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Posts Tagged ‘De Novo Review’

Class Arbitration, Absent Class Members, and Class Certification Awards: Consent or Coercion?

January 6th, 2020 Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Authority of Arbitrators, Class Action Arbitration, Class Arbitration - Class Certification Awards, Clause Construction Award, Confirm Award | Exceeding Powers, Consent to Class Arbitration, FAA Chapter 1, Federal Arbitration Act Enforcement Litigation Procedure, First Principle - Consent not Coercion, Practice and Procedure, Rights and Obligations of Nonsignatories, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit No Comments »
absent class members | class arbitration

On November 29, 2019 we posted Absent Class Members, Class Arbitration, Class Certification Awards, Consent, Coercion, and the Second Circuit, which discussed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., No. 18-153-cv, slip op. (2d Cir. November 18, 2019) (“Jock IV”).

In Jock IV the Second Circuit reversed a district court order vacating an arbitrator’s class certification award, which the district court vacated because it made tens of thousands of absent class members part of a certified class even though none: (a) was a party to the class arbitration; (b) opted in to the proposed class; or (c) participated in or otherwise consented to the class arbitration. The Second Circuit held it was enough that the absent class members, like all other employees, had executed an identical, form pre-dispute arbitration agreement (the “Agreement”), which required the absent class members to submit, among other things, arbitrability and arbitration procedure disputes to arbitration.

Absent Class Members: The Federal Arbitration Act’s First Principle and Consent to Class Arbitration

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)’s “first principle” is that “arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion.” Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 678-80, 684 (2010) (citation and quotations omitted); see, e.g., Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, 139 S. Ct. 1407, 1417 (2019); Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 561 U.S. 287, 295 & n.7, 294 n.6 (2010); AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U. S. 643, 648 (1986).

Beginning in Stolt-Nielsen,and most recently in Lamps Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the importance of consent to class arbitration. In Stolt-Nielsen, the Court required a “contractual basis” for imposing class arbitration, and explained that “[a]n implicit agreement to authorize class arbitration, however, is not a term that the arbitrator may infer solely from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate.” 599 U.S. at 685.  

Most recently, in Lamps Plus the Court imposed a federal presumption against consent to class arbitration under which silent or ambiguous contract language cannot establish consent to class arbitration, and under which the FAA is deemed to preempt state-law contract interpretation rules that are not intent-based—such as contra proferentem, the rule that ambiguities are, at least in the absence of any other extrinsic evidence of intent, construed against the contract’s drafter. See Lamps Plus,139 S. Ct. at 1416-19.

The Lamps Plus presumption requires more than simply “a contractual basis” for finding consent to class arbitration. As a practical matter it means that the parties must clearly and unmistakably consent to class arbitration. (See, e.g., our Lamps Plus post, here.)

What does the Agreement Have to Say About Class Arbitration?

The Agreement is a form dispute resolution agreement that was signed by each of an employer (the “Employer”)’s many employees. By signing the Agreement the signatory Employer and employee agreed to arbitrate their disputes, “waiv[ed] [their] right to obtain any legal or equitable relief . . . through any government agency or court, and . . . also waiv[e] [their] right to commence any court action.”

The Agreement provides that the employee “may. . . seek and be awarded equal remedy” under the Agreement, that “‘[t]he Arbitrator shall have the power to award any types of legal or equitable relief that would be available in a court of competent jurisdiction[,]’ and that any claim arising thereunder will be arbitrated ‘in accordance with the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association.’” Jock IV, slip op. at 4 (citations omitted).

The Agreement does not purport to be, or evidence consent to, a multi-lateral agreement – i.e., a collective Agreement between the employer and all the tens of thousands of other employees. Employees signing the Agreement do not purport to assign rights or delegate duties to other nonsignatory employees, nor do they purport to confer any authority upon any nonsignatory employees to arbitrate, or otherwise act on behalf of, the signatory employee.

The Agreement did not mention class arbitration, although the Arbitrator found in a June 1, 2009 Clause Construction Award, that the Agreement implicitly permitted class arbitration. In 2011 the Second Circuit in Jock I ruled that the arbitrator’s award should have been confirmed because, by finding that the language of the agreement implicitly permitted class arbitration, the arbitrator had at least arguably interpreted the contract.

The Jock IV Court said that the absent class members were bound by the Clause Construction Award even though they were never parties to the class arbitration, the Clause Construction Award, the certification award, or any of the Federal Arbitration Act enforcement proceedings (including Jock I, II, III, or IV, or any of the district court proceedings), and even though they never opted in to the class or otherwise consented to any of the arbitration or arbitration-related proceedings.

The Jock IV Court said that was so because each of the absent class members had signed an Agreement identical to the ones signed by the class representatives and employees who had opted into the class, and had agreed to submit arbitrability disputes to an arbitrator.

Further, said the Court, the absent class members could not collaterally attack the Clause Construction Award because the Agreement clearly and unmistakably authorized an arbitrator to decide both arbitrability questions and questions concerning procedure. Consequently, the absent class members were not entitled to a de novo determination of whether they consented to class arbitration, which, under Lamps Plus, would require the class arbitration proponents to demonstrate that the parties clearly and unmistakably consented to class arbitration.

