The First Circuit just faced a fascinating formation issue: if a customer cannot see what she is signing, and no employee reads it to her or ensures she knows there are legal terms, is there a contract?  With Justice Souter sitting by designation on the panel, the court answered “no,” and thereby kept a class action in the courts. National Federation of the Blind v. The Container Store, Inc., 2018 WL 4378174 (1st Cir. Sept. 14, 2018).

The Container Store case involves blind plaintiffs who allege the retailer violated discrimination laws by failing to use tactile keypads on its point-of-sale (POS) devices.  In response, the retailer moved to compel individual arbitration for the plaintiffs who had enrolled in a loyalty program (which has an arbitration agreement and class action waiver).  The customers who enrolled in the loyalty program in a store alleged that they enrolled with the assistance of a sales associate, and were never presented with the terms and conditions of the program, including the arbitration provision.   In response, the retailer presented excerpts from a training manual, which instructed employees to give blind plaintiffs the opportunity to review the terms on the POS device.  Critically, the retailer did not have evidence that the employee who helped sign up the named plaintiffs had in fact read the terms and conditions to those plaintiffs or otherwise made them aware that there were any terms and conditions.  Therefore, the district court found no agreement to arbitrate was formed between the Container Store and those plaintiffs, and denied the motion to compel arbitration.

On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed.  It first disagreed with the Container Store’s argument that this dispute was one about the validity of the loyalty agreement as a whole, such that it must be heard by an arbitrator.  Instead, it concluded that this was a fundamental dispute about the formation of the arbitration agreement, which was properly addressed by the court.  (The First Circuit even got punny:  “We reject the Container Store’s attempt to re-package Plaintiffs’ arguments as one regarding validity…”)

It then got into the guts of the argument.  It affirmed the critical findings of the district court: “it is undisputed that the in-store plaintiffs had no way of accessing the terms of the loyalty program, including the arbitration agreement”; and “No store clerk actually informed them that an arbitration agreement existed as a condition of entering the loyalty program.”  Therefore, even though “inability to read” is not generally a defense to contract formation, the court found no arbitration agreement was ever formed with these plaintiffs.  Unlike other situations where plaintiffs who could not read knew or should have known that they were signing documents that implicated legal rights, in this case the court found “zero hint” that the loyalty program involved terms and conditions.

Finally, with respect to a class of plaintiffs who had signed up for the loyalty program online, and thereby did have notice of the terms and conditions, the court still denied the motion to arbitrate.  It found the arbitration agreement was illusory and therefore unenforceable under Texas law.  The court found language in the arbitration agreement gave the Container Store “the right to alter the terms of the loyalty program, including the arbitration provision, ‘at any time'” and the change would have retroactive effect, affecting even parties who had already invoked arbitration.

This case reminds me of the First Circuit’s big decision in Uber  in June, when the court found that the arbitration agreement in Uber’s terms also was not conspicuous enough to be binding.  In other words, this issue is not limited to individuals who have disabilities, but gets at the fundamental question of how much information do consumers need to validly form a contract.

This case also makes me smile because guess which firm represented the Container Store?  Sheppard Mullin, the same firm that was not able to enforce its own arbitration agreement with its client in the last post.   Rough arbitration month for those attorneys.

 

In today’s post I recount an epic battle between the Rules of Professional Conduct (tagline: saving clients from unscrupulous lawyers for over 100 years!) and the Uniform Arbitration Act (tagline: saving arbitration from hostile judges for 60 years!) in the Supreme Court of California.  Spoiler alert: the Rules of Professional Conduct win.

The story in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., 2018 WL 4137103 (Cal. Aug. 30, 2018), begins with a “large law firm” [ed: with too many names] taking over the defense of J-M in a qui tam action in federal court in March of 2010.  The problem was that one of the public entities that had been identified as a real party in interest in the qui tam case was also a client of the firm (for employment matters).  Because both clients had signed engagement letters with general language waiving potential conflicts, the firm concluded it could take on the qui tam action.

The SMRH firm defended J-M for just one year before its employment client moved to disqualify it.  In that time, the firm had put in 10,000 hours defending J-M, and was still owed over one million dollars in fees.  The district court disqualified the firm based on the firm’s failure to adequately inform the employment client and J-M of the adversity before obtaining waivers, as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.

At that point, the law firm sought its million dollars of unpaid fees from J-M in a state court action, and J-M in turn sought disgorgement of the two million dollars it had already paid.  The law firm successfully moved to compel arbitration, with the trial court dismissing J-M’s argument that the conflict of interest made the whole contract illegal and unenforceable. (And, the Court of Appeals refused a discretionary review which could have avoided the wasted fees of the arbitration.)

A panel of arbitrators awarded the law firm more than $1.3 million.  The parties were then back in state court with cross-motions to confirm and vacate the award.  The trial court confirmed the award.  However, the Court of Appeal reversed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of California agreed that the arbitration award must be vacated.  It rested its decision on precedent from 1949, noting that “an agreement to arbitrate is invalid and unenforceable if it is made as part of a contract that is invalid and unenforceable because it violates public policy.”  In this case, the court found that the Rules of Professional Conduct were an expression of public policy, such that a violation of those rules could render an arbitration agreement void.  And it also found that the firm’s failure to give both of its clients notice of the actual adversity, and obtain informed consent of the representation, was a violation that tainted the entire contract and made it illegal.  (For you ethics geeks, the rule violated was 3-310(C)(3).)

Because the contract between the law firm and J-M was unenforceable, the court found the firm was “not entitled to the benefit of the arbitrators’ decision” and the parties could resume “where they were before the case took its unwarranted detour to arbitration.”  (Not sure why the court refused to say it was vacating the arbitration award.)  But, don’t shed too many tears for the lawyers.  The law firm will be able to argue in the trial court regarding whether it is entitled to any of its fees under the equitable doctrine of quantum meruit.  (Two judges dissented from that last part, finding that the ethical conflict should prevent the firm from recovering at all.)

