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The Seventh Circuit Issues a Landmark Reinsurance Arbitration Opinion in Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.): Part II

February 24th, 2011 Arbitrability, Arbitration Agreements, Arbitration Practice and Procedure, Authority of Arbitrators, Evident Partiality, Practice and Procedure, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Comments Off on The Seventh Circuit Issues a Landmark Reinsurance Arbitration Opinion in Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.): Part II By Philip J. Loree Jr.

I.  Introduction

Part I (here) briefly discussed Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook’s decision in Trustmark Ins. Co. v. John Hancock Life Ins. Co. (U.S.A.), No. 09-3682, slip op. (7th Cir. Jan. 31, 2011), and its implications on the pending Second and Fifth Circuit appeals in  Scandinavian Reinsurance Co. v. Saint Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co, No. 09 Civ. 9531(SAS), 2010 WL 653481 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 23, 2010), and Dealer Computer Svcs., Inc. v. Michael Motor Co., No. H-10-2132, slip op. (S.D. Tex. December 29, 2010).  This Part II examines in some detail Trustmark’s background and rationale, and Part III will focus on Trustmark’s implications on the Scandinavian Re and Dealer Computer appeals.

II.  Trustmark Background

The following facts were gleaned from both the district court and Seventh Circuit opinions (the district court opinion is reported at 680 F. Supp. 2d 944 and can be found here):

Pursuant to several contracts, Trustmark Insurance Company (“Trustmark”)  agreed to reinsure John Hancock Insurance Company (U.S.A.) (“Hancock”), but not with respect to “London Market Retrocessional Excess of Loss Treaties,” which were excluded from the contracts.  Each contract was subject to a broad arbitration agreement (the “arbitration agreement”), which said the arbitrators had to be “disinterested in the outcome.”

A.  The First Arbitration and Confidentiality Agreement

A dispute arose concerning the scope of the “London Market Retrocessional Excess of Loss Treaties” exclusion, and the parties submitted the dispute to arbitration as required by the arbitration agreement.  Pursuant to the agreement, each party selected an arbitrator, and the two arbitrators selected a neutral umpire.

As is customary in reinsurance arbitration, the parties entered into a confidentiality agreement during the arbitration, which was executed by the parties and the panel members, and which prohibited Trustmark and Hancock from disclosing information concerning the proceedings and award, including evidence adduced.  The confidentiality agreement did not contain an arbitration clause.  (An example of a form of confidentiality agreement frequently used in reinsurance arbitration can be found here.   Parties frequently amend this form to suit the needs of the case, and, in any event, the Trustmark opinions do not say whether the confidentiality agreement was based on this particular form.)

In March 2004 the arbitration panel ruled in favor of Hancock, and the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, confirmed the award a few months later.  Hancock, relying on its interpretation of the award, billed Trustmark for balances allegedly owed under the treaties, but Trustmark refused to pay.

B.  The Second Arbitration

Hancock commenced a second arbitration in October 2004 to resolve the dispute that had arisen over the prior award and its reinsurance claims based on the award.  As one would expect, Hancock selected the same arbitrator it had appointed in the prior arbitration.  Trustmark, which had lost the prior arbitration, appointed a new arbitrator.  The two arbitrators appointed a neutral umpire, who, like Trustmark’s arbitrator, had not served in the first arbitration.

The parties knew from the outset that resolution of their dispute potentially implicated the confidentiality agreement, which Hancock’s arbitrator had signed, but which the umpire and Trustmark’s arbitrator had not.  At an organizational meeting in 2005 Trustmark expressed concern about whether Hancock’s arbitrator could abide by the confidentiality agreement.  Hancock’s arbitrator replied that although he “would scrupulously abide by confidentiality,” it might be “hard to segregate, difficult to deal with” knowledge obtained during first proceeding, which the other two panel members did not have.  Trustmark asked some further questions and consented to the appointment of Hancock’s arbitrator.

Not surprisingly, Hancock asserted that the panel should base its decision on the record of the prior arbitration.  It asked the panel to “expressly authorize the use of all materials [from the prior arbitration], without limitation.  .  .  .”  Hancock argued that the confidentiality agreement prohibited disclosures to the outside world, but not disclosures in subsequent arbitration proceedings between the parties, even proceedings involving attorneys and arbitrators who were not parties to the agreement.  Trustmark argued that the agreement covered all disclosures, including those made in subsequent proceedings to lawyers and arbitrators not involved in the original arbitration.

The umpire and Hancock’s arbitrator, over the dissent of Trustmark’s arbitrator, ruled that the panel “accept[ed] and extend[ed] the confidentiality of [the prior arbitration] to the two members of the current arbitration.  .  .  who were not parties to the previous arbitration.”

