption of State Law, Practice and Procedure, State Courts, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on U.S. Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Another Class Arbitration Case: Can the Federal Arbitration Act Spare DIRECTV an Extended Stay in Class-Arbitration-Waiver Purgatory?

On March 23, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, No. 14-462. If decided on its merits, the case will be by our count the fifth U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning class arbitration decided on its merits during the period 2010 forward.

yay-1341284-digitalImburgia is a decision by the California Court of Appeals, Second District, Division One of which the California Supreme Court denied review. Like many other Federal Arbitration Act cases, it presents some interesting vertical conflict of law questions, but the California Court of Appeals does not appear to have resolved them in the way the U.S. Supreme Court presumably intended them to be resolved under the Volt and Mastrobuono lines of cases. 

The case centers  on a class-action waiver non-severability provision included in a consumer contract DIRECTV entered into in 2007, about four years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Concepcion that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted California’s Discover Bank rule. The Discover Bank rule provides that class action waivers are unenforceable in litigation or arbitration proceedings. See, generally, AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1753 (2011).

yay-3535433-digitalBefore Concepcion not only did the California state courts hold that the Federal Arbitration Act did not preempt the Discover Bank rule, but so did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Thus, at the time, the risk companies like DIRECTV and others with consumer class arbitration exposure had was that applicable state law would not only ban class arbitration waivers, but applicable federal law would permit that to happen.

So companies like DIRECTV and others built into their arbitration agreements a fail-safe mechanism under which the entire arbitration agreement would be rendered uneneforceable if state law rendered the class arbitration waiver unenforceable. In other words, the companies understandably viewed class action litigation to be a more favorable alternative than class arbitration if forced to choose between the two. Continue Reading »

SCA v. Armstrong: Anatomy of the Lance Armstrong Arbitration Award—Part III.B.1: Panel Issue No. 1: the Panel’s Authority to Decide the SCA Parties’ Sanctions Claims

March 29th, 2015 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Attorney Fees and Sanctions, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Grounds for Vacatur, Practice and Procedure, State Courts, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on SCA v. Armstrong: Anatomy of the Lance Armstrong Arbitration Award—Part III.B.1: Panel Issue No. 1: the Panel’s Authority to Decide the SCA Parties’ Sanctions Claims

Part III.B.1

Panel Issue No. 1: the Armstrong Panel’s Authority to Decide the SCA Parties’ Sanctions Claims

Introduction

Part III.A of our Lance Armstrong Arbitration Award series identified (a) the categories of issues (the “Issue Categories”) that a court can address on a motion to vacate an arbitration award on the ground the arbitrators exceeded their powers (the “Issue Categories”); and (a) the four specific issues that the Panel addressed in its award (the “Panel Issues”).

Panel Issue No. 1 was, as phrased by the arbitrators: “Does this Arbitration Tribunal have the jurisdiction or authority to decide and resolve the existing disputes between the named parties?” That issue falls into Issue Category No. 1: Issues concerning whether the parties delegated to the arbitrators—or were required to delegate to the arbitrators—the power to decide particular disputes.

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Whether or not the Panel had the authority to decide the SCA Parties’ claims against  Armstrong and Tailwind (the “Armstrong Parties”) depends on whether at least one 0f the parties requested the arbitrators to adjudicate those claims; and the other party either: (a) expressly or impliedly consented to the arbitrators deciding the dispute; or (b) objected to the request, but the claims were within the scope of the parties’ written pre- or post-dispute arbitration agreement.   Disputes what issues the parties submitted—or were required to be submit—to arbitration present questions of arbitrability. See, e.g., Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83-86 (2002); First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 543 U.S. 938, 942-45 (1995).