I leave it to other blogs to discuss the ethical issues for lawyers present here, and to therapists and firm counsel to address the rising panic that lawyers may feel when reading this opinion.  For my purpose, this case is further demonstration that the type of arbitration agreement that is most susceptible to arguments of invalidity is the one between an attorney and client.  (Recall the recent decision in Maine.)  It is also interesting in that it does not discuss whether J-M “waived” its objection to arbitrability at all by participating in the arbitration, indeed there is no discussion of whether or how often J-M raised its objection during the arbitration.  That is a sharp contrast to the rule cited by the 9th Circuit in the Asarco decision (summarized last post), and an example of how inconsistent the rules are regarding waiver.

I have saved up six opinions that considered whether to vacate an arbitration award over the summer.*  Only one of those opinions vacated the award; the other five confirmed.  To get a flavor of what types of arguments are winning and losing motions to vacate, here is a summary of those six.

Vacated

The lone vacatur came in Hebbronville Lone Star Rentals, LLC v. Sunbelt Rentals Industrial Services, LLC, 2018 WL 3719682 (5th Cir. Aug. 6, 2018). The issue in that case was whether the arbitrator exceeded his power by reforming the parties’ contract.  Sunbelt had purchased the assets of Lone Star, and agreed to later pay earnouts based on the post-sale revenue from Lone Star’s customers.  The asset purchase agreement provided that disputes over the amount of earnouts would be decided by the parties “jointly [selecting] the Accounting Firm to resolve any remaining dispute over Seller’s proposed adjustments…which resolution will be final.”  (If that doesn’t sound like an arbitration clause to you, be sure to read this post.)   A dispute arose over whether the revenues from certain Lone Star customers exceeded a target number established in the agreement.  The parties submitted that dispute to an accounting firm.

The arbitrator found that Sunbelt should have included the revenue of two additional customers, which would have resulted in a payment to Lone Star of $6.4M.  However, the arbitrator also concluded that the parties made a mutual mistake in calculating the target number in the agreement, and if the corrected target number was used, Lone Star was actually entitled to nothing.  Lone Star moved to vacate the portion of the arbitrator’s award that reformed the target amount based on mutual mistake.  The district court granted the vacatur, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  Oddly, the opinion is not framed in terms of vacatur at all; it does not reference Section 10(a) of the FAA.  Instead, the opinion framed the question as “who decides” the question of mutual mistake.  The court interpreted the language of the parties’ arbitration clause and found it too narrow to encompass the mutual mistake issue.  Therefore, that issue was remanded to the district court for determination.  (Also odd is the absence of any discussion of waiver in this opinion.   My sense is if the arbitrator had been a lawyer instead of a CPA, the analysis may have been quite different.)

Confirmed

The courts found the arguments for vacatur insufficient in five other cases:

  • In another case regarding earnout payments after an asset purchase, an accountant/arbitrator was appointed to hear the seller’s claim that the buyer was manipulating sales to ensure no earnout was owed.  DFM Investments, LLC v. Brandspring Solutions, LLC, 2018 WL 3569353 (8th Cir. July 25, 2018).  After reviewing documents and hearing arguments, the arbitrator found the seller not entitled to any revisions.  The seller moved to vacate, arguing the arbitrator had refused to consider material evidence.  The district court and Eighth Circuit disagreed, noting that the arbitrator concluded the additional evidence was not material.  “An arbitrator’s reasoned decision to forgo analyzing additional evidence does not, without more, provide grounds for vacating the decision.”
  • In a case that reminds all advocates to carefully preserve objections, the Ninth Circuit confirmed an award because the complaining party did not properly preserve its objection. Asarco LLC v. United Steel, 2018 WL 3028692 (9th Cir. June 19, 2018).  Like in Sunbelt, the issue was whether the arbitrator had the power to reform the parties’s labor agreement based on mutual mistake, despite a provision in the contract depriving the arbitrator of “authority to add to, detract from or alter in any way the provisions of” the contract.  The district court concluded the arbitrator had authority to reform the labor agreement.  The Ninth Circuit found Asarco had conceded the issue by arguing the arbitrator lacked authority, instead of preserving that issue for the courts by refusing to address jurisdiction with the arbitrator (0r seeking injunctive relief at the outset).  (Wow – what a harsh rule.)  Even so, the court analyzed the merits and found the arbitrator had authority to reform the agreement.  However, one dissenting judge wrote that he would vacate the award based on the arbitrator exceeding the scope of his powers.
  • In another case from the Eighth Circuit, the court refused to vacate an arbitration award, even though the arbitration award was nearly three times the contractual liability limit.  Beumer Corp. v. Proenergy Services, 2018 WL 3767135 (8th Cir. Aug. 9, 2018).  The arbitrator found the provision limiting damages to the “Contract Sum” was enforceable, but that attorneys fees and interest did not count as “damages” for the purpose of that provision.  The court found that, even if the arbitrator had overlooked Missouri decisions finding attorneys fees count as damages, it did not matter because manifest disregard of the law is not a valid basis to vacate an award.
  • Speaking of “manifest disregard,” Maryland’s high court took the opportunity to clarify that it lives on as a basis for vacating awards under Maryland’s Uniform Arbitration Act.  WSC/2005 LLC v. Trio Ventures Assoc., 2018 WL 3629441 (Md. July 30, 2018).  However, the arbitrator in Trio did not manifestly disregard the law, because he did not make “a palpable mistake of law or fact appearing on the face of the award.”  In fact, the arbitrator identified relevant principles of Maryland law, analyzed the parties’ contract, and issued damages that were “reasonably consistent” with principles of Maryland law.
  • Finally, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island confirmed an arbitration award, despite allegations that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law, in Prospect Chartercare LLC v. Conklin, 2018 WL 2945664 (R.I. June 13, 2018).  The arbitrator awarded 18 months of severance to an executive employee, and the employer moved to vacate the award based on the arbitrator’s alleged manifest disregard of the law by relying on “erroneous facts” and disregarding the contract language.  On appeal, the high court noted that even if the arbitrator had based his decision on a factual error, “such a mistake would not be a proper basis upon which to vacate the arbitration award.”  Furthermore, the arbitrator’s award was based upon a “passably plausible interpretation” of the parties’ agreement.