Hancock also requested that the Panel prohibit Trustmark from litigating nineteen issues that Hancock contended had been decided in the first arbitration.  A majority of the panel, over the dissent of Trustmark’s arbitrator, ruled that Trustmark was barred from relitigating several issues, including whether the retrocessional business on which Hancock’s claims arose was excluded from the treaties.  (“Retrocessional business” is the reinsurance of other reinsurance business.)

C.  Trustmark Seeks an Injunction

In 2009 Trustmark belatedly attempted to vacate the prior arbitration award, but presumably Trustmark recognized that the three-month deadline for vacating the award had expired long-ago, and that Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) did not authorize reopening the confirmation judgment.  It accordingly recast its claim as one for injunctive relief.

Trustmark argued that Hancock had obtained the prior award by fraudulently failing to produce four documents during discovery, and that the panel’s preclusion order was thus tainted by fraud.  Trustmark requested an order enjoining further arbitration to prevent Hancock from furthering its alleged “fraudulent scheme.”  Trustmark also sought an order enjoining:  (a) further alleged breaches of the confidentiality agreement; (b) Hancock’s alleged obstruction of access to relevant documents; and (c) further arbitration before any members of the panel.

In light of the four new documents Trustmark said should have been produced in the first arbitration, Hancock agreed to withdraw its preclusion claim and to participate in further discovery.  This mooted in part Trustmark’s claims for injunctive relief, leaving for judicial resolution its confidentiality-agreement-based claim and its claim that no further arbitration should proceed before any of the panel members.

As to the confidentiality agreement, Trustmark said the panel had no authority to resolve disputes concerning that agreement, including the dispute it had already purported to resolve, and therefore an injunction was necessary to ensure that the panel would not continue to exceed its authority by deciding confidentiality-agreement issues.  As to the constitution of the panel, Trustmark said Hancock’s arbitrator was no longer “disinterested” because he:  (a) allegedly breached the confidentiality agreement by participating in the deliberations that resulted in the confidentiality-agreement order; and (b) served as Hancock’s arbitrator in the prior arbitration.  According to Trustmark, Hancock’s arbitrator’s interest in the outcome “infect[ed]” the other two panel members, rendering them unfit to serve.

D.  The District Court Enjoins Arbitration

The district court enjoined the parties’ participation in the arbitration for as long as Hancock’s arbitrator remained on the panel.  The district court held that Hancock’s arbitrator was not “disinterested” within the meaning of the arbitration agreements, and that the panel had no authority to resolve confidentiality-agreement disputes.

As respects Hancock’s arbitrator, the district court said he was not “disinterested” in the arbitration’s outcome because he had breached the confidentiality agreement, and Trustmark may seek to hold him liable for that breach.  The district court also said the knowledge he obtained from the first arbitration made him “a fact witness not subject to examination.”  680 F. Supp. 2d at 948.  Acknowledging that courts “typically operate under the presumption that judges and arbitrators can disregard what they already know[,]” the district court concluded that Trustmark rebutted the presumption:

[Hancock’s arbitrator] has already demonstrated that he may well be unable to do this if he continues to serve on the second panel.   In Trustmark’s vetting of [Hancock’s arbitrator] as part of the Second Arbitration, [Hancock’s arbitrator] expressed some doubt that he would be able “to segregate” information he had from the First Arbitration, and stated that he would find it “difficult to deal with where the other panel members did not have the same full knowledge.” Trustmark points to one instance where, in a conference related to the Second Arbitration, Hancock made a point about a disputed issue in the First Arbitration, and [Hancock’s arbitrator], in support of Hancock, described his recollection of the First Arbitration. In response to Trustmark’s objection, [Hancock’s arbitrator] commented with regard to characterizations of certain claims made in the First Arbitration, “I feel it is my duty to correct the record as best as I understand in that regard.” The hypothetical posited by [Hancock’s arbitrator] during the organizational meeting became realized, and by his actions, he rebutted the presumption that he could disregard knowledge he already had.

680 F. Supp. 2d at 948-49.

The district court also held that the panel had no authority to resolve confidentiality-agreement disputes because that agreement did not contain an arbitration clause and because those disputes were not within the scope of the parties’ arbitration agreements.  See 680 F. Supp. 2d at 949.

Hancock appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed.

III.  Chief Judge Easterbrook’s Decision

The Seventh Circuit was reviewing an order granting injunctive relief, which must be supported by, among other things, irreparable injury on the part of the party seeking relief.   The Court said there were “two principal problems” with the district court’s analysis of irreparable injury, the “entire discussion” of which the Court said was contained in the following passage from the district court’s opinion:

‘Trustmark cannot be forced to arbitrate issues that it did not agree to arbitrate. Forcing a party to arbitrate a matter that the party never agreed to arbitrate, regardless of the final result through arbitration or judicial review, unalterably deprives the party of its right to select the forum in which it wishes to resolve disputes, causing irreparable harm. This is a harm faced uniquely by Trustmark if it is denied relief and such harm tips the scale in favor of granting injunction. This irreparable harm, coupled with Trustmark’s success on the merits, militates in favor of granting an injunction in this case.’