What Result if the Court Determined the Class Arbitration Consent Issue on a De Novo Basis?

To test the soundness of the Jock IV Court’s conclusion, let’s assume that the Court should have determined on a de novo basis whether the absent class members consented to class arbitration, or, alternatively, whether the absent class members consented to be bound by Clause Construction and certification awards, which were made by arbitrators the absent class members had no part in selecting, and to which those absent class members did not consent after being given an opportunity to opt in to the class.

Lamps Plus requires clear and unmistakable consent to class arbitration. There is no possibility the arbitration agreements signed by the parties could satisfy that demanding requirement. As Jock I demonstrates, at most the Agreement was susceptible to an interpretation under which one might infer implied consent to class arbitration. But it was also susceptible to one or more other interpretations under which it contemplated only bilateral arbitration.

It was therefore ambiguous, and were the Court to have analyzed class arbitration consent on a de novo basis under Lamps Plus standard, then the Court would presumably have determined that the absent class members did not consent to class arbitration and therefore could not be made part of a class.

Did the Jock IV Court Err by Deeming the Absent Class Members to be Bound by the Clause Construction Award?   

The soundness of Jock IV thus depends on whether the absent class members’ signing of arbitration agreements identical to those signed by the Jock class representatives and opt-in class members can legitimately be construed to evidence their consent to be bound by a nearly-decade-old Clause Construction Award decided (a) by an arbitrator they played no part in selecting under (b) a legal standard that has been superceded by a 2019 United States Supreme Court decision (Lamps Plus). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post briefly discusses the Second Circuit’s decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agreement provided that “[t]he Arbitrator shall have the power to award any types of legal or equitable relief that would be available in a court of competent jurisdiction[,]” and that any claim arising thereunder will be arbitrated “in accordance with the National Rules for the Resolution of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association.”

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

Jock I

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

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

The Class Certification Award

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

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

Jock II

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

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

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

The Jock II Remand

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

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

The Jock IV Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absent Class Members: What to Make of Jock IV?

We’ll discuss that in an upcoming post….

Gateway Keeping: The Third Circuit Joins the Sixth in Holding that Courts get to Decide whether Parties Consented to Class Arbitration

August 28th, 2014 American Arbitration Association, Appellate Practice, Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration as a Matter of Consent, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Arbitration Provider Rules, Authority of Arbitrators, Awards, Class Action Arbitration, Class Action Waivers, Consent to Class Arbitration, Consolidation of Arbitration Proceedings, Drafting Arbitration Agreements, Existence of Arbitration Agreement, Judicial Review of Arbitration Awards, Practice and Procedure, Stay of Litigation, 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 Gateway Keeping: The Third Circuit Joins the Sixth in Holding that Courts get to Decide whether Parties Consented to Class Arbitration

On June 10, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064 (2013) considered whether an arbitrator exceeded his powers under Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) Section 10(a)(4) by finding that a fairly run-of-the-mill arbitration agreement authorized class arbitration. Applying the deferential, manifest-disregard-of-the-agreement outcome-review standard authorized by FAA Section 10(a)(4), the Court upheld an arbitrator’s determination that an arbitration agreement authorized class arbitration because the arbitrator had, at least arguably, interpreted the arbitration agreement, albeit in a highly creative and doubtful way. (See Loree Reins. & Arb. L. Forum posts here, here, here & here.)

In a footnote, the Court explained that it “would face a different issue if Oxford had argued below that the availability of class arbitration is a so-called ‘question of arbitrability.’” 133 S. Ct. at 2068 n.2. The 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)

Had 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).  

Those who have been tracking developments in class and consolidated arbitration since the turn of this century no doubt recall that, after a plurality of the Court determined in Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S. 444, 452-53 (2003), that a class-arbitration-consent-related dispute did not present a question of arbitrability, but merely a procedural question, parties began to submit routinely and unreservedly class-arbitration-consent questions to arbitration.

But after Stolt-Nielsen, and, no doubt with renewed vigor after Oxford, class arbitration opponents began to argue that class-arbitration-consent presented a question of arbitrability for the Court to decide. And U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals are beginning to rule on those challenges.

The first one to do so was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594 (6th Cir. 2013), where the Court in November 2013 held “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).

The second, and most recent Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on the issue, was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Opalinski v. Robert Half Int’l Inc., ___ F.3d ___, No. 12-4444, slip op. (3rd Cir. July 30, 2014), which on July 30, 2014 “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.” Slip op. at 15, 16-17.  The Court’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.” Slip op. at 15 (emphasis 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.” slip op. at 16-17.

The Third Circuit’s Opalinski decision, like the Sixth Circuit’s in Reed Elsevier, is well reasoned and reaches the conclusion we likewise think is required by the Supreme Court’s long-line of arbitrability jurisprudence, and by its post-Bazzle class-arbitration cases, beginning with Stolt-Nielsen. We suspect that other circuits will, for largely the same reasons, that class-arbitration-consent presents a question of arbitrability.

Let’s have a look at what transpired in Opalinski.  .  .  . Continue Reading »