 

* There were more than six judicial opinions on whether to confirm an arbitration award over the summer, of course.  I focus on federal appellate courts (circuits and SCOTUS) as well as the highest court of each state.

Today’s post concerns a perennially hot topic: class actions.  In particular, do courts decide whether an arbitration agreement allows for class actions?  Or do arbitrators?  (Because, it turns out, there are actually some corporations who have not inserted class action waivers in their consumer contracts.)  To date, four circuit courts have held that class arbitrability is an issue that is presumably for courts (not arbitrators) to decide, even if the parties incorporate rules that generally delegate issues of arbitrability to an arbitrator (3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th).  In recent weeks, the Tenth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit disagreed.  Because the Second Circuit had also previously disagreed, there is now a 4-3 split among the circuits over whether the incorporation of AAA (or similar) rules is sufficient to authorize an arbitrator to decide whether arbitration can proceed on a class-wide basis.

In Spirit Airlines v. Maizes, 2018 WL 3866335 (11th Cir. Aug. 15, 2018), members of Spirit Airlines’ “$9 Fare Club” started a class arbitration with the AAA.  Spirit then brought an action to federal court, seeking a declaration that the arbitration clause did not authorize class arbitration.  (You may recall that the outcome of the Stolt-Nielsen and Sutter cases is that there can be no class arbitration unless the parties agreed to that process in their arbitration clause, but the language does not have to be explicit.)  The district court found that the arbitrator should determine the issue of whether a class action could proceed in arbitration.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found that no special rules apply to class arbitration.  It assumed that class arbitration is a gateway issue of arbitrability, such that the court has presumptive authority to decide it.  Here, the Spirit agreement called for the AAA rules, which the court found included the Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitration, and those supplementary rules empower an arbitrator to decide whether claimants may proceed as a class action.  The court found that incorporation of AAA rules was clear and unmistakable evidence that the parties intended the arbitrator to decide the availability of a class action in arbitration.  It relied on earlier precedent finding that AAA rules are sufficient to delegate jurisdictional issues to arbitrators, and disagreed that SCOTUS rulings provide for any different outcome in the case of class arbitration.

In Dish Network v. Ray, 2018 WL 3978537 (10th Cir. Aug. 21, 2018), a former employee of Dish Network started a class and collective arbitration with the AAA.  The appointed arbitrator issued a Clause Construction Award, finding that he had authority to decide the issue and that the arbitration agreement permitted a collective action.  The arbitrator’s award included ten pages of analysis interpreting the text of the arbitration agreement to shed light on whether they agreed to allow class/collective actions in arbitration.  The district court denied Dish’s motion to vacate the Clause Construction Award, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision.

On appeal, the court assumed without deciding that the availability of class arbitration is a gateway dispute for court to decide.  Even so, it found that the parties’ selection of AAA rules to govern the arbitration was sufficient to clearly and unmistakably delegate the issue of class arbitration to the arbitrator.  It acknowledged that four circuits had “require[d] more specific language delegating the question of class wide arbitrability,” but noted that the Second Circuit had disagreed with that holding earlier this year.  Following the lead of the Second Circuit, the court relied on precedent from Colorado and the Tenth Circuit finding that incorporation of AAA rules is sufficient to delegate arbitrability to the arbitrator.  Having concluded that the arbitrator had authority to determine whether the parties’ arbitration agreement allowed for class/collective actions, the court had little trouble finding that the arbitrator’s Clause Construction Award could not be vacated.  The court found that the arbitrator “interpreted the parties’ contract, which is all we are allowed to consider” and did not manifestly disregard the law.

The fact that this circuit split is heating up is interesting in light of one of the arbitration cases that SCOTUS will hear on October 29.  That case, Lamps Plus, presents the question of how specific the language of an arbitration agreement must be in order to authorize class arbitration.

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A class action postscript.

A putative class of plaintiffs sued Bluestem Brands in federal court in Minnesota for claims related to its credit programs.  In response to a motion to compel arbitration, the district court compelled arbitration of some claims, but denied others, finding they fell outside the scope of the credit agreement’s arbitration clause.  On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found all claims fell within the arbitration clause.  Parm v. Bluestem Brands, 2018 WL 3733424 (8th Cir. Aug. 7, 2018).  After finding the arbitration clause was “broad” (because it used the magic phrase “arise out of”), it found the factual allegations for all claims “touch[ed] matters covered by the arbitration agreement,” because all allegations related to the financing agreements.

And, in further fallout from Epic Systems, roughly 1600 employees of Kelly Services alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act in federal court.  Gaffers v. Kelly Services, 2018 WL 3863422 (6th Cir. Aug. 15, 2018).  Kelly Services compelled individual arbitration with the employees who had arbitration agreements (about half).  As those employees’ only defense was that the Federal Arbitration Act should take a backseat to the FLSA or NLRA, the employees lost on appeal and will have to arbitrate.