Slip op. at 4 (quoting 680 F. Supp. 2d at 949; other quotations and citations omitted).

First, said the Court, “Trustmark did agree to arbitrate the question whether the contracts provide reinsurance for certain risks[,]” but “the district court blocked, rather than enforced that contractual understanding.”  Slip op. at 5 (emphasis in original).  Second, a party seeking injunctive relief is not “’unalterably’” denied of its right to select the forum.  Federal Arbitration Act Section 10(a)(4) expressly authorizes courts to vacate awards where arbitrators have “exceeded their powers,” so in cases where arbitrators purport to decide issues outside the scope of their authority, the problem can be addressed when the arbitrators issue a final award.  That, in turn, allows the litigation to proceed in the proper forum.  See slip op. at 5.

The Court said the only “injury” Trustmark might suffer (assuming it was correct that the confidentiality issue was not arbitrable) was “the delay and.  .  . out-of-pocket cost of paying the arbitrators and legal counsel.”  Slip op. at 5.  But the United States Supreme Court has “held that the delay and expense of adjudication are not ‘irreparable injury’.  .  .  . [,]” and the Seventh Circuit has held that Trustmark’s argument to the contrary is “frivolous.”  Slip op. at 5 (citing Petroleum Exploration, Inc. v. Public Service Commission, 304 U.S. 209, 222 (1938); Renegotiation Board v. Bannercraft Clothing Co., 415 U.S. 1, 24 (1974);  FTC v. Standard Oil Co., 449 U.S. 232, 244 (1980); PaineWebber Inc. v. Farnam, 843 F.2d 1050 (7th Cir. 1988); and Graphic Communications Union v. Chicago Tribune Co., 779 F.2d 13 (7th Cir. 1985)).

Having held that the district court improperly granted injunctive relief, the Court acknowledged it could dispose of the case without more.  But the Court explained that “the district court’s decision leaves a cloud over this arbitration and the reputation of [Hancock’s] arbitrator.  .  .  , a reputation that Trustmark seems determined to tarnish.”  Slip op. at 6.  The Court decided to remove the cloud, and ruled “that the district court erred on the merits in addition to mistakenly believing that Trustmark has established irreparable injury.”  Slip op. at 6.

Turning to whether Hancock’s arbitrator was “disinterested” within the meaning of the arbitrator qualification provisions of the agreements, the Court said “disinterested” means “lacking a financial or other personal stake in the outcome.”  Slip op. at 6 (citing by way of general example  Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 129 S. Ct. 2252 (2009)).  Citing ARIAS•U.S., Practical Guide to Reinsurance Arbitration Procedure §2.3 (rev. ed. 2004), the Court said “[n]orms of insurance industry arbitration track this understanding.”  Slip op. at 6.

The Court concluded that Hancock’s arbitrator had no “stake in the outcome of this arbitration.”  Slip op. at 6.  The Court acknowledged that he has “a reputational interest:  if his decision disappoints the person who put him on the panel, he is less likely to be selected as an arbitrator in the future.”  Slip op. at 6.  But, according to the Court, such reputational interests are “endemic to arbitration that permits parties to choose who will decide.”  Slip op. at 6 (citing  Sphere Drake Ins. Co. v. All American Life Ins. Co., 307 F.3d 617, 622 (7th Cir. 2002) (Easterbrook, J.), reh’g denied, Nov. 4, 2002, cert. denied, 538 U.S. 961 (2004).  Noting that parties sometimes agree that arbitration-providers select the arbitrators, here “Trustmark and Hancock reserved the power of appointment.”  Slip op. at 6-7.  The Court concluded that “[a] court cannot properly deem the interest in reemployment created by this arrangement a disqualifying event.”  Slip op. at 7.

The Court rejected the district court’s conclusion that Hancock’s arbitrator was not “disinterested” because “he had knowledge of the dispute,” something the district court viewed as “a form of prohibited interest.”  Slip op. at 7.  The Court explained that “private parties often select arbitrators precisely because they know something about the controversy.”  Slip op. at 7 (citing Sphere Drake, 307 F.3d at 620):

Arbitration need not follow the pattern of jury trials, in which a factfinder’s ignorance is a prime desideratum. Nothing in the parties’ contract requires arbitrators to arrive with empty heads.

Slip op. at 7.