Relationship Between Arbitrability and the Post-Award Standard of Judicial Review

Ordinarily, questions of arbitrability are— in the allocation-of-decision-making-power scheme of things—for the court to decide, unless the parties have clearly and unmistakably agreed to delegate them to arbitrators. See, e.g., First Options, 543 U.S. at 944-45. Under a typical broadly-worded pre-dispute arbitration agreement, the vast majority of disputes that may arise between the parties—including disputes about arbitration procedure—are presumptively arbitrable, that is, they are subject to arbitration unless the parties clearly a nd unmistakably exclude them from arbitration. But when a dispute presents a question of arbitrability, then it is presumptively for the court to decide, that is, they are not subject to arbitration unless the parties clearly and unmistakably include them within the universe of disputes that must be submitted to arbitration.

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Where as here, an arbitrability issue arises at the award enforcement (or back-end) stage of the proceedings—rather than the pre-arbitration,  arbitration-agreement-enforcement (or front-end) stage (i.e., on a motion to compel arbitration or stay litigation)—then whether or not an issue is a question of arbitrability affects the standard of review. The standard of review is, in essence, the degree of deference to  which a court pays the arbitrators’ decisions on matters that are material to applications to confirm, vacate or modify arbitration awards. Continue Reading »

United States Supreme Court Requests Response to Petition for Certiorari in Texas Party-Appointed Arbitrator Qualification Case

March 28th, 2015 American Arbitration Association, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Arbitrator Selection and Qualification Provisions, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Contract Interpretation, Evident Partiality, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, State Arbitration Law, State Courts, Texas Supreme Court, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on United States Supreme Court Requests Response to Petition for Certiorari in Texas Party-Appointed Arbitrator Qualification Case

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On June 20, 2014 the Texas Supreme Court held in Americo Life, Inc. v. Myer, 440 S.W.3d 18 (Tex. 2014), that an arbitration award had to be vacated because it was made by a panel not constituted according to the parties’ agreement. The parties’ agreement, among other things, incorporated the American Arbitration Association (the “AAA”)’s rules, which at the time the parties entered into the contract followed the traditional, industry arbitration principle that party-appointed arbitrators may be partial, under the control of the appointing party or both. But by the time the dispute arose the AAA Rules had been amended to provide that the parties are presumed to intend that appointed arbitrators must be neutral.

Five Justices of the nine-member Court determined that the parties had agreed that party-appointed arbitrators need not be impartial, only independent. Because the AAA had, contrary to the parties’ agreement, disqualified the challenging party’s first-choice arbitrator on partiality grounds, the panel that rendered the award was not properly constituted and thus exceeded its powers. See 440 S.W.3d at 25. (Copies of our Americo posts are here and here.)

The losing party has petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, arguing that the Court should determine whether the Court should have deferred to the AAA’s decision on disqualification rather than independently determining whether the parties intended to require party-appointed arbitrators to be neutral. Continue Reading »

What Standards Apply to Lance Armstrong’s Putative Challenge to the $10,000,000.00 Arbitration Award?

March 1st, 2015 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Choice-of-Law Provisions, Contract Interpretation, Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, FAA Preemption of State Law, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, New York Convention, Practice and Procedure, State Courts, Texas Supreme Court, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on What Standards Apply to Lance Armstrong’s Putative Challenge to the $10,000,000.00 Arbitration Award?

SCA v. Armstrong:

Anatomy of an Arbitration Award—Part II

What Standards Apply to Lance Armstrong’s Putative Challenge to the Arbitrators’ $10,000,000.00 Sanctions Award?

 

yay-10447276-digitalAs discussed in Part I, if Lance Armstrong (“Armstrong”) and Tailwind Sports Corp. (“Tailwind”) (collectively, the “Armstrong Parties”) challenge the Armstrong Arbitration Award, that challenge will be based on the Panel allegedly exceeding its powers. To meaningfully assess whether the Panel exceeded its powers we need to consider what law applies. Continue Reading »

Third Circuit Opalinski Class Arbitration Arbitrability Case Cert. Petition Set for Conference

February 25th, 2015 Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Consolidation of Arbitration Proceedings, Drafting Arbitration Agreements, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Third Circuit Opalinski Class Arbitration Arbitrability Case Cert. Petition Set for Conference

yay-10417208Classarb-e14248919879081 - CopyOn August 28, 2014 we posted an article discussing the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s decision in Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l Inc., 761 F.3d 326 (3rd Cir. 2014), which held that the question of consent to class arbitration was one of arbitrability. Prior to Opalinski the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594 (6th Cir. 2013), “that the question whether an arbitration agreement permits classwide arbitration is a gateway matter, which is reserved for judicial determination unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise.” 734 F.2d at 599 (quotation and citation omitted).