Arbitration Nation is seven years old, and has 330 posts under its belt (and no seven year itch).  Hip hip hooray!  One of those posts is a perennial favorite, coming up over and over in search results: When Should You Choose JAMS, AAA or CPR Rules?  Because that comparison is five years old, we give you an update.  Here is a chart comparing the three sets of commercial rules on important topics.  Fair warning: the rules are very similar.  So, we added an asterisk in the first column to indicate an issue where there is some difference among the administrators.

Comparison of Popular Arbitration Rules in U.S.

Rule/Topic

Commercial Arbitration Rules – AAA

(Oct. 1, 2013)

JAMS Comprehensive Rules & Procedures

(July 1, 2014)

CPR Administered Arbitration Rules (July 1, 2013)
Filing Fee for $1,000,000 Claim * $8,475 For a two-party matter: $1,500 initial filing fee paid by the party initiating the arbitration and $1,500 for counterclaims. For matters involving three or more parties: $2,000. After that, a case management fee of 12% is assessed against all professional fees charged by arbitrator(s).

Non-refundable filing fee: $1,750

Admin Fee: $7,250

Deadline for Filing Answer/Response to Claim Within fourteen days after respondent receives notice of claim. Within fourteen days after respondent receives notice of claim. Within twenty days after the Respondent receives notice of claim from CPR.
Time to Hearing * None specified None specified The dispute should in most circumstances be submitted to the tribunal within six months after the initial pre-conference.

Number of Arbitrators *

(if not specified in arbitration agreement or agreed upon by parties)

If claim or counterclaim is under $1,000,000, the dispute will be heard by one arbitrator. If it is above that, then three arbitrators shall determine the case. The dispute will be heard by one arbitrator. The dispute will be heard by three arbitrators.
Mediation “Required” * In all cases where a claim or counterclaim exceeds $75,000, during the time that the arbitration is pending, the parties shall mediate their dispute, unless one or both parties opts out.

Not required; however, the Parties may agree, at any stage of the Arbitration process, to submit the case to JAMS for mediation.

 

Not required, however, the arbitrator may request CPR to arrange for mediation by a mediator acceptable to the parties.
Modification of Rules Parties may modify rules or procedures by written agreement. However, after appointing an arbitrator, such modifications require the consent of the arbitrator. Parties may modify rules as long as modification is legal and consistent with JAMS policies. Parties must notify JAMS and shall confirm the modifications in writing. Modifications are allowed; however, the parties must agree in writing to such modifications during the course of the arbitral proceeding.

 

 

Authority to Determine Jurisdiction

The arbitrator has the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope, or validity of the arbitration agreement or to the arbitrability of any claim or counterclaim. The arbitrator has the authority to determine jurisdiction and arbitrability issues, including the existence, scope, and validity of an arbitration agreement, as a preliminary matter. The tribunal has the power to hear and determine challenges to its jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope or validity of the arbitration agreement.
Discovery * For cases of all sizes, the arbitrator manages the exchange of information “with a view to achieving an efficient and economic resolution of the dispute, while … safeguarding each party’s opportunity to fairly present its claims and defenses.” Cases with claims under $1,000,000 contemplate just document exchange, while those with claims exceeding $1,000,000 clarify that the arbitrator has discretion to order depositions “upon good cause shown.” For cases of all size, the parties are expected to exchange all relevant ESI and documents within 21 days after pleadings are filed.   In addition, each party may take one deposition of an opposing party. Empowers the tribunal to facilitate “such discovery as it shall determine is appropriate,” but must take into account the needs of the party and the desirability of making discovery efficient and cost effective.
Dispositive Motions The moving party must show that the motion is likely to succeed and dispose of or narrow the issues in the case. The arbitrator may permit summary disposition of a particular claim or issue, either by agreement of all interested parties or at the request of one party, provided such other interested parties are given reasonable notice to respond.

There is no specific rule regarding summary disposition.

However, the CPR has provided guidelines outlining principles & procedures that note dispositive motions are appropriate when a requesting party can demonstrate that early disposition of any factual or legal issue may be accomplished efficiently and fairly, or when all parties agree that early disposition of a particular issue would be desirable.

Emergency Relief and

Interim Protection

Before an arbitrator is appointed, a party may seek emergency relief and an emergency arbitrator will be appointed within one business day, and a schedule established within two business days.

The (regular) arbitrator may take whatever interim measures he or she deems necessary for the protection or conservation of property.

Before an arbitrator is appointed, a party can seek emergency relief and an Emergency Arbitrator will be appointed within 24 hours, and a schedule established within two days.

The (regular) arbitrator may grant whatever interim measures are deemed necessary, including injunctive relief and measures for the protection or conservation of property.

Before the tribunal is constituted, any party can request that an interim/emergency measure of protection be granted by a special arbitrator. The arbitrator will be appointed within one business day and shall conduct the proceedings “as expeditiously as possible.”

The (regular) panel may take any interim measures as the tribunal deems necessary to preserve assets or property.

 

Default Award Does not allow the arbitrator to render an award solely on the basis of default or absence of a party. Does not allow the arbitrator to render an award solely on the basis of default or absence of a party. The arbitration will proceed even if the Respondent fails to file a timely notice of defense. The tribunal is empowered to make an award on default; however, such award may only be made after the production of evidence and supporting legal arguments by the non-defaulting party.
Confidentiality * None JAMS and the Arbitrator are required to maintain the confidential nature of the Arbitration proceeding and the award, including the hearing, unless disclosure is necessary e.g. in connection with a judicial challenge or otherwise required by law. Unless otherwise agreed, the parties and the arbitrators shall treat the proceedings and related discovery as confidential, unless disclosure is necessary i.e. a judicial challenge or if required by law or to protect the legal right of a party.
Authority to Grant Relief

The arbitrator may grant any remedy or relief that the arbitrator deems just and equitable, and within the specific scope of the agreement of parties (e.g. specific performance of a contract).