Gently rebuking the district court, the Court said “[f]ederal judges, of all people, should not confuse knowledge with disqualifying ‘interest[:]’”

For judges regularly hear multiple suits arising from the same controversy. The district judge who resolved this very dispute also entered the order enforcing the 2004 award. If knowing about what happened in 2004 is an impermissible “interest,” or makes the person a ‘fact witness’ about what had occurred in 2004, then the district judge should have stepped aside from the current suit.

Slip op. at 7.

But ethical rules applicable to federal judges did not require recusal, because “[k]nowledge acquired in a judicial capacity does not require disqualification.”  Slip op. at 7 (citing Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540 (1994)).  And that, said the Court, is also true of “knowledge acquired in arbitration.”  Slip op. at 7.

The Court concluded that Hancock’s arbitrator was as “disinterested” as “the district judge himself, and just as entitled to participate.”  Slip op. at 8.  And, to the extent there was “any difference between the two adjudicators, [Hancock’s arbitrator] has the stronger entitlement to participate in the second round, because, as [the Court] stressed in Sphere Drake, it takes more to disqualify an arbitrator than to disqualify a judge.”  Slip op. at 8 (citing Sphere Drake, 307 F.3d at 621; and Merit Ins. Co. v. Leatherby Ins. Co., 714 F.2d 673 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1009 (1983) (Posner, J.):

No party in federal court is entitled to pick his judge, but contracts allowing parties to choose their arbitrators are common; these parties’ arrangement instantiates the practice. When one party is entitled to choose its own arbitrator, and in doing so follows all contractual requirements, a court ought not to abet the other side’s strategy to eject its opponent’s choice.

Slip op. at 8.

The Court also rejected the district court’s conclusion that Hancock’s arbitrator was not “disinterested” because he had allegedly breached the confidentiality agreement.  Hancock’s arbitrator had executed the agreement “as an adjudicator,” and was therefore similarly situated to the district court judge, who “himself implemented the confidentiality agreement, in a similar adjudicatory capacity, when confirming the first panel’s award.”  Slip op. at 8.

As to whether the panel had authority to interpret the confidentiality agreement, the Court invoked the procedural arbitrability doctrine.  While the Court acknowledged that the confidentiality agreement did not contain an arbitration agreement, it pointed out that “the parties did agree to arbitrate their disputes about reinsurance.”  Slip op. at 8.  Citing Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 84 (2002), the Court said “[a]rbitrators who have been appointed to resolve a commercial dispute are entitled to resolve ancillary questions that affect their task.”  Slip op. at 8.  The confidentiality agreement, which was executed when the first arbitration was underway, “is closely related to the substance of the first arbitration and presumptively within the scope of the reinsurance contracts’ comprehensive arbitration clauses, which cover all disputes arising out of the original dispute.”  Slip op. at 8-9.   The arbitrators were therefore “entitled to decide for themselves those procedural questions that arise on the way to a final disposition,” including disputes concerning the confidentiality agreement, and “the preclusive effect (if any) of an arbitration award.”  Slip op. at 9-10.

The Court went out of its way to inform the arbitrators that, in addition to having the power to resolve the confidentiality agreement issue, they had a great deal of discretion to decide how to resolve those issues.  Acknowledging that the district court could review those determinations under Section 10(a)(4)’s “excess-of-powers” provision, the Court reminded the arbitrators and parties that the district court’s standard of review would be exceedingly deferential:

[a]mong the powers of an arbitrator is the power to interpret the written word, and this implies the power to err; an award need not be correct to be enforceable. See, e.g., Major League Baseball Players Ass’n v. Garvey, 532 U.S. 504 (2001). It is enough if the arbitrators honestly try to carry out the governing agreements. “[T]he question for decision by a federal court asked to set aside an arbitration award . . . is not whether the arbitrator or arbitrators erred in interpreting the contract; it is not whether they clearly erred in interpreting the contract; it is not whether they grossly erred in interpreting the contract; it is whether they interpreted the contract.” Hill v. Norfolk & Western Ry., 814 F.2d 1192, 1194–95 (7th Cir. 1987) [(Posner, J.)]. See also, e.g., Operating Engineers Local 139 v. J.H. Findorff & Son, Inc., 393 F.3d 742 (7th Cir. 2004) [(Easterbrook, J.)].

Slip op. at 10.

And lest there be any lingering doubt, the Court – apparently speaking principally for the panel’s benefit – said “[w]hen this arbitration resumes, the panel is entitled to follow its own view about the meaning of the confidentiality agreement; it need not knuckle under to the district court’s prematurely announced understanding.”  Slip op. at 10.

Keep your eyes out for the upcoming discussion in Part III of Trustmark’s implications on Scandinavian Re and Dealer Computer.

[Editor’s Note:  We have published a materially identical version of this post on the Disputing blog (you can find Part I here and Part II here).]

         

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