 

 

yay-10343058Arbitrability-e1424891774286Opalinski “join[ed] the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in holding that the availability of class arbitration” is a substantive gateway question rather than a procedural one[,]” and thus “is a question of arbitrability.” 761 F.3d at 335. The Third Circuit’s decision turned on “the critical differences between individual and class arbitration and the significant consequences of that determination for both [a] whose claims are subject to arbitration[;] and [b] the type of controversy to be arbitrated.” Id. (emphasis and bracketed letters added). Where, as in Opalinski, the arbitration agreement did not “mention” class arbitration, the Court “believ[ed] the parties would have expected a court, not an arbitrator, to determine the availability of class arbitration[,]” and that was “especially so given the critical differences between individual and class arbitration and the significant consequences” of the class-arbitration-consent determination as respects “whose claims are subject to arbitration and the type of controversy to be arbitrated.” 761 F.3d at 335.

 

yay-34842-e1424891828235As we explained in our prior post, both Opalinski and Reed Elsevier followed on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064 (2013), which in footnote pointed out that the award-challenger in Oxford had unreservedly submitted to the arbitrator the issue of whether class arbitration consent was one of arbitrability, but that the case before it would have been “different” had Oxford “argued below that the availability of class-arbitration is a so-called ‘question of arbitrability.’” 133 S. Ct. at 2068 n.2. The Oxford Court said that Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 680 (2010) “made clear that this Court has not yet decided” whether class-arbitration-consent presents a question of arbitrability. But “Oxford agreed that the arbitrator should determine whether its contract with Sutter authorized class procedures[,]” and “Oxford submitted that issue to arbitrator not once, but twice and the second time after Stolt-Nielsen flagged that it might be a question of arbitrability.” 133 S. Ct. at 2068 n.2. (emphasis added)

 

yay-4295955StandardReview-e1424891877565Had Oxford opted to request the Supreme Court to determine whether class-arbitration consent presented a question of arbitrability, and had the Court determined that it was such a question, then the Court would have determined “independently, that is, without deferring to the arbitrator’s decision” whether the parties consented to class arbitration. See BG Group plc v. Republic of Argentina, No. 12-138, slip op. at 6 (U.S. March 5, 2014); First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 543 U.S. 938, 942 (1995). And we doubt that a majority of the Supreme Court would have upheld the Oxford award had it reviewed the class-arbitration-consent determination de novo. See, e.g., Oxford, 133 S. Ct. at 2071 (Alito, J., concurring) (“If we were reviewing the arbitrator’s interpretation of the contract de novo, we would have little trouble concluding that he improperly inferred “[a]n implicit agreement to authorize class-action arbitration.  .  .  from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.”) (quoting Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 685).

 

yay-14148680-digital-e1424891905695 - CopyAfter the Third Circuit denied rehearing en banc, the Opalinsky parties petitioned for certiorari. The petition has been distributed and is set to be considered at the Supreme Court’s March 6, 2015 conference. See Docket, Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l Inc., No. 14-625.

The United States Supreme Court regularly holds private conferences at which it, among other things, votes on whether to grant particular petitions for certiorari. Four votes is required to grant a petition for cert. The vast majority of the many cert. petitions the Court considers considers are denied. When the Supreme Court grants a petition, it simply means that it has agreed to hear the case, which will then be fully briefed, and in most cases, orally argued. Neither the grant or denial of a petition for certiorari suggests approval or disapproval with the lower court’s decision on the merits.