The arbitrator may apportion the arbitration fees and expenses among the parties, and may award attorneys’ fees if all parties requested such an award or it is authorized by the arbitration agreement or law.

In determining the relief to be granted, the arbitrator should be guided by the rules of law agreed upon by the parties and the rules of law and equity that he or she deems most appropriate.

The arbitrator may allocate arbitration fees and arbitrator compensation, unless the parties’ agreement precludes that. The arbitrator also may award attorneys’ fees if provided by the parties’ agreement or applicable law.

The Tribunal may grant any remedy or relief, including but not limited to specific performance of a contract, which is within the scope of the agreement of the parties and permissible under the law(s) or rules of law applicable to the dispute.

Unless the parties’ agreement precludes it, the Tribunal may also allocate the costs of arbitration, including attorneys’ fees, in such manner as it deems reasonable.

Award Deadline Thirty days after the end of hearings, or if hearings are waived thirty days after arbitrator receives all of materials by the parties. Thirty days after the end of hearings, or if hearings are waived thirty days after arbitrator receives all of materials by the parties. Thirty days after the end of hearings; however, as long as the tribunal must only use “best efforts” to comply with this requirement.

Arbitration Nation thanks Haaris Pasha, a law student at the University of Minnesota, for contributing to this post.

Today’s post continues our series of arbitration refreshers, to combat the Summer Slide.  It was researched and written by Anne Marie Buethe from the University of Iowa Law School.

Despite clear grounds for authority, arbitrators remain wary of hearing and granting dispositive motions.* While arbitrators posit reasons for their reluctance—the risk of vacatur being of primary concern—courts’ consistent affirmance of arbitrators’ summary awards demonstrates that these reasons are overstated. As long as an arbitrator provides parties a fair opportunity to present their case, he or she can grant a dispositive motion without violating the right to a fundamentally fair hearing—the touchstone for whether or not a court will vacate an arbitral award.

Arbitrators have long had the implicit authority to grant dispositive motions. The AAA made that authority explicit for its arbitrators when it amended it rules in 2013. Rule 33 of the AAA Commercial Rules states, “[t]he arbitrator may allow the filing of and make rulings upon a dispositive motion only if the arbitrator determines that the moving party shows that the motion is likely to succeed and dispose of or narrow the issues in the case.” JAMS, FINRA, and CPR rules also allow for summary judgment.

Even before Rule 33, courts assumed arbitrators’ summary disposition authority. In Schlessinger v. Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, 40 Cal. App. 4th 1096 (Cal. App. Ct. 1995), for example, the California Court of Appeals upheld an award where the arbitrator decided the primary issues through summary adjudication motions. The court held that arbitrators have the implicit authority to rule on dispositive motions even if, at the time, there was no explicit power. There are at least a dozen cases before 2013 that uphold this implicit authority and affirm summary dispositions.**

Post-2013, courts have not changed their approach. For example, in South City Motors, Inc. v. Automotive Industries Pension Trust Fund, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88452 (N.D. Cal. May 25, 2018), the Northern District of California affirmed a summary disposition, citing a long line of precedent in stating that “[t]he purpose of arbitration is to permit parties to agree to a more expedited and less costly means to resolve disputes than litigation in the courts. Summary judgment by an arbitrator is consistent with that purpose.” In NFL Management Council v. NFL Players Association, 820 F.3d 527 (2d Cir. 2016), the Second Circuit affirmed a summary award, emphasizing that judicial review of arbitral awards “is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential—indeed, among the most deferential in law.” There are cases from a majority of federal circuits affirming arbitrators’ authority to grant dispositive motions.***

In the rare instance where courts have vacated a summary award, there is a common thread—fundamentally unfair proceedings. For example, in International Union, United Mine Workers of America v. Marrowbone Development Company, 232 F.3d 383 (4th Cir. 2000), the claimant highlighted the existence of a material factual dispute—seeking to distinguish the present facts from a prior dispute between the parties, to introduce testimony, and to present pertinent evidence. The arbitrator summarily dismissed the complaint, relying on the facts of the prior dispute between the parties without hearing the claimant’s argument, testimony, or evidence distinguishing the two cases. The Fourth Circuit vacated the arbitrator’s summary award, holding that by refusing to hear evidence material to the case’s resolution, the arbitrator denied the claimant a fair opportunity to present their case.

The handful of outlier cases should not dissuade arbitrators from issuing summary dispositions but should help them determine when to grant a dispositive motion. Some important pointers: (1) the arbitrator must apply the appropriate summary judgment standard; (2) the arbitrator should consider requests for discovery carefully to ensure that they do not deny discovery of material evidence; (3) the arbitrator should only consider motions likely to succeed; (4) the arbitrator should engage in a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the benefits of speed and efficiency with the potential risks for delay and improper denial of a fundamentally fair hearing; and (5) in granting a dispositive motion, an arbitrator may benefit by issuing a written decision detailing their reasoning, taking care to articulate why any unheard evidence or unpermitted discovery was immaterial.****

If arbitrators follow this guidance, they should feel confident in granting dispositive motions. Not only is the concern of vacatur overblown, appropriately granting dispositive motions helps streamline the efficiency and speed of arbitrated disputes by providing fair remedies without unnecessary proceedings.

_______________________________________________________

* For example, a 2013 survey found that seventy percent of arbitrators granted dispositive motions fewer than five times. Edna Sussman, The Arbitrator Survey—Practices, Preferences and Changes on the Horizon, 26 Am. Rev. Int’l Arb. 517, 523 (2015).

** See, e.g., Sherrock Bros., Inc. v. DaimlerChrysler Motors Co., LLC, 260 Fed. App’x 497, 499 (3d. Cir. 2008) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on res judicata and collateral estoppel grounds); Ozormoor v. T-Mobile USA Inc., 2010 WL 3272620, *4 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 19, 2010) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on statute of limitation grounds); Global Int’l Reinsurance Co. Ltd. v. TIG Ins. Co., 2009 WL 161086, *5 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 21, 2009) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on plain meaning of contract grounds); LaPine v. Kyocera Corp., 2008 WL 2168914, *10 (N.D. Cal. May 23, 2008) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on waiver and estoppel grounds); Hamilton v. Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., 375 F. Supp. 2d 269, 273, 277 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on insufficient evidence grounds); Warran v. Thacher, 114 F. Supp. 2d 600, 602 (W.D. Ky. 2000) (affirming a summary adjudication on failure to state a claim grounds); Max Marx Color & Chem. Co. Employees’ Profit Sharing Plan v. Barnes, 37 F. Supp. 2d 248, 255 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on standing and preemption grounds); Intercarbon Bermuda, Ltd. v. Caltex Trading and Transp. Corp., 146 F.R.D. 64 (S.D.N.Y. 1993) (affirming a summary adjudication issued without holding in-person evidentiary hearings); Atreus Cmtys. Grp. of Ariz. v. Stardust Dev., Inc., 229 Ariz. 503, 508 (Ct. App. Ariz. May 1, 2012) (affirming a summary adjudication even though the parties’ arbitration agreement did not expressly allow for such authority); Pegasus Constr. Corp. v. Turner Constr. Co., 84 Wash.App. 744, 750 (Ct. App. Wash. 1997) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on failure to comply with contractual obligations grounds); Goldman Sachs & Co. v. Patel QDS: 224S164, 222 N.Y.L.J. 35 (S. Ct., N.Y. Cty. 1999) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on employment at will grounds).

*** See, e.g., NFL Mgmt. Council v. NFL Players Ass’n, 820 F.3d 527, 547–48 (2d Cir. 2016) (affirming a summary adjudication issued for failure to state a claim); Samaan v. Gen. Dynamics Land Sys., 835 F.3d 593, 603–05 (6th Cir. 2016) (affirming summary adjudication issued without an evidentiary hearing); South City Motors, Inc. v. Auto. Indus. Pension Trust Fund, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88452, *8 (N.D. Cal. May 25, 2018) (affirming a summary adjudication issued without full evidentiary hearing); McGee v. Armstrong, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129734, *10 (N.D. Ohio Aug. 15, 2017) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on all claims); Weirton Med. Ctr. v. Comm. Health Sys., 2017 LEXIS 203725, *13–14  (N.D. W. Va. Dec. 12, 2017) (upholding a summary award even though the parties’ arbitration agreement did not expressly allow for such authority); Balberdi v. FedEx Ground Package Sys., 209 F. Supp. 3d 1160, 1162, 1168 (D. Haw. 2016) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on statute of limitations grounds); Kuznesoff v. Finish Line, Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71388, *4, *11 (M.D. Penn. June 3, 2015) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on statute of limitation and failure to state a claim grounds); Tucker v. Ernst & Young LLP, 159 So. 3d 1263, 1285 (Ala. 2014) (affirming a summary adjudication issued on all claims).

**** See Edna Sussman & Solomon Ebere, Reflections on the Use of Dispositive Motions in Arbitration, 4 N.Y. Disp. Resol. Law., 28, 30 (2011).

Okay, folks, we are still combating the summer slide here.  Today’s refresher rule is this: If an arbitrator fails to disclose a substantial relationship, the resulting award can be vacated under 9 U.S. C. 10 (a)(2).  But, not all relationships are substantial, as the cases today make clear.

Beginning in my backyard,  the appellant in Ploetz v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, 2018 WL 3213877 (8th Cir. June 12, 2018), sought to vacate a FINRA arbitration award due to an alleged failure to disclose.  The chairperson disclosed that he was currently serving as an arbitrator in two other cases where Morgan Stanley was a party and had served in 8 previous cases involving Morgan Stanley or an affiliated company.  However, he did not disclose he had once served as a mediator in a case involving Morgan Stanley, and the FINRA rules require disclosure of past service as a mediator.  After the three-person panel dismissed appellant’s claims, she moved to vacate the award.  The district court denied the motion, and the 8th Circuit affirmed that result.  After noting the test for evident partiality is unclear in this circuit and refusing to clarify it (srsly??), the court found no evidence that the lack of disclosure “creates even an impression of possible bias.” Instead, the court found it “represented at most a trivial and inconsequential addition to that relationship.”  It also faulted appellant for failing to seek discovery into the earlier mediation.

The D.C. Circuit reached a similar result in Republic of Argentina v. AWG Group Ltd., 2018 WL 3233070 (D.C. Cir. July 3, 2018).  There, the losing party in arbitration (Argentina) argued the award should be vacated because one of the three arbitrators failed to disclose her service on a board of directors.  Three years into a twelve-year arbitration, this arbitrator was named to UBS’s board of directors, and UBS managed investments in two of the other parties in the arbitration (the “opposing parties”).  The arbitrator did not know of UBS’s investments, and they did not turn up in a conflict check run by UBS when she joined the board.  Argentina asked her to recuse due to her service on the UBS board, but the other arbitrators rejected the challenge.   After the award, both the district court and D.C. Circuit found this did not rise to the level of evident partiality.  Critically, while the arbitrator had “some degree” of interest in Argentina’s opposing parties, it failed to show she had a “substantial interest.”  In addition, there was no proof that the opposing parties had “more than trivial” import to UBS, a passive investor (though it had invested more than $2 billion).  The court raised public policy concerns about how many disqualifications and vacaturs could result if this type of financial relationship was sufficient to establish evident partiality.