It will be interesting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court is will agree to hear and determine the important arbitrability question addressed in Opalinski. If it does the Court will have an opportunity to provide some needed, uniform guidance on it, and perhaps even some indirect guidance on the related issue of whether, and if so, under what circumstances, consent to consolidated arbitration may present a question of arbitrability.

Federal Arbitration Act Litigation Procedure Blog Posts on Final Arbitration Awards

December 30th, 2014 Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Functus Officio, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Loree & Loree Arbitration-Law Blogs, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Federal Arbitration Act Litigation Procedure Blog Posts on Final Arbitration Awards

Back when we began posting in 2009 we published a “Nuts & Bolts”  series post about final arbitration awards, which you can read here. Interestingly, enough, that post, according to Google Analytics statistics, is one of the (if not the) most popular post we’ve ever published.

That may seem a bit strange, but it’s really not. Whether or not an arbitration award is a final arbitration award bears on a number of important issues, including whether the award can be confirmed, vacated, modified or corrected, and whether it is a decision that the arbitrators have the authority to revisit. And whether or not an arbitration award can be confirmed, vacated, modified or corrected before the conclusion of an ongoing arbitration proceeding has obvious time-bar consequences in light of the short limitation periods for confirming, vacating, modifying and correcting awards: to avoid forfeiture, it may be necessary to commence post-award Federal Arbitration Act enforcement proceedings before the arbitration proceeding has concluded. (See Loree Reins. & Arb. L. Forum posts here & here.)

Given the recent launch of  the Federal Arbitration Act Litigation Procedure Blog, and the need to start posting what we hope will be interesting and useful material, we decided to kick-off with the finality topic. Earlier today we published the first  segment of the series Federal Arbitration Act Finality: Is this Arbitration Decision a Final Award, An Interim Final Award, a Partial Award, a Partial Final Award or. . . What??, which you can read here.

That post outlines the topic and describes a hypothetical arbitration that gives rise to five types of awards and rulings, four of which are issued prior to the award that concludes the arbitration. Future posts  will discuss whether or not each type of award is, or may in some circumstances be, a final arbitration award for  purposes of Chapter 1 of the Federal Arbitration Act.

Another thing we’ll discuss will be the affect, if any, of Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010) on the final award issue. Of all the many issues discussed in the Stolt-Nielsen case the one we hear relatively little commentary about is the Supreme Court’s rejection of the dissent’s argument that the class-arbitration consent award was not ripe for judicial review.  See 559 U.S. at 667 n.2. As part of the Federal Arbitration Act Litigation Procedure Blog final-award series, we’ll consider that aspect of the Supreme Court’s ruling and its relevance to the question whether a partial award can be a partial final award if the parties consent.

And unless we  somehow feel compelled  to publish yet another post this year, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year!

Philip J. Loree Jr.

 

Pine Top Receivables, LLC v. Banco De Seguros Del Estado:  The Seventh Circuit Exorcises some Ghosts of Reinsurance Past, but has it Summoned an Erie Ghost of Reinsurance Future?

November 22nd, 2014 Appellate Jurisdiction, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Collateral Requirements for Unauthorized Reinsurance, Contract Interpretation, Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, FAA Chapter 3, Federal Courts, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Insolvency Proceedings, Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration, McCarran-Ferguson Act, New York Convention, Panama Convention, Pre-Answer Security, Reinsurance Arbitration, Reinsurance Claims, Reinsurance Litigation, Security Requirements, Unauthorized Reinsurance, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Pine Top Receivables, LLC v. Banco De Seguros Del Estado:  The Seventh Circuit Exorcises some Ghosts of Reinsurance Past, but has it Summoned an Erie Ghost of Reinsurance Future?

Part II: What Transpired in Pine Top?