In Certain Underwriting Members of Lloyds of London v.  Florida, 2018 WL 2727492 (2d Cir. June 7, 2018), the issue was what disclosure standards apply to party-appointed arbitrators.  In the reinsurance arbitration at issue, one party (ICA) had appointed Campos as its arbitrator.  Campos failed to disclose that he was president of a human resources firm that officed out of the same suite as ICA, and used a former director of ICA as a vendor, and had just hired a former director of ICA as its CFO.  The district court vacated the award based on evident partiality, citing the number and depth of relationships.  The Second Circuit remanded, finding that a different test should apply to party-appointed arbitrators.  It noted that reinsurers seek arbitrators with industry expertise, who are often “repeat players with deep industry connections”, and courts should be “even more indulgent” of undisclosed relationships for party-appointed arbitrators who are expected to serve as advocates.  Therefore, the Second Circuit followed the lead of four other circuits, and set a different standard for evident partiality by a party-appointed arbitrator.  It clarified that nondisclosure by a party-appointed arbitrator is only fatal if it violates the “contractual requirement” (here, “disinterested”) or “prejudicially affects the award.”  On remand, the district court must determine whether Campos was disinterested (had a personal or financial stake in the outcome) and whether his failure to disclose had a prejudicial impact on the award.

Have you heard of the “summer slide“?  It’s the name for how students forget information they learned during the school year over summer vacation, but it’s equally apt for grown ups.  I definitely feel a little less smart when I am reading vampire novels by the pool in 95 degree heat.

Anyhow, Arbitration Nation to the rescue.  We are here to ensure no one loses their sharpness on the Federal Arbitration Act over the summer.  Today’s reminder: the general rule is that an arbitration agreement can only be enforced by the parties to that agreement.  And how better to timely bring that lesson to life than with an international pop star and a World Cup contest?!

Before the last World Cup, Sony sponsored a song-writing contest.  It invited entrants to submit an original song and music video, with a promise that the winning composition would be on the official World Cup Album.  (Didn’t know there was such a thing?  Check out the songs.)  The plaintiff in this case submitted his song, but did not win.  About two years later, Ricky Martin (who had been involved with the World Cup contest) released the song “Vida.”  Plaintiff alleged that the “Vida” music video was similar to plaintiff’s contest video and violated federal copyright/trademark laws.

In response, Ricky Martin moved to compel arbitration.  He relied on the arbitration agreement in the contest rules.  The district court granted his motion, noting that Martin was a third-party beneficiary and referenced in many parts of the contest terms.  On appeal, however, the First Circuit reversed, finding Ricky Martin was a non-signatory who did not fit any exception to the general rule.  Cortes-Ramos v. Martin-Morales, 2018 WL 3134601 (1st Cir. June 27, 2018). In finding no clarity that the contracting parties intended to make the singer a third-party beneficiary, the appellate court focused on two things: the carve-out language in the arbitration agreement which implied that the only parties were the entrants and the co-sponsors; and references to Martin in other parts of the contest rules, but not in the arbitration agreement (suggesting the drafters knew how to reference him when they wanted to).

Nobody Wants To Be Lonely, of course, so let’s be sure to point out that other non-signatories have lost bids to compel arbitration recently:

  • In Olshan Foundation Repair Company of Jackson, LLC v. Moore, 2018 WL 3153353 (Miss. June 28, 2018), a contractor lost its effort to compel arbitration with the daughter of its customers.  The contract was between the contactor and the parents to repair the foundation of the parents’ home.  But the adult daughter also sued the contractor for her emotional distress after the repairs went awry.  The court found she was not a third-party or direct beneficiary of the contract and that estoppel was not appropriate because the daughter’s claims did not rely on the terms of the contract.
  • In Jody James Farms v. The Altman Group, Inc., 2018 WL 2168306 (Tex. May 11, 2018), an insurance agency lost its effort to prove that the arbitration agreement in the insurance policy between the insured and insurer also covered the independent agent.  The court began by finding that incorporating the AAA rules does *not* show a clear and unmistakable intent to arbitrate arbitrability (unlike this 8th Cir. case and most others), so that the court did not have to defer to the jurisdictional ruling already made by the arbitrator.  On the merits, the court found that the insurance policy treated arbitration as only between the insured and insurer, and that the insurance agent also did not prove application of the exceptions for agency (!), third-party beneficiary, or estoppel.
  • In Huckaba v. Ref-Chem, L.P., 2018 WL 2921137 (5th Cir. June 11, 2018), an employer lost its effort to compel arbitration of a former employee’s claims.  In a wake up call for employers everywhere, the employer lost because it did not counter-sign the employment agreement.  The court found that under Texas law, the parties intended not to be bound unless both parties signed the agreement.  They demonstrated that intent by: including a signature block for the employer, noting that “by signing this agreement the parties are giving up any right they may have to sue each other,” and requiring any modifications be signed by all parties.

Okay, today’s refresher course is complete.  Go back to your summer fun.

Almost a year ago, the Second Circuit praised the clean, readable design of Uber’s app.   Because the reference to Uber’s terms of service was not cluttered and hyperlinked to the actual terms, the Second Circuit held Uber could enforce its arbitration agreement and the class action waiver within it.  But, just last week, the First Circuit disagreed.  In Cullinane v. Uber Technologies, Inc., 2018 WL 3099388 (1st Cir. June 25, 2018), it refused to enforce an arbitration clause in Uber’s terms of service and allowed a putative class action to proceed.  The First Circuit found customers were not reasonably notified of Uber’s terms and conditions, because the hyperlink to those terms was not conspicuous.

The Cullinane opinion was applying Massachusetts law on contract formation.  Massachusetts has not specifically addressed online agreements (or smart phone apps), but in analogous contexts has held that forum selection clauses should be enforced if they are “reasonably communicated and accepted.”  In particular, there must be “reasonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent.”  The Meyer opinion was applying California law on contract formation.  But the test was identical, because both states had borrowed it from a Second Circuit decision about Netscape.  So, the state law at issue does not explain the different outcome.

The one thing that might explain the different outcome is that the two federal appellate courts appear to have analyzed slightly different versions of Uber’s app.  In Cullinane, the lead plaintiffs had signed up between Dec. 31, 2012 and January 10, 2014.  (The court reproduced the actual screen shots early in its opinion.)  In Meyer, the lead plaintiff had signed up in October, 2014, and Uber had altered the design of its sign-up screens.  (There, the screen shot is an addendum to its opinion.)  For example, the background was now white in late 2014, instead of black, and the “Terms of Service & Privacy Policy” were in teal, instead of white text.

And, those are some of the aspects of the design that the First Circuit pointed to as critical.  It noted that hyperlinked terms are usually in blue text and underlined, but that the Cullinane plaintiffs’ were faced with hyperlinked “Terms of Service” that were not blue or underlined.  Instead, they were in white text in a gray box, no different than other non-hyperlinked text like “scan your card” on the same screen.   In addition, the First Circuit found the text stating “by creating an Uber account you agree to the [Terms]” was insufficiently conspicuous for similar reasons.  For those reasons, the Cullinane opinion found “the Plaintiffs were not reasonably notified of the terms of the Agreement, they did not provide their unambiguous assent to those terms.”

This is another example of how unsettled some aspects of arbitration law are (and maybe consumer contracting in general).  In Meyer, the district court had denied Uber’s motion to compel arbitration, and the appellate court reversed, granting the motion to compel arbitration.  And in Cullinane, the district court had granted Uber’s motion to compel arbitration, and the appellate court reversed, denying the motion to compel arbitration.  Those four courts were applying the exact same legal standard of conspicuousness, and reached opposite conclusions in the span of less than a year.

The lesson here is two-fold.  First, there is no clear standard for when terms on a website (or on a receipt, or in a box) are sufficiently conspicuous, so judges are left to their own devices (pun intended) to answer that question.  Second, unless an on-line provider wants judges — who are likely untrained in the psychology of consumer design related to five inch screens (and may not even have any apps) — to keep on getting to whatever result they please, the only solution is to require a consumer to actually click “I agree” after viewing a screen of the terms and conditions.  Unless, of course, SCOTUS grants certiorari of this new “circuit split” and issues guidance…

 

I am a true arbitration nerd.  But, when SCOTUS takes a THIRD arbitration case for its upcoming term, I wonder if the Justices are more obsessed with arbitration than I am.  (Reminder of the other two here.)  If they hear about the same total number of cases as this year (69), arbitration will make up more than 4% of their docket.  Now, 4% isn’t huge.  For reference, intellectual property cases made up less than 4% of cases filed in federal district courts last year, and there were three I.P. cases decided by SCOTUS (two on inter partes review and the WesternGeco case).  At least I.P. cases have a category in the annual judiciary report, though.  That’s more than arbitration can say.  And still, it has three cases before the Supremes.

Enough stats, what is this case?  It is Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Inc., in which SCOTUS is going to resolve the circuit split over the “wholly groundless” doctrine.  Given how the NLRB decision just came out, I don’t think I’m stepping too far out on a limb if I predict: “wholly groundless” will be grounded.  (Maybe even “grounded wholly?”  Seriously, there has got to be some good word play possible, but I am too tired from watching the World Cup to develop it.)  Put simply, that doctrine will not stand in the way of any future delegation clauses.

(Thanks to Mark Kantor for being the first to tell me certiorari was granted in this case.)

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Switching gears, there are three new decisions from state high courts on the arbitrability of claims against nursing homes.  Two enforce the arbitration clauses, and one decidedly does not.

Nebraska and Colorado issued the pro-arbitration decisions, in both cases reversing a trial court’s refusal to enforce arbitration agreements.  In Colorow Health Care, LLC v. Fischer, 2018 WL 2771051 (Colo. June 11, 2018), the district court denied the nursing home’s motion to compel arbitration because it was not in bold text, as required by a state statute.  Without any discussion of the FAA (which would have been a much easier ground for reversal), the Colorado Supreme Court found that the statute only requires substantial compliance, and the defendant had substantially complied (by including the right language, in a larger font size than required, just not in bold). In Heineman v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 300 Neb. 187 (June 8, 2018), the district court had found the arbitration agreement lacked mutuality, violated the state arbitration statute, and violated public policy (because of the CMS rule on arbitration).  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Nebraska found mutuality, found the FAA applied and preempted the state arbitration statute, and noted that the CMS rule had been enjoined.

A week later, though, Nebraska rejected arbitrability in a different case against a nursing home.  In Cullinane v. Beverly Enterprises-Nebraska, Inc., 300 Neb. 210 (June 15, 2018), the issue was whether the arbitration agreement signed by the deceased’s husband was enforceable.  He admitted he signed all the admission documents, but stated in an affidavit that he understood he had to agree to arbitrate for his wife to be admitted to the facility.  He also stated that he did not understood he was waiving his wife’s right to a jury trial, and would not have signed if he had known that and that arbitration was optional.  Applying the FAA and state contract law, the Nebraska Supreme Court found the district court was not “clearly wrong” when it found the husband was fraudulently induced to executing the arbitration agreement for his wife.  Critically, the facility had not introduced any affidavit contradicting the alleged statements made at the time of admission.