 

In our last post on  Pine Top Receivables, LLC v. Banco De Seguros Del Estado, ___ F.3d ___, Nos. 13-1364/2331, slip op. (7th Cir. Nov. 7, 2014) (per curiam) (here), we offered our take on the case and what it might mean, particularly as respects the Court’s suggestion that state pre-answer security statutes may be procedural under the Erie doctrine, possibly inconsistent with federal procedural law and thus inapplicable in diversity cases. Now let’s take a closer look at what transpired in Pine Top, for even apart from the Court’s allusion to a possible Erie doctrine issue (our Erie ghost of reinsurance future), it involved a number of classic reinsurance issues (our ghosts of reinsurance past), as well as a notable appellate jurisdiction issue and the question whether the assignee of the insolvent ceding company acquired the right to demand arbitration against the reinsurer.  Continue Reading »

Pine Top Receivables, LLC v. Banco De Seguros Del Estado: The Seventh Circuit Exorcises some Ghosts of Reinsurance Past, but has it Summoned an Erie Ghost of Reinsurance Future?    

November 19th, 2014 Appellate Jurisdiction, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Contract Interpretation, FAA Chapter 3, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Insolvency Proceedings, Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration, McCarran-Ferguson Act, Nuts & Bolts: Reinsurance, Panama Convention, Practice and Procedure, Pre-Answer Security, Reinsurance Litigation, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Pine Top Receivables, LLC v. Banco De Seguros Del Estado: The Seventh Circuit Exorcises some Ghosts of Reinsurance Past, but has it Summoned an Erie Ghost of Reinsurance Future?    

In Pine Top Receivables, LLC v. Banco De Seguros Del Estado, ___ F.3d ___, Nos. 13-1364/2331, slip op. (7th Cir. Nov. 7, 2014) (per curiam) the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed a trio of issues that—once upon a time at least—arose fairly frequently in reinsurance litigation: pre-answer security; immunity from posting security, courtesy of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (the “FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1602-11 (2013); and the effect of the McCarran-Ferguson Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1011-­15 (2013), this time whether a state pre-answer security statute can reverse preempt the FSIA.

It did so in the somewhat unusual context of Chapter 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act, which implements the Inter-American Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (a/k/a the “Panama Convention”). That raised an arcane issue of appellate jurisdiction, which appears to have been caused by Congress failing to amend the appellate jurisdiction provisions of Chapter 1 (codified at 9 U.S.C. § 16 (2013)) to reflect Congress’ enactment of Chapter 3.

Throw in an assignment agreement between the insolvent cedent and a contract interpretation dispute over whether the cedent’s assignee purchased the right to compel arbitration under the reinsurance treaties between the insolvent cedent and the Uruguay-owned reinsurance company, and we have something that might appear to resemble a perfect storm of reinsurance and arbitration-related issues. Continue Reading »

Small Business B-2-B Arbitration Part II.B.2(C): Other Structural Aspects of Pre-Dispute Arbitration Agreements—Who will the Arbitrators be?  

November 13th, 2014 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitrator Selection and Qualification Provisions, Drafting Arbitration Agreements, Making Decisions about Arbitration, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Small Business B-2-B Arbitration Part II.B.2(C): Other Structural Aspects of Pre-Dispute Arbitration Agreements—Who will the Arbitrators be?  

In Part II.B.2(A) we identified three key structural aspects of pre-dispute B-2-B arbitration, and discussed the first two in that and a subsequent post. This Part II.B.2(C) wraps up our discussion of arbitration-agreement structure by briefly examining a topic that is at least as important as the scope of the agreement: who the decision makers will be and how they will be selected.

As one renowned jurist put it, “selection of the decision maker by or with the consent of the parties is the cornerstone of the arbitral process.”[1] Arbitration allows the parties considerable input into the selection of who the decision makers will be, something that can make it a very attractive alternative to litigation for one or both of the parties. Parties who do not opt out of the court system are left with the luck of draw.

Savvy users of arbitration—and for that matter, most persons with dispute resolution experience in judicial or arbitral forums or both—know that decision makers, whether randomly assigned or selected, are not fungible commodities. Were they fungible, let alone commodities, there would likely be little or no controversy surrounding appointments to the United States Supreme Court.

But differences in judicial philosophy do not have to be based on so-called “liberal,” “moderate” or “conservative” views to be important, and perhaps even outcome-determinative. For example, the composition of a three-judge appellate panel can in many cases significantly influence the outcome of an appeal in many civil cases involving any number of legal and policy issues that are not the subject of discussion, let alone controversy, in the mainstream media.

Presumably many lawyers who argue appeals before three-judge panels (including the author) would scream “halleluiah!” had they the opportunity to select even one member of a three-judge appeals panel—or even if each party got to select one, leaving those two to select a third.

But time and time again, we see situations where parties who could have that opportunity—in the arbitration context, that is— had they negotiated it, or who could have at least participated meaningfully in the selection of one or more arbitrators had they exercised their contract rights with due diligence, end up having little if any meaningful input into the selection process. That type of lost opportunity usually redounds to their detriment, especially when their counterparts not only negotiate arbitrator selection provisions that suit their purposes, but also fully and wisely exercise their arbitrator selection rights. Continue Reading »

Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Do Arbitrators Necessarily Exceed their Powers by Making an Award that Conflicts with the Unambiguous Terms of the Parties’ Agreement?

November 11th, 2014 Appellate Practice, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration and Mediation FAQs, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Confirmation of Awards, Contract Interpretation, Grounds for Vacatur, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, New York Court of Appeals, New York State Courts, Nuts & Bolts, Nuts & Bolts: Arbitration, Practice and Procedure, Small Business B-2-B Arbitration, United States Supreme Court Comments Off on Arbitration and Mediation FAQs: Do Arbitrators Necessarily Exceed their Powers by Making an Award that Conflicts with the Unambiguous Terms of the Parties’ Agreement?

We’ve addressed on many occasions the Enterprise WheelStolt-Nielsen/Oxford contract-based outcome review standard, which permits courts to vacate awards when they do not “draw their essence” from the parties’ agreement. Under that standard the “sole question is whether the arbitrators (even arguably) interpreted the parties’ contract, not whether [they] got its meaning right or wrong.” See Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064, 2068 (2013) (parenthetical in original). (See, e.g.,  Loree Reins. & Arb. L. F. posts here, here, here, here, here & here.)

While exceedingly deferential, the standard is not toothless. Arbitration awards that disregard or contravene the clear and unmistakable terms of a contract are subject to vacatur under it. See Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 676 (panel had “no occasion to ascertain the parties’ intention in the present case because the parties were in complete agreement regarding their intent.”) (quotation omitted); United Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987) (“The arbitrator may not ignore the plain language of the contract. . . .”). That’s because an arbitrator who makes an award that lacks “any contractual basis” has not even arguably interpreted the contract, and therefore has strayed from his or her task. See Oxford, 133 S. Ct. at 2069 (distinguishing Stolt-Nielsen); Stolt-Nielsen, 559 U.S. at 668-69, 672; Misco, 484 U.S. at 38.

An arbitrator whose award contradicts the unambiguous provisions of the parties’ contract may—but will not necessarily—exceed her powers. The answer depends on what the agreement says, what the award says and whether the award is at least arguably grounded in the agreement.

Whether or not a contract or contract term is “ambiguous” depends on whether it is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning. See, e.g., White v. Continental Cas. Co., 9 N.Y.3d 264, 267 (2007); Greenfield v. Philles Records, 98 N.Y.2d 562, 570-71 (2002). When a contract is unambiguous, a court can interpret it as a matter of law; if it is ambiguous, its meaning is a question of fact for trial.

Can the Interpretation of the Arbitrators be “Unreasonable,” yet still Colorable or Plausible?

The legal standard for lack of ambiguity is that there be only one “reasonable” interpretation of the contract terms, not that there are no other at least barely plausible or barely colorable interpretations of what the contract might mean. In probably the majority of contract interpretation cases concerning alleged contract ambiguity, each litigant supports its position with good-faith, reasonable arguments for why the disputed contract terms are allegedly susceptible to one or more than one meaning. Whenever courts determine that a contract is unambiguous, that conclusion necessarily means that the losing party’s interpretation of the contract is unreasonable as a matter of law. Continue Reading »